[Karissa Demmert] Anthropology and History- Bernard Cohn

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From: Karissa Demmert
Sent: Friday, November 19, 2004 12:37 AM
Subject: Cohn crib sheet
Here is the crib sheet for Cohn.


Anthropology and History- Bernard Cohn

‘The units of study in anthropological history should be cultural and culturally derived: power, authority, exchange, reciprocity, codes of conduct, systems of social classification, the construction of time and space, rituals. One studies these in a particular place and over time, but the study is about the construction of the cultural categories and the process of that construction, not about place and time.’
-Bernard S. Cohn

‘History and Anthropology: the State of Play’

Cohn, like Kroeber, believed strongly in the ‘joint frontier’ between anthropology and history. Culture served as a common ground between anthropology and history. For Cohn interpreting culture through a historical lens is important because it allows for a fuller picture of culture. Anthropology and history together can create a history of human culture by weaving together all relevant data, obtained in the preferred manner of each respective discipline.

Cohn believed that the culture of colonial peoples was too often neglected. Cohn suggests that anthropology has placed too much emphasis on the political and economic remnants of colonialism. History, in contrast focuses on the larger impact of western thought on colonized cultures. In fact, Cohn goes so far as to say ‘historians, in general, have been much more sensitive than have anthropologists to the problem of changing culture in colonial societies’. Cohn studies Indian society, focusing on the influences of colonial authorities and subsequently, the efforts on the part of the colonized to assert self-determination. Cohn, through his extensive study of colonial India, focuses on the changes in the way of thinking and the subsequent actions of the colonized people.

Cohn argues that anthropologists do not always have the resources to fully understand how symbols and cultural categories come to be associated with one another, how they are maintained and how they change over time. He states that explanations are usually given in terms of analysis and use human nature and psychological differences as explanations. Historians on the other hand can trace symbols but cannot or will not link the changes in symbols directly to changes in society.

The British in Benares: A Nineteenth Century Colonial Society

Cohn looks at the different classifications of the British in India and the way in which those classifications transferred to the role of the British in the colonial society. There were official and non- official classifications. Official status meant the British were in formal service to either the British military or the East India Company. Within these classifications the civilians were more influential than the military. The leaders of the government and the East India Company were civilians. In addition to the official and non-official, there were commercial, trader and planter Europeans. These people were generally from different classes of British society than the officials.

While Cohn emphasizes the individual differences among the British in India one overarching characteristic is their limited interaction with Indians. Cohn identifies three arenas in which the British interacted with Indians. The first was as servants. The British relied on their servants to fulfill an array of duties in day-to-day life. The second context in which the British interacted with Indians was at work. Many Indians worked in British run institutions. The third context was in formal settings where the British would socialize with the ‘respectable gentlemen’ of the Indian community. This relationship was restricted and somewhat ill fated. The urban class had much in common with the British officers. In an attempt to focus on something other than overt structural changes in colonial India, Cohn gives examples of Indians who formed working alliances with British civil servants in Benares. Initially these relationships were for the benefit of the British, however, over time the nature of their relationships changed and ultimately it ends up being the Indians who profit most from these interactions. The ability of the Indians to beat the British at their own system led in part to the development of a hostile attitude toward the educated urban middle class Indians. An attitude, which according to Cohn, survived until Indian independence.

Cohn also emphasizes the importance of family connections and class in gaining appointment and status within the official British society in India. The British society in India was very small and tightly woven. However, their influence with regard to policies and structure was widely felt.

The Census, Social Structure and Objectification in South Asia

The census in India was a product of British colonial rule. Many of the characteristics counted in the census were initially curiosities of a few British intellectuals. Some British scholars were consumed with understanding the Indian people. By the 1930s the questions raised in the census were placed in the hands of the Indians themselves. The Indian census played an important role in altering Indian understanding of Indian culture because it asked questions about major aspects of Indian life and thus provided an arena for Indians to ask questions about themselves.

According to Cohn, colonization caused people to not only change the content of their culture but the way they think about their culture as well. Indian intellectuals of the nineteenth century objectified their culture. Cohn says they ‘can stand back and look at themselves, their ideas, their symbols and culture and see it as an entity.’

Perhaps what Cohn is getting at with the notion of objectification is that by concretizing ideological cultural traits, Indians were able to paint a more objective picture of themselves as opposed to the highly subjective picture the British presented based upon their personal encounters. Given the contexts in which many Brits and Indians interacted many British held negative impressions of Indians.

By looking at the history of the census in India we are able to see the complexities that surrounded interactions in colonial India. By using Cohn’s historical approach, we can look at the complexities in culture, the changes over time and how such changes have informed the cultural present.


1.According to Cohn, Indian scholars of the nineteenth century stepped outside of their culture in order to observe it. In light of recent class discussions on the ability of individuals to study their own culture, is it possible for an individual to take an objective stance on their culture?

2.Cohn implies that by viewing things through a historical lens it is possible to gain a broader, less biased view of culture. How does Cohn’s understanding of the importance of history differ from a Boasian view of history?



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