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Franz Boas

Franz Boas (July 9, 1858 - December 22, 1942) was one of the pioneers of modern cultural anthropology. Like many such pioneers, he trained in other disciplines; he received his doctorate in physics, and did post-doctoral work in geography. Although born and educated in Germany, he moved to the United States of America in part to escape growing anti-semitism in Germany. After working for the American Museum of Natural History, and teaching at Clark University, he founded the first PhD. program in anthropology in America, at Columbia University.

Boas was strongly committed to empiricism, and was skeptical and critical of attempts to formulate "scientific laws" of culture. He was also a strong advocate of ethnographic fieldwork, and argued that specific cultural traits -- behaviors, beliefs, and symbols -- had to be understood in terms of their local context. As such, he was a major contributor to the anthropological concept of cultural relativism.

Boas also encouraged the "four field" concept of anthropology, and contributed not only to cultural anthropology but to physical anthropology, linguistics, and archeology as well. In physical anthropology he challenged various uses of the notion of race, and argued that there was no necessary or strong connection between race and culture.

His first doctoral student was Alfred Kroeber, another pioneer of American anthropology. He also trained Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. He was, via Kroeber, an influence on Claude LÚvi-Strauss.

One of his students at Columbia also included, anthropologist, folklorist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston.