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Some thoughts on anthropology and history

Durkheim originally argued that a true sociology/history would come about as a result of the blending of history and social science (Rules of the Sociological Method [?]).

Collingwood provides a suggestion that anthropology, which is concerned with the analysis of ‘other’ cultures, also has similarities with historical analysis in that historians have to understand that fundamentally different presuppositions are brought to bear in different historical and/or cultural situations (Collingwood 1972)

Inden provides an example this blending of historical and anthropological analysis (Inden 1990).

Bakhtin also uses an exploration of historical analysis to challenge the monological nature of many theories cf.(Morson & Emerson 1990).

The impossibility of predicting the future also relates to an understanding of historicity. Bakhtin rejects the approach that claims that all is relative because this fixes the result of historical analyses in advance and argues that “…history requires unfinalizability.” (Morson & Emerson 1990: 44). One solution frequently proposed, the diachronic approach, is frequently deficient in that it is often “…nothing but a series of synchronic slices, with no intelligible historical links.” (Morson & Emerson 1990: 44), or is a synchronic view that unfolds over time. “Unfinalizability and prosaics are missing from such models, which make change the result of causes outside human agency, uniform in nature, and, at least in principle, knowable in advance.” (Morson & Emerson 1990: 44)

This leads us to question how one would be able to give a proper historical account – remembering that an anthropological analysis is by definition also a historical work, in that it is describing a past that has occurred. One answer is the format of the novel, according to Bakhtin, that is able to give " and 'thick' accounts..." (Morson & Emerson 1990: 27). This terminology, used by Morson & Emerson recalls Clifford Geertz's espousal of the 'thick description' (Geertz 1973), and also suggests a rejection of a cause-and-effect rationale.

David Kohn (Kohn n.d.) (pp. 7-8):
“…do anthropology and history study the same object, and do they study it in the same way? The answer to both questions is yes. In the introduction to The Idea of History, Collingwood asserts that history studies ‘actions of human beings that have been done in the past.’ (p. 9) Anthropology falls within this definition…”

Collingwood criticises what he calls a ‘scissors and paste’ approach to history where the historian merely collates information about the past as represented in texts and/or other artefacts, and then presents the final collection as a unified and definitive narrative. Instead the historian should adopt a ‘scientific’ approach that, according to Collingwood, means that s/he should make a systematic attempt to answer particular questions, to acquire particular knowledge.


I wrote that a long time ago; what interested me was the convergence between anthropology and history. Recognising that historical accounts are always contingent accounts based on the present interpretations means that - as in anthropology - we have to find a way to develop accounts that are in themselves diachronic and multivocal. In a way, a blog would be perfect for that: each page is placed chronologically, but all are simultaneously accessible; different people can contribute via the comments; multimedia can be used...

Works Cited.

Collingwood, R.G. An essay on metaphysics. Chicago: University Press of America, Inc., 1972
Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973.
Inden, R. Imagining India. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.
Kohn D. Collingwood and Clifford. Unpublished: (in Anthropology department library, SOAS), ND.
Morson G.S. & C. Emerson. Mikhail Bakhtin. Creation of a Prosaics. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.