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American Popular Social Science

The Boasian Legacy

Susanne Hegeman


Pages 441 - 456



This essay considers the Boasian legacy in relation to popular social scientific writing. Franz Boas is widely remembered as a founder of academic anthropology in the United States. Yet his wider historical impact rests with his lifelong battle against scientific racism, which he waged both in his more specialized academic work and in publications directed to a readership of nonspecialists. Many of his students followed Boas in writing for, and reaching, a broad reading public. Indeed, some of the best-known figures in American anthropology—Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Elsie Clews Parsons, and Zora Neale Hurston—achieved their fame through their popularly accessible writing. I argue that popular social science is its own genre, with a distinctive aesthetic appeal that rests with presenting “interesting” and sometimes useful information. Through an analysis of some notable Boasian examples of this popular social science genre, including Hurston’s ‘Mules and Men’, I identify a distinctively modernist version of this aesthetic, which I call the aesthetics of cultural relativism.

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