Franz Boas
Franz Boas. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Franz Boas immigrated to the United States from Germany in the late 1880s and went on to become the father of American anthropology. Time Magazine recognized his accomplishments by putting him on its May 11, 1936, cover.

We likely have a collective amnesia about Boas and his many accomplishments: Introducing the concept of cultural relativism; his intellectual fight against scientific racism; his study of immigrants that argued against prevailing notions of excluding those from Southern Europe; his wide-ranging social activism on behalf of indigenous cultures in North America, African-Americans, and even against the banning of the German language during World War I.

Boas was important in the rethinking of American notions of equality between blacks and whites. The well-known African-American academic and activist, W.E.B. DuBois, reflected on Boas’ commencement speech in 1906 at one of the historically black colleges, Atlanta University:  “[Boas] recounted the history of the black kingdoms south of the Sahara for a thousand years. I was too astonished to speak. All of this I had never heard and I came then and afterwards to realize how the silence and neglect of science can let truth utterly disappear or even be unconsciously distorted.”

But then, Franz Boas was censured a decade later by the American Anthropological Association. Such an action by this professional organization is surprising — even bizarre. Boas wrote a letter to the editor of The Nation, published on Dec. 20, 1919: “[A] businessman whose aim is personal profit within the limits allowed by a lenient law—such may be excused if they set patriotic deception above common everyday decency and perform services as spies … Not so the scientist. The very essence of his life is the service of truth … A person … who uses science as a cover for political spying, who demeans himself to pose before a foreign government as an investigator and asks for assistance in his alleged researches in order to carry on, under this cloak, his political machinations, prostitutes science in an unpardonable way and forfeits the right to be classed as a scientist.”

Franz Boas on the cover of Time

While Boas did not name the anthropologists, it was clear that he was referring to a group doing research in Mexico. The resolution of censure condemned him for an attack on American democratic principles, creating suspicions about anthropological work outside the United States, and suggesting anthropologists might be suspected as being spies. It was also seen as an unfair criticism of President Wilson.

Boas’ censure was reversed in 2005 by the same American Anthropological Association. Still, the issue remains: Should American anthropologists be spies for the United States?

During World War II, American anthropologists actively participated in wartime activities against Germany and Japan. Ruth Benedict, one of Boas’ students, wrote The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946) for the Office of War Information about Japanese culture. This was a cultural study at a distance.

Jack Harris was more involved. He went to West Africa with the cover of anthropologist while gathering information for the OSS. (The OSS eventually morphed into the CIA.) Harris had some reservations “because during my days at Columbia I was told by associates of Boas that he violently opposed using our scientific reputation as a cover for intelligence activities in war. He based this on an incident in which a student of his had been involved in World War I. However, our feelings were so strong, I felt that whatever capabilities I could lend to the war effort in this war against infamy, I was pleased to do so.”

Another example of an anthropologist willing to participate in the war effort is Nelson Glueck, archaeologist and Rabbi. He was also lauded on the cover of TIME magazine (1963). Though Glueck’s contingency planning to anticipate German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s movements in North Africa was ultimately not required, Glueck used his knowledge of the geography of Palestine to help the OSS during World War II.

Fast forward to the new century. The current ethical principle stated by the American Anthropological Association follows Franz Boas’ thinking. The association disapproved of the U.S. Human Terrain System’s (2007 – 2014) incorporation of anthropologists. Concerns ranged from endangering local research and personnel, how gathering information could be used to target individuals for military action to locals being unable to give informed consent without feeling coerced.

We might ask whether such difference of opinion — however informed— is the nature of situational ethics in professional anthropology and more broadly in all social science?

Can there be no general ethical principle about spying for one’s country?

Or is it just a matter of “good” wars (World War II) versus “bad” wars (Vietnam)?

Joe Nalven is a former associate director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University. He will be giving a talk on Franz Boas on Jan. 7 and Jan. 9 sponsored by the San Diego Center for Jewish Culture.