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Wolfram Dressler and Sally Babidge

The changes in anthropological theory and perspectives on identity and difference can be explored in the context of three major periods of development: the colonial, postcolonial, and postdevelopment periods. In the colonial era, anthropologists drew heavily on the idea of social evolution located in the works of Herbert Spencer, Lewis Henry Morgan, and E.B. Tylor. In their work, lower-order “savages” (i.e., indigenous people) were thought to evolve socioculturally into higher-order, “civilized” Europeans. In the postcolonical period, the wave of independence throughout much of the developing world led social anthropologists to interpret how different groups came to self-identify with people and situations in a relational sense in an emerging postcolonial context. Ethnographers considered how people identified with certain social and cultural characteristics as being contingent upon their shared understanding of these features in relation to group membership and how others perceived such characteristics. Since the 1990s, social anthropologists have considered conceptions of indigeneity and other identity work with greater nuance, focusing on the layered processes that constitute identity. Recent scholarly contributions have considered how and why people have socially constructed their identities through reflections of self, sociopolitical positions, and culture relative to individual and group experiences in society. In particular, three intellectual streams have begun to reconceptualize identity formation: social positioning, articulation, and transnational identity building.


Robert A. Denemark

World system history is a perspective on the global sociopolitical and economic system with a structural, long-term and transdisciplinary nature. The intellectual origins of the study of world system history can be characterized by three general trajectories, beginning with the work of global historians who have worked to write a “history of the world.” Attempts were also made by scholars such as Arnold Toynbee to write global history in terms of “civilizations”. A second pillar of world system history emerged from anthropology, when many historians of the ancient world, anthropologists, and archaeologists denied the importance of long-distance relations, especially those of trade. A third pillar emerged from the social sciences, including political science and sociology. One of the central ideas put forward was that sociopolitical and economic phenomena exhibited wave-like behavior. These various intellectual strands became self-consciously intertwined in the later 1980s and 1990s, when scholars from all of these traditions began to cross disciplinary boundaries and organize their own efforts under the rubric of world system history. This period saw Gunder Frank and Barry K. Gills questioning the value of identifying a uniquely modern system based on a transition to capitalism that was said to have occurred in the West. Frank and Gills introduced the “continuity hypothesis,” which suggests that too much scholarly emphasis has been placed on the search for and elucidation of discontinuities and transitions. World system history faces two important challenges from determinism and indeterminacy, and future research should especially address the implications of the latter.