McGregor on Douglas, 'Across the Great Divide: Journeys in History and Anthropology'

Bronwen Douglas
Russell McGregor

Bronwen Douglas. Across the Great Divide: Journeys in History and Anthropology. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1998. xviii + 358 pp. $52.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-5702-306-4.

Reviewed by Russell McGregor (School of Humanities, James Cook University) Published on H-ANZAU (February, 2000)

Douglas's journeys are certainly no Cook's tours. Rigorously theorised and marked by her self-confessed "obsession for [sic] detail" and "tendency to convolution," they traverse, simultaneously, the ethnohistory of colonial encounters in the western Pacific and the trajectory of her own engagements with historical and anthropological discourses from the 1970s to the 1990s. To help orientate the reader toward the often circuitous travels that lie ahead, she provides a lengthy prelude, setting out in some detail her intellectual and political inspirations and praxis, as well as outlining each of the eight chapters comprising the book. These chapters are arranged into three sections: the first on indigenous leadership in the South Pacific, the second on fighting in New Caledonia and the third on indigenous encounters with Christianity in colonial Melanesia.

In the prelude, aptly entitled "Now into Then: Disciplined Encounters," Douglas retraces her intellectual steps, beginning, interestingly, with Collingwood's Idea of History, through the "severely empiricist, anti-imperialist school of Pacific history" at ANU, on to the "Melbourne Group" of ethnographic historians. Approaching closer to the present, the theoretical engagements become more diverse, ranging from Geertz (whose continuing, if receding, influence on Douglass work seems to me much stronger than the mere two index entries would suggest) and Sahlins to Hayden White and Ranajit Guha. While framed in autobiographical terms, Douglas's account of her intellectual journeying is much more than personal reminiscence. The interdisciplinary encounters and cross-fertilisations to which she refers seem to me characteristic of a generation of scholars coming to maturity after the 1960s, evincing growing disenchantment with conventional disciplinary boundaries and increasing scepticism toward the universalist aspects of Western systems of knowledge.

Douglas's account of her theoretical journeys is perhaps a little too dense at times, though at others her intellectual acuity is matched by clarity of expression. In her illuminating discussion of postcolonialism, relativism and reflexivity (pp.17-21) she writes: "Reflexivity - readiness to scrutinise one's own epistemology and morality as partial, perspectival and political, albeit conscientiously held - is the best defence against uncontrolled relativism, because to be reflexive requires more, rather than less, honesty and rigour. It does not mean that all positions are equally apt, scrupulous, ethical, or credible." This unpretentious reflexivity pervades the entire book, as Douglas constantly probes the epistemological status of her analyses and critiques her own writings, both past and present. It is a tribute to her scholarly sophistication, and perhaps, her humility that she manages this persistent reflexivity without collapsing into the all-too-common postcolonialist pitfalls of self-indulgence or solipsism.

Many of the chapters are substantially revised and expanded versions of articles published elsewhere, the earliest in 1979, the latest in 1996. In fact, the British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data on the verso of the title page gives an additional subtitle - "selected essays, 1979-1994" - that appears nowhere else in my copy of the book. Perhaps it would have been better to position that additional subtitle more prominently, for the book is indeed a selection of essays. As Douglas explains, her personal preference, from both choice and necessity, is for the essay over the monograph and this book makes no pretence of breaking that preference. There are, of course, linkages between the essays, but each remains capable of standing on its own. Linkages are predominantly by means of theoretical exegeses on her own writings - the persistent reflexivity already referred to - and the equally persistent theme of seeking to "explore ways of knowing indigenous pasts and identifying indigenous agency through critical readings of colonial texts."

In terms of recovering a sense of indigenous agency, the three essays in the final section, "Encountering Christianity," are to my mind the most successful. Admittedly, the topic readily lends itself to such a recovery, and the issue of indigenous agency in the processes of conversion, appropriation and transformation of the Christian faith has become something of a staple in recent histories of missionary encounters. Nonetheless, Douglas's sensitive reading of missionary and other contemporary texts is capable of enhancing and extending the existing scholarship. She displays a particular interest in indigenous understandings of the aetiology of the disease epidemics that swept the south Pacific shortly after the arrival of the missionaries in the mid-nineteenth century. Like the missionaries, Islanders interpreted disease in terms of supernatural intervention; engaging with the new, Christian, deity was a necessary strategy for all, whether that engagement be in terms of enthusiastic conversion, resolute opposition or something in between.

Section Two, "Fighting," also comprises three chapters, of which the middle one, "Reading Indigenous Pasts: The 'Wagap Affair' of 1862" is probably the most significant. Douglas herself writes that "In politics, theory and method, this chapter is the pivot on which the whole book turns." While this, I think, overstates the case, the chapter is important for not merely explicating Douglas's theory and method but also demonstrating their mode of application to specific texts. Douglas sets out, in tabular form, slabs of text dealing with the same issue but composed by different commentators in different contexts; for example she juxtaposes missionary representations, administrative representations and ethnographic representations of the New Caledonian leader, Kahoua of Poyes, then carefully unpicks the linguistic strategies in each of the representations. I certainly do not always concur with Douglas's interpretations of the texts holds up for scrutiny; but nor would Douglas expect such concurrence. The point of her discussions is not so much to convince the reader of the correctness of her interpretations as to demonstrate their plausibility and to foreground the epistemological foundations on which they rest.

Across the Great Divide ends with a brief (one and a half page) finale entitled "Whig in the Closet: Past Continuous, Future Perfect?" in which Douglas ruminates on her trope of a discursive journey. A journey, she notes, "is usually not endlessly linear," by which she seems to mean that it is not necessarily unidirectional (surely journeys are in fact linear, however much the line(s) may cross, re-cross and entangle). She notes too that most "physical journeys follow known itineraries or maps to anticipated destinations" - which is true enough except for one kind of journey, the exploratory. Why Douglas did not more thoroughly exploit the metaphor of exploration, rather than journeying, I dont know. "Exploration," after all, signifies an open-ended quest toward goals which are, at most, dimly glimpsed, and this seems to fit well with Douglass own account of her intellectual movements.

But what of her substantive title? Across what great divide? On first seeing the book, I assumed that the title referred to a divide between history and anthropology. But that is hardly a great divide, and in any case has been crossed and re-crossed by scholars too numerous to name.

After reading the book, one is left convinced that there remains a more substantial divide, between realist and reflexive modes of historical/anthropological analysis. Douglas has crossed that divide, into reflexivity but without disparaging the realist mode. Indeed, she still bears its legacy - and that is a strength, not a weakness. She argues persuasively and with an astonishing breadth of knowledge for a reflexive historiography/ethnography that refuses the status of "reality" to any representation, but which recognises that representations provide the only reality to which we can have recourse in revisiting the past.

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Citation: Russell McGregor. Review of Douglas, Bronwen, Across the Great Divide: Journeys in History and Anthropology. H-ANZAU, H-Net Reviews. February, 2000. URL:

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