Notes on E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s Anthropology and History (1962)

ResearchBlogging.orgThis is my re-reading of  Evans-Pritchard‘s article, Anthropology and History, from the book, Social Anthropology and Other Essays. In the main, the article argued against the anti-historicist trend within anthropology, which he ascribed as due to the discipline’s original focus. To wit:

“…anti-historicism’s influence is profound in anthropology. It is easy to understand how this turning away from history came about. The precursors and founders of our science had attempted, mistaking irreversibility for inevitability, to formulate laws of historical development by which all human societies pass through a determined succession of stages.”

The paper also evaluated the merits of both history and anthropology as disciplines essential to the understanding of the human experience. Though both disciplines have substantial differences, Evans-Pritchard maintained that “social anthropology and history are both branches of social science or social studies, and that consequently there is an overlap of relevance between them and each can learn much from the other”.

E.E. Evans-Pritchard

Three (3) theoretical perspectives figured prominently in Evans-Pritchard’s critique: a) evolutionism, b) functionalism, and c) diffusionism. Evans-Pritchard maintained that the evolutionism of the pioneers of social anthropology was the main reason for the anti-historicist bias of later anthropologists. The “fault” was not basically rooted on the attempt to use historical data for research but more on the methodology used in acquiring historical data. Moreover, the early evolutionists’ passion for uncovering “laws” of historical development led to haphazard conclusions. Evans-Pritchard argued that ethnology is “legitimate but it can be valuable only if exercised, as Sapir has warned us, with the greatest caution and the most rigorous adherence to rules of evidence.” (emphasis mine) He further added that “…critics…should have challenged them, not for writing history, but for writing bad history.”

Eventually, this aversion to historical research led later anthropologists to focus on anthropological isolates. Evans-Pritchard  noted that “the search for diachronic laws was for a time to be abandoned in a search for synchronic laws…” History became a non-issue in anthropological research and there was a mania for studying the present as if the past was unimportant. Evans-Pritchard posited: “…it is precisely, as I think Comte saw, the diachronic laws which must first be established for they alone can validate the synchronic laws. Alexander Spoehr has neatly expressed the point: ‘the very meaning of functional dependence is that change in one variable results in change in a dependent variable’.” Furthermore, the wedge separating functionalism from history was further made concrete as functionalism attempted to make a “methodological distinction between generalizing sciences (thus classing social anthropology with the natural sciences) and particularizing sciences like history.” To wit: “As it was, they dropped the history and kept the pursuit of laws…”

Moreover, the diffusionists all together threw history into the dustbin of anthropological research as social and cultural developments were thought to be brought about by “contacts of peoples and borrowing of ideas, techniques, and institutions rather than through the operation of evolutionary laws.” If history was being accommodated into anthropological research, diffusionists use it to fall neatly into their theoretical scheme.

In effect, Evans-Pritchard saw the necessity of historical research in anthropology but at the same time is critical of the avoidance of the rules of evidence, which was current among historico-anthropological researchers during that time. He therefore argued for a type of history, historiens-sociologues, which is “primarily interested in social institutions, in mass movements and great cultural changes, and who seek regularities, tendencies, types, and typical sequences; and always within a restricted historical and cultural context.”

Later in the article, Evans-Pritchard presented a rebuttal on the claims that social anthropology is more comparative than history, and that this should be, since it is the object of a natural science to pick out similarities and of history to pick out differences.  In  his classic candor, Evans-Pritchard presented his case:  “The truth of the matter is this: both sociological historians and social anthropologists are fully aware that any event has the characters of uniqueness and of generality, and that in an interpretation of it, both have to be given consideration. If the specificity of a fact is lost, the generalization about it becomes so general as to be valueless…(E)vents lose much, even all, of their meaning if they are not seen as having some degree of regularity and constancy, as belonging to a certain type of event, all features of which have many features in common.”

Specificity and generalization are one and the same, capsulized in a singular social event. Generalizations could spring from specific incidences, and vice versa. To illustrate, Evans-Pritchard presented a metaphor: “The specificity of King John and Robert Fitzwalter as individual loses much of its importance when they are viewed in their roles as representatives of a characteristic set of social relations.” This led Evans-Pritchard to conclude: “An historical fact…shorn of its unique features escapes…temporality. It is no longer a passing incident, a sort of accident, but it, as it were, taken out of the flux of time and achieves conceptual stability as a sociological proposition.”

Evans-Pritchard enumerated the consequences of social anthropoplogy’s breach with history:

  • Anthropologists tend to be uncritical of documentary sources (if ever they use it at all).

Evans-Pritchard remarked: “It is sometimes forgotten that the social anthropologist relied on direct observation only in his role of ethnographer and that when he starts to make comparative studies he has to rely on documents, just as the historian does.”

  • Anthropologists seldom made very serious efforts to reconstruct from historical records and verbal tradition the past of the people they study.

Evans-Pritchard again noted: “It was held that this was an ‘antiquarian’ interest and that it was irrelevant to a functional study of institutions to know how they have changed.”


E.E. Evans-Pritchard (1962). Anthropology and History Social Anthropology and Other Essays


One thought on “Notes on E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s Anthropology and History (1962)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s