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Daily RC Article 174

Beyond Generality: Unraveling the Significance of Detailed Historical and Ethnographic Studies

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While it is true that rigorous history and ethnography often give up generality for accuracy and precision, their conclusions can nonetheless have considerable importance. Scientific significance is not limited to the discovery of general laws. The sciences are collections of models, directed at answering questions. Not every question matters…Generality is to be prized, partly because it is often the key to answering questions wholesale rather than retail, partly because generalizing explanations are often deeper; but there are many non-general issues, concrete and individual questions, that rightly occupy natural scientists. Where exactly do the fault lines run in Southern California? What is the relation among the various hominid species? By the same token, there are many specific questions that occupy historians and anthropologists.

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Some of these questions are causal…Yet there are others that should be emphasized. When Jean L. Briggs reports on family life among the Inuit, he is not primarily interested in tracing the causes of events. History and ethnography are used instead to show the readers what it is like to live in a particular way, to provide those of us who belong to very different societies with a vantage point from which to think about ourselves and our own arrangements.

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Although studies such as these make no pretense at generality, their impact can be very large. They can unsettle the categories that are taken for granted in all kinds of decisions, from mundane reflections about how to respond to other people to large matters of social policy. Humanistic studies can also challenge the categories used to frame lines of scientific inquiry. History and anthropology are sites at which new concepts are forged. Their deliverances can do what Thomas Kuhn memorably claimed for the study of the history of the sciences: they can change the images by which we are held. The Bush administration tacitly concurred with Kuhn’s view when, at a time of shrinking budgets for the arts and humanities, it launched an initiative to support historical studies of iconic American figures and achievements. One effect of history may be a rethinking of social institutions.

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Once the intertwining of human inquiry with social change has been recognized, it is easy to see why history and ethnography demand constant rewriting. Returning to the same materials is valuable when historians or anthropologists gain new evidence… Yet there are other reasons for revisiting themes and episodes that have already been thoroughly treated. Gibbon’s history of the Roman Empire needs to be rewritten because the changes in our own society make new aspects of the past pertinent. Older histories such as his may have played a useful role in generating styles of social thought that we take for granted, but in the light of our newer conceptions, contemporary historians may view different questions as significant. This may leave the impression of an enterprise in which nothing ever accumulates, but the impression is incorrect. If Gibbon has been in many respects superseded, we should be nonetheless grateful for the impact that his monumental history made on his many readers. Historians return to Gibbon because his words are not ours. If our questions are different, it is because we live in a very different culture, one that his history helped to bring about.

The text argues that while history and ethnography may lack generality, their detailed studies offer valuable insights. It contends that scientific significance extends beyond discovering general laws, emphasizing the importance of specific, concrete questions. The impact of such studies, even without generality, can challenge societal categories, influencing decisions and social policy. The intertwining of human inquiry with social change necessitates constant rewriting of history and ethnography, as evolving perspectives and new evidence emerge. The text highlights the dynamic nature of historical interpretation and the enduring influence of past works, such as Gibbon's history, in shaping contemporary questions.
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