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Qwiz5 Quizbowl Essentials – Franz Boas

Franz Boas was a German-born American anthropologist responsible for developing the 20th’s century distinctly American school of anthropology. Teaching at Columbia University, Boas was a mentor to some of the most famous anthropologists of the past century, including Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. While not all of Boas’ ideas are still in currency, his influence on the field of anthropology cannot be denied.

By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on Franz Boas.


Boas was famously tone-deaf, but he was always fascinated by languages, even tonal ones. In 1889, his paper On Alternating Sounds made a significant contribution both to anthropology and linguistics. A linguist named Daniel Brinton had studied Native American languages and identified what he considered to be inconsistencies in the sounds used in spoken language. For Brinton this was proof that Native American languages were “inferior” to European ones. Boas challenged this notion in his paper, suggesting instead that Brinton’s own culturally-determined notions of sound consistency were leading him to consider Native American languages as inconsistent.


Published in 1911, The Mind of Primitive Man is one of Boas’ most-remembered works. The Mind of Primitive Man challenged eugenicist and racist ideas that were in vogue among anthropologists of the time. Based on his fieldwork in places such as Baffin Island, Boas argued that there was nothing inherently superior about “Western civilization” when compared to other societies and cultures.


Boas further developed the ideas from The Mind of Primitive Man into the notion of cultural relativism. Cultural relativism dictates that a culture must be understood on its own terms, not through comparison to other cultures. Boas’ fieldwork among the Kwakiutl people of the Pacific Northwest helped him develop this theory. The Kwakiutl tradition of the potlatch, an idea that was alien to “Western” understandings of culture, taught Boas to analyze foreign cultural practices separately from his own.


Before studying cultures of the Pacific Northwest, Boas spent time among the Inuit peoples of Baffin Island. Boas’ ethnographic fieldwork concerning the migration patterns of the Inuit resulted in the production of a work known as The Central Eskimo.


Boas arguably founded anthropology as a distinct course of study in the United States. He established the first anthropology department at Columbia and molded the minds of many future anthropologists. One of his students, Alfred Kroeber, went on to establish UC-Berkley’s anthropology department. Some of his other students include the author Zora Neale Hurston and linguist Edward Sapir.


Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:

  • One of our early Qwiz5s focused on Margaret Mead, a student of Franz Boas.

  • After studying with Boas, Zora Neale Hurston published her own ethnographic classic, Mules and Men.

  • Boas’ work inspired linguists to consider the ways in which language impacts thought, and vice versa.

  • Visit this website to learn more about the Kwakiutl, including their unique artistic style.

  • Wondering what a potlatch actually is? Watch this video for an explanation of traditional potlatch.


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