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The Historic Turn

Page history last edited by Carole McGranahan 11 years, 1 month ago

Table of Contents


Main Points

     The historic turn describes a shift in focus for studying cultures in which specifically, history became understood as a major foundation of social structure and generally, a more holistic, all-encompassing method for investigating cultures was utilized. This shift in focus initially occurred in anthropology in the 1970's, but had been built up after World War II ended in 1945. Anthropologists became interested in studying societies that had been affected by western colonization[1]. This was in contrast to earlier studies in societies which anthropologists, with a western ethnocentric standpoint, had considered 'primitive,' 'non-industrial' or 'exotic,' and untouched by the western, 'advanced' world. These concepts of differentiating cultures based on a linear scale of advancement was based on the theory of cultural evolution and this classic approach has been mostly refuted in contemporary anthropology. It is seen as condescending to non-western societies as well as incomprehensive for not taking a wider array of factors, such as histories into consideration. Colonialism influenced how societies were labeled and the terms 'modern', 'advanced', 'primitive', 'exotic', and 'non-industrial' would not exist if colonialism and colonial powers did not exist. Colonizers were the one's who recorded the differences between them and the colonized, creating labels for societies and their people.


     Before the historic turn, colonial histories and records in societies that had been occupied by western colonizers tended to be written as western history and from the standpoint of westerners, and didn't take in to account the intentions of those who recorded the histories or the standpoint of the people being occupied. With the historic turn anthropologists realized the importance of histories to the contemporary structure of societies but also began realizing the inherent power dynamics between the recorders of the histories and the people they referred to. These power dynamics exist because recording a history is a way to control how a society is viewed. With infinite interpretations of cultural structures, the interpretation that is portrayed in a history will cause outsiders to view it based on that interpretation. (In an article on British colonization in India), Nicholas Dirks states, "Culture can neither be removed from history nor separated from power, and culture (like history) is always being produced, constructed and deployed."[2]


Key Terms

Colonialism: A relationship of domination between an indigenous (or forcibly imported) majority and a minority of foreign invaders[3]

Archive: A collection of historical records and documents

Modern: Relating to recently developed

Advanced: Farther along in development, physically or mentally; ahead of times

Primitive: A person who belongs to an earlier stage of civilization; little evolved from an earlier ancestor

Exotic: A person or something that is alien or foreign

Non-industrial: Not having developed economic structures






Key Figures


Bernard S. Cohn 

Bernard S. Cohn (1928-2003) was an anthropologist with an interest in history and power during the colonial period. He studied anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1949 and received his Ph.D in anthropology from Cornell University in 1954. His work focused on India’s caste system and the arrangement of it with the arrival of the British. He spent many years doing fieldwork in India and published many works discussing the Indian caste system such as India: The Social Anthropology of a Civilization (1971)Cohn was a leading force in looking at anthropology from a historical standpoint and his key text discussing this is Anthropology and History in the 1980’s. Nicholas Dirks was an influential student of Cohn’s. 


Nicholas Dirks

Nicholas Dirks is a relevant and important figure in Anthropology and particularly the subject of The Historical Turn. Dirks is an Anthropology professor at Columbia University. He wrote “Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India” where he describes the historical meaning behind the castes system in India. He argues that castes are a historical result from British colonialism in India. Through the Historical Turn, anthropologists took a particular interest to colonialism and the impact it had on societies in past and present. This is the interest Dirks shows in this book by researching the effect of British colonialism in India. Dirks follows the relationship between colonialism and castes from Medieval times through the Twentieth Century. He uses the context of castes to explain the history of modern India while using them to also explain Indian politics as well. While Dirks does not claim that the British invented castes, he does imply that because of the British domination in India, castes became prevalent in naming India's social organizations and groups through time.





Key Texts

A key text of the historic turn in Anthropology is Anthropology and History in the 1980s by Bernard Cohn.  This text discusses the intricacies of anthropology and history as both individual and overlapping fields of academic study.  Cohn states that both of these academic fields run parallel courses and do overlap throughout certain periods of time.    When anthropology began to gain momentum it was closely intertwined with history.  The academic mindset of the time period had an emphasis on the past defining the present, thus anthropology could not be practiced without a focus on history.  Cohn suggests that anthropology began to break away from historical thought during the next century.  Anthropologists began studying cultures outside of European influence, many of which had no written language.  Cohn suggests that this lack of historic documentation from studied cultures forced anthropology to break from the historic lens.  Without exact knowledge of what happened how could the past help learn about the present?  Anthropologists decided that it could not and moved away from being intertwined with the field of history.  Cohn continues to explain that comparative anthropology became the norm in this time period.  Anthropologists would often try to explain one culture in terms of another.  Around this same time period Cohn explains that anthropologists began to run into issues of European presence around the world.  This altered the course of some civilizations by influencing the local people with European culture.  Thus, anthropologists could not make adequate claims on a culture influenced by Europeans without focusing back to their histories.  Post 1970s anthropologists have made the historic turn and focused back on the history of the culture being studied.  Cohn suggests that this is really a full circle for anthropologists.  This article suggests that the two academic fields should be intertwined.  Cohn’s Anthropology and History in the 1980s text illustrates the delicate relationship of anthropology and history.  





In The Invention of Caste: Civil Society in Colonial India by Nicholas B. Dirks, he discusses the difficulties that both anthropologists have had in learning about pre-colonial India.  He talks about how there is very little reliable information to be found on old family lines and the government and how it functioned before the British came into power.  The first Surveyor General of India, Colin Mackenzie during his time of being surveyor had Brahmans collecting many traditional documents and recording oral traditions.  He also collected copper and stone inscriptions.  Historians and anthropologists when first looking at his collections only thought that the inscriptions were the only reliable sources of information.  Later on anthropologists have come to be more concerned with the histories expressed in texts.  Also he discusses how when anthropologists became more concerned with how colonialism affects cultures, and how this led to the rise of colonialism anthropology.  In The Invention of Caste, Dirks weaves together how old texts have become important sources of information to colonial anthropologists and how this has caused a whole new discourse into whether colonialism has positive or negative effects.









     "The problem now is to explode the concept of history by the anthropological experience of culture" --Marshall Sahlins[4]


     The historic turn is a solution to a critique of postmodernism that called for an overview of the historical context of a culture. This is in response to the postmodern view that histories are fictions and should be discredited. In Terrence J. McDonald's book The Historic Turn in the Human Sciences, there is an essay by Nicholas Dirks which discusses the relationship between history and anthropology. The relationship between history and anthropology is a two way road, so it made sense during the Historical Turn when anthropology turned back to applying a historic approach when observing a culture. The fact that history is such a crucial influence on culture today and should definitely be taken into consideration when examining modern soceity, it makes finding critiques of this concept difficult.


One possible critique of the historic turn is that history and power go hand-in-hand. A very glaring aspect of written history, is the idea that whoever is writing the history is automatically in a position of power over those that the history is being written about; it is unavoidable. Because of this power inequality, historical turn anthropologists need to be careful when applying such histories. It is undeniable that history needs to be taken into consideration while doing anthropological work, however, like postmodernist anthropologists, but to a lesser extent, certain discretion needs to be exercised.


Beyond the power relationships incorporated with histories, the anthropologists applying a historic turn approach need to be careful to find a middle ground between the present and the past. History is necessary to understand the present but too much history can run the risk of impeding the future. True, understanding what events and actions resulted in where we are today is important, but simply recognizing these past events doesn’t automatically translate into helping forecast future happenings.






  1. Kottak, Conrad Phillip. Cultural Anthropology. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2009. Print.
  2. Dirks, Nicholas B. "The Invention of Caste: Civil Society in Colonial India." Print. Rpt. in 1989. Print. pg. 43.
  3. Osterhammel, Jürgen. Colonialism: a Theoretical Overview. Princeton: M. Wiener, 1997. Print.
  4. Dirks, Nicholas B."Is Vice Versa? Historical Anthropologies and Anthropological Histories." The Historic Turn in the Human Sciences. University of Michigan. 1996. Pg. 17

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