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Historicity: An Anthropological Approach

Charles Stewart
University College London - Department of Anthropology
Date and Time: 
Monday, April 4, 2022 - 15:30 to 17:00

Department of Anthropology
Main Quad - Building 50
Room 51A (Colloquium Room)


And Via Zoom


This programmatic paper formulates an anthropological approach to the study of how people establish relationships to the past and their representations of that past. It has often been asked if a given society has ‘history.’ The British, for example, pronounced that India had no history before their arrival. What they meant by that, and the multiple qualifications and rejections of that proposition, open the question of what criteria define history. Generally, the answer has been that the protocols of history are those formalized in post-Enlightenment Western thought. These include resort to evidence as the basis for plausible accounts of the past, awareness of chronology, and presentation in prose form. The term ‘historicity’ (in the sense of culturally ordered approaches to the past, formulated in a given present, while anticipating the future) offers a way to place Western history in the same frame as other historicities, rather than using it as a measuring stick to exclude or condescend to them. Anthropologists have long compared economic systems and religions and this paper proposes to set the comparison of historicities on a firmer basis. The object is not to relativize and taxonomize but to understand difference, observe commonalities and perhaps achieve new understanding of Western practice.


Charles Stewart is Professor of Anthropology at University College London. An ethnographer of Greece, he has published a study of local Greek Orthodox practice, Demons and the Devil: Moral Imagination in Modern Greek Culture (1991), and an investigation of collective dreaming for buried treasures: Dreaming and Historical Consciousness in Island Greece (2012). His recent publications explore the social relationship to the past, and include the co-edited collection The Varieties of Historical Experience (2019). That volume was the first to appear in the book series, ‘The Anthropology of History’, that he and Stephan Palmié currently edit for Routledge.