The Historical Method of Anthropologists – Essay

The evolutionary tradition in social anthropology was used at the instance of Darwinism. As Darwin tried to find out the history of the origin of mankind, similar attempt was made in social anthropology by Spencer, Hobhouse and others.

These have tried to reconstruct his­tory by tracing the origin of social institutions such as family, marriage, kin, polity and economics. For instance, Westermarck has given a history of human marriage. In yet another study, Oppenhe- imer has traced the history of the state in an evolutionary fashion.

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After the first generation of Spencer, Hobhouse and Comte, Max Weber used history to learn about the evolution of capitalism, bu­reaucracy and religion.

He studied the six great religions of world (however, he could study only five) through the historical method. In the present anthropology Raymond Aron and C. Wright Mills have applied this method at great length to analyze a series of social institutions.

As a matter of fact, the historical method goes hand in hand with comparative method. The Marxist social anthropologists have used new categories to analyze different aspects of the social system.

These include production relations and production forces. The analysis of capitalism by Karl Marx is a classical example of historical analysis.

His theory of conflict and social change owes much too historical forces. His classical observation that all the history of communities is a history of class struggle quite importantly stresses the importance of historical method.

In India, the historical method, both evolutionary and Marxian, has been used by social anthropologists. Iravati Karve’s analysis of In­dia’s kinship organization borrows much from Sanskrit textbooks. Similarly, G.S. Ghurye’s interpretation of the origin of caste in India is highly historical.

He also draws his data from historical documents. When they took to the study of civilizations, historical methodology became all the more important. M.N. Srinivas completed his study on the Religion and Society among the Coorgs of South India (1952) under the supervision of G.S. Ghurye.

In this classical study he has estab­lished the interrelation of religion and society. His method of study was historical; at a later stage, however, when he revised his work, he analyzed the material from a functional point of view.

There are some Indian studies which are oriented to Marxian his­tory. D.P. Mukherji took up the issue of the dialectic between tradition and modernity.

In this analysis he is effectively oriented to­wards Marxism, but he has turned heavily on the particularistic model of Indian sociology with its emphasis on tradition and history.

His notion of dialectics, which he recommends as an important analytic device, never takes on the universalistic meaning which it has in population interpretations of Marxist theory.

History has been very widely used as a method by both Marxist sociologists and anthropologists. These scholars have made modes of production their centre of analysis.

Though there is a long history of Marxian method of sociology in India, it appears that this method has been applied only recently in in-depth empirical studies. History, which has been a prime method of enquiry, has been fruitfully utilized by D.N. Dhanagare, Kathleen Gough, A.R. Desai, Ramkrishna MukhfPjee and others.

Dhanagare has analyzed agrarian social move­ment from Marxian perspective. Gough has studied Thanjavur villages purely from Marxian historical categories.

She has started from the traditional Marxist premises of the succession of the ‘Asiatic’, ‘feudal’ and ‘capitalist’ modes of production in India within the overarching system of colonialism. This is indeed an exemplary use of the histori­cal method in an analysis of social stratification.

The Marxian historical method has also been gainfully employed by social anthropologists such as Daniel Thorner, Gail Omvedt, Jan Breman and others. A.R. Desai has used it in analyzing the macro structures of Indian society.

If must be observed that history as a method was very popular among social anthropologists who worked on the evolution of social institutions. With the emergence of functionalism, evolutionary historicism suffered a serious setback in the European continent and in India.

However, we shall soon find that the variant of functionalism in India has taken to the historical method quite unlike the social an­thropology of the European continent and the US. Despite this lesser input of historical method, the Marxist anthropologists and sociolo­gists continue to use history as a method of analysis.