The reinvention of humanity: the Boas circle

Like the societies that it studies, anthropology is in constant flux.

On Franz Boas (1858–1942) and his circle, a most engaging book is

  • Charles KingThe reinvention of humanity: how a circle of renegade anthropologists remade race, sex, and gender (2020)—main title of 2019 US edition Gods of the upper air (“Discuss”). Reviewed e.g. herehereand here.

Immensely readable, it surveys how ways of making sense of the diverse cultures of the world have changed since the beginnings of formal anthropology.

Cover, showing Margaret Mead with Fa’amatu in American Samoa, c1926.

Reaching beyond the confines of drier academic treatments, it’s a real gift to write like this for a general audience. King really brings to life what might seem like abstruse theoretical debates.

Alongside Boas himself, he focuses on four female scholars: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Ella Cara Deloria, and Zora Neale Hurston. [1] As Francis Gooding comments,

It’s not a coincidence that Boas and his collaborators, variously Jewish, Black, Indigenous, female and queer, were all outsiders of one kind or another to the mainstream of American society. That their ideas were found radical and strange is an indictment of their culture; that King’s book seems timely is an indictment of our own.

The work of the Boas circle set forth from fieldwork on “exotic” cultures to the lessons it might provide on issues in American society, as they challenged the entrenched notion of linear progress from “primitive” to advanced societies, and the narrow categories of race and gender.

More than anyone in his day, Boas understood that his own society’s deepest prejudices were grounded not in moral arguments but rather in allegedly scientific ones. Disenfranchised African Americans were intellectually inferior because the latest research said so. Women could not hold positions of influence because their weaknesses and peculiar dispositions were well proven. The feebleminded should be kept to themselves because the key to social betterment lay in reducing their number in the general population. Immigrants carried with them the afflictions of their benighted homelands, from disease to crime to social disorder.

Thus

the core message of the Boas circle was that, in order to live intelligently in the world, we should view the lives of others through an empathetic lens. We ought to suspend our judgment about other ways of seeing social reality until we really understand them, and in turn we should look at our own society with the same dispassion and skepticism with which we study far-flung peoples. […]
In time these shifts would inform how sociologists understand immigrant integration or exclusion; how public health officials think about endemic illnesses from diabetes to drug addiction; how police and criminologists seek out the root causes of crime; and how economists model the seemingly irrational actions of buyers and sellers.

Such insights, I confess, do look like progress to me. Still, even as they have gained widespread currency, King notes the resistance from the political right, where

some of these changes are said to constrict a community’s ability to determine its own social mores. A new form of state-sanctioned intolerance, protected in “safe spaces” and monitored by “language police” from schools to workplaces, insists that we should all agree on what constitutes marriage, a good joke, or a flourishing society. The narrative is one of overreach, of unreasonableness, of an overweening state’s infringing on individual speech, thought, and sincerely held values.

King also pays suitable attention to the personalities, their struggles, and complicated love lives of the group.

The members of the Boas circle fought and argued, wrote thousands of pages of letters, spent countless nights under mosquito nets and in rain-soaked lodges, and fell in and out of love with one another. For each of them, fame, if it ever arrived, was edged with infamy—their careers became bywords for licentiousness and crudity, or for the batty idea that Americans might not have created the greatest country that had ever existed. They were dismissed from jobs, monitored by the FBI, and hounded in the press, all for making the simple suggestion that the only scientific way to study human societies was to treat them all as part of one undivided humanity.

* * *

Franz Boas was born in 1858 in Minden, Westphalia—where my orchestral colleague Hildi was to find refuge after fleeing invasive regimes. After studying physics in Heidelberg and Kiel, Boas was drawn to Arctic adventure; in 1883, taking a servant, he embarked for Baffin Island.

The Inuit there had been known to European explorers since the 16th century; in 1577 four of them were captured and displayed as objects of curiosity in England before dying of disease and injuries sustained during their capture.

During Boas’s stay he was assisted by a local man:

Signa was no timeless native simply struggling for survival on an unchanging shore. He had a past, with wanderings and movement, a family lineage, and remembered moments of hardship and joy.

While studying Inuit lifestyles, Boas documented stories and transcribed songs, made maps and sketches. The blood from a raw seal liver is still visible on the paper of his notebooks. But the population soon began succumbing to diphtheria.

Here among the Inuit, a person with the title of “doctor” couldn’t cure an ailing child. A university graduate knew nothing of snow and wind. An explorer was dependent on the whims of a dog team. He had seen it himself—the disorientation that comes with staring at one’s own ignorance, as plain as a brown seal on white ice. Being smart was relative to one’s own circumstances and surroundings.

In late 1884 Boas made his way to New York and then to Washington DC, where he visited the “backwoods intellectual” John Wesley Powell, head of the new Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian. Its researchers were currently engaged in major projects on Native American cultures; but with no position available for Boas there, he returned to Germany.

The scientific field that he had been circling since his voyage to Baffin Island was on the brink of an explosion, one that he was now well placed to miss.

The study of people was becoming known as ethnology, the word anthropology, at first referring mainly to the study of anatomy or natural history, only gradually came into vogue. The journal American anthropologist was founded in 1888. Whereas works like Frazer’s The golden bough (1890) were based on classical written texts, the new discipline sought “to go beyond what was written and ancient into what was observable and alive right now” (cf. Daoist ritual, where the driving force for most fieldwork has been the Ancient Wisdom of written texts, rather than change in modern social practice).

Powell’s mentor Lewis Henry Morgan specialised in the study of the former Iroquois Confederacy, his projects based on the widespread “spiritual renewal” of the day. But they still subscribed to the linear model from savagery to barbarism to civilisation. King gives an instance of this way of thinking:

Music, too, differed from one stage to the next. Savages might beat out a rhythm on a log or a stone, but barbarians sang a melodic line, while civilisation added counterpoint and harmony.

Hmm…

Boas was keen to get back to the USA, and in 1886 he returned to New York. King notes that almost 1.8 million German speakers settled in the States between 1850 and 1900; New York seemed as much German as American.

While seeking an academic position, Boas embarked on new fieldwork among the indigenous groups of the Pacific Northwest. Returning to New York, he found himself at odds with the Powell circle and the classification system then in vogue at the Smithsonian as well as for collections such as the British Museum, the Royal Ethnological Museum in Berlin, and the Pitt Rivers Museum.

The organisation of the collections seemed to reflect the collector’s sense of what the object was for, as opposed to the worldview of the artisan who had originally made it. […]
The only people who could really say whether something that looked like a bow was a weapon, a child’s toy, or an instrument for making fire were the true experts—that is, those who actually used it, in a given place, at a given time. This bone rattle might make music. That one might drive away evil spirits. Yet another might distract a wailing child. It all depended on where you were in the world, not when you happened to be on some linear path of social evolution.

With his shaky English and his disputes with senior figures in the field, Boas took some time to establish himself. In 1889 the psychologist Granville Stanley Hall invited Boas to take up a post at Clarke University in Massachusetts, but the atmosphere there soon became unproductive. He continued spending his summers doing fieldwork in British Columbia. (Alongside personalities, King pays attention to institutions and funding bodies.)

Now an American citizen, Boas moved on to Chicago, where a World Fair was to be held in 1893. The Harvard archeologist Frederic Ward Putnam invited Boas to design a display.

The Midway Plaisance featured exhibits on the peculiar ways of the world’s peoples, from a Bedouin encampment to a Viennese café, most of them thin disguises for hawkers of merchandise and cheap entertainment. An entire building was devoted to the lives and progress of women, while others highlighted advances in agriculture, electrification, and the plastic arts. A new fastener called a zipper made its debut over the six months of the fair’s operation, as did a chewable gum called Juicy Fruit, a tall circular ride presented by a Mr Ferris, and…

Next to the ethnological area, with wigwams, totem poles, and so on, on display, was the Anthropological Building. Boas’s contribution, in eight rooms, was a display of anthropometry, a vogue to which he had subscribed; but the exhibits revealed his increasing reluctance to regard it as a useful method.

Measurements of North American mulattoes showed them to be roughly the same height as white people. […] The distribution of people by stature in the city of Paris varied widely, just as it did for a study of Civil War veterans (although it was found that those from western states were in general taller than the easterners). An attempt to show the heights of Italians ended up finding no obvious pattern from northern Italy to the south. […] The peoples of “Old Europe” were, perhaps surprisingly, shown to be even more physically mixed than the population of the avowedly immigrant United States.

Boas was coming to perceive that

What counted as social scientific data—the specific observations that researchers jotted down in their field notes—was relative to the world view, skill sets, and preexisting categories of the researchers themselves. […] Theories were neither true nor false. They might better be described as successful or unsuccessful: they either fit the observable data or they didn’t. When observation bumped up against the walls of an existing theory, the theory was the thing that had to be changed. The first step was to get good data and then let the theory follow, which was the entire point of all those confusing tables and graphs in his Chicago anthropometry lab.

Meanwhile Chicago suffered a smallpox epidemic, followed by a round of influenza; the mayor was assassinated, and much of the exhibition was destroyed by fire. Still without a regular post, Boas returned to New York, where he began to work for the American Museum of Natural History, whose anthropology section was now directed by Putnam; there he continued his work on the American Northwest. In 1899 he oversaw the launch of a new series of American Anthropologist. At last in 1902 he gained a professorship at Columbia. By 1902 he had five children.

The issue of race now assumes centre stage. King introduces theories current at the time. Blumenbach (1775) had adopted a fivefold classification: Ethiopians (Africans), Americans (!), Mongolians (Asians), Malay (Pacific) and Caucasian (European), but by 1871 Darwin was questioning such basic schema.

As racial theories sought to justify the assertion of power by people of European descent (the term Aryan was in use from the mid-19th century), in the USA the Jim Crow system of segregation came into force. The theories of social scientists could have deep, often destructive, ramifications for people’s lives.

In 1899 William Z. Ripley divided European peoples into Teutonic, Alpine, and Mediterranean types, the first of which he claimed were at the forefront of the achievements of world civilisation. The term eugenics came into use.

Over the two decades spanning the turn of the century the foreign-born population had swollen:

Nearly a third more people were foreign-born in 1910 than in 1900. (It would take another century, into the 2010s, before immigration figures would ever approach similar levels. At the time Donald J. Trump announced his campaign for president by denouncing Mexican “rapists”, for example, the foreign-born figure was within a little more than a percentage point of the 1910 level.)

Madison Grant turned from zoology to human species, and “the preservation of his own race against an onslaught of immigration”; no longer could the USA remain an “asylum for the oppressed”. Hitler later expressed his approval of Grant’s work, considering the US to be showing the way toward a brighter, more scientific way of building a political community.

In 1907 the US Congress established a commission to study the rise in immigration; representatives, “decked out in straw boaters and linen suits”, visited the squalid detention camps of ports like Naples, Marseilles, and Hamburg. The following year they invited Boas to lead a team researching physical changes in the immigrants of the neighbourhoods of lower Manhattan. His 1911 report found them to be remarkably adaptable to their new surroundings; races were unstable.

There was no reason to believe that a person of one racial or national category was more of a drain on society, more prone to criminality, or more difficult to assimilate than any other. What people did, rather than who they were, ought to be the starting point for a legitimate science of society and, by extension, the basis for government policy on immigration.

Still, Boas’s findings were largely ignored in the Commission’s final report.

Also in 1911, he published his first book for a popular audience, The mind of primitive man, dismantling the whole concept of racial hierarchy. Disputing the idea that the successes of one’s own society today were due to some inherent superiority of “civilised” peoples over lesser-achieving “primitives”, he summarised:

Historical events appear to have been much more potent in leading races to civilisation than their faculty, and it follows that achievements of races do not warrant us in assuming that one race is more highly gifted than the other. […]
Race was how Europeans explained to themselves their own sense of privilege and achievement. Insofar as races existed, at least as Europeans typically understood them, it was through an act of cultural conjuring, not biological destiny.

And he stressed the subjective responses of fieldworkers:

Tribal people were often said to be indolent, but what if they were only lazy when it came to things that they didn’t happen to care about? Why should we expect that every people everywhere should necessarily attend to the same things with equal zeal or approach the same projects with diligence and commitment? Primitive people were sometimes said to be quick to anger and to lash out wildly according to their emotions. To be civilised, after all, was to be coolheaded and rational. But didn’t it take coolheadedness and logical thought to follow a seal pod across a featureless ice floe, or to track a whale in an oared canoe to the point of its, and your own, exhaustion? “The proper way to compare the fickleness of the savage and that of the white,” he wrote, “is to compare their behaviour in undertakings which are equally important to each.”

His work pointed towards a “higher tolerance”. But despite the relatively prestigious position of German immigrants in US society, with the outbreak of World War One Boas found himself a member of a feared minority. Already a critic of expansionist American foreign policy, by 1917 he denounced US involvement in the war. After the war, disillusioned with rising nationalism, he continued to encounter professional problems. Immigration laws tightened.

Again in 1911, Alfred Kroeber had “discovered” Ishi, “the last of the Yahi” in California. Despite the media circus,

The Yahi were not in fact a lost tribe. Their reduced condition was the product of modern history, not a relic of some mist-shrouded past. […] They were not holdovers from prehistory but rather refugees from a brutal present.

* * *

So far the story of American anthropology has been dominated, like the society of the time, by entitled white men. But now the younger generation whom Boas nurtured at Columbia began to include some talented female scholars.

Ruth Benedict (1887–1948, right) studied first with Elsie Clews Parsons. She began studying with Boas in 1921. In 1924, embarking on fieldwork among the Zuni in New Mexico (already a well-established research topic), she learned of their cross-gender custom of “berdache”.

In New York, she met Margaret Mead (1901–78), who was to be her life-long soulmate, and encouraged her to come to Columbia to study with Boas.

The London-based Polish émigré Bronislaw Malinowski had already published his landmark study of the Trobriand Islanders in 1922, introducing the notion of “participant observation”, and Mead was now drawn to the study of Polynesian peoples.

As she grew ever closer to Benedict, she began an affair with Edward Sapir, whose own work focused on Native American linguistics. The complicated amorous entanglements of the circle, complementing their explorations into the diverse relationships of the peoples they studied, form one theme of King’s book.

In 1925 Mead set sail for American Samoa to do fieldwork. Undeterred by the razzmatazz that accompanied her arrival in Pago Pago, the US Navy’s main station in the South Pacific, she soon “went down to the countryside”, as the Chinese say. She was made an “honorary virgin”—a useful concept for fieldworkers.

A hurricane gave her an opportunity to engage with the locals in their immediate practical concerns. With her studies focusing on the lives of women and girls, she learned that adolescent angst was not necessarily the prerogative of American teenagers.

On the seven-week return voyage to the States in 1926, her own love life became even more complicated when she met the British-trained New Zealander Reo Fortune. Back in New York she became assistant curator at the Museum of Natural History.

Also in 1926, following Nanook of the North, Robert J. Flaherty released his silent film Moana—again offering prurient glimpses of bare female breasts, by then largely a fantasy:

Mead’s book Coming of age in Samoa was published in 1928, to great acclaim—apart from a few men in the Boas circle like Alfred Kroeber, and later Derek Freeman.

In October, again parting reluctantly with Benedict, she married Fortune in Auckland, and they set off for Melanesia together. As Boas took issue with the growing esteem in the USA for eugenics, Mead’s work bore on ways in which a more flexible society might absorb its deviants to lead healthy lives. The result was her book Growing up in New Guinea (1930). She was already a celebrity.

Two other female pupils of Boas went on to work largely outside academia. The African American Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) had grown up in Florida in rather comfortable surroundings, but her mother’s early death plunged her into the harsh realities of segregation. Even later in Washington, the integrated university of Howard was an oasis: the racial divide was no less flagrant. She began to write stories, essays, and poetry, and in 1925 she set off for New York, where she gained a place as a mature student at Barnard and became a popular member of the “Harlem Renaissance”.

Still, she bridled at the genteel image expected of black people to gain favour in the eyes of the white cultural establishment.

Having enrolled in English, Hurston now studied with Gladys Reichard, who was working on Navajo culture; soon she gravitated to the Boas circle. In 1927 Boas arranged for her to do fieldwork back in Florida. There she was to collect folk tales around Eatonville—not far from Ocoee, where protests over voter suppression had led to a pogrom against the black population in 1920, first of a series (Tulsa, Rosewood, Little Rock).

Convict leasing had been abolished in 1923, but private chain gangs persisted: as late as 1960, a farmer commented, “We used to own our slaves—now we just rent them.”

Hurston’s brief fell under the rubric of folklore, a term that went back to the 1840s. Among such collections among African Americans, King adduces the Uncle Remus stories (1880)—“a white person gazing at an allegedly black world, uncomplicated, tricksterish, full of wily creativity”.

Back in New York, Hurston struggled to transform her notes into a coherent ethnographic narrative. She took odd jobs, and worked on a novel, Jonah’s gourd vine (1934). But in 1935 she enrolled as a doctoral student at Columbia under Boas, and managed to publish Mules and men, described by King as

the first serious attempt to send the reader deep inside southern black towns and work camps. […] … not a holdover from Africa, or a social blight to be eliminated, or a corrupted version of whiteness in need of correction, but something vibrantly, chaotically, brilliantly alive.

Here’s a excerpt from Hurston’s 1928 film footage, with her voiceover:

Boas was now eminent yet frail. His wife Marie died in 1929.

Another talented student of his was Ella Cara Deloria (1889–1971). On the Northern plains, the Omaha had been removed to reservations since the 1850s. They were early subjects for research; James Owen Dorsey’s Omaha sociology (1885) became a standard reference in anthropology.

Refreshingly, Dorsey also noted contradictory accounts, notably when some gem he had gleaned on ritual practice was then denied by the chieftain Two Crows, “nagging naysayer, an ethnographical balloon deflator”. Assessing thee value of conflicting sources is indeed a common issue that fieldworkers (not to mention textual historians) have to confront. Even what seemed to be a consensus of opinion could be thrown into doubt. Again, informants might have their own agendas; and “perhaps [Two Crows] simply misunderstood the question, or maybe you misunderstood his answer”. As King puts it,

What you needed was repeated and respectful conversations with the real human beings whose worlds you were straining, as best you could, to comprehend.

Ella Cara Deloria, also called Aŋpétu Wašté Wiŋ, grew up in Standing Rock. Her mother was of mainly European descent; her father’s heritage was the Lakota/Dakota subgroup of the Sioux. She spoke both English and Dakota, attending an Episcopalian boarding school. Having managed to gain admission to college in Oberlin, joining the provincial elite, in 1912 she entered Columbia’s Teaching College, whose mission was to shape “civilised aboriginals who would become credits to their race and help elevate their charges out of poverty and paganism”.

For Deloria,

the end of the western frontier was still a recent memory. Her father had been among those who had tried to mediate between reservation authorities and Sitting Bull.

She was two years old when agency police killed Sitting Bull on the very reservation where she grew up, followed by the Wounded Knee massacre.

Deloria was living at a time when American views of Indians were shaped not only by the recent experience of violent conquest but also by the refashioned memory of it: a world of dime novels, cigar-store statues, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

On graduation she taught first at her old home in Sioux Falls and then in Lawrence, Kansas. Having met Boas at Columbia, in 1927 they met again when he visited Lawrence, and he invited her back to New York, recognising her rare qualification to participate in various projects. In the summer of 1928, while Hurston was collecting in Florida, Deloria returned to the Plains. Her first project was to check the reliability of James Walker’s 1917 study of the Sun Dance. She was guided by Ruth Benedict as well as Boas. But her local knowledge was invaluable:

I cannot tell you how essential it is for me to take beef or some other food each time I go to an informant. The moment I don’t, I take myself right out of the Dakota side and class myself with outsiders.

King goes on,

You had to know precisely how to make a gift, how to make the right kind, how to eat properly with people, how to call them by the correct kinship terms…

Deloria led an itinerant life; to eke out an income she led pageants of indigenous music and dance. In 1933 Boas again enlisted her in a project for the revived Handbook of American Indian languages. As Benedict recalled, “In all his work with American Indians Professor Boas never found another woman of her caliber”.

Deloria was a native speaker of Dakota and its dialects, with little education as a linguist apart from the informal sessions that Boas or Benedict might provide. But her instincts and on-the-spot grasp of field methods, Benedict said, probably amounted to more expertise than many doctoral students had at their disposal.

By the time that Margaret Mead paid a visit to the Omaha, she found their conditions disturbing: “It’s just nothing at all. A thing like this isn’t a culture, hardly even the remains of one.” But if she thought anything of interest had been killed off by poverty and white invasion, for Deloria

a better method was to give up trying to identify the dying embers of an older civilisation and instead get to know the living, right-now culture of the people you were actually surrounded by—women and men who weren’t stuck in history, but, like Deloria herself, were feeling their way through it. There was no need for nostalgia about the past if you could uncover the kaleidoscopic richness of the present. It was just that the present might take forms that you found surprising or frustrating, even disappointing.

I quite agree—although in cases like Grassy Narrows, Identifying cultural riches must surely give way to concerns over healthy drinking water and a reasonable life expectancy.

Deloria also resisted inert depiction by documenting linguistic change. But by 1938 she was again without work. Her Dakota grammar, published in 1941,

provided a glimpse of a deeper America, one obscured by its obsessions with racial fitness and linear cultural evolution. If you wanted to know what Sioux chiefs had said after the Battle of Little Bighorn or to understand the anguished wail of mothers when their sons’ bodies were brought home from Wounded Knee—if you wanted to discover, in other words, the inverse of American history as it was normally taught in schoolrooms and summer camps—Boas and Deloria were showing the way.

When Boas retired from teaching in 1936, Columbia, still prone to sexism, overlooked Benedict in favour of Ralph Linton. But the Boas circle were still involved in a wide range of projects.

Some differences of approach festered. Mead met Sapir’s attacks on her work in kind: in her experience, she wrote, jealousy was frequently found among old men with small endowments.

Pressed to derive a general conclusion from his decades of study, Boas came up with “People don’t use anything they haven’t got”.

In the USA, the related discipline of sociology was making headway, with studies such as Robert and Helen Lynd’s Middletown (1929).

Mead and Fortune returned to New Guinea in 1931. Their trip turned out to be traumatic, with Gregory Bateson now entering into the equation. [2] Their studies of local cultures informed reflections on their own tangled relationships. As things came to a head in 1933, Mead returned to Benedict in New York. The latter’s Patterns of culture (1934) would become most influential; in the next year Mead followed it with Sex and temperament, linking up Boas’s ideas on race with her own on sex and gender, based on her work among the Arapesh, Mundugumor, and Tchambuli.

Yet the price of such methods

was a kind of intentional madness. If your sense of reality was shaped by a particular time and place, the only way to free yourself was to go out of your mind: to step outside the mental frameworks that you knew to be real, true, and obvious.

* * *

The publication of Mead’s Sex and temperament coincided with that of Hurston’s Mules and men. Yet

volumes on Samoans or New Guineans were hailed as commentaries on the universal features of human society. One about African Americans was a quaint bit of storytelling.

Hurston had done more collecting in the south with the young Alan Lomax, recording stories, work songs, spirituals, and blues for the Library of Congress (catalogue here). [3] Here’s an excerpt with Lomax recording Hurston herself:

Hurston now set off for Haiti, just recovering from US military occupation. First in Kingston she observed the Jamaicans’ ability to take on the airs of the English, noting that “passing” from one racial category to the next almost always took place towards the direction of social power.

Culture wasn’t just a set of rules or rituals, she realised. It could also be a set of chains that individuals dragged around with them after the prison wardens more or less fled the scene.

After making expeditions inland, attending a boar hunt and a nine-night mortuary ritual, in autumn 1936 she moved on to Haiti, where the African influence was even clearer. Parallel with the work of Melville Herskovits on rural religious life there, she entered into the practices of voodoo, already covered in the patina of the sensationalist depictions of travellers.

One challenge to our categories of living and dead was Hurston’s meeting with the zombie Felicia Felix-Mentor, said to have died in 1907.

Put away, disregarded, institutionalised, forgotten, willed by others to be effectively dead—her condition was very much like that of many people Hurston knew, the black women and men she had met from Florida labour camps to whites-only universities. It was just that Haitians had invented a word for it.

She now planned two books, “one for anthro, and one for the way I want to write it”. The latter, the novel Their eyes were watching God, was published on her return to New York in 1937, combining “a coming-of-age story, a meditation on the inner lives of women and the men they loved, a literary ethnography of the Gulf Coast”.

Though by now Hurston had no thoughts of an academic career, she still returned to the American South for more fieldwork. Tell my horse (aka Voodoo gods), her field report from Jamaica and Haiti was published in 1938.

From 1936 to 1938 Mead and Bateson lived in Bali, working on trance there—they eventually released a short film in 1952:

And then they returned to New Guinea. But war loomed.

* * *

The theories that Boas and his circle had developed so scrupulously were now in opposition to state-sanctioned dogma, which bore a remarkably close resemblance to Nazism. Boas had been expressing his anxieties about the rise of Nazism in Germany since 1933. But the tide of intolerance there was just as evident in the USA; racial segregation and eugenics were already well established there, inspiring Hitler. Despite the US sense of moral superiority, as King observes,

None of America’s enemies saw themselves as opponents of American values. Not even Adolf Hitler claimed to be against freedom, justice, or prosperity. Rather, they saw themselves as better, more advanced versions of what they believed America had been trying to achieve. Real freedom would mean the subjugation of the racially inferior. Real justice would mean allowing the fittest individuals and countries to take their rightful place on the world stage. Real progress would mean cleansing and separating, pushing forward the able and advanced while sweeping away the primitive and retrograde.

Franz Boas on the cover of Time, 1936.

Boas died in 1942. Here’s the 1986 documentary The shackles of tradition, again by Andre Singer:

With the outbreak of war, the team’s original fieldsites became inaccessible. As many social scientists were recruited to the war effort, Bateson and Mead joined an advisory group to President Roosevelt. Benedict later joined them in Washington. By June 1944 she was charged with assembling material on Japanese society, gathering a group of scholars. In the USA the Japanese were seen as utterly alien and subhuman; internment camps for Japanese Americans were harsh. But Benedict sought the kind of understanding that would provide enlightened guidance for the eventual occupation of Japan. The resulting book The chrysanthemum and the sword, published in 1946, was widely read.

While working to keep afloat the school at Standing Rock that her father had founded, Deloria continued with her studies and writing, much of it still unpublished at the time of her death in 1971. Hurston, shocked by the Detroit massacre of 1943, was deeply ambivalent about the US victory. She continued to write while working in a succession of odd jobs. Since her death in 1960 her work has belatedly been appreciated, with tributes by such figures as Alice Walker. Here’s a documentary:

Back in New York after the war, Mead and Benedict resumed their bond. Benedict was at last promoted to the rank of full professor, and elected president of the American Anthropological Association. She died in 1948. Mead, the most renowned heir to Boas, died in 1978; on her career, here’s Andre Singer’s 1986 documentary Coming of age:

* * *

King begins his conclusion by citing Allan Bloom, who in his attack on the trend for cultural relativism in The closing of the American mind (1987) found few women worthy of note: he grouped Mead and Benedict alongside Hannah Arendt, Yoko Ono, Erica Jong, and Marlene Dietrich—all “negative teaching examples”, as the Chinese say. As King observes, the Boas circle would have surprised to learn that their views had triumphed, their struggles against prejudice having been met with such resistance.

Conversely, Clifford Geertz, pillar of the later generation of anthropologists, praised the insistence

that the world does not divide into the pious and the superstitious; that there are sculptures in jungles and paintings in deserts; […] that the norms of reason were not fixed in Greece, the evolution of morality was not consummated in England. Most important, we were the first to insist that we see the lives of others through lenses of our own grinding and that they look back on ours through ones of their own.

If readers today take all this as self-evident, that’s because they too have been infected with the bug. But as is only too evident in our news today, resisting bigotry still remains a constant struggle.

Of course, anthropology, like the societies it studies, continues to change; the work of these scholars from the 1880s to the 1940s may have been refined since, but it remains seminal. King brings this story to life, combining a vivid feel for period detail with reflections on fieldwork methods and perceptive comments on ideological trends. He makes a fine advocate for the enlightened values of the Boas circle.


[1] Besides folklore and sociology, ethnomusicology is a strongly related discipline (under Society and soundscape, see e.g. Michelle Bigenho’s observations). Bruno Nettl surveyed the prominent contributions of women in Native American studies during the same period, including Alice C. Fletcher, Frances Densmore, Natalie Curtis, and Helen Roberts, on to Gertrude Kurath, Ida Halpern, Charlotte Frisbie, Judith Vander, Charlotte Heth, Victoria Levine, Beverley Diamond, and Tara Browner. But he goes on,

Considerable female participation may generally have been characteristic of new yet unestablished fields; ethnomusicology was not taken as seriously as ancient history and Latin philology, for example, thus permitting women easier access. The fact that American and English women are particularly well represented in this group may also be related to the common relegation of music in Anglophone cultures to women, and thus to the fact that music departments in North America were first introduced at women’s colleges.

Like the Boas circle, ethnomusicologists extend their purvey to fieldwork “at home”

[2] Here I’d like to put in a word for Peter Crowe (1932–2004), such a lively, alternative presence at gatherings of the European Seminar for Ethnomusicology, who underwent his own transformation in Melanesia. See e.g. his “After the ethnomusicological salvage operation—what?” (1981) and his Musical traditions in the South Pacific (1984).

[3] This leads me to remind you of the work of Bruce Jackson among southern convicts, and his fine manual on fieldwork.

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