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Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented…

by Charles King

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1672124,907 (4.09)10
Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award From an award-winning historian comes a dazzling history of the birth of cultural anthropology and the adventurous scientists who pioneered it--a sweeping chronicle of discovery and the fascinating origin story of our multicultural world. A century ago, everyone knew that people were fated by their race, sex, and nationality to be more or less intelligent, nurturing, or warlike. But Columbia University professor Franz Boas looked at the data and decided everyone was wrong. Racial categories, he insisted, were biological fictions. Cultures did not come in neat packages labeled "primitive" or "advanced." What counted as a family, a good meal, or even common sense was a product of history and circumstance, not of nature. In Gods of the Upper Air, a masterful narrative history of radical ideas and passionate lives, Charles King shows how these intuitions led to a fundamental reimagining of human diversity.      Boas's students were some of the century's most colorful figures and unsung visionaries: Margaret Mead, the outspoken field researcher whose Coming of Age in Samoa is among 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 on 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 civilizations from the American South to the South Pacific and from Caribbean islands to Manhattan's city streets, and unearthed an essential fact buried by centuries of prejudice: that humanity is an undivided whole. Their revolutionary findings would go on to inspire the fluid conceptions of identity we know today.       Rich in drama, conflict, friendship, and love, Gods of the Upper Air is a brilliant and groundbreaking history of American progress and the opening of the modern mind.… (more)
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Totally fascinating. In some ways horrifying. I'm now anxious to seek out these anthropologists' work to reread. Well researched, with good notes and bibliography. Engaging writing really kept me turning pages. Great storytelling and very eye-opening for me. ( )
  njcur | Oct 28, 2020 |
A timely reminder. One of the discouraging aspects of the current rise of racist arguments in public discourse is that it pretends that the last hundred years of social science never happened. Yet Boas demonstrated that race is primarily a socially constructed category, and not the simple recognition of an external reality. Further, different cultures are simply that, different, and not superior. For example, Western society may appear to be "better" than more traditional societies, but that is only because it is more efficient at achieving the goals that Westerners have deemed to be important. So we prioritize money over all other values, and judge our way of life superior because it earns more money (for some). But if you value other things--kinship, spirituality, community--then Western culture is a poor method to realize those goals.

The story of the Boasian circle, particularly Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, is thus needed. This book not only does that job, but does it supremely well. A must read. ( )
  dono421846 | Sep 3, 2019 |
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Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award From an award-winning historian comes a dazzling history of the birth of cultural anthropology and the adventurous scientists who pioneered it--a sweeping chronicle of discovery and the fascinating origin story of our multicultural world. A century ago, everyone knew that people were fated by their race, sex, and nationality to be more or less intelligent, nurturing, or warlike. But Columbia University professor Franz Boas looked at the data and decided everyone was wrong. Racial categories, he insisted, were biological fictions. Cultures did not come in neat packages labeled "primitive" or "advanced." What counted as a family, a good meal, or even common sense was a product of history and circumstance, not of nature. In Gods of the Upper Air, a masterful narrative history of radical ideas and passionate lives, Charles King shows how these intuitions led to a fundamental reimagining of human diversity.      Boas's students were some of the century's most colorful figures and unsung visionaries: Margaret Mead, the outspoken field researcher whose Coming of Age in Samoa is among 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 on 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 civilizations from the American South to the South Pacific and from Caribbean islands to Manhattan's city streets, and unearthed an essential fact buried by centuries of prejudice: that humanity is an undivided whole. Their revolutionary findings would go on to inspire the fluid conceptions of identity we know today.       Rich in drama, conflict, friendship, and love, Gods of the Upper Air is a brilliant and groundbreaking history of American progress and the opening of the modern mind.

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