What Historians Can Learn from Anthropology

Roundup: Talking About History

Kunal Parker, in Rednovanews (12-11-04):

[Kunal Parker is Associate Professor of Law, Cleveland State University.]

Anthropologists have long sought to establish a relationship to the discipline of history. In the United States, this effort may be traced at least as far back as the work of A. L. Kroeber (1966). However, with the explosion of interest in colonialism that gripped the U.S. academy in the 1980s and 1990s, it received especially influential articulations in the work of Bernard Cohn (1990) and John and Jean Comaroff (1992).1

For both Cohn and the Comaroffs (very explicitly for the latter), the need for anthropology to establish a relationship to history was part of the effort to rehabilitate anthropology after the anti- colonial critiques the discipline sustained in the 1970s and 1980s. Following these critiques, anthropologists were told to shed their colonial baggage as scholars interested in "others" rendered distinguishable from "ourselves" principally by their absence of history and by their immobilization in "cultures" understood as ahistorical frameworks. At the same time, anthropologists were exhorted to shed their nave epistemological assumption that a meaningful account of their subjects could be based upon nothing more than "presence" in the midst of their subjects. The proffered solution was a trip to the archives.

But if a trip to the archives was to save anthropology, what was to prevent anthropologists from becoming nothing more than historians? It is here that anthropologists from Kroeber to Cohn to the Comaroffs revealed not altogether without truth and often humorously-their pitying disdain for historians. In their renderings, there were many differences between historians and anthropologists, most of them redounding to the advantage of the latter. Thus, historians were supposedly naively interested in events rather than practices; they were either theoretically unsophisticated or wedded to empiricist bourgeois categories such as the individual, biography, causality, and so on, and they often wrote in a distinctly nonspecialist, indeed bellelettrist, idiom.

But the foundational difference between historians and anthropologists, we were told, inhered in the ways the two disciplines constructed a relationship to their sources. Thus, Cohn stated:

In loose terms, research in history is based on finding data; research in anthropology is based on creating data. Obviously the historian has to find the sources on which to base his research. If he cannot find them, then no matter how good his ideas are or how well thought through the problem is on which he wants to work, he cannot do the research. My suspicion is that most historical research is done because there is a known body of source material available. The anthropologist, on the other hand, often is interested in a problem, descriptive or theoretical, and the question is then one of deciding what types of materials he will need for pursuing the problem. (1990:6)

This is a marvelous rendering of why-in the eyes of at least one influential practitioner of historical anthropology-historians and anthropologists are different. But in what sense is it meaningful to say that historians find data/are motivated by existing data, whereas anthropologists create data/are motivated by intellectual problems?

I submit that Cohn's account of the difference between historians and anthropologists might be productively grasped if one sees disciplinary practices and styles in history and anthropology as emanating from different disciplinary fantasies about the finitude/ infinitude of sources. I believe that these different disciplinary fantasies are widely subscribed to by historians and anthropologists (although historians will, of course, balk at the negative spin that anthropologists have put on their disciplinary style and practice).

The historians' fantasy is that the sources are finite. They believe as a result that it is at least theoretically possible to go through them all. In my view, this is true even for historians who work in areas-for example, twentieth-century U.S. history-where the available materials are absolutely overwhelming. For Cohn, who grasps this historian's fantasy perfectly, the consequence is historians' document fetishism and their corresponding theoretical navet. In other words, simply bringing to light the sources-the "ideal type" being dusty boxes of slowly disintegrating documents- becomes enough. Precisely because the uncovering of the sources adds to the "fund" of knowledge about the past-i.e., represents an inching toward the ultimate cataloguing of all dusty boxes-it sanctions a relatively unmediated treatment of what the boxes contain.

For anthropologists, by contrast, the fantasy is that the sources are infinite. Indeed, the sources do not even have the character of discrete "sources" that can be lined up next to each other as boxes can. As a result, the question of cataloguing "everything" never arises. Beginning with a sense of the infinitude of sources makes the anthropologist focus first on his or her own purposes and then decide which of an inexhaustible supply of sources essentially inseparable from each other-the festival, the botched ritual, the village squabble-serves those purposes. For Cohn, the exhilarating open-endedness of the "field"-the anthropologist's term for the infinitude of sources that emerges from "presence" amidst his or her subjects-accounts for the anthropologist's relative theoretical sophistication.

But of course, as I have pointed out earlier, the anticolonial critique of anthropology that led anthropologists to the boxes in the archives was precisely that the allegedly open-ended "field," at least as traditionally configured within the discipline, had turned out to be something of a box after all, to the extent that it was sharply bounded in space and time. For a complex of reasons, research based upon "presence" in the "field" had ended up denying the anthropologist's subjects history altogether.

If anthropologists have sought to surmount the anticolonial critique by turning to the boxes in the archives, however, they have been unwilling to shed the fantasy of open-endedness associated with presence in the field. Instead, they have sought to transform the archives-those collections of dusty boxes-into a field imagined as being every bit as open-ended as presence amidst subjects was ever imagined to be. For the Comaroffs, it is this open-end-edness-which they do not problematize as a disciplinary fantasy-that will ultimately distinguish historical ethnography from social history:

A historical ethnography, then, must begin by constructing its own archive. It cannot content itself with established canons of documentary evidence, because these are themselves part of the culture of global modernism-as much the subject as the means of inquiry. As anthropologists, therefore, we must work both in and outside the official record, both with and beyond the guardians of memory in the societies we study. (1992:34, emphasis added)

From now on, in other words, even though anthropologists and historians will both work on the same dusty boxes in the archives, the anthropologist will allegedly not be limited by and to them, while the historian will allegedly be thus limited.

My object here is not to rehabilitate history as an academic discipline in the eyes of anthropologists. Nothing could be further from my purposes. My object is rather to evaluate anthropology's claims about its own historical method, specifically to examine whether its fantasy about the open-endedness of its sources can be sustained during the plunge into the dusty boxes in the archives. In other words, how successfully can boxes be rendered into "fields"?...

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