Interdisciplinarity is an idea which has became so ubiquitous in modern academic life that is it is often difficult to cabin what it exactly implies. In the world of legal scholarship, the traditional focus has been on “law and” disciplines, such as law and society or law and economics. Outside of the legal academy, this is equally true as the classic disciplinary distinctions of the early to mid-20th century have become suffused with methodological and theoretical borrowings.
No field has felt this pressure more than social-cultural anthropology. The traditional holism of ethnographic fieldwork routinely borrowed from existing theories including those from psychology, sociology, and law. And in recent decades the central disciplinary markers of anthropology, such as ethnography and “culture,” have been almost universally absorbed into other disciplines, while the geographic scope of what anthropologists study has greatly expanded from tribal or premodern cultures.
In this vein, today I will focus not on a “law and” but how I came to think about “anthropology and history” while writing my first book. Prior to a historical turn late in my doctoral studies, I had long been influenced by historical perspectives in my early academic life. My undergraduate training led to theses regarding judicial decision-making during the Tang and Song dynasties of
and 20th century Chinese interpretations of judicial independence. In fact,
I was very close to entering the University
of Michigan’s unique Anthropology and History doctoral program before I decided to stay solely in anthropology.
Moreover, it is very difficult to become a contemporary anthropologist and not engage with historical sensibilities. The field has been grappling with explaining social change over time ever since it began to move away from its original funcationalist aspiration to “map” a particular social space in its entirety at one point in time. This transition from synchronic to diachronic analysis was complicated by anthropology’s engagement, at some points enabling and others challenging, with the implicit historicism of evolutionary theories which posited modern Western societies as the endpoints of social development. In parallel, the relationship of anthropology to colonialism still looms large over the discipline.
Many essays and books have been written about the development of “historical anthropology” or “anthropological history.” Similarly, the 20th century development of the fields of popular and cultural history were heavily influenced by anthropological theories and sensibilities regarding culture and agency, to an extent that they are almost taken for granted today. Noted collaborations emerged including the seminar historian Robert Darnton and anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously taught together for decades at
are now journals specifically concerned with history and anthropology, and scholars,
such as Alan Macfarlane, who devote their career to this particular interdisciplinary
In my own education, two representative books that deeply impacted my scholarly perspective were Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power and Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People WithoutHistory. Both Mintz and Wolf were anthropologists who wrote powerful histories formed by their anthropological perspectives. Sweetness and Power challenged how I thought about the relationship of local developments to much broader historical processes as it revealed how the internationalization of sugar as a commodity was intimately shaped by
Caribbean societies. Europe
and the People Without History fundamentally reoriented not only how I
thought about the writing of history but also demonstrated how powerful the control and
deployment of historical narratives could be for shaping cross-cultural
interactions. And both books left me with the harrowing implications of how
much human misery and suffering has flowed from the various myths, appropriations
and silences of past histories.
I came to empathize with the disciplinary move that Mintz and Wolf made in writing these books, as each was deeply inspired by ethnographic fieldwork but ultimately turned to history to explain the contemporary. Since my teenage years, I had spent time living in
By the time I began graduate school, I had a very clear project that ultimately
became infeasible shortly after I matriculated. Upon entering law school, I became
struck by the way in which American lawyers and legal scholars related to
China, in large part because they often rejected the type of comparative cosmopolitanism
inherent in my graduate training and enthusiastically promoted the
modernizing telelogies that scholars like Mintz and Wolf has shown to be so
central to the history of colonialism and from which anthropology was seeking to flee from.
While I first turned to fieldwork to study how American lawyers engaged with modern
I increasingly became convinced that I could not understand contemporary
projects and dynamics without looking at their historical development. I recurrently encountered the popular and scholarly idea that China had no real legal history, and certainly nothing from which US law could productively learn. More acutely, the mismatch between the track record of efforts to influence Chinese legal development
towards US models and its high flying
rhetoric was substantial, but also privately recognized by most American lawyers "in the field." I came to appreciate how the scholarly field of “law and development” which encompassed such engagements was in many ways a field without a history, carried out with ingrained assumptions and ideas whose origins were far earlier
than the common marking posts of 1978 in China or the 1950s elsewhere. So
even though much of my historical work would study events within China, the project as a whole came to be a legal/cultural history of America-a long way from my original ethnographic aspirations.
Herein I recurrently appreciated how much my anthropological training influenced my historiography. As appears to be key to most “history and” interdisciplinary practices, my theoretical presumptions about human behavior and their interrelationship with social institutions drove how I interpreted the historical sources I came across. I did not presume that my actors were “rational” in the calculative sense, but instead that they were actively engaged in symbolic meaning-making constrained by the power dynamics within which they operated. Much anthropology has been concerned with the contested manner by which culture is produced and transformed over time, and I found myself driven to contextualize my archival research by the holistic standards demanded by ethnography.
I should say at this point that for all of this synergy, the personal process of producing the book was never so neat. My full turn to history happened late in law school, when I had already invested time doing fieldwork and was supposed to return to
for years more. The new questions I had begun to ask resulted in a
dissertation that was stimulating, but also methodologically unsure. Futility was written from scratch
beginning well over a year after my dissertation was completed.
During this time I also came to recognize the ways in which anthropology and history worked at cross purposes in my work. Much of this disjuncture can be tied to the struggle within anthropology as to whether it is a social science or a humanities discipline and the relevance of generalizability. History as a field is often as also beset by the place of “meta-history,” and has its own ongoing debates about proper historical methods. However, anthropologists are tied to social theory to a degree to which historians are not. The result is that the demands of theory complicate the ability of anthropologists to derive the very “truth” from the past that historians seek. And the focus of history on sources often leaves the anthropologist with the feeling that historical work is undertheorized, or, worse yet, implicitly theorized. An issue I will look at more directly when I later discuss the debate between Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere over the history of James Cook in the
during the 18th century. Hawaii Islands
In writing Futility, I routinely had to confront this tension. Not just in the act of writing, but when deciding where and how to publish materials along the way, and where and how to present at conferences. But I also found many legal historians a resource in navigating these challenges, as they possessed a deep commitment to interdisciplinarity coupled with a sense of being betwixt and between law and history, if not between various traditions within history itself.
Ultimately, discovering the answers to the questions I posed in Futility would not have been possible without my training as anthropologist. It gave me a productive perspective from which to ask original questions and look at old sources anew. I will explore this in my next post, “Subjectivity, Intent and Impact: The Gordian Knot of Empathy and Interpretation.”