Benefits of both anthropological and historical methods

What are the benefits of using both anthropological and historical methods when trying to understand the lives of people in the past? 

In order to answer this, one must first understand the aims of anthropological and historical disciplines and then go on to identifying their research methods. Once research methods are identified, the concept of ethnohistory, as a field of inquiry, would be addressed and will help understand what really had happened in the past and how it might have effects to the present dynamics.

Anthropology, in simple terms, is the comparative study of humans (Kottak 2002: 4, 11; Keesing and Strathern 1998: 2; Strang 2009: 1-2; Oxford Dictionaries Online 2012). They investigate every aspect of human life and what makes a particular ‘human being’. Hence, they are concerned with people’s behaviors, worldviews, and lifeways, more specifically, they are amused to learn about other cultures, languages, apprehension of kinship, the notion of personhood, gender, groups’ “interaction with each other and the material environment” (Strang 2009: 2) and much more.  Fundamentally, anthropology, with its aim to study human societies and cultures, “describes, analyzes, interprets, and explains” the complexities of human life. With this being said, ethnography, being the key research tool, was developed (Kottak 2002: 11; Strang 2009: 2).

There are many different ethnographic field techniques however, participant-observation is one method that sets anthropology apart from other disciplines (Kottak 2002: 35). Anthropologists are expected to live with the informants, participate in their daily lives and activities, observe their “behavior, beliefs, customs, social life, economic activities, and politics” (Kottak 2002: 11), and finally, learn the language (Bernard 2006: 344-345; Ellen 1984: 49; Kottak 2002: 33, 50; Johnson 1978: 9; Strang 2002: 5;). The advantages of ethnography is (1) to enable the collection of meticulous detail of the informant’s aspect of culture and of the research focus,  (2) to immerse themselves with the people in order to be able to study every detail of their lives, culture and customs in concrete detail (Ellen 1984: 21) though one cannot really write objectively, a hundred percent (Johnson 1978: 22).  Most importantly, ethnography, “is the main anthropological means to counter ethnocentricism” (Johnson 1978: 9) and eurocentricism (Ellen 1984: 36).

History, on the other hand, is the study of the human past (Jordanova  2002: 1; Oxford Dictionaries Online 2012). The development of both anthropology and history, as disciplines, comprises of shifts of thought, theories and beliefs of key contributors to the disciplines (Ellen 1984; Foster, Scudder, Colson, and Kemper 1979; Johnson 1978; Urry 1993). With this being said, history’s research method, initially, relied heavily on documents, which, were in other words, pretty Eurocentric and ethnocentric that tends to eliminate insignificant people, such as indigenous people and peasants (Thomson 1969: 18), into the story. “No documents, no history’, was the doctrine” (Thomson 1969: 17-18). Today, however, history incorporates wide range of methodological means to interpret the past. Such examples are incorporating oral history and archaeology (Jordanova 2002: 30; 49). Similarly, until the advent of ethnohistory, anthropology did not incorporate the study of their informant’s histories because of this very fact that documents were regarded as written mostly by eurocentric and ethnocentric colonialists. Evans-Pritchard was one of the main anthropologists who tackled the disciplinary divide between history and anthropology. He argued that “there is an overlap of relevance between them and each can learn much from the other” (Evans-Pritchard 1962: 62) and that “history and anthropology are indissociables” (Evans-Pritchard 1962: 65).

Today, both disciplines incorporate, in one way or the other, the methodologies of the other to understand the lives of the people. Imagine the immense analysis and information we can attain when we combine both anthropological and historical methods. We will have a better understanding of present dynamics since the present is just merely the continuation of the past. This leads to the development of ethnohistory.

Ethnohistory, is a field of enquiry that is a combination of both ethnographic and historical methods, however, as any other disciplines/field of enquiry, it is quite “distinct from the… interests of both history and anthropology” (Morantz 1998: 72; Johnson 1978: 22). It was developed after World War II, particularly in the 1950s and initially “an attempt to write the history of Native Peoples in North America” however, as stated earlier with the development of anthropology and history as disciplines, ethnohistory now includes the study of other people outside North America (Morantz 1998: 59, 72). Ethnohistory was established to make sense the history of the First Nations people in North America in attempt to improve relations between the ‘white’ settlers and the natives in post WWII era. No other case study can better illustrate this than Asch’s ethnohistoric monograph about Slavey Indians and pipe development outlined in the next paragraph.

In the 1970s, Canadian Arctic Gas Pipeline Ltd (CAGPL) proposed to construct a pipeline that will pass through the North West Coast of North America, which are the homes of the Dene and Inuvialuit Indians (Asch 2004: 178). Asch used the methods of ethnohistory to provide an insight different from the inquiries the Canadian government issued through the pipeline company. His main aim was to partly analyze why the Indians want “a regime protective of their traditional way of life and controlled by them should be in place” (Asch 2004: 180) and to analyze the socio-economic impact of the proposed pipeline. With this in mind, he divided his analysis in three sections: (1) description of the native economic history, which is further divided into three components: native economy prior to European trade, native economy with interaction with European fur trade, and post interaction; (2) description of the current situation and lastly (3) the evaluation of so called ‘solutions’ to the socio-economic impact proposed by the CAGPL studies (Asch 2004: 180). The first and second points are detailed description of the evolvement of the native economy and lifeways with the advent of further Western influence in the region while the last point assesses the extent of so called ‘solutions’ will be of a resolution. Indian natives prior to further Western influence in the turn of the twentieth century, distribute resources amongst others through reciprocity and mutual sharing (Asch 2004: 182), which operated through the concept of kinship and marriage that linked all people in a single social unit, into individualization of resources when the government implemented wage labour (Asch 2004: 186 -187). This is one aspect of their culture that has changed.

Another example, would be that native children were forced from the bush into schools the whole year round, in order to supplement development in the region by recruiting graduate natives (Asch 2004: 186). Native people really did not have any choice but to send their children to the outposts where they will get education. This is because of the economic downturn in the early and middle twentieth century, for example, the shadows of both world wars and the Great Depression. The government of Canada initiated ‘support’ by implementing financial initiative provided the fact that they comply with their conditions. Consequently, there was little wealth differentiation before Western agency in the region; however, the introduction of welfare widened the gap between the  rich and poor. This “undermined the values of the collective responsibility that is part of the reciprocal economy… welfare represents a social intrusion… like education, it creates a perfidious influence on the native people to change their values” (Asch 2004: 190).

Finally, there was an immense shift from relying on local resources and the environment to relying on the wider Western economy (Asch 2004: 186). Such examples exemplify the following concluding points. “Government policies introduced during the past forty years have… created fundamental change in aspects of economic organization pertaining to the size and composition of the self-sufficient economic units, mobility, and travel… and contact with the bush on the part of the younger generation”. With relation to the pipeline proposal, according to Asch (2004:191), (note: the following quotes below are self explanatory into understanding the situation)

(1)   “The proposals regarding the pipeline were strikingly similar to the bargain proposed by the fur traders: immediate material well-being in return for long-term dependency”  

(2)   “Just as the fur trade’s viability depended on the availability of furs and a high world market price… so the viability of the petroleum development will depend on the availability of oil and a high world market price… the petroleum corporations, just like the fur traders before them, will pull out [if worse comes to worse]. They must leave if [the area] becomes uneconomic and of course, that day will inevitably come”

Therefore, Asch concluded that, “it is necessary that native people have effective control over northern development, for only then can they decide which developments are in their own interests and provide safeguards to ensure that those aspects of their traditional economy they wish to maintain remain viable” Asch (2004:192).

In essence, anthropology without history is merely freezing people in the present, disregarding the initiatives that would have caused the present dynamics to be. History without participating in the lives of the people for a long period of time will not gain an emic perspective and will retain ethnocentric biased views. When both research methods amalgamate, then one would produce a research result that would be revered. From the case study above, it can be seen that the perspective of native Indians concerning the development of the pipeline would not have been achieved if not the ethnographer had lived and stayed with the people in a long term, combining document histories and oral histories to present a facet different from governmental survey. Had not Asch did his ethnohistoric research, one would not know the other side of the story and merely imposing ‘white’ man’s values into the natives. Lastly, it is important to acknowledge that the present is wholly an extension of the past and by understanding the past through historic and ethnographic means, one would better comprehend present informants.


Asch, Mischael with Robert Wishart. 2004. ‘The Slavey Indians: The relevance of ethnohistory to development’. In R. Bruce Morrison and C. Roderick Wilson (eds.) Native Peoples: The Canadian Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Bernard, H. R. 2006. Research Methods in Anthropology. Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Lanham: ALTAMIRA Press

Ellen, R. F. 1984. Ethnographic Research: A guide to general conduct. London: ACADEMIC PRESS INC

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1962. ‘Anthropology and history’. In Social Anthropology & Other Essays. London: Faber & Faber

Foster, G. M, Scudder. T, Colson, E. and Kemper, R. 1979. Long-Term Field Research in Social Anthropology. New York: ACADEMIC PRESS, INC

Johnson, A. 1978. Research Methods in Social Anthropology. London: Edward Arnold Limited

Jordanova, L. 2000. History in Practice. London: Arnold

Keesing, R. M. and Strathern, A. J. 1998. Cultural Anthropology. A Contemporary Perspective. Third Edition. Florida: Harcourt Brace & Company

Kottak, C. P. 2002. Cultural Anthropology. Ninth edition. New York: McGraw-Hill

Morantz, Toby. 1998. ‘The past and the future of ethnology’, Acta Borealia 15(1): 59-77

Strang, Veronica. 2009. What anthropologists do? New York: BERG

Thomson, D. 1969. The Aims of History. Values of historical attitude. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Urry, J. 1993. Before Social Anthropology: Essays on the History of British Anthropology. Harwood.

Oxford Dictionaries Online. 2012. Anthropology. <> [Accessed 21 March 2012]

Oxford Dictionaries Online. 2012. History. <> [Accessed 21 March 2012]

This essay earn CAS 18/20. If you think that there are points to be improved or something just comment bellow. Thank you much for reading.

What are your thoughts on ethnohistory?


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