The long historical essay as anthropological theory

As the spring semester approaches my fellow hemisphere mates and I, I am putting the final touches on my ‘theory’ syllabus. I’ll share it with SM soon (the initial draft is not very appetizing), but I thought it would be interesting here to blog about something I will not be teaching — the long historical essay. As I’ve mentioned in past posts, anthropologists have come, for some reason, to ‘do theory’ in the form of the disciplinary history. This includes monograph-length studies, of course, but one particular genre that seems particularly anthropological is the long essay in which anthropologists describe ‘their theory’ or a more general ‘world view’ by constructing a genealogy whose telos they are. So in honor of Christmas — which involves its own teleological understanding of my own tradition — I thought I’d try to make a list here of classic ‘long essays’ in anthropological theory. Let me know if you can think of any more:

Blurred Genres, Clifford Geertz
Theory in Anthropology Since The 60s, Sherry Ortner
“As People Express Their Lives, So They Are…” in the Symbolic Anthropology Reader
Culture and Cultural Analysis as Experimental Systems, Michael Fischer
Anthropos, Edmund Leach
The Use of Anthropology: Critical, Personal, Politics, Dell Hymes

The genre is pretty fuzzy, but I hope this gives readers of these works some sense of what I’m talking about.

I’m not actually assigning any of these essays to my students (they can read them on their own if they want). They are very tricky. Often presentist and self-serving they require very sensitive antenna to read through to get some actual sense of the literature they cover. At the same time working through the motivations of their orchestration of the literature is in itself a good way to get some sense of the scene when the author was writing. But at any rate I think given the limitations of class time it is better to get students to actually read the material rather than read about it. What do you think?


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

9 thoughts on “The long historical essay as anthropological theory

  1. On the British side of the water, Evans-Pritchard’s _Theories of Primitive Religion_ might be taken as a similar attempt to review the classic literature and establish a position in relation to it.

  2. Theories of Primitive Religion is along the lines of what I was thinking — and its good! Carneiro’s book is a book and not a long essay and also – with all due respect to him – seems tired and underwhelming to me.

    In terms of Sahlins’s work Critique of Practical Reason is a sort of summary — I reread the chapter I’ll be teaching and was impressed again with its ferocious precocity — as might be considered the intro to Culture in Practice.

    You know one interesting spin on these articles is the attempt to create deep genealogies for anthropology — like those essays or readers that start with Herodotus and move through Montaigne to Malinowksi as if all of these people were part of the same academic discipline, making the discipline a ‘meditation on otherness’. Sometimes people teach the history of anthro by rooting it in the tradition of travel writing, making it ‘ethnography’. I’m not particularly drawn to either of these options.

  3. I was going to add Culture and Practical Reason to the list to–though really it’s mostly the long central chapter subtitled “Two Paradigms of Anthropological Theory.” But I read that in a theory course and it made me a cultural anthropologist.

  4. I do think the Ortner is worth assigning–and easier to do so than many similar essays because it mainly addresses things you WILL probably also have assigned.

  5. Yes to Rex’s point about the fake-seeming deep genealogies including travel writing, with Mary Hodgen’s “Early Anthropology” book. Except it’s kind of true: the Greeks really did have a taxonomy of other cultures (based on how they got food, not what they called their kin). Maybe the fakeness lies in constructing an artificially linear and “Western” genealogy, implicitly claiming that Tylor is better compared to Herodotus than he is to (say) Tibetan taxonomies of other people’s religions?

    And is the alternative to genuflect to the hand-as-dealt, starting with the first place that hung an “Anthropology Department” shingle on their door? Maybe, as you said in an old blog post, Rex, it’s a question of what past you need to draw on to build a future.

  6. In the chapter on Japan that my wife Ruth and I wrote for Ray Scupin’s reader _Peoples and Cultures of Asia_, we address the theory issue by focusing on three authors, Ruth Benedict ( _Chrysanthemum and the Sword_ ), Chie Nakane ( _Japanese Society_ ), and Dorinne Kondo ( _Crafting Selves_ ). Our rationale is as follows,

    “Part 2 explores a suite of common ideas about Japan, what it is to be Japanese, and the nature of Japanese society. We will look at where those ideas came from, the issues being addressed when these ideas were formulated and what has become of them since. Our approach will be highly selective, focused on the research of three remarkable anthropologists, who all happen to be women. One is an American forced to study Japan from a distance, one a Japanese who studied anthropology in Britain, did fieldwork in India, then brought her comparative perspective home, and one is a Japanese-American whose fieldwork in Japan tests her understanding of her own, partly Japanese, identity.

    “The first two attempted the impossible, to summarize the essential Japan in one short book. Their work has been frequently criticized, not least because any attempt to summarize “the essence” of a thoroughly modern, rapidly changing nation with a history thousands of years long and a population approaching 127 million is doomed to failure. But the books that they wrote were so powerful that, despite being frequently criticized, they have shaped discussions of Japan ever since they were published. The ideas they offer cannot be avoided; their value and their limitations must both be understood.

    “Our first author conceives of her research as the study of patterns of culture, habits of thought, behavior and feeling. The second sees Japanese society through the lens of social structure, how groups and individuals relate to each other. The third focuses on stories and how stories are used to construct different kinds of Japanese selves. This newer, more modest approach to the study of Japanese lives has much to recommend it.”

    The introduction to Part 2 begins,

    “What we need now are some basic ideas to help us sort out what we’ve learned so far. Don’t forget, however, that even the most basic ideas begin as notions in someone’s mind. They emerge in a context and address specific problems. To understand their relevance to what we have learned so far, we have to keep asking ourselves, who, what, when, where, and why.”

    This tack, of situating theories in the historical moment and situation in which they appeared, is one I would recommend to anyone teaching theory. Among other things, it avoids the common straw man approach that depics classical theorists as idiots who failed to recognize what today’s buzzwords are teaching. It also depicts anthropologists as fully engaged in the major intellectual debates and events of their day; not just as debating other anthropologists.

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