Back to boas, forth to latour: An anthropological model for the ontological turn

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11 Scopus citations


How could Franz Boas, trained in physics and geography in Bismarck’s Germany, carry any weight for twenty-first century anthropology, given the theoretical upheavals of the past few decades? As early as 1887, I argue, Boas foreshadowed certain theoretical innovations of recent years, especially Bruno Latour’s ethnographic and philosophical analysis of science and modern society. My thesis is that Latourian and Boasian anthropologies are surprisingly alike, first in their rejection of “purified” high-modernist imagery, but more distinctively in their development of an ontologically “reckless” approach that traces the interwoven pathways of humans and nonhumans. Latour’s resonance with Boas has less to do with any direct Boasian influence on his thinking than with their parallel alignments against the same hegemonic rationalism, which reached its climax in the long century of high modernism (ca. 1880– 1990). At the same time, I argue, Latour and Boas are sharply contrasting in their treatment of elite or esoteric doctrines as opposed to general or exoteric culture. This difference turns out to be instructive, as it suggests what a Latourian anthropology stands to gain from a neo-Boasian one and vice versa.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)865-882
Number of pages18
JournalCurrent Anthropology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology
  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology


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