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NEH Funds Professor’s Book Project on Anti-Racist Anthropologist

August 29, 2016 – A Georgetown book project that analyzes the work of a group of early 20th-century social scientists and their fight against racism and other forms of prejudice has received a grant from the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH).

Charles King, a professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and chair of the Department of Government, received the grant to research the work of pioneering anthropologist Franz Boas and his peers for a book titled The Humanity Lab: A Story of Race, Culture, and the Promise of an American Idea.

King expects the book, under contract with Doubleday, to be published in 2019.

Boas was an early 20th-century German-American anthropologist who taught Margaret Mead and writer Zora Neale Hurston, among others, at Columbia University. He is considered the founder of the American school of cultural anthropology and was one of the first to argue against the idea of race as a biological reality. Race should instead be seen as a social and historical concept, Boas believed.

The Humanity Lab will tell the story of how America came to understand concepts such as race, gender, and culture in new, revolutionary ways,” King says. “Contemporary debates about these issues had their origins among a small band of contrarian social scientists working in jazz-age New York.”

“That group pioneered a way of seeing the world that is only now coming into broader acceptance—the idea that most social categories are more fluid than we might believe,” King adds. “They puzzled through the details of their theory, which would eventually become known as cultural relativism, and saw their work as a roadmap for living together in a society brimming with difference.”

King’s NEH grant is funded through the Public Scholar Program, which this year received 485 applications and issued only 36 awards.

“The NEH Public Scholar program is a terrific new initiative that seeks to bring rigorous, humanities-oriented research into the public sphere and encourages academics to write not only for themselves but also for the public at large,” the professor explains.

King says the goals of the Public Scholar Program dovetail with Georgetown’s core values.

“The program is very much in line with what Georgetown hopes to represent – a university in the world, showcasing the insights of scholarly inquiry for the common good,” he says.

When completed, The Humanity Lab will be King’s seventh book. His other books include Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul (W. W. Norton, 2014), winner of the French “Prix du livre de voyage urbain,”and Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams (W. W. Norton, 2011), which received the National Jewish Book Award.