Can ethnographic theory incorporate history? by Susana de Matos Viegas

Susana de Matos Viegas

Institute of Social Sciences

University of Lisbon

February 2019

The renewal of Malinowski’s empiricism in the 1990s can be considered as a first and critical step in the emergence of new ways of performing anthropology through what has been called ethnographic theory. In his monograph on democracy in Ilhéus (a city in the neighbourhood of the place where I carried out my fieldwork), Márcio Goldman (2006) retrieves an idea he had put forward several years before (2001). Using the “ethnographic theory of the magic word” proposed by Malinowski in Coral Gardens and their Magic, and drawing also inspiration in Paul Veyne, Goldman addresses ethnographic theory as an “explicitness ”, suggesting that what is at stake is to explain deeply, even if only a specific topic (Goldman 2006: 28). This does not mean shrinking but enlarging a scale of explanation. Goldman argues that the difference between native, ethnographic and scientific theories should be located not in the binomial error/truth, but rather in different configurations or scales, the role of scientific theories being that of dealing with more encompassing scales (ibid.)

As João de Pina-Cabral reminded us in the NET’s first post (2018), ethnographic theory implies a radical rejection of “chronocentrism”, that is, in a propositional way, a substantive conviction that the legacy of dense ethnographies – even those which were written by anthropologists in colonial situations – is crucial to achieve an enlargement of anthropological knowledge scales. The language of magic in Coral Gardens is a telling example of an ethnographic classic text of that kind based, amongst others, on the kind of synchronism from which ethnography emerged. The question I propose to open in this text is, therefore: Can ethnographic theory incorporate history?

The scale of what Malinowski could do with the language of magic in the 1930s does not bear comparison with that which allowed, for instance, Mark S. Mosko (2017) to understand Baloma spirit-ancestors among the Trobriand islanders. Decades of ethnographies on different parts of the world conceived as in relation – as Marilyn Strathern would say – make it possible for ethnography not to be trapped in synchronism.

As a dimension of ethnographic theory, history can thus be considered as a question of scale. In this sense, it is similar to the problem of comparison, that is to say, a question of generalization, removed from the aporia of a contradiction between the particular and the general (Viegas 2011). Goldman summons this perspective as one of the advantages of Malinowski’s “ethnographic theory” as it appears in Coral Gardens, in which Malinowski aimed at “constructing a model for the understanding of language and magic that, although produced from and for a particular context, could potentially function as a matrix for deciphering these phenomena in other contexts. This, I believe, is one of the alternatives at anthropology’s disposal that enable it to escape the known paradoxes of the particular and the general.” (Goldman 2001: 159).

A successful example of incorporating history into ethnographic theory is Peter Gow’s An Amazonian myth and its history (2001). Retrieving Claude Levi-Strauss’ vision on the transformation of Amerindian myths from Lowland South America Amerindians, Gow argues that the work of Levi-Strauss forces one to remake basic attitudes towards the history of the Americas: “an anthropological analysis that uses historical methods must start from ethnography, and from the problems ethnography presents. Ethnography is to anthropological investigation what the ‘primary sources’ are to historians” (Gow 2001: 20). If one looks at history not from the perspective of the arrival of colonizers and the subsequent domination and violence exerted upon the indigenous peoples, but rather from the point of view of situating those relations along time, in ways of being in history, processes of transformation as described by Lévi-Strauss to discuss myths are more accurate to understand the history of America. When ethnography sets the starting point to approach history we then achieve a historical perspective that is neither circumscribed to an ethnohistory nor to a history of colonialism.

From the viewpoint of the region I know best—the Atlantic forest of south Bahia—it is critical to integrate the living experience to understand historical processes. It allows one to understand, for instance, how the multiplicity of indigenous peoples pertaining to the long history of the Tupi who inhabit the vast Atlantic coastal area of Brazil, do not merely survive, but rather are living for centuries in a situation of brutal clashes with alien forms of living, and have superseded multiple theories of history which assumed their integration to be imminent. Seeing these historical processes through the perspective of the lived experience of indigenous people, their way of dealing with meanings of setting and/or moving in the land, which is key to Amerincanist debates in anthropology, is a way of paying attention to larger historical processes through the lenses of ethnographic theory.

In brief, not only does ethnographic theory encompass and integrate history, but in itself, it is a form of performing history—one of the major challenges of contemporary anthropology.


Goldman, Marcio. 2001. “An Ethnographic Theory of Democracy. Politics from the Viewpoint of Ilhéus’s Black Movement (Bahia, Brazil)”. Ethnos 66(2): 157-80.

Goldman,Marcio. 2006. “Introdução: Antropologia da política e teoria etnográfica da democracia”. Como funciona a democracia: uma teoria etnográfica da política. 7Letras. Rio de Janeiro, pp. 23-51.(english translation 2013: How Democracy Works: An Ethnographic Theory of Politics. Sean Kingston Publishing. Canon Pyon.

Gow, Peter. 2001. An Amazonian myth and its history. Oxford University Press. Oxford.

Mosko, Mark S. 2017. Ways of Baloma: rethinking Magic and Kinship from the Trobriands. Hau Books. Chicago.

Pina-Cabral, João de. 2018. Guest posts: What is Ethnographic Theory: – a response to EASA NET.

Viegas, Susana de Matos. 2011. “Can anthropology make valid generalizations? Feelings of belonging in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest”. In Toren, Christina and João de Pina Cabral (eds). The Challenge of Epistemology: anthropological perspectives. Berghahn books, Oxford, pp. 147-162.