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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 November 20, 2020

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)

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)

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)

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Maggie Appleton © 2020