Not available in 2019/20
AN478      Half Unit
Anthropology and Global History

This information is for the 2019/20 session.

Teacher responsible

Prof David Graeber OLD 6.10


This course is available on the MSc in Anthropology and Development, MSc in Anthropology and Development Management, MSc in China in Comparative Perspective, MSc in Social Anthropology and MSc in Social Anthropology (Religion in the Contemporary World). This course is available with permission as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.



Course content

This course is about what anthropology can tell us about history and also, what a knowledge of history and historical context and process can tell us about particular ethnographic case studies. The first half of the course largely covers broad questions of global history, beginning with the surprising history of the birth of evolutionism in the Enlightenment - the latter being, it argues, is in large part an appropriation of, and evolutionism largely a response to an explicit indigenous critique of European civilisation - and covering such classic issues as divine kingship, money and cycles of economic history, and the concept of "civilization" itself, to demonstrate what anthropological understandings can bring to bear on the broad sweep of human history. Over the course of this discussion various debates on the nature of history itself will be considered, ranging from infra structuralist Marxism and Autonomist class-struggle oriented Marxian approaches, world-systems analysis, culturalist approaches, and theories of narrative agency.

The second half applies these tools to the existing literature on the Nuer, Balinese and Malagasy (both Caribbean pirates and their interactions with Malagasy in the 18th century, and present-day Malagasy villagers) approaching a series of classic anthropological case studies from a broader historic point of view. Historiographical debates over the role of narrative and interpretation take life here as we examine how political action largely consists of action designed to be narrativised by others; mainstream, economistic theories of historical action are found inadequate to explain the long-term gender dynamics that lie behind the creation of these apparently free-standing events. All this poses a set of conceptual challenges: what is an event? What is historical agency? What is the relation of cosmological conceptions, or narrative structures, to historical process? Must historical accounts always take a mythic form? Having begun by arguing Enlightenment forms of knowledge are really an appropriation of and reaction to non-Western ideas, it ends by examining a current non-Western political struggle - the Kurdish freedom movement - engaged in an explicit attempt to decolonize, recapture, and reformulate these terms; a project in which the rewriting of history on a world scale is seen as fundamental to transformative action.


15 hours of lectures and 10 hours of seminars in the MT.

This course has a reading week in Week 6 of MT.

Formative coursework

Students will submit one formative coursework essay (1500 words) to the course teacher during the MT. 

Indicative reading

Graeber, David. 2011. Debt the First Five Thousand Years. Melville House.

Graeber, David, and Marshall Sahlins. 2016. On Kings. University of Chicago Press.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1988. "Cosmologies of Capitalism. the Trans-Pacific Sector of 'The World System'" in Proceedings of the British Academy.

Kandiaronk.2001. Are you delusional? Kandiaronk on Christianity.

Wengrow, David, and David Graeber. 2005. “Farewell to the Childhood of Man: Ritual, Seasonality, and the Origins of Inequality.”

Graeber, David. 2006. Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Central Madagascar.

Johnson, Douglas. 1979. “Colonial Policy and Prophets: the 'Nuer Settlement,' 1929-30.”

Geertz, Clifford. 1989. Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth Century Bali.

Ocalan, Abdullah. 2015: Manifesto for a democratic Civilization: Civilization: The Age of Masked Gods and Disguised Kings.

Abu-Lughod, Janet. 1989. Before European Hegemony: the World System 1250-1350.


Coursework (100%, 5000 words) in the LT.

Key facts

Department: Anthropology

Total students 2018/19: 16

Average class size 2018/19: 9

Controlled access 2018/19: No

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Problem solving
  • Application of information skills
  • Communication
  • Specialist skills