Humanity has been at the forefront of study and discussions for centuries and is known today as anthropology. While the defined study of anthropology began in the fourteenth century, several strong theories were developed throughout the nineteenth century—evolutionism, diffusionism, historical particularism, and functionalism. This paper will explore these theories as well as the importance of Franz Boas’ contribution to the development of anthropology.
Evolutionism deals with the scientific reasoning of how a species biologically changes from one state to the next. Those that believe in evolutionism believe that every organism, big and small, internally adapt to improve themselves. These changes happen over time. For example, if a large mammal is having trouble finding food, through evolutionism it is believed that the species will adapt and future generations of species will be smaller—adjusting their size for the available food source. The concept of evolution can be seen specifically in elephants.
Elephants used to wildly roam the earth. Many still do in Africa and Asia. In pre-historic times elephants eventually ended up on small islands, such as Sicily. Because of the limited food resources the size of elephants began to decrease, adjusting due to small food sources. These ‘dwarf’ elephant fossils that have been found in Sicily show all of the same characteristics as full size elephants in Africa and Asia, except or the smaller size. This adaptation can be seen not just in elephants but virtually every organism from bacteria, to plants, to animals, and even humans (Bate, 1902).
This has been the fuel behind the evolution versus creation argument for centuries. With Christianity being the largest religion in the world, many believe in that God created man. Evolutionism defies this by believing that man has evolved from another species, such as the ape. While one may want to believe that man has been created, it is clearly seen that a species can evolve based on findings throughout the centuries, both in fossils, records and documentation (Carneiro, 1995).
How a culture spreads is something that has been studied extensively in Anthropology. During the nineteenth century diffusionism was one theory that was developed to describe just this.
Diffusionism believes that culture and cultural traits begin at one central location and disperse—similar to the diffusion concept in chemistry when atoms move areas of high concentration to low concentration. Based on how the human population is dispersed throughout the globe, and the history of how it became this way, it is easy to see how this theory was derived (Rogers, 1962).
As civilizations began to grow there were high concentrations of people in cities. In these cities certain characteristics, trades and skills were developed. Once cities became to large people began to move outside of the city, taking these same characteristics, trades and skills with them. Also as civilization grew so did trade between communities. Trade allowed for these characteristics, trades and skills to disperse to even greater distances.
At the same time, high concentrations of a characteristic, trade or skill can still be seen in central locations. For example, there are distinct physical characteristics and features of individuals in Asia that are not found in any other people in the world, unless their ancestors have emigrated from Asia to their new location.
Even today in the twenty-first century we can still see how diffusionism is relevant to humanity. However, as travel becomes cheaper and the span of media reaches further, the pattern of dispersement is becoming more and more illogical and is happening at a much quicker rate.
IV. HISTORICAL PARTICULARISM
Another theory introduced to anthropology in the nineteenth century was historical particularism, or the belief that each group of people, their characteristics and culture, were a representation of their unique past. This theory believes that each society has their own pattern for growth and development based off of environmental conditions, psychological facts and history; there is not one set way for a community to evolve.
Like diffusionism, trade played a role in shaping a community’s culture—introducing new ideas, new characteristics, trades and skills. While there is debate over whether or not individuals are a fundamental element to society, historical particularism deals specifically with society as a whole. However, one cannot have a society without individuals. Yet, historical and environmental factors shape a society and seem to offer to most logical way to evaluate a society and to see how it has grown and developed.
Evolutionism and diffusionism focus on where a specific characteristic, trade or skill started. Functionalism focuses on what role these characteristics, trades or skills play in the current, modern society. It is believed that all elements of society are inter-related and if any of these elements are altered or changed the others will follow suit.
Within functionalism itself, there are two main schools of thought within functionalism. The first school of thought being that each individual has a common set of needs, such as food and shelter, and that customs are developed to fulfill these needs. Whereas, the second school of thought instead focuses on the responsibility of certain customs. Both schools of thought focus of these customs in the present day, as opposed to looking at historical evidence the way evolutionism and diffusionism do (Kuper, 1996).
It is important to look at current society to see the role that customs play, however one cannot get neither an accurate nor a complete picture of the significance of a custom or the development of a custom without looking at the past. Therefore, a combination of evolutionism and functionalism are needed to get a comprehensive analysis of a custom, despite the fact that these two theories contradict each other.
VI. IMPORTANCE OF FRANZ BOAS
Franz Boas was a major contributor to the development of the study of anthropology, giving him the nickname “Father of Modern Anthropology.” It was through his persistence that that anthropology because its own academic discipline. Because of his own scientific background, he is credited for providing anthropology with the strong scientific basis that it is known for today.
Prior to Boas’ influence theories were being announced before any research had been conducted. This meant that research was only being completed to prove or disprove a theory. Boas was able to contribute a theory to conducting this research and was able to implement that theories and conclusions were only made after adequate research had been completed—these theories were works of progress until proven beyond doubt. Furthermore, he helped develop the theory that is still used in today’s anthropological research of thoroughly surveying a culture before declaring it understood.
As the theory grew it became more and more difficult to survey a culture leading to the division of anthropology into multiple parts: culture, archaeology, language, and human evolution. It is because of Boas’ contributions to anthropology that the standardized theories and current ethical standards are in place today.
The theories discussed in this paper are just a few of the many theories within the anthropology discipline. Even after all of the contributions from Franz Boas, the anthropology discipline has lots of room for growth and improvement. While some theories contradict each other, it is easy to see that the study of humanity still has a long way to go.
- Carneiro, Robert, Evolutionism in Cultural Anthropology: A Critical History ISBN 0-8133-3766-6
- Kuper, A. 1996. Anthropology and Anthropologists. London: Routledge.
- Rogers, Everett (1962) Diffusion of innovations. New York: Free Press of Glencoe, Macmillan Company.
- Bate, D. M. A.: Preliminary Note on the Discovery of a Pigmy Elephant in the Pleistocene of Cyprus in Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Vol. 71 (1902), pp. 498-500