Franz Boas Theory Explained


In the world of anthropology, evolutionism was long considered to be the theory of how cultures developed socially over time. This was due to, in part, the idea that societies were generally perceived to be in decline in the 1600s and 1700s. Much of the world saw the Greek culture as the best that the world could have and, with Christianity teaching that humans were inferior because of the choices made in the Garden of Eden, society felt like it was in downfall.

Evolutionism offered a light of hope. Charles Darwin initially suggested a form of environmental creation through the survival of the fittest, which sociologists and anthropologists would then adapt and use to suggest that cultures and societies would also do the same thing.

Frank Boas offered an alternative theory. It is one that has been called Historical Particularism since 1968.

What Is Historical Particularism and Why Is It Important?

Historical Particularism is an idea that Franz Boa founded to reject the cultural evolutionary model. Boas argued in his theory that each society is simply a collective representation of its own unique past. Instead of each culture or society evolving in a parallel fashion, he suggested that societies were developing independently of one another.

This would allow a society to reach the same level of cultural development, even if two different societies took two different paths to get there.

Boas noted that many cultures do tend to have specific traits that can be identified. His theory suggests that cultural interactions between two or more societies helps to create similar cultural traits. Societies can interact with one another in a wide variety of ways, including trade, diffusion, and correspondence.

Why Do Interacting Cultures Develop Similar Traits?

People tend to be attracted to others based on the traits of the personality that is on display. If you are an outgoing person who likes to have fun, you’ll want to hang around other people who are more like you. Your definition of fun also matters. If you like to go out to the movies on a Friday night, but another outgoing person likes to go dancing, you’d be less likely to spend all your time with that person.

Boas suggests that the same thing occurs on a societal and cultural level. When trade is required to meet specific needs, correspondence occurs, or even if one society accidentally stumbles onto another one, the desire to interact creates the need to develop specific traits that are attractive to the other society.

We can see this theory in practice today within the structure of the Christian church. There are more than 50,000 different denominations in Christianity and it is ever-growing. Many denominations get along with one another because they share certain core traits. Those denominations are less welcoming if those core traits aren’t shared.

Want proof? Walk into an evangelical church in the United States in any community and say that you don’t believe Jesus is God. The reaction will be very different than if you share the common beliefs of the denomination.

What Is the Problem with Historical Particularism?

Franz Boas may have used the idea of Historical Particularism to explain cultural customs and reactions, but he also believed that theories regarding the implementation of this idea would arise spontaneously once enough data had been collected and analyzed. In reality, this has never really happened, so it has become more anti-theoretical than theoretical in application.

Historical Particularism also makes no effort to become a universal theory. It is not applied to all cultures. It can only be applied to specific cultures that exist in the present day. So the American culture, for example, wouldn’t strive to be like the Ancient Greek culture because it does not currently exist for trade or communication. Only the current Greek culture could strive to replicate the Ancient Greeks because it is a reflection of their history.

Can We Learn from Our Past to Create a New Future?

Many often offer a word of advice that goes something like this: “Those who do not learn the lessons offered by the past are doomed to repeat them in the future.”

It is possible to learn from our past. If we can take the information gathered from a mistake and apply it, then we can avoid making that mistake again. Should that occur on a cultural level, Franz Boas would say that you would be witnessing Historical Particularism at work.

As our world becomes more interconnected, societies become a reflection of each other. Borders begin to fade as people realize that they are more alike than different. Even if a world government never forms, the cultures and societies of the world are already showing the development of merging traits to create similarities. In this, we can see that the more we are different, the more we are also the same.