Two Sides of the Same Coin
Anthropology might look it came to us with a dual consciousness. On one side, a consciousness influenced by ideals of science and objectivity, driven to developing a commanding knowledge about human others. On the other side, a consciousness of itself as a creature of imperialism, guided by a scientific paradigm that imperialism made possible. Does this mean that anthropology effectively has two personalities? Or is there more in common between the above two “sides” than one might think?
Imperialism: Making Scientific Anthropology Thinkable
An article that I like to refer to in my opening sessions in Decolonizing Anthropology is one by Joseph G. Jorgensen and Eric R. Wolf [(1970) Anthropology on the warpath in Thailand (a special supplement). The New York Review of Books, 15 (9), November 19]. In that article the two authors speak of a problem that has “dogged anthropologists from the inception of the discipline”:
European conquest and colonialism had, after all, provided the field for anthropology’s operations and, especially in the nineteenth century, its intellectual ethic of “scientific objectivity.” But “scientific objectivity,” we believe, implies the estrangement of the anthropologist from the people among whom he works.
Jorgensen and Wolf draw some heavy support for this thesis from Claude Lévi-Strauss [(1966) Anthropology: Its achievements and future. Current Anthropology, 7 (2): 124-127]. There is nothing dispassionate about anthropology, Lévi-Strauss argues, it is not mere contemplation of things at a distance. Anthropology is the outcome of
an historical process, which has made the larger part of mankind subservient to the other, and during which millions of innocent human beings have had their resources plundered, their institutions and beliefs destroyed while they themselves were ruthlessly killed, thrown into bondage, and contaminated by diseases they were unable to resist. Anthropology is the daughter to this era of violence. (Lévi-Strauss, 1966, p. 126)
Like Jorgensen and Wolf, Lévi-Strauss finds the imprint of colonialism in anthropology’s very epistemology: “Its capacity to assess more objectively the facts pertaining to the human condition reflects, on the epistemological level, a state of affairs in which one part of mankind treats the other as an object.”
Turning to Stanley Diamond at the end of their article, Jorgensen and Wolf hammer home the point about the dominant epistemological method of anthropology:
it is precisely the objective study, the reified examination, which is proving to be an illusion. In this situation, there can be no more students of Man studying men as fixed specimens in fixed environments. This was a privilege that the Western world preserved for itself as a consequence of domination. There can only be men who learn to bear witness to each other. In the struggle for the creation of culture against collective and dehumanizing forces, no matter [what] their ideological pretension…there can only be partisans. [Stanley Diamond. (1964). A revolutionary discipline. Current Anthropology, 5 (5): 432-437]
The relationship between imperialism and anthropology, therefore, runs very much deeper than a mere bureaucratic relationship with colonial administrations and the provision of reports, data, and advice. That kind of superficial relationship to imperialism can be changed much more easily than the foundational paradigm that makes the doing of anthropology doable and thinkable.
Anthropology as Anti-Colonial Protest?
In the same critical spirit of Lévi-Strauss, Jorgensen and Wolf point out that anthropology has another side to it. They argue that,
in the tradition of Montaigne and Rousseau, [anthropologists] radically questioned the pretensions to superiority of Western civilization, while seeking alternative visions of man. This latter aspect of the anthropological consciousness has always been recognized in the United States, to the enduring credit of such men as Franz Boas, Robert Redfield, and Paul Radin. Throughout the history of the profession anthropologists have condemned the assault of the American government on American Indians (although the “solutions” they suggested were not, and perhaps could not have been, better than those from any other source); and the Association has defended the social and cultural rights of minority peoples, and taken early and unequivocal positions against fascism and racism. The Nazis, it should be noted, understood this aspect of the discipline in Europe and systematically sought to cut the heart out of German anthropology, reducing it to a reflex of the regime.
Jorgensen and Wolf thus raise the relativist tradition in anthropology, and they specifically refer to Montaigne and Rousseau. I will to turn to a discussion of the former in the next section.
Jorgensen and Wolf end their article by stating, “Admittedly, anthropology was ambiguously conceived.” It’s not very clear to me that in its conception there is notable ambiguity, especially given the strong mark of polygenesis and scientific racism both in the Anthropological Society of London, and in the American School of Ethnology, during the mid-1800s, as anthropology was being conceived before it became fully professionalized. Any ambiguity there may have been, at the very least, is the basis for the “big question” behind this post: how much of a schism is there, in the end, between science and racism on the one hand, and cultural relativism on the other?
Thinking about alternatives, Jorgensen and Wolf state that, “in our view, [anthropology] must disengage itself from its connection with colonial aims or it will become intellectually trivial.” For me this is both a positive goal and a subtle shift in their message. By this point in their article they have completely dropped any discussion of the epistemology of the discipline, how the structures of thought inherent to anthropology and its “credibility” (their word) are rooted in an objectivity that is itself rendered operational by the colonial experience. They certainly do conceive of an altered role for anthropology, however, which I support even if I am not clear as to the extent to which they took up this role themselves: “Anthropologists must be willing to testify in behalf of the oppressed peoples of the world, including those whom we professionally define as primitives and peasants.” Expert witnesses, speaking in defense of the oppressed: a critically important role. This still leaves some questions open: from where does their expertise spring? What marks their expertise as “anthropological” as different from the testimony of others? And why do “we” need experts to mediate when the oppressed often do, can, and want to speak for themselves?
An Anti-Imperial Tradition?
Jorgensen and Wolf raised the figure of Michel de Montaigne, speaking to the roots of cultural relativism in anthropology, and the radical critique of Western superiority that they believe they saw resting within anthropology. In the past I have had occasion to read and use Montaigne’s famous essay, “Of Cannibals” ([1578-1580] the complete text is freely available online). I was especially impressed by his introduction of Brazilian indigenous commentary on French society, thanks to three Brazilian Indians brought to France. They provide a rare commentary for the colonial epoch, and a strong critique of imperial society, noting first that it was amazing that the men they met submitted to a monarch who was little more than a child, and then this: “they had observed, that there were among us men full and crammed with all manner of commodities, while, in the meantime, their halves were begging at their doors, lean, and half-starved with hunger and poverty; and they thought it strange that these necessitous halves were able to suffer so great an inequality and injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throats, or set fire to their houses.”
Richard Handler has written [(1986). Of cannibals and custom: Montaigne’s cultural relativism. Anthropology Today, Vol. 2, No. 5 (Oct), pp. 12-14] a very relevant critical, yet sympathetic analysis of some of the contradictions within the work of Montaigne, which could in fact not only undo Montaigne’s own theses, while providing support for criticisms of cultural relativism, but they also betray one critically important approach marking all anthropology and subjected to a withering critique by Vassos Argyrou (which I shall raise fully in later posts). Montaigne’s argument is, in Handler’s words, that “we justify what are necessarily relative ideas – that is, those that come to us via custom – as absolutes” (Handler, 1986, p. 12). Handler quotes at length from Montaigne’s essay, Of Custom. I will quote the same passage from a translation different than the one available to Handler, simply because it is freely available to all interested readers:
The laws of conscience, which we pretend to be derived from nature, proceed from custom; every one, having an inward veneration for the opinions and manners approved and received among his own people, cannot, without very great reluctance, depart from them, nor apply himself to them without applause. In times past, when those of Crete would curse any one, they prayed the gods to engage him in some ill custom. But the principal effect of its power is, so to seize and ensnare us, that it is hardly in us to disengage ourselves from its gripe, or so to come to ourselves, as to consider of and to weigh the things it enjoins. To say the truth, by reason that we suck it in with our milk, and that the face of the world presents itself in this posture to our first sight, it seems as if we were born upon condition to follow on this track; and the common fancies that we find in repute everywhere about us, and infused into our minds with the seed of our fathers, appear to be the most universal and genuine: from whence it comes to pass, that whatever is off the hinges of custom, is believed to be also off the hinges of reason; how unreasonably, for the most part, God knows.
As Handler explains, what Montaigne is doing here is arguing what has become a central thesis in relativist anthropology: that people naturalize arbitrary cultural constructs, mistaking the relativity of customs for absolutes of “nature” or “reason.” According to Handler, Montaigne argues that “humans do not easily recognize the element of bias that inevitably accompanies a culturally particular worldview – that is, that humans more frequently defend, with whatever arguments are at hand, than criticize or relativize their customary orientation to the world” (Handler, 1986, p. 12).
The first ambiguity, if not outright contradiction that Handler finds, lies in Montaigne’s retention of an assumption of an absolute and universal reason. As Handler explains, “to say that people unreasonably mistake ‘what is off the hinges of custom’ for ‘what is off the hinges of reason’ is to suggest that despite the natives’ confusion of custom and reason, there nonetheless exists some absolute faculty of reason by which, if they appealed to it, they could avoid their confusion” (Handler, 1986, p. 13). Thus, despite Montaigne underlining the power of custom to shape reason itself, “he refuses to relinquish a notion of reason understood as a culturally neutral faculty capable of impartial judgment” (Handler, 1986, p. 13). There is yet another way of explaining this “contradiction,” and it will come up again when we talk about Argyrou, and that is simply this: where does Montaigne stand that is pure reason and unaffected by the arbitrary power of custom?
Without Any Difference
As Handler points out, Montaigne’s thinking gives weight to the Enlightenment belief in universal reason, reason that is the same for all persons and all cultures at all times: “In Montaigne, reason similarly takes on universalistic implications, since in spite of his insistence on the diversity of custom, he reserves a place for reason – at least for ‘reasonable’ reason – above and beyond custom, a reason that can transcend custom and judge it” (Handler, 1986, p. 13). The crucial point to observe here is that when your logic guarantees such universal human unity, your interpretation of cultural differences is that they are mere surface phenomena: same contents, but different form. In this regard, the relativist position melts into the universalist one, and anthropology becomes an exercise not in “understanding” or “explaining” difference, but rather just explaining it away. (Again, more of this from Argyrou later.)
Tzvetan Todorov [(1984). The conquest of America. New York: HarperCollins] also takes issue with depictions of Amerindian cultural difference as rooted in a basic, pristine human nature that existed before the development of civilization. Handler says that Todorov’s argument is that this is a “superficially charitable view of exotic others [that] does no better than racism and ethnocentrism when it comes to inter-cultural understanding (Handler, 1986, p. 13). Handler reminds us of what Montaigne says above, that even in defending relativism he can only do so by way of an appeal to an absolute human “nature”: the reason that we suck in with our milk, that is infused in our minds by the seed of the father (Handler, 1986, p. 13).
What anthropologists know from cultural evolutionists as the thesis of the psychic unity of humankind found earlier expression in Bartolomé de las Casas’ idea of the Christian unity of humankind: every human can become a Christian (Todorov, 1984, p. 161). In the Papal Bull of 1537, Pope Paul III reissued the declaration to “go forth and make disciples of all nations,” because all are capable of receiving Christ. “Without any difference” becomes a critical component of las Casas’ defense of the humanity of the Amerindians (Todorov, 1984, p. 162). Christian universalism implies an essential non-difference among all humans, Todorov explains. He points to a quote from Saint John Chrysostom, used by las Casas in his debates at Valldolid: “Just as there is no natural difference in the creation of man, so there is no difference in the call to salvation of all men, barbarous or otherwise, since God’s grace can correct the minds of barbarians, so that they have a reasonable understanding” (quoted in Todorov, 1984, p. 162). It’s a position that helps las Casas to explain away difference, when seemingly defending it: though the Amerindians may appear to us to be “indolent” and indifferent to wealth, that is only because they still observe a basic Christian virtue that we have forgotten, which is to be content with no more than what is necessary for survival.
Todorov’s critique of las Casas’ document, Apologética Historia, is penetrating:
If it is incontestable that the prejudice of superiority is an obstacle in the road to knowledge, we must also admit that the prejudice of equality is a still greater one, for it consists in identifying the other purely and simply with one’s own “ego ideal” (or with oneself). (Todorov, 1984, p. 165)
They may be different now, but they will not always be so. (It also seems apparent, Todorov tells us, that las Casas could not live up to his own universalist creed, as he “never shows the slightest tenderness toward the Muslims” [p. Todorov, 1984, 166].)
Handler adds that “in European history the emergence of an anthropological ability to understand others has not necessarily led to compassionate interaction with them” (Handler, 1986, p. 13). Indeed, relying on Todorov, he notes that cultural relativism can be enlisted in the service of individualistic pragmatism, where one uses one’s alleged understanding of others in order to better manipulate others (Handler, 1986, p. 13).
Handler’s key conclusion is that “a science of others’ customs should not blind us to the customary underpinnings of our own sciences” (Handler, 1986, p. 14).
Can Anthropology be Anti-Imperialist?
In “New Proposals for Anthropologists” [(1968). Current Anthropology, 9 (5): 403-435 – online here and here] Kathleen Gough comments on the institutional positioning of professional anthropologists (in Europe and North America presumably) and how this impacts on their place in a world experiencing momentous upheavals. She writes:
From the beginning, we have inhabited a triple environment, involving obligations first to the people we studied, second to our colleagues and our science, and third to the powers who employed us in universities or who funded our research. In many cases we seem now to be in danger of being torn apart by the conflicts between the first and third set of obligations, whiles the second set of loyalties, to our subject as an objective and humane endeavour, are being severely tested and jeopardized. (Gough, 1968, p. 405)
The passage could have been written forty years later in another crisis decade that presents so many reminders of her own. Some might argue about the order of her list, or that those elements should not even form discrete items in a list since they are all tied to one another: the funding of research tied to the research of the people we study tied to our colleagues who read our research or hire us to teach it. Even then, Gough and others were reflecting on what to do next in the face of worldwide crisis. In fact she quotes a 1966 paper by Peter Worsley, significantly titled, “The End of Anthropology?” Her suggested direction, given that specialization in small-scale societies is losing currency in a world of rapidly expanding scales of social interaction, is that we start to study large-scale social systems. Then we must be prepared for the fact that our work will resemble that of political scientists, economists, and sociologists. What we must do, Gough urges, is to study “modern society as a single, interdependent world social system” (Gough, 1968, p. 405). This leads us to the study of imperialism ultimately.
Why have anthropologists not been at the forefront of studies of imperialism, failing to study it as a unitary phenomenon? One reason Gough suggests is the impact of the process of specialization within anthropology, and between anthropology and the other disciplines. A second reason is the tradition of fieldwork in small-scale societies, which is simply the wrong methodological basis for contemplating overarching global phenomena such as imperialism. A third is our general unwillingness to offend the governments upon whom we depend for funding and access. A fourth reason is what she calls in the language of her time, “the bureaucratic, counter-revolutionary setting” in which anthropologists work in universities, contributing to a sense of impotence and reliance on machine-like models (Gough, 1968, p. 406). (Updating her terms, we would be speaking of the corporatization of the university, the spread of neo-liberalism, the chilling of academic freedom, and the push toward business-relevant research.)
In one broad sweep, Gough provides many useful clues about the relationship between anthropology and imperialism: (1) we do not study imperialism, so that “critiquing” it becomes more difficult, and unusual; (2) we cannot study imperialism, because we have the wrong methods; and, (3) we should not study imperialism, because it might offend sponsors and bosses, and could unseat us. Ironic then, that the discipline that is institutionalized in universities at the same time as Euro-American imperialism reached new giddy heights, in the late 19th century, the discipline that was imperialism’s traveling companion if not scout, is the discipline that is disarmed from studying the context, causes and conditions of its own creation and current existence. Anthropology is about the study of others out of fear of facing ourselves? That would be rather depressing, a kind of inverted narcissism.
Propositions to Go
Thus far what we have encountered above are the following issues relating anthropology to empire:
(a) the imperial nature of anthropology’s inherent epistemology;
(b) the colonial positioning of anthropologists in the field;
(c) the dependence on sponsorship by imperial powers;
(d) a crisis of confidence regarding the nature and purpose of our expertise; and,
(e) doubts about whether we ever have, or ever could, actually understand difference.
We already know that anthropology, as we know it, is a Western construct. Anthropology is a Western way of producing knowledge of the world, based on many, disparate, small parts of the world. It is also one Western way of consuming the world. But it’s not just like any other form of gaining knowledge of the world, not anthropology as we know it. Nobody – no students, no professors – can really say that the only reason or the most important reason that they entered anthropology is that they were interested in knowing more about other cultures. It is not an innocent quest for knowledge. One does not need degrees to learn about other cultures, and learning about other cultures does not lead to degrees (for most humans). You may have a thirst for knowledge, but something else is motivating you as well, and that something else is of critical importance. When one enrolls in a degree program, one is enlisting in an industrialized, professionalized, system of production, one of whose outputs is credentials, and another being power. Anthropology in institutions is not just there to teach the world about the world: it is there to teach a small club of members about the “right ways” of knowing that world.
Likewise, ethnography would seem to be the very last candidate on a list of preferred, sane, and humane ways of getting to know others. Getting to know other people does not mean that we intimately scrutinize them, document them in our notes, and lay out their lives (according to the accepted formulas) for an audience of specialist surveyors, inspectors, and guardians of the discipline. Wanting to share knowledge about others should not mean that we think that only we can explain others, and that we can even explain others to themselves, like expert demystifiers, above it all. Otherwise it would seem absurd: those who taught me about themselves, as I was ignorant about them, need me to explain them to themselves?
However, it is not absurd, it is functionally useful for maintaining the Westerner in the position of protagonist. Anthropology as a science is a way for the West to maintain its imperial centrality in explaining the rest of the world to the rest of the world. It teaches the world that all legitimate and valid interpretations of the world are to be made by Westerners. Our appreciation for science reflects our lust for influence and desire for rewards. Science sells. Science develops innovative means of control. Science offers us better means of efficiently managing the animals.
As we proceed we will look at a number of proposed alternatives: native anthropology; indigenous anthropology; anthropology at home; and world anthropologies. Some of the “big questions” to be asked are already familiar ones on this blog, and a number of persons have already offered their comments – nonetheless, here they are again, in one list:
- Can a decolonized anthropology exist as anthropology as we know it?
- Would not the real decolonization of anthropology mean its complete termination?
- Would a decolonized anthropology even be recognized as anthropology?
It is not because of its mental endowments that only the Western world has given birth to anthropology, but rather because exotic cultures, treated by us as mere things, could be studied, accordingly, as things. We did not feel concerned by them whereas we cannot help their feeling concerned by us. Between our attitude toward them and their attitude toward us, there is and can be no parity.
Therefore, if native cultures are ever to look at anthropology as a legitimate pursuit and not as a sequel to the colonial era or that of economic domination, it cannot suffice for the players simply to change camps while the anthropological game remains the same. Anthropology itself must undergo a deep transformation in order to carry on its work among those cultures for whose study it was intended because they lack a written record of their history. (Lévi-Strauss, 1966, p. 126)
28 thoughts on “0.19: Questions about Colonialism and Anthropology: Epistemology, Methodology, and Politics”
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“must disengage itself from its connection with colonial aims or it will become intellectually trivial,” Jorgensen & Wolf
It’s interesting how working through these critiques of anthropology makes it, or whatever it is we’re ending up with, suddenly completely relevant to everyday interactions.
You said: “Expert witnesses, speaking in defense of the oppressed: a critically important role. . . . why do “we” need experts to mediate when the oppressed often do, can, and want to speak for themselves?”
Speaking in defense of someone doesn’t necessarily have to be about mediating. Often what’s more important is legitimizing what the other person has said or done – “Yes, I agree. You’re in the right” – and it can take place on as small a level as a two-person conversation. One night a friend called me, frantic, saying, “I need to talk to you right now. I’ve got a serious problem. Meet me at the fire hydrant.” She and her parents didn’t share the same beliefs. In fact, a lot of people we lived around would have disapproved. I spent most of the time listening and nodding and agreeing, and helping brainstorm what she could do. It wasn’t about needing an impartial expert to explain her actions to herself. It was about needing to talk to and strategize with someone who was legitimately on her side, someone who wasn’t going to explode and say, “That’s disgusting and irreligious. What the hell were you thinking?! Are you crazy?!?”
Along those lines of “are you crazy?”, you asked, “[T]hose who taught me about themselves, as I was ignorant about them, need me to explain them to themselves?” This sounds like clinical psychology.
You mention the “power of custom to shape reason itself.” Actually, it’s not just ANY custom that has the power to shape “reason.” A specific custom/tradition exists that has created a concept called “reason” and people use it, and its opposite, “crazy,” to exert power over those who think or act in ways the “reasonable” people deem lesser or worse than their own.
On science, you say, “Science develops innovative means of control.” So maybe a bunch of people running to psychologists to find out, “Am I crazy?,” is an innovative means of control. BUT, science also develops solutions. If not for contacts or glasses, I wouldn’t be able to see anything of the world farther than a foot from my face. These and many other things that science has created, medicines for instance, are tools that people can use to enrich their lives, IF they are given access to them. And that may also be an issue of control: lots of people and places across the world, willingly and unwillingly, contributed to the production that is science, and in the end only certain people control its beneficial products.
Yes, many good points again, and many thanks. Let me speak to just a couple of them, especially since I basically agree with the rest.
In terms of speaking in defense of someone not necessarily meaning that we are mediating — I agree, it does not necessarily imply that we serve as intermediaries. I think that happens when we put ourselves forward as experts, experts who have more expertise about the persons we are defending than they do themselves, then we are in trouble.
About science making many useful things — again that’s true, and not just true about Western science either. What I don’t want to do is to equate the science that makes things, with a science that claims to study human behaviours and beliefs. One could reject the latter, and still keep the former, without any contradiction.
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max, i’ve been following your blog ever since that discussion with the oac. i read most of what you write and i really learned a lot.
i was wondering though: after this project of decolonisation of anthropological theory (because that what is at stake in above questioning of epistemology) what would it mean for anthropology (you suggest anthropology as we know it dissappear)? or rather, of what interest is it to the world around us – the non-anthropologists – that one discipline will decolonise itself, its theory and practice? i am not trying to be difficult, i would just like to know what progress/ change/ improvement whatever for the world it could mean. at the end, since anthropologists mostly talk to themselves anyway who cares about one discipline when/if it dissappears (is decolonised)? does it make sense what i am asking?
Yes, it does make sense, and I am glad you asked it. I am especially glad that you asked it, because it’s a tough question, and I don’t think I have a good answer right now. My first reaction would be to say that the wider world clearly will not care at all, and will likely not even notice. Unfortunately, at least a portion of the wider world is becoming more and more aware of our nickname, “handmaiden of colonialism” (see news about a play, Anthropology, here). I think that such a transformation would likely matter more to anthropologists, some interested academics in other fields, and perhaps those with whom we once interacted “in the field.”
Anyway, this is hypothetical especially to the extent that most anthropologists would not even care to discuss such issues. I am glad that you did, many thanks again.
“[T]he wider world clearly will not care at all.” That’s rather bleak. Isn’t this both about wiping away anthropology AND discussing other possibilities?
People who WERE anthropologists might, if they wished, put their well-intentioned efforts to better ends, working with and relating to other people in new ways — i.e. “to confront and challenge the contemporary reproduction of imperialism and colonialism” (“The Project”). They wouldn’t be talking just among themselves anymore.
Out of THIS could come any variety of positive, broad-reaching improvements. Anthropologists aren’t the only ones reproducing imperialism and colonialism.
Bleak you say? You forgot that I live in Canada? Next to Finland we are the leading contenders for the “world bleakness prize for excellence in achieving higher orders of bleakitude.” Just kidding, no really.
Yes, I agree with your the thrust of your conclusion, and not because agreement is the perfectly bleak thing to do. But I don’t think there is any inconsistency between what you wrote above, and the idea that the wider world does not normally take notice of the goings-on within anthropology. Or, maybe there is a contradiction in my statements here, and I have just not had enough time to absorb them. I am very grateful for your making an issue of this, otherwise I might not have stopped to think further about it. I might need to revise some statements in the near future.
Nope, it’s not about a contradiction in your statements. But is your heavy focus on contradictions too much appeal to universal reason and logic? I’m not sure. I was just noticing you talk a lot about contradictions.
Martin asked: “i would just like to know what progress/ change/ improvement whatever for the world it could mean.” You answered, “the wider world clearly will not care at all.” You said it might matter to anthropologists, some other academics, and “perhaps those with whom we once interacted” (past-tense).
You didn’t say anything about people who ex-anthropologists might interact with in the future and what “progress/change/improvement” for the world that might produce.
I am not sure either that looking at contradictions implies an appeal to universal reason and logic, since it simply looks within a given logic and checks to what extent that logic is consistent with itself, on its own terms.
The second part seems to ask about what I might envision for the future, which is even more difficult to address. I am definitely thinking about altogether different research relationships, so that entities such as “researcher” and “the researched” are no longer meaningful, and we finally drop pretenses to a “science of man,” while taking “difference” much more seriously than those who see expressions of difference as mere surface phenomena. Those are three of the main components of an anthropology that no longer looks like anthropology, in my view. In terms of what might be produced, we could think of a process of learning that has finally transcended the limits of professionalism and institutionalization, so even greater than “public engagement” because it is all public to begin with, and even greater than “collaboration” since the hierarchies and distinctions that make that concept possible cease to exist.
Anyway, these are roughly stated ideas, and I would certainly like to hear your thoughts on this, because I sense something is percolating on your side.
Pointing out contradictions only makes sense because both we’re well-versed in anthropology logic-speak. Since we have fundamentally different ways of thinking, how am I supposed to tell if what you said is inconsistent within your own system? In literature, nobody attacks writers for including the absurd.
Maybe the outcomes of any anti-imperialist project are impossible to foretell because it results in the power of more individuals to define their own lives and actions, although that itself would be a positive result.
I was thinking about your distinction between a science that creates things v. imperialistic science. It reminds me of a distinction in poverty studies between capability, i.e. ability to act, and paternalism, which is close to imperialism, i.e. domination or power overpeople.
I think that anthropology/people-studies remodeled could still talk about humans and human relationships, with a focus on developing new capabilities for acting or interacting with the world. In fact, people already do this outside of anthropology all the time. But, we’d need to understand how to talk with/about people without being imperialistic…
That’s why I was interested in your term “representational territory.” It reminded me that people often express identity by talking about themselves in relation to other people, so that even then I’m not simply representing myself. On top of that, what’s oppressive to one person might not be oppressive to another, or be felt differently at different times.
All I can really propose to focus on is what IS actually felt as imperialistic by people, and maybe find ways of constantly exposing/confronting/delegitimizing imperialism to keep it in check or undermine its power base.
I was given some interesting advice the other day from a person who does not have a college education and is quite intelligent, and I thought it fit well with your point that people get university degrees for a certain kind of power. She said something along the lines of, “Don’t hesitate to confront somebody if something isn’t getting done right, and better yet to be completely self-deprecating about it. It makes them feel like they’re smarter than you.” The self-satisfying part, of course, is the knowledge that they’re not at all superior. They’re being undermined into feeling that way because they want to have a feeling of superiority, but they’ve proven their ignorance by how easy it was to dupe them.
(p.s. the first time I replied wordpress put the reply out of sequence, so feel free to delete the duplicate…)
Hi Max, I’m putting my answer to your question here soas not to colonize the top part of the page
I think “family” is also too narrow/confusing, but maybe that’s what you’re saying. I have family all over the US, & some in other countries, but that doesn’t make those places my home. Although, it’s definitely tied to questions of colonialism, for example making a home in sb. else’s home. “Doing good” is probably also a bad phrase b/c it’s too much like pure altruism, but people do have to choose jobs, so lets cut to the proper words: is it doing too much to further US imperialism in the Marshalls?
I don’t know if you’ve defined colonialism in a specific way, but if it’s “control by one power over a dependent area or people,” then the US does exert a certain degree of control over the Marshalls. We have a military base there, carried out nuclear testing w/terrible results, and right now “U.S. funding accounts for two-thirds of the Marshall Islands national budget of US$137 million, and more than 80 percent of the funding for the Ministries of Education and Health” (source). It sounds like there’s also a lot of talk about local sustainability, possibly increasing tourism, and asserting local fishing rights. The fact that their Ministry of Education has made English learning one of its priorities implies to me that many think it’s a valuable skill for their kids to learn, maybe even for the aims of increasing tourism and better asserting fishing rights, so why not teach it? From that perspective, it even sounds a bit snobbish/imperialistic to say, “no, I won’t teach you my language because in doing so I would be exerting power over you in the form of cultural imperialism.” However, the fact that MANY think it’s a valuable skill does not necessarily mean ALL, and “how many” is an important question, as is to what extent the individual islands are involved in deciding for or against English education. Sounds like a good question to ask the program coordinators!
Or is it better to stay “home” and sell underpriced pilfered fish to consumers at a local grocery?… as if doing things ‘at home’ somehow bypasses imperialism….?
No, I don’t think that doing things at home bypasses imperialism, not by far. I just did not understand the reasoning behind the idea that teaching English overseas was “doing good” or what ideas of “home” are at play, and I am writing this without seeing the actual flow of comments so I hope I am not answering a question posed to someone else.
Hi Max, Yes, I pretty much agree with you about what needs to be questioned. Otherwise I wouldn’t be asking! Ha.
I’m sorry I don’t ever fully explain my questions/concerns, because it’s pretty much impossible to do, but when Ryan pointed out home v. other parts of the world it reminded me of the person in Guatemala on landslide relief who told me Americans should be fixing problems in their own country/home. It made me wonder if we really do have more responsibility to a specific locale/country, which makes the least sense when you consider that my “home” is made of lots of other peoples’ homes, even down to electricity which, here in WV, comes from mountaintop removal mining. So, there are lots and lots of concerns at stake, probably TOO many for a person’s sanity.
Marshallese is the language spoken. It’s not spoken broadly outside the islands, of course, but is still spoken there. I’d imagine the main island of Majuro and then Kwajalein where the US base is are the places where English is spoken the most. According to Wikipedia, the government uses Marshallese. English is also an official language, and some speak Japanese. I found the website of the cultural museum in Majuro that works to “promote and preserve Marshallese culture.” Most are probably anthropologists and archaeologists who, as we see here, are definitely not free of bias but do still have perspectives. Sometimes even people with vested interest can give answers counter to their better interests, or have multiple conflicting interests at play. No harm asking, but the answer could never be definitive.
I think all of this tangled web partially comes back to what you said here: “(1) we do not study imperialism, so that “critiquing” it becomes more difficult, and unusual; (2) we cannot study imperialism, because we have the wrong methods.”
Thanks very much Stacie.
Off topic (maybe): I must be blind(er) — I just noticed what an incredibly chilling avatar image you have.
[I feel sorry for that cat: clearly he’s about to be eaten by that zombie mouse.]
Haha. That’s my sweet cat Charlie and a resident mouse. I got the cat from the humane society when I moved here and found out the place was infested with mice. After all, they were trespassing in my house, or maybe I’m trespassing in theirs.
I’m sure it’s a very American thing to think, “I don’t want to use mouse traps. That’s mean,” and then get a cat that goes around stalking the poor thing for days. I recently saw an ad for a perfectly white mouse trap box that kills the mouse inside. You throw the whole thing away without ever having to see what you’ve killed.
Anyway, it turns out that he actually IS a scared of everything and has only killed one mouse so far, when I’m sure hundreds have been passing in and out, grabbing snacks here and there.
A simple solution — and don’t forget, mice are genetically 99% “us”, so we can’t engage in open homicide by using mouse traps:
A clear plastic bag, filled with raffia. Leave the bag on top of a piece of furniture, and stay in another room while keeping your ears open. Eventually — and we tried and tested this, it works — a mouse will go into the bag to get nesting material and make some noise. Before he finishes his work, rush to the bag, seal it with your hands, take it outside and release the mouse (who shoots out of the bag with extreme fear). No killing involved.
Man, what we do on this blog, the new heights we explore, it’s just dizzying :-D
I am not sure that program coordinators would be the ones to ask: they have interests vested in the program.
I know nothing at all about the Marshall Islands. What language are they speaking when it’s not English? How is that language faring? I am not defining the teaching of English as “cultural imperialism” (which, incidentally, is a concept that is among the crummiest ever developed, in my view). What I am asking about is how teaching it is “doing good.” In other words, rather than snobbishness, I am not ready to take the goodness for granted without question.
“When one enrolls in a degree program, one is enlisting in an industrialized, professionalized, system of production, one of whose outputs is credentials, and another being power. Anthropology in institutions is not just there to teach the world about the world: it is there to teach a small club of members about the “right ways” of knowing that world.”
I agree, completely. In truth, I was just about finishing up my undergrad when I figured out the fact that getting degrees in anthropology is a purely political endeavor, despite the narratives that attest otherwise. I am fully aware of the fact that going to grad school is 100% a political decision. No doubt about that. My goal is to get through it and then find ways of doing something else with it. Hopefully something different that does not require me to waste time at AAA conferences each year, etc. The last thing I need or want to to spend my life talking shop to a bunch of other anthropology people. My other goal is to avoid getting completely bogged down by the BS in the mean time.
“Wanting to share knowledge about others should not mean that we think that only we can explain others, and that we can even explain others to themselves, like expert demystifiers, above it all.”
Ya, the idea that ethnographers are cultural mystics, well, falls pretty flat to me. Maybe that’s why I like the work of people like Studs Terkel who just purport to collect oral histories and such. In any case, in my opinion ethnography is little more than a relation of events and experiences from a certain perspective, despite the claims people make. Many anthropologists don’t want to say it, but I think they have to realize that they are actually just telling their own stories in many senses.
“Getting to know other people does not mean that we intimately scrutinize them, document them in our notes, and lay out their lives (according to the accepted formulas) for an audience of specialist surveyors, inspectors, and guardians of the discipline. ”
The methods of ethnography–in which people send themselves into some community in order to undertake research–have seemed more and more odd (if not invasive) as I have made my way through anthropology. It is a strange way of relating with people, and of interacting with the world. It is built on a series of assumptions with questionable foundations. Maybe this is why I am constantly asking myself what the f*ck I am doing with all of this. It’s also probably why returning home to write about local histories and issues sounds more and more appealing.
It takes some gall to assume that you can go somewhere else in the world and “address” or “analyze” a particular social or political problem. Ironically, it’s the less than ideal, highly stratified, not always very democratic culture of academia that brazenly sends its students out into the world to “fix” it. Funny, huh? As if academia can provide a perfect model of society for us all to emulate. Hardly.
Thanks for the link to the Wolf and Jorgensen article, by the way. I was just trying to find that a couple of days ago, without success.
Great points, Ryan, much appreciated. I am re-reading this again.
Can a person really do more good at “home” rather than “somewhere else in the world”? I’ve thought about it myself and can’t decide. Is “home” where a person was born? If, for instance, I’ve applied to teach English in the Marshall Islands in Jan., which I have, w/salary from the Marshall Islands Gov’t, coordinated by academia, i.e. Harvard WorldTeach, is this the wrong thing to do? I could’ve said the same before coming to WV, but now this place seems as much like home as where I grew up. Or, is it more about how you interact with people once you’re there, wherever you are…. ? I think maybe the latter.
My question is: why is it that teaching English on a salary in another part of the world is considered “doing good”?
There are so many conceptualizations of “home” that I am beginning to think the notion is meant to be obscure and confusing. Otherwise, I might consider a test: home is not just where you feel at home, but requires a family to be home. If the people where you feel at home do not consider you family, then you are probably not at home, but rather just comfortable being in someone else’s house. (By “you” I don’t necessarily mean you in particular, Stacie).
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Btw, Max, I was amazed when reading this in your post :
I was amazed because it is almost a logical inversion of another statement from an anthropologist (reported and interpreted by another anthropologist) :
Source : Friedman Jonathan, 2005, “From roots to routes, tropes for trippers”, in Anthropological Theory, Vol. 2(1), 21-36.
Geertz’ reference is : Geertz Clifford, 1986, “The Uses of Diversity”, in S.M. McMurrin (ed.) The Tanner Lectures, on Human Values 7. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
I mean almost a logical inversion, because here, anthropology would be underlain by a fear-of-the-other (instead of a fear of facing oneself).
Very interesting! I have read both pieces in the past, and while I often recognize (after) how much of my writing is indirectly shaped by the many things I have read over the years, I am not too surprised to see that I would be inverting these authors.
Lol. Heavens no– We ‘morally superior’ anthropologists wouldn’t want to contribute to the killing of anything even 99% related to us. Oh wait…..
Thanks for the advice! It certainly sounds more efficient than leaving the door open and poking under the couch with a broom handle for hours on end.
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