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Anthropology and History

For more information contact

Director of Graduate Studies
Box 90719
Duke University
Durham, NC 27708

General Information

Degree offered:
Application Deadlines

Program Description

For several decades, historians have been turning to cultural anthropology, and anthropologists to history, for methodological guidance. By now a relatively large number of historians and anthropologists work within a shared framework, asking similar questions, and seeking answers to these questions from similar kinds of evidence. In both disciplines, it is widely understood that cultural diversity and cultural change cannot be accounted for either by the traditional narrative techniques of historians or by the traditional ethnographic descriptions of anthropologists. Instead, historians realize they must look beyond action, intention, and event, to underlying patterns, unspoken presuppositions, institutional and discursive structures. Anthropologists realize that kinship, ritual, social role, discourse, and belief are all subject to improvisation, contestation, politicization, and thus to change. Scholars in both disciplines have looked to practice theory, as developed by Bourdieu, Giddens, Ortner, and Sewell; to postcolonial studies, as developed by Stoler, Dirks, Spivak, Das, and Burton ; to performance theory, as developed by Sahlins, Butler, Sedgwick; and to other, related approaches.

Drawing on these streams of theory, anthropologists and historians strive to come to grips with the full implications of cultural diversity and change. The challenge is to understand what all actors in a given context consciously know and intend as well as what they unconsciously take for granted, what they do on purpose and what they do without reflection, and to see how action and conflict have both intended and unintended consequences. One goal of such research is a new kind of total history, of the kind the Comaroffs have attempted for South Africa. Another goal is the recovery of forgotten or suppressed pathways to meaning of the kind rescued from oblivion by recent work on indigenous sexuality in colonial Mexico or Spanish judicial repression in colonial Peru. Still another is the exploration of historical change in “affect,” the seemingly automatic responses to situations that often encode cultural assumptions and set the parameters of meaning and action. Still another is the extension of ethnographic understandings to the materials of Western history, and the history of anthropology itself.

Collaboration between faculty of the History and Cultural Anthropology departments at Duke has been active since the 1980s. Numerous cross-listed graduate seminars and joint work on graduate preliminary examination committees and dissertation defense committees have testified to the vital role of this collaboration for graduate training over the years.

We have now formalized this collaboration with a certificate program to ensure that students who wish to draw on the other discipline gain familiarity with the joint methods of both disciplines in a more systematic way. Students will also receive a tangible token in recognition of their accomplishments.

Students enrolled in the Ph.D. programs of either Cultural Anthropology or History wishing to earn a certificate in Anthropology and History must designate a mentor from among the affiliated faculty of the certificate program. With their mentors, students will draw up a coherent program of study leading to the certificate. Each student's program of study must include:

  • The core graduate seminar, a two semester sequence that begins with  “Anthropology and History,” and concludes with a research seminar in which students prepare and present their own papers.
  • Participation, when in residence, in an Anthropology and History colloquium that will be organized by the affiliated faculty and the students.
  • Presentation of one's own work at the colloquium at least once, most commonly during the writing phase of the dissertation.
  • At least two other courses in the non~degree department.
  • A capstone research paper (in history, this may be a part of the student's portfolio).
  • A preliminary examination field in the non~degree discipline
  • A dissertation prospectus that draws on the joint interests of historians and anthropologists.
  • At least one member of the dissertation defense committee from the non-degree department.
  • Monitoring of student progress will be carried out by the Director of Graduate Studies in each department. They will be assisted by one member of the affiliated faculty from each department—initially William Reddy and Irene Silverblatt—who will review each student's dossier at least once a year.

Ph.D. students in other Duke departments and programs may also earn a Certificate in Anthropology and History; for details, see