Whatcan historical anthropology offer the historian that other approaches cannot?Historicalanthropologists essentially attempt to make sense of why people behave the waythey did in the past and try to explore the wider social and historicalcontext. Traditionally anthropologists studied non-western societies which weredifferent to the societies they came from. They would view them as objectivelydifferent and tended to study small scale societies that were ‘simple’.
Thestudy of so-called ‘primitive’ societies were deemed suitable for study as theywere detached from clearly bounded societies where the anthropologists camefrom. The found themselves working on remote places/islands. These societiesdid not have an abundance of written sources suggesting they did not have ahistory hence why anthropologists study them rather than historians. ChristianWulf accepts that the generally accepted view of anthropology is the study ofdifferent people and the differences and relationship between them (ethnology).
Wulf argues that it is nolonger meaningful to limit anthropology to the study of primitive people andsocieties but rather suggests a more inclusive notion of anthropology ashistorical cultural anthropology. 1Essentially culture is the key concept in anthropology. It is important to bear in mind that by reducing anthropology to primitivestudies has in fact many disadvantages.
It is regarded by manypractitioners as “on the verge of extinction” considering the fact that many ofthe societies studied have either been destroyed or are now archaic. On theother hand, the study of anthropology advocates the rise of informationgathered on waning societies.2 Inthis essay I will discuss the way in which anthropology and history could intheory benefit each other andways in which anthropology can provide perspectives other approaches cannot.
Before going to explainthe approaches used by historical anthropologists, first anthropology as adiscipline needs to be explained further in order for us to be able todistinguish the differences in approaches used in history and anthropology. Anthropologistsseek to understand how mankind came to be by studying men, languages,civilisation, and their artefacts. Mankind has been divided into definitiveraces, distinguished by colour and features and to this day many of these ‘old’features are still familiar. 3 Inthis sense, anthropology can be similar to the Annales approach as it studies a”larger and a more human history” looking at history from below. However, thekey difference being is that anthropology fundamentally looks where humanbehavioural traits derive from. There are two ways of looking at anthropology;functional and structuralist.
Functional anthropology aims to explain phenomenain terms of its purpose they serve, e.g. how certain beliefs can provide ameaningful explanation in an individual’s life and structuralist anthropologyis the more dominant theoretical approach used. This method seeks to identifycultural codes as a means of exploring important themes in human thought andaction. 4Nineteenth century anthropology was very much about building a developmentalframework that saw history and societies as moving from barbarianism tocivilization. Many western anthropologists view societies as having stages andbecame more advanced over a period of time and these changes are linked withenvironmental or biological factors. Anthropologists use a comparative approachby studying men in the past from civilisations that were different to theWestern one in which they lived in.
They search for similarities anddifferences in human existence, looking at paradigms that have continued intothe twenty-first century and those that have superseded. This comparativeapproach is important as it helps anthropologists to evade associating “humannature,” with their own contemporary society (usually western). This concept isknown as processualism. However, this approach implies that laws exists which controlthe development of all societies in both the past and the future when in facthuman societies often do not often follow these rules and individuals in thosesocieties display individual agency. This concept restricts the perception ofthe human condition.
This approach is also generally chauvinistic often neglectingwomen, children, the disabled and the elderly from history.5 Untilrecently anthropologists have mainly been preoccupied with relatively smallsocieties and cultures (i.e. tribes and villages). These tended to beilliterate societies meaning they have been studied orally or through their environment.Understanding how human behaviour came to be only comprises a small proportionof anthropology. Evidently, Darwin has had a huge influence on anthropology asit is concerned with the evolution of man and this can be connected withcultural evolution.
6 Inessence anthropologists study a more narrow and specific point of time and usetheir findings to better understand the wider social system and have greaterfamiliarity with ‘primitive mentality’. I will further explain these conceptslater on when I touch on the approaches used and how it can benefit historians. Intrinsically anthropology can be seenas a discipline that is very much tied up to the processes of colonialism asmany of the case studies used in this essay will explore. These case studiesdepict how the exploitation of colonialism was justified on the basis thatthese people or societies were considered less developed. This view makesanthropology an unpopular discipline due to its difficult history. Anthropology has a lot tooffer to historians. Many anthropologists use a ‘total’ approach which wasconsidered more attractive than the Marxist approach.
Both history andanthropology analyse social phenomena. They try not to make distinctionsbetween primitive and advanced and instead the similarities between the two areacknowledged. Anthropologists then developed a number of ideas and conceptssuch as magic, kinship and rituals. An advantage of using an anthropologicalapproach is that it provides a fresh perspective as familiar historicalpatterns can look different and freshly clarified. Historians believe this isthe main value of anthropology. For example, anthropologists study magic andthis can be viewed as an elaborate belief system, performing a wide range ofsocial functions rather than viewing it as unfounded ideas.
This approachprovides a more sympathetic view and makes sense of ‘absurd’ ideas. Magic wasconsidered by early anthropologists as primordial, believing it was part of’backwards’ societies. This mindset is in fact colonialist and more recentlyanthropologists have criticized the distinction between religion and magic. Anthropologiststry to look at magic with a non-reductionist approach to try and understand whyis it that people believe in it. 7Asmentioned earlier this is functional anthropology. By studying magic using theanthropological approach we can see how it is in fact interconnected withreligion and was used as a “system of belief”. Anthropologists do not disregardillogical or irrational beliefs like historians do. It encourages historians tonot take things at face value.
Thomas suggested that most accusations ofwitchcraft developed out of social situations where the accused was refusedcharity by the accuser. The accused would then attribute ill fortune on personwho refused to give charity. However, his use of anthropology has beenquestioned. It is argued his views are outdated as he uses ‘primitive’ as asynonym for ‘magical’ beliefs and practices. By using the structuralistapproach and investigating magic, we can see how witchcraft beliefs werereformed by elites as part of a broader programme of social and ideologicalcontrol. 8 Furthermore,the methods and approaches used by anthropologists lookat societies that are different to ours. The findings gathered byspending time observing and documenting have proved to be useful to historians.
Historians use anthropology to look for clues and hints to identify unknownobjects. Anthropologists study sources differently to how historians interactwith them. 9 Evidently that there aremany flaws in the framework of the discipline and this is down to the materialthat anthropologists use to study. It is very hard to explain why the changesoccurred in history despite the abundant sources. Anthropologists providedhypotheses rather than straightforward answers. The reason why hypotheses aredifficult to prove is due to the nature of the evidence. It is problematic asmuch of the study was carried out on small-scale societies thereforegeneralisations could not be made as there is not enough statistical data to doso. Anthropologists suggest and provide analogies but never prove or sustainarguments.
Much of their hypotheses are in fact functionalist and is based onthe present use of the concept in question in society today.10Like anthropologists, historians use their own society as the norm and so whenlooking at sources it is much easier to omit points of difference. Due to thisreason it makes sense as to why historians have payed little attention tofamily, children’s education, attitudes to birth, adolescents and death. However, despite theflaws in the framework, anthropology is useful to historians in many ways. Asmentioned earlier anthropologists provide a new perspective on studies ofdifferent societies. Anthropologists deal with the issue of exoticism as theyare trained not to be judgemental.
This issue is to do with the frame of mind,what kind of mentality would you have when you are doing fieldwork? Clearly youwould have bias, preconceived notions and norms and values when reviewingcertain areas or even periods of time. In anthropology this ‘baggage’ is notdenied but deemed to be productive. Instead anthropologists try to make senseof how and why things are done. They are regarded as ‘mediators’ and seek to dojustice between one world to another, like historians. A strength of exoticismin anthropology is the fact that this issue is unavoidable in many disciplines.It is beneficial in the study of anthropology as it can attract seriousreflection. However, it is important not to idealise or abuse powerrelationships between us and the subjects we are writing about.
We must besensitive to the differences. Additionally, it is important to gain attentionas a discipline, the power of ethnology lies in the ability to attractinterest. Again, this is very similar to historians as they do not want toproduce boring history. Anthropologists can help us to understand everythingfrom gender, race and sexuality hence why it is particularly useful to social andcultural historians. Some would argue that it is a useful approach regardlessof the history that you are writing.
However, despite being trained not to bejudgemental, a critique on the anthropological approach is the fact that is canbe deemed as racist in some manner. If we look at the history of societiesuntil the second world war, we can clearly see humans were divided into groupsthat were at different stages of evolution. White Europeans were considered theutmost and advanced humans and this thinking has led to the global nefariousnessever witnessed in history. 11Due to this reason early anthropology has been discredited and rejected by themodern discipline of anthropology. This also gives us an idea of perhaps whyhistorians were not working with anthropologists from an earlier stage.
The greatest contributionanthropology has made is the development of the concept of ‘culture’.Anthropologists have documented cultural behaviour in societies all around theworld and how these characteristics have been passed down to each generation.12 Muchof the work on anthropology is based on the concept of ‘culture’. Many viewanthropology as the study of men with a cultural heritage.
Edward Taylorstudied the patterns of human behaviour that is highly viable from one socialgroup to another and realised that this common experience could be studied inits own right. As Wulf argued anthropology is inadequate in just studyingprimitive societies we must look at historical cultural anthropology, we mustfirst define what culture is before going on the explain its importance inanthropology and history. Redfield’s definition of culture is that it is “anorganized body of conventional understandings manifest in art and artefactswhich, persisting through tradition, characterizes a human group.” 13 Essentiallyculture is a system that follows patterns and in a sense, creates separate andlimited entities. Anthropology in fact emerged as a discipline based on thestudy of societies. Geetz, Sahlins and Ortner have written lengthily on cultureand their findings are highly influential in anthropology. All anthropologistsagree that culture in the discipline’s fundamental notion.
Historians on theother hand have only just discovered the importance of culture but still do notfully understand how culture was inspired in ethnographic communities.Essentially culture shapes individual’s feelings and identity. 14 Geetzargued that we need to familiarise ourselves in the way people live and withthe unfamiliar. The cultural notion wasin fact a very crucial moment as it strengthened the relationship betweenanthropology and history. One way it has managed to do so is by encouraginghistorians to look at different types of sources. Previous forms of highculture such as art, architecture, poetry and music were often seen as thedomain of people who work in museums. It was not integrated into mainstreamhistories.
The cultural turn allowed for these sources to be more widelyaccepted and used by historians. Furthermore dress, bodily décor and tattoosand can also be seen as sources in themselves. Anthropologists have helped tomakes sense of them as historical sources. Considering the conceptof culture has widely been accepted and acknowledged, many disciplines havecome together to study ‘others’, particularly those outside Europe as theircultures are evidently much different to those of western societies.
This meant that the findings have beenincreasingly more accessible to a greater range of audiences. Initially itseemed that anthropology had a monopoly over such an inquiry on the concept ofculture but with the upsurge of knowledge, many academic disciplines have now consideredculture in more depth. As I mentioned anthropology is the study of non-westernsocieties, I am going to look more in depth at a case study of Siaya, and look at the historicalanthropology of an African landscape. Much of the studies in anthropology looksat different societies with the purpose of gaining more knowledge themselvesand teaching other westerners about these ‘alien’ civilisations. However, thisstudy is different and significant as it is written both for and about the Luopeople. It looks at what Luo thinks and debates about their own past andpresent together with the findings of scholars.
It provides a differentperspective as it includes the viewpoints of those they are studying. By doingso it has allowed to paint a picture that is both removed and intimate and ismore suggestive rather than exhaustive. Its history is approached by usingmultiple locations and layers of historical activity. It looks at how culturalpractices are spread not only through each generation but also throughdifferent regions. Siaya is an important place of study as it is a sacredlandscape that is affected by diaspora and life for those outside Siaya arealso affected by connections with Siaya. 15 Thisstudy is important to us as historians as it has allowed for ordinary peopleacross the globe to gain knowledge of other cultures and it also allowing thepeople of Luo to better understand their own history. However, there areseveral limitations with this study. Firstly, the study of ‘others’ wasproduced by westerners.
This is where the issue of exoticism comes in as theseobservers tend to have their own views and beliefs on others. Much of the worksof anthropology and ethnography failed to view the way the ‘observed’ saw andrepresented themselves. They were not intended to make sense to the ‘observers’.Anthropologists ignored or even suppressed evidence that other cultures have.Many societies have in fact been producing their own histories but is usuallyneglected. There are in fact manydisadvantages to historical anthropology as an approach.
I have briefly touchedon a few earlier in this essay but now I will look further into the limitationsand why it may not benefit historians in some ways. The greatest limitation isthe fact that anthropology is reductionist. It reduces everything to a kind ofdiluted functionalism. For historians it lessens the vital components ofhistorical research.
To conclude, during the1970s Anthropology was considered fresh and exciting but by 1980s historiansseem to borrow from the discipline without lending anything back. Anthropologyis an interlinked discipline with many ‘branches’ to it. Methodology andresearch from each of these subfields are used to better understand mankind. Thisis Anthropology’s greatest strength. Anthropology as a discipline helps toexplain phenomenon such as magic and rituals that other disciplines neglect tostudy. Cultural history in itself failed to explain why behaviours cameabout.
Based on the vast dataaccumulated through observations anthropologists have come to exhaustiveconclusions. They have come to realise that essentially all of men have thesame intellectual equality. The main thing to take from anthropology is thedevelopment of the concept of culture. Through studying societies and the cultural behaviourthat inhibits it and by looking at how these traits are passed down to eachgeneration, anthropologists have established that individual behaviour is theresult of learning and is determined by the patterns of his environment.16 1ChristophWulf, On Historical Anthropology: AnIntroduction, part of The Senses and Society, 02 January 2016, Vol.11(1), p.7-23 Routledge 2 Alan Macfarlane, Historical Anthropology (Frazer Lecture) ,part of Cambridge Anthropology Vol.3no.
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quora.com/What-are-the-disadvantages-of-anthropology accessed:29/12/2017 6A. H Smith, John L Fischer, Anthropology EnglewoodCliffs ; Hemel Hempstead : Prentice-Hall, 1970 pp.
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H Smith, J LFischer, Anthropology9 Berger, Stefan,Feldner, Heiko, Passmore, Kevin, Gentilcore, David Writinghistory: theory and practice pp. 165-186.10 A Macfarlane, Historical Anthropology (Frazer Lecture), http://www.
alanmacfarlane.com/TEXTS/frazerlecture.pdf accessed:26/12/201711 Jennifer Borrett,What are the disadvantages ofanthropology? https://www.quora.
com/What-are-the-disadvantages-of-anthropology accessed:29/12/2017 12 A. H Smith, J LFischer, Anthropology13Patty Jo Watson, Archaeology,anthropology, and the culture concept, part of American Anthropologist,Dec, 1995, Vol.97(4), p.683 (12) 14 Kate A. F. Crehan, Gramsci, culture and anthropology London : PlutoPress ,2002 pp. 277- 296.15David William Cohen, E.
S. Atieno Odhiambo, Siaya: the historical anthropology of an African landscape London : Currey1989 pp. 1-23.16A. HSmith, J L Fischer, Anthropology