On Eric Wolf and Anthropology

As I discussed in a previous post on Braudel, Eric Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History is a masterpiece. Few would disagree with this assertion. Even William Roseberry comments, “There is no way to describe such a project without making it seem grand: it is. To assess its theoretical and substantive arguments is a daunting task.” (1991:125). Indeed, in fact, reading his work is akin to traveling back in time and space through six centuries, connecting seemingly disparate social and economic lives (for example,the examination of textile production in England, cotton production in the South in America and textile production in India were all part and parcel of a singular structural transformation), and seeing them as relational and connected. Globalization has been happening for centuries. Yet Wolf is able to illustrate interactions and relations on a global scale while detailing the processes occurring locally, from processes of state formation and economic complexes to alliances made among the French and British to the history and conflicts among North American “tribes” — a task that world systems theorists such as Immanuel Wallerstein have neglected in their work.

Reading Eric Wolf’s interview inspired me to rigorously pursue the explanatory aspects of my research and to take a holistic approach. I have included an excerpt of the interview:
Interviewer: Stressing the holism of anthropology in a time of increasing specialization, you simultaneously argued that while the writer creates his work of art, “the anthropologist, to the contrary, describes and analyzes a phenomenon he has done nothing to create.” Would you say that a current trend in anthropology is consciously questioning this distinction? Eric Wolf: Yes. To look upon anthropology as an invention of the inventor. Now, I have no watertight argument against people who want to take it up as an art form or a form of entertainment, but I think that it gets its greatest strength from trying to explain something, and explain something that is out there and happens to people….

Among key anthropologists whose works I greatly admire and seek to emulate — Eric Wolf, Philippe Bourgois, Paul Farmer, Elizabeth Colson, Sara Berry, and my professors, who are intellectual giants — it suddenly struck me how much anthropology has changed and continues to change, as evidenced by the type of multidisciplinary and heavily philosophical training that previous anthropologists received. Eric Wolf certainly demonstrates a grasp on an enormous amount of literature in the interview. Elizabeth Colson, who is still doing research in Zambia, in an interview talks about the proliferation of literature that simply did not exist in the early days. She says that she was in graduate school, they could read everything. It’s nearly impossible to do that now. As Joan Vincent illustrates in her work, Anthropology and Politics: Visions, Traditions and Trends, many works are excluded from the “mainstream” — whether “mainstream” exists is debatable — and anthropologists end up dialoguing with those in their provincial cliques whereas in the days of 1970s and before that period, anthropologists were trained in the four sub-fields and were equally widely read that they could converse with each other. Sadly, this is not the case.

Ideally, scholarship on China and African relations should be as comprehensive and fine-grained as Wolf’s masterpiece. Rather than examining it as a trend, isolated from the rest of history, we can trace relations back as far as the 14th century and discuss past and current intersections as the product of major social, economic and political transformations that have transpired throughout history. It would involve archival research and critical reading and use of historical accounts, as well as detailed ethnographic work of contemporary relations. Perhaps it’s the kind of work senior scholars are expected to produce, not graduate students. It is important to keep in mind that Wolf wrote Europe 31 years after he wrote his dissertation. Many ethnographies graduate students are exposed to are not dissertations, but polished pieces produced by scholars with many years of experience. We must be reminded, it takes months, years, an enormous amount of time to grow “into” our research, accumulate knowledge and experience, and become as well read as one can possibly be, in order to create a meticulous and well-researched piece of scholarship.

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