[Paleopsych] CHE: Anthropologists Act to Revoke 1919 Censure of Franz Boas
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Tue Jan 25 15:16:02 UTC 2005
Anthropologists Act to Revoke 1919 Censure of Franz Boas, a Key Figure in
News bulletin from the Chronicle of Higher Education, 4.12.17 (note date)
By DAVID GLENN
The American Anthropological Association moved on Thursday to right an
85-year-old wrong done to a pioneer in the field and a founder of the
association. At its annual meeting, the group voted to rescind its
censure of Franz Boas.
The controversy dates from December 1919 when, amid a bitter dispute
about patriotism, espionage, and scientific ethics, the group's
governing council censured Boas, then a professor at Columbia
University and probably the country's best-known scholarly
anthropologist. He had been among the association's founders, in 1903.
But in the aftermath of World War I, he angered many of his peers by
making sharp-tongued criticisms of anthropologists who had covertly
served as U.S. spies in Latin America.
Now the association would like to make posthumous amends. On Thursday
afternoon, scholars attending its conference here provisionally voted
to renounce the 1919 censure. In a nonbinding 59-to-0 vote, they
approved a resolution that removes the censure and affirms that it is
"immoral for scientists to use their professional identity as cover
for governmental spying activities."
"This is an issue that has to be revived from generation to
generation," Leni M. Silverstein, one of the resolution's authors,
said in an interview on Wednesday. Ms. Silverstein, a visiting scholar
at Northwestern University, pointed out that similar debates arose
during the Vietnam War and are likely to arise again in relation to
the conflicts in Iraq and Central Asia. (The association's 1970
meeting was riven by allegations that American anthropologists had
secretly provided guidance to U.S. military operatives in Thailand.)
Thursday's vote was only advisory because the business meeting lacked
a quorum. It is likely that the association's executive board will put
the question to the entire membership in a mail ballot next year. The
resolution is expected to win by a comfortable margin.
The immediate cause of Boas's censure was a letter that he published
in the December 20, 1919, issue of The Nation. In his letter he
announced that he had learned that "a number of men who follow science
as their profession, men whom I refuse to designate any longer as
scientists, have prostituted science by using it as a cover for their
activities as spies."
Boas did not name names, but among the small circle of American
anthropologists it was clear that he was referring to an espionage
ring organized in 1917 by Sylvanus G. Morley, a leading Maya scholar
who was then affiliated with Harvard University's Peabody Museum. The
ring's primary task was to search for reputed German submarine bases
in Mexico and Central America, but it also developed hundreds of pages
of intelligence on Mexican political figures and German immigrants in
On December 30, two weeks after Boas's letter appeared, the
association's council -- meeting, as it happened, in the Peabody
Museum -- voted, 20 to 10, to censure him. Among the complaints raised
at the meeting was that Boas had endangered field researchers around
the world by revealing that some of them worked as spies.
That particular allegation enraged Boas, who believed that it was
spies like Morley and his colleagues, not their critics, who were
actually casting a shadow on field researchers.
In an interview on Wednesday, David H. Price, an associate professor
of anthropology at St. Martin's College, said two distinct but
overlapping questions are at stake here. The first is whether
anthropologists should ever use their scholarly credentials as cover
for covert espionage. That question, Mr. Price believes, is clear-cut:
It should never be done.
The second question, Mr. Price said, is whether anthropologists should
ever offer their expertise, even openly and transparently, on behalf
of a war effort. Mr. Price is writing a book on the roles played by
American anthropologists during World War II, and he said that this
question is much more complex.
Even on behalf of a war widely regarded as just, Mr. Price said,
anthropologists should think very carefully about the ethical
implications of working with government agencies. At least one
anthropologist who had conducted fieldwork in Japan in the 1920s, for
example, later offered his insights on Japanese society to U.S.
military planners. The war against Japanese imperialism may have been
justified, Mr. Price said, but that scholar's informants of the 1920s
did not invite him into their homes with the expectation that he would
be gathering information about how to kill them more efficiently 20
Mr. Price said that he was pleased by the resolution to renounce
Boas's censure, but he also hopes that the association will take up
the question of espionage in a more direct, less symbolic way. The
group could strengthen its ethical regulations against espionage, he
"I've done fieldwork in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East," Mr.
Price said. "And people often ask me who I'm really working for. I
would like to be able to tell them that not only am I not a spy, but
that it would be against my organization's principles for me to be a
Some historians have suggested that the censure of Boas was only
nominally about his letter to The Nation. In a 1968 essay, George W.
Stocking Jr. of the University of Chicago argued that the censure
should be understood as the product of a decades-long dispute between
physical anthropologists and Boas's subfield of cultural anthropology.
In 1919 that quarrel was especially heated.
Baldly racist biological anthropologists -- including Madison Grant,
author of The Passing of the Great Race (1916) -- then sat on the
National Research Council's Committee on Anthropology, and they
regarded themselves as bitter enemies of Boas and his relatively
left-wing disciples. There may also have been a degree of anti-German
prejudice at work. Boas was a German immigrant, and several of the 10
scholars who voted against his censure in 1919 were of German and/or
Jewish ancestry. The 20 scholars who voted for the censure, by
contrast, included some with close ties to Grant's "Galton Society," a
eugenicist organization whose membership was restricted to "native
But the picture was actually more complicated, and morally ambiguous,
than that, according to David L. Browman, a professor of anthropology
at Washington University in St. Louis. Mr. Browman, who is skeptical
of the effort to "uncensure" Boas, suggests, in a letter to be
published in a forthcoming issue of Anthropology News, that in 1919
Boas was skillfully jockeying to win research funds for his department
Boas actually knew of 10 anthropologists who had acted as World War I
spies, not just the 4 he mentioned in his Nation letter, Mr. Browman
alleges. Moreover, Mr. Browman says, Boas had known of the spying
since 1917 but had chosen not to make a fuss until it served his
Mr. Browman concludes by pointing out that Boas remained an important
leader of the association for many years after 1919, and yet his peers
did not choose to renounce the censure. "They understood the real
issues involved," he writes. "Far be it for us, nearly a century later
... to rewrite history to suit our own current political biases."
Most members of the group, however, appear to be pleased with the
effort to rehabilitate Boas.
"Many people in the association feel that the reasons Boas spoke out
are reasons they might want to speak out about contemporary issues,"
said Regna Darnell, a professor of anthropology at the University of
Western Ontario and the author of a book about Boas, in an interview
on Tuesday. "Therefore we should go back and look at the political
activism of our founders," she said. "There's a tradition of courage."
Background article from The Chronicle:
* Recognition for a World War I Archeologist-Spy (4/11/2003)
45. mailto:david.glenn at chronicle.com
E-mail me if you have problems getting the referenced articles.
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