What is the Use of Historical Method in Anthropology?


Historical Method

In the modern age many anthropologists have studied the various social institutions through historical method. The famous book, “History of Human Marriage” written by Westermark is an excellent example of it and it contains historical study of the gradual evolution of marriage in institution. The influence of biological principle of evolution on the same is clear.

What is historical method? The influence of the philosophy of history and biological principle of evolution on the authors, who have used this method in the field of anthropology, is very distinct. In this the origins of social institutions, societies and cultures are discovered and the positions of evolution are shown.


It studies special social institutions in the background of the whole human history. August Comte, Herbert Spencer and Hobhouse have studied the main institutions of society in the background of the whole human history.

Many scholars have opposed this application of the principle of evolution in the field of social events. According to them, all these works based on historical method were merely historical descriptions. In the 18th and 19th centuries, due to the triumph of evolutionism in scientific fields, it was used, even in defining sociological events.

In the modern period the use of historical method is made for the study of special historical events in the field of anthropology, because it is clear that various social events take place after their origin from different sources and following different lines of evolution.

The attempt of filling social events into a preplanned frame of evolutionary principle is not quite correct because it leads to an artificial definition of a natural one. It does not mean that such studies are not important or offer no contribution in anthropology. Such studies have furnished important knowledge about social changes.


Example of Molokan Group

From the example of the study of Russian Molokan group P.V. Young has shown the great importance of the study of historical matter in social investigation. It will be proper to give here a brief description of Young’s study.

Only the elders of Molokan group could give a real account of the various events of the evolution of the group culture, but this account alone was not enough for social investigation, because an investigator has also to know other relations among the events besides artistic relation.

In other words, along with a serial study of the social events, he has also to discover cause-effect relationship among them. The members of Molokan group, who lived in Los Angles, thought that the origin of their community lay in Russian religious persecution. They knew that a long time ago their ancestors had taken part in Russian religious persecution and had undergone great tortures.


The young men of the group said that they were highly moved by the great tortures meted out to their ancestors. Their ancestors had fought a fierce battle against the Russian conservative Church and the state. This made it clear that Molokanism was not a mere system of ideas. It was also a way of life, a philosophy.

In this community, communal emotions were very sharp and it was because of this that a cultural reawakening could be seen among the people of the third generation of Molokan community born in America. P. V. Young saw that it was necessary to know the history of Russian religious discrimination in order to examine the accounts given by the members of the Molokan group and to gain a wide outlook of the whole situation.

He came to know, through study, that it all happened in the 18th century. Molokan community was the creation of such a religious movement which moved not only the Russian empire but many other countries of Western Europe as well.

From the study of Russian religious discrimination, the question of cause-effect sequence in it was raised. How did the Russian farmers under Czar Raise their voice against the conservative Church was the question. What were the situations which caused the rebellion? It was known from a. historical study that the movement against Russian religious discrimination began about fifty years after the establishment of slave system in Russia.


Then the effect of slavery on the farmer’s conditions and their attitudes was studied. From this, it was known that the slaves rebelled against the state which gave the masters a right to confiscate the property of the slaves. They rebelled against the church which accepted that right.

They rebelled against the society which acted according to that right. In this way, the rebellion was remote and deep-rooted. Disorganization in the Russian social, political and economic administration had already begun before the establishment of the farmer-slave system.

The masses had lost their patience and considered the church to be the cause of their troubles. These ere the causes which gave birth to an unprecedented religious and social movement. Even the greatest punishment of fines, imprisonment and excitement rould not stop the movement. On the other hand, the punishment brought the members of the movement still closer to one another and created in them a great faith and unity for their own religious principles.

The historical accounts of the Russian religious discrimination have thrown light on the causes of Molokan group. The fire of communalism had made the farmer hard like steel.


The personality of a member of Molokan group could not be known only through the study of this community because there were other forces influencing it. For example, another community named Dukhobor also came into existence along with it.

The principles of both of these were different. Both of them were attached to their different impressions. Both of them presented a new way for salvation and gave new definition of divine law.

From historical study, P.V. Young concluded that the present form of Molokanism was different from its belief and actions in 18th and 19th centuries. Besides this, Russian Molokanism was different from American Molokanism in the 19th and 20th centuries. In this way, economic, religious, political and social evolution of a period of 300 years bake was studied for a study of Molokan individuality and its social institutions.

It was clear from this historical study that Molokan community started with some definite religious and social principles. It was not only a religious community. Its members had employed all their means, the whole of their determination and their entire strength for the achievement of one ideal which had become a centre of light for their lives.

The members of this group thus wanted to live within their community and therefore they had created means of protection against reaction of assimilation into American culture. In this reaction a struggle between religious and secular institutions could be seen. A historical study gradually showed the causes of reawakening in the group.

This community could not be studied without the study of its cultural background and historical evolution. In the words of P.V. Young, “The historical accounts provided a frame of reference, a point of view of the social and cultural soil in which Molokanism as a unique way of life and its inception.”

The above example, given by P.V. Young, about the contribution of historical account in social investigation may serve as an inducement for some people to raise the objection that too much time and force is spent in historical study. But, if looked attentively, no investigator, who has to go down deep in any social field, can do without its historical study.

The further he proceeds with his study, the wider becomes the field of knowledge that opens before him and thus he goes on without worrying about the time that the study may take.

The present social event takes a new shape in the light of a historical study which helps in understanding many new things. To understand any aspect in the study of any group, investigation in its past historical shape becomes necessary.

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