Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Imperfect intellectuals and other redundancies

Franz Boas (1858-1941) was a public intellectual during the halcyon days of public scholarship. He was far ahead of his time in several respects and a product of his time in others. He is credited with moving the entire field of anthropology away from an assumption of racial superiority to racial equality, and with going to the public with his findings. He has been criticized by some feminists for his chauvinism typical of his day. Both assessments are valuable and, one hopes, do not cancel each other out. No one is above critique and no one can survive inspection for perfection. Boas arguably did more to eliminate racism inside and outside the academy than virtually anyone in his era except perhaps his friend, W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963), so it is hoped that acknowledgement will be afforded him by those who note his sexism, just as it is hoped that the notes on Boas will avoid uncritical hagiography.

Indeed, some academic women and men organized a conference discussing Boas in December 2010. From the report:

An interdisciplinary conference on “Franz Boas: Ethnographer Theorist, Activist, Public Intellectual” was held in London, Ontario, Canada 2–5 December 2010, organized by Regna Darnell, Michelle Hamilton and Joshua Smith (Western Ontario) together with Robert Hancock (Victoria) and sponsored by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Boas’ Americanist anthropology crossed the academic disciplines of anthropology, linguistics, folklore, American Indian Studies, education and many others. Twenty-three papers reassessed his contributions in these and other disciplines and highlighted his political and social activist commitments in both North America and Europe. Papers crossed the social sciences and humanities fields and ranged from literary studies to philosophy.
(Darnell, 2011, p. 253)

Whitfield (2010) asserts, "Boas was decisive in changing public discourse on the often radioactive subject of race. He honored the ideal of the scholar as activist and as social conscience, and virtually no one in modern American history came closer to satisfying that standard" (p. 430). At the remove of a century, it is almost inconceivable to us in the new millennium that racism was so overt and ugly in the late 19th and early 20th century period, but that was the case. Women's movements were discriminating against women of color, as we saw in some of the sordid episodes during the suffrage struggles. Academics were teaching racial superiority and inferiority. Few intellectuals were saying, as did Boas, that the Native American mind was fully as sophisticated as the European mind, something that is long settled by science nowadays but which was bold and even dangerous for him to say then. "His bibliography lists 625 titles, and runs forty pages. The best-known work is undoubtedly The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), and no text of its era lent such scholarly authority to the struggle against racism and jingoism" (Whitfield, 2010, p. 430). So it's been precisely one century since Boas tossed down that gauntlet. May other academics continue to be bold and outspoken in our public discourse.


Darnell, R. (2011). Reassessing the Contribution of Franz Boas (1858–1941): Conference report. Historiographia Linguistica, 38(1), 253-254. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Whitfield, S. (2010). Franz Boas: The Anthropologist as Public Intellectual. Society, 47(5), 430-438. doi:10.1007/s12115-010-9355-x

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