Anthropological Concept of Culture

Franz Boas was one of the most important cultural anthropologist of the 20th century. This chapter is take from the book, The Myth of Race, Robert Sussman, 2014. In this chapter from the book, the author brings Boas into his discussion as one who fought against the so called science justifying the eugenics movement in Europe and America. This chapter provides background on Boas’ career as an anthropologist as well as how he contributed to a more scientific understanding of culture. The following questions are taken from this chapter.

  1. Boas’ early contact with the Netsilik Eskimo taught him an early truth concerning so called inferior peoples, believing that, “the equality of virtue among peoples and that their inner character was far more important than the veneer of civilization or learning.” What did he mean?
  2. Early in his career, (page 150), Boas comes to a scientific understanding that rejects long standing theories of race and culture: “generalizing without a deep understanding of the underlying facts just led to false generalizations.” Is Boas arguing for an inductive approach to cultural research?
  3. When Boas states, (152), “No event in the life of a people passes without leaving its effect upon later generations,” is this an early definition of culture?
  4. Boas is responsible for stressing the importance of an inductive approach to the study of culture and a people: “the character of a biological phenomenon is not expressed by the state in which it is, but by its whole history.” (153) Explain how this is an inductive approach.
  5. Why was Boas’ early definition of cultural differences between peoples so important: “No specific differences between lower and higher races can be found [in mental qualities]…no unquestionable fact which would prove beyond a doubt that it will be impossible for certain races to attain a higher civilization.” (154)
  6. How are the early theories of human social evolution racist? “the progress from savagery to barbarism to civilizations, aims and methods as humans passed the same degrees of development throughout their history.” (page 155)
  7. How was Boas’ conclusion that “diversity, not uniformity, among human groups was the striking feature anthropology revealed,” a more scientific definition of human culture?
  8. What was the psychic unity of mankind theory? Why did Boas reject this prevailing idea? (page 157) What did he offer as a more accurate theory?
  9. Boas introduces a new term in the science of anthropology—the great plasticity of human types. (158-9) Why was this term so important at this time in the history of his theory?
  10. When Boas published his findings in his important book, The Mind of Primitive Man, he defined cultural anthropology as we practice it today. Why was his early findings, that there is no difference in mental capacities or abilities between “savage” and “civilized” peoples or between “coloreds” and whites,” so important? (page 160)
  1. Boas’ contribution to a new definition and practice of anthropology led to one offered by Clifford Geertz: “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.” Is this definition “that individuals inherit as members of a particular society that tells them how to view the world, how to experience it emotionally, and how to behave in it,” accurate as you have experienced your own American culture?
  1. When Clifford Geertz asserts, “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself as spun,” his metaphor accurately defines human social evolution accurately. “Without man, no culture, certainly; but equally, without culture, no men.” How do these two assertions reaffirm the shaping influence of culture in human evolutionary development?

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