Thinking Inside the Box: A Historian among the Anthropologists

By Parker, Kunal | Law & Society Review, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Thinking Inside the Box: A Historian among the Anthropologists


Parker, Kunal, Law & Society Review


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 naïve 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. …

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