Boas Wasn’t Boasian

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

When anthropologist Franz Boas died in 1942, his Boasian school had been defined by Ruth Benedict, in her book Patterns of Culture:

The word “define” may surprise some readers. Wasn’t Boas a Boasian? Not really. For most of his life he believed that human populations differ innately in their mental makeup. He was a liberal on race issues only in the sense that he considered these differences to be statistical and, hence, no excuse for systematic discrimination. Every population has capable individuals who should be given a chance to rise to the limits of their potential.

He changed his mind very late in life when external events convinced him of the need to fight “racism,” at that time a synonym for extreme nationalism in general and Nazism in particular. In 1938, he removed earlier racialist statements from his second edition of The Mind of Primitive Man, and the next year Ruth Benedict wrote Race: Science and Politics to show that racism was more than a Nazi aberration, being in fact an ingrained feature of American life. Both of them saw the coming European conflict as part of a larger war.

This is one reason why the war on racism did not end in 1945. Other reasons included a fear that extreme nationalism would lead to a second Hitler and a Third World War. How and why was never clear, but the fear was real. The two power blocs were also competing for the hearts and minds of emerging nations in Asia and Africa, and in this competition the West felt handicapped. How could it win while defining itself as white and Christian? The West thus redefined itself in universal terms and became just as committed as the Eastern bloc to converting the world to its way of life. Finally, the rhetoric of postwar reconstruction reached into all areas of life, even in countries like the U.S. that had emerged unscathed from the conflict. This cultural reconstruction was a logical outcome of the Second World War, which had discredited not just Nazism but also nationalism in general, thereby leaving only right-wing globalism or left-wing globalism. Ironically, this cultural change was weaker in the communist world, where people would remain more conservative in their forms of sociality.

Ruth Benedict backed this change. She felt that America should stop favoring a specific cultural tradition and instead use its educational system to promote diversity. To bring this about, she had to reassure people that a journey through such uncharted waters would not founder on the shoals of unchanging human nature.

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