Monday, June 12, 2006

Burmese history and the historical "fallacy of ethnocentrism"

The Pulitzer prize winning historian David Hackett Fischer in his 1970 book on the logic of writing history Historian's Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historic Thought singles out Burmese history as suffering from severe ethnocentrism. (Fischer is a precise and thorough traditional narrative historian, but was severely criticized by an article in the academic journal "History and Theory".)

Fischer provides a concise definition of the fallacy at issue: "The fallacy of ethnocentrism is committed by a historian who exaggerates the role of his own group in its interactions with other groups.

"A striking example is the historiography of modern Burma...many different national groups interacted in the history of Burma; besides the Burmese, there were Chinese, Indians, British, Americans, Frenchmen, Japanese, and others. Fine Anglocentric books about Burma have been written by Maurice Collis, John S. Furnivall, D.G.E. Hall, and G.E. Harvey, to name but a few of many English and Anglo-Burma authors. Other scholars have produced works on the same subject from an American perspective, notably John L. Christian and John F. Cady--works which tend to over-emphasize the admittedly important role of American missionaries in Burma..."

"There are a few histories of Burma from the Japanese point of view -- Willard Alsbree's "Japan's Role in Southeast Asia" (Cambridge, 1953). Still other accounts are Sinocentric, Indocentric, or Francocentric. Each of these apporaches tends to exaggerate the role of a particular ethnic group in a very complex pattern of multiethnic interaction...Histories of Burma by Burmese scholars and statesmen are beginning to appear in quantity. These works are, if anything, more stridently ethnocentric than those which preceded them. They are painful works of pious devotion to the Burmese people..." , p. 228)

He goes on to praise E.R. Leach's "Political Systems of Highland Burma" (London, 1954) for its "comparative absence of ethnocentrism."

(Note that ethnicity in post-WWII Burma is investigated in depth in a recent paper by Dr. Robert Taylor "Do states make nations? The politics of identity in Myanmar revisited" (Southeast Asia Research, 13, 3, pp. 261-286).)