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Engaging the Past: The Uses of History Across the Social Sciences

Engaging the Past: The Uses of History Across the Social Sciences


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822314400
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/07/1994
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 8.94(h) x 0.85(d)
Lexile: 1380L (what's this?)

About the Author

Eric H. Monkkonen is Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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Engaging the Past

The Uses of History across the Social Sciences

By Eric H. Monkkonen

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-1440-0



Ten Years of Historical Research and Writing by Anthropologists, 1980–1990

Susan Kellogg

The past, once considered the exclusive domain of historians and antiquarians, has increasingly been embraced by anthropologists. Today, it is difficult to find a major anthropological study that does not claim to offer a diachronic, processual, historical analysis. In examining ten years of historical anthropological writing, I cover three broad topics in this essay. First, I explain the emergence of a more historical anthropology as a widespread response to a crisis in the conceptualization of culture. Second, I argue that while there are certain identifiable themes that cut across this literature, in general, it reflects long-standing topical interests within anthropology; I review this literature according to these topics rather than divide it into interpretive or cultural studies versus studies of political economy. Third, I try to assess this body of work critically. I concentrate here on anthropological history as both research and textual practice, as well as briefly examine anthropological uses of the concepts of time, colonialism, and structure and agency.

The first point I make is that anthropologists were never as indifferent to history as it now seems fashionable to assume. First and foremost, of course, there is the long influence of evolutionary thinking on both ethnographies and theory making; second, the persistence of an ethnohistory and cultural anthropology concerned with native Americans (e.g., see Eggan 1966; De Laguna 1960; Spicer 1962; Wallace 1970); third, the research of a group of ethnographers who worked from the 1950s on India or China, with their long indigenous trends of literacy, and who therefore found textual sources useful (e.g., Freedman 1958; Singer 1959; also see Cohn 1987), or who worked on Africa and were interested in social change (e.g., Barnes 1951; Cunnison 1951; Evans-Pritchard 1949, 1962; Smith 1960). Fourth, the developmental cycle literature also brought time (if not history) into analysis (Fortes 1949; Goody 1958).

But interest in history among anthropologists was not confined to these particular fields. Even in the dominant areas of study (structural-functional or cultural-symbolic), history was not wholly ignored. Prior to the 1970s, ethnographers working within these frameworks tended to treat history in three distinct ways. The most common was "history as preface." Anthropologists often began books with a few paragraphs, in a preface or introduction, offering historical background to a particular geographic area or social group. While they might allude to the impact of historical trends or developments treated in the main body of the text, these scholars made little effort to integrate historical themes systematically into the argument. It was also common for anthropologists to use "history as contrast": the distinctiveness of present forms gained resonance by comparison with past ones. Finally, those who drew on "history as data bank" used historical examples precisely because they were assumed not to differ fundamentally from the present.

In retrospect, these three uses of history appear to be ahistorical, in the sense that they do not inject a truly diachronic perspective into anthropological scholarship. Thus, symbolic anthropologists tended not to examine the emergence, maintenance, or transformation of symbolic systems; structuralists tended not to analyze the impact of historical developments on structures; and British social anthropologists tended not to examine how social groups, relationships, or institutions, or social structure itself, are produced, reproduced, and transformed.

The Emergence of a More Historical Anthropology

In the late 1970s, however, history began to acquire a much more important place in anthropological writings. The question then becomes, why. The answer to this question lies in a crisis over representation and authority that anthropology underwent during the 1970s (Marcus and Fischer 1986). This crisis called large parts of both anthropological research and theory into question; indeed, the whole concept of culture was thrown into question. One resolution to this crisis was the adoption of a more diachronic, processual conception of culture, which made history central to anthropological understanding.

Thirty years ago, most anthropologists, regardless of their theoretical orientation, accepted a "normative" definition of culture, according to which culture was a unified, coherent unit of analysis characterized by clearly defined behavior patterns and shared symbols and values. There was general recognition that latent tensions and conflict existed in all societies, but symbols, myths, and religious practices were assumed to mask these tensions and oppositions. But three movements outside anthropology profoundly destabilized the concept of culture within it: Marxist scholarship (Nash 1981; Ortner 1984: 138–44; Roseberry 1988), literary studies, and social history.

At least three alternative ideas about what culture is have emerged in recent anthropological writings in response to these different movements. The first conceives of culture as a multiplicity of groups and voices (Marcus and Fischer 1986; Clifford and Marcus 1986); the second, as a battlefield on which competing groups struggle to define symbols and meanings (Fox 1985; Sider 1986; also see Rebel 1989); and the third, as a process inevitably involving contradiction, conflict, and accommodation and emphasizing actors' agency (Ortner 1989; Fowler 1987). For all their differences, these views each require that some account be taken of temporal phenomena as the sources of multiple social groups, beliefs, symbols, and actions.

This pluralistic conception of culture has been accompanied by a growing sensitivity to the relationship of culture to power and politics (what some call poetics and politics). Thus, many anthropologists attempt to understand how particular aspects of culture reflect, embody, reinforce, or challenge broader social and power relationships within a society. This increased sensitivity has taken diverse forms. For some anthropologists, collective action becomes a means of mediating between more persistent cultural beliefs or ideologies and rapidly changing political and economic structures (e.g., Nash 1979; Comaroff 1985; Fox 1985; Stoler 1985; Collier 1987; Schryer 1990; Taussig 1980, 1987). Other anthropologists, indebted to such figures as Clifford Geertz and Victor Turner, have focused less on power and politics and more on culture as a system of meaning—as codes, grammars, and structures of seeing embedded in rituals, discourse and rhetoric, and methods of socialization and social organization (e.g., Appadurai 1981; Behar 1986; Burkhart 1989; Dominguez 1986; Fowler 1987; Ortner 1989).

A third important development in anthropology has been a rejection of positivistic conceptions of human behavior in favor of the idea that all human behavior is mediated through the mind and that human perceptions, attitudes, emotions, language, and cognition are therefore integral to an understanding of human actions. "Data," whether ethnographic or textual, are viewed no longer as reservoirs of fact but increasingly as texts from which to decipher unstated but culturally fundamental assumptions.

A fourth development lies in the widespread recognition that virtually no group of people, no matter how pristine and unaffected by colonial or neocolonial rule and economic processes it may seem, has escaped the impact of colonialism (Asad 1973; Wolf 1982; Roseberry 1989). World-system theory has played a role in showing how societies have become increasingly interrelated economically, and anthropologists have contributed detailed studies of the "local" processes by which interrelationships have formed and of their effects (e.g., Vincent 1982; Roseberry 1983; Verdery 1983; Stoler 1985; Stolcke 1988). It is widely acknowledged now that anthropological research is done in a world shaped by power relations in which the societies where anthropologists tend to work are economically and politically subordinated (Asad 1973; Thomas 1989a). Auge (1982: 80) points out that, for anthropologists, "the moral and political problem of practice and the intellectual problem of object and of methods have always been closely linked." Colonial heritages and contemporary politicoeconomic contexts provide powerful motivations for more historically oriented ethnographic inquiries.

As anthropologists turn to analyzing how the many different groups and societies they study have themselves constructed their own histories, material processes, and social and cultural dynamics, they have also been moved to examine how anthropologists and historians construct some broadly shared basic concepts (O'Brien and Roseberry 1991). The practical effect of each of these developments has been to encourage anthropologists to conceive of culture as a process. Instead of presenting static pictures of societies in an ethnographic present, anthropologists increasingly have sought to describe a dynamically changing world in which groups survive by making decisions, altering strategies, and changing, sometimes consciously and sometimes as an unexpected consequence of previous decisions or actions. The heightened emphasis on history reflects the realization that all of social and cultural life has historicity.

Thus, "history" began to show up much more openly in anthropological scholarship. One approach was to treat history as interpretive context; it provided political, social, economic, and cultural background necessary to understand "peoples" and/or their activities and beliefs (e.g., Guyer 1984; Smith 1984; Moore 1986; Peña 1981; Warman 1980). At base, this is an updated and expanded version of history as preface. Another approach was to treat history as a developmental process, either a microhistorical process (focusing on life stages, family cycles, or emigration patterns; see the sections on family studies and gender) or a macrohistorical process (assessing the impact of colonialism or capitalist expansion on smaller-scale societies; see the sections on work and production, and politics and power). But the notion of developmental process contains implicit assumptions about intrinsic patterns of change, which troubles other anthropologists. Many have adopted a third approach, treating history as a process of social and cultural construction (Cohn 1987; Dirks 1987; Frykman and Lofgren 1987; Moore 1986; Thomas 1990).

But to say that history occupies an increasingly important place in the field of anthropology is not to say that historians and anthropologists conceive of or practice history in the same way (Medick 1987; Sheridan 1988a; cf. Cohn 1980). On the contrary, historians and anthropologists tend to hold fundamentally different ideas about what history is and how it should be done. Anthropologists often use history to understand emergent social or cultural formations, while historians tend to be preoccupied with the pastness of the past. This difference both distinguishes anthropological histories from historical histories and shapes them.

In the pages that follow, I examine the subjects that have attracted anthropologists to historical analysis as well as their historical practices. In general, anthropologists have addressed anthropologically distinctive topics—production, politics, religion and belief systems, ethnicity, family and community, gender, and history as a cultural category—and have drawn on historical literature, particularly in Africa, Latin America, and Europe, to write histories, though they do not necessarily address historiographical issues.

From the varied list of topics (by which I organize the summaries of historical anthropological research) it is possible to isolate a few encompassing themes. One is identity formation. Increasingly, anthropologists have asked how national and ethnic identifications are formed and transformed over time and how they acquire different meanings for distinct groups in a society. The tendency has been to see ethnicity, nationality, and race not as fixed classifications but as social and cultural constructs influenced by a broad range of legal and social forces. The processes of social confrontation, domination and subordination, and contradiction and opposition, anthropologists have argued, are particularly important in the shaping of group identity. One point that has received a great deal of emphasis is that political, ethnic, and tribal groups and castes are historical formations, often incorporating people of heterogeneous origins rather than descent groups writ large. Anthropologists have also examined how group and gender differences are both conceived and enacted.

A second very broad theme entails the reactions of peasant societies to colonialism, capitalist transformation, and state building. Anthropologists have often viewed non-Western people as agents as much as victims in this historical process. They have focused on marginalized groups' strategies of coping and resistance, in both domestic life and the world of work, in the face of assaults on land, labor, and religious practices.

Law has also emerged as an important site of conflict and negotiation. Anthropologists have examined shifts in the meaning of specific legal concepts that have occurred as new forms of production and social relations have emerged. Legal anthropologists have also examined the roles of law and the state in the process of establishing group hegemony. Finally, micro-developmental processes have garnered the attention of anthropologists, who look specifically at the effects that a changing world economic system has on domestic organization in various parts of the world. These proces-sual interests emerge in many different kinds of historical anthropological research and writing.

Research Topics in Current Historical Anthropology


This broad topic subsumes a number of interests; perhaps not surprisingly, the emergence or transformation of peasantries is a key focus. Many of these studies use specific organizational units (tribes, ethnic groups, communities, or regions) and look at how local political, economic, and/or cultural systems changed over time as they responded to a changing world economic system (Kahn 1980; Warman 1980; Pena 1981; Vincent 1982; Gewertz 1983; Guyer 1984, 1987; Stoler 1985; Ong 1987; Trouillot 1988; Holmes 1989; Carrier and Carrier 1989; Smith 1989; Gunn 1990; Hefner 1990). Other studies proceed from commodities or industries to examine the changing nature of peasantries or proletarians (Roseberry 1983; So 1986; Stolcke 1988), the changing forms of community organization or solidarity(Nash 1979, 1989; Wallace 1987), the changing uses and meanings of a specific commodity (Mintz 1985; Pomeroy 1988; Weiner and Schneider 1989), or the changing forms of organization and meanings attached to specific kinds of work (Kumar 1988; Sacks 1988; Hansen 1989; Comaroff and Comaroff 1987; Comaroff and Comaroff 1990). A few studies examine transformations in land tenure or use (Snyder 1981; Behar 1986; Rodman 1987; Sheridan 1988b).

Not surprisingly, most of these studies use some form of political economy framework. Vincent (1982) and Roseberry (1983) stand out for the depth of their historical researches, as does Stoler (1985) for the way she consistently connects economic change to varying forms of worker political organization and expression. Both Holmes (1989) and Kumar (1988) emphasize the varying cultural forms that may accompany changing labor organization or class structure. Through an intensive cultural analysis of changing artisanal "identity," Kumar (ibid.: 189-97) shows how a particular set of ceremonies in Banaras has become specifically lower class.


These works tend to be shaped by a single overarching framework less than the historical studies of work and production are. Some of them do use a Marxist or political economy framework to analyze the historical relations between states and their component peoples (Fitzpatrick 1980; Geschiere 1982; Bunker 1987). Others look more at how political and legal relations and practices were and are constructed over time.


Excerpted from Engaging the Past by Eric H. Monkkonen. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Histories for Anthropology,
History and Economics,
History and Sociology,
Politics and the Past,
History and Geography,

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