Ethnographic presents are of course as much in history as any other phenomena, although anthropologists sometimes writing in the ethnographic present may be deliberately avoiding a historian’s trajectory. It has of course long ceased to be necessary to point to what once led anthropologists to be explicit on this point: they wanted to get away from the kinds of ‘conjectural histories’ that were then dominating explanations about human institutions. It is precisely because issues cease to be necessary that we need a history of anthropology.

There are all kinds of contexts to which anthropologists give their accounts, not least the criss-crossing of interdisciplinary interests to which George Stocking drew attention. There is a crucial dimension here that we at once share with historians and others, and that is most central to our own practices. Indeed, in socio-cultural anthropology it flourishes in an exaggerated form. The form comes from the ethnographic orientation of much anthropological enquiry, insofar as one of the purposes of fieldwork is to find the questions to ask. Under huge pressures these days from research protocols that demand that questions be specified in advance, ethnographers are traditionally open to what might be the interesting issues for research. They may even feel they are being faced with the answers to which their job is to find the right questions. It is this that makes them, obviously not uniquely so, self-conscious about and alert to the sources of the questions they are asking. The iteration between questions and answers echoes the posing and resolving of intellectual problems. The shape of the problems/problematics emerges with the emerging investigation, whatever it is; and the resultant information, ideas, and models begin appearing as supports for a solution to the problems.

Here is the nub. Folded into that process are other kinds of ethnographic present. On the one hand is the milieu—social, intellectual, whatever—within which the scholar thinks: one which is susceptible to historical enquiry. Problems and solutions are informed by current conceptualizations of what is interesting and relevant to enquiry. On the other hand is what happens over time to the very formulation of problems/questions and solutions/answers. As far as questions and answers are concerned, there are all kinds of ways in which they be may be repeated, replicated, tested again. When they lead to problems and solutions, however, the dynamic may well change. A solution obviates a problem, undoes it. That is, once a solution is articulated the reason for posing the problem loses its force as the illuminator of an unknown outcome; it is, precisely, solved. (Just to imagine that things could ever be so cut and dried.) It then enters a different temporal frame—that of intellectual defense and debate. The urgency of the problem is recreated through other means: debate deals with the problem and solution together, in the same present.

This is where, to my mind, the history of anthropology has a quite critical role. For, as debate continues, it seems obvious that the solution should overtake the problem. Former solutions become new starting points. This is often how we recognize the development of a discipline. But it also needs a corrective, especially to the extent that anthropologists are ingenious inventors and re-inventors of concepts. Indeed, re-fashioning concepts often accompanies the self-consciousness referred to earlier. A solution—and noticeably if it is condensed into a particular concept (descent, customary law, gender, ontology)—ultimately  becomes detached from its problem. Leading a life of its own, it is free, so to speak, to generate new problems and thus growth continues. What history would allow us to recover is that antecedent ethnographic present. Among the tools for understanding why this or that anthropologist defends a particular position is the possibility of re-attaching to his or her formulations something of the urgency of the problem that was being solved.


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Marilyn Strathern: contributions / website / / University of Cambridge