Hot Best Seller

Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century

Availability: Ready to download

A dazzling group portrait of Franz Boas, the founder of cultural anthropology, and his circle of women scientists, who upended American notions of race, gender, and sexuality in the 1920s and 1930s--a sweeping chronicle of how our society began to question the basic ways we understand other cultures and ourselves. At the end of the 19th century, everyone knew that people wer A dazzling group portrait of Franz Boas, the founder of cultural anthropology, and his circle of women scientists, who upended American notions of race, gender, and sexuality in the 1920s and 1930s--a sweeping chronicle of how our society began to question the basic ways we understand other cultures and ourselves. At the end of the 19th century, everyone knew that people were defined by their race and sex and were fated by birth and biology to be more or less intelligent, able, nurturing, or warlike. But one rogue researcher looked at the data and decided everyone was wrong. Franz Boas was the very image of a mad scientist: a wild-haired immigrant with a thick German accent. By the 1920s he was also the foundational thinker and public face of a new school of thought at Columbia University called cultural anthropology. He proposed that cultures did not exist on a continuum from primitive to advanced. Instead, every society solves the same basic problems--from childrearing to how to live well--with its own set of rules, beliefs, and taboos. Boas's students were some of the century's intellectual stars: Margaret Mead, the outspoken field researcher whose Coming of Age in Samoa is one of the most widely read works of social science of all time; Ruth Benedict, the great love of Mead's life, whose research shaped post-Second World War Japan; Ella Deloria, the Dakota Sioux activist who preserved the traditions of Native Americans of the Great Plains; and Zora Neale Hurston, whose studies under Boas fed directly into her now-classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Together, they mapped vanishing civilizations from the Arctic to the South Pacific and overturned the relationship between biology and behavior. Their work reshaped how we think of women and men, normalcy and deviance, and re-created our place in a world of many cultures and value systems. Gods of the Upper Air is a page-turning narrative of radical ideas and adventurous lives, a history rich in scandal, romance, and rivalry, and a genesis story of the fluid conceptions of identity that define our present moment.


Compare

A dazzling group portrait of Franz Boas, the founder of cultural anthropology, and his circle of women scientists, who upended American notions of race, gender, and sexuality in the 1920s and 1930s--a sweeping chronicle of how our society began to question the basic ways we understand other cultures and ourselves. At the end of the 19th century, everyone knew that people wer A dazzling group portrait of Franz Boas, the founder of cultural anthropology, and his circle of women scientists, who upended American notions of race, gender, and sexuality in the 1920s and 1930s--a sweeping chronicle of how our society began to question the basic ways we understand other cultures and ourselves. At the end of the 19th century, everyone knew that people were defined by their race and sex and were fated by birth and biology to be more or less intelligent, able, nurturing, or warlike. But one rogue researcher looked at the data and decided everyone was wrong. Franz Boas was the very image of a mad scientist: a wild-haired immigrant with a thick German accent. By the 1920s he was also the foundational thinker and public face of a new school of thought at Columbia University called cultural anthropology. He proposed that cultures did not exist on a continuum from primitive to advanced. Instead, every society solves the same basic problems--from childrearing to how to live well--with its own set of rules, beliefs, and taboos. Boas's students were some of the century's intellectual stars: Margaret Mead, the outspoken field researcher whose Coming of Age in Samoa is one of the most widely read works of social science of all time; Ruth Benedict, the great love of Mead's life, whose research shaped post-Second World War Japan; Ella Deloria, the Dakota Sioux activist who preserved the traditions of Native Americans of the Great Plains; and Zora Neale Hurston, whose studies under Boas fed directly into her now-classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Together, they mapped vanishing civilizations from the Arctic to the South Pacific and overturned the relationship between biology and behavior. Their work reshaped how we think of women and men, normalcy and deviance, and re-created our place in a world of many cultures and value systems. Gods of the Upper Air is a page-turning narrative of radical ideas and adventurous lives, a history rich in scandal, romance, and rivalry, and a genesis story of the fluid conceptions of identity that define our present moment.

30 review for Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century

  1. 5 out of 5

    Peter Tillman

    Nice Jennifer Szalai review of a promising new book: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/30/bo... Excerpt: During the 1930s, the New York-based anthropologist Franz Boas grew increasingly worried about events in his native Germany. He was in his 70s, and close to retiring from Columbia University, where he taught his students to reject the junk science underpinning the country’s restrictive immigration laws, colonial expansion and Jim Crow. Born into a Jewish burgher family, Boas was horrified to see how the Nazis took inspiration from Nice Jennifer Szalai review of a promising new book: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/30/bo... Excerpt: During the 1930s, the New York-based anthropologist Franz Boas grew increasingly worried about events in his native Germany. He was in his 70s, and close to retiring from Columbia University, where he taught his students to reject the junk science underpinning the country’s restrictive immigration laws, colonial expansion and Jim Crow. Born into a Jewish burgher family, Boas was horrified to see how the Nazis took inspiration from Americans’ pathbreaking work in eugenics and state-sanctioned bigotry. He started to put the word “race” in scare quotes, calling it a “dangerous fiction.” Boas is at the center of Charles King’s “Gods of the Upper Air,” a group portrait of the anthropologist and his circle, who collectively attempted to chip away at entrenched notions of “us” and “them.” “This book is about women and men who found themselves on the front lines of the greatest moral battle of our time,” King writes, “the struggle to prove that — despite differences of skin color, gender, ability or custom — humanity is one undivided thing.” It also looks like author King follows up on some of stumbles & contradictions in the work of Boas & his students. And, "social science is, well, an inexact science."

  2. 5 out of 5

    Mehrsa

    A really fascinating history of Margaret Mead, Boaz, Hurston and others who challenged and upended (at least for a little while) some crazy backwards thinking on the essentiality of race. Cultural relativism has been attacked by the right for a while, but it's amazing to go back and remember that before it, the scientific thinking was so....well, so...primitive.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Marks54

    This is a collective biography of one of the principal groups behind the rise of cultural anthropology and the idea of cultural relativism. The key individuals of this group include Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead. There are other members of the group, of course, but Boas, Benedict, and Mead are the key actors. This group has proven extraordinarily influential and even well read and open minded readers may not appreciate their influence. That influence has been unavoidable in recent This is a collective biography of one of the principal groups behind the rise of cultural anthropology and the idea of cultural relativism. The key individuals of this group include Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead. There are other members of the group, of course, but Boas, Benedict, and Mead are the key actors. This group has proven extraordinarily influential and even well read and open minded readers may not appreciate their influence. That influence has been unavoidable in recent years with the increasing importance of race, sex, and gender issues in academic research, popular punditry, and even governments regulations. While the group’s influence has grown over time, its effects were also pronounced early. For example, Ruth Benedict’s book on Japan strongly influenced US policies towards Japan in the years after the end of WW2. The book is well written and shows some sharp thinking by the author. The core individuals are very interesting and their personal stories are important, even if one has read their published work. The book is a fascinating case study of how an academic area of inquiry actually develops. This is not just any area either. Cultural anthropology is in many ways the polar opposite of the types of social science that have come to dominate American academic and policy studies. Critics bemoan the story telling aspects of the ethnologists but the reality is that problems are messy and the highly methodological and reductionistic areas have not ended up solving policy problems as promised. For example, just look at the recent policy successes of economists in national debates. Participant observation and qualitative methods will not solve hard problems either, but they will help inform decision makers in ways that other approaches have seldom matched, at least recently. King has also crafted a good story that helps motivate his other messages. All of the actors are intriguing people with rich life stories. King spends relatively more time on the sexual dynamics among some of the actors as a driving force for his narrative. I did not mind that, although I still believe that the ideas and research results need to be persuasive on their own terms. At a basic level, I do not care if some of the researchers are sleeping with each other or quarreling a lot. Welcome to academia! Tell me something I do not know. Stories like this need to work on multiple levels. That is hard but this book succeeds. One indication I had of why I liked this was the number of books by these authors that I looked up and wanted to order for further reading. That happened a lot in this book and I will likely be reading more of Ruth Benedict’s work. King has done his readers a service.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Ryan Boissonneault

    We should all be thankful that racism and eugenics are no longer part of the scientific mainstream, but how many of us are familiar with the story of how this happened? In this gripping intellectual history, Charles King shows how a group of twentieth-century cultural anthropologists battled against the “common-sense” notions of racial superiority and social hierarchies to show that “humanity is one undivided thing,” with variation and complexity that should be celebrated, not feared. The most i We should all be thankful that racism and eugenics are no longer part of the scientific mainstream, but how many of us are familiar with the story of how this happened? In this gripping intellectual history, Charles King shows how a group of twentieth-century cultural anthropologists battled against the “common-sense” notions of racial superiority and social hierarchies to show that “humanity is one undivided thing,” with variation and complexity that should be celebrated, not feared. The most important idea this group of anthropologists discovered was this: you cannot judge an individual according to group averages, because there is greater variation in traits within a race than between races. Race, in fact, is probably the worst invention in human history. We’ve spent more time as a species trying to fit ourselves and others into groups based on superficial differences than to expand our circle of empathy and view others as equally human—and ourselves as equally fallible in our cultural knowledge. That’s what makes this story so timeless. The battle against bigotry and small-mindedness—taken up by Franz Boas more than a century ago—is clearly not over. But the people who did the original work—who conducted the field research and actually conversed with people of different cultures—were the first to discover the biases and fallacies that lead to racist, misogynistic, and homophobic thinking. The overall principle is clear: the most bigoted individuals are the ones who spend the least amount of time with the people they fear, hate, or deem inferior—and the most time with groups that tout their own superiority and limited world-view. King may be criticised for popularizing a view of cultural relativism, in that all truth is relative and socially constructed and no one culture is any better than any other in any dimension. But I don’t think this is the message. The founders of cultural anthropology—Boas, Benedict, Mead, and others—didn’t embrace extreme relativism; they understood that scientific truths are true independent of cultural beliefs, and that some cultures do engage in practices that result in suffering and harm. They simply proposed the idea that we should seek to understand other people before we judge them, and that our culture is not automatically superior simply because it’s ours, or because our skin is white. They knew that racial superiority is a ridiculous idea, and that people should be judged based on what they do, not on the basis of their race, gender, or skin color. They also were the first to discover that, because there is so much overlap between races on every physical and mental trait, that to speak in terms of averages is empty and misleading in the real world. King captures all of these discoveries as they played out in field research, with rich biographical details of these early anthropologists as they worked to establish an entirely new scientific field in the face of scientifically-backed mainstream racism. Even Hitler admired the United States on its stance on race, as he wrote in Mein Kampf in 1925. 100 years later, and we find ourselves in the same battle against a resurgence in white supremacy. My only complaint is that parts of the book were too heavy on biography—and the details of each person’s love life—and light on science, theory, or actual discoveries from field research. This is obviously a personal preference, but for those with similar preferences, parts of the book will probably drag.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Peter A

    This is a brilliantly told story of the lives of several important individuals; their collective story addressing with data and science issues of race, sex, and gender; the scientific and social context and history within which they worked; and their impact on the then nascent field of cultural anthropology and the impact that it has made on society. The story includes the turbulent lives of the protagonists, the struggle and conflict that new ideas which contradict old idea pose, and impact goo This is a brilliantly told story of the lives of several important individuals; their collective story addressing with data and science issues of race, sex, and gender; the scientific and social context and history within which they worked; and their impact on the then nascent field of cultural anthropology and the impact that it has made on society. The story includes the turbulent lives of the protagonists, the struggle and conflict that new ideas which contradict old idea pose, and impact good science (and bad science – eugenics) can have on society. Moreover, the author writes so well that I consider it a page turner. This is one of the best history-of-science books of the year! The central figure in this telling is Franz Boas, born in Germany, with a desire to ultimately make a name for himself. He lived with and studied the natives of Baffin Island and later the Pacific Northwest Native Americans. His thinking of primitive versus advanced culture evolved with these direct experiences. His work took place when the research luminaries thought of “peoples” advancing evolutionarily through savagery, barbarianism, to reach the final level of civilized. He also lived in the age of anthropometrics, the study of human body measurement, which at the time were trying to relate race to measurements. His personality gave him the strength to move forward while at the same time alienating other peers. But ultimately, he and his many students where able to use their results to bring about a rethinking of human diversity, and dismiss the old model (not supported by data) of superiority of the “white” race, in fact show the data do not support any ability differences based on race. The set of his students is almost a whose who of researchers: Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston (“one of the most significant unread authors in America” according to Alice Walker – author of “The Color Purple”), Edward Sapir, Ella Deloria, and Ruth Benedict, who served as Boas effective lieutenant during his years at Columbia University. Boas and each of these contributed to the growth of the field of anthropology, and the related fields of folklore (Hurston, who worked with Alan Lomax collecting so many folksongs now part of the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress), and sociology. Mead’s work lead to a rethinking of the role of gender in societies. Hurston’s work gave voice to black Americans as people, and Benedict’s “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” allowed people in the US to see Japanese as people, with a different set of norms, rather than as lesser people. The author does a wonderful job explaining the impact of the collection of work of these controversial and complex people. He also explains the science and its important very clearly. The author also talks about the interactions between the people who are in Boas’ orbit; scientists are after all people, and their experience does impact how they see the world. What one also sees in this book is that it often takes a lifetime to transform thinking of a society, often by the sheer weight of evidence, the persistence of articulating the idea, and in some cases the death of those who say otherwise. It also takes a consistency in approach (in Boas’ case – reason inductively and follow the data) to help transform thinking and approach of his students. There is much that I learned in this book, and much that I take for granted now, however I fear that many other citizens of this planet do not want to grasp. One point that Boas made throughout much of his career, captured in “The Mind of the Primitive Man” is that the “strongest moral schemas rest on the proven truth that humanity is one undivided whole” (p 310). Another, my own poor wording, is that every civilization (culture) is another expression of ways people who live together work together and function together. Thus, you can think of cultures as multiple experiments humanity is conducting (in its own way). And one should not judge another culture with the lens of one’s own culture. But one should try to see it through the eyes of that culture, which means to live it and suspend one’s own beliefs. This is hard and disorienting. There is also a point in the book that reminds me of the point made by Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Righteous Mind. People reject data that don’t adhere to their view of the world, and spend time defending their own positions and beliefs rather than trying to understand what the data are staying. This leads to issue of racial hierarchies, to protect the power one has. As a disclaimer, I almost studied folklore as a graduate student. During my undergraduate studies I took several classes in it and was then exposed to the book “Mules and Men”. The current book helps put her work in context. A great read. One of the best science books of this year! For those of you who want to know more about the book, I list a couple of places below. I first heard about it in an interview on NPR (a few days before it was published) and knew this was a book for me to read. https://www.npr.org/2019/08/05/748128... https://www.washingtonpost.com/outloo...

  6. 5 out of 5

    Rose

    This is nonfiction written in novel form. It is a wonderful read for any fan of anthropology or anyone who wants tho learn about cultures. I highly enjoyed this book recommend it. I would like to thank netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a copy free of charge. This is my honest and unbiased opinion of it.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Steve

    Lovely book about the Columbia University anthropologists led by Franz Boas who developed important ideas about our common humanity. I learned a ton of history from the book. Was great to read after Daniel Okrent’s “The Guarded Gate” which was also a fine book covering the same time period. Charles King also wrote a very different book that I loved, about Istanbul and its history, called “Midnight at the Pera Palace” — highly recommended.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Mac Hendrickson

    Masterpiece. Recommended reading for every American

  9. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    WOW! This is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read. I highly recommend it both for its content and its beautiful writing style.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Peg (Marianna) DeMott

    Powerful! Recommended reading for people who wonder where we are in the world and just how we got here!

  11. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie G. Lewis

    Learned a lot. Want to read again.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Lisa

    I was an anthropology student in the '70s, and this enlightening, engrossing, beautifully written book reminded me why I was so passionate about it and how studying it fundamentally and forever changed my worldview . . . Want to better understand the reasons why racism, sexism, and bigotry of all kinds are utterly indefensible — and how a group of visionary adventuring scientists came to understand and teach that? Want to grow a deep love for the human story? Want to understand the rationale of I was an anthropology student in the '70s, and this enlightening, engrossing, beautifully written book reminded me why I was so passionate about it and how studying it fundamentally and forever changed my worldview . . . Want to better understand the reasons why racism, sexism, and bigotry of all kinds are utterly indefensible — and how a group of visionary adventuring scientists came to understand and teach that? Want to grow a deep love for the human story? Want to understand the rationale of the scientific community which Boaz and his circle challenged (and which still rules many a political and social school of thought today)? What could be more important in our times (or any)? THANK YOU, Charles King, for delivering the gripping story of Boaz and his circle — and for telling it with all the humanity, compassion, and wonder they brought to their own work.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Donna Herrick

    The heroes of this book introduced the world to a new way to view humanity. Previous to them the prevailing attitude among white people was that we ( yes I am a white woman) were superior, either genetically or by good fortune or by god's mandate, to all other folks on the planet - meaning that we could exploit them for our own gain. With scientific advances this viewpoint led to eugenics, Jim Crow laws in the US and to Nazism in Germany. Our heroes, wondered why they didn't feel so s The heroes of this book introduced the world to a new way to view humanity. Previous to them the prevailing attitude among white people was that we ( yes I am a white woman) were superior, either genetically or by good fortune or by god's mandate, to all other folks on the planet - meaning that we could exploit them for our own gain. With scientific advances this viewpoint led to eugenics, Jim Crow laws in the US and to Nazism in Germany. Our heroes, wondered why they didn't feel so special, explored the world, and came to see that each group of people has a set of "rules to live by" that they live by. This is called culture. Our heroes determined that given circumstances, white culture may not be superior. This acceptance of otherness and openness to learning, maybe even enjoying some "foreign" cuisine is now called cosmopolitanism. Appreciation of cosmopolitanism has been in ascendance since the 1940s. We are currently in a time when a number of people are rejecting cosmopolitanism in favor of either bigotry or insularity - a stance that says, "America for White people", France for the French, all people living in areas controlled by Chinese will obey the Chinese Communist Party. Jonathan HaidtJonathan Haidt has discerned that Cosmoplitanism and Fundamentalism are two fundamental personality types, perhaps even having genetic foundations. So I can appreciate that Fundamentalists do have legitimate worries that grow to be fears, but generally we Cosmopolitans just want to live our lives and be friends. Cosmopolitanism as a sociological viewpoint is about 100 years old. I hope that it can regain it's footing and we can come together as a world community relishing and respecting the varieties of folks on the planet.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Brian

    Not a light, quick read, but very worthwhile and enjoyable. Mostly a biography of Franz Boaz and his students in the Columbia Anthropology department during the early years of the 20th Century (Margaret Mead being the most famous). The book describes how they helped change, almost single-handedly, the prevailing "scientific" views on race - that certain races were inherently inferior to others - and introduced the idea of "cultural relativity". A movement toward more fluid views on sex and gende Not a light, quick read, but very worthwhile and enjoyable. Mostly a biography of Franz Boaz and his students in the Columbia Anthropology department during the early years of the 20th Century (Margaret Mead being the most famous). The book describes how they helped change, almost single-handedly, the prevailing "scientific" views on race - that certain races were inherently inferior to others - and introduced the idea of "cultural relativity". A movement toward more fluid views on sex and gender came from their studies as well, but I feel it was the overturning of the predominant views on race, during arguably the most institutionally racist era of modern times (the 1920's) that was their most enduring legacy. The book gets very detailed at times, losing a bit of the narrative flow, but overall a really informative and important book for our times.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Gayla Bassham

    King goes a bit too easy on Margaret Mead and Franz Boas in this book -- their legacy is more mixed than you might believe just from reading this -- but still. This account is intriguing and nearly impossible to put down.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Alan

    Interesting. I read Malinowski, Benedict, Boas, Kroeber, Linton, Sapir, Mead, back in the 70s. Mead was then a hippie and feminist icon. I never knew much of their biographies, and wasn't at all familiar with Zora Hurston as an anthropologist.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Tom Griffiths

    I enjoyed this book more than the review would seem. My issue was the enormous level of detsil on the anthropologist love lives. I just dont care about that. The rest was grest.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    This is an involving and brilliant window into a small community of scientists. They attempted to show that there is one common humanity, even though vivid differences are what attracts the eye. This book also documents their opposition, which continues to insist on racial superiority for currently privelidged groups. The personal lives of these people serve as vivid threads that drive the narrative forward.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Eliz

    Fascinating look at the anthropologists who brought us the understanding that culture is relative. As someone whose ancestor is quoted at Ellis Island on the dangers of the melting pot, learning more about the academic and social understandings of this ancestor’s time is intriguing....and disturbing.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Vicki Skywark

    If I had read this book when a student of anthropology, I’d have been a better student. It’s not only revelatory in terms of the lives it sketches and their theories of culture, it illustrates how far America has come intellectually yet how backwards Americans continue to be.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Avid

    I was only able to get through the first 3 chapters, although i enjoyed what i read. It’s just too much information for a casual reader. Also, i was drawn to the book because of the part of the description which included women’s early contributions to the study and definition of anthropology, but after three chapters, all i got was franz boas - not a woman in sight. I can’t wait forever to get to the part for which i chose to invest in the book! For those readers wanting to learn about franz boa I was only able to get through the first 3 chapters, although i enjoyed what i read. It’s just too much information for a casual reader. Also, i was drawn to the book because of the part of the description which included women’s early contributions to the study and definition of anthropology, but after three chapters, all i got was franz boas - not a woman in sight. I can’t wait forever to get to the part for which i chose to invest in the book! For those readers wanting to learn about franz boas, this book is for you. It’s well-written and clear and very thorough. Unfortunately, it’s just not for me.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Catherine Woodman

    This is a book about the influence of Franz Boas, who lived from 1858 to 1942, and his trainees on how we view people across the planet. His views on race, culture, and the intellectual potential of women diverged radically and presciently from the conventional wisdom of his day. When Boas began practicing anthropology in the 1880s, after abandoning physics, Western societies generally embraced a hierarchical classification of races and the notion of race and gender as biologically fi This is a book about the influence of Franz Boas, who lived from 1858 to 1942, and his trainees on how we view people across the planet. His views on race, culture, and the intellectual potential of women diverged radically and presciently from the conventional wisdom of his day. When Boas began practicing anthropology in the 1880s, after abandoning physics, Western societies generally embraced a hierarchical classification of races and the notion of race and gender as biologically fixed. Thanks to Boas and his circle, anthropologists today reject the belief that social development is linear, moving from “primitive societies” to “civilized ones.” The book is a well written portrait of Boas and some of the diverse women he helped train at Columbia University, King suggests that they transformed anthropology—and Western thought more broadly—by unmooring cultural differences from biology, viewing cultures holistically, and according equal value to non-Western societies. Boas’ students were Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ella Cara Deloria. Each one contributed groundbreaking anthropological research. While Mead may be Boas’ most celebrated student, Benedict was Boas’ chief acolyte, and successful in her own right . Hurston became the Harlem Renaissance’s star contrarian, whose novels were rooted in her anthropological fieldwork. Deloria, of Yankton Dakota Sioux and European descent, was able to be both a scientist and a native of the culture. They seem very modern in their thinking, which reflects how much they changed views from then to now.

  23. 4 out of 5

    MisterLiberry Head

    Perhaps the strongest evidence that Franz Boas and his circle ultimately, as the book’s subtitle claims, “reinvented race, sex, and gender,” is to be found in the stage-setting parts of Charles King’s breath-taking group portrait. The prevailing attitudes about race and societies eventually overthrown by these cultural anthropologists seems, in retrospect, almost laughably wrong-headed, self-serving, jingoistic and ignorant. Although much less known, the work of Boas stands with those by Freud, Perhaps the strongest evidence that Franz Boas and his circle ultimately, as the book’s subtitle claims, “reinvented race, sex, and gender,” is to be found in the stage-setting parts of Charles King’s breath-taking group portrait. The prevailing attitudes about race and societies eventually overthrown by these cultural anthropologists seems, in retrospect, almost laughably wrong-headed, self-serving, jingoistic and ignorant. Although much less known, the work of Boas stands with those by Freud, Einstein and Lenin in transformative influence on the twentieth/twenty-first century. Importantly, the brilliant insights of Boas and his acolytes (mostly women) were derived from unreserved devotion to scientific method – “Otherwise, what you called science was nothing more than nonsense on stilts” (p111). Boas himself was irascible, overly argumentative, eccentric – every inch the stereotype of the mad German scientist, down to his multiple saber-dueling scars from Heidelberg. Yet, the women he trained and inspired – like Ruth Benedict & Margaret Mead at Barnard College; Ella Deloria, his coauthor; pistol-packing Zora Neale Hurston; and a few others – fanned out around the globe and showed us that “the only way to study human societies was to treat them all as parts of one undivided humanity” (p13). GODS OF THE UPPER AIR is a paean to the thrill of new ideas forming and finding a place in the world, and Charles King never neglects the individual human stories bound up in this tale of intellectual revolution. Fascinating reading!

  24. 5 out of 5

    P D

    4.5 stars With emphasis on the 'renegade anthropologists' - I had never known how thoroughly amazing Margaret Mead was, I'd not known much about Zora Neale Hurston's personal life, and I'd never even heard of Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, or Ella Cara Deloria (although I'm relieved to note they all have Wikipedia pages). King's narrative is a story of individuals contextualized by the time and place in which they were having ideas and doing research. To his credit, he's not sh 4.5 stars With emphasis on the 'renegade anthropologists' - I had never known how thoroughly amazing Margaret Mead was, I'd not known much about Zora Neale Hurston's personal life, and I'd never even heard of Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, or Ella Cara Deloria (although I'm relieved to note they all have Wikipedia pages). King's narrative is a story of individuals contextualized by the time and place in which they were having ideas and doing research. To his credit, he's not shy about holding them accountable for the biases of their time which seeped in despite their ahead-of-their-time aims and values. The whole point of this story is to look at how they applied their views to redefine a science that once had a mandatory anthropometry class, and so addressing their shortcomings relative to both their own goals and contemporary standards matters. I would describe this book as a biography - forgot to check the Library of Congress designation before returning it to the library - and then a history of anthropology, although the two are strongly interwoven because, as King demonstrates, their research and publications were very much a product of their personalities and relationships, both to other people and to the societies they lived in. Of course, this isn't a full-on biography, and so not every personal detail makes the cut. Which is a good thing. We're there in detail for the most interesting parts of the ride, with additional information surrounding but not ever dominating the story.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Gwen

    "The most enduring prejudices are the comfortable ones, those hidden up close: seeing the world as it is, requires some distance, a view from the upper air". (Franz Boas) I appreciated the context this book provides for looking at why our current iteration of culture wars are so hotly felt. Important historical and cultural mirror for the nationalist tremors surfacing yet again. If only we could all heed this sound advice: "Work hard at distancing yourself from ideas that f "The most enduring prejudices are the comfortable ones, those hidden up close: seeing the world as it is, requires some distance, a view from the upper air". (Franz Boas) I appreciated the context this book provides for looking at why our current iteration of culture wars are so hotly felt. Important historical and cultural mirror for the nationalist tremors surfacing yet again. If only we could all heed this sound advice: "Work hard at distancing yourself from ideas that feed your own sense of specialness", said Professor Franz Boas, department chair in Columbia University's department of anthropology. This book is an expansive look at the community of "misfits" Boas encouraged to pursue fieldwork that challenged each's ability to observe and make sense of the many ways societies organize and give meaning to the human experience. Put into the proper historical timeline, what's amazing is that this renegade group were mostly women who faced and challenged gender barriers in their efforts to bring this budding science to flower.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Cybercrone

    This was a fascinating book, an in-depth look at how anthropology changed the way that we view each other. Or at least how we should view each other. There were some big surprises here for me, things I'd never considered before, such as that Hitler's Mein Kampf was directly inspired by the "scientific" research and applications going on in America in genetics, eugenics and anthropometry. And that Nazi scientists and policy wonks avidly studied this research as well as educational systems, v This was a fascinating book, an in-depth look at how anthropology changed the way that we view each other. Or at least how we should view each other. There were some big surprises here for me, things I'd never considered before, such as that Hitler's Mein Kampf was directly inspired by the "scientific" research and applications going on in America in genetics, eugenics and anthropometry. And that Nazi scientists and policy wonks avidly studied this research as well as educational systems, voting regulations and the legal system to see if they could discover how America "got racism so exactly right". I found the personal stories of the people fighting these attitudes and trying to teach why they were wrong quite fascinating. And here we are again, at the beginning of a new century, all geared up to see a whole new class of people as 'the other' and inferior, instead of sitting down and finding out what they are really all about.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Andy Klein

    Sometimes interesting, many times not. I knew very little of Boas, Mead, and Benedict, so it was worth reading if only to be introduced to them. Most interesting to this reader was just how much “scientific” racism flourished in the US. I knew that there were adherents of eugenics in this country but I did not know that it was mainstream. Nor did I know that Hitler praised how those in power treated the races in the US and how immigration policy was tailored to exclude members of certain races, Sometimes interesting, many times not. I knew very little of Boas, Mead, and Benedict, so it was worth reading if only to be introduced to them. Most interesting to this reader was just how much “scientific” racism flourished in the US. I knew that there were adherents of eugenics in this country but I did not know that it was mainstream. Nor did I know that Hitler praised how those in power treated the races in the US and how immigration policy was tailored to exclude members of certain races, religions, and even countries who were seen to dilute and spoil the “greatness” and “superiority” of Anglo-Saxons in power. The arguments made in favor of that immigration policy sadly echoes similar statements made by our current President and his adherents. Those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Nat

    When I taught co-taught an ethics class with Zed, we assigned a selection of Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture as an illustration of cultural relativism about value. At the time I didn't really have any idea who she was, and my knowledge of anthropology was limited to having read Geertz's Local Knowledge and his description of the Balinese cock fight. I got a huge amount of useful context from this group biography, which puts Benedict in her intellectual and social context alongside Margaret Mead, Edward Sapi When I taught co-taught an ethics class with Zed, we assigned a selection of Ruth Benedict's Patterns of Culture as an illustration of cultural relativism about value. At the time I didn't really have any idea who she was, and my knowledge of anthropology was limited to having read Geertz's Local Knowledge and his description of the Balinese cock fight. I got a huge amount of useful context from this group biography, which puts Benedict in her intellectual and social context alongside Margaret Mead, Edward Sapir, Zora Neale Hurston and Franz Boas. Every academic field deserves a history of its early stages like this, showing how the big theoretical assumptions everyone inherits or rejects come from actual people doing imperfect but inspired work.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Kathleen

    A meaty treatise about the beginning of Anthropology as a discipline in the US. As an Anthro major in college, I was attracted to Boas, Benedict, Mead, Malinowski as colorful people who weren’t afraid to leave this country and explore other cultures, and develop respect for people unlike them. With my strict parents, it was like a balm to embrace some of these ideas at a Christian college, and even feel a little naughty. I had no idea that Zora Neale Hurston was also a part of this clan. With th A meaty treatise about the beginning of Anthropology as a discipline in the US. As an Anthro major in college, I was attracted to Boas, Benedict, Mead, Malinowski as colorful people who weren’t afraid to leave this country and explore other cultures, and develop respect for people unlike them. With my strict parents, it was like a balm to embrace some of these ideas at a Christian college, and even feel a little naughty. I had no idea that Zora Neale Hurston was also a part of this clan. With the Vietnam all around us, we students felt transformed by this new way of thinking/accepting. Well written, this was like stepping into a warm bath, even when 20th Century issues were making their lives difficult.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Sue Wakula

    A must-read for anyone that grew up hearing about Margaret Mead before her death in the 1970s. Mead is but one anthropologist of a group loosely under the tutelage of Franz Boas of Columbia University. For those of us who never felt like they quite "fit in" to American culture (as Mead also felt), the research of these "renegade" anthropologists is validation of our humanity. What struck me is how our current political situation is eerily similar to that during Mead's research--especially the fe A must-read for anyone that grew up hearing about Margaret Mead before her death in the 1970s. Mead is but one anthropologist of a group loosely under the tutelage of Franz Boas of Columbia University. For those of us who never felt like they quite "fit in" to American culture (as Mead also felt), the research of these "renegade" anthropologists is validation of our humanity. What struck me is how our current political situation is eerily similar to that during Mead's research--especially the fear of the "otherness" of immigrants. Some things never change it seems. Sigh. Anthropological scientific research doesn't support the idea of race nor that some races are genetically inferior. There is just too much variety in the human species. And that's heartening.

Add a review

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Loading...
We use cookies to give you the best online experience. By using our website you agree to our use of cookies in accordance with our cookie policy.