0.178: The Social Production of Science and Anthropology as Knowledge for Domination

Posted on November 26, 2009 by

The intellectual heritage of European expansion that we inherit as anthropologists – certainly not without modification and criticism – is again the subject in this series. If Immanuel Wallerstein explained which agendas became dominant with the institutionalization of the social sciences, with some notes on why they became dominant, Pierre Bourdieu provides some explanation as to how they became dominant.

What Science?

One of the recurring features of some comments, on this and other blogs, surrounding anthropologists’ criticisms of the Human Terrain System, has been that we critics are not being “scientific” and “objective,” but rather “ideological” and “biased.” As I have held throughout, the dichotomy is an extremely crude and simplistic one. Now we will see how we can take that further: the dichotomy itself is pure artifice, the by product of low grade propaganda that has been popularly consumed in North America, based on views of science that very few even in the natural sciences would any longer dare to defend. The idea that anthropology should be “scientific” and “objective” is also derivative of the Eurocentric foundations of anthropology, as was discussed in previous posts in this series.

The Domination of “Scientific Reason”

As with the opening quote on the “cultural imperialism” of universalism in the last post, Pierre Bourdieu had a similar line of argument on the topic of scientific reason, reminding us that “reason, which thinks itself free from history, also has a history” (Bourdieu, 1991, p. 4). Stating matters more loosely, one can think of Bourdieu as placing scientific production within the context of academic politics:

“Even in the ‘pure’ universe where the ‘purest’ science is produced and reproduced, that science is in some respects a social field like all others–with its relations of force, its powers, its struggles and profits, its generic mechanisms such as those that regulate the selection of newcomers or the competition between the various producers. (Bourdieu, 1991, p. 5)

Scientific production is neither disconnected from the wider society in which it occurs, but it is also not totally reflective of it either. What Bourdieu draws attention to is the quest for authority in science, which is like a game, with established rules, and with competition. What he rightly dispels is the simplistic, popular notion that the science we know, and its products, are there simply because scientific production is true, objective, correct, and proven, without competition from rivals.

The capital of social authority that is influential in science, is capital “which rests upon delegation from an institution, most often the educational system” (Bourdieu, 1991, p. 7). Scientific success can, with time, be converted into social success, in heightening the profile of the university for example, or a unit within it. With more success, and the enhanced profile of the institution, it can happen that an institution acquires status as a leader, as a “prestigious institution,” so that in the future that fact will play a role in judgments of the merits of the science that institution produces – and of course, that does not mean that what is actually produced is entirely and solely deemed important on the basis of abstract scientific principles alone. What Bourdieu calls “strictly scientific authority” (derived from peer reviewers attesting to the legitimacy of solutions to problems that are also held to be legitimate) can also be converted into social authority, and that can impact on the science that is actually produced:

“Strictly scientific authority tends to convert itself, over time, into a social authority capable of opposing the assertion of a new scientific authority. Further, social authority within the scientific field tends to become legitimized by presenting itself as pure technical reason, and also the recognized signs of statutory authority modify the social perception of strictly technical ability.” (Bourdieu, 1991, p. 7)

Part of the reason for this is the fact that membership within the scientific community is predicated on learning, and becoming familiar with, the way knowledge is orchestrated, so that certain problems are defined as true, and others as false, some knowledge is authentically scientific, and other knowledge is fake science, that some methods are legitimate and others are not (Bourdieu, 1991, p. 8). Bourdieu speaks here of a very fundamental form of censorship that plays out in the minds of both orthodox and heterodox adversaries in a scientific game, where both agree to certain rules and schemes, having learned them, internalized them, and now utilize them with little conscious thought (1991, p. 9).

Going further, Bourdieu argues that every “scientific choice” — whether it is a choice of research area, a choice of methods, a choice of where to publish, or when to publish (or whether to quickly publish partially verified results) – is a choice that cannot be understood apart from the relationship between the dispositions acquired by a researcher as a member of a scientific community, and that researcher’s position within the scientific field (Bourdieu, 1991, pp. 9-10). Attention is then drawn to how dominance is achieved in a field, how choices are restricted, and how scientific actors are unevenly endowed with resources accumulated from the past. In addition, Bourdieu argues, the science that is done, and how it is conceived, is itself a product of power:

“Stated more concretely, they [scientific actors] try to impose the definition of science that best conforms to their specific interest, that is, the one best suited to preserving or increasing their specific capital.” (Bourdieu, 1991, p. 13)

Applied Knowledge: Playing the Game of Power

There is a demand for the “applied techniques of rule or instruments of legitimation” so that the requirements for the social reproduction of the powerful can be better assured (Bourdieu, 1991, p. 19). In facing the powerful that rule society, scientists can take different routes, and what happens here is by no means “purely scientific” – one finds it just as easily in the fields of literary and artistic production.

One route is for scientists to restrict their production to what some now call pure or “basic research,” one that does not cater to any outside market, one that markets only to itself. Another is for scientists to offer their services to the dominant powers. A third route allows scientists to avoid confrontation with their competitors by instead addressing themselves to a broader public of nonprofessionals. From that link with the public, they can derive a form of symbolic power which they can then attempt to bring back into play in the realm of scientific debate itself (Bourdieu, 1991, p. 19). As Bourdieu concludes:

“Claims to scientific validity can no doubt hide claims to symbolic domination, and scientific debates can no doubt conceal, underneath the confrontation between statements and reality, the struggle for power of those who put them forward.” (Bourdieu, 1991, p. 20)

The History of Scientific Reason in Anthropology: The Myth of Primitive Society

The victory of science in the rise of early anthropology was manifested in the “comparative point of view,” a view that, “rests on a recognition that there are physical and cultural differences among human populations which must be taken into account in any attempt to generalize about mankind” (Rowe, 1974, p. 61). Generalizing about humanity meant that humanity first had to be ordered and categorized, in order for there to be a science of humanity. As Rowe explained, “it is anthropology’s recognition of the scientific importance of such differences which chiefly distinguishes it from other disciplines concerned with man and human behavior” (Rowe, 1974, p. 61). It was a science primarily rooted in European expansion, the voyages of discovery, and Renaissance archaeology, a science that demanded perspectival distance in order for difference to be perceived and then “explained” (Rowe, 1974, p. 76).

Demonstrating some of Bourdieu’s propostions above, Adam Kuper (2005) provides us with a short  history of scientific reason in anthropology, noting its contending fields of origin, with the early anthropology of the mid-1800s emerging from law, philosophy, and (speculative) history. As an emergent discipline, anthropology made use of Darwinian evolutionism as capital, even if the appropriation was often superficial. Anthropology’s ancient ape was the idea of a universal, primitive other, the bedrock of all human existence. It is a myth, a “scientifically” validated myth, validated by men who took bits and pieces of the theory of evolution – meaning that the myth has been held by scientific anthropological and social authority as a legitimate answer to what were deemed legitimate questions (within the framework of evolutionism). The problem here is that Kuper appears to rely on the idea that there is a pure science somewhere from which one can criticize those “myths” that are in fact held to be scientific by its upholders. This is not really then about science versus myth, but emergent science versus subsequent science, or, following Bourdieu, between orthodox science and heterodox science.

To begin with, Kuper takes special aim at a construct of cultural evolutionism, whose influence has been pervasive throughout anthropology and multiple forms and theories, that being “primitive society”:

“The whole conception is fundamentally unsound. There is not even a sensible way in which one can specify what a ‘primitive society’ is. The term implies some historical point of reference. It presumably defines a different type of society ancestral to more advanced forms, on the analogy of an evolutionary history of natural species. However, human societies cannot be traced back to a single point of origin. Nor is there any way of reconstituting prehistoric social forms, classifying them, and aligning them in a time series. There are no fossils of social organization.” (Kuper, 2005, p. 5)

Kuper emphasizes that “the history of the theory of primitive society is the history of an illusion. It is our phlogiston, our aether” (Kuper, 2005, p. 10). And why is it that “anthropologists have busied themselves for over a hundred years with the manipulation of a myth” (Kuper, 2005, p. 10)? First, Kuper explains that,

A common way of accounting for the persistence of a myth is to suppose that it has political functions. Certainly the idea of primitive society could and did feed a variety of ideological positions. Among its most celebrated protagonists were Engels, Freud, Durkheim and  Kropotkin, men with very different political programmes.” (Kuper, 2005, p. 10)

Secondly, important political events in the colonial world also impacted on anthropologists’ need to devise certain politically suitable scientific explanations:

“British and American commentators on primitive society were also reacting to a variety of political events. The Morant Bay rebellion in Jamaica, and the Civil War in the United States revived earlier debates on slavery. Arguments about slavery in turn raised the great question whether human beings all had a common origin, or whether the races were separate species, with different ancestors. These issues divided Victorian anthropologists, and they formed two warring associations, the Ethnological Society of London and the Anthropological Society of London. The development of the Indian Empire and the colonisation of Africa raised further fundamental questions, about the nature of government, and of civilisation itself, which were heatedly debated in anthropological circles. In Germany, speculations about national culture and the Volksgeist fed the common belief that societies were based either on blood or on soil, but these romantic ideas were contested by liberal anthropologists in Berlin. In short, while the idea of primitive society was relevant to a number of great political issues, it was not necessarily associated with any one political position.” (Kuper, 2005, pp. 10-11)

On the Anthropological Society of London: Science and Race

Applying elements that we can see in Bourdieu’s approach, with the discussion of the history of the Anthropological Society of London, we can discern the creation of scientific authority, and the importance of social authority, in the invention of anthropology as a science. In 1863, the Anthropological Society of London was formed and “joined the ranks of England’s scientific institutions” (Rainger, 1978, p. 51). As Rainger tells us, that society was founded “with the object of promoting the study of Anthropology in a strictly scientific manner” (1978, p. 51). Unlike its predecessor, the Ethnological Society of London which Rainger claims avoided discussion of religious and political issues, “the Anthropological Society consciously mixed science and politics” (Rainger, 1978, p. 51). In particular, the Anthropological Society’s apparent fixation with race, and its justification of racist policies through racist theories, reflected the influence of the founder and president, Dr. James Hunt. (While Rainger says the ESL avoided politics, the fact remains that it was itself an offshoot of a political organization, the Aborigines Protection Society – see here for more details.)

[You can download a public domain volume of the Journal of the Anthropological Society of London published in 1869, or view it online. There is an excellent comprehensive collection of publications of the Anthropological Society of London that have been digitized by Google, and are all free to download from this page, consisting of The Anthropological Review, The Popular Magazine of Anthropology, and Memoirs Read Before the Anthropological Society of London.]

Hunt’s “personal scientific and institutional ideals” marked the influence he had on the development of the Anthropological Society of London (Rainger, 1978, p. 53), reminding us of Bourdieu’s observation that the struggle for power is imbricated with claims to scientific validity. He imposed his particular scientific definition of anthropology to suit his specific interests, using scientific authority to bolster his social authority. His work in relation to the wider society seems to blend two of Bourdieu’s approaches to applying anthropology, one by providing the supporting rationale for campaigns of conquest, and the other by trying to speak to a broader public in attracting interest to his Society, in its own campaign for primacy. In its explicit “scientific” racism, the ASL was the British counterpart of the American School of Ethnology, a society for which Hunt had obvious respect.

Let us keep in mind that the ASL was not a marginal, fringe organization in the founding of what later become institutional anthropology. Edward Burnett Tylor, who became the first Professor of Anthropology at Oxford, was a foreign secretary for the Anthropological Society of London. (Online, see his Primitive Culture and Anthropology: An Introduction to the Study of Man and Civilization.) Moreover, the ASL and ESL were later fused in what became the Royal Anthropological Institute that we know today, now a professional body for institutional anthropologists, for the most part.

In defining anthropology, Hunt declared that it is,

“the science of the whole nature of Man. With such a meaning it will include nearly the whole circle of sciences. Biology, anatomy, chemistry, natural philosophy, and physiology must all furnish the anthropologist with materials from which he may make his deductions. While Ethnology treats of the history or science of nations or races, we have to deal with the origin and development of humanity. So while Ethnography traces the position and arts of the different races of Man, it is our business to investigate the laws regulating the distribution of mankind.” (Hunt, 1863, p. 2)

With an eye on supplying “practical benefits,” Hunt even proposed an early version of military anthropology:

“How many thousands of our soldiers’ lives would be saved annually if we studied temperament in the selection of men suitable for hot and those for cold climates?” (Hunt, 1863, p. 3)

The luster of science, at the very start of anthropology’s climb toward professional status, and its initial dependence on the good will of the public to achieve its climb, is evident in Hunt’s remarks:

“Let us, then, show that we too can be earnest in our study, as well as the geologists or the astronomers. But let it be known we are as yet only groping in the dark, and know not yet what to study, or hardly what facts we want to get, to found our science. We have not only to found a science of Anthropology, but we have to do what we can to form some anthropologists….We have faith in the thinking public, and know that we shall be supported as long as we keep faith with them.” (Hunt, 1863, p. 19)

What the ASL also achieved, that was enduring in anthropology beyond the life of this particular society, was to imprint the discipline with a belief that indigenous peoples were destined to extinction, either in biological or cultural terms – and now that their expected disappearance is a grand failure, some of us elaborate theories to explain why they should not even be called indigenous (see for example, Kuper, 2003). One small sample of what the ASL published in the extinctionist vein can be found in T. Bendyshe, “On the Extinction of Races,” Journal of the Anthropological Society of London, 1864 (pp. xcix-cxiii). “The higher races are destined to displace the lower,” said a Professor Waitz, quoted by Bendyshe,

“This extinction of the lower races is predestined by nature, and it would thus appear that we must not merely acknowledge the right of the white American to destroy the red man, but perhaps praise him that he has constituted himself the instrument of Providence in carrying out and promoting this law of destruction. The pious manslayer thus enjoys the consolation that he acts according to the laws of nature, which govern the rise and extinction of races.” (quoted in Bendyshe, 1864, p. c)

Museumizing the World: The Luster of Science, the Quest for Capital, and Service to the State

Anthropology as the pre-professional, public practice of a budding science, would succeed in legitimizing itself in part by imposing order on chaos. “Rare, abnormal, bizarre” freaks and curiosities collected by travelers would be stabilized in an ordered scheme of understanding. This is better explained by Jenkins (1994, pp. 242-243):

“In contrast to these fragmentary collections, emerging natural history museums in the late nineteenth century functioned to sort the world systematically into drawers, glass-fronted cases, bottles, and filing cabinets. This represented a shift from delighting in the world’s strange offerings and the appeal of subjective involvement to an attempt to master and control the world’s diversity through new forms of conceptualization….Based on scientific notions of classification, spurred by the Darwinian reorganization of evolutionary theory, and increasingly connected to universities and government surveys, natural history museums abandoned many of the aesthetic and mystical criteria that had previously determined the arrangement of objects. Instead, these museums began to emphasize the summary relationships among objects, the sense that this or that specimen metonymically suggested a larger and coherent whole, and the idea that a general understanding of the world could be inferred adequately by a collection of things removed from their context of origin.”

Some museums mounted public displays, presumably for public education, but also for profit, and either deliberately or indirectly provided a testing ground for an emerging anthropology, as a “proof of concept” program one might say. In Wondrous Difference, a superb book on world’s fairs, ethnographic spectacles, and the rise of visual ethnography, Alison Griffiths details the negotiations that took place between anthropology, popular culture, and commerce in attempting to strike the right balance between education, spectacle, and profit (2002, p. 47). Franz Boas himself, the “founding father” of institutional anthropology in the U.S., was also involved in putting natives on display at the Chicago World’s Fair, the Columbian Exposition, in 1892-1893, his first fieldwork conducted under the auspices of a museum. In the sense of Bourdieu’s three routes to power for scientists, early anthropology was “applied” to begin with, by catering to a broad public as it then began to claim scientific status in search of a permanent home:

“If world’s fairs served to launch the public face of anthropology to a vast popular audience, they also evoked anthropology’s uncomfortable doppel­ganger, popularized exhibits such as ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show’ and other for-profit spectacles that, to the untrained eye, may have looked no different from the officially sanctioned displays of native peoples.” (Griffiths, 2002, p. 47)

Other prominent anthropologists were tied to world’s fairs, such as Harvard’s

“Peabody Museum anthropologist Frederick Ward Putnam…designated director of Department M (which included anthropology) at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and his job involved overseeing exhibits housed in the Anthropology Building (including mannequin life groups, photographs, material artifacts, and anthropometric equipment) as well as the ethnological exhibits and concessions found on the Midway Plaisance.” (Griffiths, 2002, p. 49)

One observer went as far as asserting in 1902 that “World’s fairs are necessary to the proper study of mankind” (Griffiths, 2002, p. 49). To some degree, anthropologists acted as entrepreneurs, seeking the attention of those who would fund them, and provide them with a stable home in a university.

The rhetoric of anthropology was first employed for commercial advantage, while making the public more familiar with the emerging field of anthropology (Griffiths, 2002, p. 48). “Some mid-nineteenth-century museums, such as P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City, were run solely for profit,” Jenkins (1994, p. 243) tells us, “catering to a popular taste for the exotic and curious.” Indeed, P. T. Barnum, the founder of the circus company, put on shows such as the “Congress of Nations” and the “Ethnological Congress” (Griffiths, 2002, p. 55). The early American museums of natural history and ethnology “sought to collect, order, and display objects of the world….part of a general trend to objectify and, hence, dominate on a grand scale the world and its inhabitants” (Jenkins, 1994, p. 243). What Jenkins also notes is that the “search for profit and knowledge…found a similar institutional form” (Jenkins, 1994, p. 243). “Sanctioned by science but designed by commerce, as Griffiths puts it (2002, p. 61), ethnography was a hybrid at the intersection of “scientific research” and popular amusement, producing a spectacle that reinforced white supremacist ideals.

One could develop a genealogy of early institutional forms of anthropology. This would connect early freak shows in London and Paris, to subsequent world’s fairs and commercial ethnographic exhibitions, to museums, and then only lastly, actual departments of anthropology. Likewise, one may find family resemblance in a variety of spectacles:

“Comparable places of spectacle such as zoos, botanical gardens, circuses, temporary or permanent exhibitions staged by missionary societies and museums of natural history, all exhibited other races — other species — and testified to the imperialism of 19th-century nation-states. (Corbey, 1993, p. 338)

Thus a number of studies link social Darwinism with imperialism, nationalism, commerce and science, through the nexus of categorization and display. Jenkins’ approach to this subject links colonialism and classification, science and display, in a discussion of American anthropological practices that developed in the late 19th century. What I took to be his most poignant, summarizing statement from his survey was this:

At stake in the physical arrangement of objects was the relationship between knowledge and power, between an interpretation of the world and the means to justify that interpretation. By offering visible evidence–a ‘theater of proof’–of the natural progress from savagery to barbarism to civilization, for example, museums and expositions linked science with the concerns of American imperialism. In this way, ethnological displays validated the utopian projections of many late-nineteenth-century elites–those who, in concert with federal funding, supported by government surveys, and backed by the prestige of science, produced an interpretation of social reality dependent upon theories of racial development, national progress, and, in some instances, the ultimate disappearance of native peoples.” (Jenkins, 1994, p. 257; emphasis added)

One question we need to ask ourselves is to what extent we have really shed the history of collecting, organizing, and displaying others, both for profit and to buttress our theories of the world. Not even the argument that we no longer put on commercial spectacles in public is a safe one, to the extent that we sell anthropology through our own specialized retail outlets: universities. For others, the way to exhibit ethnography to the paying public is via the ever more popular medium of ethnographic film. (And there is no moral superiority here: I write this as someone who is as much a player as anyone else.)


Bendyshe, T. 1864. “On the Extinction of Races.” Journal of the Anthropological Society of London: xcix-cxiii.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1991. “The Peculiar History of Scientific Reason.” Sociological Forum 6 (1): 3-26.

Corbey, Raymond. 1993. “Ethnographic Showcases, 1870-1930.” Cultural Anthropology, 8 (3): 338-369.

Griffiths, Alison. 2002. Wondrous Difference: Cinema, Anthropology, and Turn-of-the-Century Visual Culture. New York : Columbia University Press. (Ch. 2, “Science and Spectacle: Visualizing the Other at the World’s Fair,” pp. 46-85.)

Hunt, James. 1863. “Introductory Address on the Study of Anthropology.” The Anthropological Review, 1 (1) May: 1-20.

Jenkins, David. 1994. “Object Lessons and Ethnographic Displays: Museum Exhibitions and the Making of American Anthropology.” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 36 (2): 242-270.

Kuper, Adam. 2003. “The Return of the Native”. Current Anthropology, 44 (3): 389-402.

Kuper, Adam. 2005. The Reinvention of Primitive Society: Transformations of a Myth. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge. (Ch. 1, “The Myth of Primitive Society,” 3-19)

Rainger, Ronald. 1978. “Race, Politics, and Science: The Anthropological Society of London in the 1860s.” Victorian Studies, 22 (1): 51-70.

Rowe, John Howland. 1974. “The Renaissance Foundations of Anthropology.” In Regna Darnell, ed., Readings in the History of Anthropology, pp. 61-77. New York: Harper & Row.

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