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"history" and laws of cultural change

Page history last edited by Anonymous 1 9 years, 2 months ago

Boas argued that anthropology should be an historical enterprise, but what does he mean by history? Does he think history is unpredictable? If so, is there any hope of discovering laws governing cultural change?


Boas and Historical Particularism

Mark Smith


Boas does not consider history unpredictable--but he does consider the history of each culture to be unique. Boas suggests that you cannot understand a culture's present until you know its past history. Of course, this is vague, and except for archaeological material culture, all historical background must be indirectly obtained from current living members of that culture. I think that Boas would consider this ethnographic fieldwork to be equally rich in current information about present practices--just by having individuals of the culture explain their own pasts.--note the word: individual. On page 124, Boas states that one can never have enough data about the history of a culture to have a chronological sequence that is completely accurate. But, on a broad level, there can be a significant amount of accuracy.


History is only unpredictable without obtaining fieldwork. After enough rapport, you can reasonable predict historical patterns in a particular culture. Laws governing cultural change would then be possible for that culture--but certainly not on a universal level. Boas would also suggest that you can only get historical information from several individuals. It would be nearly impossible to ask and entire society about its past. A random sample of individuals providing the culture's history would be more plausible--thus, the importance of the individual. Of course, I'm not too sure just how accurate this could be. It would be hard as an ethnographer to obtain large enough of a sample to be accurate.

Re: Boas and Historical Particularism

Alexandra Gagne

I think your point about individuals relaying information about their past in turn provides information about their present culture is very interesting. The specificities that a person chooses to focus on in their own history may show what is valued in their culture. I wonder, though, if one person's interpretation or even a few people's is enough to make assumptions about cultural patterns.


Also, the idea of unpredictability can be somewhat resolved by fieldwork. There are patterns which cultures exhibit over time. These patterns can be observed by looking into the past and comparing it to the present. I definitely think Boas would agree with this, as long as cultures and histories are not compared in a universal sense.


Culture is Sui Generis not Evolutionary

Savannah Fetterolf


Boas did not accept the ideas of the unilinear evolutionists like Tylor and Morgan. In his opinion, culture did not develop following a universal set of guidelines. Instead, each culture has its own unique history, meaning that they experienced progress and development in their own ways. Boas believed that “cultures are sui generis (that is, they create themselves)” (124). Yet, to account for that what appeared to be similarities in cultural practices, Boas labeled these as a product of diffusion or convergent evolution. Because of his strong belief in historical particularism, Boas felt that cultures could only be understood within the context of their own histories. History, for Boas and Kroeber, was not about individual achievements, but about how such individual modifications altered society over time. History, then, was not only dynamic, but an integral part of understanding culture as well.


While there were similar practices and beliefs shared by different cultures, Boas avidly preached the merits of cultural relativism and refused to see these as dictated by psychic unity. By choosing to recognize each culture as an individual entity, I believe this indicates that Boas would not be comfortable with any sort of sweeping generalizations about culture. Additionally, since Boas was so resistant to an evolutionary view of culture, I think that it is nearly impossible that he would acquiesce and accept laws attempting to explain cultural change.


Analyzing Culture Change - Is is even possible?

Chelsey Megli

I think Boas believed that history is very important in anthropology, but his reference to history is not the broader definition his contemporaries used. At first glance you might think that Boas believed that each culture should be placed in History (the global series of events, usually with a Western emphasis that we learn in school). This placement is contrary to much of Boasian theory against unilinearism and deficit comparison. I believe what Boas was referring to, when mentioning the importance of history is what anthropologists more commonly refer to now as "context". Cultures do not need to be placed in History in order to be studied, but their own history (including its interaction with outside groups) and past is vital to understanding the culture itself. Boas advocated that cultures do not spontaneously erupt - that there is a rhyme and reason to their development even if its not easily visible to outsiders - so he valued understanding how cultures develop over time and have developed in the past to reach their current state.


I don't think Boas believed that history itself was unpredictable, because he and his followers were able to recognize similar methods of adaptation, particularly to intermingling or conflicting culture groups. I do think, however, that Boas would be in favor of the idea that human reaction to history and the human capacity of and creativity in that response are often unprecedented. I think having laws governing cultural change is a bit too stiff of an assumption. I do think that patterns exist, particularly when cultures are in similar physical and social environments. I also believe that these patterns can be recognized and even predicted. I do not think, however, that the accuracy of these predictions would be high enough to merit the acceptance of general laws in anthropology. The nature of culture is one of change and adaptation, often in increasingly innovative ways, so theories of cultural change can be studied and formulated, but prediction won't likely be accurate because each culture has its own unique history, its own unique context, that can inspire unforeseeable change.




History in the Making

Lauren Deal

The quote that stuck out to me most as I read was on page 124. Boas says that his method of anthropology focuses on "the dynamic changes in society that may be observed at the present time." The key words for me are dynamic and present. In this seciton of the article, Boas begins to outline his methodology and his concept of history. For Boas, each culture has its own unique history that is constantly being created as a product of both etic and emic developments. I don't believe that Boas would argue that history is unpredictable or unexplainable but rather that it is highly dependent on context and without understanding the specific circumstances in which it is arising. This argument does make it extremely clear that he finds a unilineal plan of evolutions completely incompatible with the reality he experiences and observes. Boas does not argue that simliarities cannot be explained by some type of trend outside of specific cultures but he argues that these trends are not due to diffusion or unilineal stages but are due rather to similar dynamic conditions based on social or psychological causes. In sum, I think that Boas considered history to be the sum of all practices, institutions and changes within a given cultural system. I don't think he would argue that they are law bound but that he would say they are predictable if one has conducted the neccesary fieldwork, which is the only way to truly understand any culture.


Re: History in the Making

Erin Neill

I agree with Lauren that the quote that struck me the most was when Boas wrote of "the dynamic changes that may be observed at the current time" (p.124). These words lay the foundation for the way that Bas understandshistory and the methodology he uses to explain historical phenomena. Boas believed that in order to understand historical evolution one must unravel the process by which it occurs. It is throough these means that Boas understands history and historical developments and how they contribute to his understanding any possible laws governing cultural change. This ties into Mark's comment in reference to history's predictability. Boas would likely not think of history as unpredictable, rather as many unique cultural puzzles that need to be examined through his form of methodology to understand the processs.


Context and History

Sara Ray

I agree with Chelsey in that Boas was referring to what we would qualify as "context" when talking about history. I think he definitely understands and accepts a sense of cultural change through time, which would constitute history, but sees it as something that's relevant when talking about the culture's present status. Since Boas shifts away from unilinear evolution, I think he would have a bit of an issue (at least at first) about the idea of universal laws governing cultural change, but looking at the historical contexts of many cultures would allow anyone to see some sort of pattern emerge from which you could make predictions. I dont' believe Boas thought history was unpredictable, I believe he thought it could be observed and gathered by participants of the culture.


A Question for Boasians

Dave Schatz

After reading some of the responses giving insight into the true meaning of history according to Boas, I have a few questions to raise about his viewpoint. My main question surrounds the idea that gathering particular histories via fieldwork leads one to a comprehensive past, giving a context for present observation. I am not sure if such methodology could necessarily yield the results one is looking for. For example, what do we do in a situation where conflicting histories are offered by two members of the same culture? What can we draw from these examples, both contexts in their own right, offering different perspectives on the present in front of us? How about a situation in which we get our information primarily by one person of a very small population? Couldn't this history be culturally flawed? It seems that unless a convincing majority of individuals or even the entire population submits a corroborating historical accounts, the conclusion of a history could be tainted without the observer's notice. I guess this would be Boas' version of sound fieldwork, but I never got that direct impression from this reading. Unless the observer is careful, they could end up with a very, very, very particular history!

Re: A Question for Boasians


Dave's question made me think for a while and I do have similar doubts. It reminded me of the film that we saw in class. In the film, Kroeber was having a hard time finding out what actually happened to Ishi. Just like what we saw in the film, different culture have different ways to tell their history(story) and their version of history might sound non-sense and unrealistic from the western point of view. Each culture has its own unique history. Ethnographers would be challenge to understand their version of history of the culture and to report it accurately. As Dave mentioned, it does seem like the history that ethnographers get would be their interpretations of the history unless the majority of the society is in consensus of the account. But, every one has their own perspective and our own history is also controversial. Like the Turkish massacre of Armanians or Nankin massacre by Japanese,  cultures/societies/nations/individuals oppose the suppose-to-be the real history and give different evidences. We do not reach total consensus... and each textbook have different interpretation and connotation of the history. It must be extremely hard for ethnographers to gather history of that culture accurately. I feel like there is a limit that ethnographic work can do to gather history.    


RE: A Question for Boasians

Allison Moss

Boas sort of addresses Dave's question on page 125 when he states that "the activities of the individual are determined to a great extent by his social environment, but in turn his own activities influence the society in which he lives, and may bring about modifications in its form." I feel that this could be interpreted to answer the question concerning individual accounts...the way individuals in a community interpret and remember events can alter the way their culture functions. I think Boasians could use differing 'historical' accounts from different individuals to gather a more complete ethnography.

What is your problem, Franz Boas?

John Curran

I have to say that this question has really drawn me down the rabbit hole, so to speak, and left me with more questions about Boas’ theoretical inclinations than when I began.  It would be simple enough if Boas regarded historical and scientific approaches to culture as having contradictory aims. But, as is clear from the text, he advocates applying scientific methods and analysis to research problems framed in terms of historical phenomena.


As best I can tell, Boas’ concept of “history” consists of both the “sequence of events” (Chelsey) and the “sum of all practices, institutions and changes within a given cultural system” (Lauren) definitions we’ve mentioned.  I would add that, beyond the “sum” or “sequence” aspects included in this concept of history, Boas seems interested in tracing relations across changes in  cultures’  “modes of action” / inventions / “developments” / “whole social environment," generally. Theoretically, I think his exact vision, here, is a little muddled (or perhaps it is my reading of him).  But my point is that Boas’ approach to history is (strangely) synchronic.  What he’s trying to achieve, it seems, can really only be considered “history” in a similarly limited sense as the brands of historical science which he rejects (e.g. cultural evolution).


Clearly, Boas is not a historian.  Yet, insofar as he is committed to science, he is a peculiar kind of positivist: one who only ever countenanced theoretical generalizations in order to reject them.  If I had more time, I'd like to count the number of theoretical paradigms he rejected in the short selection we read!


I imagine Boas would say that although some aspects of history may be regular and predictable, these sorts of generalizations are not particularly useful, interesting, or meaningful.  I agree with everyone who has said he seems open to the possibility that laws of culture change can be formulated, given enough data and fieldwork.  But I also think Boas is a radical empiricist; for him, the last data point will never arrive.


Universal Particularism.

Shayna Cass

From the text, I think it's obvious that Boas sees history as a "problem" - i.e. an inquiry starting from given conditions to investigate or demonstrate a fact, result, or law - though at the same time, as some have already stated, he does not believe this "problem" can be solved by a "formula" (124) as the unilineal evolutionist approach asserts.  My interpretation is that Boas believes by approaching each culture individually, using particularist methods, we can get at overarching universal concepts.

re: Universal Particularism.

John Curran

I think you're right on, here, Shayna.  He's opposed to any a priori assumptions.  Only pure induction will do for Boas; the data will just speak...


History of Human Civilization

Heddy Waters

“First of all, the history of human civilization does not appear to us as determined entirely by psychological necessity that leads to a uniform evolution the world over.  We rather see that each cultural group has its own unique history, dependent partly upon the peculiar inner development of the social group, and partly upon the foreign influences to which it has been subjected… but it would be quite impossible to understand, on the basis of a single evolutionary scheme, what happened to any particular people” (125).


I wanted to comment on the idea of laws of change mentioned earlier by Chelsey.  I agree with the aforementioned; that Boas did not believe that laws in the sense of general, wide-sweeping rules could be formulated, for history in his sense refers to the context and unique circumstances that led to the unique evolution and formation of that culture.  

The quote listed above is on 126, which is an attack on unilineal evolution and a western-oriented view of history.  This quote is followed by a list of parallelisms composed by Boas, which acknowledges that he does believe in some sort of patterns, albeit always a product of circumstance.  

But as for larger rules, I personally doubted Boas really believed rules could be conceived at all.  The only rules that seem to be plausible are those that could be created with a particular circumstance in mind: i.e. lack of water led to new irrigation techniques which led to more food which led to population boom, etc.  Or maybe geographic like island communities in SE Asia all experienced the same natural disaster leading them to react a certain way.  As he does list a number of parallelisms, it shows that Boas does believe there are commonalities in how cultures react to situations.  But these are all trends and tendencies and not really rules.


His usage of phrases like “dynamic changes” (124) and “in a state of flux” (126) just support the idea that Boas did not believe that culture and history could really be pinned-down and generalized.  Every culture was constantly changing and unique, and should be viewed as such.   



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