Franz Boas’s Immigrant Study
Open Data, Scientific anti-racism, and the Father of American Anthropology
Tiffany Grant, PhD, CDE®
Franz Boas was a German-American anthropologist who’s work has had him dubbed the “Father of American Anthropology”. In his obituary, published in Science it is written that:
“Boas’ emphasis on obtaining accurate, detailed knowledge, both intensive and extensive, not only raised the standards of anthropology; it changed its methodology and problems. In phrasing these problems and in insisting that relevant data be used in answering them systematically, he was a great pioneer who led the way into new fields of investigation. He found anthropology a collection of wild guesses and a happy hunting ground for the romantic lover of primitive things; he left it a discipline in which theories could be tested and in which he had delimited possibilities from impossibilities” (1).
Born in Germany in 1858, Boas immigrated to the United States in 18962. While in Germany, Boas was exposed to both the human and natural sciences (2), thus the asking and answering of questions based on evidence was a crucial part of the methodologies he instigated in the field of anthropology. Boaz challenged the reigning notions of race during his time and taught his students to do the same (3). During his time, Boas made many enemies as he professed a belief that was antithetical to the notion that culture was something that evolved within societies by stages from lower forms to higher (2). During a time when scientific racism was rampant with many proponents ascribing to the evolutional classification of races, Boas was strongly opposed to the idea that one’s own culture or “race” was superior to others and asserted that this view was not only wrong, but also harmful (3). While scientists and anthropologists believed race to be a biological characteristic that could explain human behavior, Boas’ set out to prove through scientific means that this was faulty thinking.
While many anthropologists used skull measurements of various groups to draw conclusions about the intellectual and moral characteristics of people, Boas sought to refute these ideas through scientific study2. Boas published the results of his landmark study on Changes in the Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants in 1910, effectively marking a turning point in our understanding of human biology (4). His most striking finding contradicted that head shape, long thought to be a fixed hereditary marker of race, is in fact, a consequence of the environment, thus can change within a single generation (4). Through his steadfast research, Boas provided the first empirical demonstration of plasticity in human biology (4). However, because his results were not the prevailing belief at the time, he made enemies and caused controversy. Consequently, to further prove his methods and the truth elucidated from his study, in 1928 Boas published 504 pages of raw, handwritten data from his immigrant study (4). Boas explained that his release entitled: Materials for the Study of Inheritance of Man, was necessary “because a great many questions relating to the heredity and environmental influences may be treated by means of this material4”.
Boas’ data and related documentation from his study can be found in OpenICPSR (5). As we celebrate Love Data Week with the theme of Data: Agent of Change, we thought it fitting to highlight these landmark studies. Science when done correctly, combined with open data can illuminate much, and in the case of Boas, provide prolific and irrefutable evidence provoking changes in thought, ideology, and practice.
- Franz Boas | Science. https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.97.2507.60.
- 1.3: Franz Boas and the birth of American anthropology. Social Sci LibreTexts https://socialsci.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Anthropology/Cultural_Anthropology/Book%3A_Speaking_of_Culture_(Weil)/01%3A_What_is_Culture%3F/1.03%3A_Franz_Boas_and_the_birth_of_American_anthropology (2019).
- Wills, M. The Life and Times of Franz Boas. JSTOR Daily https://daily.jstor.org/the-life-and-times-of-franz-boas/ (2019).
- Boas’s Immigrant Study. Clarence C. Gravlee https://www.gravlee.org/boas (2022).
- Clarence C. Gravlee, U. of F., William W. Leonard, N. U. & H. Russell Bernard, U. of F. Franz Boas’s Immigrant Study. (2019) doi:10.3886/E112086V2.