Boasianism as a cult

Gelya Frank. Jews, Multiculturalism, and Boasian Anthropology. American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 99, No. 4 (Dec., 1997), pp. 731-745.
THERE HAS ALWAYS BEEN a lively, if sometimes hushed, in-house discourse about American anthropology's Jewish origins and their meaning. The preponderance of Jewish intellectuals in the early years of Boasian anthropology and the Jewish identities of anthropologists in subsequent generations have been downplayed in standard histories of the discipline. Jewish histories foreground the roles and deeds of Jews, actually a vety small minority: less than 3 percent of the world and of this nation's population (Schmelz and Della Pergola 1995). From that vantage, the development of American anthropology appears part of Jewish history. This essay brings together strands of these various discourses on Jews in anthropology for a new generation of American anthropologists, especially ones concerned with turning multiculturalist theories into agendas for activism.

The public silence or omission concerning anthropology's Jews is due mainly to the tone of liberal humanism and cosmopolitianism set by founder Franz Boas (1858-1942), himself a Jewish German immigrant, who in 1896 established the nation's first department of an- thropology at Columbia University. There has also been a whitewashing of Jewish ethnicity, reflecting fears of anti-Semitic reactions that could discredit the disci- pline of anthropology and individual anthropologists, either because Jews were considered dangerous due to their presumed racial differences or because they were associated with radical causes. [. . .]

Leslie White, a critic of Boas and a non-Jew, argued that the Boasians gained dominance by exclusionary practices and provocatively termed the Boasians a "cult" (1966:4). White labels Boas's analysis of race "inflexible," based as it is upon Boas's background as a Jew and belief in the ideals of the Revolution of 1848. Reworking statements by Boas's students into a polemic, White writes:
Boas, who was "of Jewish extraction" (Lowie, 1947, p. 310), had been intensely concerned with anti-Semitism since his formative years" (Kluckhohn and Prufer, 1959, p. 10). He wrote voluminously on racial problems, as did some of his prominent students. As I have argued elsewhere (White, 1947a), however, he never got to the heart of the matter. Much of his argument was based upon anthropometry and anatomy, which were largely irrelevant because race prejudice and conflict do not arise from lack of knowledge of facts of this sort.... Boas had virtually a closed mind, if we may trust Kroeber's [1956] judgment on this point. [1966:1S17]
White further charges that Boas had a closed attitude toward American-born scholars who were not Jewish (such as Clark Wissler and Ralph Linton) and tended to criticize or overlook anthropological work done by people who were not in the circle of educated Germans and "Forty-Eighters" (supporters of the liberal and socialist revolutions of 1848). White continues:
Let us have another look at the Boas School, the small, compact group of scholars that were gathered about the leader. The earliest were principally foreign-born or the children of immigrants. Goldenweiser was born in Kiev; Radin in Lodz; Lowie in Vienna, and Sapir in Pomerania. Kroeber's father was born in Cologne, and his mother was AmeIican-born, of Gelman antecedents. All were fluent in the German language. Like Boas, most were of Jewish ancestry. John Sholtz, writing in Reflex: A Jewtsh Magaztne (Vol. 6, p. 9, 1935) has observed that in the one field of anthropology alone, it is interesting to note the dispro- portionate position held by Jewish scientists in this country. Men like Boaz [sic], Golden weiser [sic], Lowie, Radin are easily the leaders in the field." . . . A school by definition tends to be a closed society or group. Kroeber tells of how George A. Dorsey, an American-born gentile and a Ph.D. from Harvard, tried to gain admittance to the select group but failed. [1966:26]
[White, Leslie A.
1947 Review of Franz Boas, Race and Democratic Society. American Journal of Sociology 52:371-373.
1966 The Social Organization of Ethnological Theory. Monograph in Cultural Anthropology. Rice University Studies, 52(4). Houston: William Marsh Rice University]


Anonymous said...

How do we account, then, for the two most prominent "Boasians," at least by American standards, of the 20th century: Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict?

n/a said...

What's there to account for? You just named the majority of non-Jewish first-wave Boas disciples -- and Boas disciples is the key phrase.