0.20: “Potentially Dangerous Implications for the Practice of Anthropology Today”

Posted on 28 October 2009 by

[This is the first in a descending series of articles that will bring this blog to a close.]

Circle the Wagons!

If the “nativism” that Adam Kuper alleges was spawned by the marriage of American post-modernism and radical political engagement means that only the native can speak for the native, then Kuper will have none of it. More than that, in “Culture, Identity and the Project of a Cosmopolitan Anthropology” (Man, 1994, 29 (3): 537-554), Kuper warns us – anthropologists, to be specific – that nativism is an “obvious challenge.” At risk is the whole anthropological enterprise, and the situation is urgent. We must regroup and reconnoiter.

Kuper’s work serves a useful purpose as a favourite foil of mine, to open my course, Decolonizing Anthropology. The “nativism” Kuper tilts against in his article is one form of an anthropology that rids itself of colonial ambitions to occupy other people’s representational territory, having submitted them to close and intimate inspection and analysis in a manner that echoes the zoological and anatomical precursors of institutionalized anthropology. Some might call it, for greater precision, a “decolonialized” anthropology, as in the colonialists resigning and withdrawing from territories they had settled, rather than a decolonized anthropology which can mean many other things.

While Kuper argues for a “cosmopolitan anthropology” to rescue the collapsing discipline from what he sees as its hostile ethnic critics, he does not mention that for a century the American Anthropological Association had no section for indigenous anthropologists – ironic cosmopolitanism. The American anthropological discipline, built on the backs of Native Americans, finally afforded them a distinct space within the AAA, a century after it was founded. Indigenous anthropologists won approval from the AAA to form a section, on 05 December 2007, with their section now named the “Association of Indigenous Anthropologists.” This development would have possibly complicated matters for Kuper, because what if the allegedly nativist native is also an anthropologist, is anthropology still in danger? And when a native becomes an anthropologist, is this not a concrete example of cosmopolitanism? More to the point perhaps, the formation of the AIA may be too little, too late, as indigenous studies programs have grown and spread across North America, and the AIA is easily rivaled in size and prominence by independent associations such as the Native American & Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA).

Kuper appears to be rather unhappy that there has been any debate about the “authority” of anthropologists to represent others, his intervention thus forming part of a conservative, indeed reactionary, backlash against “post-modernism,” a reaction shared by many anthropologists of all political stripes. In particular, Kuper takes time to emphasize that the debates that have taken place, are American debates:

The recent debates have been dominated by American scholars, and it is necessary to make explicit something they take for granted. The project of anthropology that is in dispute in their work is the American project of cultural anthropology, one quite distinct in the second half of the twentieth century from the dominantly European project of social anthropology. Moreover, the political spirit that often informs it has, again, a distinctively American character. (p. 538)

In order to help him make his case, Kuper then devotes several uninspired pages to reprising the history of American anthropology and the evolution of the culture concept (as if there was not an extreme overabundance of such material already), without ever really making the connection to the nativist threat that trips so many alarms for him. However, as we shall see, even his American premise is in jeopardy.

“Political Correctness”

Kuper thinks he has found a paradox. On the one hand,

The post-modernists preferred the image of a cacophony of voices, commenting upon each other and as they say somewhat mysteriously ironicizing. The ethnographic object is multifaceted, it can only be partially and fleetingly glimpsed from any one perspective, and cannot be analysed. The assertion of objectivity in traditional ethnography had been in reality a display, promoting a claim to authority political as well as intellectual. The rhetorical performance of the ethnographer was a trick, an exercise in persuasion, and the critic’s job was to unmask it. (p. 542)

Yet on the other hand,

There was a kind of truth to which the ethnographer was nevertheless obliged to bear witness: the natives had to be given their unedited say. This prescription was justified by a political argument against domination, and in favour of democratic expression (most explicitly perhaps, in Marcus & Fischer 1986). The ethnographer therefore had the duty to bear witness for the natives, but without imposing an editorial voice. There was increasingly a vogue for ethnographies in which the ethnographer simply acts as a facilitator for a native autobiographer, or for oral histories. The ethnographer is a medium, translating and publishing texts (an enterprise which, interestingly enough, can be traced back to Boas). (p. 542)

Perhaps I do not understand what Kuper means by “paradox.” The definitions of which I am aware emphasize “self-contradictory,” “absurd,” a “false proposition.” I do not see a contradiction here. On the one hand, there is a cacophony of voices, of anthropologists speaking for themselves and about each other…and on the other hand, natives also being “allowed” to speak, or more accurately, acknowledged as doing their own speaking. As no native authority edits the anthropologists, no anthropologist edits the natives. This seems to be balance, not contradiction.

The apparent confusion masks Kuper’s real concern, namely that: anthropologists should resume taking each other’s ethnographies as valid, authoritative accounts, and they should continue to occupy a dominant position where there is any discussion of native people. In an article that preaches the values of cosmopolitanism, Kuper is reviving a monopolist ethic that seizes the terrain for the non-native expert on the natives. Maybe, once again, there is no real contradiction. The cosmopolitanism advocated by Kuper is a familiar one, averse to encouraging radical political involvements: “This is, inevitably, a cosmopolitan project, and one that cannot be bound in the service of any political programme” (p. 551). Without commenting much, Kuper leaves me with the impression that the following is problematic from his standpoint (which is not, of course, any kind of demonstration that the following actually is problematic):

It is the voices struggling to articulate a message of liberation that the ethnographer must strain to hear. The ethnographer should therefore convey the messages of progressive forces to sympathizers abroad. Rosaldo, for instance, advises us to pay particular attention to ‘social criticism made from socially subordinate positions, where one can work more toward mobilizing resistance than persuading the powerful,’ and he cites approvingly as one example of what he has in mind ‘Fanon’s uncompromising rage’.” (p. 543)

I think that such a position, as Rosaldo’s, is a valuable formulation that provides the basis for an engaged, public anthropology, that also opens itself to genuine collaboration with a host of non-anthropologists, and I certainly share his appreciation of Fanon. Kuper, on the other hand, is more ambiguous to say the least, and lest we spend too much time reflecting on this, he returns our attention to what he calls “the nativist challenge.” Again, Kuper performs a valuable service: in telegraphing his calls for emergency assistance, he indicates the presence of bleeding wounds. I wonder how many others smell the blood in the water.

“The Nativist Challenge”

Kuper is aware that indigenous critiques of anthropology were not invented by either post-modernists or politically correct anthropologists:

To be sure, a native protest against metropolitan ethnographers had been articulated long before post-modernism swept into anthropological discourse. African intellectuals – and others – were making a nationalist case against foreign ethnographers, and sometimes against ethnography altogether from the 1960s onwards. (p. 544)

Then it becomes very unclear as to why he spent the first half of his article writing as if nativism was primarily a fabrication of overly sensitive, self-doubting, post-modern Americans.

Kuper also concedes that there was a relationship between anthropology and colonialism:

To begin with, to be the subject of foreign, metropolitan, exoticizing ethnography is equated with the experience of colonialism. Certainly the two did often go together. (p. 544)

This is by no means a major concession – not making it would have been very adventurous, considering the labour that would have been required to write out the history of British anthropologists serving colonial administrations, and American ethnologists and ethnographers serving the causes of scientific racism, westward American expansion, and the administration of captive American Indian populations. Not to mention the presence of anthropological entrepreneurs at freak shows and World Fairs.

Having made these concessions, Kuper returns to a slightly more sarcastic mode: “Everywhere the dominant Westerners do the ethnography, marginalizing the natives, packaging their way of life for exploitation (if only in the economically rather unprofitable business of academic life)” (p. 544). The bracketed comment, I take it, is meant to elicit chuckles at the idea that we can be exploiters, especially if one limits and reduces exploitation to exclusively materialistic appropriation and gain. Unfortunately for Kuper, not even that argument will work, for those of us who have made careers and earned salaries in return for our ethnographic adventures among the natives.

Kuper does a very good job of outlining a number of critical points of view with which he takes issue.


The foreign ethnographer, imprisoned in a culturally-constructed mind-set, cannot truly understand the native, or master the inwardness of the native language. American intellectuals had been told for some time that white people could never appreciate what it meant to be black, that men could not understand women, and that only the ill or disabled could understand those similarly afflicted. Some believed it. Few argued publicly to the contrary. These American gospels penetrated anthropology, and some were led to the conclusion that only the native can understand the native, only the native has the right to study the native. (p. 544)


The nativist can also appropriate the premiss – mysteriously taken for granted in much of the recent literature – that the only reliable knowledge is self-knowledge. The native ethnographer can claim an intuitive understanding of the native. This may be taken to confer a natural and exclusive right to be the spokesperson of all natives. (p. 544)


Some would go further, and argue not only that the native should speak for the native, but that the native ethnographer should address himself or herself not to the foreign scholar but to a native audience; and should, indeed, write up the ethnography in the native language. This would avoid the distorting compromises that result from translation into one of the colonizing, metropolitan languages; and, moreover, would protect the confidences of the family from prying eyes. (p. 544)

In response, what is Kuper’s lead point? “These debates have had consequences for access to the field” (p. 545). He adds, “The seventies spawned a whole library of books about the ways in which anthropology inspired and legitimated colonialism. I am sceptical about some of these historical claims” (p. 545). He understates his skepticism, as we shall see in later posts, and overstates the magnitude of literary production on the subject of anthropology and colonialism.

Researchers versus Ethnicity

The view that only natives should study natives, Kuper asserts, is an absurd orthodoxy. This has “potentially dangerous implications for the practice of anthropology today” (p. 545). We must beware, he says, “lest the question of whom we should study, who should make the study, and how it should be conducted is answered with reference to the ethnic identity of the investigator” (p. 545). Beware, indeed, given that he raises the Nazi specter in his next paragraph.

Kuper does make one surprising concession. Having insisted and repeated that the phenomenon he is attacking, nativism, is American – even if he later mentions that, yes, yes, sure, Africans and what not pioneered the critique – he then tilts against nativism in the Greek academy, after pointing out that nativism dominated Nazi German ethnology, survived in Eastern Europe, and currently flourishes in some universities in contemporary Spain (pp. 545-546). Perhaps the theme here is that “we are all Americans” after all, except that the Nazi phantom Kuper invokes means we are all Nazis too.

Regardless, Kuper does raise very important questions: “We must remember that there are alternative definitions of our project available. What does the process of ethnographic work really involve? Is the ethnographer analysing and composing ‘texts’ that are on a par with literary texts? And who reads the ethnographies, and for what purpose?” (p. 547).

How Does Ethnography Matter?

Having raised these questions, Kupers lead himself, and his readers, down a very interesting path, one with a trap pit for ethnography itself. In a discipline that has flaunted its ethnographic-ness, it is precisely this that Kuper lets fall onto the sharpened stakes in the pit. What anthropologists really contribute that is of value, is not a range of insider perspectives (which he patronizingly calls “folk models”), but rather that which is not developed through any fieldwork at all: “an analytical, historical and comparative perspective” (p. 549):

Folk models serve as ways of thinking and as guides to action, but they do not address the comparative and more abstract project of the ethnographers. (p. 549)

Indeed, like raw materials extracted from colonies and exported to the metropoles, the real production of ethnographic value does not occur in the site where ethnographic research was undertaken:

The ethnography – before and after publication – is subjected to critical, collegial examination by other ethnographers, and also by geographers, historians, economists and so on, themselves engaged in local research and equipped with overlapping and complementary expertise. This is a conversation that today decisively shapes ethnographic production, and, of course, it may often include both local scientists and a variety of foreigners… (p. 549)

Anthropological Cosmopolitanism?

Kuper emphasizes that “ethnographers should write for anthropologists” (p. 551). Leaving aside the fact that this means we must largely confine ourselves to writing journal articles, given that even academic book publishers prefer books that can sell to broader audiences, it raises a troubling realization. While seeking to push aside “ethnic” restrictions, the fact remains that when ethnographers write for anthropologists, those anthropologists are still primarily white, Euro-Americans. Such an anthropology, that arrogates to itself the label “cosmopolitan,” is merely a nativism with universalist pretenses. It is an ironic cosmopolitanism, that defines and defends itself as cosmopolitan precisely by leaving out the native except as a provider of curious folk models to be subjected to the theoretical manipulations of the anthropological expert. The aim is a plain and familiar one: “We should once again address social scientists, and aspire to contribute a comparative dimension to the enlightenment project of a science of human variation in time and space” (p. 552). Kuper’s choice of the word “science” is not accidental: he uses it in opposition to the humanities, and anthropology has no place in the humanities in his view.

But who are the creators of that enlightenment project after all? What happens to anthropology if or when “the natives” say no to being studied by anthropologists? What kind of system would support a profession studying “human variation”?

In the next post, I raise some other questions about anthropology and colonialism, questions that cannot be dispelled by simply re-labeling colonialism as “cosmopolitan.”

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