The explosively curious and acerbic Margaret Mead was born in 1901 and brought up by a tough academic family in Pennsylvania. After a childhood dotted with melancholy, her purpose in life – anthropology – emerged in her undergraduate years at Barnard College in New York City. As a graduate student at Columbia University in the 1920s, she fell under the sway of Franz Boas. The moustachioed polymath was born in Germany and defined American anthropology. It was his programme, his school of thought, that cleaved off anthropology from nearby disciplines, setting out what anthropologists do, and why. Like Émile Durkheim in sociology or Sigmund Freud in psychoanalysis, Boas fathered a discipline.
Boas’s seminal essay ‘The Study of Geography’ (1887) distinguished between the two poles of the ‘physical’ and the ‘historical’ method (‘geography’ here being akin to what we call anthropology). The physical method searches for facts from which general laws can be deduced. Facts themselves are interesting only insofar as they can be roped together to form unbreakable laws, which set the contours of what is possible and yield testable predictions. The historical method, meanwhile, finds the facts of the world to be interesting in and of themselves – there’s no need to get caught up trying to derive ironclad generalisations from them.
At the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th, racialist biology ruled the human sciences. Differences between societies were ascribed to differences in the essential biological makeup of their members, that is, to race. In order to explain why certain peoples were more ‘primitive’ than others, the anthropologist figured out which races have attained what kind of sophistication, and then pegged them, permanently, to that rung. Race scientists believed that laws – thought of as biological – governing the behaviour of humankind could be deduced from the particular facts of each individual’s racial characteristics. A natural political consequence of such a view is, of course, eugenics. The link with Boas’s ‘physical method’ is clear.
Boas was one of history’s great antiracists. (He remains something of a bugbear for white supremacists: Jared Taylor, the mush-headed editor of American Renaissance magazine, placed Boas on a list of ‘Americans Who Have Damaged White Interests’.) Boas’s antipathy towards racist thinking was the result of a moral conviction that humankind is broadly equal, buttressed by his extensive ethnographical research of American Indians. But what could replace race as an explanation of the differences between human societies? Here was set the cornerstone of US anthropology: Boas replaced race with culture.
Before Boas, ‘culture’ was more or less understood to be a people’s creative output: the arts, the sciences – engagement with these made one ‘cultured’, refined. Culture is the 11th-century Japanese classic The Tale of Genji, culture is multilingualism, culture is a curiosity in humankind’s explorations. This is not what Boas meant.
After about 1911, Boas spoke of ‘cultures’ – plural – rarely just ‘culture’. For him, a culture was the set of learned behaviours that governs a group of people (‘patterns’ in the phrase of his brilliant student Ruth Benedict, a great love of Mead’s). Rather than differing in the kind of being they were, as racialist science held, people instead differed in their ‘repetition of mental processes’. Culture was custom. Learned behaviour and patterns of thinking, taught to children by means of folklore, instruction and their own imitation of adults, becomes a lens through which one experiences and affects the world. It is also, crucially, the reference point through which all behaviour is rationalised. This is a culture, and there are uncountable cultures that mould the ways that people act out their lives. Boas never jettisoned biology entirely: he simply made culture far more influential. This view of humanity came to be known as cultural determinism, and it had important political implications: if culture is contingent and variable, then human ‘nature’ is malleable. It could be changed – for the better. For progressives who embraced cultural determinism, this meant that poverty, crime and racial inequality were outcomes of economic disadvantage, not innate differences. There was nothing inevitable about them.
Culture, so understood, was anthropology’s new object of study. [Continue reading…]