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5.0 out of 5 stars
5.0 out of 5 stars

on 11 May 2009
Professor Sir Jack Goody, Fellow of the British Academy, Fellow of the American National Academy of Sciences, Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge, Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, is one of the world's leading anthropologists, specialized particularly in literacy and alphabetism as an anthropological and political economic phenomenon. However, in "The Theft of History", he has written an excellent and courteous refutation of Eurocentric claims in anthropology and cultural history.

"The Theft of History" refers to the way in which the non-European cultures are part of the popular received opinion in the Western world only in the denigrating, false and imperialist manner in which the 19th century colonial historians and anthropologists portrayed them, and that only insofar as they appear in supposed world history at all. This is done in similar manner as in the books of James Blaut, André Gunder Frank, Eric Wolf and so forth, only Goody is less polemical than these and focuses in particular on the cultural aspects. The first part here treads the familiar ground (at least among people who have read this before, not among the general public or even intellectuals!) of refuting Eurocentric feudalism, the 'Asiatic mode of production', Asian backwardness etc.

The rest of the book goes into the cultural-anthropological aspects, which Goody is more unique in talking about in this context. These include but are not limited to the "theft of love" (the claim 'romantic love' was an invention of High Medieval European culture), the "theft of institutions" (universities, charities, city-states as unique to Europe), and the "theft of values" (democracy, individualism, etc. as unique to Europe). Goody with much British understatement does a great job of both spotting and demolishing these claims and assumptions, and in the process is very informative about the cultural exchange between Europe and other parts of the world from very early times on. What is also interesting is that unlike most of the above mentioned authors, he does not particularly contrast Europe with Asia, but rather with Africa (where he did field work) and the Arab world.

Goody does share with Frank the problem of going overboard occasionally in wanting to dismiss useful political economic concepts that have been used Eurocentrically in the past, such as feudalism and capitalism, which throws away the baby with the bath-water. He also occasionally misses the forest for the trees, in focusing too much on the Eurocentric errors (often out of unfamiliarity rather than malice) of otherwise progressive historians without duly acknowledging their good side, such as with Sir Moses Finley/Finkelstein.

But these are minor criticisms. This book is yet another excellent introductory refutation of Eurocentric common conceptions, and due to its particular focus it is especially useful for people of a cultural history or anthropological bent.
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