Beyond Presentism vs. Historicism in the History of Anthropology


This weekend I participated in the Stocking Symposium at the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Annual Meeting in Montreal. Named to honor George Stocking – widely credited with legitimating anthropology as subfield of historical study – the Symposium was begun in 2006 to provide a forum for historical perspectives at the AAA.

The panel featured about a dozen papers, many of which focused on the contributions of individual theorists like Franz Boas, his student Zora Neale Hurston, and even Irving Goffman (long claimed by sociology). Discussant, Ira Bashkow, an anthropologist at University of Virginia, responded to the relatively favorable portrayal of these subjects with some pointed reflections on the state of the field. He revisited Stocking’s important 1965 essay, "On the limits of 'presentism' and 'historicism' in the historiography of the behavioral sciences." In that piece, Stocking was interested in importing more rigor into the methodology of the history of human science. Rather than taking sides, he critically evaluated both stances.

Bashkow noted that the reflexive turn in anthropology that took root in the decades after the publication of this essay has led to histories that have often tended to castigate the architects of the field. In view of the somewhat celebratory tone in which 2011 Stocking Symposium panelists depicted their subjects, Bashkow mused that this might mark a new phase in the history of anthropology. In a moment when the human sciences are under attack, what would it mean for historians of those fields to draw on the past to strengthen their claims to knowledge in the present? Stocking, he suggested, would want to see the history of anthropology push beyond the dyad of "presentism vs. historicism."

To be sure, Bashkow was not asking for hagiography, saying that the founders of the field are "Not idols to revere, but neither are they gods to smash." However, he argued, if anthropology is to persist as a viable field, it needs to attend more carefully to its own social reproduction. Anthropologists and their historians need to consider how to engage constructively with the past in ways that maintain a space for social sciences and humanities, both within and beyond the academy.

I'm not an anthropologist – nor a strict presentist – but as someone who cares about what the history of science can contribute to civic life, I think Bashkow's perspective is worth taking seriously.


Thanks Joanna for this brief glimpse into the discussions of history-minded anthropologists.

This discussion reminds me (somehow) of Leo Marx's reflection on the way American Studies used to work, with its practitioners running around proclaiming: “But you don’t understand, I believe in America!” I can't quite figure out how to draw the connection. But I'll give it tray.

I suppose I imagine that Bashkov wants a generation of scholars willing to "believe in social science." Lest that sound like a bad thing, I think that Marx's point is that the believers in America were capable of seeing its warts---indeed the movement grew out of a position of critique; those early American studies folk just thought of "America" as a national project worth making better. Similarly, I hear Bashkov saying (via your brief summary): social science may not be perfect, but its important enough that we should try to do it right.

What do you think?

The American Studies parallel is a really interesting one. I don't know enough about the history of that discipline to split hairs, but I think you've got the gist. At a really basic level Bashkow was arguing that, to the extent that anthropologists are themselves interested in the history of their field, they'd be prudent to consider the "uses of that history." Of course, we can never know how what we write will be taken up (e.g., the Science Wars); an occupational hazard that historians of science can commiserate over with our historically-minded social science colleagues!

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