Franz Boas

by Jean CascardiArchaeological Crew Chief

“It is our task to inquire into the causes that have brought about the observed differentiation, and to investigate the sequence of events that have led to the establishment of the multifarious forms of human life.” Franz Boas, 1858-1942franzboas

Unlike many other countries, American archaeology is anthropologically based and strongly influenced by Franz Boas. Franz Boas is often considered the father of American anthropology and for good reason. Boas approached cultural studies differently than his European and American counterparts. He proposed that to truly understand a culture the anthropologist must collect as much data before attempting to analyze it. During this time many anthropologists and social scientists were trying to discover universal laws governing culture and human behavior. This interest was furthermore inspired by Charles Darwin’s revelations concerning the natural world. Anthropologists were attempting to apply the laws of natural evolution to cultural groups. Franz Boas’ approach to studying culture differed greatly from the unilinear evolutionary approach, prevalent at the time. Unilinear or unilineal evolution was the 19th century belief that all societies passed through the same developmental stages beginning with hunter-gatherers and moving in the direction of Western societies; features of which include reading and writing, cities, industry, agriculture, capitalism, etc. Boas was an ardent opponent of the cultural evolution model as applied it was being applied to human groups.

Boas was the first anthropologist to study human groups and behavior using the four field approach, historical particularism, and cultural relativism. The four field approach of American anthropology is the study of the history or prehistory of a group, their language, biological or physical anthropology, and through the observation of the culture or group as it is in the present or ethnographically. The combination of these techniques allow the researcher to understand culture holistically. Boas believed anthropologists could understand a society’s customs by examining the environment, the psychological factors, and the historical connections the group makes within its own society.

Historical particularism is the term used for Boas’ belief that cultures are “sui generis” (or unique) and create themselves. Therefore, cultures can only be understood through their particular or unique development. Cultural relativism is the term used for Boas’ belief that individuals and cultures should not be judged from an outsider’s view. Cultural relativism and historical particularism fit closely together and to reiterate historical particularism claims that all cultures are unique and develop independently; as such they must be observed from culturally relative standpoint. Cultural relativism is the opposite of ethnocentrism.

Franz Boas established anthropology as an academic field in the United States and would go on to train other famous, influential American anthropologists. The Boasian approach to anthropology remains relevant to this day. After all, “archaeology is anthropology or it is nothing (Willey and Phillips, 1958).”

“Anthropology is the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities,” A.L. Kroeber, (1876-1960).

Further Reading:
Boas, F., & Stocking, G. W. (1982). A Franz Boas Reader: The shaping of American anthropology, 1883-1911. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

(2002). Calhoun, C.(Ed.), Dictionary of the Social Sciences. : Oxford University Press. Retrieved 19 May. 2016, from

Cultural Relativism:

Franz Boas- New World Encyclopedia:

Franz Boas, Wikipedia:

Unilinear Cultural Evolution:


About cartarchaeology

We are the County Archaeological Research Team, part of the Archaeology and Collections Branch, Resource Management Division, Fairfax County Park Authority. We are tasked with understanding and managing the cultural resources on Park land throughout Fairfax County.
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