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Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T29


The Methods of Ethnology 1

During the last ten years the methods of inquiry into the historical
development of civilization have undergone remarkable changes.
During the second half of the last century evolutionary thought held almost
complete sway and investigators like Spencer, Morgan, Tylor,
Lubbock, to mention only a few, were under the spell of the idea of a
general, uniform evolution of culture in which all parts of mankind
participated. The newer development goes back in part to the influence
of Ratzel whose geographical training impressed him with the importance
of diffusion and migration. The problem of diffusion was taken
up in detail particularly in America, but was applied in a much wider
sense by Foy and Graebner, and finally seized upon in a still wider application
by Elliot Smith and Rivers, so that at the present time, at least
among certain groups of investigators in England and also in Germany,
ethnological research is based on the concept of migration and dissemination
rather than upon that of evolution.

A critical study of these two directions of inquiry shows that each is
founded on the application of one fundamental hypothesis. The evolutionary
point of view presupposes that the course of historical changes in
the cultural life of mankind follows definite laws which are applicable
everywhere, and which bring it about that cultural development is, in
its main lines, the same among all races and all peoples. This idea is
clearly expressed by Tylor in the introductory pages of his classic work
“Primitive Culture.” As soon as we admit that the hypothesis of a
uniform evolution has to be proved before it can be accepted, the whole
structure loses its foundation. It is true that there are indications of
parallelism of development in different parts of the world, and that
similar customs are found in the most diverse and widely separated parts
of the globe. The occurrence of these similarities which are distributed
so irregularly that they cannot readily be explained on the basis of
diffusion, is one of the foundations of the evolutionary hypothesis, as
it was the foundation of Bastian's psychologizing treatment of cultural
281phenomena. On the other hand, it may be recognized that the hypothesis
implies the thought that our modern Western European civilization
represents the highest cultural development towards which all other
more primitive cultural types tend, and that, therefore, retrospectively,
we construct an orthogenetic development towards our own modern
civilization. It is clear that if we admit that there may be different
ultimate and co-existing types of civilization, the hypothesis of one
single general line of development cannot be maintained.

Opposed to these assumptions is the modern tendency to deny the
existence of a general evolutionary scheme which would represent the
history of the cultural development the world over. The hypothesis that
there are inner causes which bring about similarities of development in
remote parts of the globe is rejected and in its place it is assumed that
identity of development in two different parts of the globe must always
be due to migration and diffusion. On this basis historical contact is
demanded for enormously large areas. The theory demands a high
degree of stability of cultural traits such as is apparently observed in
many primitive tribes, and it is furthermore based on the supposed coexistence
of a number of diverse and mutually independent cultural
traits which reappear in the same combinations in distant parts of the
world. In this sense, modern investigation takes up anew Gerland's
theory of the persistence of a number of cultural traits which were
developed in one center and carried by man in his migrations from
continent to continent.

It seems to me that if the hypothetical foundations of these two extreme
forms of ethnological research are broadly stated as I have tried
to do here, it is at once clear that the correctness of the assumptions has
not been demonstrated, but that arbitrarily the one or the other has
been selected for the purpose of obtaining a consistent picture of cultural
development. These methods are essentially forms of classification of
the static phenomena of culture according to two distinct principles, and
interpretations of these classifications as of historical significance, without,
however, any attempt to prove that this interpretation is justifiable.
To give an example: It is observed that in most parts of the world there
are resemblances between decorative forms that are representative and
others that are more or less geometrical. According to the evolutionary
point of view, their development is explained by arranging the decorative
forms in such order that the most representative forms are placed
at the beginning, the others being so placed that they show a gradual
transition from representative to purely conventional geometric forms.
282This order is then interpreted as meaning that geometric designs originated
from representative designs which gradually degenerated. This
method has been pursued, for instance, by Putnam, Stolpe, Balfour, and
Haddon, and by Verworn and, in his earlier writings, by von den
Steinen. While I do not mean to deny that this development may have
occurred, it would be rash to generalize and to claim that in every case
the classification which has been made according to a definite principle
represents an historical development. The order might as well be reversed
and we might begin with a simple geometric element which, by
the addition of new traits, might be developed into a representative
design, and we might claim that this order represents an historical
sequence. Both of these possibilities were considered by Holmes as early
as 1885. Neither the one nor the other theory can be established without
actual historical proof.

The opposite attitude, namely, origin through diffusion, is exhibited
in Heinrich Schurtz's attempt to connect the decorative art of Northwest
America with that of Melanesia. The simple fact that in these
areas elements occur that may be interpreted as eyes, induced him to
assume that both have a common origin, without allowing for the possibility
that the pattern in the two areas — each of which shows highly
distinctive characteristics — may have developed from independent
sources. In this attempt Schurtz followed Ratzel who had already tried
to establish connections between Melanesia and Northwest.America on
the basis of other cultural features.

While ethnographical research based on these two fundamental hypotheses
seems to characterize the general tendency of European
thought, a different method is at present pursued by the majority of
American anthropologists. The difference between the two directions
of study may perhaps best be summarized by the statement that American
scholars are primarily interested in the dynamic phenomena of cultural
change, and try to elucidate cultural history by the application
of the results of their studies; and that they relegate the solution of the
ultimate question of the relative importance of parallelism of cultural
development in distant areas, as against worldwide diffusion, and stability
of cultural traits over long periods to a future time when the actual
conditions of cultural change are better known. The American ethnological
methods are analogous to those of European, particularly of
Scandinavian, archaeology, and of the researches into the prehistoric
period of the eastern Mediterranean area.

It may seem to the distant observer that American students are engaged
283in a mass of detailed investigations without much bearing upon
the solution of the ultimate problems of a philosophic history of human
civilization. I think this interpretation of the American attitude would
be unjust because the ultimate questions are as near to our hearts as
they are to those of other scholars, only we do not hope to be able to
solve an intricate historical problem by a formula.

First of all, the whole problem of cultural history appears to us as an
historical problem. In order to understand history it is necessary to
know not only how things are, but how they have come to be. In the
domain of ethnology, where, for most parts of the world, no historical
facts are available except those that may be revealed by archaeological
study, all evidence of change can be inferred only by indirect methods.
Their character is represented in the researches of students of comparative
philology. The method is based on the comparison of static phenomena
combined with the study of their distribution. What can be
done by this method is well illustrated by Lowie's investigations of the
military societies of the Plains Indians, or by the modern investigation
of American mythology. It is, of course, true that we can never hope
to obtain incontrovertible data relating to the chronological sequence
of events, but certain general broad outlines can be ascertained with a
high degree of probability, even of certainty.

As soon as these methods are applied, primitive society loses the
appearance of absolute stability which is conveyed to the student who
sees a certain people only at a certain given time. All cultural forms
rather appear in a constant state of flux and subject to fundamental

It is intelligible why in our studies the problem of dissemination
should take a prominent position. It is much easier to prove dissemination,
than to follow up developments due to inner forces, and the data
for such a study are obtained with much greater difficulty. They may,
however, be observed in every phenomenon of acculturation in which
foreign elements are remodeled according to the patterns prevalent in
their new environment, and they may be found in the peculiar local
developments of widely spread ideas and activities. The reason why the
study of inner development has not been taken up energetically, is not
due to the fact that from a theoretical point of view it is unimportant, it
is rather due to the inherent methodological difficulties. It may perhaps
be recognized that in recent years attention has been drawn to this problem,
as is manifested by the investigations on the processes of acculturation
284and of the interdependence of cultural activities which are attracting
the attention of many investigators.

The further pursuit of these inquiries emphasizes the importance of
a feature which is common to all historic phenomena. While in natural
sciences we are accustomed to consider a given number of causes and
to study their effects, in historical happenings we are compelled to consider
every phenomenon not only as effect but also as cause. This is
true even in the particular application of the laws of physical nature,
as, for instance, in the study of astronomy in which the position of certain
heavenly bodies at a given moment may be considered as the effect
of gravitation, while, at the same time, their particular arrangement in
space -determines future changes. This relation appears much more
clearly in the history of human civilization. To give an example: a surplus
of food supply is liable to bring about an increase of population and
an increase of leisure, which gives opportunity for occupations that
are not absolutely necessary for the needs of every day life. In turn the
increase of population and of leisure, which may be applied to new
inventions, give rise to a greater food supply and to a further increase in
the amount of leisure, so that a cumulative effect results.

Similar considerations may be made in regard to the important problem
of the relation of the individual to society, a problem that has to
be considered whenever we study the dynamic conditions of change. The
activities of the individual are determined to a great extent by his social
environment, but in turn his own activities influence the society in which
he lives, and may bring about modifications in its form. Obviously,
this problem is one of the most important ones to be taken up in a
study of cultural changes. It is also beginning to attract the attention
of students who are no longer satisfied with the systematic enumeration
of standardized beliefs and customs of a tribe, but who begin to be
interested in the question of the way in which the individual reacts to
his whole social environment, and to the differences of opinion and of
mode of action that occur in primitive society and which are the causes
of far-reaching changes.

In short then, the method which we try to develop is based on a study
of the dynamic changes in society that may be observed at the present
time. We refrain from the attempt to solve the fundamental problem
of the general development of civilization until we have been able to
unravel the processes that are going on under our eyes.

Certain general conclusions may be drawn from this study even now.
285First of all, the history of human civilization does not appear to us as
determined entirely by psychological necessity that leads to a uniform
evolution the world over. We rather see that each cultural group has
its own unique history, dependent partly upon the peculiar inner development
of the social group, and partly upon the foreign influences to
which it has been subjected. There have been processes of gradual differentiation
as well as processes of leveling down differences between
nighboring cultural centers, but it would be quite impossible to understand,
on the basis of a single evolutionary scheme, what happened
to any particular people. An example of the contrast between the two
points of view is clearly indicated by a comparison of the treatment of
Zuni civilization by Frank Hamilton Gushing on the one hand, on the
other by modern students, particularly by Elsie Clews Parsons, Leslie
Spier, Ruth Benedict and Ruth Bunzel. Cushing believed that it was
possible to explain Zuni culture entirely on the basis of the reaction of
the Zuñi mind to its geographical environment, and that the whole of
Zuni culture could be explained as the development which followed necessarily
from the position in which the people were placed. Cushing's
keen insight into the Indian mind and his thorough knowledge of the
most intimate life of the people gave great plausibility to his interpretations.
On the other hand, Dr. Parsons' studies prove conclusively the
deep influence which Spanish ideas have had upon Zuni culture, and,
together with Professor Kroeber's investigations, give us one of the best
examples of acculturation that have come to our notice. The psychological
explanation is entirely misleading, notwithstanding its plausibility,
and the historical study shows us an entirely different picture, in which
the unique combination of ancient traits (which in themselves are undoubtedly
complex) and of European influences, have brought about
the present condition.

Studies of the dynamics of primitive life also show that an assumption
of long-continued stability such as is demanded by Elliot Smith is without
any foundation in fact. Wherever primitive conditions have been
studied in detail, they can be proved to be in a state of flux, and it would
seem that there is a close parallelism between the history of language
and the history of general cultural development. Periods of stability are
followed by periods of rapid change. It is exceedingly improbable that
any customs of primitive people should be preserved unchanged for
thousands of years. Furthermore, the phenomena of acculturation
prove that a transfer of customs from one region into another without
286concomitant changes due to acculturation, are very rare. It is, therefore,
very unlikely that ancient Mediterranean customs could be found
at the present time practically unchanged in different parts of the globe,
as Elliot Smith's theory demands.

While on the whole the unique historical character of cultural growth
in each area stands out as a salient element in the history of cultural
development, we may recognize at the same time that certain typical
parallelisms do occur. We are, however, not so much inclined to look
for these similarities in detailed customs as rather in certain dynamic
conditions which are due to social or psychological causes that are liable
to lead to similar results. The example of the relation between food
supply and population to which I referred before may serve as an example.
Another type of example is presented in those cases in which a
certain problem confronting man may be solved by a limited number
of methods only. When we find, for instance, marriage as a universal
institution, it may be recognized that marriage is possible only between
a number of men and a number of women; a number of men and one
woman; a number of women and one man; or one man and one
woman. As a matter of fact, all these forms are found the world over
and it is, therefore, not surprising that analogous forms should have
been adopted quite independently in different parts of the world, and,
considering both the general economic conditions of mankind and the
character of sexual instinct in the higher animals, it also does not seem
surprising that group marriage and polyandrous marriages should be
comparatively speaking rare. Similar considerations may also be made
in regard to the philosophical views held by mankind. In short, if we
look for laws, the laws relate to the effects of physiological, psychological,
and social conditions, not to sequences of cultural achievement.

In some cases a regular sequence of these may accompany the development
of the psychological or social status. This is illustrated by the
sequence of industrial inventions in the Old World and in America,
which I consider as independent. A period of food gathering and of
the use of stone was followed by the invention of agriculture, of pottery
and finally of the use of metals. Obviously, this order is based on the
increased amount of time given by mankind to the use of natural products,
of tools and utensils, and to the variations that developed with it.
Although in this case parallelism seems to exist on the two continents,
it would be futile to try to follow out the order in detail. As a matter of
fact, it does not apply to other inventions. The domestication of animals,
287which, in the Old World must have been an early achievement,
was very late in the New World, where domesticated animals, except
the dog, hardly existed at all at the time of discovery. A slight beginning
had been made in Peru with the taming of the llama, and birds were
kept in various parts of the continent.

A similar consideration may be made in regard to the development of
rationalism. It seems to be one of the fundamental characteristics of the
development of mankind that activities which have developed unconsciously
are gradually made the subject of reasoning. We may observe
this process everywhere. It appears, perhaps, most clearly in the history
of science which has gradually extended the scope of its inquiry over an
ever-widening field and which has raised into consciousness human activities
that are automatically performed in the life of the individual and
of society.

I have not heretofore referred to another aspect of modern ethnology
which is connected with the growth of psycho-analysis. Sigmund Freud
has attempted to show that primitive thought is in many respects analogous
to those forms of individual psychic activity which he has explored
by his psycho-analytical methods. In many respects his attempts
are similar to the interpretation of mythology by symbolists like Stucken.
Rivers has taken hold of Freud's suggestion as well as of the interpretations
of Graebner and Elliot Smith, and we find, therefore, in his new
writings a peculiar disconnected application of psychologizing attitude
and the application of the theory of ancient transmission.

While I believe some of the ideas underlying Freud's psycho-analytic
studies may be fruitfully applied to ethnological problems, it does not
seem to me that the one-sided exploitation of this method will advance
our understanding of the development of human society. It is certainly
true that the influence of impressions received during the first few years
of life have been entirely underestimated and that the social behavior of
man depends to a great extent upon the earliest habits which are established
before the time when connected memory begins, and that many
so-called racial or hereditary traits are to be considered rather as a result
of early exposure to certain forms of social conditions. Most of these
habits do not rise into consciousness and are, therefore, broken with
difficulty only. Much of the difference in the behavior of adult male
and female may go back to this cause. If, however, we try to apply the
whole theory of the influence of suppressed desires to the activities of
man living under different social forms, I think we extend beyond their
288legitimate limits the inferences that may be drawn from the observation
of normal and abnormal individual psychology. Many other factors
are of greater importance. To give an example: The phenomena
of language show clearly that conditions quite different from those to
which psycho-analysts direct their attention determine the mental behavior
of man. The general concepts underlying language are entirely
unknown to most people. They do not rise into consciousness until the
scientific study of grammar begins. Nevertheless, the categories of language
compel us to see the world arranged in certain definite conceptual
groups which, on account of our lack of knowledge of linguistic processes,
are taken as objective categories and which, therefore, impose
themselves upon the form of our thoughts. It is not known what the
origin of these categories may be, but it seems quite certain that they
have nothing to do with the phenomena which are the subject of psychoanalytic

The applicability of the psycho-analytic theory of symbolism is also
open to the greatest doubt. We should remember that symbolic interpretation
has occupied a prominent position in the philosophy of all
times. It is present not only in primitive life, but the history of philosophy
and of theology abounds in examples of a high development of
symbolism, the type of which depends upon the general mental attitude
of the philosopher who develops it. The theologians who interpreted the
Bible on the basis of religious symbolism were no less certain of the correctness
of their views, than the psycho-analysts are of their interpretations
of thought and conduct based on sexual symbolism. The results
of a symbolic interpretation depend primarily upon the subjective attitude
of the investigator who arranges phenomena according to his leading
concept. In order to prove the applicability of the symbolism of
psycho-analysis, it would be necessary to show that a symbolic interpretation
from other entirely different points of view would not be
equally plausible, and that explanations that leave out symbolic significance
or reduce it to a minimum, would not be adequate.

While, therefore, we may welcome the application of every advance
in the method of psychological investigation, we cannot accept as an
advance in ethnological method the crude transfer of a novel, one-sided
method of psychological investigation of the individual to social phenomena
the origin of which can be shown to be historically determined
and to be subject to influences that are not at all comparable to those
that control the psychology of the individual.289

1 American Anthropologist, N.S., vol. 22 (1920), pp. 311-322.