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Gods of the Upper Air

How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvnted Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century

by Charles King

Last tended to March 22, 2021

A historical account of how anthropologist Franz Boas and his students Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Ella Deloria, and Zora Neale Hurston overturned our assumptions about gender, race, and sex through their work.

Boas and his students invented the term Cultural Anthropology and the notion of Cultural Relativism - which still today gets cast as some over-politically-correct postmodernist nonsense.

The critics' issue with Cultural Relativism is that it undermines the notion of "objectivity" - "How can we make any judgements about right and wrong, critics ask, if everything is relative to the time, place, and context in which the judgement occurs?" (8)
Which is precisely the point.

The Boas circle weren't skeptical about our ability to know reality, or the value of The Scientific Method. Simply that cultures needed to be understood on their own terms, from a place of deep understanding.


Boas and his circle of students were living in the United States in the first half of the 20th Century - a nation that "proclaimed its origins in enlightened values but perfected a vast system of racial disenfranchisement." (8)

The national narrative insisted "on the universal applicability of their idea of a good society". Hence, Manifest Destiny.

"The belief that our ways are the only commonsensical, moral one has a powerful allure, especially when expressed in the language of science, rationality, religion, or tradition" (8)

The Boas circle undermined the reigning presumption that cultural development mirrored biological evolution - that societies "progressed" from less complex to more complex.

"Culture, as Boas and his students understood it, is the ultimate source for what we think constitutes common sense. It defines what is obvious or beyond question." (9)

"The essential messsage of the Boas circle was that we are all museum pieces. We have our own taboos and totems, our own gods and demons. Since these things are largely our own creations, the choice rests with us to venerate or exorcise them" (12)

Boas had the critical insight that supposedly Objective scientific data "was relative to the worldview, skill sets, and pre-existing categories of the researchers themselves. All science is provisional" (71)


The Historical Context of Franz Boas

Franz Boas came from fairly wealthy circumstances in mid-19th Century Germany. University-educated, his father funded his early exploratory adventures to Baffin Island where he lived with an Inuit community documenting their culture. Essentially the first instances of Fieldwork and the beginnings of Participant Observation

Moved to the United States in 1885, and began getting into debates with Armchair Anthropologists writing comparative texts from the comfort of Oxford.

Took on academics like Edward Tyler Burnett and James Frazer (author of The Golden Bough) debating how we should do comparative studies of human cultures.

At this point "anthropology" was primarily thought of as Biological Anthropology, Archeology, Linguistics, and museum curation. There was a lot of skull-measuring going on to categorise people according to physical characteristics.

There was a specific preoccupation with trying to draw correlations between cranial features, facial angles, and patterns of behaviour. "Using systematic observation of the outward traits of individuals to arrive at conclusions about the apparent differences across social groups" (66)

He moved to Chicago in time for the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, held to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World in 1492. Anthropologists saw it as a chance to "define itself as a coherent field of knowledge" (62)

Franz Boas helped found the American Anthropological Association, and its official publication American Anthropologist.

After World War I, Franz Boas began teaching at Colombia University, and found many of his best students were women - often admitted from Barnard College nearby. This was where he encountered Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead


The Concept of Race in the 18th-20th Century

Throughout the 18th Century and 19th Century, it was taken for granted that humans came in a set of "natural" categories - distinct races. Discernible through a series of physical characteristics and behaviour traits. The same way dogs come in breeds.

Johann Blumenbach, a German anatomist, defined the initial finite set; Ethiopians, American, Mongolians, Malay, and Caucasians. Others built off this speculating on certain sub-races and species.

Madison Grant, an American with a particular fondness for Eugenics, wrote a book called "The Passing of the Great Race in 1916. It was enormously popular at the time, and "hailed as a milestone in the application of scientific ideas to history and public policy." The book argued the United States needed to maintain "racial fitness," and was going to hell in a hand basket because "White Nordic Americans" were being outnumbered by supposedly inferior races.

Franz Boas initially received funding to go out and measure how well certain 'races' were assimilating into the great American melting pot. His graduate students spread across Chicago measuring skulls, noses, eye colours, and scales.

After thousands of measurements, it turned out there was no such thing as a "jew," "pole," or "slovak," in purely physical terms. "The conditions of life, from diet to environment, were having a quick and measurable effect on head forms that were thought to be fixed, inheritable, and indicative of one's essential type." (98)

Boas and his students had to conclude races were not a stable, objective reality, but rather a socially-constructed and wildly variable concept.


Ruth Benedict, Deviance & Cultural Relativism

Ruth Benedict became one of Franz Boas' students in 1921. She went from bored housewife to graduate student, earning her anthropology PhD while studying 'guardian spirits' among Native American Indigenous People. She then became his teaching assistant and did further research among the Zuni people of the Southwest United States

Ruth Benedict was especially interested in exploring ideas of 'normality' and 'deviance' in societies. Much of her work centred on explaining cultural relativism.

She started out studying the Gender Norms of the Zuni. They were primarily Matrilineal and had a well-established tradition of male-to-female gender crossing known as berdache (named by the French) where men could take on the social role of women - dressing, acting, and being in sexual relationships as women. For the Zuni "a woman could have a penis; a man could wear a wedding dress." (124)

Homosexuality was also acceptable among the Zuni - it was "socially placed" – "they had a specific role that both set them apart from the standard structure of their society and still wrapped them safely inside it" (125)

Benedict wrote a key paper titled Anthropology and the Abnormal that argued insanity, abnormality, and deviance are all culutrally-constructed concepts.

"Deviance" and "insanity" is simply a mismatch between an individual's way of being in the world – their emotions, tendencies, behaviours – and the available catalogue of social roles and values in the society they belong to.

"For nearly any deviants or miscreants you could name, it was possible to identify a society where their afflictions produced not just acceptable lives but easy, honourable ones, too" (125)

"Trance seekers and cataleptics, neurotics and the possessed, schizophrenics and the chronically depressed were categories impossible to define outside the local contexts in which these conditions manifest themselves" (125)

"Normalcy in any society was only an edited version of the grand text of all possible human behaviours; there was no reason to expect that every society would do the editing in precisely the same way. Ways of being in the world were abnormal only in the sense that the local context created 'the psychic dilemmas of the socially unavailable'" (126)

"All societies are in fact just snippets of a 'great arc' of possible ways of behaving." (264) Which snippets develop depends on environmental cues, geography, and chance.

These themes all culminated in her book Patterns of Culture


Margaret Mead, Trysts, & Gender Norms

Margaret Mead was born at the turn of the century in to academic parents - a sociologist and an economist.

Primarily raised on New England, she eventually studied at Barnard College where she fell in with a group of "freethinking, adventurous women, dissolved but intellectually fashionable," (129) and studied anthropology under Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict. First as an undergraduate, and then as a graduate student at Colombia University.

Mead's graduate research picked up on the core themes Franz Boas had been exploring - how cultural traditions, stories, rituals and technique evolved over time and spread between communities.

Rather than seeing the process as a linear cultural evolution where the 'best' techniques for basket weaving, canoe carving, or pig roast eventually dominated, Boas and Mead found that cultural practices "changed with no particular regularity and according to no discernible law" (133). Boas referred to this as cultural 'diffusion.' If the evolutionists were right, we would expect to have seen a fairly uniform spread of techniques across geographic areas. But we don't.

"Local groups seemed to repurpose techniques from multiple, geographically distant places, so that tracking down the ultimate origin of a practice, story, or ritual could prove futile" (134)

Cultural forms all emerge within distinct historical moments - there is no single linear track of 'human evolution' when it comes to cultural practices.

"Human practices and habit did not diverge from some single ancient norm." Darwinism does not apply here.

Instead, people are always adapting and modifying their cultural practices – as communities come into contact with other individual and groups, behaviours evolve. Charming, persuasive individuals can shift the cultural tides.

Mead had an elaborate love life that involved most of the major figures of anthropology over the 20th century. She had various affairs and marriages with Edward Sapir, Reo Fortune, Ruth Benedict, and Gregory Bateson

Mead was especially interested in issues of sex, gender, and coming of age. She published a book called Sex and Temperament on cultural Gender Norms.

In it, she argued Euro-American 'western' cultures believed the most defining characteristic of any human's personality was their biological sex.
We have picked genitalia – rather than eye colour, height, or hair type – as the end-all-be-all of a person's character. "We build our slang, our jokes, our poetry, our obscenity, even our medicine around the belief that sex and social behaviour go together" (270)

This obsession with connecting sex to social gender roles isn't present in many other societies. All societies assign different roles to men and women, but plenty of cultures simply aren't bothered when people move between those categories. Men can do women's work, and women can dress as men without it being a big deal. The roles also aren't binary, and people can flexibly sit somewhere in the middle.

"Real liberation wasn't necessarily about making women more manly or allowing men to be more effeminate. It was about unleashing human being potential from the roles that society had fashioned, seeing each person as a parcel of possibilities that might get expressed in many creative ways." (274)

It is only in 'western' societies that we insist on trying to find the deeper "types" people belong to. Searching for some innate reality, rather than accepting that social roles are infinitely flexible and created through culture.

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Maggie Appleton © 2021