By Deanna Smith, Joseph Scruggs, Jonathan Berry and C. Thomas Lewis, III

Basic Premises

Historicism is an approach to the study of anthropology and culture that dates back to the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It encompasses two distinct forms of historicism: diffusionism and historical particularism. This approach is most often associated with Franz Boas and his many students, but it was actually developed much earlier by diffusionists who sought to offer alternative explanations for culture change to those argued for by social evolutionists. The evolutionists posited that humans share a set of characteristics and modes of thinking that transcend individual cultures (psychic unity of mankind) and therefore, the cultural development of individual societies will reflect this transcendent commonality through a similar series of developmental stages. This implied that the relative “progress” of individual societies could be assessed in comparison with other societies and their “measured” level of sociocultural attainment determined. Low levels of development were attributed to relatively lower mental developments than in more developed societies. Historicism, on the other hand, placed great importance on cautious and contextualized interpretation of data, as well as a relativistic point of view, and rejected the universalistic, hierarchical and over-generalized interpretations of the social evolutionists. The focus in the historicist perspective was on tracing the historical development of specific cultures rather than on the construction of a grand evolutionary account of the progress march of Culture.

While socio-cultural evolution explained what happened and where, it was unable to describe the specific influences producing cultural change and development. To accomplish this end, an historical approach was needed for the study of culture change and development to explain not only what happened and where but also why and how. Diffusionism was the first approach devised to accomplish this type of historical approach to cultural

investigation and was represented by two distinct schools of thought: the German school and the British school.

The British school of diffusionism was led by G. E. Smith and included other figures such as W. J. Perry and, for a while, W. H. R. Rivers. These individuals argued that all of culture and civilization was developed only once in ancient Egypt and diffused throughout the rest of the world through migration and colonization. Therefore, all cultures were tied together by this thread of common origin (inferring the psychic unity of mankind) and, as a result, worldwide cultural development could be viewed as a reaction of native cultures to this diffusion of culture from Egypt and could only be understood as such. This school of thought did not hold up long due to its inability to account for independent invention.

The German school of diffusionism, led by Fritz Graebner, developed a more sophisticated historical approach to socio-cultural development. To account for the independent invention of culture elements, the theory of culture circles was utilized. This theory argued that culture traits developed in a few areas of the world and diffused outwards in to other societies. Thus, worldwide socio-cultural development could be viewed as a function of the interaction of expanding culture circles with native cultures and other culture circles.

Historical particularism was an approach popularized by Franz Boas as an alternative to the worldwide theories of socio-cultural development as promoted by both evolutionists and extreme diffusionists, which he believed were simply improvable. Boas argued that in order to overcome this, one had to carry out detailed regional studies of individual cultures to discover the distribution of culture traits and to understand the individual processes of culture change at work. In short, Boas sought to reconstruct the histories of specific cultures. He stressed the meticulous collection and organization of ethnographic data on all aspects of many different human societies. Only after information on the particulars of many different cultures had been gathered could generalizations about cultural development be made with any expectation of accuracy.

Boas’s theories were carried on and further developed by scholars who were contemporaries with or studied under him at Columbia University. The more influential of these students include Alfred L. Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Robert Lowie, Paul Radin and Edward Sapir. The contributions of these and others are detailed in the Leading Figures section below.

Points of Reaction

Historicism developed out of dissatisfaction with the theories of unilineal socio-cultural evolution. Proponents of these theories included Charles Darwin, E. B. Tylor, J. McLennan, and Sir John Lubbock. Some writers, such as Lewis Henry Morgan, Herbert Spencer, Daniel Brinton and J. W. Powell, took the concept of socio-cultural evolution and added racial overtones to previously developed theories as a way of explaining different rates of social and cultural development. Their theories concerning the development of human societies were rooted in the still earlier works of the late eighteenth century, which claimed humanity rose to civilization through a series of gradually developing lineal stages towards the alleged perfection (or ‘near’ perfection) of civilized society. These thinkers posited that each move up the evolutionary ladder was accompanied by an increase in mental ability and capacity. Each level of development was preceded by an increase in mental capacity. This mode of thinking depicted primitive man as operating on a base level of mental functioning, which was akin to instinct. If a society was found to be in a state of savagery or barbarism, it was because its members had not yet developed the mental functions needed to create and sustain a civilized society.

A fundamental problem with these unilineal models of cultural development was their inherent assumption that Western European society was the end product of this sequence and its highest attainable level of development. This posed a major problem for historicists, and particularly for Boas, who did not believe one could understand and interpret cultural change, and therefore reconstruct the history of a particular society, unless the investigator conducted observations based on the perspective of those being studying. Therefore, Boas held that it was necessary for the investigator to examine all available evidence for a society, including information collected first-hand by a trained researcher. Boas’s belief in the importance of intensive fieldwork was passed on to his many students (and their students) and is evident in their myriad works and methodologies.

Diffusionist historicism developed into two related but different schools of thought: the British diffusionists and the German diffusionists. The British school, led by G. Elliot Smith and W. H. R. Rivers, argued that components of civilization developed in a few areas of the world. When transportation reached a level of development that allowed large movements of people, civilization diffused outward from the culture area. Smith, who developed the theory that all aspects of civilization developed in ancient Egypt and diffused to all other parts of the world, carried this school of thought to its extreme. Rivers was somewhat more conservative in his application of diffusionist beliefs, but he maintained that only very few areas developed civilization and that migrations from these centers were responsible for carrying civilization to remote parts of the world.

The German diffusionists argued that civilization was developed in only a few isolated regions and that independent invention of cultural elements and complexes was not a common event. However, people did move around and develop contacts with their neighbors and civilization was passed on through these contacts. Over time, these few isolated regions would have passed on their civilization to their neighbors and developed culture areas that diffused in concentric circles called culture circles. The German diffusionists worked to identify the centers of culture circles and trace the spread of ideas and technology from the centers through contact with surrounding cultures. These culture circles would spread through additional contacts with neighboring culture areas. As a result, the aspects of civilization that formerly characterized only a few isolated regions would be diffused to all parts of the world and the originality of these isolated regions of independent invention would be lost to history. This school of thought focused on the localized tracing of traits over time and space.

Boas and his contemporaries disagreed both with the universal models and theories of cultural development that were advocated by evolutionists and with the methods and findings of the British and German diffusionists. The Boasians believed that so many different stimuli acted on the development of a culture that its historical trajectory could only be understood by first examining the particulars of a specific culture so that the sources of stimuli could be identified. Only then may theories of cultural development be constructed after being firmly based on a multitude of synchronic studies pieced together to form a pattern of development. Theories derived from this type of historically grounded investigation were more accurate and exhaustive than the older models of evolutionism and diffusionist historicism, but they did not identify cross-cultural patterns.

Leading Figures

Grafton Elliot Smith (1871-1937) – Smith is credited with founding and leading the British school of diffusionism. Through a comparative study of different peoples from around the world who have practiced mummification, Smith formulated a theory that all the people he studied originally derived their mummification practices from Egypt. He concluded that civilization was created only once in Egypt and spread throughout the world, just as mummification had, through colonization, migration, and diffusion. Other proponents of the British school of diffusionism included W.J. Perry and, for a while, W. H. R. Rivers. Smith’s important works include The Migrations of Early Culture (1915) and The Ancient Egyptians and the Origin of Civilization (1923) (Lupton 1991:644-5).

R. Fritz Graebner (1877-1934) – Graebner is remembered for being the founder of the German School of diffusionism. Graebner adopted the concepts of culture area and the psychic unity of mankind as developed by Adolf Bastian and used them to develop his theory of Kulturekreistehere (culture circles), which was primarily concerned with the description of patterns of culture distribution (Winthrop 1991:222). His theory of culture circles or centers posits that culture traits are invented once and combine with other culture traits to create culture patterns, both of which radiate outwards in, all other things being equal, concentric circles. By examining these various culture traits, one can create a world culture history (Winthrop 1991:61-62). Graebner insisted on a critical examination of sources and emphasized the relevance of historical and cultural connections to the development of sequences and data analysis. The most complete exposition of his views is contained in his major work, Die Methode der Ethnologie (Putzstuck 1991:247-8).

Franz Boas (1858-1942) – Boas was born in Minden, Westphalia (now part of Germany). At the age of twenty he enrolled in college at Heidelberg. He studied physics and geography both in Heidelberg and in Bonn. He received his Ph.D. in 1881 from the University of Kiel. His dissertation was entitled “Contributions to the Understanding of the Color of Water.” In 1883 Boas undertook his first ethnographic-geographic field research among the Eskimo (Inuit) of Baffin Island in Canada, which resulted in his classic anthropological monograph, The Central Eskimo. After a brief teaching stint at the University of Berlin, Boas returned to North America where he conducted fieldwork in 1886 among the Kwakiutl, which further stimulated his interest in “primitive” culture. He became an American citizen the following year and took a position as Instructor at Clark University. In 1896, he left Clark and became Instructor at Columbia University and Curator of Ethnology for the American Museum of Natural History, both in New York City. In 1899, he became the first Professor of Anthropology at Colombia University, a position that allowed him to instruct a number of important anthropologists who collectively influenced anthropological thought in many ways. In 1910, he assisted in the founding of the International School of American Archaeology and Ethnology, and was its resident director during the 1911-1912 season (Tax 1991:68, see also Bohannan 1973:81).

Boas is the name most often associated with the historicist approach to anthropology. He did not believe that the grand theories of socio-political evolution or diffusion were provable. To him, the view that all societies are part of one single human culture evolving towards a cultural pinnacle is flawed, especially when proposing a western model of civilization as the cultural pinnacle. Boas also depicted the theories regarding independent invention within human culture as inherently incorrect. He argued that many cultures developed independently, each based on its own unique set of circumstances such as geography, climate, resources and particular cultural borrowing. Based on this argument, reconstructing the history of individual cultures requires an in-depth investigation that compares groups of culture traits in specific geographical areas.  Then the distribution of these culture traits must be plotted. Once the distribution of many sets of culture traits is plotted for a general geographic area, patterns of cultural borrowing may be determined. This allows the reconstruction of individual histories of specific cultures by informing the investigator which of the cultural elements were borrowed and which were developed individually (Bock 1996:299). Perhaps the most important and lasting of Boas’ contributions to the field of anthropology is his influence on the generation of anthropologists that followed him and developed and improved on his own work. He was an important figure in encouraging women to enter and thrive in the field. Some of the better known of his students include Kroeber, Mead, Benedict, Lowie, Radin, Wissler, Spier, Bunzel, Hallowell and Montagu (Barfield 1997:44).

Alfred Louis Kroeber (1876-1960) – In 1901, Kroeber received the first Ph.D. awarded by Columbia University in the field of Anthropology. At Columbia he studied under Boas where he developed his interest in ethnology and linguistics. He had a great impact on these two sub-fields through a series of highly influential articles and books published throughout his career. Influenced heavily by Boas, Kroeber was concerned with reconstructing history through a descriptive analysis of concrete cultural phenomena that were grouped into complexes, configurations, and patterns which were themselves grouped into culture types whose comparative relationships could be analyzed to reveal their histories. Kroeber is further noted for his use and development of the idea of culture as a superorganic entity that must be analyzed by methods specific to its nature. In other words, one cannot examine and analyze a culture in the same manner that one would analyze the individual; the two are entirely different phenomena and must be treated as such (Willey 1988:171-92). Although the influence of Boas on his work is clear, Kroeber disagreed with his mentor in several important respects. Kroeber grew to believe that Boas placed too much emphasis on the gathering and organizing of data and was too concerned with causal processes (abstract phenomena) and their description. Kroeber was concerned with concrete phenomena and their development over time and concluded that Boas did not emphasize these aspects enough in his own investigations (Buckley 1991:364-6).

Ruth Benedict (1887-1948) – Benedict studied under Boas at Columbia and received her Ph.D. in 1923. She stayed in New York, the city of her birth, and worked at Columbia for the rest of her life. She began at the University as a part-time teacher in the 1920s and, in 1948, she was appointed, finally,  the first female full professor in the Anthropology department at Columbia University. Throughout her career she conducted extensive fieldwork, gathering data on such groups as the Serrano in California, the Zuni, Cochitii and Pima in the Southwest, the Mescalero Apache in Arizona and the Blackfoot and Blood of the Northwest Plains (Caffrey 1991:44). Benedict is most noted for her development of the concepts of culture configurations and culture and personality, both developed in Patterns of Culture (1934), one of the most influential books in the anthropological canon. Benedict elaborated the concept of culture configuration as a way of characterizing individual cultures as an historical elaboration of those cultures’ personalities or temperaments (Voget 1996:575). Cultural configurations such as Apollonian and Dionysian are products of this relationship and are psychological types that can characterize both individuals and cultures (Seymour-Smith 1986:66).

Robert H. Lowie (1883-1957) – Lowie was born and raised in Vienna but attended college in the United States. He was granted a bachelor’s degree in 1901 from City College of New York and a Ph.D. from Columbia in 1908 where he studied under Boas. His primary interest was kinship and social institutions. He followed Boas’ example by insisting on the collection and analysis of as much data as possible, relying heavily on historical documents in his studies of the Plains Indians. His most lasting contribution to Anthropology was his 1920 publication of Primitive Society, which examined and critiqued Lewis Henry Morgan’s theories about social evolution. The ideas Lowie developed from this critique held sway over the field until the late 1940s with the work of Murdock and Levi-Strauss (Matthey 1991:426-7).

Edward Sapir (1884-1939) – Sapir was born in Laurenberg, Germany, but grew up in New York City and eventually attended Columbia University, where he was attracted to Boas’ work in Native American linguistics. His study under Boas led to fieldwork among the Chinook, Takelma, and Yana Indians of the Northwest. He received his Ph.D. in 1909, writing his dissertation on Takelma grammar. Although he joined Boas, Kroeber, Benedict and others in defining goals in theoretical terms, he disagreed with Boas and Kroeber’s reconciliation of the individual within society. He specifically disagreed with Kroeber’s idea that culture was separate from the individual, His views on this subject more closely resemble those of his friend, Ruth Benedict (Golla 1991:603-5).

Paul Radin (1883-1959) – Radin was born in the city of Lodz (then part of Poland) but moved to the United States with his family when he was only one year old. Although he was interested in history, he worked with Boas at Columbia, receiving a Ph.D. in anthropology in 1910. Radin proved to be a critic of Boas’ methods and concept of culture as well as a critic of two of his other friends, Edward Sapir and Leslie Spier. Radin argued for a less quantitative, more historical approach to ethnology similar to Lowie’s work in the Plains. Radin criticized Kroeber’s superorganic concept of culture and he argued that it is the individual who introduces change or innovation into a culture, and therefore it is the individual who shapes culture and not, as Kroeber argued, culture that shapes the individual (Sacharoff-Fast Wolf 1991:565).

Clark Wissler (1870-1947) – Wissler grew up in Indiana and attended the University of Indiana, earning his A.B and A.M. in psychology. He continued his education at Columbia to work on his Ph.D. in psychology but, because the Anthropology and Psychology departments were merged, he did limited work with Boas. Wissler, unlike Boas and most of his other students, was concerned with broad theoretical statements about culture and anthropology. He paid particular attention to the timing of the diffusion of specific ideas or technologies. He was noted for his use of culture areas in cross-cultural analysis and in building theories. Wissler helped to push anthropology far beyond evolutionism, in addition to pulling it away from Boas’s particularistic style of anthropology (Freed and Freed 1991:763-4).

Arjun Appadurai (born 1949) – Appadurai was born in Mumbai (Bombay), India. He was educated in India, receiving his Intermediate Arts degree from Elphinstone College, before moving to the United States to further his education. He earned his B.A. from Brandeis University (1970) and his M.A. (1973) and PhD (1976) from the University of Chicago, where he became a professor shortly thereafter. Appadurai advocates a view of cultural activity known as social imaginary. The imaginary in this point of view is composed of five different scapes (ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, finanscapes, and ideoscapes) and was deemed a social practice. This moved the imagination into the realm of global cultural processes, and it soon became central to all forms of agency.

Key Works

  • Appadurai, Arjun. 2008. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” In The Anthropology of Globalization: A Reader, 2nd ed., Jonathan Xavier Inda and Renato Rosaldo, editors: 47-65.
  • Benedict, Ruth. 1932. “Configurations of Culture in North America,” American Anthropologist 34: 1-27
  • Benedict, Ruth. 1934. Patterns of Culture. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co.
  • Boas, Franz. 1911. The Mind of Primitive Man. New York: Free Press. Online version available at the Internet Archive.
  • Boas, Franz. 1940. Race, Language, and Culture. New York: Macmillan.
  • Graebner, Fritz. 1911. Die Methode der Ethnologie. Heidelberg: C. Winter.
  • Kroeber, Alfred L. 1917. “The Superorganic,” American Anthropologist 19: 163-213.
  • Kroeber, Alfred L. 1934. “So-Called Social Science,” Journal of Social Philosophy 1: 317-340.
  • Kroeber, Alfred L. 1944. Configurations of Culture Growth. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Kroeber, Alfred L. 1952. The Nature of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Lowie, Robert H. 1920. Primitive Society. New York: Knopf.
  • Lowie, Robert H. 1934. History of Ethnological Theory. New York: Boni and Liveright.
  • Radin, Paul. 1933. The Method and Theory of Ethnology: An Essay in Criticism. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Radin, Paul. 1952. The World of Primitive Man. New York: H. Schuman.
  • Sapir, Edward. 1915. Time Perspectives in Aboriginal American Culture. Ottawa: Department of Mines.
  • Sapir, Edward. 1915. “Do We Need A Superorganic?” American Anthropologist 19: 441-447.
  • Smith, Sir Grafton Elliot. 1915. The Migrations of Early Culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Smith, Sir Grafton Elliot. 1915. The Ancient Egyptians and the Origin of Civilization. (2nd ed.) New York: Harper.

Principal Concepts

Evolutionist School

Evolution and Social Evolution: Evolution is a theory most closely identified with Charles Darwin. This concept was applied to the problem of cultural development and used to develop stage theories of socio-cultural development. These theories tended to argue that all cultures develop at different speeds along a set of predetermined tracks. Therefore, the level of development can be determined according to the place a particular culture occupies on this scale. Once a society has been placed on the scale, its past development could be reconstructed and its possible future predicted. Some advocates of the Evolutionist School extended this argument to include the idea that the reason some societies have developed more quickly than others is that the mental capacities of its members are more developed than those whose progress along this scale has been slower. This approach has been greatly criticized for oversimplifying and overgeneralizing culture change, along with promoting ethnocentric, and sometimes racist, beliefs in explicit favor of Western Europeans. Historicism rose largely out of dissatisfaction with the problems of the evolutionist school.

Diffusionist School

Diffusion: Diffusion is a concept that refers to the spread of a cultural trait from one geographical area to another through such processes as migration, colonization, trade, and cultural borrowings. The concept of diffusion has been used to create two different diffusionist schools: the British and German. The British school, led by G. E. Smith, held that all aspects of culture and civilization were invented once and diffused outwards to spread throughout the world. The German school, led by Graebner, used the principles of culture areas and culture circles to account for independent invention. This theory argued that different aspects of culture and civilization were invented in several different areas and diffused outwards in radiating circles, culture circles. Independent Invention: The principle of independent invention was developed to account for the fact that similar aspects of civilization developed by different peoples in different areas at different times. Most diffusionists did not emphasize the concept of independent invention. While some used the “psychic unity of mankind” concept to explain independent invention, other diffusionists argued that independent invention occurred extremely rarely because humans are inherently uninventive. Culture Area: Adolf Bastian first developed the culture area concept. It was further developed by later scholars from a number of different theoretical schools and used as a tool for cross-cultural analysis as a means of determining the spread of culture traits. The term is used to characterize any region of relative cultural and environmental uniformity, a region containing a common pattern of culture traits (Winthrop 1991:61). The German diffusionists used culture areas to identify where particular cultural elements developed. The spread of a particular cultural element occurs in concentric circles from the point of origin. By identifying culture circles and tracing their spread, the German diffusionists argued that one could reconstruct the entire history of world cultural development (Barfield 1997:103).

Culture Circle: Culture Circle is a term created by the German diffusionists to serve as a methodological tool for tracing the spread of cultural elements from a culture center as a means of reconstructing the history of culture development.

Psychic Unity of Mankind: The concept of psychic unity is used to refer to a common set of modes of thinking and characteristics that transcend specific  individuals or cultures. Evolutionists depended heavily upon the concept. It was in fact the foundation of their comparative method because it made it possible to determine a society’s particular state of development relative to the rest of the world. The British diffusionists used the concept to confirm their belief that civilization developed once in ancient Egypt and then spread through migration and colonization. That all humans share this common set of characteristics and modes of thinking was used as evidence for a single origin of civilization and human culture.

The German diffusionists used the term to refer to sets of folk ideals and elementary ideals. For example, the elementary idea of deity is represented as a set of different folk ideals in individual cultures such as the Christian God, Allah, Buddha, Ra, Odin, etc. (Winthrop 1991:222-3).

Historical Particularist Approach

Culture: There is no single definitive construal of culture and more than likely never will be. Rather than adding yet another definition to the mix, the approaches to  “culture” advanced by key figures in the historicst approach are depicted below:

  • Boas: Franz Boas viewed culture as a set of customs, social institutions and beliefs that characterize any specific society. He argued that cultural differences were not due to race, but rather to differing environmental conditions and other ‘accidents of history’ (Goodenough 1996:292). Further, cultures had to be viewed as fusions of differing culture traits that developed in different space and time (Durrenberger 1996:417)
  • Kroeber: Kroeber’s view of culture is best described by the term superorganic, that is, culture is sui generis and as such can only be explained in terms of itself. Culture is an entity that exists separate from the psychology and biology of the individual and obeys its own set of laws (Winthrop 1991:280-281).
  • Benedict: Ruth Benedict defined culture as basic ways of living and defined the culture of a specific group of people in terms of a unique culture configuration or psychological type. The collective psychologies of a certain people make up their cultural configuration, which is determined by the collective relationship, and nature of a culture’s parts (Goodenough 1996:139).
  • Lowie: Lowie’s view of culture is very much like that of Boas. He considered culture to be disparate histories, Boas’ the product of combination of geographical conditions, resources, and accidents of history (Bernard and Spencer 1996: 139).
  • Sapir: Sapir placed more emphasis on the individual than either Boas or Kroeber. He argued that culture is not contained within a society itself. Culture consists of the many interactions between the individuals of the society (Barnard and Spencer 1996:139).
  • Radin: Radin differed from both Boas and Kroeber, particularly the later, in his approach and conceptualization of culture. He stressed the importance of the individual as an agent of cultural change. In contrast to Kroeber who claimed culture was an entity of its own and shaped the individual, Radin argued that the individual molds culture through innovation of new techniques and beliefs (Sacharoff-Fast Wolf 1991:565).
  • Wissler: Wissler defined culture in his writings as a learned behavior or a complex of ideas (Freed and Freed 1991:763). He argued that individual elements of culture are expressed as many culture traits that may be grouped into culture complexes. The whole of culture complexes was the expression of culture (Barnard and Spencer 1996:139).

Superorganic: This is a term coined by Herbert Spencer in 1867 and utilized by Kroeber to help explain his view of culture and culture change. He viewed culture as an entity in-and-of itself and separate from the individual. To accurately understand culture, a separate body of theory and methodology specific to culture must be utilized (Winthrop 1991:280).

Cultural Relativism: This tenant holds that the beliefs, customs, practices and rituals of an individual culture must be observed and evaluated from the perspective in which they originate and are manifested. This is the only way to truly understand the meaning of observations and place them in historical context (Barfield 1997:98).

Culture and Personality: This concept is associated with Ruth Benedict. The basic tenants of it are explained in Patterns of Culture (1934). The argument holds that culture is like an individual in that it is a more-or-less consistent pattern of thoughts and behavior. These consistent patterns take on the emotional and intellectual characteristics of the individuals within the society. These characteristics may be studied to gain insight into the people under investigation. This has been criticized as being psychological reductionism (Seymore-Smith 1986:66).

Culture Configuration: This is a concept developed by Ruth Benedict to assist in explaining the nature of culture. A culture configuration is the expression of the personality of a specific society. A culture configuration is the sum of all the individual personalities of the society, a sort of societal psychological average. Differences in cultural configurations are not representative of a higher or lower capacity for cultural development but are instead simply alternative means of organizing society and experience (Caffrey 1991:44).

Neo-Boasianism: Neo-Boasianism is a return to, and re-thinking of, some of the principles of historical particularism and structural realism that had pervaded the ideas of Franz Boas and the original Historical Particularist School. It centered on the analysis of the relations between the mind and observable social structures. Neo-Boasianism is a return to realism and the critical science within an anthropological framework. It is not particularly entrenched in structural analysis, yet anthropologists that subscribe to this mode of thinking are concerned with the connections between sociocultural structures and biological structures. Neo-Boasianism highlights a type of agency, focusing on the actions of individuals within the cultural system as operations of structure. Social structures, according to this school of thought, only exist so long as there are relationships between agents. It is the analysis of the connection between external social structures and the structures of the brain by the means of a cultural neurohermeneutic system. This system allowed humans to connect antecedent reality with consequent reality. It is by this link between realities that social structure formation is made possible.


Historical particularism is an approach to understanding the nature of culture and cultural changes of specific populations of people. Boas argued that the history of a particular culture lay in the study of its individual traits unfolding in a limited geographical region. After many different cultures have been studied in the same way within a region, the history of individual cultures may be reconstructed. By having detailed data from many different cultures as a common frame of reference, individual culture traits may be singled out as being borrowed or invented. This is a crucial element of reconstructing the history of a particular culture. (Bock 1996:299).

To this end, Boas and his students stressed the importance of gathering as much data as possible about individual cultures before any assumptions or interpretations are made regarding a culture or culture change within a culture. He and his students took great pains to record all manner of information. This included the recording of oral history and tradition (salvage ethnology) and basic ethnographic methods such as participant observation. The emphasis on intensive participant observation largely paralleled Malinowski’s fieldwork methods being used by European anthropologists around the same time (see Functionalism for more on this topic). However, the people being studied and the overall theoretical aims of these two schools were quite different. Boas also stressed the importance of all sub-fields of anthropology in reconstructing history. Ethnographic evidence must be used with linguistic evidence, archaeological remains and physical and biological evidence. This approach became known as the four-field method of anthropology and was spread to anthropology departments all over the United States by Boas’ students and their students.

Some Methodological Statements

  • Franz Boas:”If we want to make progress on the desired line, we must insist upon critical methods, based not on generalities but on each individual case” (Boas, as quoted by Harris 260).
  • “Boas was aggressively atheoretical, rejecting as unsubstantiated assumptions the grand reconstructions of both evolutionists, such as Lewis Henry Morgan and Herbert Spencer, and diffusionists, such as G. E. Smith and Fritz Graebner” (Winthrop 83-84).
  • Marvin Harris records Boas’ “mission” as seeking “to rid anthropology of its amateurs and armchair specialists by making ethnographic research in the field the central experience and minimum attribute of professional status” (Harris 250)
  • Paul Radin argued that ethnography  should only have “as much of the past and as much of the contacts with other cultures as is necessary for the elucidation of the particular period. No more” (Radin, as quoted by Hays 292).
  • Clark Wissler:”The future status of anthropology depends upon the establishment of a chronology for man and his culture based upon objective verifiable data” (Wissler, as quoted by Hays 290).


Many of Boas’ conclusions, as well as those of his most noted students, have fallen out of favor as more anthropological work has been carried out. However, Boas and his students are responsible for taking anthropology away from grand theories of evolution and diffusion and refocusing its attention on the many different societies of the world and the great variety of cultural expression that characterizes them. Also, the interplay of countless factors that influence culture and culture change received more attention as a result of the work of Boas and his students.

The emphasis on the importance of data collection has paid dividends for modern scholars. The vast amount of information generated by their investigations has provided raw information for countless subsequent studies and investigations, much of which would have been lost to time had ‘oral cultures’ not been recorded. Though current fieldwork methods have changed since Boas set forth his ideas on participant observation, those ideas have formed the foundation for fieldwork methods among anthropologists in the U.S.


Most of the criticism of historical particularism has arisen over the issue of data collection and fear of making overly broad theoretical pronouncements. Boas’ insistence on the tireless collection of data fell under attack by some of his own students, particularly Wissler. Some saw the vast amounts being collected as a body of knowledge that would never be synthesized by the investigator. Furthermore, if the investigator was reluctant to generate broad theories on cultural development and culture change, what was the point of gathering so much work in such detail?

Eventually, salvage ethnography was also abandoned in favor of ethnography dealing with modern processes such as colonization and globalization. Instead of asking people about their past, some anthropologists have found it more important to study the cultural processes of the present.

Sources and Bibliography

  • Barfield, Thomas ed. (1997) The Dictionary Anthropology. New York, Blackwell Publishers.
  • Barnard, Alan and Jonathan Spencer. Culture. Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology, pp. 136-142. Edited by Alan Barnard and Jonathan Spencer. Routledge, London & New York.
  • Bock, Phillip K (1996). “Culture Change.” Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology Vol. 1, pp. 299-302. Edited by David Levinson and Melvin Ember. Henry Holt & Co., New York.
  • Bohannan, Paul (1973). High Points in Anthropology. Knopf, New York.
  • Brashkow, Ira (2004) “A Neo-Boasian Conception of Cultural Boundaries.” American Anthropologist, Vol. 106, No. 3 (2004), pp. 443-458.
  • Brew, J. O. (1968) One Hundred Years of Anthropology. Cambridge, Harvard University Press.
  • Buckley, Thomas. “Alfred L. Kroeber.” International Dictionary of Anthropologists, pp. 364-366. Garland Publishing, New York and London.
  • Caffrey, Margaret M. (1996) “Ruth Benedict.” International Dictionary of Anthropologists, pp. 44-46. Garland Publishing, New York and London.
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