In the opening pages of his deeply researched book “Gods of the Upper Air,” Charles King reminds us that pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas and his disciples grappled with questions that remain pressing and difficult: “Is morality universal? How should we treat people whose beliefs and habits are different from our own?”
Boas argued that we should approach other societies modestly, abandoning our preconceptions about what is “right” and “normal” to view their world through their eyes, to understand rather than judge their values. And his students at Columbia went on to apply his ideas in fieldwork and in such influential books as “Coming of Age in Samoa” by Margaret Mead, “Mules and Men” by Zora Neale Hurston, and “Patterns of Culture” by Ruth Benedict.
Cultural relativism, as it came to be known, appalled upholders of traditional values in the early decades of the 20th century and still raises hackles today — though its detractors may call it multiculturalism or political correctness.
How did these principles become such a lightning rod for controversy? King provides a knowledgeable tour through the history of anthropology — a new discipline when Boas entered it in the 1880s — as he follows Boas, Benedict, Mead, Hurston, and a brilliant Native American linguist, Ella Cara Deloria, through the decades of fieldwork that shaped their convictions. (While Professor King’s specialties at Georgetown are international affairs and Eastern European history, about which he has written several excellent books, he thanks his wife, anthropologist Margaret Paxson, for her “private seminar” in anthropological theory and methodology.)
Collecting myths and folktales from the Inuit of Baffin Island and the indigenous people of British Columbia, Boas acquired a distaste for generalizations that failed to convey the rich diversity of specific cultures. As early as 1887, he wrote in Science that the main purpose of anthropology was “dissemination of the fact that civilization is not something absolute, but that it is relative, and that our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes.”
Appointed a professor at Columbia in 1897, Boas taught his students to collect data first and build hypotheses later. King shows how those precepts played out on the ground in vivid accounts of Benedict’s fieldwork among the Zuñi of New Mexico, Mead’s investigation of adolescence in Samoa, Hurston’s travels through African-American Florida, and Deloria’s exploration of the language and culture of Sioux tribes on the Great Plains.
They tried to enter the communities they were studying, rather than stand outside and above as observers. This was becoming the dominant practice in anthropology, but their matter-of-fact presentation of what they learned ruffled early-20th-century sensibilities.
Homosexuals had an accepted social role among the Zuñi, Benedict wrote; Mead described Samoan girls taking multiple lovers before settling down into not necessarily monogamous marriages. With Boas, Deloria compiled the magisterial “Dakota Grammar,” which mapped a complex, evolving language and refuted the notion that an indigenous society was necessarily simple and unsophisticated. Meanwhile, Hurston’s hearty appreciation of African-American folkways appalled her peers in the Harlem Renaissance, who thought it reinforced racist stereotypes.
On the contrary, the Boas circle argued. Just because cultures were different than ours did not mean they were inferior or wrong.
They did not shrink from unpopular contemporary political applications of this principle, King demonstrates. Boas’s suggestion during World War I that Germany was simply acting in its national interest, as the United States had done during the Spanish-American War, prompted Columbia to cut his salary and deny him access to research funding. When Benedict asserted in a 1943 pamphlet that there was no scientific basis for racial hierarchies, she got hate mail; “I am sure the Jews there in New York paid you to put out this foolish report,” wrote one outraged reader. And nearly half a century later in 1987, Allan Bloom railed against cultural relativism in “The Closing of the American Mind,” naming Mead as one of a band of “sexual adventurers” who “either had no interest in or were actively hostile to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”
Connecting sexual adventurism with hostility to the Constitution is a stretch, but Boas and his circle’s critique of unthinking assumptions about Western superiority has prompted overheated reactions for more than a century. King does not cite examples later than Bloom, but his passionate final exegesis of cultural relativism’s core beliefs makes it clear that he wants us to see their present-day relevance.
“Work hard at distancing yourself from ideas that feed your own sense of specialness,” King writes. “Realizing the limits of your own culture, even if it pretends to be cultureless and global . . . understanding the inner logic of bewildering political preferences; sensing the worry and depression, the disquiet and rage caused in other people by the very outlooks on reality that seem wholly natural to you — these are skills built up over a lifetime.”
Developing those skills is hard, King acknowledges, and his frank depiction of his subjects’ irregular, often troubled lives doesn’t scant the personal toll it sometimes took. Nonetheless, his absorbing book makes a compelling case that the struggle to see other cultures’ and people’s points of view is worth the effort.
Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar and Publishers Weekly, reviews books for The Washington Post and was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Critics Circle’s citation for excellence in reviewing.