Boas and the Culture of Racism

The question is not that Boas was wrong about culture. It is rather that he told anthropologists that they are the only ones who are right.

This quote is from the conclusion to the penultimate chapter of Bauman and Briggs’ award-winning book Voices of Modernity. The book employs a Foucauldian genealogical approach to trace the development of folklore studies from its roots in the Scottish Enlightenment, through its development under German Romanticism, ending up with Boas and the birth of anthropology. In doing so the book focuses on a number of interrelated ideas about culture, language, and modernity as well as methodological issues in the creation of texts from oral traditions. When they awarded the book with the Edward Sapir Book Prize the Society for Linguistic Anthropology wrote:

Bauman and Briggs argue that contemporary efforts to make schemes of social inequality based on race, gender, class and nationality seem compelling and legitimate, rely on deeply rooted ideas about language and tradition. Showing how critics of modernity unwittingly reproduce these foundational fictions, they suggest new strategies for challenging the undemocratic influence of these voices of modernity.

While these themes run throughout their book, they sometimes seem to have only historical importance. After all, scholars like Herder or the Grimm brothers are associated with the rise of nationalism and so there doesn’t seem much that is “unwitting” in their reproduction of these ideologies. It is only in the penultimate chapter on Boas, a scholar known for his critiques of racism and nationalism, that the relevance of these earlier scholars (and the importance of the genealogical method) really becomes clear to the reader. In this genealogy Boas is “ego,” but before this chapter he has been absent from the story.

To understand their critique of Boas it is necessary to first understand Boas’s theory of culture and this is best approached (they argue) by understanding his theory of language. Boas in many ways presaged contemporary Chomskyan linguistics. He made charts showing the articulation of vowel sounds, and was one of the first to anticipate the distinction between phonemic and phonetic analysis (from which the terms “emic” and “etic” come from). Just as it is hard to learn to distinguish the phonemes in a foreign language once one is already an adult, Boas came to think of culture as a set of practices into which people are socialized early in life, able to deploy at will but largely unaware of the underlying rules.

This view of language, grounded in his “universal, objective phonetic grid” and internalized as a set of subconscious practices was an important step in moving Boas away from Herderian evolutionary approaches which saw contemporary language as a degenerative form of a once-pure folkloric forms.

Folklore enabled Boas to attack evolutionism by rejecting degenerative bias of traditional philological approaches and countering E. B. Tylor’s view that each folk element is a survival from a previous social form, one that was rational in its origins but became increasingly irrational. For Boas, folklore was deeply embedded in culture, and it was irrational all the way down.

In his view of language and culture as irrational (non-rational might be a better way of putting it) Boas nonetheless held on to another evolutionary theory, one “inherited from Aubrey and Locke” in which “tradition limits progress towards enlightenment and rationality”

He accordingly constructed culture as a force that limits individual freedom through the pervasive influence of “the fetters of tradition.”1

Racism, nationalism, colonialism, etc. were, for Boas, not so much political-economic phenomenon as they were the result of culture and tradition. This created a contradiction for Boas, for while culture defined the object of anthropological study, it was also an obstacle to the cosmopolitan form of knowledge anthropologists hoped to produce.

Anthropologists must indict a phenomenon that only they can represent authoritatively, and they stake their claim to authority on the broader public and political stage by promising to help rationalize the very cultural (traditional, unconscious) patterns of which they are supposed to be the visionaries and spokespersons. Fully realizing Boas’s utopian vision of cultural enlightenment would eventually put anthropologists out of a job…

For Boas, only anthropologists could cultivate “a ‘purely analytic’ approach to the study of particular languages and cultures” which enabled them “to circumvent the natural tendency to project one’s own categories onto others.” Bauman and Briggs find this view particularly troublesome. Not only do they see it as promoting forms of inequality in which anthropologists and other experts know best what is in other people’s best interests, but they also see it as legitimating certain forms of neo-racism.

Boas’s theoretical move thus dehistoricizes and depoliticizes imperialism by reducing it to general effects of a universal process of reifying unconscious categories when applied to cross-linguistic and cultural encounters. Balibar (1991) argues that this sort of reasoning provides neo-racists with a cultural logic that naturalizes racism. Although he seems to suggest that this trope constitutes a neo-racist distortion of anthropological constructions, we would argue that it follows from Boas’s own culture theory.

This is not to say that Boas was a racist. Too often (especially on the internet) there is a tendency to oversimplify any argument which discusses the links between racism and certain representational or theoretical practices, boiling it down to “X was a racist.” This would be especially unfortunate in the case of Boas whom the authors acknowledge as a champion of anti-racism. As they conclude:

Boas’s attempt to fashion anthropology as a cosmopolitan discipline deserves broader appreciation. The difficulty is that the fundamental modernist move of claiming consciousness and rationality for oneself and one’s followers and denying it to others was embedded deeply within the concept of culture that lay at the heart of this project.

I would like to think that contemporary anthropological theories of culture, especially those grounded in practice theory avoid many of these problems, but I think that this view of culture is still widespread outside of anthropology. The proponents of the New Atheism movment and their ilk strike me as especially prominent examples of this modernist move, especially when they talk about Islam. It seems strange to me to associate Boas with Islamophobia, and I think he would be more careful not to pick out any particular culture for derision, but in the way he dehistoricized and depoliticized these issues, he would perhaps have had a difficult time articulating a coherent critique.


  1. I feel I should point out (because if I don’t, Rex is sure to do so) the extent to which, throughout this chapter, Bauman and Briggs rely upon George Stocking’s work on Boas

17 thoughts on “Boas and the Culture of Racism

  1. “The difficulty is that the fundamental modernist move of claiming consciousness and rationality for oneself…”
    Bourdieu’s writing is less a response to that than an exemplar.

    The first time I heard of “emics and etics” my first association was a neologism, “poemics”, and poetics.
    Googling, I discovered me in a bad mood on this site in 2013.

    http://savageminds.org/2013/07/13/authorship-and-the-writer/

    And it goes back to the problem of “writing anti-racism” or writing from intention.
    http://savageminds.org/2014/10/27/writing-anti-racism/comment-page-1/#comment-829360

    Canadian constitutional law includes what’s called the “Living Tree Doctrine”: originalism as a theory of interpretation is disallowed. Authority is less in the hands of the author than in the interpreter, but it undermines -ironizes- both roles. The case was decided in 1929; it’s post-modern in that its pre-modern or pre-modernist

    More than practice theory which still puts theory before practice, we need a mode of practice that reinforces itself as theory. Writing theory is like writing from the superego. We need to be able to look at each other and at ourselves in the mirror with the same bemused curiosity. Foucault wrote his contradictions; irony is implicit. Bourdieu is the opposite. Again and again he states that intellectuals, of his model, are here to lead. And he’s much too confident in his own ability to do so.

  2. From my perspective, the real problem here is with the logic of the argument. Who can take seriously the premise of a statement like, “Fully realizing Boas’s utopian vision of cultural enlightenment would eventually put anthropologists out of a job…”?

    If there is one thing that Boas and subsequent anthropology teaches, it is that fully realizing anyone’s vision is a highly unlikely event. What happens in the meantime is more worth careful consideration.

    Seriously, what do we know for sure after reading Boas? We know (1) that he separated culture and race at a time when “race” implied, however diluted, biological descent and (2) that he observed that people act as if obeying rules of which they themselves may be unaware. Language was central to both arguments. Re (1), an African child brought up in Paris will speak French like a native while remaining unable to speak the language of her birthplace. Re (2), it is impossible to speak any language fluently while thinking about the features that preoccupy linguists, phonology, syntax, etc. Yet we know that people speak all sorts of languages all over the world, with no awareness whatsoever that these features even exist. This is not, please note, an observation about some “other.” It applies with equal force to the German-Jewish anthropologist as to his First Nations informants. Neither Socrates nor Black Elk knows precisely what he is arguing for or why the language he speaks is structured in the way that it is. The whole history of philosophy, East, West, everywhere is evidence that accepting tacit premises and not knowing what you mean is a feature of humanity that applies to all groups, whether racial, ethnic or “tribal” in a modern marketing sense.

    The sanest voice in the room is that of Mikhail Bakhtin remarking that all cultural understanding necessarily involves dialogue because all of us have blind spots and need the other to show us what can be found in them.

    The book may be award-winning. It sounds like crap. But, hey, I haven’t read it. . . . Given the description in hand, I probably won’t.

  3. To understand their critique of Boas it is necessary to first understand Boas’s theory of culture and this is best approached (they argue) by understanding his theory of language. Boas in many ways presaged contemporary Chomskyan linguistics.

    I take it that the authors did not write that by way of compliment. A comprehensive guilting by preassociation must include Pāṇini, as there is a solid case for his 2,400 year old Ashtadhyayi as precursor to Chomsky’s work. I don’t know how easily that rests with arguments about the growth of anthropology and Othering, though.

  4. @MTB They don’t write that. They do write that his theory of culture was tied to his theory of language, especially the idea of early socialization into the sound system of a language – but they don’t mention Chomsky. But, as I say in the post, Boas saw this early socialization as being fixed and relatively unchangeable – unless you are an anthropologist. The argument they make is that this was very much how he saw culture as well.

  5. “Unless you are an anthropologist”? Boas did sometimes use expressions like “the iron hold of culture upon the average individual,” (Race, Language, and Culture, 1940:259). But the average individual is not some native “other,” and the anthropologist is not some all-knowing white, male, would-be God. The anthropologist is someone with the specialized training and comparative knowledge to notice features of language or culture of which the native, qua ordinary human being going about his or her daily life, is unlikely to be aware. Seen in this light “unless you are an anthropologist” concerns academic training, not some unbridgeable racial or other divide.

    Expressions like “the iron hold of culture” should be seen in a similar light. They speak to two phenomena with which all human beings are familiar. First, children may seem infinitely plastic, at least to those who have never raised them and know how different even two infants or toddlers can be. Within the first few years of life, they can learn multiple languages with native fluency. This ability decays with age, however, and adult learners of a second language rarely, if ever, achieve native fluency. Second, people who live in small, isolated communities lack the exposure to alternative life ways that stimulates deviation/innovation. It may take an outsider asking, “Why do you do it that way?” to stimulate the reflection that leads to anthropological knowledge.

    In sum, with only a little common sense and careful reading, the argument in question falls apart.

  6. Could the same argument by the authors be applied to “pre-modern” societies that relied on astrological observations as a means of deriving authoritative knowledge to serve as foundations of social hierarchies? I feel Latour’s notions of hybrids and the Great Divergence would fit well in explaining such astronomical-theological based knowledge that organized societies. Culture then could be seen as a means of maintaining the status quo, ensuring continuance of a dynasty. How far off are “pre-modern” from Hobbes’ own explication of society based on the metaphor of the Leviathan? Might then the task of the anthropologist be come one of accounting for a plurality of hybrids, a genealogical exercise? But this would seem to be rather a barren enterprise.

    Kerim mentions the “New Atheism” and I am reminded of a article in the Guardian by Karen Armstrong entitled “The Myth of Religious Violence” as a critique of the New Atheism. But is Armstrong’s response to the elevation of secularism over religion persuasive? Certainly not to many responding in the comments (most consider her thesis of religion naïve at best). This debate between supporters of religion (coding culture) and New Atheism (coding science) has overtones of Huntington’s thesis of Clash of Civilizations, and echoing Spengler and Toynbee. We could easily replace in Kerim’s comment “religion” for “culture” and arrive at our present condition. How many might agree with the claim (rephrasing above) that “religion as a force limits individual freedom through the pervasive influence of ‘the fetters of tradition’?”

  7. @Fred: Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Much of the book is actually an extended discussion with Latour, looking at how each of the scholars they discuss dealt with hybridity. I am planning on addressing some of this in a followup post. Regarding Leviathans and the culture concept, I recommend looking at Rex’s new book, Leviathans at the Gold Mine (which I’ve just started reading myself).

  8. How many might agree with the claim (rephrasing above) that “religion as a force limits individual freedom through the pervasive influence of ‘the fetters of tradition’?”

    Personally, I would find it every bit as unpersuasive as the earlier form of the argument. In both cases, what are missing are the sociological and material conditions under which religion, even conceived as a “force” (but that is another argument) operates. I can imagine, for example, growing up in a remote part of Pakistan, being educated in a Madrassah, and punished severely if I rebelled against the authority of the Mullahs. I can also imagine, thanks to Chaim Potok’s novel, being Asher Lev, growing up with a passion to become an artist in a rigidly orthodox Hasidic community in New York. In fact, I was raised in a pious Lutheran family in southeastern Virginia, with grace before every meal, church and Sunday school on Sunday, catechism classes before my confirmation, parents who sang in the choir and served on the church council. I wound up an anthropologist, living and working in Japan, a sort of Zen agnostic, if that makes any sense. The difference in these three cases is not “the fetters of tradition” but but awareness of alternatives and opportunities to escape them.

  9. While I mean by the re-phrased claim of religion as “fetters of tradition” the more generalized belief held by a wide number of people, as many who attend Dawkin’s lectures on religion and atheism, and any number who tacitly agree with Sam Harris, I do not agree that the difference is one of awareness (or not) of alternatives and opportunities to escape them.

    Further, I am distrustful of claims of escape (alternatives or opportunities). Too often such imaginings of escape are really updated tales of heroes (Bildungsroman, picaresque, the superheroes of comics)in which the future is projected in the reproduction of the past. Unlike the appeal of escape, we have also the appeal of remaking tradition anew, to reposition the past as the building blocks of the future. I am inclined to consider escape is perhaps harder than just lack of awareness of alternatives and opportunity.

  10. I am inclined to consider escape is perhaps harder than just lack of awareness of alternatives and opportunity.

    Fred, you could be right. But where does this inclination come from?

    I am a living example of what I am talking about. I strongly suspect that the same is true of at least most other anthropologists, who have made conscious choices to pursue what kith and kin almost surely regard as a very odd career. My Google search for “young people abandoning fundamentalist Christianity” yielded 5,400,000 hits. Consider any of the great religions that have spread around the world — Buddhism, Christianity, or Islam. How did they ever spread if human beings were unable to consider and exercise options?

    Yes, we know that a crisis of faith can be a gut-wrenching experience, especially for those who have been raised in a narrow orthodoxy and made serious religious commitments; the relevant literature, both fiction and otherwise, is huge. But where is the evidence that it is the “fetters of tradition,” as opposed for example, to legitimate fears of disappointing parents or mentors, or being ostracized or, worst case, stoned to death or crucified, that stands in the way of choosing a different path?

  11. The author says “they [Bauman & Briggs] also see it [Boasian theory] as legitimating certain forms of neo-racism.” Yet B&B themselves clearly state right after that “Although he [Balibar] seems to suggest that this trope [of anthropological expertise] constitutes a neo-racist distortion of anthropological constructions, we would argue that it follows from Boas’s own culture theory.”

    In other words, Boas’ claims for expertise may produce problems, but it is precisely NOT because they have anything to do with “racism” as such! And if we want to understand what politics the Boasians actually had and how they pursued them while invoking that aforementioned problematic expertise we cannot understand their best and worst moments without understanding that Boas’ theory was through and through a refutation of a racism that had up till then polluted popular, political and scientific thought in America to a degree we would hardly recognize today. And we can cannot even attempt to address the ways in which an extremely lazy form of culture theory has come to supplement scientific racism in today’s America without understanding Boas’ and his students’ paradigm-shifting contributions for what they actually are! As for the author’s attempt to tie Boas to Islamaphobia, I think Boas would have a very hard time accepting any attempt to characterize populations that have all sorts of different languages, traditions, histories and material cultures under the single designation of “Islamic”!

    Finally, I understand the author’s larger point that forms of expertise which make exclusive claims to knowledge have perpetuated both racial and cultural oppressions — but how in the hell were Ruth Benedict, Zora Neal Hurston, Margaret Mead and countless other Boasians supposed to combat the dominant racist thinking without some claim to expertise?

  12. @Zachary wrote: “Boas’ claims for expertise may produce problems, but it is precisely NOT because they have anything to do with “racism” as such!” I don’t think I said anything contrary to this. I even go out of my way to say that Boas was not racist in several places throughout the post.

    I also disagree that their argument is reducible to a blaming a “culture of expertise,” although that is certainly part of it. As I tried to show here their argument about a expertise is tied up with their argument about Boas’ theory of culture. I think combining the two together into the phrase “culture of expertise” obfuscates the logic. The problem isn’t so much whether or not anthropologists have expertise, but the ways in which anthropological practices and theories deny it to others. The argument about Boas is that his theory of culture did just that, even though he himself was an anti-racist.

  13. I appreciate your response and I think that I may have been thrown me off track from this very good point.

    I agree with you that we ought to think about how anthropological practices and theories deny expertise to others — but I have a very hard time understanding how this could be otherwise whether they are Boasian, racist, or anything else. The concept “expertise” or even of “theory” does not mean anything if it does not imply that what you are claiming is more true than what others are claiming. This is why the emphasis on Boas’ “theory” and the lack of discussion of the political practice of him and his students bothered me: The culture concept could only supplant racism in so far as those arguing for it could claim to know what they were talking about better than others. This could lead American anthropologists to some really wonderful things, as when they were testifying in Congress against the claims of eugenicists, and some really terrible things, as when they were working with Japanese interment camps. What troubles me, and perhaps you as well, is that the concepts that allow me to say I know more about the lives of people living in Jordan (where I conduct my fieldwork) than Bill Maher does are the same concepts that lead to people asking me to “explain the problem with the Middle East” without thinking to ask those involved. But this is, I think, exactly the kind of problem that cannot be dealt with or accounted for in “theory.”

    The other thing that threw me was that this emphasis on Boas as a grand theorist of culture contradicts how I was taught Boas — and I apologize that I have not read Bauman and Brigg’s argument outside of your summary. But, as I learned it, Boas did not at all like the idea that the method he was inventing could ever say anything in the way of general or predictive laws. Going around cataloging all those phonemes, basket-patterns and metaphors was so important because all anthropologists should ever really do is present those data, note the resemblances and differences between them, and suggest that there may have been some diffusion of ideas, objects or people to account for similar things showing up in different places. In this, he is much more of a descendant of Goethe and his study of the morphology of plants than Herder and his grand theory of cultural development. But maybe I’m wrong and I need to go back and read Boas!

  14. The problem isn’t so much whether or not anthropologists have expertise, but the ways in which anthropological practices and theories deny it to others.

    It would help a good deal if those who promote the idea that anthropological practices and theories deny expertise to others to articulate clearly how this is done. If, on my reading, all that Boas is saying is that a trained linguist notices things about language that a native who is not a trained linguist does not, a statement that applies to all natives, not just those from the people whose language is being studied, but also those of the people in which the linguist learned her own native language—what is the reason for sounding alarms?

    I must say that neither my experience as the apprentice of a Daoist magician in Taiwan nor my working alongside the people I currently study, Japanese advertising creatives, has led me to deny the expertise that both clearly demonstrated. I might know a few things that they didn’t; it was absolutely undeniable that they knew a lot about what they did of which I was utterly ignorant.

  15. The book in question is dense and I can see how someone interested in Boas would focus on that section. Beyond all the connections mentioned with Boas and Latour, I feel that the most important theme of this book is their critique of John Locke’s language ideology. And for more of that, see some of Michael Silverstein’s articles who was one of the reviewers of this book before it was published

  16. Brendan, if you have a moment, please tell us more or provide some links to relevant materials available on line. The book in question is both expensive and available, it seems, only in dead tree editions.

  17. One of their arguments about Boas is that he was the heir to Locke’s ideology of language, combining that with Herdian interest in folklore but breaking with Herder’s evolutionary framework in particularly Lockian ways. Thus this chapter combines many of the themes in the book. That is the reason I focused on the Boas chapter – because it brings together many of the books central themes in a way that makes the earlier chapters make more sense. I had an earlier draft of this post that went into great depth about this, but it became as “dense” as the book is and I felt it better to just focus on a few key ideas and let those who are interested go and read the original text.

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