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Franz Boas, the German-born scholar and field researcher who launched the discipline of modern anthropology and trained two generations of progressive anthropologists, linguists and folklorists at Columbia University, was born on this date in 1858. Boas grounded anthropology in research and led it away from the abstract, inferential, racist theorizing of its early days. Among the students he trained were Alfred Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Melville Herskovits, Margaret Mead, Edward Sapir, and Zora Neale Hurston. Boas introduced the concept of “cultural relativism” and rejected the biased European concept of culture following an evolutionary arc from “primitive” to “advanced.” He was politically outspoken beyond the halls of the university and was among the first social scientists to reject racial inequality and proclaim the human race as essentially one family. His influence has extended well beyond his death in 1942 in the fields of linguistics and language preservation, cultural anthropology, ethnomusicology, and more. For an excellent Jewish Currents article on Boas’ life and legacy, click here.
“If we were to select the most intelligent, imaginative, energetic, and emotionally stable third of mankind, all races would be present.” —Franz Boas
Watch a nine-minute Odyssey profile of Boas, including photographs from his fieldwork: