0.18: Anthropology and the Rise of the Social Sciences within the Structures of Knowledge – Immanuel Wallerstein

Posted on November 11, 2009 by


Professional Knowledge Creation in the World-System

Building an anti-imperialist “anthropology,” plus an anthropology that studies imperialism, and that studies itself as a received invention of imperialism, means much more than just analyzing and questioning how anthropologists served this or that colonial venture. It means totally unthinking anthropology as a social science; more than that, it means totally unthinking social science. For whatever discussions of “decolonizing anthropology” have achieved, this ground was never covered in those discussions.

In the previous posts the discussion was centered on opening questions in a critique of the relationship between anthropology and imperialism, along with questions concerning the terms and concepts that, initially, appear to be central to the debate. Here we focus on the wider intellectual and geopolitical context of anthropology’s institutionalization, and the received baggage of 19th century European social science. In particular, I resort to Immanuel Wallerstein for his analysis of the institutionalization and formalization of the social sciences, and how the very process of institutionalization created the knowledge boundaries, categories, and concepts we use today. Not least among these received conceptual boundaries, fundamental to the division of knowledge into “social sciences,” is the arbitrary construction of “society,” “economics,” and “politics.” Moving beyond the Eurocentrism of the social sciences also means getting past the false divisions in knowledge created by these institutionalized conceptualizations.

The particular works by Immanuel Wallerstein to which I will be referring, or that shape the overall discussion in some way, are:

Wallerstein, Immanuel M. 2006. European Universalism: The Rhetoric of Power. New York: New Press. (Ch. 2, “Can One Be a Non-Orientalist? Essentialist Particularism,” 31-49)

Wallerstein, Immanuel M. 1999. The End of the World As We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (Ch. 11, “Eurocentrism and its Avatars: The Dilemmas of Social Science,” 168-184)

Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences. 1996. Open the Social Sciences: Report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences. Stanford: Stanford University Press. (Ch. 1, “The Historical Construction of the Social Sciences, from the Eighteenth Century to 1945,” 1-32)

Wallerstein, Immanuel M. 1991. Unthinking Social Science: The Limits of Nineteenth-Century Paradigms. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press in association with B. Blackwell. (Ch. 8, “A Comment on Epistemology: What is Africa?” 127-129; Ch. 9, “Does India Exist?” 130-134)

I strongly recommend these for a start. One really cannot “do” or “write” anthropology innocently any more after reflecting on these works.

The Institutionalization of the Social Sciences

In Open the Social Sciences, the Gulbenkian Commission led by Wallerstein, highlighted the main historical trends that led to the institutionalization of knowledge in universities. “The need of the modern state for more exact knowledge on which to base its decisions,” they observe led to the emergence of new, though still uncertain, categories of knowledge already in the 18th century. The university was until then a largely moribund institution, at least since the 16th century, having been too tightly linked with the Church. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, however, the university was largely revived as the primary locus for the creation of knowledge (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 6).

The revival of the university was not actually led primarily by the natural scientists, but rather those who stood to lose most from the development of a hierarchy of a value emerging from the split between science and philosophy (see the “two cultures” below). Instead, it was “historians, classicists, scholars of national literatures…who did most to revive the universities in the course of the nineteenth century, using it as a mechanism to obtain state support for their scholarly work” (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 8). They sought the alliance of natural scientists in promoting the new university structures, in order to profit “from the positive profile of the natural scientists,” and in the process reinforcing the distinction, and the tension, between the humanities/arts and the sciences (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 8).

“The intellectual history of the nineteenth century is marked above all by this disciplinarization and professionalization of knowledge,” the Commission argued, pointing to “the creation of permanent institutional structures designed both to produce new knowledge and to reproduce the producers of knowledge” (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 7).

In the wake of the French Revolution, and especially in Great Britain and France, the pressure for political and social reorganization were felt strongly by the powers that be. In place of a belief in the “natural order” of things, many now recognized the normalcy of change, and argued that,

the solution lay rather in organizing and rationalizing the social change that now seemed to be inevitable in a world in which the sovereignty of the “people” was fast becoming the norm, no doubt hoping thereby to limit its extent. (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 8).

“But if one were to organize and rationalize social change,” the Commission points out, “one had first of all to study it and understand the rules which governed it” (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 8). Hence the proclaimed need for a “social science.” Social science was charged with developing “systematic, secular knowledge about reality that is somehow validated empirically” (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 2). The classical premise of science at this point was two-fold: one, the Newtonian vision of a symmetry between past and future, and two, Cartesian dualisms of humans and nature, mind and matter, and so forth. Accompanied by notions of progress, and a finite, knowable world, the aim was to “facilitate the explorations and exploitation demanded by progress, and to make practical and realizable Western aspirations to dominion” (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 4). Exploration, exploitation, and rapid social change, all pointed to the need to investigate order, and for that Newtonian physics offered the most useful support.

It was especially in the period from 1850 to 1914, when we witness a university boom in Europe, North America, and Australia, with many new universities being founded in that very period, that we also see the disciplinarization of knowledge in the form of the social sciences as we know them today (Gulbenkian, 1996, pp. 12-13). The five primary social sciences were history, economics, political science, sociology, and anthropology. Owing to the struggle between science and philosophy, and the social prestige of science, the primary emphases of these “social sciences” were the “emphasis on the existence of a real world that is objective and knowable, the emphasis on empirical evidence, [and] the emphasis on the neutrality of the scholar” (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 15).

Between 1850 and 1945, the new social science disciplines were institutionalized: “This was done by establishing in the principal universities first chairs, then departments offering courses leading to degrees in the discipline” (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 3). “Training” was institutionalized as was “research”: “the creation of journals specialized in each of the disciplines; the construction of associations of scholars along disciplinary lines (first national, then international); the creation of library collections catalogued by disciplines” (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 3). Of course one of the key elements in this institutionalization was for the social sciences to stress the differences between them, what made them unique, and thus what required that a special place be made for them in the new universities. Institutionalization, disciplinarization, expanding world capitalism, and rapid social change thus all combined to create and shape the social sciences as we have known them. Each of these is tied into the others.

The Eurocentrism of Social Science

Wallerstein’s core argument is that the creation of the structures of knowledge, specifically the institutionalization of the social sciences, is a phenomenon that is inextricably linked to the very formation and maturation of the capitalist world system (or what others might loosely, and less comprehensively, refer to as imperialism or capitalist hegemony). There is nothing that is either natural, logical, or accidental about the institutionalization of the social sciences. The structures of knowledge are accepted ways of producing knowledge of the world. In particular, the universalism-particularism dichotomy, and all framings of knowledge that fit within or between that polarity (of especial relevance to anthropology’s intellectual mission, and central to the revival of cosmopolitanism), is part of the intellectual double bind of the capitalist world system (see Wallerstein, 1991, p. 128).

In broad terms, “social science has been Eurocentric throughout its institutional history,” Wallerstein explains, “which means since there have been departments teaching social science within university systems” (1999, p. 168). There should be no surprise here, he adds, since social science “is a product of the modern world-system, and Eurocentrism is constitutive of the geoculture of the modern world” (Wallerstein, 1999, p. 168). In particular, “as an institutional structure, social science originated largely in Europe (Wallerstein, 1999, p. 168).

By “Europe,” Wallerstein means primarily western Europe and North America. One could broaden that, using native studies discourse, to mean Europe and European settler states. Even with that more expansive definition, Wallerstein observes that  “the social science disciplines were in fact overwhelmingly located, at least up to 1945, in just five countries – France, Great Britain, Germany, Italy, and the United States” (1999, p. 168). “Even today,” he continues, “despite the global spread of social science as an activity, the large majority of social scientists worldwide remain Europeans” (Wallerstein, 1999, p. 168). Penetrating deeper, Wallerstein argues that,

Social science emerged in response to European problems, at a point in history when Europe dominated the whole world-system. It was virtually inevitable that its choice of subject matter, its theorizing, its methodology, and its epistemology all reflected the constraints of the crucible within which it was formulated. (Wallerstein, 1999, p. 168)

The Eurocentrism of social science has come under increasingly vigorous attack, especially in the period since 1945 with the formal decolonization of Africa, Asia, and much of the Caribbean, and Wallerstein sees this attack as “fundamentally justified.” Moreover, he argues, that “if social science is to make any progress in the twenty-first century, it must overcome the Eurocentric heritage that has distorted its analyses and its capacity to deal with the problems of the contemporary world” (Wallerstein, 1999, pp. 168-169). To do this, we must understand what constitutes Eurocentrism and its “many avatars” (Wallerstein, 1999, p. 169).

There are at least five distinct yet overlapping ways that social science is Eurocentric, as Wallerstein explains. The Eurocentrism of social science is expressed in “(1) its historiography, (2) the parochiality of its universalism, (3) its assumptions about (Western) civilization, (4) its Orientalism, and (5) its attempts to impose the theory of progress” (Wallerstein, 1999, p. 169).

While “institutionalized social science started as an activity in Europe,” Wallerstein’s argument is about much more than this important historical and cultural recognition. The problem with Eurocentric social science is that it has been “charged with painting a false picture of social reality by misreading, grossly exaggerating, and/or distorting the historical role of Europe, particularly its historical role in the modern world” (Wallerstein, 1999, p. 177). “Whatever Europe did,” Wallerstein affirms, “has been analyzed incorrectly and subjected to inappropriate extrapolations, which have had dangerous consequences for both science and the political world” (1999, p. 178).

The Received Baggage of the 19th Century

The two cultures division is one of the most fundamental bases for the modern world-system’s structures of knowledge. By the “two cultures” Wallerstein is drawing on the work of C.P. Snow, and referring to the division between the sciences and the humanities. “No other historical system has instituted a fundamental divorce between science and philosophy/humanities,” Wallerstein observes (1999, p. 183). It took about three centuries for this rupture to become triumphant in Eurocentric thought, and to become institutionalized. Now that this has taken place, the “two cultures” is “fundamental to the geoculture and forms the basis of our university systems” (Wallerstein, 1999, p. 183).

It is this very split, between the two cultures, that enabled “the modern world to put forward the bizarre concept of the value-neutral specialist, whose objective assessments of reality could form the basis not merely of engineering decisions (in the broadest sense of the term) but of sociopolitical choices as well” (Wallerstein, 1999, p. 183). Indeed, one of the central foundations of the Eurocentric social sciences is this very idea of “objective science”:

The idea that science is over here and sociopolitical decisions are over there is the core concept that sustains Eurocentrism, since the only universalist propositions that have been acceptable are those that are Eurocentric. Any argument that reinforces this separation of the two cultures thus sustains Eurocentrism. If one denies the specificity of the modern world, one has no plausible way of arguing for the reconstruction of knowledge structures, and therefore no plausible way of arriving at intelligent and substantively rational alternatives to the existing world-system. (Wallerstein, 1999, p. 183)

With the split between the two cultures, the alternative to “science” was seemingly plagued by “a lack of internal cohesiveness, which did not help its practitioners plead their cause with the authorities, especially given their seeming inability to offer ‘practical’ results” (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 6). This story should be very familiar to anthropologists, in their drive to create “applied anthropology” and anthropology in the service of military, intelligence, and colonial administration. The opinions of the authorities, especially those promising funding, and demanding practical benefits, have weighed heavily. From early on, “it had begun to be clear that the epistemological struggle over what was legitimate knowledge was no longer a struggle over who would control knowledge about nature (the natural scientists had clearly won exclusive rights to this domain by the eighteenth century) but about who would control knowledge about the human world” (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 6).

One can sum up in this way the key dichotomies that arose from the 19th century institutionalization of the social sciences, dichotomies that are vital to sustaining the Eurocentrism of the social sciences:

  • science versus philosophy/humanities
  • discontinuity-continuity
  • state-centrism in analysis
  • idiographic versus nomothetic
  • determinism versus agency
  • objectivity versus subjectivity
  • politics versus economics

In review:

Anthropology’s Baggage

The Gulbenkian Commission devoted attention to each of the five social sciences. What follows is their description and analysis of the emergence, institutionalization and disciplinarization of anthropology. At the most basic level, the expansion of the modern world-system involved the European encounter and usually conquest of the peoples of the rest of the world. In particular, those people who were organized in social structures that Europeans classed as small, without written records, and not part of a geographically wide ranging religious systems, were classed as “tribes” or “races.” They became the domain of what would later be called anthropology. Anthropology had largely begun as a practice of explorers, travelers, and officials of the colonial services of the European powers, and then subsequently became institutionalized as a university discipline (Gulbenkian, 1996, pp. 20-21).

Anchored within the structures of the university, anthropologists were constrained to maintain the practice of ethnographic fieldwork “within the normative premises of science” (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 21). Some were of course attracted to ideas of a universal natural history of humanity, with assumed stages of development, but their discipline was one pressed into studying particular peoples, requiring a very specific methodology, that of fieldwork. Consumed with the ostensible interest in human difference, and the particulars of non-European modes of being, anthropologists largely adhered to an idiographic epistemology, with some lingering desires for developing nomothetic propositions (Gulbenkian, 1996, p. 22).

Anthropology’s special baggage then – in the preliminary type of analysis offered by the Gulbenkian Commission – was idiographic research, focused on the non-West, and in particular focused on tribes (not the non-Western “high civilizations” that were more the domain of the Orientalists). As we go further, this analysis will be deepened significantly, but it will be useful to remember some of the broad historical forces at work, as presented in this essay.

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