Historical particularism is a school of thought that developed in the United States during the first half of the 20th century under the leadership of Franz Boas. This school of thought evolved at a time when in history, anthropologists were busy studying the Native American cultures which were rapidly disappearing. The main reason behind the tireless efforts by the anthropologists in the studies was because they were committed to preserving their unique cultures from the integration that threatened them.
On another perspective and in view of the historical context in which this school of thought involved, it is said that Historical particularism come into existence as an effort to reject the evolutionism school of thought which was earlier held by anthropologists.
It is indeed a paradigm in anthropology that is widely marked by a desire to move away from theories of evolution or diffusion. This school of thought criticizes them of being non scientific in their methods of cultural analysis.
The main idea behind the Historical particularism school of thought was that it maintained a strong focus on cultures themselves.
It calls for a holistic approach to understanding culture in their terms. This meant that detailed studies had to be done on cultures in their own terms. This was in consideration of certain aspects that were specific to the culture and community under study especially in considering their unique histories. It calls on anthropologists to avoid theorizing but instead get down to studying seriously and carefully the way culture is formed in respect to the environment or history.
This is the holistic approach that seeks to fully understand culture as opposed to any form of evaluating one culture against the other. According to Boas, the main proponent of this school of thought, he argues that each society’s culture is a collective representation of its unique historical past that shows a lot of connection with the present culture. As such he was opposed to the use of assumptions in addressing the development of the kin system and religion in society over history as presented by the evolutionist perspective.
The earlier ideas held that since it was a progressive move from one state to another, some societies were well ahead of others in their systems. But it was held that each would have to pass through the same stages as they progressed from primitive stages to the most civilized stages. Although there is the existence of general laws of human behavior in societies, these behaviors can well be understood from proper studies conducted on a specific society.
He held that cultures of different societies can have similar traits due to a variety of reasons and not specifically due to the general laws of human behavior, some of the reasons could be as a result of invention, adoption from others through interrelationship in trade or cultural contacts while others could be results of historical accidents. Therefore it would not be right to argue on the basis of similarities in traits in different cultures but it calls for proper study and understanding of culture in its full context.
The movement of historical particularists is seen to put more value on field work and history as the critical methods of cultural analysis. As such they collect vast amount of first hand cultural data upon which they gain information to base their descriptions of particular cultures as opposed to general theories that are given to apply to all societies (www. mnsu. ed) Ideas of major contributors in historical particularism Franz Boas (1858-1942) is the major proponent of this school of thought and the main contributor alongside other scholars most of whom were his students.
They contributed to the advancement of this school of thought either by supporting him or at time by criticizing him on his work. These major figures include: Alfred Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Robert Lowie, Margaret Mead, Edward Sapir and Paul Radin. The major idea presented by Boas was that the ordering of societies by the evolutionism was not valid. He criticized this method as being based on assumptions since it did not have any historic evidence. Concerning the method of gathering and organizing data he said that it was not based on first hand experiences concerning the societies which they were describing.
This is because they mostly used secondary data and did not visit the societies they were studying. Instead of the use of secondary data to describe a society, Boas advocated for the use of first hand information which the researcher/anthropologist obtains from the society. This was to be collected during fieldworks in the community. He said that the researcher should act as a participant observer. In addition he should also learn the language of the society and think like its people so as to collect the information that will help to describe the people’s interrelationship.
This is usually done by recording life histories and folklore and then connecting them with the historical data of the society. He held individuals to be very important as they formed the basic component of the society. He therefore gathered data from them and used such data for cultural analysis. Alfred Louis Kroeber (1876-1960) He was a student to Franz Boas and it was under his influence that he developed interest in ethnology and linguistics. He is mostly noted and recognized for his use and development of the idea of culture as a superorganic entity.
He went ahead to suggest that culture had to be analyzed through methods that were specific to the super organic nature. It is on this issue that he differed with Boas on the importance of the individual. While Boas held that the individual is the basic component of a society and therefore used data and information gathered from individuals to analyze the culture, Kroeber on the other hand did not find the individual to be an important element of the society. Instead he said that the society evolved in line with internal laws that did not originate from its individuals.
Therefore one would not analyze the individual since the two were entirely different phenomena and needed to be treated as such. In spite of the fact that he was mentored by Boas, Kroeber disagreed with him in that while Boas emphasized much on the gathering and organizing of data showing much concern on the causal process and their description (abstract phenomena), on the other hand Kroeber was concerned with concrete phenomena and their development over time something that his mentor did not put much emphasis on (www. as. au. edu)
The other notable figure in the historical particularism school of thought is Ruth Benedict (1887-1948). She was Boas’ student who took most of her time to conduct the extensive fieldwork in gathering data on different groups in United States. She is most noted for developing concepts like culture configuration and personality. She used the concept of culture configuration to refer to the sum of all the individual personalities of a society. She said that differences in cultural configurations were not in any way representing higher or lower capacity for cultural development.
Instead they were just but alternative means by which society and experience could be organized. Robert H. Lowie (1883-1957) is another notable figure in this school of thought. He studied under Boas. He was greatly influenced by Boas on the issue of the need to collect and analyze as much data as possible. The main sources that he advocated for were the historical documents that he used to gather data with during his studies on societies. The other figures we will consider are Edward Sapir (1884-1939) and Paul Radin (1883-1959).
Each of them made a significant contribution to this school of thought. Sapir’s most notable point is the disagreement on the issue of the place of the individual in the society. He disagreed with the proposition by Kroeber that culture was separate with the individual. Paul Radin’s criticism of Boas methods and the concept of culture are the most notable point and contribution to this school of thought. Radin argued that it was the individual who introduced change in religion, technology and innovation into a culture.
This is the position that he held and supported that it was the individual who shaped culture and not culture shaping the individual as earlier held. Almost all the major figures mentioned in the historical particularism approach disagreed on the definition of culture. Franz Boaz viewed culture as a set of customs, social institutions and beliefs that characterized any particular society and were defined by the environmental conditions and other historical events. In his view which was different from Boas’, Kroeber viewed culture as a separate entity from the individual that followed its own laws (super organic).
When we consider Benedict’s view, culture was described as the basic ways of living by a group of people. Sapir on the other hand argued that culture was not contained in the society itself but consisted of many interactions between the individuals and the society. It is Radin who stressed on the role of the individual as an agent of cultural change. In his argument he said the culture is molded by the individual through innovations. As such it was dependent on the individual for progress and change. Historical particularism and relationship to other schools of thought
Historical particularism developed as an alternative approach to the socio-cultural theories that were proposed by both evolutionists and diffusionists and were judged by this school as being unprovable. The evolutionists held that human beings shared some set of characteristics and modes of thinking which transcended individual cultures. This meant that cultural development of individual societies would move through similar series of development. This led to comparison between societies on their development levels which were based on their mental development.
In order to explain what happened over history diffusion was used as an approach to accomplish this. This thought argued that all culture and civilization developed only once and spread out to the other places in the world through people’s migration. In simpler terms, this school held that cultures were tied together in form of common origin. This idea was not fully convincing especially in explaining own inventions and other forms of cultures that were in different places in the world.
It was in view of these different schools of thought and their inability to explain and prove all that happened over history pertaining to cultural change that historical particularism was developed. According to this school of thought, detailed regional studies of culture had to be done in order to discover the distribution of culture traits and also the processes of cultural change. It mostly seeks a reconstruction of their histories. Data is collected on all aspects of different human societies so as to be able to make accurate generalization about cultural development.
According to the historical particularists, racial implications in defining cultural development in line with mental development were to show the European society as the end of the sequence in development. This was not in order since it would be hard for one to interpret cultural change unless observations are first done. These observations should be based on the perspective of the society they are describing. This made the major stand for historical particularists that it was necessary for the investigation to examine all available evidence for a society before beginning of an investigation.
There are so many different stimuli that contribute to the development of culture and as such development can only be understood by first examining the specific culture in order to identify the sources of stimuli. It is only after doing this, as advocated by the historical particularists that theories of cultural development can be constructed. An important fact is that these theories should be based on studies that have been carried out over a period of time. Historical facts are also very important and should be considered in the studies. Lasting contributions of historical particularists
According to the historical particularists each society has its own unique historical development and should be understood based on its own specific cultural context. A major emphasis is placed on the historical process which is a major determinant of a society’s culture and level of development. Therefore, any attempts to understand a society based on the idea that all cultures and societies follow the same trend in their development process is misguided. As such, particularists contributed so much on the basis upon which societies were evaluated.
This school of thought hold that each society should be looked at individually based on proper studies and enough information if any judgment is to be made. It advocated for ethnographic fieldwork in order to collect first hand cultural data from which information is gained to help describe particular cultures. This has gone a long way in changing theory formulation about culture and society. This school of thought helped to abolish the use of established general theories for all societies since it takes fieldwork and history as methods of cultural analysis.
It also called for an end to ethnocentrism in the field of anthropology and instead advocated for the anthropologists to use ethnological fieldwork to gather sound evidence that can be used when analyzing culture. This has helped in understanding of culture in its full context and in their terms. This is because this school of thought has not favored the evaluation of one culture against another. This school of thought has also succeeded in excluding racism from anthropology and issues that have to do with judgment of cultures and societies as regards development issues.
This is because it has advocated for the full understanding of the culture under judgment including its language and way of thought. Once this is done by the anthropologists, then racist judgments and use of pre-conceived ideas will not influence the judgments made. It was also as a result of the work of the influence of this school of thought that research began to focus on differences rather than on similarities between societies( Moore 2004) a turn that remained in the field of study for a long time.