Diane Lewis: Anthropology and Colonialism

In the opening paragraph to her 1973 article on “Anthropology and Colonialism” (a relatively unique focus for an article, even at that late time), Diane Lewis writes:

ANTHROPOLOGY is in a state of crisis. This is demonstrated in the field and in the classroom by the marked estrangement between anthropologists and the nonwhite people they have traditionally studied. The prospective fieldworker, for example, may find that he is banned by the government or rejected by the intellectuals of the country he seeks to enter; or he may be forced to pose as an economist or sociologist in order to gain acceptance. Frequently he encounters resentment from the group he has chosen to study. A willingness to tolerate the anthropologist has been replaced by outright distrust and suspicion. Finally, when the fieldworker returns home to write and lecture about “his” people, he is increasingly confronted by representatives of the group who challenge the validity of his findings. (Lewis 1973: 581).

This contrasts with an opinion offered recently in Savage Minds, regarding what some think may be the possible damage done by widely publicized relationships between some anthropologists and the US military today in current counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The author, “kerim,” explained her view that “the ‘They will think we are all spies’ argument is specious.” This supposedly specious argument was made very recently in a letter to the editor of The New York Times by one anthropologist:

To the Editor:

As an American on a Fulbright fellowship, I spent the last year conducting anthropological research in Mexico. Invariably, one of the first questions I was asked when I tried to begin an interview was, “Are you here to spy on us?”

Even after full disclosure of my university employment, publications and current research design, I found myself blocked out of some potentially useful interviews. Headlines like “Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones” (front page, Oct. 5) will make future research all the more difficult.

The identification of anthropology with military operations, intelligence gathering and “armed social work” augurs ill for the future of a discipline that studies populations distrustful of power — many of which have had unhappy past experiences with American invasion, occupation or support for corrupt dictatorships.

Anthropologists thus need not be antiwar or skeptical of the Bush administration to oppose the enlistment of anthropologists in counterinsurgency operations. All one needs is a clear view of the discipline’s bottom line.

Roger N. Lancaster
Fairfax, Va., Oct. 5, 2007
The writer is director of the cultural studies doctoral program at George Mason University.

Roger Lancaster is by no means alone. Indeed, even in the relatively docile political environment in which I worked with the Carib Community in Arima, Trinidad, the depth and extent of my probing questions caused more than one person in the beginning to wonder out loud, and repeatedly, if I was somehow connected to the US Embassy or the CIA (despite my being Canadian–“being Canadian” is not the shield that some fearful international travelers think it is). I cannot imagine how much more complicated and suspicion-laden fieldwork in the Middle East would be. And this is leaving aside the fact that in some American Indian and First Nation communities, the anthropologist need not even bother to ask for entry to do research. “Kerim” needs to rethink his/her optimistic assessment. The more important point is that all of this talk about “what will this do to anthropology,” in a situation of colonial war (which is the case in Iraq and Afghanistan), is rather gross self-interest which seems to be otherwise quite cold and indifferent to the plagues being suffered by Iraqis and Afghans. Now that self-interested line of thought is something that should also tarnish the reputation of anthropologists. Before proceeding, let’s read what Marshall Sahlins wrote in an open letter, published also on Savage Minds:

To the Editor:
The report (Oct.11) of the killing of two Iraqi women by hired guns of the State Department whose mission was “to improve local government and democratic institutions” bears an interesting relation to the story of a few days earlier about the collaboration of anthropologists in just such imperious interventions in other peoples’ existence in the interest of extending American power around the world. It seems only pathetic that some anthropologists would criticize their colleagues’ participation in such adventures on grounds of their own disciplinary self-interest, complaining that now they will not be able to do fieldwork because the local people will suspect them of being spies. What about the victims of these militarily-backed intrusions, designed to prescribe how others should organize their lives at the constant risk of losing them? What is as incredible as it is reprehensible is that anthropologists should be engaged in such projects of cultural domination, that is, as willing collaborators in the forceful imposition of American values and governmental forms on people who have long known how to maintain and cherish their own ways of life.

Of course, these collaborating anthropologists have the sense that they are doing good and being good. I am reminded of a cartoon I saw years ago, I think it was in the Saturday Review of Literature, which shows two hooded executioners leaning on their long-handled axes, and one says to the other: “The way I see it, if I didn’t do this, some sonovabitch would get the job.”

Marshall Sahlins

There has been too much talk about the ethics of a given relationship, and not enough about the deep politics of a discipline. Those who wish to cast the issue of current involvements with counter-insurgency as “ethical” problems seem to be really missing the point, which is about the structural politics of a discipline that craves recognition, is always trying to prove its worth, and is constantly on guard for its own interests–precisely the kind of mentality that will always make such a discipline complicit with colonialism.