Historical Particularism: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Emily Cummins
In this lesson, we'll talk about an important idea in cultural anthropology known as historical particularism. Developed by Franz Boas, this perspective encourages us to study different cultures in depth, understanding the historical factors that have made cultures unique.

Early Cultural Anthropology

What is culture? What makes one culture different from another? These kinds of questions have long interested cultural anthropologists. Broadly defined, cultural anthropology is the study of different cultures around the world. Culture refers to the shared beliefs, values, and traditions held by different societies.

The discipline of anthropology really arose out of Europe, and many of the earliest writings in cultural anthropology focused on trying to make sense of the cultures of distant places. In a lot of ways, though, early cultural anthropology was guilty of thinking about distant cultures as 'backwards' or 'underdeveloped.'

This led anthropologists to critique this approach to studying culture. In this lesson, we'll talk about a perspective known as historical particularism, which was developed as a response to dissatisfaction with the ways that early anthropologists studied cultures. Let's go into a bit more detail and talk about some examples.

Theory of Cultural Particularism

The idea of historical particularism suggests all cultures have their own historical trajectory and that each culture developed according to this history. This idea was popularized by the anthropologist Franz Boas, who is widely considered a founder of the discipline of anthropology.

Boas was responding to a particular school of thought in anthropology, known as the social-evolutionary perspective. This approach saw cultures as following a linear trajectory. In other words, more traditional cultures will eventually 'catch up' to the more developed cultures of Western Europe.

Franz Boas
Boas; historical particularism; anthropology

The problem with the social-evolutionary perspective, according to Boas, was that this led us to believe that Western European countries should be the model for what culture should look like. This led to ignoring the particularities of different cultures. This is where historical particularism comes in.

Boas felt that the only way to really understand cultures was through in-depth research into their individual histories. We can't assume any universal laws about cultures. This blinds us to the important ways that cultures are different from one another. So historical particularism is kind of like a research method, in a way.

Boas urged anthropologists to go directly to the place they wanted to study, as opposed to trying to examine it from afar. This was a response to a tendency at the time to simply write about cultures rather than engaging with them. This lead to what many termed armchair anthropology. Imagine it like this: a professor in the ivory tower making judgments about cultures he never really explored.

Also, Boas didn't think that comparison was a very good way to understand other cultures. Instead of trying to find similarities and differences between two cultures, we should try and understand the aspects of each of them in depth.

Examples

Let's take a few examples to better illustrate how this works. Let's say an anthropologist was looking to understand the tradition of Vodou among Haitian immigrants in New York City. A historical particularistic approach would require the anthropologist to really understand the history of Haitian culture and its relationship to Vodou. The anthropologist would have to learn how Vodou was practiced by slaves under French colonialism as a way to preserve heritage and important aspects of indigenous culture. In contrast, an evolutionary approach might risk assuming that Vodou is a backward tradition and that eventually Haitian immigrant culture will adapt to mainstream culture.

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