The Methods of Ethnology: SMOPS 9

“The methods of ethnology” is among the two most taught and anthologized essay by Franz Boas, the founder of American anthropology, and I include it here to give you a sense of who Boas was and what he thought. Boas is famous for doing ethnography, not talking about it. As a result it is extremely difficult to find explicit theoretical statements from him regarding what anthropology is or should be. There are three main texts that represent Boas at his most explicit: “the study of geography” is Boas’s earliest and most general statement, followed by “limitations” in the 1890s. “Methods” was written in 1920, and represents Boas’s views at the time that he had finally achieved institutional dominance in anthropology.

The Methods of Ethnology, by Franz Boas, edited and with an introduction by Alex Golub

In “Methods” Boas constructs a three way comparison between his own American approach and that of two other schools of thought found in Europe. The first school is what I will refer to as the “evolutionists,” who Boas also refers to as universalists, or theorists of “development by inner causes.” This positions hold that all societies evolve through set stages of development, and some are more ahead of others in this regard. The second school is, confusingly, called “diffusionism” or “world diffusionists” (the label I’ll use) which is similar to Boas’s diffusionism but distinct from it in key ways. World diffusion assumes that culture traits do not change over time, but diffuse from one central area across the entire globe. Thus Polynesian outrigger canoes, on this view, might originally be from Ancient Egypt and have over the course of thousands of years diffused to the Pacific.

Boas disagrees with both of these views. He argues that both of these positions make assumptions about human culture and then fit the evidence into those assumptions, rather than attempting to work inductively from the data to theory. Boas says that this act of theorizing is important, but cannot be done at the moment because we simply do not have enough data. This empiricism and skepticism for accepted narratives is still with us in anthropology.

It is also worth noting that Boas is also interested in process, change, and the dynamism of culture — another hallmark of our discipline. In fact Boas uses the term “dynamic” five times in this paper, and argues that “All cultural forms… appear in a constant state of flux and subject to fundamental modifications.” This is why world diffusionism cannot be correct — culture traits do not stay the same for thousands of years as they traverse the globe. So Boas is interested in diffusion, he just doesn’t think it takes the form that world diffusionists such as Elliot Smith believe it does.

Finally, Boas shares an interest with the evolutionists: the way in which ‘inner needs’ or ‘tendencies’ shape the way that culture traits which diffuse into an area are integrated into its culture. However, where evolutionists see all cultures as sharing the same developmental program, Boas believes each one has its own unique developmental urges — its own ‘configuration,’ as Ruth Benedict would call it. And indeed this is the basic vision of the Boasian program: ‘history’ (or historical processes) diffuses traits across the world, while ‘psychology’ (or cultural patterns) then integrate them into local cultural configurations.  This is why Boas points out the importance of studies of acculturation — something that would move to the forefront of anthropology in the years leading up to World War II.

“Methods” is a short piece, and I have given it a very light treatment. I have deleted extraneous phrases and qualifications which weigh down Boas’s prose. I have also cut Boas’s reference to scholars who are no longer widely read, while keeping citations of better-known scholars. My goal has been to give the reader a cleaner, more legible Boas to encounter, and of course to lead them back to the original text.

I hope that this paper, like the others in this series, will help present early anthropological theory in a form that is accessible to everyone. There is today a tremendous amount of material which is open access, but it is difficult to find, inconvenient to read, and many people do not know where to start looking for it. By curating a selection of important open access work, I hope to make open access resources better known and to raise awareness of the actual history of anthropological theory.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

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