Historical Particularism


(Anthropology Paper I)

Syllabus Section: 6. Anthropological theories


Historical Particularism is a detailed descriptive approach to anthropology, associated with Franz Boas and his students. Though Boas provided the concept of historical particularism, he did not coin the term. The term ‘historical particularism’ was coin by Marvin Harris in 1968. Historical particularism developed as a critique of the theory of unilinear evolution.

The idea of historical particularism

They suggest all cultures have their own historic trajectory and that each culture developed according to this history.

Historical particularism goes hand in hand with the concepts of diffusion and cultural relativism aspiring for a holistic approach to understanding culture.

It was design as an alternative to the broad generalizing approach and the unilateral evolution toward western culture favor by anthropologists such as Morgan and Tylor.

Franz Boas suggested an alternative to the generalizations of the comparative method. Rather than following a ‘nomothetic’ (generalized) approach, Boas encouraged anthropologists to follow an ‘idiographic’ (dealing with particular/ specific cases) approach.

Franz Boas view each society as having its own unique historical development,

And the society must be understood base on its own specific cultural context, especially its historical process.

Basic Premises of Historical Particularism:

  • Historical particularism rejects the psychic unity and generalizations of classical evolutionists.
  • It involves extensive use of fieldwork and the history of all societies under study to develop authentic data on various cultures and have a scientific generalization of human behavior.
  • Historical particularism involves the understanding of local history, language, and the viewpoint of the marginal people e.g. woman who was neglect and not study before it.
  • It emphasizes that every culture has its own unique history and therefore every culture must be studied from a historical context.
  • These histories of specific cultures have to be reconstructed on the basis of fieldwork.
  • Historic particularism states that each culture is intelligible only with respect to its history because each culture is a product of unique, discrete, historic events and circumstances.
  • For this reason, each culture came to have an integrated way of life, valid and meaningful in its own right.
  • If each culture is unique by itself, one culture cannot be like another culture and how can two cultures be similar?
  • If cultures are not similar, they do not follow a fixed sequence of growth and evolution.
  • Hence, it is not possible to discover general laws governing the growth and evolution of the whole cultures in the world unless we are able to prepare an authentic history on the basis of fieldwork.
  • Thus, historic particularism calls for the investigation of unique histories
  • Historical particularism failed to provide a clear-cut theoretical approach that could guide the discipline of anthropology through the 20th century.
  • It is only apt to study primitive societies rather than complex ones
  • The theory largely ignores the concept of society and emphasizes only culture.
  • It failed to define general laws at the level of histories of specific cultures

Historical particularism marks a significant point in the history of anthropology, as it changes the direction of the discipline from its racial past, and establishes the recognition that all cultures are equally developed. Historic particularism helped in laying the foundations of the fieldwork, its techniques, and the engagement of women in anthropological studies.

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