History and Anthropology


G.M. Young, the English historian of the Victorian era, recommended that historians should continue reading until they can hear their subjects talking. Only then would they understand why things happened as they did (1948, 112). This much quoted advice invites us to look more closely at the relationship between history and anthropology and what each discipline can learn from the other. A widespread and now perhaps slightly dated view was that these disciplines have nothing to learn from each other. Anthropologists sought to understand their ethnographic findings by exposing them to the theoretical lens of structure and function. As Ernest Gellner put it, anthropologists looked for «explanations in the interrelations of various features of a society with each other in their reciprocal usefulness as opposed to seeking them in their genesis» (1958, 184). But in order to arrive at this theoretical model, the societies in question become petrified in a false and misleading equilibrium. A certain amount of stabilization is necessary if societies are to be mirrored in concepts but Gellner quoting Leach pleads for an awareness of this process. «All I am asking is that the fictional nature of this equilibrium be frankly recognized» (Leach, 1954, 285). The dilemma is that explanatory concepts must have a minimum degree of permanence otherwise they cannot perform their function. «But reality is not static» (Gellner, 1958, 187). In other words, there is a mismatch between the chaotic, savage and unpredictable course of history and the efforts of socio-anthropological concepts to impose an orderly understanding. The fast moving and cruel events to our east lay bare these discrepancies. We are all familiar with the saying of Heraclitus that one cannot step into the same river twice. The river is not the same and you are not the same. With equal confidence we can say that we cannot enter the same society twice. Our eastern neighbours provide painful evidence of this fact. Historians are typically wary of making generalizations. Like anthropologists they focus on the specific. In their case, the specific unfolding of events in time rather than one specific society. Their attention is on the specific unfolding of events and the importance of acknowledging the epoch making character of some events and the impact of traumas such as war on individuals and societies. Many years ago Edmund Leach acknowledged that «every real society is a process in time» (1954: 5). At the present point in time, we as scholars encounter one of the greatest challenges of our careers. We must offer our best talents as social scientists and historians to combine insights into the interplay of social forces and the narratives of history.

Apr 19, 2023
Rīga (Latvija)
Vieda Skultāne
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