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.