Influential Anthropologists & Their Contributions

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  • 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
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

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.

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