Anthropological Musings

Upon beginning this week’s reading, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my anthropological background has now proven relevant in my historical studies. Indeed, it is the other social sciences that came into focus as I made my way through more of John Tosh’s The Pursuit of History, the first two chapters of Geoff Eley’s A Crooked Line, and a sampling of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. And I was delighted to make this discovery. In fact, with my social studies educational background (and with my undergraduate degree in history with a minor in anthropology), I have studied political science, psychology, sociology, economics, archaeology, and anthropology. I have also encountered E.P. Thompson’s work before as well as Karl Marx and genuinely enjoyed reading excerpts from Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class and discussions of Marx’s theories and Marxism’s implications for the subject of history according to John Tosh. More specifically, I was pleased to discover that others (like myself) believe that a mingling of the social sciences (including history) can be highly beneficial. I feel Eley really hits the nail on the head in A Crooked Line when he argues,

“The boundaries between history’s professional precincts and the wider realms of the public are far more porous than most academic historians might allow. Once we admit that porousness, we relativise our understanding of the professional historian’s influence. If we ask where society get its sense of the past, for instance, only delusions of grandeur could induce historians into claiming much of the credit. For most people, knowledge about the past comes very rarely from its professional guardians and then usually at several times removed. Even those of us squarely inside the profession spend much of our time responding most urgently to questions coming from elsewhere, from beyond the safety of the archive, the library or the seminar room” (8).

This is a profound quote and one that I believe deserves a bit of unpacking. Certainly it is clear that Eley believes in the porousness of history and that the subject must be allowed to be mended and molded by those from other professions and non-academics, alike. This is most likely a startling claim for some, particularly those historians we have talked about in previous weeks who are currently “digging in their heels” and refusing to change with the present digital age. Furthermore and on a related note, this then begs the question: will the Internet ultimately lead to more co-mingling of the social sciences? Will history be able to remain in the “…safety of the archive, the library or the seminar room”? We can only hope so for the former and we can only hope not for the latter. As Eley further argues,

“I maintain that we can hold on to all of the gains of the cultural history without having to abandon everything we learned as social historians. As it happens, I was trained personally neither as a social historian nor as a cultural historian, but that has never stopped me from learning how to be both; utilizing either approach is more of a matter of general theoretical and analytical standpoint than of which card-carrying professional identity you embrace” (11).

Thus, Eley believes that social and cultural history can maintain a united front and can work together to benefit both sides of the discipline. And as I mentioned above, I believe that we can take it a step further and allow for an intermingling of the social sciences more fully and more fluidly. I miss my anthropological studies and long for the day when I will be able to enjoy both of my favorite subjects together and with ease. Hopefully, the Internet will facilitate a more porous relationship between history and the other social sciences and I will be able to study both anthropology and history nearly as one in the very near future.