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Franz Boas (1858-1942)


  • Preliminary stage of structuralism

Research Interests

  • Anthropology, theories of physical, social, and cultural evolution

Notable Ideas

  • cultural relativism: elements of a culture are meaningful in that culture's terms, even if they may be meaningless in another culture.


German-born American anthropologist of the early 20th century, the founder of the relativistic, culture-centred school of anthropology that became dominant in the 20th century. Boas is often called the Father of American Anthropology.

Boas also trained in other disciplines, he received his doctorate in physics, and did post-doctoral work in geography.

Boas is famous for applying the methods of science to the study of human cultures and societies, a field which was previously based on theories and anecdotal knowledge.

Contribution to Linguistics

Boas published descriptive studies of Native American languages, and wrote on theoretical difficulties in classifying languages, but he left it to colleagues and students such as Edward Sapir to research the relationship between culture and language.

Boas's 1889 article "On Alternating Sounds" was an important contribution to the methodology of both descriptive linguistics and cultural anthropology.

Central Knowledge

  • Boas argued that "alternating sounds" is not a feature of Native American languages he claimed that they do not really exist.
  • In his article, Boas considers the possibility that two things or sounds that appear to be different may in fact be the same.
  • He shifted attention to the perception of different sounds. He points out that the problem of people who describe one sound in different ways is comparable to that of people who describe different sounds all in the same way.
  • This is crucial for research in descriptive linguistics: when studying a new language, how are we to note the pronunciation of different words? (Here, Boas anticipates and lays the groundwork for the distinction between Phonemics and Phonetics.)

Main Publications

  • The Mind of Primitive Man. 1911 .

  • Primitive Art. 1927.

  • Race, Language and Culture. 1940.

Categories: People