Spring 1999

Professor: Michael Herzfeld
Seminar: William James Hall 301, Mondays: 1-3 pm.

Goals of the course:

The purpose of this course is to explore the idea that history, far from being a straightforward set of facts, is a highly contested, malleable, and ambiguous dimension of everyday social life. It is something about which people argue, and to which they give widely meanings. By looking at the uses that people make of various kinds of history for political and social ends, we shall find that "the past" informs everyday experience and gives it meaning, but that it is in turn suffused with interpretation based on the present. This course is about the history that "ordinary people' know, and about what techniques might help us to recognize that knowledge even when it is embodied in casual talk, sensations such as touch and smell, or encoded in cryptic language designed to evade the state's powers of surveillance. Some view this perspective on the past as subversive because it challenges official definitions of the truth; others see it as a rich storehouse of practical and intimate knowledge about the past in all its contested complexity. Whatever view one takes, this kind of history often conflicts.with official" interpretations, including those of the academic world.

We shall pay particular attention to the role of nationalism. This ideology requires a group of people to recognize a common identity grounded in a common past. But is that past really common to the people who claim it? How can those who do not feel that they belong be persuaded to change their view of the past so that they become more fully incorporated? Do such processes really work? What are their long-term effects? We shall also ask similar questions, about colonialism.

Anthropology itself is heavily implicated in some of the major issues at stake. The role of anthropologists in contributing to the "invention of tradition' has been questioned to an increasing extent. What are our responsibilities? What are the limitations to which anthropological inquiry is or should be subject?

We shall organize the semester's work around several key debates. We shall initially examine the utility or otherwise of what is usually called the "constructivist" position, and will question the value of the notions of "tradition" and "invention of tradition." Then we will turn to a discussion of the politics of identity in local historical conservation efforts -- one in the U.S., the other in Greece -- in order to develop a more agent-centered approach, and to see how such intellectual issues are converted into the management and experiencing of Dhvsical space -- the nexus of the body personal with the body politic in all the latter's multiple realizations. Finally, we will examine two major debates of recent years -- one, the argument about Captain Cook as it has been played out between Marshall Sahlins and Gananath Obeyesekere; the other, the politicization of scholarship about Macedonia -- and will turn to nonWestern models of historicity in -order to assess the cultural value and limits of speaking about 'truth" as a central concern.


There will be a mid-term exercise consisting of a short paper laying out key,issues. The major written assignment will be a term paper (max. 30 pp. main text), the to be determined individually after consultation with the instructor. Finally, credit may be awarded on the basis of your participation in sections and class. All written work must be fully referenced, with citations and bibliography following Ame7ican Ethnologist style (styk-sheet available on request) or similar system using author-year-page references in parentheses in the body of the text; failure to comply with this requirement may resuh in a failing or reduced grade. AR papers should be typed, with double-spacing of lines and adequate margins (at least 1.25 inches on each side and at top and bottom).

Class Format:

This is a seminar class. Thus, all participants will be expected to make an active contribution. While preparation will be for specific segments and debates, students may be asked to take a specific position and advocate it, and may on occasion be asked also to provide the opposing argument on the same issue.

Schedule of Topics:

Main readings:

Supplementary readings (Tozzer Reserves)



In addition, a file of materials related to the publication of the Karakasidou book will be placed in the Tozzer Reserves.

Created: 01 March 1999.
Last updated: 01 March 1999.

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