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Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T28


The Limitations of the Comparative
Method of Anthropology 11

Modern anthropology has discovered the fact that human society
has grown and developed everywhere in such a manner that its
forms, its opinions and its actions have many fundamental traits in
common. This momentous discovery implies that laws exist which
govern the development of society, that they are applicable to our society
as well as to those of past times and of distant lands; that their
knowledge will be a means of understanding the causes furthering and
retarding civilization; and that, guided by this knowledge, we may hope
to govern our actions so that the greatest benefit to mankind will accrue
from them. Since this discovery has been clearly formulated, anthropology
has begun to receive that liberal share of public interest which
was withheld from it as long as it was believed that it could do no more
than record the curious customs and beliefs of strange peoples; or, at
best, trace their relationships, and thus elucidate the early migrations of
the races of man and the affinities of peoples.

While early investigators concentrated their attention upon this purely
historical problem, the tide has now completely turned, so that there
are even anthropologists who declare that such investigations belong to
the historian, and that anthropological studies must be confined to
researches on the laws that govern the growth of society.

A radical change of method has accompanied this change of views.
While formerly identities or similarities of culture were considered incontrovertible
proof of historical connection, or even of common origin,
the new school declines to consider them as such, but interprets them as
results of the uniform working of the human mind. The most pronounced
adherent of this view in our country is Dr. D. G. Brinton, in
Germany the majority of the followers of Bastian, who in this respect
go much farther than Bastian himself. Others, while not denying the
occurrence of historical connections, regard them as insignificant in results
270and in theoretical importance as compared to the working of the
uniform laws governing the human mind. This is the view of by far
the greater number of living anthropologists.

This modern view is founded on the observation that the same ethnical
phenomena occur among the most diverse peoples, or, as Bastian
says, on the appalling monotony of the fundamental ideas of mankind
all over the globe. The metaphysical notions of man may be reduced
to a few types which are of universal distribution; the same is the case
in regard to the forms of society, laws and inventions. Furthermore, the
most intricate and apparently illogical ideas and the most curious and
complex customs appear among a few tribes here and there in such a
manner that the assumption of a common historical origin is excluded.
When studying the culture of any one tribe, more or less close analoga of
single traits of such a culture may be found among a great diversity of
peoples. Instances of such analoga have been collected to a vast extent
by Tylor, Spencer, Bastian, Andree, Post and many others, so that it is
not necessary to give here any detailed proof of this fact. The idea of a
future life; the one underlying shamanism; inventions such as fire and
the bow; certain elementary features of grammatical structure — these
will suggest the classes of phenomena to which I refer. It follows from
these observations that when we find analogous single traits of culture
among distant peoples, the presumption is not that there has been a
common historical source, but that they have arisen independently.

But the discovery of these universal ideas is only the beginning of the
work of the anthropologist. Scientific inquiry must answer two questions
in regard to them: First, what is their origin? and second, how do they
assert themselves in various cultures?

The second question is the easier one to answer. The ideas do not
exist everywhere in identical form, but they vary. Sufficient material
has been accumulated to show that the causes of these variations are
either external, that is founded on environment — taking the term environment
in its widest sense — or internal, that is founded on psychological
conditions. The influence of external and internal factors upon
elementary ideas embodies one group of laws governing the growth of
culture. Therefore, our endeavors must be directed to showing how such
factors modify elementary ideas.

The first method that suggests itself and which has been generally
adopted by modern anthropologists is to isolate and classify causes by
grouping the variants of certain ethnological phenomena according to
271external conditions under which the people live, among whom they are
found, or to internal causes which influence their minds; or conversely,
by grouping these variants according to their similarities. Then the correlated
conditions of life may be found.

By this method we begin to recognize even now with imperfect
knowledge of the facts what causes may have been at work in shaping
the culture of mankind. Friedrich Ratzel and W. J. McGee have investigated
the influence of geographical environment on a broader basis
of facts than Ritter and Guyot were able to do at their time. Sociologists
have made important studies on the effects of the density of population
and of other simple social causes. Thus the influence of external factors
upon the growth of society is becoming clearer.

The effects of psychical factors are also being studied in the same manner.
Stoll has tried to isolate the phenomena of suggestion and of hypnotism
and to study the effects of their presence in the cultures of various
peoples. Inquiries into the mutual relations of tribes and peoples
begin to show that certain cultural elements are easily assimilated while
others are rejected, and the time-worn phrases of the imposition of
culture by a more highly civilized people upon one of lower culture that
has been conquered are giving way to more thorough views on the subject
of exchange of cultural achievements. In all these investigations
we are using sound, inductive methods in order to isolate the causes of
observed phenomena.

The other question in regard to the universal ideas, namely that of
their origin, is much more difficult to treat. Many attempts have been
made to discover the causes which have led to the formation of ideas
‘that develop with iron necessity wherever man lives.’ This is the most
difficult problem of anthropology and we may expect that it will baffle
our attempts for a long time to come. Bastian denies that it is possible
to discover the ultimate sources of inventions, ideas, customs and beliefs
which are of universal occurrence. They may be indigenous, they may
be imported, they may have arisen from a variety of sources, but they
are there. The human mind is so formed that it invents them spontaneously
or accepts them whenever they are offered to it. This is the
much misunderstood elementary idea of Bastian.

To a certain extent the clear enunciation of the elementary idea
gives us the psychological reason for its existence. To exemplify: the fact
that the land of the shadows is so often placed in the west suggests the
endeavor to localize it at the place where the sun and the stars vanish.
272The mere statement that primitive man considers animals as gifted with
all the qualities of man shows that the analogy between many of the
qualities of animals and of human beings has led to the generalization
that all the qualities of animals are human. In other cases the causes are
not so self-evident. Thus the question why all languages distinguish between
the self, the person addressed and the person spoken of, and why
most languages do not carry out this sharp, logical distinction in the
plural is difficult to answer. The principle when carried out consistently
requires that in the plural there should be a distinction between the ‘we’
expressing the self and the person addressed and the ‘we’ expressing the
self and the person spoken of, which distinction is found in comparatively
few languages only. The lesser liability to misunderstandings in
the plural explains this phenomenon partly but hardly adequately. Still
more obscure is the psychological basis in other cases, for instance, in that
of widely spread marriage customs. Proof of the difficulty of this problem
is the multitude of hypotheses that have been invented to explain it
in all its varied phases.

In treating this, the most difficult problem of anthropology, the point
of view is taken that if an ethnological phenomenon has developed independently
in a number of places its development has been the same
everywhere; or, expressed in a different form, that the same ethnological
phenomena are always due to the same causes. This leads to the still
wider generalization that the sameness of ethnological phenomena found
in diverse regions is proof that the human mind obeys the same laws
everywhere. It is obvious that if different historical developments could
lead to the same results, that then this generalization would not be tenable.
Their existence would present to us an entirely different problem,
namely, how it is that the developments of culture so often lead to the
same results. It must, therefore, be clearly understood that anthropological
research which compares similar cultural phenomena from various
parts of the world, in order to discover the uniform history of their
development, makes the assumption that the same ethnological phenomenon
has everywhere developed in the same manner. Here lies the
flaw in the argument of the new method, for no such proof can be
given. Even the most cursory review shows that the same phenomena
may develop in a multitude of ways.

I will give a few examples: Primitive tribes are almost universally
divided into clans which have totems. There can be no doubt that this
form of social organization has arisen independently over and over
273again. The conclusion is certainly justified that the psychical conditions
of man favor the existence of a totemic organization of society, but it
does not follow that totemic society has developed everywhere in the
same manner. Dr. Washington Matthews believes that the totems of
the Navaho have arisen by association of independent clans. Capt.
Bourke assumes that similar occurrences gave origin to the Apache clans,
and Dr. Fewkes has reached the same conclusion in regard to some of
the Pueblo tribes. On the other hand, we have proof that clans may
originate by division. I have shown that such events took place among
the Indians of the North Pacific coast. Association of small tribes, on
the one hand, and disintegration of increasing tribes, on the other, has
led to results which appear identical to all intents and purposes.

To give another example: Recent investigations have shown that
geometrical designs in primitive art have originated sometimes from
naturalistic forms which were gradually conventionalized, sometimes
from technical motives, that in still other cases they were geometrical by
origin or that they were derived from symbols. From all these sources the
same forms have developed. Out of designs representing diverse objects
grew in course of time frets, meanders, crosses and the like. Therefore the
frequent occurrence of these forms proves neither common origin nor
that they have always developed according to the same psychical laws.
On the contrary, the identical result may have been reached on four
different lines of development and from an infinite number of starting

Another example may not be amiss: The use of masks is found among
a great number of peoples. The origin of the custom of wearing masks
is by no means clear in all cases, but a few typical forms of their use may
easily be distinguished. They are used for deceiving spirits as to the
identity of the wearer. The spirit of a disease who intends to attack the
person does not recognize him when he wears a mask, and the mask
serves in this manner as a protection. In other cases the mask represents
a spirit which is personified by the wearer, who in this shape frightens
away other hostile spirits. Still other masks are commemorative. The
wearer personifies a deceased person whose memory is to be recalled.
Masks are also used in theatrical performances illustrating mythological
incidents. 12

These few data suffice to show that the same ethnical phenomenon
274may develop from different sources. The simpler the observed fact, the
more likely it is that it may have developed from one source here, from
another there.

Thus we recognize that the fundamental assumption which is so often
made by modern anthropologists cannot be accepted as true in all cases.
We cannot say that the occurrence of the same phenomenon is always
due to the same causes, and that thus it is proved that the human mind
obeys the same laws everywhere. We must demand that the causes from
which it developed be investigated and that comparisons be restricted
to those phenomena which have been proved to be effects of the same
causes. We must insist that this investigation be made a preliminary to
all extended comparative studies. In researches on tribal societies those
which have developed through association must be treated separately
from those that have developed through disintegration. Geometrical designs
which have arisen from conventionalized representations of natural
objects must be treated separately from those that have arisen from
technical motives. In short, before extended comparisons are made,
the comparability of the material must be proved.

The comparative studies of which I am speaking here attempt to
explain customs and ideas of remarkable similarity which are found
here and there. But they pursue also the more ambitious scheme of discovering
the laws and the history of the evolution of human society.
The fact that many fundamental features of culture are universal, or
at least occur in many isolated places, interpreted by the assumption
that the same features must always have developed from the same
causes, leads to the conclusion that there is one grand system according
to which mankind has developed everywhere; that all the occurring
variations are no more than minor details in this grand uniform evolution.
It is clear that this theory has for its logical basis the assumption
that the same phenomena are always due to the same causes. To give
an instance: We find many types of structure of family. It can be
proved that paternal families have often developed from maternal ones.
Therefore, it is said, all paternal families have developed from maternal
ones. If we do not make the assumption that the same phenomena have
everywhere developed from the same causes, then we may just as well
conclude that paternal families have in some cases arisen from maternal
institutions; in other cases in other ways. To give another example:
Many conceptions of the future life have evidently developed from
dreams and hallucinations. Consequently, it is said, all notions of this
275character have had the same origin. This is also true only if no other
causes could possibly lead to the same ideas.

We have seen that the facts do not favor at all the assumption of
which we are speaking; that they much rather point in the opposite
direction. Therefore we must also consider all the ingenious attempts at
constructions of a grand system of the evolution of society as of very
doubtful value, unless at the same time proof is given that the same
phenomena must always have had the same origin. Until this is done,
the presumption is always in favor of a variety of courses which historical
growth may have taken.

It will be well to restate at this place one of the principal aims of
anthropological research. We agreed that certain laws exist which govern
the growth of human culture, and it is our endeavor to discover these
laws. The object of our investigation is to find the processes by which
certain stages of culture have developed. The customs and beliefs themselves
are not the ultimate objects of research. We desire to learn the
reasons why such customs and beliefs exist — in other words, we wish to
discover the history of their development. The method which is at
present most frequently applied in investigations of this character compares
the variations under which the customs or beliefs occur and endeavors
to find the common psychological cause that underlies all of
them. I have stated that this method is open to a very fundamental

We have another method, which in many respects is much safer. A
detailed study of customs in their relation to the total culture of the
tribe practicing them, in connection with an investigation of their
geographical distribution among neighboring tribes, affords us almost
always a means of determining with considerable accuracy the historical
causes that led to the formation of the customs in question and to the
psychological processes that were at work in their development. The
results of inquiries conducted by this method may be three-fold. They
may reveal the environmental conditions which have created or modified
cultural elements; they may clear up psychological factors which
are at work in shaping the culture; or they may bring before our eyes
the effects that historical connections have had upon the growth of the

We have in this method a means of reconstructing the history of
the growth of ideas with much greater accuracy than the generalizations
of the comparative method will permit. The latter must always
276proceed from a hypothetical mode of development, the probability of
which may be weighed more or less accurately by means of observed
data. But so far I have not yet seen any extended attempt to prove the
correctness of a theory by testing it at the hand of developments with
whose histories we are familiar. Forcing phenomena into the straitjacket
of a theory is opposed to the inductive process by which the
actual relations of definite phenomena may be derived. The latter is no
other than the much ridiculed historical method. Its way of proceeding
is, of course, no longer that of former times when slight similarities of
culture were considered proofs of relationships, but it duly recognizes
the results obtained by comparative studies. Its application is based,
first of all, on a well-defined, small geographical territory, and its comparisons
are not extended beyond the limits of the cultural area that
forms the basis of the study. Only when definite results have been obtained
in regard to this area is it permissible to extend the horizon
beyond its limits, but the greatest care must be taken not to proceed too
hastily in this, as otherwise the fundamental proposition which I formulated
before might be overlooked, viz: that when we find an analogy
of single traits of culture among distant peoples the presumption is not
that there has been a common historical source, but that they have
arisen independently. Therefore the investigation must always demand
continuity of distribution as one of the essential conditions for proving
historical connection, and the assumption of lost connecting links must
be applied most sparingly. This clear distinction between the new and
the old historical methods is still often overlooked by the passionate defenders
of the comparative method. They do- not appreciate the difference
between the indiscriminate use of similarities of culture for proving
historical connection and the careful and slow detailed study of local
phenomena. We no longer believe that the slight similarities between
the cultures of Central America and of eastern Asia are sufficient and
satisfactory proof of a historical connection. On the other hand, no
unbiased observer will deny that there are very strong reasons for
believing that a limited number of cultural elements found in Alaska
and in Siberia have a common origin. The similarities of inventions,
customs and beliefs, together with the continuity of their distribution
through a limited area, are satisfactory proof of the correctness of this
opinion. But it is not possible to extend this area safely beyond the limits
of Columbia River in America and northern Japan in Asia. This
method of anthropological research is represented in our country by
277F. W. Putnam and Otis T. Mason; in England by E. B. Tylor; in
Germany by Friedrich Ratzel and his followers.

It seems necessary to say a word here in regard to an objection to my
arguments that will be raised by investigators who claim that similarity
of geographical environment is a sufficient cause for similarity of culture,
that is to say, that, for instance, the geographical conditions of the
plains of the Mississippi basin necessitate the development of a certain
culture. Horatio Hale would even go so far as to believe that similarity
of form of language may be due to environmental causes. Environment
has a certain limited effect upon the culture of man, but I do not
see how the view that it is the primary moulder of culture can be supported
by any facts. A hasty review of the tribes and peoples of our
globe shows that people most diverse in culture and language live under
the same geographical conditions, as proof of which may be mentioned
the ethnography of East Africa or of New Guinea. In both these regions
we find a great diversity of customs in small areas. But much more important
is this: Not one observed fact can be brought forward in support
of this hypothesis which cannot be much better explained by the well
known facts of diffusion of culture; for archaeology as well as ethnography
teach us that intercourse between neighboring tribes has always
existed and has extended over enormous areas. In the Old World the
products of the Baltic found their way to the Mediterranean and the
works of art of the eastern Mediterranean reached Sweden. In America
the shells of the ocean found their way into the innermost parts of the
continent and the obsidians of the West were carried to Ohio. Intermarriages,
war, slavery, trade, have been so many sources of constant
introduction of foreign cultural elements, so that an assimilation of
culture must have taken place over continuous areas. Therefore, it
seems to my mind that where among neighboring tribes an immediate
influence of environment cannot be shown to exist, the presumption
must always be in favor of historical connection. There has been a time
of isolation during which the principal traits of diverse cultures developed
according to the previous culture and the environment of the
tribes. But the stages of culture representing this period have been covered
with so much that is new and that is due to contact with foreign
tribes that they cannot be discovered without the most painstaking
isolation of foreign elements.

The immediate results of the historical method are, therefore, histories
of the cultures of diverse tribes which have been the subject of
278study. I fully agree with those anthropologists who claim that this is not
the ultimate aim of our science, because the general laws, although implied
in such a description, cannot be clearly formulated nor their relative
value appreciated without a thorough comparison of the manner
in which they become manifest in different cultures. But I insist that the
application of this method is the indispensable condition of sound
progress. The psychological problem is contained in the results of the
historical inquiry. When we have cleared up the history of a single
culture and understand the effects of environment and the psychological
conditions that are reflected in it we have made a step forward, as we
can then investigate in how far the same causes or other causes were at
work in the development of other cultures. Thus by comparing histories
of growth general laws may be found. This method is much safer than
the comparative method, as it is usually practiced, because instead of a
hypothesis on the mode of development actual history forms the basis of
our deductions.

The historical inquiry must be considered the critical test that science
must require before admitting facts as evidence. By its means the comparability
of the collected material must be tested, and uniformity of
processes must be demanded as proof of comparability. Furthermore,
when historical connection between two phenomena can be proved,
they must not be admitted as independent evidence.

In a few cases the immediate results of this method are of so wide a
scope that they rank with the best results that can be attained by comparative
studies. Some phenomena have so immense a distribution that
the discovery of their occurrence over very large continuous areas proves
at once that certain phases of the culture in these areas have sprung from
one source. Thus are illuminated vast portions of the early history of
mankind. When Edward S. Morse showed that certain methods of
arrow release are peculiar to whole continents it became clear at once
that the common practice found over a vast area must have had a
common origin. When the Polynesians employ a method of fire making
consisting in rubbing a stick along a groove, while almost all other
peoples use the fire drill, it shows their art of fire making has a single
origin. When we notice that the ordeal is found all over Africa in certin
peculiar forms, while in those parts of the inhabited world that are
remote from Africa it is found not at all or in rudimentary forms only,
it shows that the idea as practiced in Africa had one single origin.

The great and important function of the historical method of anthropology
279is thus seen to lie in its ability to discover the processes which
in definite cases led to the development of certain customs. If anthropology
desires to establish the laws governing the growth of culture it
must not confine itself to comparing the results of the growth alone, but
whenever such is feasible it must compare the processes of growth, and
these can be discovered by means of studies of the cultures of small
geographical areas.

Thus we have seen that the comparative method can hope to reach
the results for which it is striving only when it bases its investigations
on the historical results of researches which are devoted to laying clear
the complex relations of each individual culture. The comparative
method and the historical method, if I may use these terms, have been
struggling for supremacy for a long time, but we may hope that each
will soon find its appropriate place and function. The historical method
has reached a sounder basis by abandoning the misleading principle of
assuming connections wherever similarities of culture were found. The
comparative method, notwithstanding all that has been said and written
in its praise, has been remarkably barren of definite results, and I believe
it will not become fruitful until we renounce the vain endeavor to construct
a uniform systematic history of the evolution of culture, and until
we begin to make our comparisons on the broader and sounder basis
which I ventured to outline. Up to this time we have too much reveled
in more or less ingenious vagaries. The solid work is still all before us.280

11 Paper read at the meeting of the A. A. A. S. at Buffalo. Science, N.S., vol. 4
(1896), pp. 901-908.

21 See Richard Andree. Ethnographische Parallelen und Vergleiche. Neue
Folge (Leipzig, 1889), pp. 107 ff.