Who Needs Stocking when you have me

Tue, 14 Dec 1993 20:57:01 EST

Who needs Stocking when you have me. I am responding to heathers post
which queried when Boas first began to discuss the notion of
cultural relativity. My research demonstrates that Boas was
thinking about cultural relativity as early as 1887. I have
provided some context for when, I think, Boas first penned the
notion of relativity.

As early as 1887 Boas began to combat scientific racism. He
criticized curators of museum exhibits for arranging their
artifacts into categories which denoted the degree of savagery,
barbarianism, or civilization. He argued that this method employed
a fraudulent deductive logic, that was "not founded on the
phenomenon, but in the mind of the student" (Boas 1887a:614). The
debates were conducted through a series of letters to the editor of
Science and involved Otis T. Mason, the President of the
Anthropological Society of Washington, and John W. Powell, the
Director of the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American
Ethnology (1887a, 1887b, 1887c). Boas demonstrated that arranging
exhibits based on the evolution of technology was erroneous. In
order to understand primitive technology, he argued, it had to be
viewed within its historical and ethnological context. He
suggested that an "ethnological phenomenon is not expressed by its
appearance, by the state in which it is, but by its whole history.
. . therefore arguments from analogies of the outward appearance,
such as shown in Professor Mason's collections, are deceptive"
(Boas 1887b:589). Boas' logic, which was not completely clear,
became a cornerstone for the inductive ethnographic studies which
he and his students pursued. He argued that:

The outward appearance of two phenomena may be
identical, yet their immanent qualities may be
altogether different; . . . these remarks show
how the same phenomena may originate from
unlike causes, and that my opinion does not at
all strive against the axiom, 'Like effects
spring from like causes,' which belongs to
that class of axioms which cannot be
converted. Though like causes have like
effects, like effects have not like causes
(Boas 1887b:589).

This was a significant passage because it called into question the
assumption that each ethnic group passes through the same
succession of cultural stages on the road to civilization. Boas'
notion of the relativity of cultures is also solidified in the
debates over museum classification. For example, he stated:

It is my opinion that the main object of
ethnological collections should be the
dissemination of the fact that civilization is
not something absolute, but that it is
****relative****, and that our ideas and
conceptions are true only so far as our
civilization goes. I believe that this object
can be accomplished only by the tribal
arrangement of collections (1887b:589)

These thoughts were important precursors for much of his work after

Boas, Franz
1887a "Museums of Ethnology and Their Class-
ification," Science 9:29:614.

1887b "Museums of Ethnology and their Classifica-
tion" Science 9:29:587-89.

1887c "The Occurrence of Similar Inventions in Areas
Widely Apart," Science 9:29:485-86.

Lee D. Baker
National Museum of American History
Smithsonian Museum Wa