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Europe and the People Without History

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The intention of this work is to show that European expansion not only transformed the historical trajectory of non-European societies but also reconstituted the historical accounts of these societies before European intervention. It asserts that anthropology must pay more attention to history.


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The intention of this work is to show that European expansion not only transformed the historical trajectory of non-European societies but also reconstituted the historical accounts of these societies before European intervention. It asserts that anthropology must pay more attention to history.

30 review for Europe and the People Without History

  1. 4 out of 5

    Nick

    This book certainly deserves the label "classic," for two major reasons. First, Wolf effectively threw into question the idea within anthropology and elsewhere that cultures, especially non-Western cultures, are fragmented and static or were fragmented and static before contact with Western "civilization." Secondly, his work represents one of the best anthropological contributions to structural Marxism (Althusser, for example). However, to do so he simply reduces global cultural relations and pr This book certainly deserves the label "classic," for two major reasons. First, Wolf effectively threw into question the idea within anthropology and elsewhere that cultures, especially non-Western cultures, are fragmented and static or were fragmented and static before contact with Western "civilization." Secondly, his work represents one of the best anthropological contributions to structural Marxism (Althusser, for example). However, to do so he simply reduces global cultural relations and processes into "modes of production" rather than enhancing both anthropology and political economy by melding cultural aspects more effectively with political economy. For example, Gramsci, Raymond Williams and others are only given brief mention in order for Wolf to argue (p. 425) that "thought [and therefore culture:] is mediated by the prevailing mode of production." I do not find this economic determinism persuasive: ideology and culture cannot simply be reduced to veneers covering particular modes of production. Rather, in addition to Gramscian literature one would do well to look at literature on Foucauldian governmentality such as Apter's The Pan-African Nation: Oil and the Spectacle of Culture in Nigeria (see below), which brings a much more dynamic and yet realistic view of exploitation through the last 400 years, from mercantile through capitalist "modes of production," of Nigerian history.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Watts

    Being a former Anthropology student I have seen this book referred to in slightly reverent tones. It is perceived to be THE work of Marxism within Anthropology, something to which nobody interested in the subject or the theory can go without reading. Now after quite a while away I have finally got around to reading this opus. As a work it is now over 30 years old – several epochs ago in the history of social science (or at least, should be) – the question is does it hold up? The answer, I’m afrai Being a former Anthropology student I have seen this book referred to in slightly reverent tones. It is perceived to be THE work of Marxism within Anthropology, something to which nobody interested in the subject or the theory can go without reading. Now after quite a while away I have finally got around to reading this opus. As a work it is now over 30 years old – several epochs ago in the history of social science (or at least, should be) – the question is does it hold up? The answer, I’m afraid, is no. In its theory and conceptions the book is all kinds of flawed, a window into a different intellectual age when materialism could still be held by serious commentators as unifying paradigm for the social and political sciences. No doubt there are still materialists floating around, eagerly jotting down their thoughts for submission to the New Left Review, but as time and events go onwards its explanatory power becomes less and less. For like the materialists in general, this book’s problem is also its virtue – its globe scope, its lack of intellectual parochialism, its ambition and its attempt to explain the long sweep of history in a genuinely systematic way. It may be flawed but it remains a book to read and talk about and some of its insights – while now mainstream in academia – are still important and vital. Wolf’s book was written in the context of debates on the nature of modernization and the naïve modernization theory that was widespread in American social science of the era. This involved a progressive schema which rated societies from most primitive to most advanced with the implication that all societies go through these phases before reaching the end point. Inspired by world systems theory, Wolf knocks this down perfectly by focusing on the relationship between societies as they have developed since the fifteenth century. Rather, he argues not totally unpersuasively, than developed and undeveloped being states that describe particular societies they should be seen as a creation of historical process of dominance and exploitation and the creation of one led to the creation of the other. Societies, in Wolf’s view, are historical processes in action with overlapping boundaries and not static entities. We can’t say where ‘The Cherokee’ begin and ‘The Seminole’ end for all were interlapping due to trade, commerce, and the process of imperialism. He expands this historical model not only to explain relative ‘development’ but also cultural changes within society. While it is true that no society is an island and this is important for analysis, it is here where Wolf’s theories totally fall down. The book is divided into three sections. The first lays out the main theoretical framework and discusses the world before Colombus. The second, the most empirical, gives four examples of the influence of the European World on the rest of the world in the Early Modern period – where ‘the people without history’ lived - via exchange and conquest. The four examples are the Iberians in America, the North American Fur trade, the African slave trade and European traders in East Asia before 1800. In all four cases he shows well that the native peoples of these parts of the world were not passive participants in processes dominated by Europeans but active participants in events and helped shape the eventual outcomes while they themselves were being shaped by the Europeans. When Wolf is empirical, as he is the second section, he is at his strongest. Unfortunately the 3rd section goes into the 19th and 20th Century and tells the story of ‘the rise of Capitalism’. Like so many in this debate he is determined to find when Capitalism began – he belonged to the 19th Century camp (when, oh when will you people learn?) and seeing as the agent in the division of the world economy into core and peripheral sections, but here there are many gaps and would need a book in itself to be more convincing. He is also too attached to the Marxian concept of the Mode of Production, dividing all his societies under study into three types – ‘Capitalist’, ‘Tributary’, and ‘Kin-based’. This describes how societies are organized to produce goods for human consumption with the first of those eventually subsuming the rest. While he lays out the difference between the three in great detail it is hard to credit, as someone who has read a fair bit of Early Modern economic history, that capitalism merely emerged from tributary relations and industrialism. As if the idea of money making money via capital is a recent phenomenon. He also fails to discuss any ‘capitalist’ type developments from the point of view of the ‘people without history’ of which there were more than seems to be supposed. Finally, Wolf’s holds his econo-centric model to explain the cultural changes seen by all the societies he studies. Yet he maintains a very materialist and functionalist view of culture seeing it as nearly an epiphenomenon of social structure. Religion is only discussed in the context of power relations and exchange as if those things explain ritual. Intellectual history or the cultural functions of trade goods are mostly ignored. Everything is analysed in a way trying to explain what a ritual or practice was for within a cultural system, there is little room for agency, psychology or a cognitive idea of culture here. Furthermore, in his conclusion, Wolf explicitly states that ideas – hinting strongly at nationalism and political ideologies – are the creation of vast systemic forces especially those created by the rise of capitalism. He provides little evidence for this and is historically dubious – although still widely thought in many parts of the world. Lastly and in the best traditions of Marxist social science c.1980 he decides to make a few predictions – he sees the rise of a new global proletariat in Asia but not the Tiger economies, nor does he identify any of the major economic trends since 1980 perhaps because he was too attached to the Marxist notion of equating development and wealth with production. Yet despite my criticisms here I did enjoy reading the book and does give a lot for the reader to chew on. His important insights are still worth remembering when we still speak of ‘undeveloped’ and ‘developed’ societies (although Wolf’s vision here is very pessimistic) and some of the notions about ‘primitive’ societies that still bound around the ether. The middle chapters are also excellent for their historical synthesis and his ability to quickly move between different parts of the world while retaining the same explanatory framework. For a social science book, it is not terribly written (talk about faint praise!) and is quite clear and straightforward despite the occasional outbreaks into terminology. Yet still it is an aged work, representative of an era now hopefully long past.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Griffin MB

    a good and surprisingly little-referenced world history that takes a decidedly non-eurocentric, quasi-world-systems approach. Wolf is more traditionally marxist, tho, and comes out to bat for Mandel's theory of capitalism against Wallerstein. he could be accused of working with a light touch here and Michael Taussig has (quite sardonically and funnily) pointed out that Wolf's language is oddly Hegelian, suggesting teleologies of history and independent movements of commodities. that's like the c a good and surprisingly little-referenced world history that takes a decidedly non-eurocentric, quasi-world-systems approach. Wolf is more traditionally marxist, tho, and comes out to bat for Mandel's theory of capitalism against Wallerstein. he could be accused of working with a light touch here and Michael Taussig has (quite sardonically and funnily) pointed out that Wolf's language is oddly Hegelian, suggesting teleologies of history and independent movements of commodities. that's like the classic marxist-on-marxist burn, i guess--"no, YOU fetishize commodities". but the merits: - good, if a bit scattered and partial world history, written by an anthropologist (which brings a pleasantly humanist character to it, and also brings some fresh insights to some of the far-flung precapitalist societies that other Marxists just substitute Rousseau for). - useful rethinking of modes of production--his use of the anthropologist-buzzword "kin" is confusing at first but ultimately becomes a more satisfactory term for "primitive communism". similarly, his concept of the "tributary mode of production" does a nice job of creating a sufficiently general category for all the non-capitalist, state-oriented, surplus-generating, surplus-stealing modes of production. one could easily jump in here with the Hegelian sledgehammer to determine this as a one-sided abstraction but it at least does the work of decentering the shaky concept of "feudalism" and of disavowing anachronistic, Eurocentric comparisons of, say, ancient China or India with feudalism that postdates it by thousands of years. this conception, which exists in Marx but which was popularized as an alternative to the "slave mode of production" or [ick] "Oriental mode of production" by Samir Amin. John Haldon, Jairus Banaji and Chris Wickham, all serious and non-dogmatic Marxist historians, have come to engage with it seriously, which makes Wolf's book more lasting. - an important insistence on the centrality of slavery to early capitalist production (missing from Eurocentric conceptions of slavery, as well as dogmatically Marxist ones which see it as either being "non-capitalist" or as simply being articulted within capitalism while remaining somehow separate or only formally subsumed). - due diligence to the wealth of pre-capitalist societies, especially non-European ones. - great endnotes that also include some smart deconstructions of Althusser and also help the reader get a better handle on the arguments behind the occasionally sweeping-narrative/Gibbons-y tone. well worth a read alongside Wallerstein.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Alex Shams

    This is an amazing book that offers a incredibly in-depth, detailed global history since 1400 that take seriously how colonialism and capitalism transformed societies worldwide. Instead of offering histories that begin with "European arrival," Wolf examines how previously-existing societies negotiated these invasions and were transformed as a result, long before Europeans even began stepping on land and attempting to control these societies directly. He then follows how these relationships play This is an amazing book that offers a incredibly in-depth, detailed global history since 1400 that take seriously how colonialism and capitalism transformed societies worldwide. Instead of offering histories that begin with "European arrival," Wolf examines how previously-existing societies negotiated these invasions and were transformed as a result, long before Europeans even began stepping on land and attempting to control these societies directly. He then follows how these relationships play out in the centuries that followed. It was extremely interesting to be able to go step by step, continent by continent, and watch these dynamics unfolding worldwide over 600 years, and it helped me connect the dots between a lot of phenomena I'm familiar with and to recognize why similar things seemed to be happening in a lot of places around the same times. His attentiveness to the emergence of capitalism draws all the pieces together, highlighting just how fundamental the search for wealth and capital was to European colonialism (and how it doesn't really make sense without it).

  5. 4 out of 5

    Vera

    Just brilliant! A mind-blowing book, that focuses on how the expansion of European societies not only affected those societies that Europeans encountered in their expansion, but also the effect upon those European societies themselves. It asserts that non-European peoples were active participants in the progress of history, rather than static, unchanging cultures. The assumption that these 'others' are from unchanging cultures, and are left out of Eurocentric historical narratives is why they ar Just brilliant! A mind-blowing book, that focuses on how the expansion of European societies not only affected those societies that Europeans encountered in their expansion, but also the effect upon those European societies themselves. It asserts that non-European peoples were active participants in the progress of history, rather than static, unchanging cultures. The assumption that these 'others' are from unchanging cultures, and are left out of Eurocentric historical narratives is why they are referred to as 'people without history'. The "People Without History" also refers to those peoples of whom their cultures lack a formally written articulation of their histories hindering their inclusion in 'Western' historical narratives.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Eric

    Certainly one of the greatest academic texts of all time and maybe a candidate for one of the best non-fiction books period.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Lindsey

    Although there are parts of this book that move more than slow, it is one of my favorite history books of all times. (I'll admit I skimmed a few chapters here and there). It takes the role of telling history in a completely different way- by proposing new ideas as to what history is exactly and what role we as individuals play in it. More than his writing I loved Wolf's ideas and approach. He tries to tell the story of people traditionally forgotten in history- and he makes you feel attached and Although there are parts of this book that move more than slow, it is one of my favorite history books of all times. (I'll admit I skimmed a few chapters here and there). It takes the role of telling history in a completely different way- by proposing new ideas as to what history is exactly and what role we as individuals play in it. More than his writing I loved Wolf's ideas and approach. He tries to tell the story of people traditionally forgotten in history- and he makes you feel attached and aware of the history you are a part of as well.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Naeem

    This is a prize winning book that opened the doors for all the anti-eurocentric books that came after. A stupendously good book that ends way to early -- in 1870.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    Probably not worth your time. This titanic tome is very well-researched, and the writing isn't bad, but I don't feel like the author said anything remarkable or interesting.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Ryan

    This book should be titled “Europe and the history without people”. It is a protracted screed of social science theories and a history of the world told from the perspective of an iron pot being traded for a beaver fur. The whole thing is an argument against social science types writing history. Wolf dumps data on you like it’s going out of style and doesn’t contextualize most of it in any way that is meaningful. It is simply not a revelation that human societies are interconnected, that the nat This book should be titled “Europe and the history without people”. It is a protracted screed of social science theories and a history of the world told from the perspective of an iron pot being traded for a beaver fur. The whole thing is an argument against social science types writing history. Wolf dumps data on you like it’s going out of style and doesn’t contextualize most of it in any way that is meaningful. It is simply not a revelation that human societies are interconnected, that the nation state is a construct, and that material culture matters. It also isn’t useful for Wolf to argue for more complexity while endorsing a concept of capitalism that is practically all encompassing.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Lisa Aldridge

    This is one of my favorite books in my library. I appreciate Eric Wolf's research and insights into this topic. because it provides a new perspective, a new way to look at history, people, and cultures, it gives us a new history.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan

    It's been several years since I read this, but every so often I pick it up and re-read a chapter. It's kind of amazing what Wolf did here, an amazing history of the subaltern.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Natalya Suttmiller

    This is a very interesting perspective about the history of colonialism and how the colonizers have left a legacy of how we think about the world's civilized and uncivilized societies of the world. It's an extensive history starting at 1400 AD with trade routes, and explains how the change of production led to the formation of capitalism. He focuses on the societies that have not been given a proper acknowledgement in colonial history and defines three modes of production. This is a very informa This is a very interesting perspective about the history of colonialism and how the colonizers have left a legacy of how we think about the world's civilized and uncivilized societies of the world. It's an extensive history starting at 1400 AD with trade routes, and explains how the change of production led to the formation of capitalism. He focuses on the societies that have not been given a proper acknowledgement in colonial history and defines three modes of production. This is a very informative anthropological read about the history of the people who were never really mentioned in our current understanding of how our economic systems functions as it does today.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Ann

    Over the past four weeks I have looked at various theoretical perspectives (neo-evolutionism, cultural ecology, cultural evolutionism, and cultural materialism) that lie within a larger materialist framework; in reading the principal works of White, Steward, Service, Fried, Rappaport and Harris, I have been exposed to a variety of ways in which the materialist paradigm has been operationalized within the realms of American anthropological theory and practice. A common thread in these works is an Over the past four weeks I have looked at various theoretical perspectives (neo-evolutionism, cultural ecology, cultural evolutionism, and cultural materialism) that lie within a larger materialist framework; in reading the principal works of White, Steward, Service, Fried, Rappaport and Harris, I have been exposed to a variety of ways in which the materialist paradigm has been operationalized within the realms of American anthropological theory and practice. A common thread in these works is an overarching attempt to understand the dynamic interplay between the infrastructure, structure, and superstructure that keeps people alive, holds society together, and gives life meaning. Continuing in this same vein, Europe and the People without History demonstrates a Marxist materialist theoretical perspective; Wolf takes a dialectical and historical approach to political economy by examining how capitalism developed and how this development effected various populations throughout the world. In Europe and the People without History, Wolf looks at how protracted historical sequences, originating out of 15th Century European economic expansion, have resulted in the world sharing a single and highly interconnected system of political economy. In the first section of his book, Wolf puts forth three modes of production: kin mode, tributary mode, and capitalist mode; he uses these abstractions as a means to analyze and make comparisons about vast expanses of time and space, which he reviews in later sections of his book. Differentiating himself from other materialist anthropologists, Wolf uses these modes, not as “types into which human societies may be sorted nor stages in cultural evolution,” but merely as constructs that allow for a deeper understanding of the strategic connection of wealth and power. (Wolf 2010: 100) Part two of Wolf’s book is aptly entitled “In Search of Wealth;” over the course of four chapters he analyzes the mercantile era by presenting the impacts of Iberians in America, the fur trade, the slave trade, and trade and conquest in the Orient. Wolf’s chapter on the fur trade is highly impactful; he is able to show that the Iroquoian kinship state, the emergence of Plains horse-pastoralism, and transfigurations in the potlatch are all linked to the recreation of cultural patterns of alliance and conflict caused by growth and territorial expansion of the fur trade. In section three Wolf examines the primary motive behind European expansion (capitalism) by providing an in-depth analysis of the industrial era. Drawing from Ernest Mandel, Wolf explains the capitalist system to be “an articulated system of capitalist, semi-capitalism and pre-capitalist relations of production, linked to each other by capitalist relations of exchange and dominated by the capitalist world markets.” (Wolf 2010: 297) Over the course of four chapters Wolf discusses aspects of the Industrial Revolution (mechanization, factories, brokers, Indian removal, railroad construction and shipping), crisis in capitalism (transition from home-based crafts to mechanization), differentiation in capitalism (formation of the state), commercial agriculture (plantations and cash cropping), new commodity production (wheat, rice, meat, bananas, rubber, tea, coffee, cotton, sugar, opium, gold and diamonds), and labor migration (international migrations of masses of people). In the introduction of his book Wolf put forth the central assertion that “the world of humankind constitutes a manifold, a totality of interconnected processes, and inquiries that disassemble this totality into bits and then fail to reassemble it falsify reality” (Wolf 2010: 3) Wolf references this assertion by stating, in the brief Afterward, that in order for anthropology to work a revised concept of culture needs to be put forth; Wolf explains that anthropologists need to see humans as determinate actors, controlled by determinative circumstances, and that the actions of these actors is to forever assemble, disassemble, and reassemble cultural sets. This highly deterministic view is one of the major criticisms I have with Wolf’s work. This determinism is pervasive throughout his entire book, but stands out particularly in the last chapter, in which Wolf discusses the migration of people, such as the Chinese to mining operations in California, British Columbia and Australia. Wolf’s treatment of the movement of people comes across as if he views them as another type of commodity; little thought is given to the agency of individuals as determiners of their own movements around the globe. I found Wolf’s choice to use modes of production as a heuristic device truly insightful; it enabled him to formulate a single narrative in which he could discuss the dynamic nature of political and economic structures throughout the world. Overall, I am truly impressed with the vast expanse of time and space that Wolf packs into this work. I can absolutely see operationalizing this dialectical and historical meld of Marxist thought within the field of historical archaeology; this approach allows archaeologists to move past the oppositional frameworks of science and humanism and determinism and relativism, and on to dialectical approaches, which allow for a more dynamic analysis of culture change.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Meegan

    I had to read this for a cultural anthropology class, which means I didn't read it as thoroughly as I should have. What I did read was interesting! Maybe one day I will find the time to read it in its entirety.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Meaghan Murray

    I don’t think I’m the particular audience Wolf was looking for. But I had to read this book for my Anthropology class so it was required to read. But I really do like the different case studies as well as the overall meaning of this book.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Rita

    Bestseller about peoples under European expansion. See also Ethan MARK

  18. 5 out of 5

    Ayman Fadel

    Link to some notes I took on book at my blog https://aymplaying.wordpress.com/2020... Link to some notes I took on book at my blog https://aymplaying.wordpress.com/2020...

  19. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

    An anthropological masterpiece and the greatest of the discipline's forays into political economy. EATPWH is as close as you can get to a breezy synoptic history of the global economy during the last six hundred years. Its well-constructed Marxian framework is illuminating, and Wolf makes a compelling case for centering modes of production and their connections (and conflicts) when examining the development of capitalism. Erudite and engaging--this is some of the best anthropology has to offer.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Aldon Rau

    When I picked up this book from the shelf the other day, I got an odd reaction from the adults in the vicinity. My grandfather seemed adamant that it was not appropriate for me; whereas my mother seemed to find my choice acceptable. I doubt my first amendment rights were foremost in her mind, however; her first priority was most likely preventing me from noticing that the dishwasher door was open. Although eventually I did notice, I first spent several minutes perusing this book in my favorite r When I picked up this book from the shelf the other day, I got an odd reaction from the adults in the vicinity. My grandfather seemed adamant that it was not appropriate for me; whereas my mother seemed to find my choice acceptable. I doubt my first amendment rights were foremost in her mind, however; her first priority was most likely preventing me from noticing that the dishwasher door was open. Although eventually I did notice, I first spent several minutes perusing this book in my favorite reading spot...a specter is haunting the area under our dining room table (apologies to Derrida).

  21. 5 out of 5

    Mckinley

    Well written, well researched, well developed. Important work on history that those interested in history, culture, sociology, anthropology would be better off reading. So many ideas-themes came together for me. I will be thinking about this book and redefining/restructuring my thoughts for some time to come.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    This book was foundational in companion with Ariadne's Thread in my comprehension of world history and helped me make sense of why the world is as it is ecologically, economically, and culturally. A big read.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Xarah

    Boy was this book DENSE! DENSE I tell you, DENSE! I reckon I got something out of it, but it was just so thick and fact-filled that having to read it in less than a month really didn't allow for much time to fully absorb Wolf's arguments and ideas. DENSE!

  24. 5 out of 5

    Martin

    Excellent, challenging book that attempts to explain the interconnectedness of the world's people after 1400 using the Marxist labor theory of value and "long waves of capitalist development." Full review to come. Thanks, Naeem.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Ike

    Changed my world view. Which, granted, may have been narrow.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Jane

    I learned so much from this book. I read it for a class to get a better understanding of the origins of capitalism as it relates to imperialism. It's very accessible and packed full of information.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Amanda Mecke

    This book turns your head around about who discovered what. Imagine Italy without tomato sauce!

  28. 4 out of 5

    Joanne Payton

    An incredibly important book.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Petter Nordal

    This is a great book, showing that history is not what happened, but the written, published and disseminated account of what happened.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Tanya

    As far as academic books go, this one is excellent. An interesting theoretical exploration of "history".

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