CTLF Corpus de textes linguistiques fondamentaux • IMPRIMER • RETOUR ÉCRAN
CTLF - Menu général - Textes

Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T32


History and Science in Anthropology:
a Reply 11

It was interesting to me to read Dr. Kroeber's analysis not only of
my scientific work but also of my personality. 22 I may perhaps misinterpret
both. Nevertheless I wish to express my complete disagreement
with his interpretation. It is quite true that as a young man I
devoted my time to the study of physics and geography. In 1887 I tried
to define my position in regard to these subjects, 33 giving expression to my
consciousness of the diversity of their fundamental viewpoints. I
aligned myself clearly with those who are motivated by the affective
appeal of a phenomenon that impresses us as a unit, although its elements
may be irreducible to a common cause. In other words the
problem that attracted me primarily was the intelligent understanding
of a complex phenomenon. When from geography my interest was
directed to ethnology, the same interest prevailed. To understand a
phenomenon we have to know not only what it is, but also how it came
into being. Our problem is historical. Dr. Kroeber suggests as

the distinctive feature of the historical approach, in any field, not the dealing
with time sequences, though that almost inevitably crops out when
historical impulses-are genuine and strong; but an endeavor at descriptive
integration… Process in history is a nexus among phenomena treated
as phenomena, not a thing to be sought out and extracted from phenomena.

I confess that to me this does not give any sense. We have descriptions
of culture more or less adequately understood. These are valuable material.
They yield, if well done, most illuminating material in regard to
the working of the culture, by which I mean the life of the individual
as controlled by culture and the effect of the individual upon culture.
But they are not history. For historical interpretation the descriptive
material has to be handled in other ways. For this work archaeological,
305biological, linguistic, and ethnographic comparisons furnish more or less
adequate leads.

If Dr. Kroeber calls my first piece of ethnological work, “The Central
Eskimo,” (written in 1885), historical, I fail to understand him. It is
a description based on intimate knowledge of the daily life of the people,
with bad gaps, due to my ignorance of problems. The only historical
points made are based on a comparison of the tribe studied with other
Eskimo tribes and with the Indians of the Mackenzie basin, on a careful
study of evidences of earlier habitations of the Eskimo, and a guess as
to the course of their early migrations. The rest is description pure and
simple. If in later writings I did not stress geographical conditions the
reason must be sought in an exaggerated belief in the importance of
geographical determinants with which I started on my expedition in
1883-84 and the thorough disillusionment in regard to their significance
as creative elements in cultural life. I shall always continue to consider
them as relevant in limiting and modifying existing cultures, but it so
happened that in my later field work this question has never come to the
fore as particularly enlightening.

May I remind Dr. Kroeber of one little incident that illustrates my
interest in the sociological or psychological interpretation of cultures, an
aspect that is now-a-days called by the new term functionalism. I had
asked him to collect Arapaho traditions without regard to the “true”
forms of ancient tales and customs, the discovery of which dominated,
at that time, the ideas of many ethnologists. The result was a collection
of stories some of which were extremely gross. This excited the wrath
of Alice C. Fletcher who wanted to know only the ideal Indian, and
hated what she called the “stable boy” manners of an inferior social
group. Since she tried to discredit Dr. Kroeber's work on this basis I
wrote a little article on “The Ethnological Significance of Esoteric Doctrines” 14
in which I tried to show the “functional” interrelation between
exoteric and esoteric knowledge, and emphasized the necessity of knowing
the habits of thought of the common people as expressed in story
telling. Similar considerations regarding the inner structural relations
between various cultural phenomena are contained in a contribution on
the secret societies of the Kwakiutl in the Anniversary Volume for Adolf
Bastian (1896) and from another angle in a discussion of the same
subject in the reports on the Fourteenth Congress of Americanists, 1904
(published 1906); the latter more from the angle of the establishment
306of a pattern of cultural behavior. These I should call contributions to
cultural history dealing with the ways in which the whole of an indigenous
culture in its setting among neighboring cultures builds up its
own fabric.

In an attempt to follow the history of a culture back into earlier
times we are confined to indirect evidence and it is our duty to use it
with greatest circumspection. Dr. Kroeber accuses me of not being interested
in these questions. I do not know, then, why I should have used
years of my life in trying to unravel the historical development of social
organization, secret societies, the spread of art forms, of folktales on the
Northwest Coast of America. I think that such a detailed study is worth
while not only for its own sake but because it illuminates also general
aspects of the history of mankind, for here we see the totality of cultural
phenomena reflected in the individual culture. Is it that painstaking
work of this kind does not seem to Dr. Kroeber worth while, but that
it requires the flight of an unbridled imagination to have his approval?
I cannot understand in any other way his praise of a public lecture
which I gave as President of the New York Academy of Sciences on “The
History of the American Race,” 15 guarding my statement, however, at
the very beginning by saying that I should give my fancy freer rein than
I ordinarily permit myself. When as early as 1895 26 I made a careful
analysis of the then available material, showing the relations of Northwest
Coast mythologies among themselves and to other American and
Old World areas, the object was to demonstrate historical relations.
Perhaps I did not go far enough for Dr. Kroeber in establishing the
center of origin of each element; but there I balk, because I believe
this can be done in exceptional cases only. The fact that a phenomenon
has its highest development at a certain point does not prove that it had
its origin there. The belief in this, which I consider an unjustified assumption,
and a more light-hearted weighing of evidence differentiates
our methods. In a conversation Dr. Kroeber admitted that I wanted
a high degree of probability for a conclusion, while he was satisfied with
much less. That is an Epicurean position, not that of a modern scientist.

I am sorry that I cannot acknowledge as fair the summary of my
work. It is true that I have done little archaeological work myself. My
own only contribution was the establishment of the sequence of archaic,
307Teotihuacan type and Aztec in Mexico, I believe — except Dall's work on
the Aleutian Islands — the first stratigraphic work in North America;
but in the plan of the Jesup Expedition I assigned an important part
to archaeological work which in the careful hands of Harlan I. Smith
gave important results on Fraser River showing the invasion of inland
culture. If farther north it did not give any results the cause was not
lack of interest but failure to find significant material. I may also claim
to have kept before our scientific public year after year the
necessity of careful archaeological work in northern Alaska, which
has unfortunately been deviated from its main object by sensational
artistic finds, although the main problem remains that of the occurrence
or non-occurrence of pre-Eskimo types in the Bering Sea region.

In regard to linguistic work Dr. Kroeber's criticism does not seem to
me to hit the mark at all. Relationship of languages is a powerful means
of historical research. It remains equally valid, whether we assume
purely genetic relationship or whether we ask ourselves whether by contact
languages may exert far-reaching mutual influences. This question
is important for the interpretation of relationships but has absolutely
nothing to do with an historic or non-historic approach. If it can be
settled we shall know how to interpret historically the linguistic data.
That I am here as elsewhere opposed to ill substantiated guesses, goes
without saying, but has nothing to do with the case. Here also a 40 %
possibility is no satisfactory proof for me.

Dr. Kroeber's strictures on my book on “Primitive Art” are entirely
unintelligible to me. He says style has not been treated. There is a
whole chapter on style and one specific one on Northwest Coast style
intended as a sample of treatment of the problem. Maybe Dr. Kroeber
has an idea of his own of what style is, as he has an idea of his own of
what history is. He reproaches me for not having written on the history
of Northwest Coast style. Unfortunately there are no data that throw
any light on its development. It appears in full bloom and disappears
under the onslaught of White contact. The slight local differences and
the relation between the arts of the Eskimo and other neighboring tribes
do not seem to me to throw any light on the subject. Does he want me
to write its history without such data? Am I to repeat the wild guesses
of Schurtz?

I have never made the statement that history is legitimate and proper,
but historical reconstruction unsound and sterile. As a matter of fact,
all the history of primitive people that any ethnologist has ever developed
308is reconstruction and cannot be anything else. There is, however,
a difference between cautious reconstruction based on ascertained data
and sweeping generalizations that must remain more or less fanciful.
I do recognize quite a number of very fundamental general historical
problems in regard to which I have more or less decided opinions, such
as the distribution and relationships of races, the relation of America to
the Old World, that of Africa to Asia, and so on. It depends entirely
upon the evidence how strongly I hold to these opinions. It has happened
to me too often that a suggestion cautiously made has been
repeated by others as though I had pronounced it as a set dogma.

Now as to the use of statistics in ethnology as a tool of research. Being
somewhat familiar with the difficulties of statistical work I do not
believe that it is a safe guide in ethnological inquiry- I believe I was
the first after Tylor's discussion of 1888 17 to try it on the field of mythology,
and if at that time the correlation method had been as much
abused as it is now, and since I had not yet understood its dangers, I
might have established some nice coefficients of correlation for elements
of mythology. 28 The data of ethnology are not of such character that
they can be expressed by mathematical formulas so that results are
obtained which are in any way more convincing than those secured by
simpler ways of numerical comparison. Behind these always loom the
unanswered questions in how far the materials enumerated are really
comparable, or in other types of problems, like Tylor's, in how far they
are independent.

I regret that Dr. Kroeber also does not see the aim I have in mind
in physical anthropology. We talk all the time glibly of races and
nobody can give us a definite answer to the question what constitutes a
race. The first stimulus to my active participation in work in physical
anthropology was due to G. Stanley Hall and to the atmosphere of
Clark University, and had little to do with racial questions, rather with
the influences of environment upon growth. When I turned to the consideration
of racial problems I was shocked by the formalism of the
work. Nobody had tried to answer the questions why certain measurements
were taken, why they were considered significant, whether they
were subject to outer influences; and my interest has since remained
centered on these problems which must be solved before the data of
309physical anthropology can be used for the elucidation of historical problems.
Equally important seems to me the question in how far the functioning
of the body is dependent upon bodily structure. The answer to
this problem is the necessary basis for any intelligent discussion of racial
physiology and psychology.

Dr. Kroeber refers to the discussion on anthropological methods at
the time of the Americanist Congress held in New York in 1928. He
does not quite completely tell the story of this incident. The discussion
had centered entirely around Kulturkreise and other attempts at historical
reconstruction. Finally I said that I had all through my life
tried to understand the culture I was studying as the result of historical
growth, but since the whole discussion had been devoted to historic
sequences I had to arise as the advocatus diaboli and defend those who
sought to understand the processes by which historical changes came
about, knowledge of which is needed to give a deeper meaning to
the picture. This was no new position of mine, as I think has become
sufficiently clear from the preceding. It is true enough that in general
the participants in the discussion did not want to have anything to do
with the investigation of “processes” which seemed anathema but preferred
to stick to their pet theories.

Robert Redfield, in the introduction to “Social Anthropology of
North American Tribes” (Chicago, 1937) takes up Kroeber's argument.
He accepts Kroeber's definition of history: “a historian is he who
confines himself to ‘functional’ ethnographic accounts — definitions of
unique societies, without comparison, but each presented as an organic
whole composed of functionally interrelated and integrating organs.”
Others would call this a good ethnographic description and I do not
believe that any historian would accept this as history. Redfield's
criticism of my work is summed up in the words: “he does not write
histories, and he does not prepare scientific systems.” The latter point
agrees fully with my views. The history of any selected group or of mankind — history
taken both in the ordinary sense of the term and in the
abnormal sense given to it by Kroeber — including biological, linguistic
and general cultural phenomena, is so complex that all systems that can
be devised will be subjective and unrevealing. Classification, which is
a necessary element of every system, is misleading, as I tried to illustrate
in the discussion of totemism (pp. 316 et seq. of this volume). What
Kroeber and Redfield call the “history” of a tribe appears to me as a
penetrating analysis of a unique culture describing its form, the dynamic
310reactions of the individual to the culture and of the culture to the
individual. It obtains its full meaning only when the historical development
of the present form is known. Unfortunately we are compelled
to reconstruct the historical development of primitive cultures from very
inadequate material, but part of it at least can be inferred. I think that
Radcliffe-Brown's indifference to these reconstructions is based on an
overestimation of the certainty of documentary history, particularly of
history of culture. Some of our results obtained by means of archaeological
or distributional studies are no less certain than those obtained
by documentary history. The difficulties encountered in the attempts
to give an adequate picture of the dynamism and integration of culture
have often been pointed out. To introduce the analogy between an
organism and society — one of the early speculative theories — as Radcliffe-Brown
seems to do in his emphasis on function — is no help.

Redfield objects to what he calls ambiguity of methodological approach,
that is to say “a reluctance to classify the historical and social
anthropological (‘scientific’) approach.” This seems to indicate that he
considers these approaches as mutually exclusive. An unbiased investigator
will utilize every method that can be devised to contribute to the
solution of his problem. In my opinion a system of social anthropology
and “laws” of cultural development as rigid as those of physics are supposed
to be are unattainable in the present stage of our knowledge, and
more important than this: on account of the uniqueness of cultural
phenomena and their complexity nothing will ever be found that
deserves the name of a law excepting those psychological, biologically
determined characteristics which are common to all cultures and appear
in a multitude of forms according to the particular culture in which they
manifest themselves.

The confusion in regard to my own point of view is perhaps largely
due to the fact that in my early teaching, when I fought “the old speculative
theories,” as I am now fighting the new speculative theories based
on the imposition of categories derived from our culture upon foreign
cultures, I stressed the necessity of the study of acculturation (1895, see
p. 425) and dissemination. When I thought that these historical
methods were firmly established I began to stress, about 191 o, the problems
of cultural dynamics, of integration of culture and of the interaction
between individual and society.

Absolute systems of phenomena as complex as those of culture are
impossible. They will always be reflections of our own culture.311

11 American Anthropologist, N.S., vol. 38 (1936), pp. 137-141.

22 Ibid., vol. 37 (1935), pp. 539-569.

33 “The Study of Geography,” Science, vol. 9 (1887), pp. 137-141; pp. 639 et seq.
of this volume.

41 Science, N.S., vol. 16 (1902), pp. 872-874, pp. 312 et seq. of this volume.

51 Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 21 (1912, pp. 177-183, pp.
324 et seq. of this volume.

62 Indianische Sagen von der Nord-Pacifischen Küste Amerikas (Berlin, 1895).

71 Journal, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, vol. 18
(1889), pp. 245-272.

82 Indianische Sagen, pp. 341 et seq.