Historical Particularism

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Historical Particularism claims that each society has its own unique historical development and must be understood based on its own specific cultural and environmental context, especially its historical process. Historical Particularists criticized the theory of the Nineteenth-century Evolutionism as non-scientific and claimed themselves to be free from preconceived ideas. They collected a vast amount of first-hand cultural data by conducting ethnographic fieldwork. Based on these raw data, they described particular cultures instead of trying to establish general theories that apply to all societies.

The Historical Particularists valued fieldwork and history as critical methods of cultural analysis. At the same time, the anthropologists in this theoretical school had different views on the importance of individuals in a society. For example, Frantz Boas saw each individual as the basic component of a society. He gathered information from individual informants and considered such data valuable enough for cultural analysis. On the other hand, Alfred Kroeber did not see individuals as the fundamental elements of a society. He believed a society evolves according to its own internal laws that do not directly originate from its individuals. He named this cultural aspect superorganic and claimed that a society cannot be explained without considering this impersonal force. Historical Particularism was a dominant theoretical trend in anthropology during the first half of the twentieth century. One of the achievements of the Historical Particularists was that they succeeded in excluding racism from anthropology. The Nineteenth-century Evolutionists explained cultural similarities and differences by classifying societies into superior and inferior categories. Historical Particualrists showed that this labeling is based on insufficient evidence and claimed that societies cannot be ranked by the value judgment of researchers.

Franz Boas (1858-1942, Germany-The United States)

Franz Boas is considered one of the founders of academic anthropology and is also credited with the theory of Historical Particularism. Until Boas presented Historical Particularism, many anthropologists believed that societies develop according to one universal order of cultural evolution. This belief, called the Unilineal Evolution, explained cultural similarities and differences among societies by classifying them into three sequential stages of development: savagery, barbarism and civilization. Boas criticized this belief as based on insufficient evidence. For example, Unilineal Evolution claims that matrilineal kin systems preceded patrilineal kin systems and that religions based on animism developed before polytheistic religions. Boas argued that this ordering is merely an assumption because there is no historical evidence or way to demonstrate its validity. He also criticized Unilineal Evolution for its method of gathering and organizing data. At that time many anthropologists relied on missionaries or traders for data collection and anthropologists themselves rarely went to the societies that they were analyzing. Boas argued that those armchair anthropologists organized that second-hand data in unsystematic manners to fit their preconceived ideas.

Based on his principle that cultural theories should be derived from concrete ethnographic data, Boas strongly advocated fieldwork. He developed the method of participant observation as a basic research strategy of ethnographic fieldwork. Based on this method Boas collected a vast amount of first-hand cultural data from Native American tribes in the United States. Using detailed ethnographic studies he argued that a society is understandable only in its own specific cultural context, especially its historical process. Boas did not deny the existence of general laws on human behavior and developed the position that those laws could be discovered from the understanding of a specific society. In later years Boas became skeptical about the possibility of deriving cultural laws because he realized that cultural phenomena are too complex. Besides presenting the theory of Historical Particularism, Boas left a tremendous impact on the development of anthropology. By claiming that societies cannot be ranked by the degree of savagery, barbarity or civility, Boas called for an end of ethnocentrism in anthropology. Also because of his influence, anthropologists began to do ethnological fieldwork to gather sound evidence. His position that culture must be understood in its own context has been passed on to anthropologists as a basic approach to cultural analysis.

Alfred Kroeber (1876-1960, The United States)

Alfred Kroeber was familiar with many areas of anthropology, such as ethnology, linguistics and archaeology. He was a Historical Particularist, who claimed that each society has its own unique historical development. He was especially known for the idea of “superorganic” in cultural anthropology. Kroeber defined superorganic as certain cultural aspects that do not directly originate from individuals within the society. For example, he studied women’s dress fashion over 300 years and discovered that skirt length changed in a periodic cycle. Kroeber considered various causes that might affect the skirt length, such as political instability, but failed to find any reason for the cycle. Therefore, he came to the conclusion that fashion cannot be explained by outside factors because it evolves according to its own internal laws. He named this independent cultural realm superorganic. Fashion is purely cultural since it is learned, shared, patterned and meaningful among individuals in the society. At the same time, fashion has its own cycle which is beyond the control of individuals. The idea superorganic was introduced to explain this kind of impersonal realm in cultures. This concept dominated anthropological discussion for several decades although it was criticized as being more metaphysical than scientific thought.

19th-century Evolutionism | Historical Particularism | Functionalism | Culture and Personality | Neoevolutionism | Materialism and NeoMaterialism | Structuralism | Symbolic Anthropology | Postmodernism