Historical Particularism

Historical Particularism

Franz Boas

Franz Boas, born in 1858 to a German Jewish family, pioneered and labeled historical particularism. His father was a merchant of liberal political views and his mother was a radical freethinker. With Boas’ parents he had ideas and beliefs of equality and freedom for everyone, which shows in the work he does. Boas’ idea of historical particularism is a research method that “is widely considered the first American-born school of Anthropological theory, and he [Boas] is considered one of the founders of American Anthropology” (McGee and Warms: 116).

After moving back and forth from Germany to America, Boas permanently ended up in America. Boas ended up as a professor of anthropology at the University of Columbia. Through Boas’ experiences studying the Baffin Islands on the study of the Inuit people, he found great interest in anthropology, which led to historical particularism. He argued that historical events were important factor and that all cultures must be viewed on their own terms. His students include A. L. Kroeber (1876 – 1960), Paul Radin (1883 – 1959), and Benjamin L. Whorf (1897 – 1941).

Discussion Questions:

Boas’ discusses the difference between what people do vs. what people say they do. Why is it so important to personally observe cultures other than being the “arm-chair” anthropologist? Since Kroeber relied on a lot of information through Ishi (individual from the Yana people), is that information tainted?

Boas argues that cultures are not fixed or static and that they have their ways of reaching the same cultural development as modern societies. What did he mean by that and if possible, provide some of the evidence that supported this argument?

Alfred L. Kroeber

Kroeber’s essay focuses on the explanation of his eighteen stances of what he believes about culture and civilization. Kroeber agreed with Boas on most things but did disagree on a couple topics. The first was the “idea that anthropology was ultimately a discipline devoted to the study of humankind’s origins” (McGee and Warms, 119). Boas believes that the individual plays a huge role in how the culture is made but this is not Kroeber’s belief. Kroeber’s belief is that “…although culture came from and is carried by human beings, it cannot be reduced to individual psychology” (120 McGee and Warms). Kroeber was more interested in the connections of geographical cultural traits. But Kroeber did agree with Boas’ cultural history, that you need to know the history of cultures to know the culture it is today.

Paul Radin

Paul Radin, a true follower of Franz Boas, believed that all cultures are different in their own ways based on particular historical events. To understand them is to study them on their own terms and within their context, which may require participant observation and learning the language. Radin provides an insightful example in his article, Right and Wrong, that was based on his study of the Winnebago Indians to convey that they too are just as complex and socially modern like Western Europeans. Their “primitive” way of thinking was found to be more superior than of modern Western societal way of thinking. What the writer is trying to say is that why should we be so quick to judge when all it is is a misunderstanding and misperception of these people who we associate the word savage with. There is in fact more to learn from them as seen in Radin’s account of Winnebago individuals who describe their understanding of their lives based on several precepts.

Discussion Questions:

Why did Radin go to such great lengths in trying to convince his readers that the “primitive” mind is just as abstract as modern civilized people?

It seemed as if Radin was expressing the fact that these natives’ way of thinking was more superior than civilized people. Do you think that was his intention? Explain your answer.

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  • Kaleb Greer  On February 6, 2014 at 10:12 am

    Radin express a strong emphasis on how the natives’ way were not primitive. The way he words his work makes it seem as though he believes that the natives were superior compared to that of the civilized man. He talks about how the civilized man has his mind only on the self, while the natives think about the group. He also stressed the fact that each culture needs to be studied within it’s own context. However, I do not believe he thinks the natives as superior, but as equals to the civilized man. I believe he is trying to show that they have qualities and certain ways of doing stuff that the civilized man can learn from. He tries to make the reader think about how working as a group can help in certain ways compared to always being self absorbed. His points come on strong due to the common belief in his time that natives were inferior in every way to the civilized man and had nothing to offer. He is only trying to defend the natives and show that they are in fact not inferior.

    • J  On February 17, 2014 at 11:43 am

      I do agree with your views of how Radin only wanted the perceptions of the Natives to be advocated as an equally intelligent, but entirely different race of people to the Europeans. Though the times saw that anyone but Europeans were just mindless savages. Radin advocated strongly for people to have a different mindset to look at cultures on their basis, however it was very difficult to go against the wave of a whole society who thinks they are superior to everyone in the world. Perhaps the only way that Radin was able to gather against the wave of superior Europeans, was to say that Natives were equal, if not even better than the Europeans. Perhaps Radin simply admired the concept of the group comes first before the individual, so that every person in that group is treated equally in the wealth and resources in the Native American cultures he studied, compared to the ego centric European culture.

  • Peter  On February 6, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    Boaz, who I agree entirely about studying people. To fully understand the people you are studying about the thing they do, than rather sit aside and observe and make assumption why they do the things do. You have to participate and assimilate into their world to fully grasp the idea, morals, and ethic of the reasoning of why they do the things they do. If by, only observing and asking question to get answers, you only get a perspective on one person opinion of the reasoning. And thus, forming your own opinion/conclusion to why they do the things they do. So, there is a HUGE difference between the two. Your opinion/conclusion can taint the ending result which can lead to misinterpretation of the cultural practices.

    • Carson Hoffman  On February 6, 2014 at 1:59 pm

      I agree with the statements you have made about the importance of being present for some anthropological studies. It is hard for the armchair people to make strong claims about topics when the data they are given is twice influenced by interpretation. One thing I still do like about the arm chair people though is that they can catch things that are unseen to the observer in the field. If given a photo the armchair people can take a third party approach to the situation and may find details missed by someone who has prior associations to the data. This being said, the armchair people can help in certain situations but in trying to make big claims the method in my opinion seems flawed. Having taken many statistics courses the propagation of error and influenced data would be off the charts once the armchair people are analyzing the data. To me both the armchair people and in field people can help each other out, but great care needs to be taken when presenting material to the public. I find an analysis of a subject to be closer if given from someone who was actually their, as Boaz was trying to make a point about.

      • Jannet C.  On February 7, 2014 at 11:45 pm

        I disagree with what you say about the arm chair anthropology methods having a different outlook that would possibly be beneficial to analyzing data about other cultures. The reason being is that within our major we strive to know everything about a culture. This, thanks to Boaz, includes context of a situation being analyzed. If a picture is not fully understood and assumption is taking part of analyzing people than wrongful accusations can occur. We are forgetting that these are PEOPLE being analyzed and to misconstrue even the slightest evidence can be crucial.

      • Momo  On February 9, 2014 at 7:53 pm

        I thought it was interesting that you noted that arm chair people “can take a third party approach to the situation and may find details missed by someone who has prior associations to the data”. Instead of being the generalists that they are, they could help by analyzing data and generating more questions that would then lead to a better understanding of these “other” societies. Although Boas strongly disagreed on the methods of these evolutionists, he didn’t believe they were entirely wrong. He emphasized more on qualitative data than quantitative data, which contributed to his concept of historical particularism. It seemed as if Boas was trying to get more at collaborating with arm chair theorists, but to focus on a nontraditional method where people must study others by understanding their history, culture, and language firsthanded.

  • K  On February 6, 2014 at 1:24 pm

    I feel that Radin was moved and surprised by the intellect of the indigenous people he was working with. Previously thoughts of these “arm chair anthropologists” suggested that indigenous people were simply idiot savages who needed to be educated so they could successfully survive and progress. When Radin found the opposite to be true it seems that he wanted to fiercely defend them and show that we have a lot that can be learned from interactions with them. However, in his attempt to defend them he does seem to discredit the previous intelligence of anthropologists before him. I don’t, however, feel that he wanted to cause a separation of intelligence, but rather show that so much can be gained by observing every single detail of every civilization to truly understand intelligence and interactions. By sitting in their chairs and thinking about what might be going on the 19th century evolutionists caused a rift in actual evidence and mere opinions. Boas and his disciples went into the field and actually experienced these people and returned with hard evidence to be reviewed.

  • kQ  On February 6, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    The legacy of Franz Boaz its important because he believed that every culture had its own context. If people were to compare one culture to another, this will probably not work because all cultures are different. So how are we supposed to know the similarities and differences between two cultures? We might never know, because according to Boaz, every culture has its own unique adaptations. Fieldwork, history and observation are important methods that play a crucial role when trying to understand a specific culture. Boaz believed in what I call “active anthropology” because he rather observe and document the issues about the cultures that he studied unlike “armchair” anthropology, which only questions but really don’t participate. In regards to Kroeber, I believed that the information indeed was a little tainted because he had to rely on Ishi to tell him all the accounts about the Yana people. Since Ishi was the last member of this tribe, the story of his people was told only through his eyes. I wonder if anybody else from the Yana people was alive would have the same perspective about their culture the same way Ishi did.

    • jumpinhare  On February 8, 2014 at 7:57 pm

      I believe that they are members of the Yana still alive. Their ancestry was traced after Ishi’s death. I am sure that their account of Yana life would be different too just because of the generations that have passed in time.

  • jumpinhare  On February 8, 2014 at 7:41 pm

    I was intrigued with Boas when I read that he realized the impact of information being tainted by individual perception or lack there of, while working as a physicist on the color of water. Boas had discovered that he often had difficulty distinguishing between hues and shades of color. Rather than simply accept that the colors were nearly identical, Boas wondered if his inability to distinguish between these colors reflected a learned pattern of perception or lack of perception.
    The importance of perception is why Boas was such a proponent of direct ethnographic field research. Those that studied from afar(armchair) saw their role more to compile, organize and classify data. Boas felt that each culture needed to be explored and observed in context. Cultures are not comparable if removed from context.
    Kroeber based much of his knowledge on the Yana people from his interviews with Ishi. Ishi walked into Oroville in 1911 when he was 41 years old. The massacres on the Yana began when he was just 5 years old and continued through out his life. So was the information give to Kroeber tainted? I cant imagine that it wasn’t. The life that Ishi would have known and his perceptions would have been altered severely by the tremendous pressure that his culture endured.

  • Jenise  On February 8, 2014 at 8:43 pm

    I believe that the difference between what people say they do and what they actually do is important because the difference is huge in some aspects. For example, when talking about public restroom use, if you ask you might get a huge percentage of people who say “yes I wash my hands” but in actuality if you observe public restroom behavior you might see that less than half of people wash their hands. Much in the same way, if you are an arm-chair anthropologist you may get distorted images of the cultures you are “studying.”

    If you really think about it all ethnographies are second hand information, unless they are more autobiographical (written by a first hand participant in the culture). I feel that if the ethnographer does not see the actual activities of the culture and interview active participants then the information is tainted by at least some amount of interpretation.

  • larson1301  On February 9, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    I believe that Boaz’s argument is completely logical in the sense that societies are all very superficial. The focus is mainly on the surface and actions are more often based on what others will think of them. So it’s makes sense what he is saying that what people say they do is a lot different than what they actually do. I believe this is so because looking at my mention of superficiality that would be the most logicial reason why they would do so.

    As for the Radin discussion I believe that he went to such great lengths to says the primitive mind is as great as the modern mind to stick up for the ideals that these people are not as evolved as the modern society. His argument is simple their minds are as progressed as there culture needs to be. Their survival instincts are as adapted as their environment calls for. Changing their way of living would be eliminating their culture and their norm. Just because they don’t utilize technology doesn’t mean they aren’t as smart as we are are but more so that they are smart enough to not need it and are okay and content doing things in a harder way. The modern person would never be smart enough to survive in their world.

    • CB  On February 9, 2014 at 4:18 pm

      I agree entirely with your view of Boas. Our perception is clouded by our own mind and we cannot give a biased view of ourselves. But is it possible that anyone can give an unbiased perception? I mean, when observing situations, we pick what is and isn’t important. We perceive things differently from everyone but by going there and seeing things firsthand allows us to get the best understanding and view of what really goes on.

  • Art M  On February 9, 2014 at 9:24 pm

    Radin went through great lengths trying to convince his readers that the minds are “primitive” peoples were the same as “civilized” ones is because the mentality of many Westerners, at the time, were that “primitive” people were too simple minded or unsophisticated from “civilized” people, even though Europeans have conquered people who could be considered “civilized” in other parts of the world. He saw in the Native people he studied complex minds and behaviors that could easily be compared to the ones some anthropologists deemed “superior.” Though his writings, he seemed to write that the Native people were also somewhat superior than Westerners, with the idea of them being the “native savage,” in addition to having similar mindsets. I think that he didn’t intend to write them as that because he wanted to show them as being just like Westerners and not like the “primitive” minded people they have been seen as for three hundred years.

  • PT  On February 9, 2014 at 11:08 pm

    Culture is always changing. It never stays the same because as time goes on, new traditions are included from other cultures. People can get inspired by other beliefs or traditions. You have to fully understand other cultures on what they actually do and not what they say they do. We have to experience it first handed to actually understand how the culture works. It would be unethical to misrepresent the culture.
    As of Radin, you cannot judge others using a western way of thinking because the norms and values of other cultures are not the same. I believe all cultures are different in their owns ways. I believe Radin’s intention was to not use modern western thinking to other cultures.

  • kimico  On February 10, 2014 at 9:49 am

    There is most definitely a difference between what people say they do and what people actually do, and this difference makes being an “arm-chair” anthropologist useless. The technology study that the Anthropology 111 students worked on last year is a perfect example of why it is important to understand behavior based on observation. When random students were observed using technology many were seen using some sort of social media website, perusing the internet, etc. When they were asked what they had been using their devices for in the last twenty minutes, however, many replied that they were working on a homework assignment and refrained from mentioning the other activities.
    Kroeber’s understanding of the Yana people based on the information collected from his informant, Ishi, is therefore biased. We are our culture and our culture is us, making it difficult to dissect the rituals and routines played out in our daily lives. What is easily overlooked for us might be an important insight to someone else, thus making our own accounts of life a less reliable source.

  • yolandaherrera  On February 14, 2014 at 9:22 am

    It is important to personally observe cultures other than being the “arm-chair” anthropologist because people don’t remember everything that they do and often at times do not speak about certain things due to cultural taboo. On top of this, people’s understanding of an action and the reality can be very different. The way we understand the things we do can vary greatly in practice. Both of these things slants the data that we receive and the impact of it can be lessened if we personally observe cultures. The armchair anthropologist receives this data, but the items they are receiving are already pre-interpreted for them. So they are interpreting interpretations. Furthermore, their distance from the people group and culture can greatly affect the way in which they interpret the data. For one they are not as aware of the geographical area. Furthermore there distance means that all the data that they interpret is interpreted without a context.
    Concerning Kroeber and his information attained through Ishi, the information is most certainly tainted. This is for the same reasons that the armchair anthropologists’ information is tainted. First they people don’t remember everything that they do and often at times do not speak about certain things due to cultural taboo, and secondly, the items they are receiving are already pre-interpreted for them. Ishi is interpreting the data by explaining it to Krober. It is not as bad as the data gathered by the armchair anthropologist, but there will be a bias in that the data is far more personal. There is a strong temptation in that situation to remember what one wants to remember.
    I believe that Radin when to such great lengths to convince his readers that the “primitive” mind is just as abstract as modern civilized people because he had to deal with a great deal of bias that claimed differently. I’m not certain that it was his intention to imply that these natives’ way of thinking was more superior than civilized people, but in his attempt to change this outlook he reversed the bias instead, making the native mind superior.

  • Reyna Alvarenga  On February 25, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    I believe in order to get a real sense of a different culture only watching them from afar will not do. I think Radin went to such lengths to convince his readers that natives were not the dumbfounded species that nobody understood and had not sense of culture in them. I think he wanted to make sure that even though they have different customs and traditions that it works in their society to be the way they are. I do not think there is a superior race because we humans do not share different races but indeed are one race. The only thing that separates us is our mentality and our traditions and cultures. We all are the same species and Radin wanted to emphasize that even though Europeans thought they were superior than indians they were really not and instead were close minded to what really existed.

  • mec  On May 16, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    I dont think the information Kroeber acquired from Ishi is tainted because Ishi was in fact a member of the Yana people. I think it would become tainted if Kroeber had made leaping assumptions following the accounts given to him by Ishi. The importance of observing cultures outside of your “armchair” is that reading the data collected by someone else can only provide so much insight, and again it would be second hand insight. Through firsthand observations, a person has the possibility of encountering something that would have never been mentioned in a second hand account by an outsider. Allthough the observation is from an outsider as well, it would at least be a primary source of information for that person. It is as Boas’ discussed the differences between what people do and what they say they do. What they say they do would probably be discussed and considered by an arm chair anthropologist, where as what they actually do would be observed by an anthropologist who left the comfort of his armchair to actually observe and speak to people.

  • dkcruz22  On February 23, 2015 at 12:25 pm

    The one thing that I do notice with the difference with Kroeber and Boas. Is that one had an open mind to the possibilities of there being more then one option in life. While the other kinda clinger to the status question and used that to back up what he believed in.

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