Open History

2005-07-19

I've been reading Hierarchy, History, and Human Nature by anthropologist Donald E. Brown. The book explores the relationship between the quality of historical writing and the degree of openness in a wide range of societies. Brown argues that all societies experience stratification, but that some societies do so in an open fashion (evidenced by social mobility) whereas in other societies only those from the right families or castes are able to get ahead. In open societies, success depends in large measure on an individual's actions, which gives rise to an interest in history as a repository of facts and interpretations about why certain individuals succeeded in the past and others did not. Individuals in open societies also tend to be interested in biography, realistic portraiture, uniform educational theories, social and political science, predictions about the future (from divination to economics), and philosophies that consider human nature to be fairly uniform across individuals and cultures. By contrast, closed societies tend to favor of myths and legends over historical facts, hagiography over biography, iconography and symbolism over realism, ignorance for some over education for all, religion and ritual over science, racism and classism over humanism or individualism, etc.


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