A quote (from Boas) for another day

(with thanks to Michael Scroggins who alerted me to this short paper on “The occurrence of similar inventions in areas widely apart” 1887)

“In human culture … like causes produce like effects.” We cannot agree with [this statement of Professor Mason] In his enumeration … [he] omitted [one] which overthrows the whole system: unlike causes produce like effects.  It is of very rare occurrence that the existence of like causes for similar inventions can be proved … On the contrary, the development of similar ethnological phenomena from unlike causes is far more probable … (Boas 1887: 485)

I will leave it to Michael Scroggins the opportunity to introduce the punch line of the paragraph, and, possibly, of Boas’ overall legacy.  I will just use this quote develop the footnote in my post of May 26th when I mentioned Saussure.

Given the early date, we might say that this statement about causation and “ethnological phenomenon” is more postulate than finding.  But Boas states here what guided his subsequent research, teaching and institution building.  Over the course of his career and that of his students, the value of the postulate was abundantly demonstrated—and then it was all but forgotten when Parsons et al. started the education of some of the most powerful voices among the next generation of anthropologists (Geertz being the pre-eminent voice here of course).

I just want to note here that the value of Boas’ postulate had already been demonstrated quite thoroughly about another “ethnological phenomenon”: language as spoken by any particular group of human beings.  Nineteenth century philology (who could have been called “historical linguistics”) had already shown that, when looking at any linguistic form, one can always trace it back to its history, and even plausibly reconstruct language families all linked to some ancestral language.  But one cannot do the reverse—that is predict the future drift of any language.  One might be able to predict plausible alternatives given a past (thus Saussure “predicted” Hittite).  But, after at least two centuries of attempts at finding them, no causal laws of language change had been found—and they still not have been found, whe.  One could make the same argument about Chomsky and the continuing search for “deep,” neurological structures.  Even if these were found through various retrospective techniques, there is no evidence that one could, prospectively, imagine actual languages, and their changes, from the deep structure.  All one will be able to say is that human languages are … human!  But Chomky and MRI’s will not be able to explain the conditions that led to the change, in English political speech for example, from “the person, he …” to “the person, he or she …”  Chomsky could not have predicted Hittite.

So, I would predict (in the Saussurian sense) that no sociologist (economist) can predict how NCLB will end and into what it will morph.  Neither could they predict what new immigrants will do with public school sex education (check Bengladeshi adolescents in Detroit and single sex proms: a great time was had by all!).  Nor could they predict the next “turn” (song, popular singer, genre) in the indirect conversation between Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift.

2 thoughts on “A quote (from Boas) for another day”

  1. Interesting: what may be still be true of the Boasians may not be true of Boas. This makes be wonder further about the relationship between Ruth Benedict or Margaret Mead to the John Dewey of Democracy and Education (1966 [1916]).

    On the failure of teaching when the students participate in conversations the teacher does not control?

  2. I rewrote my comment with citations…

    Boas is most often read as an heir of German Romanticism. This reading was cemented into the anthropological record by Harris (1968) and reinforced by the Stocking (1998) volume “Volksgeist as Method and Ethic”. However, the first move to interpret Boas, while he was very much alive, was begun by Kroeber in 1935, in the article “History and Science in Anthropology”.

    The threads along which Kroeber interprets Boas are the same threads Harris and Stocking would later take up, making Boas’ response to Kroeber all the more important. In “History and Science in Anthropology: A Reply”, his 1936 response, Boas decouples his own thinking from Kroeber’s interpretation. In doing so Boas refers readers back to his earliest publications:

    “I aligned myself clearly with those who are motivated by the affective appeal of a phenomenon that impresses us as a unit, although its elements may be irreducible to a common cause. In other words the problem that attracted me primarily was the intelligent understanding of a complex phenomenon. When from geography my interest was directed to ethnology, the same interest prevailed. To understand a phenomenon we have to know not only what it is, but also how it came into being. (Boas 1936:137)”

    The statement above is a verbatim restatement of the argument in “The Study of Geography”. The question here is: If Boas disapproved of Kroeber’s interpretation of his work (which are identical to later interpretations)how should we read Boas?

    A clue is in this simple and powerful postulate in the occurrences paper, Boas wrote:

    “the disposition of men to act suitably is the only general cause”

    compare with this:

    “man is a will served by an intelligence”


    “man has always been thinking equally well; the improvement lies, not in an alleged progress of man’s mind, but in the discovery of new areas to which it may apply its unchanged and unchanging powers”.

    The last statement is Levi-Strauss (1955:444), the middle is Ranciere (1991:54) and the first Boas (1887:435). I would suggest we read Boas within the line of thought stretching from Rousseau to Ranciere instead of reading him as Kroeber and Harris have.


    A.L. Kroeber
    1935 History and Science in Anthropology 37(4): 539-569.
    Boas, Franz
    1887 The Study of Geography. Science 9(210): 137-141.
    1887 The Occurrence of Similar Inventions in Areas Widely Apart: 485-486.
    1936 History and Science in Anthropology: a Reply. American Anthropologist 38(1): 137-141.
    Harris, Marvin
    2001[1968] The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture. Altamira Press.
    Levi-Strauss, Claude
    1955 The Structural Study of Myth 68(270): 428-444.
    Ranciere, Jacques
    1991 The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford University Press.
    Stocking, George W.
    1998 Volksgeist as Method and Ethic: Essays on Boasian Ethnography and the German Anthropological Tradition (History of Anthropology). University of Wisconsin Press.

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