Common Ground

Edmund Leach

  • A Social History of Western Europe 1450-1720: Tensions and Solidarities among Rural People by Sheldon Watts
    Hutchinson, 275 pp, £7.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 09 156081 0
  • Kinship in the Past: An Anthropology of European Family Life 1500-1900 by Andrejs Plakans
    Blackwell, 276 pp, £24.50, September 1984, ISBN 0 631 13066 7
  • Interests and Emotion: Essays on the Study of Family and Kinship edited by Hans Medick and David Warren Sabean
    Cambridge, 417 pp, £35.00, June 1984, ISBN 0 521 24969 4

All three of these books exemplify a convergence of interest between certain brands of academic historian and certain brands of academic social anthropologist. For a social anthropologist of my age and background this is a surprising development, though the trend has been under way for some time. It is surprising because, although social anthropology, under the influence of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer, first developed as a kind of grand-scale, synthetic history in which the data of ethnography were used as illustrations of a priori theories of social evolution or historical diffusion, it later developed into a self-consciously non-historical field of study. The basis for this reversal was the argument that the intimate face-to-face, day-to-day interactions of the individuals living together in a local community which provide the basic subject-matter of social anthropological fieldwork acquire meaningful significance only when they are observed in great detail and analysed as a single synchronous set of data in their original context. While it was recognised that some of the documents available to historians – such as letters, journals, parish registers, court records – may contain bits and pieces of detailed material of this sort, they can never be fitted together into a single coherent whole. And it is no use guessing on the basis of analogy from present to past. ‘Conjectural history’ is a waste of time.

This thesis seems to have been accepted on both sides. Between 1925 and 1965 the mutual interactions of historians and social anthropologists were quite minimal: this makes the subsequent change all the more remarkable. In 1966 a conference of social anthropologists held in Edinburgh was devoted to the theme of ‘History and Social Anthropology’; the Proceedings contain contributions by six anthropologists and two historians. The anthropologists refer only to the works of fellow anthropologists; the historians only to the works of fellow historians. Two years later a similar conference held in Cambridge on the theme of ‘Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations’ included contributions concerning European history from Norman Cohn, Peter Brown, Keith Thomas and Alan Macfarlane, all professional historians. They were fully integrated with the contributions of the anthropologists. Since that date it has become increasingly common both in this country and elsewhere for historians and social anthropologists to emphasise the existence of common ground between their two disciplines. In France this has been especially marked among historians such as Le Roy Ladurie who are associated with the periodical Annales. The response from the social anthropologists has been patchy; there has been much programmatic talk about the relevance of history for anthropology and vice versa, but not much action. Exceptionally, Jack Goody’s latest book, The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe (1983), represents an ambitious attempt to evaluate historical sources through the eyes of a social anthropologist, while Alan Macfarlane has changed sides and now prefers to be considered a social anthropologist.

The books under review have all been influenced by the authors whom I have mentioned. Watts, Plakans, Medick and Sabean are all historians, but the Medick/Sabean volume is a symposium derived from an interdisciplinary seminar held in 1980. In this case five of the 15 contributors are anthropologists.

Watts’s book is by far the most readable. He has gone out of his way to emphasise that the ordinary people of the European country-side (or the urban proletariat, for that matter) in the early post-Mediaeval period were not in the least like the affluent colonialists whom living Nigerians encountered during the present century. On the contrary, Watts goes to considerable lengths to emphasise the frailties, sufferings, superstitions and general squalor implicit in the kinship-based life-patterns he is describing, leaving his African readers to recognise that much that he is writing about closely resembles what can be observed in contemporary Nigeria.

Watts is not writing about anthropology or about Africans, but his book does at times have the flavour of an anthropological mono graph written by an African about European savages! The fashionable term for trying to see things from the other side of the looking-glass in this way is ‘reflexivity’: it is a very difficult feat to accomplish, but he has brought it off. By contrast, Plakans’s book makes me doubt whether the exercise can possibly be worth while. By training and research experience Plakans is a historian in the Laslett mode, but he has taken over at second hand an undiluted version of the Radcliffe-Brown/Fortes style of social anthropological ‘structural functionalism’, complete with a ‘patrilineage paradigm’ published by Fortes in 1945. He seeks to impose this model on computer-analysed kinship data extracted from census and marriage records relating to a mid-19th-century community in the Schwalm area of the German State of Hesse. Plakans calls his procedure ‘lineage reconstruction’: I would call it fiction.

Meyer Fortes may have thought otherwise, but I do not myself believe that ‘patrilineages’ which are objective collectivities of individuals rather than conceptual, fuzzy-edged categories of ‘people like us’ are of common occurrence. Anthropological theory of the sort that Plakans uses seems to me wholly irrelevant for any of the kinds of kinship grouping that were to be found in Europe during the 19th century (with the possible exception of some regions in the Balkans). But even if I am wrong in this regard I must still ask: ‘In what way is any historian any the wiser because Plakans has analysed this set of data in this very contrived social anthropological manner?’ If historians spring to Plakans’s defence, I can only express astonishment that they should feel enlightened. At page 200 Plakans himself draws attention to an essay in which Jack Goody has warned his historian colleagues of the disutility of such procedures.

The point at issue is that, for the social anthropologist, a lineage, where such an entity can be shown to exist as an objective ‘thing’ rather than as an ‘idea’, is a property-owning corporation, the members of which, collectively or by delegation, exercise control over the transmission and inheritance of the ‘property’ in question. By contrast, Plakans’s ‘reconstructed lineages’ seem to be little more than surname groups, collections of individuals linked genealogically by a particular set of ties which Plakans considers to be significant (on the basis of misunderstood anthropological theory).

His last chapter is rather different. In the light of what has gone before, it is unexpectedly modest and ends on a note of welcome scepticism. The discussion focuses on the question as to whether the objections to ‘conjectural history’, which I briefly summarised earlier, have or have not been effectively overcome by the technical procedures exemplified by the historical researches of Peter Laslett, Alan Macfarlane and the Balkan specialists Eugene Hammel and Joel Halpern. Is it all worth while? Does the historical study of kinship with the aid of computers and diverse forms of (outdated) anthropological kinship theory really tell the historian anything he wants to know that he doesn’t know already? Plakans clearly has grave doubts but is not yet prepared to abandon his enterprise.

The intended leitmotiv of the Medick/Sabean volume is indicated by the title. In any society the transmission of ‘property’ (in the widest sense of land, goods, rank, social class, names) is governed by locally prevalent ‘rules’ of inheritance and succession to office and by the success or failure of particular ‘strategies of marriage’. Any formula of this sort seems to imply that the ‘strategies of marriage’ are determined by the property interests of the parties concerned, usually members of a senior generation planning the ultimate destiny of grandchildren still unborn. Themes of this sort are prominent in a wide variety of writings by historians and anthropologists alike and the essays in this volume provide some fascinating further examples.

So much for ‘interest’: but what about ‘emotion’? Can marriage for ‘love’ really be polarised against marriage for ‘convenience’? Do systems which purport to allow young people to choose their own marital partners really act in this way or are they a fiction? How do systems of ‘free’ mate-selection really work? Is there a radical difference in attitude and practice with regard to such matters in families and social classes which have ‘property’ to preserve and those which do not? Nor is the transmission of property the only factor involved. Anthropologists have tended to analyse relationships within kin groups in terms of specifiable rights and obligations. But ‘real’ emotions of love and hate are always involved: must they be left out of account simply because they are hard to specify and unpredictable?