Tag Archives: 03 – Historical Particularism

Historical Particularism: Boas, Kroeber and Whorf


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 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?

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?


Historical Particularism – Boas, Kroeber and Radin

All subsequent quotes are taken from the associated texts unless otherwise noted.

This particular method of research was the brain-child of Franz Boas. It was also the first school of anthropological thought that was born on American soil.

Franz Boas (1858-1942)

Historical  particularism is a method of research that was the brain-child of Franz Boas; the founding principle being, that which Boas wished to both “live and die” by, was the equality of rights for all. It was this sentiment that influenced Boas’ to ultimately move to America as  this nation in particular represented, in his eyes, the ideal in equality. Due to his training in the physical sciences, Boas’ approach to ethnographic research was an expectedly rigorous one. It was his belief that ethnographic fieldwork should consist of a three-fold approach; to include an assessment of environmental impact on the society in question, pertinent psychological factors, and what Boas deemed most important: Historical Connections, as it was his view that each society is a product of its own historical circumstances.  His consistent disavowal of social Darwinism could very well be linked to the notion that Boas may not have “fully understood or accepted…natural selection.”  In addition, Boas believed that the “sweeping generalizations of unilinear social evolutionists” were invalid from a scientific standpoint, stating that:

 “[C]ultures may have similar traits for a variety of reasons…independent of any universal evolutionary process. Thus, the existence of such traits could not be used as evidence for universal stages of cultural evolution.”

Boas can rightfully be credited with the pioneering of the concept of Cultural Relativism concomitantly with Historical Particularism. Despite his many influential perspectives on this field, Boas was stripped of his membership and ultimately censured by the American Anthropological Association (AAA) for 96 years from 1919-2005.

A Breakdown of the Reading

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 (1876-1960)

As a student of Boas, Kroeber shared the same basic view of Anthropology, that societies are shaped by their respective histories.

A Breakdown of the Reading


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.

Paul Radin (1883-1959

 Radin, also a student of Boas, to a different piece of his teacher’s body of work . Where Kroeber focused on the group and disregarded the ultimate importance of the individual, Radin focused on the individual to the point of fathering a more biographical or literary approach rather than scientific.

A Breakdown of the Reading

After many years of research, the enormous amount of data was sifted through and Radin chose 25 gems to represent the ideal in Winnebago society. These “unwritten” rules by which the Winnebago live, serve as a direct counterpoint to the common and academic view of the so-called savage in the concurrent era as a brutish figure ruled by his own passions. In these enumerated “laws” of the Winnebago, Radin has shown that those viewed as savages are governed by the same sort of laws that we observe; such as the “Golden Rule”, “honor your parents”, “Do not kill”, “keep your word”,etc.

Not to be idealistic, as these are the perfect conditions, and like our own society, conditions are hardly ever perfect, so it is not without warrant that we expect instances where these rules are not abided by. Subsequently, as with our own society, there are repercussions for acting outside of acceptable social behavior..

Benjamin Whorf (1897-1941)

This article was not covered in class and is not required, but there is a prezi to help cut thru the fluff.