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A Radical Humanist. Franz Boas at the Centennial of The Mind of Primitive Man


for Members

A Radical Humanist. Franz Boas at the Centennial of The Mind of Primitive Man

Monday, March 28, 2011

Wenner-Gren Foundation, 470 Park Avenue South, 8th Fl

The year 2011 marks the 100th year anniversary of the publication of The Mind of Primitive Man, Franz Boas’s first monograph on the question of race. Although questions of race (as an allo-ascription of difference) seem to have been superseded by concerns about self-ascription and determination, the Boasian problematic urges us to interrogate questions of alterity (self- or allo-located). The papers on this panel will consider aspects of Boasian anthropology within the context of this centennial.

A reception will precede the meeting at 6:00 pm



Neni Panourgiá

Columbia University


Regna Darnell

University of Western Ontario

Regna Darnell is Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology and First Nations Studies at the University of Western Ontario. She has published widely in history of anthropology and the linguistic anthropology of Native North America. She edits the series "Critical Studies in History of Anthropology" and "Histories of Anthropology Annual" for the University of Nebraska Press. Her biography of Edward Sapir was republished in 2010 and she currently is assembling an editorial team for a critical edition of the Franz Boas papers. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, member of the American Philosophical Society and recipient of the American Anthropological Association's Franz Boas Medal.

James Boon

Princeton University

Jim Boon is professor of anthropology at Princeton University, where he chaired the department in 1998-99 and 2002-2007. His writings address the composite history of anthropology, hybrid arts, and comparative inquiry. He has done fieldwork in Java and Bali, research on colonialist Indonesia, and interdisciplinary studies on ritual practice, the poetics of consumption, and museum life globally. Jim’s work on Boasian scholars threads through all his books (including "The Anthropological Romance of Bali", 1977; "Other Tribes, Other Scribes", 1982; and "Verging on Extra-Vagance", 1999). His next array of essays, tentatively titled "Cultural Comparison, Showcased Encore", offers novel returns to Geertz, Weber, Boasians, Frazer, Lévi-Strauss, critical theory, and commercial desire.

Adriana Garriga-Lopez

Kalamazoo College

Adriana Garriga-Lopez was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She received her B.A. in anthropology and comparative literature from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey and her M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. degrees in anthropology from Columbia University in New York. In September of 2010, she joined the faculty of the Anthropology and Sociology Department of Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan as Assistant Professor and Inaugural Arcus Chair in Social Justice Leadership. She has published scholarly articles in New Proposals: Journal of Marxism and Interdisciplinary Inquiry (2009) and Sargasso: A Journal of Caribbean Literature, Language & Culture (2008, 2007). An article co-authored with Lisa Uperesa is forthcoming (2011) in Sovereign Acts, edited by Frances Negrón-Muntaner. Her Monograph Viral Citizens: The Coloniality of HIV/AIDS in Puerto Rico is under review for publication.


Neni Panourgiá

Columbia University


Mind, Body, and the Native Point of View in Boas's Mind of Primitive Man

Regna Darnell , University of Western Ontario

The Mind of Primitive Man (1911) stands as the primary theoretical manifesto of Boas' anthropology. Reassessment is overdue for at least two reasons: first, the basic point that relational or abstract thought is a universal human capacity has come to be common sense in public as well as anthropological discourse and thus is dismissed as a theoretical position; second, post-war positivism in North America foregrounded descriptive ethnography of a non-mentalist variety and insisted that Boas was a-theoretical. "Mind" was as out of fashion as "primitive" was becoming. The empiricists dismissed Boas' cultural relativism, which came into its own during his anti-racist resistance to Nazi ideology, in favour of material and ecological perspectives that seemed to leave no room for epistemological relativism in the sense of standpoint (a term which he used on occasion). The current theoretical climate of anthropology again turns to questions of what Boas called "the native point of view" or the psychological aspects of culture and cultural experience. This paper will turn to Boas' work as a physical or biological anthropologist and assess the commensurability between his ideas about plasticity of human bodily form and his ideas about the mental or psychological forms of abstract thinking in relation to the diversity of human cultures. I will suggest that Boas moved between the cultural and the biological, sometimes holding one constant and sometimes the other. The theoretical position we might attribute to Boas in 2011 in terms of contemporary interests is implicit in his magnum opus a century earlier.

Boasian Anthropology and Puerto Rican Migration: A Twenty-first Century Return

Adriana Garriga-Lopez, Kalamazoo College

Craniometries were central among the anthropological tasks Boas carried out in early 20th century Puerto Rico. Boas measured the cephalic indexes of schoolchildren in the coffee-growing hillside towns and those of adults in the coastal plains dominated by sugarcane cultivation. His observations led him to conclude that the head-forms of Puerto Ricans suggested the “instability of the form as expressed by the cephalic index” (Mind of Primitive Man, 95.) This presentation considers the aims and assumptions of Boas’ craniometrical research among Puerto Ricans. Puerto Ricans as research subjects offered Boas a genetic pool that was highly mixed and contained the variable manifestations, as he saw them, of the effects of migration in terms of the action of environmental factors on the body. He also understood Puerto Ricans as inevitable future migrants to the continental United States. In the absence of further craniometrical evidence among either island residents or mainland migrants to compare to Boas’ measurements, contemporary anthropologists are left to contend with the anti-racist argument that was at the heart of the Boasian project and with the social effects of Puerto Rican migratory patterns, one hundred years later. In the context of recent reports that place Puerto Ricans, who are US citizens by birth and the most numerous of Latinos on the eastern coast of the continental US, at the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy, this presentation returns to Boas and his craniometrical research to ask what kinds of anthropological engagements and disengagements with Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans we might be able to identify, call for, or disown today.

What Boas Beckoned: 1911, and ever since (relatively reread

James Boon , Princeton University

On p. 220 of the 1938 expansion of The Mind of Primitive Man, Franz Boas applied a rather spirited verb to a process of understanding that clearly bridges “primitive” and “modern.” He wrote: “When primitive man became conscious of the cosmic problem, he ransacked the entire field of his knowledge, until he happened to find something that could be fitted to the problem in question, giving an explanation satisfactory to his mind.” This pivotal insight helps us reconsider the vis-à-vis of myth and science in Boas’s work, revamped over time, as lively successors sought to render receivable to readers his contestation of racisms. I also fiddle with the century-celebration that we have “happened to find” to fit our “problem in question”: how never to forget Boasians.