This Approach introduces students to the work of cultural and social anthropologists, to the way it has influenced the thinking of historians in recent decades. As with the other Approaches, the aim is to offer students new broader perspectives on the ways in which the past can be studied and to think more carefully about the concepts they use. The four broad subthemes and supporting bibliographies allow students to read some of the classic works of anthropology and thereby appreciate the diversity of ways in which anthropologists have approached the study of humans in the present. Students can consider the extent to which functionalism and field studies at a micro level have influenced historical work, or the possibilities for historians of the cultural anthropology exemplified by the work of Clifford Geertz. Students will also be encouraged to take note of the extent to which there is a two-way interaction between anthropology and history and to consider the implications of the intense self-criticism of anthropology as an agent of colonialism.
Family and kinship
This topic offers students the chance to analyse how anthropological work has sharpened historians’ understanding of the central role of family and kinship structures in societies and of the diversity of forms which these structures may take. As a central topic of much anthropological work it exemplifies the way anthropological approaches have been contested and have developed over the last half century – from the stress on scientific categorization in the mid-twentieth century to the more recent emphasis of Pierre Bourdieu on fluidity and improvisation.
Authority and Power
This topic introduces students to another central interest of anthropologists – to the way authority is constructed and maintained in small face-to-face societies and to the role of rituals in legitimizing power or authority. Areas of particular study might include the strengths and limitations of the functionalist approach to feuds and rebellions, or the way in which historians have learnt from anthropologists’ attempts to analyse how rituals work.
Religion, Magic and Popular Culture
This topic examines an area where the debt of many historians to the work of anthropologists has been extensive and has opened up a number of lively debates. The work of Evans-Pritchard or Clifford Geertz and its influence on historians such as Keith Thomas or Robert Darnton offers a classic example. At a general level the topic encourages students to examine why religion and magic make sense to their participants and to consider the limitations of concepts such as popular culture.
The construction of history
This topic explores the way anthropologists have looked at and thought about the past, be it myths, genealogies, oral histories, or the work of professional historians, as an attempt by participants within a society to explain who they are and to legitimize, contest or make sense of the world as it is. Students are encouraged to consider the applicability of such interpretations to historical testimonies and records from the past or indeed to the work of professional historians and anthropologists in the present.