Anthropology and Colonialism: More from Diane Lewis (1973)

The following are some of the notable passages from Diane Lewis’ article from 1973 which I have marked out for special attention:

Anthropology emerged from the colonial expansion of Europe. Colonialism structured the relationship between anthropologists and the people they studied and had an effect on methodological and conceptual formulations in the discipline. For example, the role of “objective outsider” with its resultant professional exploitation of subject matter can be viewed as an academic manifestation of colonialism. Some of the biases inherent in this role are examined. With the liberation of formerly colonized peoples, the traditional role of the anthropologist has been undermined. This has resulted in an impasse between anthropologists and many of the people they formerly studied. The postcolonial era clearly calls for new roles for anthropologists and a more relevant set of methodologies and concepts. In the search for alternatives, consideration is given to the “native ethnography” of Europe and the insights springing from current educational innovations among Third World people in the United States. In this context, the advantages of a “native anthropology” are examined as one possible alternative.

It is significant that this critical self-examination among anthropologists has appeared concomitantly with the growing self-awareness of nonwhite people (Lewis 1973: 581)
[anthropology shaped and remade by the world in which it exists]

Given the significance of anthropology as a tool in Western man’s search for self-understanding, it was an important methodological assumption that the study of the “primitive” or non-Western world could take place only from the vantage point of the Westerner or outsider. Anthropology, as Lévi-Strauss (1966:126) puts it, “is the science of culture as seen from the outside.” Diamond (1964:433) describes the anthropological process as one whereby “we snap the portrait . . . it is only a representative of our civilization who can, in adequate detail, document the difference, and help create an idea of the primitive which would not ordinarily be constructed by primitives themselves” (Lewis 1973: 582)
[anthropological invention of the “primitive”; objectification as a necessary part of objectivity; externality]

Since anthropology emerged along with the expansion of Europe and the colonization of the non-Western world, anthropologists found themselves participants in the colonial system which organized relationships between Westerners and non-Westerners. It is, perhaps, more than a coincidence that a methodological stance, that of the outsider, and a methodological approach, “objectivity,” developed which in retrospect seem to have been influenced by, and in turn to have supported, the colonial system (Lewis 1973: 582)
[confluence of colonialism and ethnographic methodology]

the conditions responsible for the relationship of inequality between Westerner and non-Westerner were also those which created a need for the anthropologist and assured that the indigenous people would be accessible to him for study (Lewis 1973: 582)
[colonialism made anthropology possible]

Memmi (1967:71) argues that there are three ideological bases of colonial racism: “one, the gulf between the culture of the colonialist and the colonized; two, the exploitation of these differences for the benefit of the colonialist; three, the use of these supposed differences as standards of absolute fact” (Lewis 1973: 583)

First, anthropology has contributed to the gulf between Western and non-Western culture by providing information which supports the mental constructs developed by those in power. Anthropologists, who peer at a culture from the outside, record the differences between that culture and Western civilization. The noting of differences between two groups is not in itself racist, but it invariably acquires such a connotation in the context of colonialism (Lewis 1973: 583-584)
[mental constructs of colonialism in anthropology]

Secondly, anthropologists promote the exploitation of these differences for their own benefit, both personal and professional. This is demonstrated most blatantly in the attitude of most anthropologists that they have the right to exploit the people they study for their own professional advancement, without having a corresponding sense of commitment to them or their needs. They rarely feel the obligation to “do something” and, in fact, justify their inactivity through recourse to the canon of scientific “objectivity” (Lewis 1973: 584)
[detachment, privatizing knowledge]

Galtung (1967:296) finds parallels between the exploitation by social scientists and that by political and economic interests within a colony. He describes the process as scientific colonialism, “a process whereby the center of gravity for the acquisition of knowledge about the nation is located outside the nation itself.” A major aspect of this process (p. 300) is “the idea of unlimited right of access to data of any kind, just as the colonial power felt it had the right to lay its hand on any product of commercial value in the territory…” He finds that the parallel extends from the extraction to the processing of each kind of resource (p. 296):
. . . to export data about the country to one’s own home country for processing into “manufactured” goods, such as books and articles . . . is essentially similar to what happens when raw materials are exported at a low price and reimported as manufactured goods at a very high cost. The most important, most creative, most entrepreneurial, most rewarding and most difficult phases of the process take place abroad. (Lewis 1973: 584)
[Galtung, scientific colonialism, knowledge production]

The primacy of theory building and career advancement at the expense of the real problems of those studied is best seen in the generally low esteem in which applied anthropology is held within the discipline….Thus, even the anthropologist who moves into the applied field finds his work constrained by his preoccupation with the demands of his professional academic career (Lewis 1973: 584)
[prestige of theory; academic context makes applied work difficult]

When the anthropologist assumed the role of “objective” observer, his behavior significantly affected the relationship between himself and his informants: it assured both his estrangement from, and his superordinate position in relation to, those he studied (Lewis 1973: 585)
[objective = estranged]

A similar process of objectification is also distinctive of the colonial relationship. Memmi (1967:86) writes that the colonized, “at the end of this stubborn effort to dehumanize him . . . is hardly a human being. He tends rapidly toward becoming an object . . . One does not have a serious obligation toward an animal or an object” (Lewis 1973: 585)
[objective = dehumanizing]

For the colonizer, the colonized “does not exist as an individual.” Similarly the anthropologist, in his concern with patterns, ethos, structures, is several levels of abstraction removed from the raw data of individual motivation, attitude, and behavior. The most acclaimed and prestigious work in the discipline deals with complex theories and models in which individuals are lost sight of as people (Lewis 1973: 585-586)
[prestige of theory; imposed understandings]

The act of detached observation, in effectively dehumanizing the observed, reduces him to an inferior position. When the observer refuses to go beyond the facade of outward behavior and become a part of the inner workings of the observed’s existence, he presumptuously assumes that his outside understanding” of the observed is somehow more valid than the observed’s own involvement with life (Lewis 1973: 586)
[detachment & dehumanization]

Whether anthropology continues to exist as a separate study or merges with other fields (see Mills 1959: 134), a radical transformation in social science assumptions, methodologies, and goals must take place. (Lewis 1973: 586)
[need for radical transformation of anthropology, or even dissolution]

Memmi (1969: 18 1) summarizes cogently the significance of self-definition and selfstudy:
“For the oppressed to be finally free, he must go beyond revolt, by another path, he must begin in other ways, conceive of himself and reconstruct himself independently of the master” (Lewis 1973: 588)
[self-definition, self-determination]

Anthropologists who study their own societies will also add immeasurably to their theoretical understanding of mankind. It has been suggested that lack of fieldwork in the anthropologist’s own society is a measure of the anthropologist’s “disassociation” from his own culture and has probably led to distortion in his abilities to grasp another culture (Lewis 1973: 590)
[anthropology at home–Q: is “home” as culturally homogeneous as Lewis seems to assume?]

La Paz, Bolivia. 10 v 73
another possible reason for the lack of awareness of colonialism among many anthropologists comes from their methodological insistence on small communities as self-contained entities. In recent years many authors have broadened their perspective, but this narrowness is still common (Albó in Lewis 1973: 591)
[“fieldwork”: wrong method for understanding colonialism]

the primary commitment of anthropologists to their “academic community” is a potential source of colonialism if not of bias. From the viewpoint of the people studied, this means that “those foreigners come to study us as if we were insects, but they do not really care about us” (Albó in Lewis 1973: 591)
[continued colonialism: expropriation of knowledge; behind-their-backs writing]

2 thoughts on “Anthropology and Colonialism: More from Diane Lewis (1973)

  1. Bob van den Eijkhof

    would be interesting to hear the viewpoint from the “evil” colonizers! … who after all shared their worldview with everyone else!

    1. Maximilian Forte

      You’re right, it would be good to hear from other evil colonizers beside myself, the reason for that being that there would be an almost countless number of diverse cases and many different versions of the argument, and disputes. One generalization I would be confident in making is that in the overwhelming majority of cases, these different people did not seek out any foreign anthropologist to “share” their worldviews, that many of them are capable of doing so on their own, and that a few would rather keep their cultural knowledge to themselves.

      In other words, I don’t think we are indispensable where sharing worldviews is concerned, nor do I think we are wanted, and very little thanks is owing to us.

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