To Such a Position We Can Only Respond: Try

Not so much a blog post this week, as an extended quotation from Sherry Ortner’s seminal article ‘Theory in Anthropology Since the Sixties’.

Although it was written over thirty years ago now (1984), I think maybe some historians could still benefit from the message she was pushing. In my own work, I explore the voices of the kinds of people who are often absent from our history textbooks. Along similar lines, Ortner took issue with a new trend in anthropology in the 1980s, in what she called the ‘political economy’ school:

[In this approach, history] is often treated as something that arrives, like a ship, from outside the society in question. Thus we do not get the history of that society, but the impact of (our) history on that society… [Previous schools of anthropology] of course had their own problems with respect to history. They often presented us with a thin chapter on “historical background” at the beginning and an inadequate chapter on “social change” at the end. The political economists, moreover, tend to situate themselves more on the ship of (capitalist) history than on the shore. They say in effect that we can never know what the other system, in its unique, “traditional,” aspects, really looked like anyway. By realizing that much of what we see as tradition is in fact a response to Western impact, so the argument goes, we not only get a more accurate picture of what is going on, but we acknowledge at the same time the pernicious effects of our own system upon others. Such a view is also present, but in modes of anger and/or despair rather than pragmatism, in a number of recent works that question philosophically whether we can ever truly know the “other”-Edward Said’s Orientalism is the prime example (see also Rabinow 1977; Crapanzano 1980; Riesman 1977).

To such a position we can only respond: try. The effort is as important as the results, in terms of both our theories and our practices. The attempt to view other systems from ground level is the basis, perhaps the only basis, of anthropology’s distinctive contribution to the human sciences. It is our capacity, largely developed in fieldwork, to take the perspective of the folks on the shore, that allows us to learn anything at all-even in our own culture beyond what we already know. (143, emphasis mine)

And that’s what my work is. I see it as part of a burgeoning school of historians who won’t let the idea of ‘history from below’ sink without a trace (see, for instance: or, who refuse to accept that it is impossible to know about the lives of ordinary people.

Yes, there are problems.

Problems of sources that do not reflect the viewpoints of the labourer, the factory hand, the farm-wife. Problems of agency where we wonder if such people had anything beyond a fraction of control over their own destinies. Problems of justifying the impact the humbler sort had on the outcomes of history (see the excellent introduction in:

But the writing of any kind of history faces similar problems, and payoff for our efforts is unparalleled.

Why not try to discover if the Renaissance miller has a conception of theology that rivals more ‘elite’ Catholic cultures ( Why not ask if there is a historiography ‘from below’ of important events (

Why not try?


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