Franz Boas: Biography, Theory & Contributions

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  • 0:05 Opposing Views of Cultures
  • 0:53 Biography
  • 1:42 Theory
  • 2:25 Contributions
  • 4:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Gaines Arnold
Expert Contributor
Grace Pisano

Grace has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in teaching. She previously taught high school in several states around the country.

Anthropology has taught modern people a lot about cultures, but who most added to 20th-century thought on anthropology? This lesson looks at Franz Boas, his contributions to anthropology and his theory of cultural relativism.

Opposing Views of Cultures

The study of culture is an important bridge from individualistic thought to pluralistic thought. Unfortunately, the predominant view in the Western world prior to the twentieth century was that Western culture was superior to all other cultures. If Western culture is superior, then its propagation to the exclusion of other cultures is supposedly morally justifiable.

However, one researcher tried to change how culture was viewed by the West. Franz Boas earned a PhD in physics from the University of Kiel in Germany with a minor in geography, but his lifelong passion became anthropology. He worked to produce a scientific understanding of peoples that would dispel the notion that any culture was superior to another. His lifelong work gained him the title Father of American Anthropology.


Boas was born in Minden, Germany in 1858. He was the son of Jewish parents who were uninterested in both the dogma of their religion and of scientific thought. Thus, young Franz was taught to think for himself.

By the time he was 16 he had completed his secondary education and entered university. He studied at Heidelberg, Bonn, and Kiel where he finally finished his PhD in physics. However, his interests would lead him into a different field.

After completing college, Boas took a trip with a group of explorers to the remote Baffin Island in Northern Canada. Although the purpose of the trip was geographical in nature, Boas became fascinated with the Inuit people who inhabited the island. He made several trips to British Columbia and other parts of the Pacific Northwest, gaining data and knowledge of Canada's First Nations people with every trip.


The study of indigenous people led Boas to a discovery that was revolutionary at the time. Many Western scientists at the time held the view that Western culture was inherently superior to other cultures. Based on this belief and his studies among the First Nations people, Boas made a discovery.

He found that all people believe the culture they occupy is superior to others. This led him to define the theory of cultural relativism, which says that the only culture an individual truly knows is that individual's own culture. This theory made the prevailing Western thought make sense, but it also elevated other cultures in the eyes of those in the West because they understood their bias.


Boas' work with native tribes in Canada produced what is considered his greatest theory, but he made other significant contributions to the study of anthropology. He was a man ahead of his time, and his thinking influenced many people.

He moved to the US in 1888 and began teaching at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. He also collected data from different Native American tribes. In addressing the racial divide in the U.S., he was the first prominent scientist to write that Caucasians, Africans and Asians are effectively the same biologically. He hoped to change people's minds and help them understand the beauty of diversity.

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Additional Activities

Discussion Questions

One of Franz Boas' most important contributions was the idea of cultural relativism, or the belief that a person can only fully understand her own culture. With this in mind, students will do a writing activity where they create and justify an answer to the following questions.

Have students select from the following list of questions. Depending on the age of your students and their ability levels, have students respond to two or three of the following questions in about a paragraph each. Students will appreciate having the ability to choose which questions they answer.

  • Do you think that Boas' principles of cultural relativism are still applicable in the 21st century, where modern technology can help people learn so much more about people from around the world? Why or why not?
  • Suppose a classmate's parents were raised in a culture where physical punishment was common. The parents continue to use these physical punishments now that they live in America. Should the teacher or authorities do something to stop this parent, or is it his right?
  • If Boas is right and we cannot truly understand other cultures, how can we best be respectful of people with different cultural backgrounds?
  • Can you think of a situation from your own life where a difference in culture led to a misunderstanding? What would you do differently in the future if this were to happen again?

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