Influential Anthropologists & Their Contributions

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Cross-Cultural Marketing: Definition & Overview

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
 Replay
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:43 Franz Boas
  • 1:48 Ruth Benedict
  • 2:47 Margaret Mead
  • 3:35 Zora Neale Hurston
  • 4:15 Claude Levi-Strauss
  • 4:42 Clifford Geertz
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Timeline
Autoplay
Autoplay
Speed Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

Are all anthropologist alike? These six all-stars share some things in common, but also have their differences. Check them out to learn more about their particular contributions to the field of anthropology.

A Study of Human Beings

Have you ever visited a friend's house and realized that their family lives a different sort of life than you do? Maybe their household is far neater or messier than yours. Maybe they eat different foods than you do. Whatever the differences between you, you notice these variations with curiosity.

In a small way, in this situation, you're acting as a bit of an anthropologist, or a person who studies human beings. This lesson considers how those in the academic field of anthropology have made their mark on the field. While we can't cover all the major players, let's look at some key figures from the late 19th century to the late 20th century.

Franz Boas

Old school anthropologists (think 19th century and earlier) weren't just curious about other human beings in the world. They were also looking to classify them into categories; ones we find explicitly racist today.

Then came Franz Boas, a man born in Germany who ultimately became a leading anthropologist in the United States. He had drastically different ideas about why a person would study human beings. Theories of the time were focused on categorizing people based on whether they appeared culturally and physically inferior or superior. Boas thought this was wrong, very wrong.

He believed that all people have equal capacity for development, and there are no separate 'races' as his contemporaries argued. Ultimately, he made the case that cultures should be studied from their own perspective rather than outsiders judging that culture. This point of view would become known as cultural relativism. Think of cultural relativism as you visiting a friend's house and just noting what you observe without judging it based on the values of your own household.

Ruth Benedict

Boas had a major impact on anthropologists throughout the 20th century, including his student Ruth Benedict. Benedict came to believe that over time a culture takes on a particular personality. Some traits become very important to a culture, while many other possible traits are excluded. This is a bit like saying that if you visit your friend's house and find that, above all, they value neatness and order, then that characteristic may play a strong role in their way of life, leading them to always be early, to keep things constantly organized, and to value cleanliness, even to an extreme. They have chosen these traits as central to their identity out of a whole array of possible ways to function.

Benedict argued that each culture develops its own traits and characteristics that guide the various rituals, beliefs, and values of that culture, a view often described as 'personality writ large.' She applied this theory not to households, but to entire cultural groups of people.

Margaret Mead

Benedict was a mentor to another famous anthropologist, Margaret Mead, who began to study anthropology in the 1920s. The two shared both a professional and an intimate relationship, supporting one another's efforts in the field.

By the early 20th century, few areas of the world were unaffected by the influence of other cultures. Mead wanted to be sure to capture the experiences of cultures that were in jeopardy, particularly Polynesian cultures, such as Samoa.

She was also a public figure who shared her ideas on many subjects: from providing commentary on how sexual development varies by culture to advising the government on how to prevent the spreading of rumors during wartime. Like her mentors Benedict and Boas, Mead advocated for appreciation of other cultures and was hugely influential in the field.

Zora Neale Hurston

Today Zora Neale Hurston is known more for being a fiction writer than being an American anthropologist. Yet she provided important contributions in both the field of anthropology and the world of fiction.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about Study.com
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account
Support