Historical Particularism: Boas, Kroeber and Whorf

FRANZ BOAS

Franz Boas changed American anthropology by introducing a new perspective of historical integration in understanding society. He discredits the method of evolutionary theories and stresses on the importance of conducting ethnography studies based on collective data and observation. Boas was concerned with social development and historical changes that effected individuals of society and how those changes affected society back. He says that culture can be understood if we accept that societies could reach the same level of culture development through different paths. Boas was indifferent to theory and thought that it was a premature method of ethnography instead using inductive reasoning to make sense of his findings, while others would develop a theory before conducting research. What comes first the chicken or the egg?

Some of his students:      
Margaret Mead                        Ruth Benedict
Ashley Montagu                      Alfred L. Kroeber
Edward Sapir                           Melville Herskovits
Gilberto Freyre                        Zora Neale Hurston

A.L KROEBER
A.L Kroeber like Boas believed that it was necessary to have a historical perspective to understand culture. However, unlike Boas he didn’t believe individuals play a significant role in cultural development and change but instead saw that historical trends in society determine individual accomplishment. His concepts argued that culture cannot be reduced to individual psychology and that culture is a pattern that exceeds and control individuals which determines their human behavior. What is the implication of Kroeber’s use of “super organic” to describe culture and society?

BENJAMIN L. WHORF
Not to be confused with Star Trek’s “Worf”(on the right), Whorf (on the left)  believed that the language you speak influences you cognitively and affects the way you see the world. He states that linguistics can influence one’s world perceptions on a small and large linguistic scale and that speakers of different languages act differently because their L1’s create different conceptual worlds. Which came first, the cultural norms or the language? Are we shaped by our language which shapes our culture or does our culture shape our language?

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  • kmgalvez  On February 6, 2012 at 9:10 am

    Franz Boas was one of the first people to address the problems facing anthropology and the incorrect assumptions made about culture and cultural development. He makes it clear that the methods done by American anthropologists are clearly different from the previous anthropological findings based on “European thought”.
    I like the fact that he first starts off by implying that Tylor’s ideas found in his “Primitive Culture” are invalid because his hypothesis of a uniform evolution of cultures cannot be proven. He also states that even though there are similarities in the ways that cultures develop, this doesn’t prove the hypothesis. This is because the similarities found in certain cultures do not show a pattern and, therefore, cannot be explained by diffusion (a concept vital to the hypothesis of cultural evolution). In other words, cultural development is not linear and culture is not static.
    “[I]t may be recognized that the hypothesis implies the thought that our modern Western European civilization represents the highest cultural development towards which all other more primitive types tend” (118). This quote shows how the new American anthropological differs from the old European thought. It is also the basis from which the concept of ethnocentrism is formed.
    Boas further explains the new methods for studying cultures by making it a point to say that there is no “general development” of culture, and that the conclusions drawn about a particular culture should be based off of “the dynamic changes in society”. In conclusion, Boas feels that it is important to “see that each cultural group has its own unique history, dependent partly upon the peculiar inner development of the social group, and partly upon the foreign influences to which it has been subjected” (121). This thought is what guide anthropological studies today.

    • Britty  On February 27, 2012 at 10:00 pm

      Boas ideas on “European thought” brought up a valid point in anthropology. It brought up he issue of a bias within the anthropological world, showing that the European culture cast a shadow on the observation aspect of ethnogrophies.

  • Dale H.  On February 6, 2012 at 11:40 am

    Franz Boas wrote in a letter: “What I want to live and die for, is equal rights for all, equal possibilities to learn for poor and rich alike! Don’t you believe that to have done even the smallest bit for this, is more than all science taken together?” Franz Boas sounds like a pretty smart guy. I also like his application of scientific style thinking or methodology when looking for holes in his critiques of other anthropologist’s ideas. In fact, he was so sound in his thinking, many of his ideas became standard definitions for theories that weren’t named until after he died, like cultural relativism, and historical particularism. Apparently, he is considered the “founder” of American Anthropology because of his great influence. It seems to me that, so far, he is the first guy in our studies that could exist today and hold the same ideas he had over a century ago. And he founded a famous Anthropology department at a famous Ivy League school that I proudly tell my friends my famous anthropology instructor went to: Columbine!

    “What is the implication of Kroeber’s use of “super organic” to describe culture and society?” I guess the implication is that culture has a life of its own, separate from the influences of individuals composing the society. Therefore, one person or group of individuals can change ideas or approaches to, using technical language, things-and-stuff, but one person or group of individuals can’t change a people’s or group’s culture. I want to do a twenty-eight page paper for my doctoral dissertation like Kroeber did!

    “Which came first, the cultural norms or the language?” I believe culture comes before language. After all, if it didn’t, all societies would essentially start with the same equivalent “blank culture” therefore justifying racism by implying that some are more advanced than others because they progressed quicker because they are superior. Of course, what do I know!
    “Are we shaped by our language which shapes our culture or does our culture shape our language?” I wouldn’t say it has to be one or the other. I do not believe it to be true that different languages reflect different cultural conceptions of reality. Like my Anth 2 books says “. . . no one has ever found a meaning in one language that was simply incomprehensible to speakers of other languages.”

    • CorrinaC  On February 6, 2012 at 3:59 pm

      ‘I guess the implication is that culture has a life of its own, separate from the influences of individuals composing the society. Therefore, one person or group of individuals can change ideas or approaches to, using technical language, things-and-stuff, but one person or group of individuals can’t change a people’s or group’s culture. ‘

      Dale you said it in the most lovely way!

    • Martha T.  On February 6, 2012 at 9:24 pm

      “Are we shaped by our language which shapes our culture or does our culture shape our language?”

      In response to your response to this quote, it is definitley a tricky thing to consider, seeing as none of us were around during the initial birth of culture, or during the first communicative utterance. Culture and language are both contantly evolving, as Boas pointed out, any time we take a sample from a culture, it captures and freezes a moment of that culture/language. I think that one does not influence the other exclusively, rather, they might both influence each other. There may be a change in culture, and then language will be tweaked to reflect that change, and then this change may influence the culture of others, ect, ect. This is just one scenario I think is possible, there are surely several processes that may take place.

      • Arlyne Boyer  On February 7, 2012 at 10:56 pm

        In response to your response to his response… this cultural/language change is evolving as we speak (literally and figuratively) in this crazy high tech world we are living in. We have invented many new words to go with the new techy toys and don’t get me started on this so-called “social networking” era where we need to re-learn how we write for fear of yelling at someone when we lazily use all cap’s! What a strange global culture we live in where virtually everyone understands the term “unfriend” and can use it in a sentence.

        Prehistorically speaking, I’m a believer in laguage and culture walking hand in hand.I think those first early awkward utterings and clumsy gestures helped people to group together and those little groups formed thier new culture based on some common understanding of each other. With the early languages came the ability to express emotions and from this, maybe the stage was set for early rituals as well.

  • jesteenburns  On February 6, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    The topic of Historical Particularism really branches off from what we have been reading in regards to such authors as Morgan, Taylor etc. Anthropological theory really makes a leap in progress, as the minds of the age move to a more ’’culturally relative’’ state of mind. Social Evolutionism is finally exposed as a problematic theory, and talks move away from the unilateral thinking of the 19th century.
    Franz Boas thought is based on the idea that societies are a product of socio-historical circumstance rather than some form of unilateral evolutionism. First to express the idea of cultural relativism, he is a big player in progressing anthropological school of thought, even if the overall theory is not a top choice for many contemporary anthropologist. He really focused on the historical as well as psychological and circumstantial (e.g. environmental) influences that were/are responsible for shaping societies. Personally the most important part of this, is that unlike unilateral evolution, Historical Particularism realizes that certain aspects of two different society can develop similar or the same aspects independently of each other or through different means. This then places the emphasis on the fact that societies can have similar aspect, without it being on a unilateral track evolving its way to ‘civilized’.
    To tie in with Franz Boas own form of thought, I am curious is his ‘theory’ came out of his own belief and social influence of agnostically approaching Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. It seems almost fitting considering the context of his manuscript. In a time when people were embracing science and the the idea of Darwinism (and by extension social Darwinism) it seems that Boas theory veers away from traditional 19th century not because he was a revolutionary idealist, but rather his own social-‘historical’ influence from his mentor, who was questioning the idea Natural Selection. As an anthropologist in the time of anthropology as a natural science, it seems he took this alternative route to assuage his own lack of belief in the Darwinist idea that fueled 19th century evolutionism.

  • Fiona  On February 6, 2012 at 6:24 pm

    I found Benjamin Whorf’s theory of linguistic relativity the most interesting out of all ideas presented in these essays. The idea that language shapes the way you see the world makes a lot of sense, if you think about it. The example that first comes to mind is that the Sami people of the have hundreds of words for snow, whereas most peoples only have a few. This is an indication of how significant snow is for these people. You might even extend that to the fact that Americans have quite a few different words for “money”. Perhaps that’s indicative of our society?

    The idea of linguistic relativity can also be extended to syntactic structure of different languages. The structure of a sentence for languages is such that the last phrase uttered tends to be the most emphasized. So, while English and other Romance languages (among different language groups) have a subject-verb-object arrangement, ergative languages like Arabic or Hungarian have a subject-object-verb structure. If you believe that the last bit of a sentence is that which is the most emphasized, it follows that languages that adhere to the SOV structure place the importance on the action, rather than on the object of a sentence. I’m not entirely sure to what degree this affects the mindset or culture of different people, but it seems like SOV languages would see the action taking place as more important than the results of said action.

    That being said, I felt that the quote with which Whorf started out his essay (that by Sapir) was a bit misleading. By saying that “human beings…are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium expression for their society” (131), Sapir (and by extension, Whorf) seem to be asserting that people can’t independently think for themselves — language holds all the power. I don’t believe that to be true. I do believe, however, that language has some influence on how we think. It may provide a base from which we can launch thoughts about the world around us, but that base isn’t necessarily essential.

    Then again, I’m not entirely sure if any of this made sense at all.

    • Martha T.  On February 6, 2012 at 10:25 pm

      Whorf’s studies on polysemy seem skechy to me, we could find an English speaking snow boarder who could come up with a whole bunch of words (jargon or otherwise) for snow.

      Whorf’s theory has fallen in and out of favor in the linguistic field, I agree with you that language seems to reflect culture on some level. I think that language influences a speaker’s cognitive categories, but I dislike the idea that it has direct power over its speakers’ world view. I also disagree that we are at our language’s “mercy”, so to speak.

  • MAlvarez  On February 7, 2012 at 11:01 am

    “Boas argued that it was only through living with a people and learning their language that one could develop an accurate understanding of a culture…” (P.114) I believe this sets Boas apart from a few anthropologists because of the fact that he was doing his own fieldwork. Boas believed that there were three fundamental perspectives to examine to explain culture customs; environmental conditions under which under they developed, psychological factors, and historical connections, which he thought was the most important. He believed that societies were made up of their own historical circumstances. This meant that the best explanations of culture were going to be through studying the historical development. Boas change American Anthropology by introducing different perspectives; he was considered one of the founders of American anthropology.

    A.L Kroeber, who was one of Boas’ first student, also maintained a Boasian perspective, however they split because Boas believe that individuals had much importance in a culture’s development and change, Kroeber believe that individuals had little importance. Kroeber was more interested in mapping the distribution of culture traits into larger geographic patterns.

  • Roxie  On February 7, 2012 at 11:13 am

    I agree with all of the above.

    Well since, that isn’t going to work. I guess I’ll leave a valid comment.
    While reading Franz Boas section, I found that it really relates to most of the things we do in anthropology today. He is considered the farther of American anthropology, can we use the term ” godfather” jk. This shows us how different the thoughts about anthropology differ from European ethnocentric point of view to how Boas and others look at the same ideas just in a different way.
    He used the methodology that was used in the natural sciences, applied it to anthropology and came up with a lot of techniques that are used today. For example, observation, collecting data and forming conclusions. He believed that general theories of human behavior would arise spontaneously once enough data is collected, in my opinion this is the backs understanding of anthropology itself.
    He also rejected the idea do ” savagery to civilization”, he believed that culture was the product of a unque and particular history. Not just generated by race. That societies are shaped by their own history, unlike the earlier thoughts that societies goes through stages, I think that was Morgan. I think that Boas work and ideas can still be valid today. Even looking at our own culture. He looks at society as a whole, isn’t that exactly what we do in anthropology.

  • Roxie  On February 7, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    I agree with all of the above.
    Well since, that isn’t going to work. I guess I’ll leave a valid comment.
    While reading Franz Boas section, I found that it really relates to most of the things we do in anthropology today. He is considered the farther of American anthropology, can we use the term ” godfather” jk. This shows us how different the thoughts about anthropology differ from European ethnocentric point of view to how Boas and others look at the same ideas just in a different way.
    He used the methodology that was used in the natural sciences, applied it to anthropology and came up with a lot of techniques that are used today. For example, observation, collecting data and forming conclusions. He believed that general theories of human behavior would arise spontaneously once enough data is collected, in my opinion this is the backs understanding of anthropology itself.
    He also rejected the idea do ” savagery to civilization”, he believed that culture was the product of a unque and particular history. Not just generated by race. That societies are shaped by their own history, unlike the earlier thoughts that societies goes through stages, I think that was Morgan. I think that Boas work and ideas can still be valid today. Even looking at our own culture. He looks at society as a whole, isn’t that exactly what we do in anthropology.
     

  • Rosalva  On February 7, 2012 at 9:42 pm

    Benjamin L. Whorfs’ ideas about culture and language are two things that cannot be separated for the reasons that we cannot prove which came first. To some extent I do believe that language has influence on how you see and perceive the world. I also do agree with Fiona that “language does not hold all the power” but language in some ways does shape how we perceive things. When you are speaking in one language that consists of jargon sometimes it becomes difficult to translate the word into a different language to give it the same meaning, but it is not impossible. I remember taking a linguistic course and the instructor talked about how the language you were raised or your
    primary would be the one that you would be using and go back to when you’re thinking. It would not matter if you new two or three languages but when you’re thinking you would automatically use the language that you normally use. We can also make comparison and contrast to words that might have different meanings. Maybe the order that it is said changes, but they might conveyed the same meaning.

  • Bryan Swarts  On February 7, 2012 at 11:30 pm

    I’m going to take a stab at defending Kroeber, but please note that I do not completely agree with everything he says. If you think about it, culture (well, I guess a more appropriate term would be civilization, as we are talking about Kroeber) has shaped the way we think, which combines our individual minds into a collective mind set. Kroeber says that “collective psychology is therefore ultimately resolvable into individual human psychology, just as this in turn is resolvable into organic psychology and physiology” (126). Now even though the physiological portion might need more evidence, one could see how collective psychology influences individual psychology, instead of the other way around. Do we just think the way we do because we (as individuals) created it, or is it that we heard about an idea from others and then expanded on it? Consider the bald eagle: do we like it because each and every individualistic mind thinks it’s a cool animal, or is it that our civilization/culture has us see something deeper (freedom, liberty, etc.) and therefore like it. I do not think that Kroeber is trying to say that the individual mind is insignificant, just that it is influenced by the culture we live in. I mean, if the USA has 300 million citizens and we treat the thoughts of these citizens as individualistic, does that mean that we have 300 million separate cultures? Just because we think of something new and “unheard of,” does that mean that it hasn’t been thought before? Could others think the same why but just have not expressed it? I think that culture and civilization is part of that social glue that unites us in how we think. Now, you might be saying “well, then why do people think differently if they are part of the same civilization?” Well, maybe we are a part of the same collective psychology, but interpret it differently. Maybe the civilization he is talking about has more to do with the collective thoughts in a nation or culture rather than the collective thoughts of a state. Cultures do tend to overlap each other, so could this mean that even though we are part of the same state we may have dozens of different collective psychology groups which tend to clash and cause tension? Everyone can interpret this anyway they want. Also, maybe these collective psychologies change over time or can adapt to the world they live in. Hope this causes some tension in your mind (teehee); just wanted to play devil’s advocate for a second just to spark ideas and develop an understanding.

  • Elizabeth  On February 7, 2012 at 11:59 pm

    Franz Boas
    The Methods of Ethnology
    “Ethnological research is based on the concept of migration and dissemination rather than upon that of evolution” (117) Franz Boas believed that research being done ethnologically are based on these “migration and dissemination rather than evolution.” Not only does he believe that these two concept are critical to ethnological research, but it is the fundamental hypothesis. This fundamental hypothesis of “Primitive Culture” expressed by Tylor states that “cultural development is, in its main lines, the same among all races and all peoples” (118). These concepts indicates parallelism of development in different parts of the world and that similar customs are found in the most diverse and widely spread parts of the globe. Boas states that “Western European civilization represents the highest cultural development towards which all other more primitive culture types which then works towards our own modern civilization.”
    I don’t think that Boas’ methodology are quite centered on civilization in general but the cultural history, implementing the indirect methods with comparative philology and static phenomena.

  • Arlyne Boyer  On February 8, 2012 at 1:03 am

    I like Boaz! There. I said it. And furthermore, I believe he came along just in time to save anthropology from itself!
    I like his holistic approach to anthropology and his humanistic approach to people in general. I like that he thought the 19th century evolutionists were crazy (I think that too). I really like that he had a “radical free thinking mother” who, along with her politically liberal husband, raised young Boaz with some sound values based in freedom, dignity and equality… concepts and values healways held in the highest regard.
    I like his approach to explaining culture through 3 perspectives: the environmental conditions under which the culture was developed, the psychological factors, and the historical connections. These feel quite valid, even today.

    In answer to Corrina’s question about the chicken and the egg, I personally think the egg came first and evolved into a chicken, met another chicken, did the funky chicken, and then….there were more chickens.

    Seriously, in Boaz’ day clearly it was theory which came first and these theories were derived from reading what someone else wrote, then conjuring up what they ‘think’ they meant, then concocting some theory to validate what they now think, and then they make the “facts” fit the theory.
    Of course this is backasswards. It is much wiser to approach the subject of study with a clear head and with your own eyes – free of preconceived concepts and theories – and observe what you are there to see. See it. Understand it on its terms and not your own.

  • Arlyne Boyer  On February 10, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    You all know about Ishi and Alfred Kroeber, right? Corrina and Martha posted a picture of Ishi and Kroeber on this blog and it occurred to me that maybe my classmates do not know this true story. In addition to Alfred Kroeber, another well known anthropologist T.T. Waterman was involved in the Ishi saga, as was famed linguist Edward Sapir.

    The story of Ishi and Kroeber is heartbreaking and heart warming at the same time. Ishi (a name given by Kroeber, means “man”) basically walked out of the hills of Oroville, Ca and gave himself up to the white men who had systematically killed off every member of his tribe over the past 30+ years.

    He had been living completely alone for many years. All his people were dead at the hands of the white man. To me, it was an act of suicide for Ishi to walk into the white man’s world but that is exactly what he did. He was found cowering in a corner of an old barn when the property owner found him.

    The year as 1910 and Indians were considered savages – 2 legged animals worthy of killing on the spot. Kroeber was a young anthropologist who had just started at Berkeley and it was his dream, his big desire to find and study a real live Indian savage! The folks in Oroville contacted the school and Kroeber rushed up there to see this speciman, this savage, and he brought Ishi back to the college where he was exhaustively studied for many many years before his death.

    Ishi was the pinnacle of Kroeber’s anthropological life and in the end, Ishi was probably Kroebers best friend. And in the end, Ishi’s death caused Kroeber immense grief to the point of Kroebers own exile as he reflected on his treatment of his friend Ishi in the name of science. It was said that Kroeber never spoke of Ishi after his death.

    I have added a link below for some good information on Ishi and Kroeber but it does not tell the whole story. What I find interesting about Kroeber is that he actually saw the error of his own anthropological ways and in the end, it broke his heart. As Ishi lay dying in the hosital, Kroeber was still pushing to get every last ounce of information out of Ishi and since Kroeber was out of the country at the time, he was directing his cohorts through telegrams and letters to press on and get his voice recorded, get his stories recorded as fast as possible.

    In that era, there were no phones. Information took FOREVER to get. When Kroeber finally realized Ishi was about to die, he sent word that Ishi was NOT to be autopsied but this information did not get to the hospital in time. This distressed Kroeber to no end, as Ishi had become a part of his family and Kroeber was riddled with guilt for the rest of his life over his treatment to his friend.

    Ishi was autopsied, his ashes were buried and his brain was removed and sent to the Smithsonian where it was put on a shelf and seemingly lost for decades.

    There is a somewhat happy ending to this sad saga and it came only within the last 10 years when it was finally determined that Ishi’s Maidu descendants were entitled to his remains and under the repatriation act they were given the opportunity to provide a proper Indian burial of his ashes (which were exhumed) as well as his brain which was finally located at the Smithsonian.

    For those of you that went with me and the Fresno State Anthropology Club to Yosemite about a year ago might remember my friend Ben, the Yosemite Park Ranger from the Indian Museum who played the flutes for us? Well, Ben is Maidu and he (this is making me cry as I write this) played his flute during Ishi’s burial.

    If anyone is interested, I have the film “Ishi, The Last Yahi” and would consider loaning it to you. It has original footage of Ishi and Kroeber as well as some amazing footage of the San Francisco World Fair where Ishi was “an exhibit”…. most touching though is the scene where Ishi is taken to the opera and the opera star singer seemingly falls in love with Ishi and sings directly to him! You see, Ishi had stood up in the opera house and was mezmerized by her beautiful voice and was transfixed by the sight of so many people in one place (many prominent women proposed marriage to him)… oh and the scenes of Ishi when he visits the sick children in the hospital and sings to them, in Yahi….Oh and when Ishi, Kroeber and Waterman go off looking for the place Ishi lived in the hills, oh and the scene where Ishi is face to face with the murdering theives who raided and killed his people … I could go on and on about Ishi …

    http://history.library.ucsf.edu/ishi.html

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