The Critical Bite of Cultural Relativism
The pioneers of cultural anthropology taught not just how to study other cultures, but how to criticize their own.
October 10, 2019
Oct 10, 2019
21 Min read time
The pioneers of cultural anthropology taught not just how to study other cultures, but how to criticize their own.
Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century
Doubleday, $30 (cloth)
“I have had a curious experience in graduate work during the last few years,” the anthropologist Franz Boas wrote to a colleague in 1920. “All my best students are women.”
The sea change was telling. Now often called the father of American anthropology, Boas—Prussian-born, Jewish, and male—in fact exerted tremendous influence far beyond the academic discipline he helped to establish, presiding over a revolution in the social sciences and becoming one of the best-known public intellectuals of the first half of the twentieth century. While his work ranged widely, from linguistics to mythology and physical anthropology, he is now mostly remembered for the methodological rigor he brought to the field, the many students he mentored, and his career-long opposition to scientific racism.
Now known as the father of American anthropology, Boas found a wide audience. His books were among the first to be burned by the Nazis.
In hundreds of academic essays, as well as in his public writing and activism, Boas developed a view of human cultures that was at once empirically grounded and historically sensitive, emphasizing the socially contingent in place of the biologically determined. This outlook influenced many prominent intellectuals of the day, from John Dewey to W. E. B. Du Bois. (Looking back on Boas’s commencement address at Atlanta University in 1906, Du Bois wrote that Boas’s message—“You need not be ashamed of your African past”—inspired a “sudden awakening.”) His books, including his best-known The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), found a wide audience—earning him a place on the cover of Time in 1936—and were among the first to be burned by the Nazis.
These ideas challenged prevailing conceptions of racial and social hierarchy. Where the natural sciences had taught that humans were divided into fixed, biological types, Boas argued that the data called for a more nuanced account of human difference. Contrary to the dispensations of social Darwinism, he contended, differences observed across human groups—from the physical to the cognitive and social—were often the result of their distinctive cultural environments, rather than inherited biological traits. His many influential students would extend this insight to other categories used to sort people. For them, all observable differences—in sexual mores, in religious beliefs, in everyday customs—reflected the variety of ways humans had devised for living, no one way superior to any other. “Cultural relativism,” as it became known, was born.
The history of cultural anthropology is in part the story of a group of women whose work liberated them, in some measure, from the constraining norms of their time.
This, in brief, is the story of Charles King’s new book Gods of the Upper Air, which makes a compelling case for the importance of the work of the Boas circle in shaping many of the ideas about human variation that we take for granted today. A group biography of Boas and four of his disciples—Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ella Cara Deloria—the book illuminates the context and stakes behind a transformative period in the history of the social sciences. Boas’s other influential students receive much less attention, among them the linguist Edward Sapir, who applied methods typically reserved for “civilized” languages to the study of indigenous ones and advanced the still controversial thesis of the linguistic relativity of thought, and the anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits, who helped establish African and African American studies in the U.S. academy.
But King’s selection of characters may be his most instructive contribution. The story he tells is not only about an important moment in the history of the social sciences, but also about a group of women whose travels across the American empire liberated them, in some measure, from the constraining norms of their time. Not all cultures, it turned out, were as good as any other. And it was, in particular, the culture at home that they found wanting.
• • •
Race thinking has always been a preeminently American occupation. When President Trump complained in 2018 that the United States was admitting too many immigrants from “shithole countries” instead of places like Norway, many were quick to decry his comments as un-American. Fewer acknowledged that race has long been the criterion par excellence for entry into the life of the republic.
In 1790 Congress passed the first naturalization act restricting citizenship to “free white persons.” Five years earlier, Thomas Jefferson had asked in Notes on the State of Virginia, “Will not a lover of natural history then, one who views the gradations in all the races of animals with the eye of philosophy, excuse an effort to keep those in the department of man as distinct as nature has formed them?” Three years after the Civil War ended, the Fourteenth Amendment extended citizenship to “All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” The latter clause would allow the Supreme Court, sixteen years later, to deny citizenship to John Elk, an American Indian living in Omaha, because Elk was born on a reservation and therefore not “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States.
Race thinking has always been a preeminently American occupation.
Governing an empire requires defining categories of difference—giving them content, regulating their margins. It requires no small feat of mental acrobatics to codify universal principles that grant rights and privileges to some but not others. The early phase of anthropology was serviceable in this regard. In the late eighteenth century the German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach collected and catalogued human skulls, measured them, and concluded that humanity divided into five racial groups: “Caucasians” who were of European, Middle Eastern, and North African origin; “Mongolians” from East and Central Asia; “Malayans” of Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands; “Ethiopians” of sub-Saharan Africa; and “Americans.” Blumenbach plucked the word “Caucasian” from the stuff of fantasy. Citing a seventeenth-century traveler who visited the mountain range nestled between the Caspian and the Black Seas and found the Georgian women attractive, Blumenbach decided to adopt the name of those mountains as a label for the people who shared his own skin color. Craniometry and phrenology may be discredited sciences, but we continue to employ terms of their invention.
It didn’t take long for the new science of mankind to find a receptive audience on the other side of the Atlantic. A popular U.S. textbook from 1854 declared:
There are reasons why Ethnology should be eminently a science for American culture. Here, three of the five races, into which Blumenbach divided mankind, are brought together to determine the problem of their destiny as they best may, while Chinese immigration to California and the proposed importation of Coolie laborers threaten to bring us into equally intimate contact with a fourth. It is manifest that our relation to and management of these people must depend, in a great measure, upon their intrinsic race character.
When the Supreme Court was again asked to rule on the question of citizenship, it found Blumenbach’s distinctions useful. In 1914 Takao Ozawa, who was born in Japan but had spent much of his life in California, applied for citizenship under the Naturalization Act, arguing that his light skin color made him a “free white person.” In 1922 the Court denied his request. It was well understood, they said, that “white person” meant “a person of the Caucasian race,” but Ozawa was “clearly of a race that was not Caucasian.”
Just three months later, in yet another citizenship case, the court heard arguments from Bhagat Singh Thind, who was born in India but had moved to the United States and served in the U.S. Army during World War I. Thind argued that he was Caucasian and therefore a “free white person,” citing Blumenbach’s findings that the home of the “Caucasian” race extended from Europe to the Ganges. This time the justices retreated from the earlier analysis, arguing that since the framers of the naturalization statute were unfamiliar with the term “Caucasian,” it was inappropriate to use a word of scientific origin rather than popular understandings of “white person.” “The words of familiar speech,” they argued, “which were used by the original framers of the law, were intended to include only the type of man whom they knew as white.”
It requires no small feat of mental acrobatics to codify universal principles that grant rights and privileges to some but not others.
It was in this morass that Franz Boas intervened. Born in Germany, Boas studied physics at the University of Kiel, receiving a doctorate in 1881 for measuring the distortions of light as it moves through water. He soon lost interest in the subject and decided to switch fields. Inspired by tales of Arctic exploration, he proposed to study the migration patterns of the Innuits of Baffin Island in northern Canada. He convinced a Berlin newspaper to publish his stories of the journey, billing himself as the German Henry Morton Stanley, the Welsh explorer famous for his expeditions into central Africa.
After a few months living among the Innuit, learning their language, and recording their stories, Boas wrote to his friend (and future wife) Marie Krackowizer, “I often ask myself what advantages our ‘good society’ possesses over that of the ‘savages.’” In 1887 he immigrated to the United States, where he married Marie, the daughter of a prominent physician, worked as a curator at the Smithsonian (then the chief center of U.S. anthropology), and became a professor of anthropology at Columbia. He carried out research in the Pacific Northwest and, in collaboration with his informant George Hunt, published a series of works on the myths and folklore of the Kwakiutl of British Columbia.
Boas got his first taste of both the possibilities and limitations of his science in combating racial politics. In 1907, in response to an uptick of immigrants from places that weren’t Norway, the U.S. Congress set up a commission to study the effects of immigration on the body politic, engaging Boas the following year to prepare a report on “the immigration of different races into this country.” Boas and his assistants traveled around New York City measuring the head sizes and other physical features of different immigrant populations: Jews on the Lower East Side; Italians in Yonkers; Hungarians, Poles and Slavs in Brooklyn. All together some 17,821 individuals participated in the study.
The results surprised Boas. In the mid-nineteenth century the Swedish anatomist Anders Retzius had developed the so-called cephalic index, the ratio of the maximum width of the skull to it its maximum length. Physical anthropologists seized on the measure as a way to quantify racial differences; it was thought that the average cephalic index of a group could tell you something about its distinctive inherited traits. Boas’s findings shattered this bedrock of racial anthropology. The U.S-born children of immigrants, he found in his study, had strikingly different skull shapes than their European-born parents, suggesting that environment, much more than heredity, determined cranial form. “The adaptability of the immigrant,” Boas wrote, “seems to be very much greater than we had a right to suppose before our investigations were instituted.”
Boas developed a view of human cultures that was at once empirically grounded and historically sensitive, emphasizing the socially contingent in place of the biologically determined.
For Boas, the conclusion was clear: fixed, racial types did not exist. Rather, “all the evidence is now in favor of a great plasticity of human types, and the permanence of types in new surroundings appears rather as the exception than as the rule.” There was no reason to suggest that immigrants, of any origin, could not adapt to their new environment, he argued; nurture shaped individuals as much as nature. In his careful study In Search of Human Nature (1991), the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Carl Degler characterized Boas’s work for the immigration commission as “a stunning empirical blow against those who doubted the power of the social environment on human beings.”
These claims did not go uncriticized. The prominent English statistician Karl Pearson, an avowed eugenicist and student of Francis Galton, published a critique in 1924. And regardless, the senators behind the commission all staunchly opposed immigration; they virtually ignored Boas’s findings. In their final report they wrote that the commission “deemed it reasonable to follow the classification employed by Blumenbach.” And, though many of the recent immigrants were technically white, the report pointed out they hailed from the “less progressive and advanced countries of Europe.” Aggressive immigration quotas followed.
• • •
Around this time a Vassar graduate named Ruth Benedict started taking classes at the Free School (which would later become the New School for Social Research), an antidote to her otherwise suburban role as the wife of a biochemist. There she was introduced to the latest studies of the Native Americans of the Southwest. She enrolled in the graduate program in anthropology at Columbia, earning her doctorate in 1923. She was one of only forty women in the country that year, in all of the social sciences, to receive a Ph.D. The following summer she traveled to New Mexico to study Zuñi culture. She spent hours talking to people, transcribing folktales, and observing practices. She was struck by what she saw: women held exclusive property rights, wealth passed from mothers to daughters, and descent was traced through the mother’s line. A woman who wanted to divorce her husband needed only to leave his possessions out on the doorstep. “When he comes home in the evening,” Benedict wrote, “he sees the little bundle, picks it up and cries, and returns with it to his mother's house.”
Benedict, like many of Boas’s female students, had a great deal of firsthand knowledge of “the socially unavailable.”
Benedict found the Zuñi enlightening not only on matters of matriarchy but also with regard to gender and sexuality. “Western civilization,” she wrote, “tends to regard even a mild homosexual as an abnormal. . . . We have only to turn to other cultures, however, to realize that homosexuals have by no means been uniformly inadequate to the social situation.” Among the Zuñi, not only were “homosexuals . . . often regarded as exceptionally able,” but there was also a recognized third gender role. “Men-women,” as Benedict called them, were often respected healers or organizers. (Contemporary indigenous activists use “two spirit” as an umbrella term for the many forms of this third gender role traditionally practiced in a number of Native American communities.) “Men who have chosen openly to assume women’s dress,” she wrote, “have the same chance as any other persons to establish themselves as functioning members of the society. Their response is socially recognized.”
All of this led Benedict to push Boas’s thought into more radical territory. She had learned the “ease with which our abnormals function in other cultures.” And in her 1934 Patterns of Culture, she argued that each culture selects from “the great arc of potential human purposes and motivations” a pattern of characteristics that it privileges. “Normal” behavior, she wrote in a 1934 essay “Anthropology and the Abnormal,” is constituted not by a universal code of moral conduct, but by the particular set of traits selected by the society. To feel abnormal was to experience “the psychic dilemmas of the socially unavailable.” This claim has had a long intellectual legacy. In his first book, Mental Illness and Psychology (1954), Michel Foucault credited Benedict with recognizing that culture, not nature, defined what constituted “normal” and “pathological,” but he also criticized her for understanding the pathological only in negative terms, as behavior that deviated from an accepted norm.
Benedict had a great deal of firsthand knowledge of “the socially unavailable.” Columbia appointed her as an assistant professor only after she divorced her husband in 1931. (Before that point it was deemed unnecessary.) She was the first woman there to hold a full-time faculty position, but her salary was less than that of a male visiting scholar. She was never allowed in the men-only faculty club, and she spent years as Boas’s teaching assistant in order to fund her research.
It was in one of Boas’s classes that Benedict met Margaret Mead, a Barnard undergraduate, and convinced Mead to apply to do graduate work in anthropology. The two would become close friends, colleagues, and lovers. Mead traveled to another corner of the U.S. empire to carry out fieldwork—American Samoa—and found her encounters eye-opening, as Benedict had. She spent extended time with teenage girls studying adolescence. She wanted to understand: “Are the disturbances which vex our adolescents due to the nature of adolescence itself or to the civilization?”
Her answer was firmly the latter. She wrote to Benedict from the field: “Romantic love as it occurs in our civilization, inextricably bound up with ideas of monogamy, exclusiveness, jealousy, and undeviating fidelity does not occur in Samoa.” Mead’s own “psychic dilemmas” made the possibility of alternatives to monogamous heterosexual relationships liberating. Writing to Benedict of her second (of three) husbands, she quipped, “So I do feel I’ve given monogamy, in an absolute sense, a pretty fair trial and found it wanting, and now it’s fair for him to try ‘my culture’ for a change, if he can do so without violence to his own temperament.” Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) would become a national bestseller, though it also came in for repeated attacks: first from Mead’s contemporaries for too freely blending scientific observation with more impressionistic reflection, and, later, by scholars who returned to Samoa and disputed her findings.
The writing of these women was not a celebration of diversity. It was a pointed critique of the institutions and arrangements that then prevailed in the United States.
King spends less time with his other two characters—Zora Neale Hurston and Ella Cara Deloria—though the scale of the obstacles to their success was far greater. All four of Hurston’s grandparents had been enslaved in Georgia and Alabama. She grew up in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated African American city, and would return there to carry out field research. Her studies of their folklore—“the boiled-down juice of human living”—became the basis for her 1937 novel Their Eyes were Watching God. Boas praised her work for portraying “the true inner life of the Negro,” but she faced heavy criticism from the circle of Harlem Renaissance writers in which she sometimes ran. They found her depictions of southern black life prone to quaint stereotype. The title of King’s book comes from a line in Hurston’s autobiography that celebrates the perspective of the “gods of the upper air,” as opposed to the “gods of the pigeonholes.”
Deloria, a member of a prominent Yankton Dakota family, grew up on the Standing Rock reservation. She was studying for a degree at Teacher’s College when Boas called on her to help him teach a class on the Dakota language. They later collaborated on a volume on Dakota linguistics. Like Hurston, Deloria bore a fraught relation to the people she studied in ways that other members of the Boas circle could hardly appreciate. Deloria wrote to Boas from the field, which was also her home:
I can not tell you how essential it is for me to take beef or some food each time I go to an informant—the moment I don’t, I take myself right out of the Dakota side and class myself with outsiders. . . . later I can go back, and ask them all sorts of questions, and get my information as one would get favors from a relative. It is hard to explain, but it is the only way I can work. To go at it like a white man, for me, an Indian, is to throw up an immediate barrier between myself and the people.
• • •
As a group, King tells us, the Boas circle championed positions that many of us now take for granted: that categories of race and gender are a product of culture, rather than biology, and that ethnocentrism is bad. Though their methods soon fell out of favor—anthropologists came to question their view of “culture” as a unified phenomenon and to propose more self-reflexive approaches to fieldwork—King means for us to celebrate their work for advancing “a theory of humanity that embraces all the many ways we humans have devised for living” and for helping us “get smarter” about “the many possible ways of living a meaningful, flourishing life.”
The story of cultural anthropology is more interesting than King allows. He has a tendency to neutralize the critical bite that underwrites the work he surveys.
But this argument, on the whole, boils down to the banal observation that the people who studied other cultures taught us to appreciate diversity. It has historically been the rule, rather than the exception, that the encounter with a different society induces a measure of humility and relativism about one’s own. In his 1580 essay Of Cannibals Montaigne famously wrote about the ceremonies relayed to him by a traveler to the New World: “every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live.”
Fortunately, the story King tells is more interesting than he allows. Part of the problem is that—in the service of a whiggish narrative about “American progress and the opening of the modern mind,” as the book jacket announces—King has a tendency to neutralize the critical bite that underwrites the work he surveys. In its place he substitutes a triumphalism that is not entirely warranted. Boas’s foundational insight, King writes, was to show “that the people whose remains had been put on display, whose cultures were made over as pop primitivism, were fully human after all.” Does this supposed innovation really merit feel-good claims about progress?
Moreover, to suggest that the Boas circle singlehandedly inspired the later overhaul of universalist truths under the banner of relativism may be to overstate their influence, as wide-ranging as it was. Certainly, the reception of more than a few European philosophers—Friedrich Nietzsche, Jacques Derrida, and Foucault for a start—also had something to do with the relativistic impulses that dominated humanities departments in the final decades of the twentieth century. As King points out, when Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind, his 1987 screed against cultural relativism, both Mead and Benedict proved easy targets. But so did many others: Nietzsche but also Theodor Adorno, Yoko Ono, Louis Armstrong singing “Mack the Knife,” Woody Allen in Zelig.
The celebratory mode of King’s narrative might appear excessive for other reasons as well. Discrimination and financial precarity plagued the careers of all four women King studies. Stable academic employment was closed off to most of them. Deloria lived for a time out of her car. “It is thrilling,” Hurston wrote, “to think—to know that for any act of mine, I shall get twice as much praise or twice as much blame.” Her 1960 obituary in the Associated Press read, “Zora Neale Hurston, author, died in obscurity and poverty.” When Langston Hughes published his memoir about the Harlem Renaissance, he dismissed her with the line, “Girls are funny creatures!” Mead, who for much of her career held a curatorial position at the Museum of Natural History, wrote to Benedict, “I don’t think having the worst paid job in the Museum, and never having been offered another job, and having been panned or damned with faint praise in all the journals of my own science, is wonderful recognition.” As Benedict wrote in her journal, “So much of the trouble is because I am a woman. To me it seems a very terrible thing to be a woman.”
What these women imagined was not a future in which we all might get together despite our differences, but one in which we regularly take stock of prevailing norms and ask whether they are serving us all.
Was it any wonder that they found liberation in cultures that seemed to treat women not just differently, but better? And that the lesson they took from this was, the way things are is not how it has to be? King ends his book with a litany of bromides, telling us that cultural relativism is about “realizing the limitations of your own culture, even if it claims to be cultureless and global; feeling the power of prayer if you reject someone else’s god; understanding the inner logic of bewildering political preferences.” This is a blunted gloss of what Mead writes in Coming of Age in Samoa: “Realizing that our own ways are not humanly inevitable nor God-ordained, but are the fruits of a long and turbulent history, we may well examine in turn all of our institutions, thrown into strong relief against the history of other civilizations, and weighing them in the balance, be not afraid to find them wanting.” Benedict likewise wrote, “It is possible to scrutinize different institutions and cast up their cost in terms of social capital, in terms of the less desirable behavior traits they stimulate, and in terms of human suffering and frustration.”The writing of these women was thus not quite a celebration of the many wonderful “ways humans have devised” for living. It was rather a pointed critique of the institutions and arrangements that then prevailed in the United States. What they imagined was not a future in which we all might get together despite our differences, but one in which we regularly take stock of prevailing norms and ask whether they are serving us all—in which we consider whom those norms sideline, whom they subjugate, whom they render abnormal or second-class. “No society,” Benedict wrote, “has yet attempted a self-conscious direction of the process by which its new normalities are created in the next generation.” What we have, in the end, is a story of a group of scholars who reformed an imperial science to make it a little more accountable to its legacy of human suffering. As we continue to imagine new “normalities,” whether in college classrooms or beyond, we might draw wisdom from the women who were first in the room.
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October 10, 2019
21 Min read time