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Jonathan Lindsell 25/04/2011 How useful are anthropological models to historical analysis of change and conflict?
Anthropological models, the tools for compartmentalising societies and for reducing cultures to understandable, comprehendible levels, can and are being taken up by historians. Both the models for anthropological research, such as oral history, microcosmic study and the focus on ritual, symbolism and kinship, as well as anthropological methods of interpreting and presenting findings, such as functionalist and structuralist approaches, power consideration and linguistic focus, can all be applied to history in general, and the topics of change and conflict in particular. Most useful are anthropological ideas pertaining to ceremony and ritual, which often express change, and serve to divert social conflict by preserving the structure of power. However, it is advisable that historians do not unthinkingly accept all anthropological models to be completely true or applicable- they should be viewed critically and used carefully. This is primarily because anthropological models, taken at face value, contain several substantial weaknesses. Firstly, many scholars have raised the objection that anthropology and sociology tend to treat cultures as static and unchanging, especially in their treatment of rituals. Whilst it will be shown below that many ceremonies attempt to keep to the traditional norm in order to preserve the just such an illusion, it has to be accepted that culture is a fluid concept, altering all the time, and for historians of change and conflict, static models can be of limited use1. Edward Said is famous for his attack on the social sciences in general, in which he accuses them of "orientalism", that is, a bias, however subconscious, against the peoples of the East. He argues that Western academics are predisposed to assert the superiority of Western culture and to look down on the people of Asia2. Now conscious of these previously submerged slants, anthropology has largely attempted to redress the balance, embracing relativism and finding both fault with the west and praising the east. Another objection, which more recent anthropologists have accepted and adapted to at least partially, are the accusations that some models ignore the "bigger picture", so focused they are, or that they are written so much with theory in mind that they become unreadable and full of jargon3. The bigger picture argument, that the focus can leave other classes or sexes in the shadows, is perhaps the more important point, but all three criticisms of anthropological models show that however useful they are, they need to be applied with a touch of care and a pinch of salt. With that in mind, there are a large number of anthropological models that can prove highly useful in historical studies of change and conflict. In the theatre of research, the anthropological technique of face-to-face investigation of cultures has given rise to the popular method "oral history", in which the historian actually visits the location he is studying, and with a Dictaphone records the memories, folk tales and local legends of a particular historical event. This opens to the historian a "living memory", which according to Mr. Nightingale often provides very different perspectives from the historically accepted account of the elite or government, owing to the fact that the local historical memory may well present the view of a group opposed to change, or
1 Anthropology, Witchcraft, Magic and Popular Belief, Lyndal Roper, Oxford University Exam Schools, 28th October 2008 2 Orientalism, Edward Said 3 Signs of the Times: Clifford Geertz and Historians, Ronald G Walters, p.539
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