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«HISTORICAL ANTHROPOLOGY (Frazer Lecture)1 By Alan Macfarlane From: Cambridge Anthropology Vol.3 no.3 (1977) Marc Bloch wrote that the good historian ...»

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HISTORICAL ANTHROPOLOGY (Frazer Lecture)1

By Alan Macfarlane

From: Cambridge Anthropology Vol.3 no.3 (1977)

Marc Bloch wrote that the "good historian is like the giant of the fairy tale. He knows that

wherever he catches the scent of human flesh, there his quarry lies" (Bloch, p.26).The good

anthropologist is likewise a cannibal. "What social science is properly about" urged Wright-Mills,

"is the human variety, which consists of all the social worlds in which men have lived, are living, and might live" (Wright-Mills, p.147). In the first half of this paper I will discuss the ways in which social anthropology and history could, in theory, benefit each other. In the second half I will briefly describe a case study of an attempt to compare historical and contemporary societies.

The current dilemma facing social anthropologists can be stated briefly. While their past achievements command considerable respect and still excite students and general readers, practitioners already regard themselves as an almost extinct species. Their plight is easily explained.

Their hunting grounds have nearly vanished, the pre-literate and non-industrial societies they originally studied have almost been destroyed and their rather simple weapons, the diffusionist spear and functionalist bow, are obsolete. They do not satisfy emotionally or intellectually. Doom was prophesied in the early 1950s, but has been masked and postponed by the hitherto impenetrable musings of Levi-Strauss. Some believed that he had discovered a hidden pass into a new land, thus locating a rich flora and fauna consisting of symbols, myths, collective representations, classificatory systems, all of which could be trapped and devoured with the aid of the structuralist net. But now his most ardent admirers speak of their disillusionment. Needham pointed out that "after all its resounding ambition, the secure results have proved woefully pathetic" (Needham, p.785) and Leach dismissed this brand of structuralism as "not so much a false start as a will-o'-the wisp in a dark night leading ever onwards to quagmires yet unplumbed" (Leach, p.772). The best that can be claimed for the discipline, many argue, is that it encourages the collection of information about vanishing societies. This appears to be too defensive a position. The problem therefore This is an expanded version of the Frazer Memorial Lecture 'Clio's Task:History and Anthropology' delivered at the University of Liverpool in 1973. I am grateful to Sarah Harrison and Irish Macrarlane for comments on this paper and for undertaking most of the work on the records ofEarls Colne. The Social Science Research Council provided financial support for the local study described in the second half of the essay. Parentheses refer to works in the list of references at the end. Date of publication is only included in the text when two or more works by the same author are used.

appears to be, howmuch of the very real contribution made by anthropologists over the last seventy years can be salvaged while incorporating the many criticisms anthropologists and others have made of the 'anthropological approach'?

One of the advantages of studying small, semi-enclosed, communities was that it allowed a "total" approach to human institutions. The interweaving of levels of action and thought, of the economic, religious, political, legal, and other facets of human existence, laid bare connections which were impossible to perceive in the highly differentiated modern communities from which investigators came. This "total" approach has been stressed by most anthropologists (e.g. Malinowski, p.37; Firth, p.5). It provided a more flexible and attractive approach than the dialectical materialism of Marxism. The best social historians have also praised and attempted to practice this rounded approach. Marc Bloch for example argued that "the only true history, which can advance only through mutual aid, is universal history" (Bloch, p.47). Tawney was praised most highly for the "sensitive awareness of the complex relationships of economic, social, ideological and political change" (Stone, 1967a, p.xvi). This faith in totality also made possible a second, highly remarkable, result. It became possible to understand the hitherto incomprehensible.

David Hume long ago pointed out, "let an object be presented to a man of never so strong natural reason and abilities; if that object be entirely new to him, he will not be able, by the most accurate examination of its sensible qualities, to discover any of its causes or effects" (quoted in Winch, p.7).

In other words, there are a whole range of phenomena in other societies and in our own past which we have to dismiss as irrational because they are beyond our reason. Anthropology managed to bring much of this realm within the boundary of comprehension while retaining the 'otherness' of the phenomena. A notable example occurs in the study of witchcraft and magic, beliefs which were beyond the grasp of 'ordinary common sense'. The "total" approach, by setting each belief or practice within its context, rather than dragging it away from its roots, made the topic less meaningless. Furthermore, by assuming that societies were systems where each part had a function, confidence was engendered and the investigator was not prepared to rest until he had found a positive function. He refused to take the easy course which was to dismiss the phenomenon as a "cultural hand-over" or a "superstition". Although we can now see that many assertions of function were glib and mistaken, much also was gained. Here the best social historians have again shared the experience of social anthropologists. Keith Thomas in his recent work on magic and related phenomena is constantly aware of the very superficial contributions made in this field by previous historians. Such historians have consistently been facetious and patronising about subjects with which they have found it very difficult to identify at all (Thomas, 1971). Collingwood noted on several occasions that if the gap between the historian's own experience and his subject matter was too great, then the past would be intelligible. He argued, for example, that "though we have no lack of data about Roman religion, our own religious experience is not of such a kind as to qualify us for reconstructing in our own minds what it meant to them" (Collingwood, p.329, see also p.218). As Bloch points out, "successive technological revolutions have immeasurably widened the psychological gap between generations. With some reason, perhaps, the man of the age of electricity and the aeroplane feels himself far removed from his ancestors" (Bloch, p.36). If we add insurance and anti-biotics, literacy and computers, to Bloch's revolutions it is easy to see the huge imaginative leap both historian and social anthropologist have to make in order to study problems which seem no longer to affect us. But at least the anthropologist can go and live in a world where the institutions and modes of thought, different though they are, still exist.





While the anthropological method made it possible to understand the strange, it also distanced the over-familiar so that it became possible to study it. As Homans pointed out, "when a man describes a society which is not his own, he often leaves out those features which the society has in common with his own society. He takes them for granted, and so his description is distorted" (Homans, p.382). This is also true of historians studying their own societies in the past, but in their case the danger was much greater. The reason why anthropologists appeared to be boring to the very roots of mankind's existence was that they encountered in alien cultures institutions and ideas which were in so many basic ways different from the models which they had imported from their own background that they felt bound to engage in some fundamental heart-searching. Investigators predominantly came from societies which are not ultimately based on kinship and which do not have unilineal kinship systems. They have therefore devoted much energy to the basic study of kinship, which seemed so much more important than the same institution in their own societies. The same is true of religion and morality. Europeans and North Americans came from a predominantly guilt and sin, heaven and hell, monotheistic culture. They found societies which often lacked these concepts and instead ordered their world in different ways, using different modes of classification, arguing along other causal lines, employing concepts of purity and power which struck outsiders as so totally alien that they had to be examined. The same was true in the sphere of economics. Very often, the whole capitalist, marked based, acquisitive, economic philosophy and behaviour with which researchers were familiar were absent. To give meaning to the alternative institutions that were encountered, and to absorb the threat of often attractive beliefs, explanations had to be found. In order to do this it was necessary to go back to basic principles, a common substratum which lies beneath both 'our' own cultures and 'theirs' had to be found.

Historians, like anthropologists, also took their own society as the norm, but searching through written documents makes it easier to disregard or overlook points of difference. Furthermore, much of the past of one's own country, or even western Christendom, seems so familiar and obvious that it seems to need no explanation. Maine touched on this problem when he alluded to "the difficulty of believing that ideas which form part of our everyday mental stock can really stand in need of analysis and examination" (Maine, p.271). This helps to explain why, until the last ten years there have been no satisfactory attempts by English historians to analyse such features as kinship, the family, sexual behaviour, childrearing, geographical mobility, marriage, literacy, astrology, witchcraft, popular religion, concepts of sin, death, time, the symbolism and ritual of everyday life and a host of other topics listed fourteen years ago by Keith Thomas (Thomas, 1963). "He little knows of England who only England knows" applies to every country and can be widened to whole areas which share basic social structural and ideological features, for example Western Europe. The basis of all investigation is comparison. Most anthropologists accept that, implicitly if not explicitly, they are comparing other societies with their model of their own. Historians also work with implicit models of human behaviour and motivation drawn from their own societies. Whether they like it or not, confining themselves in this way inevitably blinds them to most of what was important and meaningful to their ancestors. Only in those areas where thee has been moderate change can analysis take place.

The achievements of social anthropology, not least in emphasizing the dignity and rationality of hitherto exploited and patronised human groups, are very considerable. Bit it became obvious fairly soon that there are basic flaws in the explanatory framework of the discipline and in the type of material anthropologists were forced to use. Firstly the material available for analysis, although rich at a point in time, was without any force or dynamic. It was almost impossible to assess whether any radical changes were or had been occurring. Even if some clues of present or past change did emerge, it was not possible to speculate very much as to why such change did occur. Hence, all hypotheses about the phenomena under discussion had to be functionalist, that is, related to their present use in the society. Not only does our knowledge of societies elsewhere make it seem unlikely that such interpretations are accurate in more than a very limited number of instances, but it is impossible to test which hypotheses were true and which false. The few attempts at prediction and the few 'before and after' or 'ten years after' studies were not satisfactory. The a-temporal bias had several notorious side effects: an over-emphasis on harmony and integration and a highly conservation interpretation of society, as well as a selective over-stress on certain aspects of culture and society.

Another reason why it was impossible to test hypotheses was the subjective, non-statistical, nature of the evidence. No sampling frame was, of course, available, so that one did not know how far generalizations based on an intensive small-scale study could be extrapolated to a wider group or area. It was also usually impossible to give any numerical weight to any statement. By definition, the number of persons one could study intensively was really below any statistically meaningful number, except for the crudest and most aggregated numbers. Thus all topics of a vaguely statistical nature, particularly demography or changes in domestic economy were very difficult to pursue.

Generalizations concerning the universal horror aroused by incest, the social status or witches, or the prevalence of matrilineal cross-cousin marriages, turned out, on closer examination, to be based on a few haphazard examples, or cases scattered across the continents. Without going so far as to say that one cannot county what one cannot count, it soon became obvious that progress was really blocked by the inherent nature of method and material.

A similar in-built limitation was the selective over-emphasis an almost closed, small-scale, non-literate, non-industrial, societies. Of course there have been many attempts to apply anthropological approaches to sub-sectors of societies elsewhere, an American ghetto, Irish farming community, London suburb, Indian peasant village. Though they are often fruitful, they somehow seem quickly to slip away and lose the characteristically 'anthropological' flavour, merely becoming exercises in micro-sociology. Soon, however, there will be no choice left. Even if one wished to study societies as little influenced by 'westernization' as possible, such areas are rapidly dwindling away. In a couple of decades it is unlikely that any 'natural', non-influenced, societies will remain.

The huge destruction of complexity and "otherness" which is currently occurring in the animal and plant worlds is also happening to mankind. But there are, with man, not even any partial remedies such as seed-banks and wildlife parks. Once 'contaminated', cultures cannot be preserved. Nor have we an obvious right to decide whether they should be 'preserved' or not. Hence it is arguable that only in historical material, ethnographic of otherwise, will investigators be able to study 'non-western' man. Demographers, in their search for 'natural' populations have turned to historical materials and anthropologists are likely to follow them in this direction.



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