People Without History

People Without History May 4, 2018

“The habit of treating named entities such as Iroquois, Greece, Persia, or the United States as fixed entities opposed to one another by stable internal architecture and external boundaries interferes with our ability to understand their mutual encounter and confrontation,” writes Eric Wolf in Europe and the People Without History (7).

This habit “has made it difficult to understand all such encounters and confrontations. Arranging imaginary building blocks into pyramids called East and West, or First, Second, and Third Worlds, merely compounds that difficulty” (7).

The foundation for this approach was laid in the mid-19th century “when inquiry into the nature and varieties of humankind split into separate (and unequal) specialties and disciplines.” It was a “fateful” split: “It led not only forward into the intensive and specialized study of particular aspects of human existence, but turned the ideological reasons for that split into an intellectual justification for the specialties themselves” (7).

Sociology is a classic case. Disorder and revolution “raised the question of how social order could be restored and maintained, indeed, how social order was possible at all. Sociology hoped to answer the “social question'” (7-8).

To address the social question, sociologists formed the object of their study by severing “social” from “political economy”: “These early sociologists did this by severing the field of social relations from political economy. They pointed to observable and as yet poorly studied ties which bind people to people as individuals, as groups and associations, or as members of institutions. They then took this field of social relations to be the subject matter of their intensive concern. They and their successors expanded this concern into a number of theoretical postulates, using these to mark off sociology from political science and economics” (8).

The postulates of early sociology “predispose one to think of social relations not merely as autonomous but as causal in their own right, apart from their economic, political, or ideological context. Since social relations are conceived as relations between individuals, interaction between individuals becomes the prime cause of social life. Since social disorder has been related to the quantity and quality of social relations, attention is diverted from consideration of economics, politics, or ideology as possible sources of social disorder, into a search for the causes of disorder in family and community, and hence toward the engineering of a proper family and community life” (9).

Further, analysis of “society in general” can be applied to specific societies, which are considered in abstraction not only from economic and political structures and activities but in abstraction from other societies: “Since social relations have been severed from their economic, political, or ideological context, it is easy to conceive of the nation-state as a structure of social ties informed by moral consensus rather than as a nexus of economic, political, and ideological relationships connected to other nexuses. Contentless social relations, rather than economic, political, or ideological forces, thus become the prime movers of sociological theory. Since these social relations take place within the charmed circle of the single nation-state, the significant actors in history are seen as nation-states, each driven by its internal social relations. Each society is then a thing, moving in response to an inner clockwork” (9).

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