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Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T27


Some Problems of Methodology in the
Social Sciences 1

I intend to speak on some problems of methodology in the social
sciences. You will permit me to confine myself to those aspects with
which I have to deal as an anthropologist.

As Simmel justly remarks, the development of the social sciences is
largely due to the general tendency of our times to stress the interrelations
between the phenomena of nature, and also to the social stresses
that have developed in our civilization. We have recognized that the
individual can be understood only as part of the society to which he
belongs, and that society can be understood only on the basis of the
interrelations of the constituent individuals. In earlier times experimental
psychology was based on the assumption that the individual
exists in vacuo, that mental activities are based essentially on the organically
determined functioning of the structure of the individual. This
attitude presents the most striking contrast to the more modern view,
which requires an understanding of the individual, even the youngest as
reacting to its general, particularly its social, environment. The problems
of the social sciences are thus easily defined. They relate to forms
of reactions of individuals, singly and in groups, to outer stimuli, to
their interactions among themselves, and to the social forms produced
by these processes.

It is possible to isolate a number of apparently generally valid social
tendencies and to study as well the forms in which they express themselves
as their psychological basis. Thus co-ordination and subordination
of human beings, solidarity of the social groups and antagonism against
the outsider, imitation of foreign forms and resistance to outside influences
may be studied. The results give rise to a representation which
may take the form of a system of forms developed under these stresses,
or of a social psychology in which the forms are analyzed on the basis of
their psychological motivation.260

These attempts are based on the assumption of generally valid social
tendencies. There is a question, however, that must be answered before
this synthesis is attempted, namely, Which are the social tendencies that
are general human characteristics? It is easy to be misled in this respect.
Much of our social behavior is automatic. Some may be instinctive, that
is, organically determined. Much more is based on conditioned responses,
that is, determined by situations so persistently and early impressed upon
us that we are no longer aware of the character of the behavior and also
ordinarily unaware of the existence or possibility of a different behavior.
Thus a critical examination of what is generally valid for all humanity
and what is specifically valid for different cultural types comes to be a
matter of great concern to students of society. This is one of the problems
that induces us to lay particular stress upon the study of cultures
that are historically as little as possible related to our own. Their study
enables us to determine those tendencies that are common to all mankind
and those belonging to specific human societies only.

Another vista opens if we ask ourselves whether the characteristics of
human society are even more widely distributed and found also in the
animal world. Relations of individuals or of groups of individuals may
be looked at from three points of view; relations to the organic and inorganic
outer world, relations among members of the same social group,
and what, for lack of a better term, may be designated as subjectively
conditioned relations. I mean by this term those attitudes that arise
gradually by giving values and meanings to activities, as good or bad,
right or wrong, beautiful or ugly, purposive or causally determined.
Relations with the organic and inorganic outer world are established
primarily by the obtaining of sustenance, protection against rigor of
the climate, and geographical limitations of varied kinds. The relations
of members among the same social group include the relation of sexes,
habits of forming social groups and their forms. Obviously, these phases
of human life are shared by animals. Their food requirements are
biologically determined and adjusted to the geographical environment
in which they live. Acquisition and storage of food are found among
animals as well as in man. The need of protection against climate and
enemies is also operative in animal society, and adjustment to these
needs in the form of nests or dens is common. No less are the relations
between members of social groups present in animal life, for animal
societies of varied structure occur. It appears, therefore, that a considerable
field of social phenomena does not by any means belong to
261man alone but is shared by the animal world, and the question must be
asked, What traits are common to human and animal societies?

The wide gulf between the social behavior of animal and of man appears
only in what we call subjectively conditioned relations. Even here
the gulf is not absolute. Parental love, subordination of the individual
to social needs, protection of individual or social property may be
observed in the behavior of animals, and it does not seem possible to
distinguish clearly between the psychological basis of animal and human
behavior in regard to these traits. Even what we designate in human
society as inventions, and enjoyment of beauty may not be entirely
absent in animals.

If we say that animal behavior is largely instinctive, we mean that
much of it is organically determined, not learned. Nevertheless, we do
know that animals learn and certain patterns of their behavior are
expressions of acquired adjustments.

The difference between human culture and animal behavior is based
largely on the enormously increased number of learned adjustments,
and these depend on what we have called subjectively conditioned
relations. It is well to make it clear to ourselves that the objective appearance
of the industries of man during the Paleolithic period gives
the impression of stability through untold generations. We may infer
from this that the subjectively determined attitudes were weak, that the
relations to the outer world and the fixed form of social contact swayed
life almost completely. The ever-increasing rapidity in the rate of
change that prehistoric research and knowledge of human history teach
us is an expression of the increasing importance of subjectively conditioned
reactions. On account of the great variety of forms that have
developed in the course of time under these stresses, the problem of
what is generally human and what is characteristic of specific societies
stands out as one of the greatest importance and one that requires
close study.

We may observe that certain attitudes are universally human, but
that in each society they take specific forms, or that even in some
societies social pressure may be so strong that the general attitude may
seem to be suppressed. A serious danger lies in the methodological error
of conceiving the form as indissolubly tied to the attitude. An example is
presented by modesty. Certain forms of modesty occur everywhere, but
they differ enormously in character. The most frequent forms of modesty
relate to behavior toward bodily functions, eating, excreting, and
262sexual acts. It is hardly possible at the present time to determine what
is the generally human basis of modesty and in how far it is a learned
characteristic. There is no doubt that specific forms are culturally acquired,
but there remains a generally human residue that has not yet
been adequately defined. While attempts have been made in this field
to separate the specific cultural from the generally human, there are
many other fields in which the specific cultural character of the phenomenon
is not recognized with sufficient clarity. The method of research
must be based on comparisons and analogies of the phenomena in question
as they appear in separate cultures.

In these investigations we must guard against a particular danger.
We may find objective similarities that give a deceptive impression of
identity, while actually we may have been dealing with quite distinctive
phenomena. An example of this kind is presented by the widely spread
adolescence ceremonies, particularly of boys, which we are apt to associate
with the disturbed mental state that we know as accompanying
approaching maturity. There is little doubt in my mind that the rites
have nothing to do with those mental attitudes that are familiar to us
in our civilization. They are rather determined by the increasing participation
of the maturing individual in tribal affairs, and that in the
most varying ways. It seems quite probable that the origin of these rites
must be accounted for by a great variety of social conditions. This also
accounts for the great variations of age at which the rites take place, and
which are not by any means always coincident with the period of approaching
sexual maturity.

Attention has often been called to the danger inherent in the identification
of social phenomena that we happen to classify under a single
term. Goldenweiser's investigation of totemism is an example in point.
The varieties of forms of maternal descent also show the possibility of
the origin of analogous customs from diverse sources.

Thus the problem is often shifted from that of discovering the fundamental
psychological causes of the most generalized form of behavior to
another one, namely, to that of understanding why diverse psychological
drives tend to develop, forms that are objectively similar, or why
similar forms are liable to be explained by a variety of psychic motivations.

The problems which I have treated here may seem to be rather those
of social psychology and of sociology than of anthropology, but they can
be solved only by the use of anthropological material.263

I will turn to another question that concerns anthropology particularly,
although it is not foreign to other social sciences. Sociology, if I
understand its history aright, has developed through the growing recognition
of the integration of culture. We have had economics, politics,
pedagogy, and linguistics as individual branches of knowledge, but we
had no scientific viewpoint that treats what is common to all of them,
no way of determining the interaction of these varied aspects of culture.
Anthropology is still confronted by a similar difficulty. Most anthropological
literature gives us information on the economic life, inventions,
social structure, religious beliefs, and art of certain tribal
groups as though these were so many independent units that do not
influence one another. Where fuller information is available we may
learn of the historic growth of all these phases of social life, of their inner
development, and of outer influences that have contributed to their
growth in a particular culture.

Understanding of a foreign culture can be reached only by analysis,
and we are compelled to take up its various aspects successively. Furthermore,
each element contains clear traces of changes that it has undergone
in time. These may be due to inner forces or to the influence
of foreign cultures. The full analysis must necessarily include the phases
that led to its present form. I do not intend to discuss here the methods
by which a partial reconstruction can be made of the history of primitive
cultures that belong to people without written records and without
reliable oral tradition. I will merely mention that our principal approach
has been through prehistoric archaeology, through the study
of geographical distribution, and through methods analogous to those
so successfully applied in the study of prehistory and history of European
languages. As the last-named example shows, the analytic study
of historic sequences in culture gives us first of all a history of each aspect
separately: of language, of invention, economic life, social system, and

This leaves us with little information regarding the interplay of all
these aspects of primitive culture, although it is obvious that relations
between them must exist. The unremitting demands made upon the
Eskimo hunter occupy his time so fully that no possibility exists for prolonged
periods given over to festive occasions; and the necessity of
moving about without other than human means of transportation restricts
the amount and bulk of household property of the Bushman and
264Australian. A synthesis of the elements of culture must be undertaken
that will give us a deeper insight into its nature.

Certain lines of inquiry have been instituted intended to explain the
intricacies of cultural life as dependent upon one single set of conditions.
Just as present great stress is being laid upon race as a determinant of
culture. Since the ambitious attempt of Gobineau to explain national
characteristics as due to racial descent, and since the recognition of the
importance of heredity as determining the characteristics of each individual,
the belief in hereditary, racial characteristics has gained many
adherents. I do not believe that any convincing proof has ever been
given of a direct relation between race and culture. It is true enough
that human cultures and racial types are so distributed that every area
has its own type and its own culture, but this does not prove that the
one determines the form of the other. It is equally true that every geographical
area has its own geological formation and its own flora and
fauna, but the geological strata do not determine directly the species of
plants and animals that live there. The error of the modern theories is
due largely to a faulty extension of the concept of individual heredity
to that of racial heredity. Heredity acts only in lines of direct descent.
There is no unity of descent in any of the existing races, and we have no
right to assume that the mental characteristics of a few selected family
lines are shared by all the members of a race. On the contrary, all large
races are so variable and the functional characteristics of the component
hereditary lines are so diverse that similar family lines may be
found in all races, particularly in all closely related local types, divisions
of the same race. Hereditary characteristics when socially significant
have a cultural value as in all cases of race discrimination or in those
cultural conditions in which a specially gifted line is given the opportunity
to impress itself upon the general culture. Any attempt to explain
cultural forms on a purely biological basis is doomed to failure.

Another line of inquiry by which the attempt has been made to explain
cultural forms is that of studying their relation to geographical
conditions. Karl Ritter, Guyot, Ratzel, De la Blache, Jean Brunhes have
devoted themselves to this problem. To the anthropologist the attempts
that have been made must remain unsatisfactory. There is no doubt
that the cultural life of man is in many and important ways limited by
geographical conditions. The lack of vegetable products in the Arctic,
the absence of stone in extended parts of South America, the dearth of
265water in the desert, to mention only a few outstanding facts, limit the
activities of man in definite ways. On the other hand, it can also be
shown that in a given culture the presence of favorable geographical
conditions may serve to develop existing cultural traits. This is most
clearly evident in modern civilization, in which the utilization of natural
resources has been raised to a much higher degree of perfection than in
primitive life; but even in our civilization we may see that geographical
conditions become operative only when cultural conditions make their
utilization important. The discovery of the use of coal, the possibility
of reducing low grade ores, the discovery of applications for rare metals,
the invention of paper made of wood pulp, all of these have modified
our relations to our environment. No wonder that with the more limited
uses to which primitive man puts the resources of nature and the greater
diversity of his limited inventions, the determining influence of environment
upon culture is less than it is in modern life. Environmental conditions
may stimulate existing cultural activities, but they have no
creative force. The most fertile soil will not create agriculture; navigable
water will not create navigation; a plentiful supply of wood will not
create wooden buildings; but where agriculture, the art of navigation
and architecture exist they will be stimulated and in part moulded by
geographical conditions. According to the cultural possessions of peoples,
the same environment will influence culture in diverse ways. The
western plains of our country influenced the Indian in one way before
he had the horse, in another way after he had acquired the horse; and
again different is their influence upon the life of the modern agricultural,
pastoral, or industrial settler.

Thus it is fruitless to try to explain culture in geographical terms, for
we do not know of any culture that has sprung from the immediate
response to geographical conditions; we know only of cultures influenced
by geographical conditions. Undoubtedly the location of a people,
whether placed in easy and many-sided contact with neighbors of
varying culture, or whether placed in inaccessible areas, has an important
bearing upon the development of its culture; for the response to
foreign stimuli, the knowledge of new ways of acting and thinking are
important elements in bringing about cultural change. However, the
spatial relations give only the opportunity for contact; the processes are
cultural and cannot be reduced to geographical terms.

Not very different are the attempts to interpret the development of
human culture in terms of economics. The early attempts of Morgan
266to associate social organization and economic conditions have proved to
be fallacious, but more recent attempts to interpret forms of culture as
due to purely economic conditions have been equally unsuccessful. The
interrelations between economic conditions and culture are undoubtedly
closer than those between geographical conditions and culture. One
reason is that economic conditions form part of cultural life. But they
are not the only determinants, they are rather both determined and
determinants. Nothing in economic life will make man an agriculturist
or a herder. These arts develop from experience gained in the
contact between man and plants and animals that in themselves are only
indirectly related to economic conditions. Still less is it possible to explain
intricate social forms, religious ideas, or art styles as brought forth
by economic needs. Mental attitudes of a different order are determinants
in these phases of social life. It is true, economic conditions
determine the medium in which these attitudes come into play; their
action may be furthered or hindered by favorable or unfavorable economic
conditions; but their forms will not be so determined. When
economic conditions give no leisure for industrial pursuits, artistic industry
cannot flourish; a roving life enforced by economic needs and without
means of transportation forbids the accumulation of bulky property.
Conversely, leisure and stability of location favor the increase of industrial
production and the development of artistic industry, but they do
not create the particular kind of industry nor an artistic style.

It is our general experience that attempts to develop general laws of
integration of culture do not lead to significant results. We might think
that religion and art are closely associated, but comparative study merely
shows that art forms may be used to express religious ideas; a result
that is of no particular value. In some cases the religious significance of
the art product will act as a stimulant toward the development of a
higher style; in other cases it will induce slovenly execution, perhaps due
to the short-lived usefulness of the object. In still other cases artistic
representation of religious ideas may be forbidden. Nevertheless in
every specific case the particular kind of integration of art and of religion
may be recognized as an important social feature. Similar observations
may be made in regard to social organization and industrial activities.
There is no significant law that would cover all the phases of their
relations. We have simple industries and complex organization, or
diverse industries and simple organization; we have occupational divisions
in tribes with diverse industries. All that can be claimed is that,
267with a certain amount of diversification and the necessity of production
in large quantities, division of occupations becomes necessary. In short,
the danger is ever present that the widest generalizations that may be
obtained by the study of cultural integration are commonplaces.

This is due to the character of the social sciences, particularly of anthropology,
as historical sciences. It is often claimed as a characteristic
of the Geisteswissenschaften that the center of investigation must be the
individual case, and that the analysis of the many threads that enter
into the individual case are the primary aims of research. The existence
of generally valid laws can be ascertained only when all the independent
series of happenings show common characteristics, and the validity of
the law is always confined to the group that shows these common characteristics.
As a matter of fact, this is true not only of the Geisteswissenschaften
but of any science that deals with specific forms. The astronomer's
interest lies in the actual distribution, movements, and constitution
of stars, not in generalized physical and chemical laws. The
geologist is concerned with the strata and movements of the earth's
crust, and may recognize certain laws that are tied up with the recurrence
of similar forms. No matter how much he may generalize, his
generalizations will cling to certain specific forms. It is the same with
the social sciences. The analysis of the phenomena is our prime object.
Generalizations will be the more significant the closer we adhere to
definite forms. The attempts to reduce all social phenomena to a closed
system of laws applicable to every society and explaining its structure
and history do not seem a promising undertaking.

These considerations lead us to another methodological problem.
The attempts to correlate various aspects of culture imply the necessity
of a study of the dynamics of their interrelation. The material at our
disposal is the analytic description of cultural forms. This and the practical
difficulties of ethnological inquiry bring it about that most of the
available material is over-standardized. It is given to us as a list of
inventions, institutions, and ideas, but we learn little or nothing about
the way in which the individual lives under these institutions and with
these inventions and ideas, nor do we know how his activities affect
the cultural groups of which he is a member. Information on these
points is sorely needed, for, the dynamics of social life can be understood
only on the basis of the reaction of the individual to the culture in which
he lives and of his influence upon society. Many aspects of the problem
of change of culture can be interpreted only on this basis.268

It should be clearly understood that historical analysis does not help
us in the solution of these questions. We may know the history of a language
in greatest detail — this knowledge does not explain how the
speaker who uses the language in its present form, the only one known
to him, will react to its use. Knowledge of the history of Mohammedanism
in Africa and its influence in the Sudan does not add a particle
to an understanding of the behavior of the Negro who lives in the
present culture. The existing conditions may be objectively known to
us in their whole historic setting. They affect the individual who lives
under them, and he affects them only as they exist today. We may gain
objectively a better understanding through a knowledge of their history,
but this does not concern the individual who has absorbed all the
elements of his culture. If we knew the whole biological, geographical,
and cultural setting of a society completely, and if we understood in detail
the ways of reacting of the members of the society and of society
as a whole to these conditions, we should not need historical knowledge
of the origin of the society to understand its behavior. The error of the
earlier anthropology consisted in utilizing material of this kind, garnered
without critical examination, for historical reconstructions. For these
it has no value. An error of modern anthropology, as I see it, lies in
the overemphasis on historical reconstruction, the importance of which
should not be minimized, as against a penetrating study of the individual
under the stress of the culture in which he lives.269

1 The New Social Science, edited by Leonard D. White (University of Chicago
Press, 1930), pp. 84-98.