Anthropology’s Dirty Little Colonial Streak

In good times it might appear to be a minor streak; at other times it is a big, broad swath. The coloniality of anthropology might be something hidden and obscured by the passage of time, perhaps seemingly esoteric; at other times, such as the present, anthropology’s role as an instrument of empire can come back into sharper focus as an inherent problem of a Western way of knowing the world (at other times, anthropology might simply be an amusement of empire). This is of course not meant to paint most, let alone all anthropologists as sinister figures. Yet, we have to admit that imperialism is a significant feature of a “discipline” that was made possible by colonial expansion and where once again anthropologists can find profit from imperialist missions in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq. When this is added to the chorus of voices in anthropology that would like to diminish indigeneity, that disputes the very concept “indigenous,” that refers to the struggles of the colonized for rights in terms of “seeking special rights,” and that lords over indigenous physical remains as if other people’s bodies (specifically colonized bodies) were the natural property of anthropology–then it is no wonder that this “discipline” (the martial severity of this terminology is indicative and fortuituous in this case) continues to be banished from most universities in the “decolonized” world.

It is also no wonder that numerous programs have been spawned in universities that some anthropologists indignantly criticize as attempts to expropriate their discipline’s cherished subject matter, programs such as Cultural Studies, Ethnic Studies, and numerous Native Studies, American Indian Studies, Indigenous Studies, and First Nations Studies programs. Why should native communities receive anthropologists who wish to “study” them when anthropology is still fighting with its own colonial heritage, and when some anthropologists seem to have enlisted in the John Howard School of Anthropology? (I am using the figure of right wing Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, whose aim is to force Aboriginals into the white Australian “mainstream” where nobody is to be deemed different or “special,” no matter how much shorter their lifespans, or how much greater their poverty, or how different their languages and social relations may be, and in spite of the fact that ideas such as “Australia” can be read as synonymous with invasion.)

What prompted this seemingly sudden outburst of critical self-reflection is the growing number of media reports of anthropologists participating in counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. See for example: “Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones,” by David Rohde, in The New York Times, Oct. 5, 2007. Some anthropologists are volunteering to take part in what the American military calls “Human Terrain Teams,” and once again the terminology tells us something: a conceptualization of a “field” as an object of surveillance and occupation. (See a New York Times video on Human Terrain Teams–Cultural Anthropologists in Afghanistan). Beyond this particular issue, it is surprising that anthropologists, myself included, can so easily resort to talking about “fieldwork” with little in the way of conscious examination of the “scientistic” and colonialist connotations of the idea. Indeed, an Australian anthropologist who helped to devise the new military strategy, David Kilcullen, approvingly calls counterinsurgency “armed social science” (see his articles on anthropology and counterinsurgency in the Small Wars Journal). Montgomery McFate, an anthropologist who has advocated “embedding anthropology” in military missions seems to dismiss critics who say this is militarizing anthropology: “we’re really anthropologizing the military.” Wonderful. And what is the military doing “over there” again? Marcus Griffin, who muses on “Of What Use is Anthropology?” defends the participation of anthropologists in these Human Terrain Teams.

It turns out that this latest New York Times article is just the tip of a growing body of information–see for example:

In this climate, and with this historical baggage, anthropologists will have to work even harder (after decades of “decolonizing anthropology”) to challenge the perpetuation of a fairly accurate image of a discipline that is probably the “whitest” (broadly conceived) of all the social sciences in terms of the composition of both its students and faculty. After years of my own complaints at how “unfairly” anthropology was portrayed in some quarters as an Ugly White Colonial discipline, I am tempted to silently acquiesce.

One thought on “Anthropology’s Dirty Little Colonial Streak

  1. I think there are more subtle manifestations of neo-colonial anthropology, in Australia anyhow, where anthropology departments shrink away from cultural studies, postcolonial theory, theories of whiteness and the like. We don’t look so morally upright in mirrors such as these, especially here in a colonial settler state where Indigenous policies are more draconian than ever.

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