Franz Boas, social construct : Throughline The idea that race is a social construct comes from the pioneering work of anthropologist Franz Boas. During a time when race-based science and the eugenics movement were becoming mainstream, anthropologist Franz Boas actively sought to prove that race was a social construct, not a biological fact.

The Invention of Race

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Hey, everybody. Before we begin, a couple of announcements. First, thank you for listening to this show, to THROUGHLINE. It means so much to us that you're a fan of the show and that you're spreading the word. And we want to keep making it better and better. So you can help us do that by telling us what you'd like to hear and how we could improve the show by completing a short, anonymous survey at


You'll do all of us at THROUGHLINE a huge favor by filling it out. Please go to It'll just take a minute. That's Thank you.

ARABLOUEI: Now on with today's episode.


CHARLES KING: If you went to a thing that was called at the time, we still call it today a natural history museum, you know, you would go into rooms that might have some dinosaur bones or a stuffed polar bear. And then you'd make your way into rooms that showed you so-called primitive people. And it was appropriate to house displays about human beings alongside displays of bison and grizzly bears.


KING: Because, of course, those people were closer to animals.


KING: And so in the United States, in Western Europe, you were surrounded by these ideas.


ARABLOUEI: Hey. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: And on this episode of THROUGHLINE from NPR, The Invention of Race.

ABDELFATAH: So back when I was an undergrad in college, I majored in cultural anthropology. And honestly, most of the time when I told people that, their eyes would glaze over. By the way, there's no great translation for it in Arabic, so my mom always struggled to explain what I did to our relatives overseas. Eventually, she just started saying that I studied eulim alathar, or archaeology. Digging up ancient artifacts? That's a familiar concept in the Middle East.

ARABLOUEI: And it's an understandable confusion, right? The word anthropology, meaning the study of humans, wasn't used much before the 1800s. And cultural anthropology, the study of cultural variation among humans, is a pretty new idea, too. And it really came into focus with one guy, Franz Boas.

ABDELFATAH: From the time he was a kid growing up in a Jewish family in Germany in the mid-1800s, Boas always had his eyes set on the larger world. And at the time, the world was headed in a dangerous direction. European and American scientists were busy creating a whole new human classification system - a racial hierarchy based in pseudoscience that infected every part of academic and social life.

ARABLOUEI: It would come to be known as eugenics.

KING: In fact, the word itself - eugenics - is simply, you know, simply comes from the Greek to be well born. You know, if you know that you're going to be born into a family of criminals or you're going to be born physically or mentally challenged in some way, wouldn't it be better, they said, simply never to have existed?

ARABLOUEI: This is Charles King.

KING: Professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University, and author of "Gods Of The Upper Air."

ARABLOUEI: Charles is going to be our guide as we dive into the mind of Franz Boas, now known as the father of American anthropology. It's part of our Big Ideas series, exploring ideas and people vital to understanding our world.

ABDELFATAH: Boas spent his life investigating, questioning and attempting to dismantle a worldview framed by eugenics and white supremacy. It was an uphill battle. The stakes were high. The fate of the nation hung in the balance. And that battle laid the foundation for how we think about race, culture and American identity to this day.


MARY: Hey. My name is Mary. I'm from San Jose, Calif. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Part 1 - A Hint of Doubt.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Franz Boas) At 4, woke the Eskimos and made coffee. I went up the hill and could see open water offshore. There is ice lying along the shore. To the north, everything is full of ice. But the ice appears to be slacker. Although the Eskimos did not want to set off before high tide, I insisted on getting underway early in the morning.

ARABLOUEI: In 1883, when he was just about to turn 25, Franz Boas got on board a ship called the Germania and sailed off to see the world, to begin the rest of his life. And he ended up in the Arctic.

KING: This was the age of Arctic exploration toward the end of the 19th century. And he believed that if he could just go to this place, begin to write about it for newspapers back home, and perhaps even land a job as a professor if he were lucky - and so he set off to a place called Baffin Island initially with the idea of studying Inuit populations there and how they survived in and moved around this really inhospitable climate.


ABDELFATAH: It's cold in the Arctic - cold and lonely. Boas described it as a kind of sublime loneliness. Day after day he battled the elements. And slowly, something began to dawn on him.

KING: As he was sitting there in the winter in this really difficult environment, he realized that all of the education he had stored up in Germany, the doctorate he had, was really not worth very much there. That is, to survive in that place, he needed to know what was good to eat, how you feed yourself in a place where food is really scarce, how you survive frostbite. He realized he was a child. He was stupid in that context. He didn't even know how to harness a dog sled team. I mean, who doesn't know how to harness a dog sled team?

ARABLOUEI: When Boas first got to Baffin Island, he saw the people living there, the Inuit, as objects of research, just like all the other European explorers who'd set out to study the so-called primitive people and their environments. But the more time he spent with them, the more he became aware of his own blind spots.

KING: What he ended up having was a bit of a transformation in his world view.


KING: He underwent this change in his outlook.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Franz Boas) I often ask myself what advantages our good society possesses over the savages. The more I see their customs, the more I realize that we have no right to look down upon them contemptuously. We should not censure them for their conventions and superstitions, since we highly educated people are relatively much worse.

KING: And in writing, he said, you know, I've become convinced that all education is relative. All civilization is relative. All culture, in a way, is relative to a time and a place. What it means to be a full, mature adult, what it means to be smart, what genius is depends on when you're asking about it, where you're asking about it, the context you're asking about it in.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Franz Boas) I had seen that they enjoyed life, and a hard life, as we do, that nature is also beautiful to them, that feelings of friendship also root in the Eskimo heart.

KING: It's born of this very personal experience in realizing, in an intimate and profound way, how stupid he was once he was taken out of the context that was most familiar to him.

And from that basic insight in the frozen north, in an Inuit village, he begins to develop what will become his signature contribution to the human sciences.

ABDELFATAH: That experience in the Arctic planted a seed of doubt in Boas that maybe all those supposedly scientific theories of race and culture, primitive and advanced, that had come to define the world were like a ball of yarn. If you pull on one thread, the whole thing risks falling apart.

ARABLOUEI: After all, the idea that all culture and all civilization is relative was radically different from the mainstream narrative of the time in which Western civilization reigned supreme.

ABDELFATAH: After his trip to the Arctic, Boas traveled further west, when he immigrated to the U.S. in 1886. There he worked as a lecturer and editor and eventually as a professor and museum curator. And within the walls of those museums, his doubt began to grow.


KING: So toward the end of the 19th century, if you went into any museum in Europe and North America, you took any class in geography or world history, you learn certain basic truths - that there were some racial types that were suited to conquer the world. They were fitter. They were more civilized. They were more advanced. And there were certain racial types who were naturally more backward, who were suited to being servile or to being colonized by the fitter types of humanity.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Franz Boas) There is no fundamental difference in the ways of thinking of primitive and civilized man. A close connection between race and personality has never been established.

KING: If you took a history class, you know, at most universities in the United States or elsewhere, you would learn about the so-called march of civilization - how it spread out from ancient Greece and Rome, later through overseas European colonialism, until jumping to the United States, which was going to take up its place as the most civilized world-conquering imperial power in the world. And these weren't fringe ideas. I mean, this was sort of mainstream social science.

ABDELFATAH: And again, the you in this scenario is white European. If you are white European, you'd come out thinking that about yourself. White European or American.

KING: That's right. That you would come out of the museum thinking that, for white Americans in particular, your place in the firmament was scientifically established, that you were at the top of this historical scale, the top of this hierarchy when you stepped out of the museum convinced.

ARABLOUEI: And because of this thinking, many white Europeans and Americans came to believe that certain races and certain societies were inherently and biologically superior. And for some people who considered themselves progressives, it led to a worldview in which...

KING: You believed that of course people were ranked. Of course people came in different civilizational capabilities. But what made you a progressive was thinking that with enough education, with enough missionaries, with flush toilets, with modern technology, the backward peoples might be raised up to your own civilizational level. But if you weren't a progressive, what you believed was that people were naturally stuck at the place that God or nature - the natural order of things - had placed them. And so the best thing you could do was to structure your society, your economics, your political system, such that the unique talents, if you want to use that word, of people who were less capable than you could be used for the benefit of society.

And so you can see how justifications for enslavement or justifications for Jim Crow or justifications for keeping women, for that matter, out of positions of power all flowed from this idea that people come in prepackaged natural varieties. All human development was leading inexorably to white America.

ARABLOUEI: But Boas was deeply skeptical of all that. Everything he was seeing was suggesting the opposite.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Franz Boas) If we were to select the most intelligent, imaginative, energetic and emotionally stable third of mankind, all races would be present.

KING: He noticed that if you went to the Smithsonian or other museums, they organized all of their displays to tell you this linear story of human progress. And so if you went around the world collecting bone rattles or bows and arrows, you would display all of those in the same cabinet. And the reason for that was that making, using a bone rattle was thought to be reflective of a particular primitive society, you know, because, obviously, if you weren't a savage or primitive person, you wouldn't give your child a bone rattle, you would have a professionally manufactured toy that you had purchased at a thing called a store.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Franz Boas) It happens that any array of objects is always an exceedingly fragmentary presentation of the true life of a people. For this reason, any attempt to present ethnological data by a systematic classification of specimens would not only be artificial, but will be entirely misleading.

KING: But Boas realized that, wait a minute, these things that are all in the same cabinet that look to you, the organizer of a museum, look to you to be the same, aren't actually the same thing. You know, this bone rattle is the thing that you use to summon a rain god. This bone rattle is the thing that you use to scare away snakes. This bone rattle is the thing that you use to comfort a wailing child. They're not the same object. And by the way, if you think they're the same object, you have just run into your own culture because it's your culture, your culture, the culture of the white American Museum organizer, that is telling him - and it was always a him - that those things are just the same object. But anybody who is an expert will tell you that that's just not the same object.

ABDELFATAH: In other words...

KING: He just was really tired of stupidity.


ABDELFATAH: When we come back, Boas questions America's greatness.


MARY: Hey, THROUGHLINE. This is Mary from Knoxville, Tenn. And I just wanted to say thank you. Thanks for all the work you put into each episode. It's clear that you are passionate about each story you tell. And as a learner, I just feel so full listening to the story. So thank you.




ABDELFATAH: By 1900, Franz Boas had moved up to becoming a professor of anthropology at Columbia University - the first anthropology department ever in the U.S. And at this point, he was one of the only people openly opposing the popular ideas of racial science.

KING: So Boas's ideas are seen as fringe, as radical, as flying in the face of common sense. Because again, at the time, every museum, every textbook, government policy - they're all pushing in exactly the opposite direction. You teach new generations, particularly of white Americans, that people who happen not to look like them are naturally inferior. You're creating the very reality that you believe you're simply describing. And Boas understood that very early on.

ARABLOUEI: Despite his radical ideas, Congress asked Boas to be a part of a study that looked at the impact of recent immigrants to the U.S., specifically those from Eastern and Southern Europe.

ABDELFATAH: They wanted to know whether or not these people who came from different cultures would negatively affect the country, whether their supposedly lesser genes would contaminate the population.

ARABLOUEI: And the studies had to be conducted using empirical evidence. And back then, measuring head sizes was a popular scientific way of proving how ethnicities and races differed.

ABDELFATAH: So what was Boas's main finding?

KING: It's essentially this.


KING: That it is impossible to sort people into ethnic or racial categories, that there's no set of measurements that every member of a racial or ethnic category seems to have. And we kind of take that as a given now in an age when we're schooled to say that race is a cultural construct. It's a cultural, social, historical construct. It's not a biological reality. But of course, at the time, the weight of scientific opinion - in fact, the entirety of scientific opinion said that race is deeply biological. It's inheritable. You know, you inherit a race. And Boas says that, you know, wait a minute. If you cannot detect a thing called racial essence or ethnic essence based on physical measurements - and if you can't do that, then how can you possibly attribute anything else to it?

ABDELFATAH: Boaz pulled at that thread, and the truth revealed itself - that trying to measure physical features like head shape, jaw size and foreheads in order to categorize people into certain groups was completely absurd. And his research, all the data, proved it. But after Boas came to this conclusion and sent in his report, very few people took notice.

KING: And in fact, just a little over a decade later, the United States adopts a whole set of extremely restrictive new immigration laws that run directly counter to everything that Boas was saying. And this, in a way, is the horror of these types of racially motivated policies because, you know, the policies themselves come out of a particular vision of common sense or nature, now buttressed by science in that era. But they also create the realities that then the scientists look at and say, well, that much must simply be nature.

ARABLOUEI: Boas knew it wasn't nature. It was manmade, an illusion, a construct, something designed to reinforce the existing power structures between people.

KING: He understood the idea that when you're gazing at anything in the world, you're not gazing at a reality free of history.


KING: You know, every reality we encounter trails a history along behind it. And the really scientific thing to do is begin to understand everything within its historical context - that the people you think of as primitive or backward haven't been stuck in the Stone Age forever. They, too, have histories. In fact, you know, when American tourists go around the world and say things like, I love to travel to London because it just has so much history, well, of course, every place in the world has precisely the same amount of history. And Boas understood that - that nobody is stuck outside of historical time.

But he also understood that his own society had a history. His own society had a thing called a culture. You know, it had its own blinders, its own totems, its own gods that it worshipped without question, the theory of race, for example, and to live intelligently in the world meant to question all of those things but to use the powers of real science, you know, to use the powers of scientific observation, open eyed, self-critical, to try to unpack your own prejudices, not just to aim that scientific talent at describing the savagery of people who weren't like you.

Oh, and by the way, if you believed that white, northern European, North American dominant culture was always rational, Boas would say, are you kidding me? You know, you can't look in an open-eyed way at the insanity of racial theory and believe that that has been the product of rational observation. And it was that breaking down of the belief in one's own specialness that was kind of the salutary contribution of Boas.

ABDELFATAH: But breaking down America's sense of specialness would not be easy.

ARABLOUEI: Coming up, Franz Boas takes on the eugenics movement.


SUZANNA LUTENKENAU: Hi. This is Suzanna Lutenkenau (ph) from Germany near the Dutch border, and you are listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Part 3 - Two Sides of a Coin.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Backed by the militarists who saw in him their chance to build a mighty war machine, backed by big business, who saw in him their chance at economic domination of the world, backed by thousands of ordinary Germans who saw in him their chance to strut as conquerors across the worlds, Hitler soared ahead. Skillfully appealing to the German...

ARABLOUEI: In 1933, the Nazi party rose to power in Germany, and eventually, it brought with it a genocide, one that focused on uniting all those who were, quote, "racially desirable," and murdering all those who were deemed either physically or intellectually inferior or of a foreign race.

ABDELFATAH: But this idea that Hitler and the Nazi party embraced didn't only come from within Germany or Europe. It also came from the U.S.

KING: The eugenics movement comes to full fruition in the United States for reasons that are pretty clear when you think about it. No country in the world in the first couple of decades of the 20th century - no country in the world had perfected a system of racial order, racial disenfranchisement that was built, that was structured along these lines of scientifically provable human difference. The United States had built it into its political system. It had built it into its system of segregation of schools and universities and streetcars and theaters.

And so it's not much of a leap to go from racial disenfranchisement, racial ordering of American society to the belief that science can be put toward the racial betterment of even the best type of Americans. And if you were really interested in social betterment and you had science on your side, wouldn't you just want to apply a scientific worldview, a scientific outlook to making the race, if you like, better?

And so that logic, you know, unspools itself in lots of different directions. You know, in the teens and '20s of the last century, if you went to county fairs all across the United States, you would have encountered displays on eugenics.

ARABLOUEI: The eugenics movement was so prevalent in the U.S. during the first three decades of the 20th century that even President Theodore Roosevelt endorsed the idea.

KING: But that's not surprising, in a way, because the eugenics movement, again, was not fringe in any fashion. It was core to the way that many Americans, including American scientific and political leaders, thought about how you bring science to bear on structuring a good society.

ABDELFATAH: And Boas watched all of this with concern and shock.


KING: He was astounded at the rapidity with which Americans, you know, allegedly a self-confessed settler society, had descended into its own brand of European nationalism. And he saw this around the time of the First World War. He saw this with, you know, the rise of a kind of pro-Anglo Saxon, northern European preference in American immigration law by the 1920s. He was surprised at the degree to which the country had come to look just like the place he had left, had come to look like Germany.


ABDELFATAH: The Nazi party cited the eugenics movement in the U.S. as the inspiration for their quest of the so-called master race, leading to the extermination of 6 million Jews.

ARABLOUEI: And for Boas, who was a German Jew, this was terrifying.

KING: And he was one of the great opponents of Nazism during the Second World War. Boas was insistent that the things being taught in schools in Nazi Germany, the burning of books, the antiscientific, immoral, racist education the German schoolchildren were getting was horrible and had to be opposed with all of the energy that he could bring to bear on that.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Franz Boas) Eugenics should therefore not be allowed to deceive us into the belief that we should try to raise a race of supermen nor that it should be our aim to eliminate all suffering and pain. Eugenics is not a panacea that will cure human ills. It is, rather, a dangerous sword that may turn its edge against those who rely on its strength.

KING: And at the same time, he claimed that what American schoolchildren were learning in their history textbooks, in their geography textbooks, was every bit as awful as the stuff that the Germans were learning. It's just that the Americans had substituted the category Jewish for the category Black.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Franz Boas) The existence of any pure race with special endowments is a myth, as is the belief that there are races all of whose members are foredoomed to eternal inferiority.

ABDELFATAH: In your book, you write that - this is a quote from the book - "Boas was making a point that required readers to make a difficult conceptual leap. He was asking Americans and Western Europeans to suspend their belief in their own greatness." And, you know, reading that, I'm just thinking even today - right? - a lot of Americans would take issue with that idea. And I'm wondering, you know, why this idea that Boaz was sort of pushing a century ago, why is it still hard for us as a country to suspend that belief in our own greatness?

KING: Boaz didn't think that there was particularly anything wrong with claiming that your country was great. It's just that he didn't think there was a scientific reason for believing any of that stuff was true. And of course, people believe loads of things that aren't scientifically demonstrable. You know, the things that we say about God or the things that we say about love or much of what we say about art or music aren't really scientifically provable propositions, and they're very meaningful. They give life a kind of richness. It's just we shouldn't mistake that for science. And then if you had a set of scientific propositions - or propositions you claimed were scientific - that just happened to place people who looked and talked and believed like you on top of history's heap, then you ought to be really, really skeptical about those theories because those were more likely products of your own culture, not products of your own observation.

ARABLOUEI: Boaz introduced ideas into American life that shape how we think about the world to this day. Race is a construct, culture is relative, Western civilization is not inherently greater. History is not linear, and neither is human progress. And all these ideas may not have won him a Nobel Prize or much love from mainstream academia in his own time, but they did attract a number of loyal followers.

ABDELFATAH: People like Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston, groundbreaking anthropologists in their own right who would shape how we think about women, sexuality, race and gender - they were drawn to Boas because his ideas gave them a new perspective on the world and how they fit into it.

KING: So for student after student, especially those who found themselves outsiders in one form or another, even Boas himself, a German Jewish immigrant to the United States, cultural relativism offered not only a scientifically new way of seeing reality. It also offered a brilliant explanation for the challenges that individuals themselves, the square pegs in Boas's seminar room, found themselves in - and from that insight, you know, I'm fine, I'm not broken, I'm not second class, the love that I feel for another person is not wrong or horrible or disgusting.

ABDELFATAH: I think that in any conversation around cultural anthropology, there are also some fair criticisms or questions about this idea of cultural relativism, because in theory, it's all well and good to look around and be like, you know what, I have to respect your culture. But on the flip side, if, you know, Ramtin and I are both from the Middle East originally, and, you know, we look at, for example, treatment of women in the Middle East, and according to this kind of cultural relativism model, we got to leave it alone because it's something that maybe we don't understand coming at it from a Western perspective - what is the response to that criticism?

KING: Yeah. Well, cultural relativism never meant that you couldn't make judgments about things, and it certainly never meant an extreme moral relativism. Boas and his students took brave stands against racism. They took brave stands against eugenics, so he felt throughout his life that his worldview was perfectly compatible with saying some things are simply wrong in a moral sense. But I think his science, in a way, made his morality deeper because he didn't have to tie his sense of what was right in the world to the superiority of his own culture and civilization.

ARABLOUEI: Why does Boas matter today, in your view? Why does his work matter?

KING: Boas was an early proponent of the idea that humanity is one undivided thing. There's nothing particularly new about the idea itself, but what was new is that science, that observation, that social science push you in that direction as well. In Boas's own day, it was revolutionary because the available science was pushing in exactly the opposite direction, that human beings come in things called races, that those races are ranked and that some races are more fit or capable of civilization and genius than others. And Boas was saying, no, in fact, science, collecting data, questioning your own theories, questioning your own society, being self-critical, a scientific mindset pushes toward the conclusion of the essential connectedness of all human beings.

And in fact, you know, writing at a time, working at a time, lecturing at a time when American greatness was in its infancy, a time when Americans first began to think that they might be a globe-encompassing imperial power, the beginning of the 20th century, Boaz was there at the creation to say, wait a minute, don't behave in the way that other overseas empires have behaved. Don't assume that your time on the historical stage is God ordained, and certainly don't assume that it's a result of something unique to you about your culture or your society, even unique about your values. All societies rise and fall. All countries come to an end.

ABDELFATAH: Those changing tides are largely beyond our control, and Boas understood that individuals are sort of prisoners of their own time and place, shaped in conscious and unconscious ways by the culture they know - an invisible web.

KING: A set of invisible rules that seems to allow some people to survive and thrive and seems to hold other people back - Boas was revealing that invisible web of assumptions, common sense, what's taken as obvious that structure a given society.

ABDELFATAH: Charles King is professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University and author of "Gods Of The Upper Air."


ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: This episode was produced by me.

ABDELFATAH: And me and...







ABDELFATAH: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Julia Wohl, Greta Pittenger and Kevin Volkl.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Anya Grundmann and to Beth Donovan.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band, Drop Electric, which includes...

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

ARABLOUEI: We love hearing from you, and we have a question. For U.S. listeners, is there a THROUGHLINE episode that's taught you something new about another part of the world? And for international listeners, is there a THROUGHLINE episode that taught you something new about the U.S.? Let us know by writing to us at or on Twitter @throughlinenpr.

ABDELFATAH: And if you have a few moments, tell us what you like about the show and how we can improve it by completing a short, anonymous survey at That's

ARABLOUEI: Thanks for listening.


ABDELFATAH: Ramtin, I have a confession. I like coffee now.

ARABLOUEI: Bro, what are you talking about? You literally said you hate coffee on this show.

ABDELFATAH: Yeah. But that all changed when I tried Brewline, THROUGHLINE's very own coffee.

ARABLOUEI: And you can get your own by visiting

ABDELFATAH: Brewline - even coffee haters love it.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.