Class 5: Culture, Assimilation, and The Shackles of Tradition

The study of Anthropology, at its core, seeks to analyze humanity, examining the evolution, novelty, and diversity of human beings. Anthropologists meet this charge by engaging in an impartial comparison of human life across various contexts, using their observations to determine both shared and distinguishing elements of the human experience. Inquiry surrounding these idiosyncrasies as a modern academic discipline begins with the work of Franz Boas, a German-born American scholar considered the “father of American Anthropology”. Boas and his contributions to the field of Anthropology are thoughtfully outlined in the documentary “The Shackles of Tradition”.

While on a geographic mapping expedition in Baffin Island, Boas’ experience living among the Inuit piqued his interest in understanding the relationship between humans and the environment, as well as the variations in custom and culture generated from or, perhaps, despite the unique conditions of the north Canadian tundra. Boas’ immersive experience with Inuit language, tradition, and ritual illuminated his understanding of culture as learned practices and ideas that evolve with their constituents. The transmission and adaptation of culture are dependent upon the behavior, actions, priorities, and longevity of the groups to whom it is significant. His understanding of culture’s plasticity greatly inspired Boas’ work in researching, cataloging, and documenting the culture of Indigenous tribes in the Pacific Northwest, an effort supported and promoted by a series of museums in the United States. Driven by the mission of teaching others about the significance of objects, customs, and events to other groups of people, museums as institutions perhaps serve as the strongest advocacies for Boas’ definition of culture.

Boas further asserted that culture was not biologically inherited, as had been suggested by proponents of Darwinism. Instead, biologically inherited traits and variances amongst humans were said to constitute race, a category determined by physical, biological attributes developed from common ancestry and shared environment. Furthermore, Boas and his colleagues considered race to be an area of scientific study that could be systematically measured and evaluated, an idealogy that, debatably, inspired and supported the field of eugenics and perpetuated notions of racial hierarchy. This outcome is startling considering Boas’ abolitionist sentiments and strong condemnation of racism. The Anthropologist’s public opposition to objectives for racial purity within Germany’s Third Reich long defined discourse on social and political justice within his field.

Boas’ opposition to racial purity in the Third Reich was, likely, also partially motivated by his own Jewish heritage, which many scholars cite as influential to his ideas regarding cultural assimilation. As a civilization presently characterized and historically defined by a geographic Diaspora, Jews’ traditional consideration as a racial remarkably incongruent with Boas’ definition of race. Boas often used the Jews as a sort of case study for his theory of humanity and the separation of culture and race; Jews did not share any remarkable physical or biological characteristics across its Diaspora and, often, successfully assimilate to the cultures of those who surrounded them. This idea proves particularly relevant to the contemporary study of Jewish Anthropology in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the Anthropology of Israel, which serve to establish ethnography for those who, in one case, share culture but not necessarily race and, in the latter case, share race but not necessarily culture.

Examining the Boas’ ideas in these sects propagates the notion that “culture is not a function of race” (Vismeswaran 73), establishing race and culture as two mutually exclusive categories. Later Anthropologists, including Ashley Montagu and Cora Du Bois, would take issue with this division, advocating for the inclusion of “ethnicity” as a categorical hybrid and considerations for the role of history and experience as contributing to racial and cultural identity. Seeing that our world has become increasingly globalized in the past half-century, I find it interesting to consider the dichotomy and intersection of these two categories in evaluating modern humanity and individual identity. Human migration to cities, countries, and continents to which they are not native, as well as the cross-cultural exchange of information, media, and language facilitated by the digital age, has to contributed human experiences that are more widely shared and homogenous. I’d be interested in hearing the class’ thoughts surrounding this movement, particularly considering Boas’ aspiration for racial and cultural democracy.


Don Seeman and Nehemia Stern, “Jews, Judaism, Jewishness: Towards an Anthropology of Jewish Life.” Forthcoming In Simone Cole and Joel Robbins editors, Blackwell Handbook in the Anthropology of Religion.

Kamala Visweswaran, “Race and the Culture of Anthropology,” American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 100, No. 1 (Mar., 1998), pp. 70-83. Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association. Stable URL:

Sharon Lindenburger, “Ich Bin Jüdischer Abstammung (I Am of Jewish Lineage): The Conflicted Jewish Identity of the Anthropologist Franz Boas,” In Regna Darnell and Frederic W. Gleach editors, Disruptive Voices and the Singularity of Histories Book (University of Nebraska Press, 2019). Stable URL:

“The Shackles of Tradition – Franz Boas (1858-1942).”, directed by Andre Singer. , produced by Andre Singer. , Royal Anthropological Institute, 1986. Alexander Street,

6 thoughts on “Class 5: Culture, Assimilation, and The Shackles of Tradition

  1. Hi Kate!

    I think you bring up some really interesting topics for discussion. You discussed that the documentary established how Boas discovered his definition of culture and how that would go on to define his work. The side of Boas portrayed in the documentary is about his need to preserve the culture and practices of Indigenous peoples. This, however, seems to be in opposition to the side of Boas’ work that Visweswaran examines where he is less focused on preservation. She cites both Boas’ letter to Jenks and his essay “The Problem of the American Negro” as evidence that he argued that it was not just environmental factors that allowed for assimilation, but also miscegenation. Seemingly, his relationship with Judaism proved to be ever-changing. Despite arguing that Judaism is not a race in some of his work, as you explained perfectly, he also compared racism to antisemitism in his essay “The Problem of the American Negro” (Visweswaran, 71). As to your final point, I do think that in many ways the human experience has become more homogenous in the digital age, however, in opening new avenues of communication, it also has had the ability to create new divides in culture as well as deepen pre-existing ones.

  2. Hi Kate,

    Your post highlights some very insightful reactions to the documentary and the evolution of Boas’ ideas. In his early work, Boas asserts that culture and race are two separate entities while feeling a need to voice the customs of the Inuit and preserve their cultural practices. It is clear he feels culture is important to the Inuit, how do you think he would reconcile these feelings with the idea race exists outside of culture in relation to assimilation? You bring up an interesting point in evaluating the intersection of humanity and the individual in the digital age. I think in many ways technology has an immense power to create connections, seeming to create shared culture for users who identify with one another. While modern technologies have allowed us the opportunity to connect to new people and ideas, it has allowed for smaller pockets of cultures to form around individuals with similar ideas or interests. Rather than being based on similar practices, heritage, or history, culture is shifting toward similarities in political ideology, social activism, and even ideas of comedy as the internet connects people who consume similar media. This shift away from having historical or ancestral connections in culture but rather creating shared culture with those whom we share defining characteristics or ideas allows for the boundaries of what we know about cultural divisions to be stretched and reformed, and would seem to align with Boas’ opinion that culture can exist outside of race.

  3. Hi Kate!

    You did a great job of including both the documentary and Visweswaran’s work to highlight the proposed claims about Boas. I agree with you that one key takeaway from the readings was that Boa supports the idea that “culture is not a function of race.” It is very possible that someone may share the same culture but not the same race. The spread of cross-cultural boundaries across the world has allowed a global recognition of cultures. Relating back to Visweswaran’s work, Boa was known as a founder of Anthropology as he created distinctions between racism and multiculturalism. His contradicting views on anti-semitism and racism is what essentially contributed to the realization of a common culture. I felt that your blog post was very insightful because it allowed me to understand the history which contributed to the roles of humanity, cultural identity and individual identity today.

  4. Hi Kate,

    I thought your post was very well-thought-out and that you covered some very important points! From our readings this week, one of my most significant takeaways was how Boas and his collaborators thought of race as a realm of scientific study that could be measured. You reflect on this point and bring up how this conception can be thought of as inspiration for the eugenics movement and to have perpetuated notions of racial hierarchy. I think this reflection from Visweswaran’s “Race and the Culture of Anthropology” is exceedingly important. Unfortunately, in the past when “Western” thinking dominated the field, trends in society as well as social science carried heavy biases against “non-Western” cultures as well as non-white races. Even if researchers did not necessarily possess these biases themselves, the scientific study of race during those times logically could have prompted scientific racism. Although not related in actual subject matter, today, we can see how science can be taken out of context and used for malevolent purposes. Those who are against wearing masks in public in order to stop the spread of COVID-19 often cite the low death rates of younger people in order to support their positions. People can grossly misuse research. And once more, to go along with this point, this can be the case even if it was not the researcher’s intentions. As you bring up, although still somewhat tainted by the prevalent racism in society, Boas had strong abolitionist sentiments and condemned racism. Thus, the outcome of scientific racism being supported from Boas’s work is upsetting.

  5. Hi Kate,
    I think it’s especially important that you brought up these discussions considering the current conversations regarding race and ethnicity on a global scale. Up until relatively recently in the United States, both scholars and the general public were conditioned to view human races as natural yet separate divisions within the human species based on visible physical differences. However, with the expansion of scientific knowledge in this century, it has become clear that human populations are not clearly demarcated, biologically distinct groups. This can also be related to what we discussed in class on Tuesday, where there is greater variation within “racial” groups than between them. It is inevitable that different populations would overlapping of genes and their phenotypic expressions. Throughout history, whenever different groups have come into contact, they have interbred. This continued sharing of genetic materials has maintained all of humankind as a single species.
    In my opinion, Boas’ work reflects the thin line that anthropology has to walk regarding the idea of human diversity – because while he saw race as an area of scientific study (which was used to support eugenics and ideas of racial hierarchy), but also engages in an impartial study of human life and condition. Boas and Visweswaran’s respective ideas show the two opposing viewpoints on the idea of race in anthropology – where one focuses on the preservation and distinction of culture practices with race while the other promotes a less demarcated boundary between them. I think the question you end with is very insightful – regarding the global migration we see today and the rise of modern technologies allowing us to connect to people “different” than us, the idea of race becomes even more convoluted. It’s almost as if smaller, subcultures are starting to form around different groups of people intermingling and sharing both ideas and genes.

  6. Hi Kate,

    Great blog post! I, too, was fascinated by Boas’ idea that culture was not a function of race. I am equally interested in how Boas’ Jewish heritage affected his work, perhaps even enlightening him to this idea. I agree with your statement regarding the diasporic nature of the Jews and the effect that probably had on Boas’ way of thinking. By understanding that one’s race and one’s culture are not tethered together, through understanding how the culture of the Jews changed via different geographic regions, Boas was able to progress past the constrictive nature of eugenics where anthropology had planted its roots and revised the foundation from one that claims race to be a determiner and instead shifts its view to culture (which often includes people of similar races but isn’t exclusive.)

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