In 1902, the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University was established—the first in the United States. While there were lecturers and teachers of anthropology (often meaning “physical anthropology”) in the United States before 1902, there was no independent department in any American university until Columbia's. In 1896, the formidable and brilliant scholar Franz Boas, often recognized as the founder of modern American anthropology, became a lecturer in anthropology at Columbia. In 1899, he became a professor, and in 1902, he became the head of the newly formed department.
This history has given the Department a particular legacy and responsibility, as no other department from its inception has been as deeply articulated with the realities of the American twentieth century. In the early twentieth century, and of course, before then, the United States was engaged in genocidal wars against native people. Scholars like Franz Boas felt compelled to intervene with what they thought was a mission to document, understand, and "salvage" native cultural forms, languages, traditions, and practices. (They also intervened, at times, through critical responses to US policy). This context shaped the particular trajectory of the Department, not only through its early emphasis on ethnography in the United States, but also in its affirmation of the anthropologist as scholar-activist and public intellectual.
German, Jewish, and a scholar of wide-ranging talents and interests (biology, physics, geography, philosophy), Franz Boas came to the United States in 1888 and worked in ethnographic and ethnological research in museums and universities. As an early anthropologist, Boas critiqued racialist pseudo-science. (This critique of racism was expansive and later acquired additional force in the wake of European anti-Semitism; Boas was a fiery denouncer of fascism and Nazi racial science.) His careful and persuasive critiques of the dominant racial science of the early twentieth century still stand as some of the most powerful contributions he made as an anthropologist.
Still, he was an anthropologist of his time, one who often betrayed his status as the enlightened (white) European intellectual who was driven to "scientifically" document the cultural specificities of the peoples he and his students studied, in many cases indigenous peoples of America. The intellectual emphasis developed here was on the notion of culture, for which Boas—with his German philosophical training—was well-situated to develop as an organizing notion for the still-young discipline of anthropology. This American anthropology, in its Boasian formulation at Columbia, came to focus on cultural phenomena, specificities, and differences, along with the relativity of all social and cultural forms, thus delegitimizing any comparative ethnological study that would rely solely on biological, environmental, or evolutionary determinants. That these admirable and still-powerful theories and concerns, with all their positive social and political force, were formed in the matrix of a deeply ambivalent scholarly relationship to native, non-white, and disempowered peoples still haunts contemporary anthropology as a whole.
The Department of Anthropology bears witness to this double inheritance. Today, anthropology in its practice at Columbia strives to historicize the discipline's past, while reinvigorating its critical, progressive intellectual and ethical legacy. The Department encourages students, undergraduates and graduates, to be critical and reflexive in the best senses: to be careful scholars, listeners, and observers of contemporary (and historical) differences across multiple vectors of analysis. It also encourages the understanding that anthropology is not just the study of what is deemed the "Other"—whether cultural, linguistic, or otherwise—but is equally the engaged discovery of the anthropologist's own diverse positions and potentialities. The Department intends to continue its fundamental scholarly commitments further in the twenty-first century, working to enhance its collective capacities to produce practices of intellectual rigor, historical accuracy, aesthetic power, and ethical passion as the ongoing legacy of anthropology at Columbia University.