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Anthropology and Modern Life

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The great anthropologist's classic treatise on race and culture. Discusses biological and cultural inheritance, the fallacy of racial, cultural or ethnic superiority, the scientific basis for human individuality, and much more. One of the most influential books of the century, now in a value-priced edition. Introduction by Ruth Bunzel.

272 pages, Paperback

Published February 1, 1987

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About the author

Franz Boas

370 books66 followers
Franz Uri Boas (1858-1942) was a German pioneer of modern anthropology. His work is associated with the movements known as Historical Particularism and Cultural Relativism.

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Displaying 1 - 14 of 14 reviews
Profile Image for Walter.
339 reviews20 followers
December 9, 2014
Franz Boaz was a German Jewish scholar who came to North America in the 1890s to study Native American tribes and ended up staying in the USA. He became the father of anthropology and taught many of the leading names in the early days of the field such as Ruth Benedict, Ruth Bendt and Margaret Mead. However, Boaz was also a very controversial figure. In the decades leading up to WWII, social scientists were often enamored with what I like to call the evil trinity of modern thought; eugenics, social darwinism and Nietzche's theory of the ubermensch. Social scientists wanted to find the master race and recreate a new and improved humanity long before Hitler took the lead in that department in the 1930s. But Boaz would have none of it. He was not a believer in eugenics, and he did not believe that some human types were inherently superior to others. This bought him ridicule and a reputation as a reactionary in those heady days of the 1920s and 30s. Nevertheless, even though Boaz did not live to see it, he was proven right when mankind saw what an abomination these theories could lead to in Hitler's Germany and its racial policies and death camps. In the end, Boaz and not his crusading students was proven right.

In "Anthropology and Modern Life", Boaz reiterates many of his usual themes. Most specifically he taught that environment influences human types and development far more than genetics does. He discusses research that proves this and shows that members of the same race in different environments are more different than members of different races who happen to be in the same environment. He also discusses the nature of "primitive" versus "Civilized" societies. At a time when most of his contemporaries were still referring to some races as "savages", Boaz warns us that different races develop according to their environments and not according to Western ideas of what constitutes a civilized society. His writing is downright refreshing after reading some of the writings of other early anthropologists, who were far more inclined to judge the peoples that they studied rather than study them objectively.

This book, like others by Boaz, is must reading for any student who is serious about understanding the development of the field of anthropology.
Profile Image for Heidi.
14 reviews8 followers
January 25, 2008
This one is dense. It's good to read if you're extremely interested in the founding of modern day anthropology. I had to read this for my Foundations of Social Theory Seminar, and I'm glad I had to, but I would not pick it up in my free time.
Profile Image for Alex Lee.
904 reviews108 followers
March 24, 2022
This is an amazing book! Boas has some really deep insights in a variety of books -- really outlining the paradigm that led to structuralism, and now critical theory. Unlike his predecessors who thought that all of biology had a direct line to anthropology -- confusing the way in which politics will use science to make judgements about people -- Boas rightly interjects that culture plays a role in shaping who we are as well, in a way that complicates any assessment about the human being as a purely biological creature. In other words, Boas understands that culture is hopelessly inseparable from who we are just as our biology is hopelessly entangled with who we are. In that sense, politics cannot also be taken out of the equation. Boas recommendation then is to expand our view of what the valid human and to understand that all humans encompass the domain of culture and that while we are not interchangeable, we cannot in good faith believe that people are by genetics or by biology or by culture purely arrangeable on some scale of value.

By recognizing the role culture plays in human development -- in the formation of who we are -- Boas modernizes anthropology bringing us to the contemporary era. What a mind this man has; he anticipates in raw form many arguments in philosophy of science or post-structuralism -- but of course these pass for musings and deceptively isolated statements. Whole books can be written from some of these sentences. This man is truly a genius.
31 reviews
June 17, 2010
This essay felt a little bit dated, but there was a useful treatment of the effect of race on human potential- material to keep in mind to ensure we promote a racism-free society. Boas contends that any population-averaged variations in human mental ability from race to race (if you can even properly pick out a race) would be swamped by the individual-to-individual variations due to other factors. Therefore, you should never deny any individual equal participation in society, because you can't tell conclusively whether he will be subject to individual brilliance (if you can even come up with a universal definition for brilliance, that is).

I would love to see the assertions in the essay updated and supported by combining them with a much larger dose of modern statistics.
Profile Image for Andrew.
650 reviews110 followers
December 18, 2012
Presenting: a book far ahead of its time. Boas uses findings of anthropological research to comment upon present social issues, namely those dealing with race. Written in a time of phrenology, segregation, pre-Nazism and scientific modernity's unfortunate peak into the categorization of human beings, this provides an enlightened rebuttal.

Though, there are a few moments where Boas becomes a man of his age. It was first apparent to me when he declared eugenics a "beautiful ideal" (regardless if he later went on to dismiss the practice.)
Profile Image for Dylan.
33 reviews
October 5, 2017
Extremely interesting and not too dense overview of the basic premises that have established American Anthropology as what it is today. I cannot find anything wrong really with this book; personally, I adore it, as it presents to you many examples of social issues and how anthropology can be used to tackle them. Reading this book simply will start "making you a better person," as my Anthro 101 professor would like to always say. It allows you to begin looking at culture as process rather than product, and to view all people as puzzles of hundreds of complex, beautiful little pieces. If you know nothing about anthropology, read EB Tylor's book Primitive Culture, then read this. That will give you an excellent idea of how anthropology went from a slightly racist, orientalist viewing of the world through a telescope and into the "hanging out, penetration of a society" it is today. My only problem is that, unsurprisingly, Franz Boas is Boasian; both a blessing and a curse in my opinion. His prose can be taxing because, though it is not difficult to follow, it simply overwhelms with examples. This adds considerably to his argument, but makes for sloggish reading. Be prepared to wrestle a bit.
August 8, 2020
Boas prova que é possível pensar contra a corrente mesmo quando ela está em alta e promovendo valores horríveis contra o ser humano. Leitura incrível e necessária, e extremamente atual.
Profile Image for Cărăşălu.
239 reviews71 followers
December 29, 2012
Franz Boas, the daddy of American anthropology, gives his view on issues ranging from races and discrimination, nationalism, education, and... modern life. An influential book it sees, it argues many things that seem somewhat boring today because we take them for granted, especially in the first part of the book. But at the time the book was written, when racial discrimination was an important problem, who better to come and have his say on the issue than the student of man, the anthropologist? Although many of the points he makes in this and the other chapters seem common sense today, the reader may find some insightful remarks about nationalism, education, the moral developments of the modern age and so on.
Profile Image for Joshua.
109 reviews24 followers
July 3, 2007
A classic book in the field of anthropology. Enlightening.
Profile Image for Kyle.
12 reviews3 followers
May 11, 2012

As dated as it seems, Anthropology and Modern Life was certainly quite extraordinary for its time; when Broca, Goddard, Lombroso and the social darwinists were at the peak of scientific legitimacy.
Profile Image for Jack Connolly.
182 reviews
August 25, 2014
The context is obviously dated, but his message still resonates. A solid Anthropology book with many intriguing theories/ideas for anyone who know nothing of Anthropology, or have been studying it for years.
Displaying 1 - 14 of 14 reviews

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