Historiography: Ethnohistory

Ethnohistory is that type of history which comes closest to social anthropology. It began in the 1950s in the United States as a means of understanding the history of American Indians from the inside, as it were, rather than being judged as external objects of study. Most history relies on documents in Western society fashion, but ethnohistory needs other experiential insights like folklore, stories handed down, maps, artwork and objects, and it looks at archaeology, anthropology and linguistics (Green, Troup, 1999, 175).
The issue for history is what happened through time, and this is assisted by looking at the interactions of two cultures, again especially with the experience of the arrival of Europeans into native hunter-gatherer tribes and civilisations in the Americas. (Green, Troup, 1999, 175-176; 179-180) Using written accounts of even contacting sympathisers on the writing side to illuminate the oral side is still fraught with danger (Green, Troup, 1999, 176-177).
Ethnohistory takes from social anthropology the study of "primitive" cultures, or people without a written history (Green, Troup, 1999, 178). There is though no reason why the techniques are not extended into Western society, except for the complexity of Western social life, and such as the Chicago school has.
Social anthropology is often allied with sociology, as they share some of the research methods and theories. However, social anthropology has stressed the inductive method, where researchers go into the field, learn the language if necessary, and absorb themselves into the ways of the culture, and as participant observer see what happens. In this idealised view, issues throw themselves up, and so the way that the culture and society works reveals itself. This can be a natural system (structural-objective) or moral system (people interacting-exchange) put into the anthropologist's essay. A question is whether cultures are unique to their own descriptions or whether generalised points can be made using broader theoretical insights, which is certainly the case with structural approaches.
This is to be contrasted with sociology, which is more deductive, and where a researcher goes into the field with a working hypothesis. Yet the social anthropologist, in this pure form, is rather more like the empirical and other inductive historian. The historian too is immersed, this time in the documents of the past, and applies skills of authenticating, sifting, connecting, and then generating an overall picture faithful to the evidence in both the witting and unwitting testimonies, just as the social anthropologist finds out what are the alternative ways people do things beyond the official or proper ways of living. The difference is that the anthropologist is not seeking (primarily) a film made over time, but more like a photograph of great detail where changes over time are to confirm means of stability: what makes a society an actual society as in the Durkheimian sense (see Green, Troup, 1999, 173).
A difference is that whereas historians tend to divide up areas of inductive research into separate fields, social anthropologists use their inductive research in the pursuit of understanding cultures and societies as a whole.
So whilst there clearly is some research parallel between history and social anthropology, this difference is important because an overview of holism leads on to trends in social anthropology. History too does not walk around in a theoretical vacuum with its schools and approaches, one of which has been to learn from social anthropology as it has actually been practiced.
The collectivist functionalism of Durkheim, evidenced in social causality and reflected in social rituals, pushed British anthropology towards functionalist and structural-functionalist stances. The British view was less cultural and isolationist as was the tendency in the United states (Green, Troup, 1999, 172-173). Anthropologists were looking for socially binding rituals and structures of continuity (and these are above and across cultures, ultimately universal binding methods and less relativistic). However, this search for means of generating stability and continuity is where there is some departure from history (and sociology) because historians are interested in changes, not maintenance. (Green, Troup, 1999, 173) What does history measure if not changes and then posits reasons for them? What does social anthropology measure if not the maintenance of a social whole and the reasons for this otherwise amongst bunches of individuals?
The difference has become greyer. Once historians investigated broad sweeps over large geographical and time areas, and anthropologists kept the study to relatively small and detailed fieldwork; now, however, the historian has also found appeal in data-rich small scale investigations. Historians have also found appeal in the holism of the social anthropologist. (Green, Troup, 1999, 174). This is the influence of functionalism on ethnohistorians.
Another important claim of the anthropologist is to take seriously anything which is meaningful to the individual. This is because what might seem trivial or irrational to the western mind may be fundamental to the mind in a different culture and therefore derive from/ contribute to social cohesion.
So ethnohistory has to widen its source material, and the writing skills. The techniques advertise themselves to other historians. It needs absorption into the other culture, close observation, interpretation of symbolic behaviour (language-based and extra-language based communication) and connecting parts together. (Green, Troup, 1999, 177, after Natalie Zemon Davis)
There are problems with ethnohistory that follow those of social anthropology.
First of all, who is to say, even with the greatest layers of description and interpretation that the ethnohistorian is going to get it right? Subjectivity comes into the essay writer. (See 178) There is the useful social anthropologist's method of going against the grain (Green, Troup, 1999, 179) but again the writer takes risks of interpretation.
Secondly, and inevitably, there is little evidence. The social anthropologist at least has the ongoing society to immerse within, but the ethnohistorian in the same place would have to assume no changes or only clues to the past. The ethnohistorian must focus on the varieties of historical data. There may be a case for taking from apparently similar cultures where evidence does exist (Green, Troup, 1999, 179).
Another problem is in the nature of writing. Writing by even a sympathetic and empathetic outsider is by another than of the culture itself. This leads writing to have the potential of a colonial relationship, that the account is extracted and indeed is over powerful. The anthropological and ethnohistorical account is written:

  • With the researcher's power to write and describe
  • For another culture, the Western culture, into which translations are made of the findings
  • Using Western expressions
  • According to another type of writing genre (that is, academic)
  • To be read by the academic community not the local one
  • Grasping the moment where something can change
(Rapport, Overing, 2000, 238)
  • Therefore the account produced must be conscious of the construction of the text, which is therefore always a personal authored account.
(Rapport, Overing, 2000, 239)
In the end ethnohistory is one means by which historians can get away from the traps of the documentation of the elites in elite run cultures, into the lives as lived of people where records are less extensive. This is the history of the ordinary people, in the least literate of societies, and the result is to put them into writing.

Some Personalities:

Dates in brackets are some times of impact just in areas mentioned or show lifespan.

Adrian Worsfold



Green, A., Troup, K. (eds) (1999), The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 172-182.

Kuper, A. (1983), Anthropology and Anthropologists: The Modern British School, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Rapport, N., Overing, J. (2000), Social and Cultural Anthropology, London: Routledge.