One ideal of early anthropology was that long-term ethnographic research could fully map the social structure and meanings of a specific cultural space. The ethnographer could then give total context for any individual action or social practice, and thus interpret such with a capacity beyond either naïve outsider or self-interested insider. While the realism of this ideal would be progressively deconstructed over time, it spawned a durable holism that recognized the deep interconnection of all material and symbolic contexts.
This holistic aspiration has been recurrently challenged as anthropologists came to recognize the often global interconnections and engagements which permeated the presumed isolation of even “remote” cultural spaces. Anthropology turned to increasingly complex social theories to try and reconcile the way in which its empirical subject became unmoored from static spaces and times, and eventually encompassed the most intensely internationalized settings. As a result great concern emerged for the practice of interpretation far removed from the methodological confidence of anthropology’s pioneering works. And the treacherous pitfalls of writing across stark asymmetries in power, often about people unable to equally represent themselves, even inspired claims that modern anthropology had paralyzed itself through a fetishization of the personal act of writing itself.
It is much more difficult to delineate the general trend of history as discipline, even at this high level of generality. Certainly, interpretation is at the core of archival research, and debates over sources and their meanings have roiled history as an academic practice. No self-critical historian treats their textual sources as a direct portal into the soul of their subject, and the focus of much graduate historical training is the general education required to provide context for documentary interpretation.
But I would advance that the anthropological engagement with history reflects a much greater uncertainty about interpretation, as well as a general theoretical concern with how time itself is structured as a social practice. In my own turn from ethnography to history, I felt this disciplinary anxiety acutely as I tried to reconstruct the creation of a cultural ideology, what I call American legal internationalism, that was formed in spaces both fully transnational and only lightly touched by global forces. Moreover, this ideology was premised on cross-cultural interpretations of the character of foreign peoples and their legal institutions. A further complication was that the driving force of this ideology was literal lawyer-missionaries who carried with them a presumption that their own good intentions would positively impact another society.
One highly influential book in my process of wrestling with these issues was Fredrik Barth’s Ethnic Groups and Boundaries, which theorized about how social identities were formed and reformed through increasingly intense interactions with social “outsiders.” Moreover, in the context of law such cross-cultural judgments had been central to patterns of degradation and subjection in pre-modern empires and modern imperialism alike. This trepidation led me to the writings of the recently passed Tzvetan Todorov, who in his The Morals of History grappled with the ethics of practicing history, especially when intimately tied to cross-cultural engagements.
No episode in the development of historical anthropology outlines these tensions better than the controversy over the arrival and death of James Cook in
Hawai’i. In barest form, Cook arrived in Hawai’i for the third
time in 1779 during the indigenous Hawaiians celebration of the god Lono. A
month later, Cook was killed while attempting to take the local king ransom,
and then ritually preserved. The details in-between and their meaning became
the grist for one of the public controversies in modern anthropology between
Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere.