Historical Particularism


Franz Boas distinguished American anthropology by challenging the tradition of unilinealism that was the long-standing theoretical model used by European anthropology. He discredited the method of evolutionary theories due their erroneous logic. He also fundamentally disagreed with the use of evolutionism to prove the racial superiority of Northern Europeans because he believed that all humans, regardless of their ethnicity and level of technological achievement, were equal. Boas’ viewpoint on the equality of humanity provided the model for cultural relativism, an attitude to be maintained by a researcher while conducting ethnographic research. In order to explain culture, Boas emphasized the need to examine it in its environmental and historical context. The latter was the most important influence on the development of a culture; it 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, he encouraged the use of inductive reasoning based on large amounts of data gathered from direct observation of a society to draw conclusions, which differed from evolutionists who tended to search for data that would fit their theories.

A Breakdown of “The Methods of Ethnology”

Boas begins by calling out the two forces in Anthropology that he felt needed to be contended with, Diffusion and Social Evolution. The former stating that Culture is not present naturally, but is imported from its root source; the latter, purports that cultures go through a series of classifications before they have reached that of the standard: European Societies. As you may recall, Boas believes in the equality of all persons and therefore all societies. It is important to note that Boas’ primary concern is the methods by which Ethnographic studies are conducted, not the theories behind them. As Boas would have it, ethnographers would collect data and interpret the data to form a conclusion, in direct contrast to the scientific method which calls for a theory or hypothesis that is to be tested, the text simplifies by calling Boas’ an inductive approach. The study of the Zuñi serve as a prime example of his concept of the supremacy of historical connections as the mold from which culture is formed.

A.L Kroeber was a student of Boas’ and expressed many of the same beliefs, like the necessity to have a historical perspective to understand culture and the equality of humanity. However, he differed from Boas in his assessment of the influence that the individual has on culture. For Kroeber, individuals did not play a significant role in cultural development and change; rather, historical trends and culture in society determined individual action. 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.

A Breakdown of “Eighteen Professions”

In this reading, Kroeber outlined the items of belief that he believed should form the bedrock of anthropology.

1.) History is concerned with how social facts and society come together.

2.)Anthropology is not to  be concerned with the man, but rather what he has accomplished.

3.) Civilization, though a product of humanity, remains a superorganic, apart from humankind.

4.) Each subject has his own mind, but it should not be viewed as the source of his actions.

5.)History studies what an individual or group has done, its purpose is not to speculate as to the underlying causes.

6.) The individual serves no purpose to historical studies, not to say that they are invaluable, but they hold no truths for historical research.

7.) Civilization is not caused by geographic location. Kroeber uses agriculture to support this claim, agriculture is demanded by society, society decides how it is to be performed based on the specific environment, the environment did not spawn agriculture.

8-14.) In the intervening professions Kroeber states and restates the notion that despite their appearances, all societies have equal propensity for civilization, and each individual has the propensity to as educated or wise as the next. Therefore, there can be no stages of civilization, social standards, “ethnic minds”, or hereditary influence. This is an egalitarian perspective that is reminiscent of his teacher, Boas. The position that all

15.) Unlike the various sciences, there are no strict rules by which history must follow, the Illiad being a prime example of the age-old adage, ” all’s fair in love and war”, i.e. there are no rules. Paris can steal away a Grecian king’s wife for love, and countless men can lay down their lives and those that they laid low in the intervening conflict for the honor of “king/queen and country”, etcetera; Operation Iraqi Freedom, various other conflicts in the mid and far-East, and the “War on Terror” are no exceptions to this overarching theme.

16.) History is concerned, strictly, with what actually occurred with no interest given to what may have been the underlying causes of any specific event.

17.)From the 16th profession, it is apparent that what history lacks, as it should per Kroeber, is a study of the ultimate causes of any specific event.

18.) Kroeber ultimately rended a gap between History and the other sciences, saying that we could not be more different at a basic level of methodology and determination.

Discussion Questions

Contrast Boas’ approach to anthropology through historical particularism with the approach of cultural evolutionists, like L.H. Morgan. If the similar development of societies cannot be attributed to the existence of a universal, predetermined evolutionary pattern, then why, according to Boas, do these parallelisms appear?

What is Kroeber’s attitude toward the role and influence of an individual within a culture? How does it differ from Boas? What does it mean that society is “superorganic”?

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  • Catelynn Danell  On February 23, 2015 at 2:12 pm

    Society as superorganic means that cultural aspects exist independently of the individual agency within society. Culture has a life of its own and is more complex than the living things that compose it. This means that a society’s structural foundations exist as independent entities apart from individual actions. These individual actions interact with one another within the larger structures of society. The superorganic society is a larger structure composed of smaller organisms that interact with one another.
    Kroeber believed that individuals played a small part in their influence on culture when compared to the ideas of Boas. He believed that culture and historical events influenced the way that individuals act, not the other way around. This theory reiterates the idea that culture exists completely independent of individual thought and action. Boas believed that individual behavior was shaped by societal structures but also that these structures were in some degree influenced by collective thought.

  • Grumpy Giraffe  On February 27, 2015 at 12:25 pm

    Kroeber argues that there are no stages of civilization and they are equal to the next. No one society develops based on things such as geographic location. This approach resembles Boas’. Kroeber believed that culture also has little influence on individual thought.

    No individual influences culture. They look at the historical context to see how it shaped culture. Individuals do not shape and influence culture. Boas believed that culture influenced individuals and individuals cannot influence culture.

    Super organic means that society is separate from individuals and grows apart from them and their interactions.

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