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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1998, Vol. 1 No. 2 .


Europe and the People Without History
Eric R Wolf

(Berkeley, CA.: University of California Press, 1997)
Second Edition. 503pp. Index. Bibl..
Pb.: 0-520-04898-9. 17.95


This is a re-issue of a book which had a significant impact on anthropological thinking when it first appeared in 1982. So well-established has one central aspect of the argument become in the intervening period that today many anthropologists take it for granted though it wasn't always that way. What Wolf insisted on was the necessity for anthropology to be genuinely historical by looking at actual sequences of events which link societies and communities in a political-economy framework rather than adopting an ahistorical functionalism which divorces the social from the material world.

A new short preface indicates that the irony of the title was lost on some readers. The intention was to counter the common perception that the colonised countries which formed the object of anthropologists' studies lacked history in the grand European style. Wolf uses as a vehicle for his approach the history of capitalist expansion as exemplified through the distribution of major commodities, and his conceptual vocabulary, hinging on the concept of 'modes of production', is unashamedly Marxist.

Sometimes this pays dividends; sometimes it appears simplistic. A good example of this, for the purposes of the Digest, can be found in the respective characterisations of race and ethnicity which he makes towards the end of the book. The racial concepts of 'Negro' and (American) 'Indian' are clearly shown to be the culture-blind products of mercantilist expansion which, under developed capitalism, came to designate 'the lower ranks of the industrial army' (p.381). Which African population a Negro originated from was quite irrelevant to the purpose he or she served in relation to the slave trade. Similarly, Indians were all those indigenous New World peoples who were subjugated in the course of European colonialism, again whatever multitude of differences might have existed among them. There is nothing uncontentious here but when the 'mode of production' concept is analytically extended to ethnic groups, it seems it has been stretched just a little too far: 'ethnic categories express the ways that particular populations come to relate themselves to given segments of the labor market' (ibid.). Is this always the way it is? There is a danger here of reducing the political economy to the economy alone and ignoring other factors in the historical shaping of cultural groups.

But, as indicated, ethnicity is a sideline to the main story: the relationship between capitalism and colonialism. One will learn a great deal about a good many peoples but the central actors here are commodities - fur and textiles, tea and spices, tobacco and bananas, gold and opium. One will also find a history of the railroad, a history of slavery, a short history of India and another of Hispanic America... It is, in short, an extraordinary distillation of historical materials.


Declan Quigley, The Queen's University of Belfast



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