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I.6.(b) Historical particularism (Boas);

Historical particularism is an approach to understanding the nature of culture and cultural changes of specific populations of people.

An approach popularized by Franz Boas as an alternative to the worldwide theories of socio-cultural development as promoted by both evolutionists and extreme diffusionists, which he believed were simply improvable.

The historical method of study based on particular geographical area in historical terms is called historical particularism.

Each culture changes over time, some more than others in particular areas, and some as a response to certain pressures that others did not face because each culture had its own independent history.  As per this approach all groups could not be compared on a scale of excellence that conformed to anyone particular group.

Point of reaction.

Historicism developed out of dissatisfaction with the theories of unilineal socio-cultural evolution with inherent assumption that Western European society was the end product of evolution and its highest attainable level of development and extreme diffusionists.


Boas argued that the history of a particular culture lay in the study of its individual traits unfolding in a limited geographical region. After many different cultures have been studied in the same way within a region, the history of individual cultures may be reconstructed. By having detailed data from many different cultures as a common frame of reference, individual culture traits may be singled out as being borrowed or invented. This is a crucial element of reconstructing the history of a particular culture.

This included the recording of oral history and tradition (salvage ethnology) and basic ethnographic methods such as participant observation.

Boas also stressed the importance of all sub-fields of anthropology in reconstructing history. Ethnographic evidence must be used with linguistic evidence, archaeological remains and physical and biological evidence.

This approach became known as the four-field method of anthropology and was spread to anthropology departments all over the United States by Boas’ students and their students.


Boas and his students are responsible for taking anthropology away from grand theories of evolution and diffusion and refocusing its attention on the many different societies of the world and the great variety of cultural expression that characterizes them.

The interplay of countless factors that influence culture and culture change received more attention as a result of the work of Boas and his students.

The emphasis on the importance of data collection and and the vast amount of information generated by their investigations has provided raw information for countless subsequent studies and investigations.

Though current fieldwork methods have changed since Boas set forth his ideas on participant observation, those ideas have formed the foundation for fieldwork methods among anthropologists in the U.S.


Most of the criticism of historical particularism has arisen over the issue of data collection and fear of making overly broad theoretical pronouncements.

Boas’ insistence on the tireless collection of data fell under attack by some of his own students, particularly Wissler. Some saw the vast amounts being collected as a body of knowledge that would never be synthesized by the investigator.

Though they employed their energy in collection of data, but they do not indulged in generation of broad theories on cultural development and culture change.

Neo-Boasianism: Neo-Boasianism is a return to some of the principles of historical particularism and structural realism that had pervaded the ideas of Franz Boas and the original Historical Particularist School. It centered on the analysis of the relations between the mind and observable social structures. Neo-Boasianism is a return to realism and the critical science within an anthropological framework. They subscribe to structural analysis.They are concerned with the connections between sociocultural structures and biological structures, focusing on the actions of individuals within the cultural system as operations of structure. Social structures only exist so long as there are relationships between agents. It is the analysis of the connection between external social structures and the structures of the brain by the means of a cultural neurohermeneutic system. This system allowed humans to connect antecedent reality with consequent reality. It is by this link between realities that social structure formation is made possible.

Franz Boas

Boas emphasized that culture traits should be viewed in terms of a relatively unique historical process that proceeds from the first introduction of a trait until its origin becomes obscure.

He sought to understand culture traits in terms of two historical processes, diffusion and modification.

Boas used these key concepts to explain culture and interpret the meaning of culture. He believed that the cultural inventory of a people was basically the cumulative result of diffusion.

He viewed culture as consisting of countless loose threads, most of foreign origin, but which were woven together to fit into their new cultural context. Discrete elements become interrelated as time passes

Boas was for detailed regional studies of individual cultures to discover the distribution of culture traits and to understand the individual processes of culture change at work.

Boas sought to reconstruct the histories of specific cultures.

He stressed the meticulous collection and organization of ethnographic data on all aspects of many different human societies.

Only after information on the particulars of many different cultures had been gathered could generalizations about cultural development be made with any expectation of accuracy.

Boas suggested that the comparative method should be replaced by the historical

Boas  did not believe that cultural change can be understood and interpreted and the history of a particular society reconstructed  unless the investigator conducted observations based on the perspective of those being studying.

Boas held that it was necessary for the investigator to examine all available evidence for a society, including information collected first-hand by a trained researcher.

Boas and his contemporaries disagreed both with the universal models and theories of cultural development that were advocated by evolutionists and with the methods and findings of the British and German diffusionists.

Boas believed that so many different stimuli acted on the development of a culture that its historical trajectory could only be understood by first examining the particulars of a specific culture so that the sources of stimuli could be identified. Theories of cultural development be constructed only after being firmly based on a multitude of synchronic studies pieced together to form a pattern of development.

Franz Boas: ”If we want to make progress on the desired line, we must insist upon critical methods, based not on generalities but on each individual case”

“Boas was aggressively atheoretical, rejecting as unsubstantiated assumptions the grand reconstructions of both evolutionists, such as Lewis Henry Morgan and Herbert Spencer, and diffusionists, such as G. E. Smith and Fritz Graebner”.

Marvin Harris records Boas’ “mission” as seeking “to rid anthropology of its amateurs and armchair specialists by making ethnographic research in the field the central experience and minimum attribute of professional status”.

Boas’s students include Alfred L. Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Robert Lowie, Paul Radin and Edward Sapir.

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