Gods of the Upper Air Book Summary By Charles King

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Gods of the Upper Air (2019) is a gripping and informative book that presents a comprehensive look at the pioneers of cultural anthropology.

It tells their stories, their travels, their romances and their ideas, all contributing to what ended up being an amazing seismic shift in our understanding of race, sex and gender identity.

At its core, this book highlights the important contributions made by Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Zora Neale Hurston and other researchers who were determined to put an end to pseudoscientific theories upholding racism.

They challenged these entrenched beliefs that had deep roots within most societies around the world – and today we can see and enjoy the dividends of their work.

Gods of the Upper Air Book

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

Author(s): Charles King

Rating: 4.1/5

Reading Time: 26 Minutes

Categories: History

Author Bio

Charles King is a renowned and talented writer and professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University.

He has authored seven books, including the award-winning Odessa and Midnight at the Pera Palace.

His articles and essays have been featured in a number of widely reputable publications including the New York Times, Washington Post, and Foreign Affairs.

In addition to his earlier works, Charles King has also written Gods of the Upper Air which provides an extraordinary look into anthropology's early history as well as providing an insightful portrayal of cultural stories that continue to shape our global community today.

Franz Boas And The Revolution In Thinking About Gender, Sex And Race


Modern anthropology owes a great debt to Franz Boas and the work of his circle of researchers from the 1880s to the 1940s.

Through their evidence-driven analysis, they uncovered groundbreaking ideas about gender, sex, and race that helped shape modern society.

They showed us that European customs weren’t the only way of living, which provided us with greater insight into our cultural diversity.

Margaret Mead’s polyamorous love life even had an impact on her anthropological research.

Zora Neale Hurston was another pioneer in this field who believed in zombies!

Boas’ ideas have stood the test of time too – they are still relevant today when advocating for tolerance and understanding amongst different cultures.

Uncovering these pioneering ideas is just one example of how modern anthropology continues to positively influence society.

The Rise And Fall Of Pseudoscience: How Franz Boas Challenged The Narrative Of White Supremacy

In the Jim Crow era of the twentieth century, deep-seated prejudices around race became embedded in policies and laws that were grounded in pseudoscientific beliefs.

These laws segregated schools, hospitals and other public buildings, as well as mandating who could buy property.

Further regulations were put into place to limit the influx of certain immigrant populations from certain nations, with President Johnson-Reed’s Act setting quotas on how many people could immigrate to the US.

Those eager to justify these laws looked towards a newly emerging social science – Anthropology – as a way of providing evidence for Anglo-Saxon superiority amongst societies and global civilizations.

Notable figures such as Lewis Henry Morgan argued that society progressed through stages of ‘savagery’, ‘barbarism’ and finally ‘civilization’.

This placed those, particularly Native American tribes such as the Sioux, lower down on an evolutionary scale while solidifying European supremacy.

However, while it was initially applied to justifying prejudice against particular races and nations, Anthropological research began to challenge this notion by promoting human equality instead.

Pioneering researches such as German immigrant Franz Boas demonstrated through their own writings and experimental methods that human classification systems should not impose hierarchal values when considering different societies; but rather look within them for shared elements that suggest similarities between peoples living both before and now.

How Franz Boas’ Near-Death Arctic Expedition Changed His Life And Our Understanding Of The World

Franz Boas was born in a middle class Jewish family in Minden, Prussia.

By the time he was an adult, he had studied physics and geography at various German universities.

His dream was to go on an expedition, so it was no surprise when he set sail for Baffin Island in 1883 to study Inuit migration patterns.

It didn’t take long for him to realize that these were actual people with their own stories and traditions, rather than just research subjects—and Boas quickly found himself at their mercy as they helped him navigate and survive the cold.

With every story he heard and every insight gained, Boas also gained a new appreciation of the individual: his own limitations placed among those of the Inuits; his own education relative to the circumstances; his understanding that everyone is unique, with their own stories and ways of seeing the world.

By returning home with this knowledge, Boas eventually changed how scientific progress is viewed: after discovering humanity’s individuality on Baffin Island, he understood that we must rely on observation rather than hypothesis if we ever hope to understand ourselves fully.

The Revolutionary Idea Of Franz Boas: Cultural Relativism

Cultural Relativism

Franz Boas was a firm believer that an anthropologist should look at cultures individually and understand them through the collection of data followed by inductive reasoning.

He believed that this method was far more effective than the then-popular idea of “cultural evolution”, which implied that all societies had followed a natural progression from savagery to modernity.

This was contrary to his observations on his fieldwork expedition in the Pacific Northwest, where he had observed various communities with very distinct practices and cultural artifacts.

Boas did not subscribe to knowing about something merely through generalizing about it or theorizing about it; for him, one simply had to go out into the world and observe how different things are depending on culture and time.

During his time as an assistant at Science magazine, Boas heavily critiqued his contemporaries such as Lewis Henry Morgan and John Wesley Powell who attempted to classify objects according to stages of so-called evolutionary development.

Refuting their theories, Boas argued that anthropology should require an in-depth examination of a range of groups before making any conclusive statements.

The idea proposed by Boas has been accepted worldwide today as “Cultural Relativism”: that is, the practice of appraising other cultures without making assumptions based on preconceived notions or stereotypes.

His paradigm shift highlighted the fact that our own culture is shaped by specific environmental factors over time rather than natural development – for instance, Western nations thought forks were more civilized than knives (despite them being equally dangerous) because we have grown used to using them purely for cultural reasons!

In conclusion, Franz Boas understood the importance of understanding cultures individually before drawing any conclusions about them – which is why he pushed for inductive reasoning that placed emphasis on data collection first rather than forming general assumptions beforehand.

This works to achieve an unbiased understanding of any given society today.

The Battle Between Eugenics Theorists And Anthropologists In The Early 20Th Century

When people think about eugenics, or the practice of selecting for qualities in a population to improve future generations, most are familiar with its association with the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.

But what many don’t know is that the ideas for eugenics that Hitler found so compelling were actually influenced by a text from the United States – something which directly contradicted the findings of famed German-American anthropologist Franz Boas.

In 1908, Boas was asked by a special commission of the US Congress to create a report on immigration and its effects on America.

To do this, he conducted an ambitious project involving massive research and study into countless immigrant children across New York City.

His team measured an estimated 17,821 people using scales, measuring tapes and a machine that determined eye color to gain insights into how immigrants were effecting American society.

Boas’ research concluded that US-born immigrant children had more in common with each other than their ascribed national or racial origins – suggesting race itself was impermanent and therefore could not be confidently used as a marker of civilization or intelligence.

Unfortunately, when Madison Grant published The Passing of the Great Race just five years later – which claimed exactly opposite conclusions – it was widely accepted as truth despite being inherently at odds with Boas’ findings from New York City.

As such, Franz Boas spent much time after 1916 tirelessly trying to disprove Grant’s claims and racial science as a whole with empirical evidence from his data gathering mission.

How Margaret Mead Set Off To Explore The Differentiation Between Cultures, With Boas’S Help And Her Own Turbulent Personal Life

Margaret Mead’s life and interests were inextricably intertwined.

It was only after she became a student of Franz Boas at Barnard College, where he was a professor of Anthropology, that Mead began to consider the discipline seriously.

Boas’ lectures further piqued her interest in understanding how cultures differentiate from one another.

This deeply resonated with Mead who was struggling with transitioning into adulthood during this time and wondered if it had anything to do with the social environment she was in rather than hormones.

Her interest soon grew beyond academia, however, as she found herself exploring different ideas around relationships, sexuality and monogamy that differed from Victorian-American norms of those times.

Instead of settling for monogamy, Margaret started dreaming of a “genuine” marital arrangement – something which seemed unthinkable then -which she later called polygamy.

Her journey to find answers finally took her on an expedition to Samoa where she studied adolescent culture while also working on her dissertation Coming of Age in Samoa (1928).

It is clear from these events that Margaret Mead’s personal journey greatly shaped her anthropology research allowing her to make groundbreaking discoveries regarding cultural transition and gender roles during adolescence.

Margaret Mead’s Pioneering Work Revealed Gender Is A Social Construct, Not A Biological Destiny

Margaret Mead's

Margaret Mead was an American anthropologist and legendary scholar who dedicated her life’s work to challenging traditional notions of sex and gender.

Her field research trips to places like Samoa and New Guinea transformed her understanding of how sex and gender were defined in different societies.

Before her work, many Westerners believed that gender roles were assigned by biology – men were fit to rule in politics while women were largely limited to motherhood and charitable organization or missionary work.

However, this wasn’t the case in other cultures that Mead studied more closely.

In Samoa, she observed women speaking publicly and freely sharing their opinions – completely contrary to the rigid views held in the United States at the time!

Mead also witnessed non-conforming behaviour such as men dressing as women and women taking on typically male occupational roles like fishing.

Her research findings led her to a groundbreaking understand: sex wasn’t something rooted in biology – it was an idea shaped by society.

This alternative view of gender – later termed gender identity – was shared through interviews and articles published in magazines like Camp Fire Girl and Redbook, helping launch Margaret Mead into unparalleled fame as an anthropologist during her lifetime.

Zora Neale Hurston’S Research In Haiti Revealed The Merits Of Studying Diaspora Cultures

Zora Neale Hurston was a prominent social scientist who rejected the idea that African diaspora cultures should only be seen as a broken version of an ancient African culture.

Instead, she believed that these cultures should be studied on their own terms and valued as independent societies.

Hurston put her belief in practice with her early field research trips to Florida, where she collected data on folklore and African American culture, eventually publishing the ethnographic book Mules and Men.

But perhaps it was her work in Haiti during 1935 which showed the value of diaspora cultures in the most vivid way.

Hurston encountered a zombie in a Haitian hospital – something completely unfamiliar to Western society – which prompted her to explore further into Haitian culture and beliefs regarding life and death.

And rather than seeing this belief as irrational, she soon came to understand it as an important way for Haitians to bring order to their chaotic world.

This led her understanding that many of the people from African diaspora cultures endured slavery yet managed to build vibrant lifestyles despite being disregarded by society; they deserved distinction too.

Hurston’s field research demonstrated that Africans had ways of life worthy of examining, portraying their condition not just as broken but also full of humanity.

Boasian Anthropology: A Fight For The Validity Of All Cultures In The Face Of Prejudice

Boasian Anthropology

As times change, it’s not uncommon for ideas to become outdated.

In the case of Franz Boas and his followers, their approach to anthropology has been criticized throughout the decades since its popularization in the early 1900s.

But despite this, there are still many valuable lessons that can be learned today from the work of Boas and his team.

In particular, their idea that human history is a pathway to Western civilization should not be abandoned.

As seen in recent years with Donald Trump scapegoating Mexican immigrants as “rapists”, there are still strong prejudices against different cultures even today.

It’s essential then to recognize that no culture, powerful or not, is more valid than another one – something which Boas believed strongly in.

Moreover, numerous fieldworkers have come across useful data by studying Boasian approaches that have only helped to increase updated research over time.

Information on mankind’s complexity has been improved and made more precise thanks to this group – so much so that modern researchers have even come around to challenge the concept of “culture” itself as an analyzable object.

At its core, what Franz Boas and his inner circle were fighting for almost a century ago remains valid today: respect for all human beings regardless of race or gender.

By understanding this idea at its core, individuals can create a truly tolerant society where everyone is valued equally without judgement or bias.

Wrap Up

Gods of the Upper Air by Franz Boas, Zora Neale Hurston, and Margaret Mead explores an important concept: that societies should be studied in a research-driven environment before any preconceived notions are established.

This is at the heart of anthropology as a social science, which seeks to show how all people are intrinsically equal regardless of race, gender or ethnic background.

What Boas’ students do is further expand his ideas to make the topics of gender fluidity and African diasporas more prominent within research circles.

While some parts may be outdated now, the fight for tolerance displayed in this book still carries immense relevance in today’s world where prejudice continues to persist.

Arturo Miller

Hi, I am Arturo Miller, the Chief Editor of this blog. I'm a passionate reader, learner and blogger. Motivated by the desire to help others reach their fullest potential, I draw from my own experiences and insights to curate blogs.

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