0.179: Imperialism, Americanization, and the Social Sciences

Cultural imperialism rests on the power to universalize particularisms linked to a singular historical tradition by causing them to be misrecognized as such. (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1999, p. 41)

If the social sciences are Eurocentric, does this also mean that they are imperialist?

Where Immanuel Wallerstein finds liberalism as the underpinning of the geoculture of the capitalist world-system, rooted in Eurocentrism, Bourdieu and Wacquant (1999) find their counterparts in the hegemonic theories current in academia. They speak of commonplace notions and theses with which one thinks, but about which one does not think (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1999, p. 41). And why not?

these presuppositions of discussion which remain undiscussed, owe much of their power to convince to the fact that, circulating from academic conferences to bestselling books, from semi-scholarly journals to expert’s evaluations, from commission reports to magazine covers, they are present everywhere simultaneously, from Berlin to Tokyo and from Milan to Mexico, and are powerfully supported and relayed by those allegedly neutral channels that are international organizations…and public policy think tanks. (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1999, p. 41)

The work of “theorization” not only abets but furthers the universalization of certain texts, while obscuring their historical origins. Bourdieu and Wacquant are here essentially in agreement with what Wallerstein argued in terms of the Eurocentrism of the social sciences, taking it deeper and linking it to a form of epistemic colonialism. As they explain it,

these commonplaces of the great new global vulgate that endless media repetition progressively transforms into universal common sense manage in the end to make one forget that they have their roots in the complex and controversial realities of a particular historical society, now tacitly constituted as model for every other and as yardstick for all things. (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1999, p. 42)

It’s not just the theories, or philosophical fashions that are globalized, as the origins of these are fairly easy to spot. Instead, what Bourdieu and Wacquant note really escapes scrutiny is the sudden, apparent globalization of seemingly technical terms and single concepts such as “multiculturalism.” We all end up on the same page either way, speaking an international lingua franca that is historically and ideologically situated within the authorized mindsets of a dominant world power (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1999, pp. 43-44). Here they move us from Eurocentrism to its more contemporary and specifically American variant.

The American Mecca (“By the way, will you be in Philadelphia?”)

Innocently and just out of curiosity, I was asked by a colleague if I would be in Philadelphia. I asked in return: “Why? What’s in Philadelphia that should interest me?” Of course my colleague was simply referring to the upcoming annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, when whole departments in Canada lose their faculty to this annual pilgrimage to the centre of anthropological power, to catch some of the light of the American luminaries, and (unintentionally?) massaging the ego of the monster. When I try to reverse the question, for fun, with American colleagues – “Will you be at CASCA this year?” – I get mild expressions of surprise at the question. We all travel to the AAA, it’s the centre; we don’t all go to CASCA, it’s the periphery. If one does not see the geoculture of the world-system at work in the political economy of academia, then one is just not looking.

Turning their attention specifically to the United States, and dominant theories there for discussing race and ethnicity, Bourdieu and Wacquant find the emergence of a globalized sociological orthodoxy, “one of the most striking proofs of the symbolic dominion and influence exercised by the USA over every kind of scholarly and, especially, semi-scholarly production, notably through the power of consecration they possess and through the material and symbolic profits that researchers in the dominated countries reap from a more or less assumed or ashamed adherence to the model derived from the USA” (1999, pp. 45-46). Where Wallerstein spoke of the original Eurocentrism of the social sciences, Bourdieu and Wacquant find this has particularly developed into contemporary Americanization, the Americanization of the Western world, and the Americanization of the universal. The products of American research, they say (quoting Thomas Bender), acquire “‘an international stature and a power of attraction’ comparable with those of ‘American cinema, pop music, computer software and basketball’” (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1999, p. 46). If the analysis of this as a simplistic form of imperialism, of violent imposition, does not work, it does not mean that a more subtle, more “collaborative” form of imperialism is not at work:

Symbolic violence is indeed never wielded but with a form of (extorted) complicity on the part of those who submit to it: the ‘globalization’ of the themes of American social doxa, or of its more or less sublimated transcription in semi-scholarly discourse, would not be possible without the collaboration, conscious or unconscious, directly or indirectly interested, of all the passeurs, ‘carriers’ and importers of designer or counterfeit cultural products (publishers, directors of cultural institutions such as museums, operas, galleries, journals, etc.) who, in the country itself or in target countries, propound and propagate, often in good faith, American cultural products, and all the American cultural authorities which, without being explicitly concerted, accompany, orchestrate and sometimes even organize the process of collective conversion to the new symbolic Mecca. (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1999, p. 46)

However, that is not sufficient for explaining the domination of American academic research products. What we need to pay attention to, Bourdieu and Wacquant argue, is the role of research granting agencies and philanthropic foundations, such as the Rockefeller Foundation (1999, p. 46). We could go further and point to a bevy of other granting foundations, from the Ford Foundation, to the Fullbright Scholar Program, and Wenner-Gren, all of which could be seen as performing the academic equivalent of the U.S. military’s former School of the Americas (known now as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation). Aside from these foundations, internationally scholarly publishing tends to reinforce the conceptual priorities of the dominant (Anglo-)American centre, and here Bourdieu and Wacquant single out Basil Blackwell in particular, for imposing titles that are more in accord with “planetary common sense” (such as the existence of an “underclass”), even with texts that not only debunk the concept, but whose authors and editors vigorously protest the imposition. Similarly, though “cultural studies” does not exist as an entity in French universities, this did not stop Routledge from publishing a compendium on French Cultural Studies (1999, p. 47).

Back to Anthropology and Imperialism

As has been set forth so far, the imperialism of anthropology is not simply based on the role of anthropologists in the service of this or that colonial administration. If that was the mere extent of the relationship, then that would be good news. Instead the relationship goes much deeper, one that is more structural, and less a collection of individual tales from the field. Anthropology was born in the Western world and institutionalized in a specific manner, in particular universities, at a critical point in capitalist world history. Interestingly, for those who study imperialism in the media, and the rise of visual anthropology, this was the same period that marked, as Shohat and Stam (2002, p. 117) put it, “the giddy heights of the imperial project, with an epoch where Europe held sway over vast tracts of alien territory and hosts of subjugated peoples.” Like cinema, institutionalized anthropology also emerged at the end of the 1800s, as the U.S. conquered the Philippines in a bloody war that some say killed at least 200,000 people in outright fighting, and as many 1.5 million people in the first four years of occupation; born around the same time as the American massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee in 1890; at roughly the same time as the 1884 Berlin Conference, when European powers agreed on the division of Africa into colonial possessions; again, in the same period as the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, and the Battle of Rorke’s Drift between the British and Zulus in 1879. The leading cinema-producing countries, were also the leading imperialist countries, and the leading seats of anthropology: Britain, France, Germany, and the U.S. Imperialism provided the subject matter, the supporting structures, the dominant conceptual concerns, and the motive for anthropology.

Institutional anthropology has been located within one particular centre, specifically a North American and northwestern European one. In terms of the continued dominance of American anthropology in particular, one has to bear in mind the sheer quantitative dominance in terms of number of scholars, number of university departments, associations, conferences, journals and research funds, a dominance that is so massive in quantitative terms that it acquires a qualitative value.

The very fact of “world anthropologies” makes reference to this domination, and is supposedly, presumably, an answer to it. More on that in later posts.


Bourdieu, Pierre, and Loïc Wacquant. 1999. “On the Cunning of Imperialist Reason.” Theory, Culture & Society 16 (1): 41-58.

Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. 2002. “The Imperial Imaginary.” In Kelly Askew and Richard R. Wilk, editors, The Anthropology of Media: A Reader, pp. 117-147. Oxford: Blackwell.

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21 thoughts on “0.179: Imperialism, Americanization, and the Social Sciences

  1. Max,

    I am a little too tired this morning to completely analyze everything in this post, but one item struck me.

    You raise the question of why American academia dominates the conversation in anthropology (and presumably other disciplines), and present a number of possibilities. One possibility you don’t consider, however, is one of simple (not materialist) economics. I have no numbers, but given the disparate population numbers, I would presume that there are simply more American academics than those from other areas. Personally, I believe that this disparity in population is also a primary cause for the rise of American economic and military dominance in the world as well.

    As I understand it, this was one of the main reasons behind the the creation of the EU as a single political and economic bloc: no individual nation in Europe has the resources on its own to become a “major power” in the world, but together they have the ability to challenge other, more populous, nations.

    As China, India, and other nations expand their higher education systems and place more accredited individuals on the “academic world stage” as it were, the hegemony of American discourse will be challenged.

  2. Yes, to some extent, except that would not really explain the stance of the “rest of us” outside of the U.S. That there are more American academics is something that I intuitively trust to be true, and it certainly is true when it comes to anthropology. But then again, do “we” listen so attentively simply because there are more of “them”? And is it the “more” that matters, or the fact that they are based within the most powerful nation-state and have the resources to back up their endeavours, to spread their interpretations of the world, and to make their representations stick? I don’t wish to simply dismiss the quantitative element either.

    I have my doubts about this argument overall, outside of the discussion of academic hegemony, because then that should mean that the U.S. should not be a major power compared to India and China, and it would not help explain how some European nations, however small, were major world powers, such as Britain.

  3. To me it’s not about simple resources and manpower, but the ability to use those resources. Britain in the 18th-19th centures made very efficient use of the limited resources they had, and similarly the United States made very effective use of its (plentiful) resources in the 19th and 20th centuries. China and India, until recently, have not made very effective use of their resources. In the case of China, upon which my knowledge is minimal, but more than my knowledge of India, the culture of egotism and insularity (“the rest of the world will eventually realize that Chinese culture is inherently the best, and will come to us”) was replaced after Mao’s revolution with a return to agriculturalism, never really allowing the government (?) to efficiently use the great amount of resources and manpower it had.

    I would counterpose this with the Soviet Union, which had fewer natural resources than the United States (at least per square mile), but utilized them effectively enough to be a rival to the United States through most of the twentieth century.

    Now, I am not an economist, and my reasoning is therefore very abstract and completely ungrounded, I am totally willing to admit that, and I am sure anyone with greater understanding of economic forces can tear it to shreds, so consider it more of an analogy than an actual theory.

    With more American academics publishing, they will “control” the discourse through sheer numbers. As an example, look at the comments on our previous argument, in which the majority of commenters controlled the course of the argument until it had to be shut down.

    Now, I definitely think that there is a correlation between the American “control” of the discourse and the metaphorical size of the United States on the world stage, but I think that correlation is an artifact of the simple numbers: more money into research and universities = more universities = more academics = more dominance. Add in the valuable cultural capital of a M.A. or a Ph.D., and you get an incentive for Americans to become academics. (Perhaps I shouldn’t conflate Ph.D. with academic, but I think you see my point).

    I believe that as China and India (to use two examples) invest more of their own capital into the development of universities, and especially graduate level education, there will be a wider variety of voices to counter the American voices currently controlling the discourse.

    Well – after writing that, perhaps we are actually agreeing with each other in broad strokes but differing in our interpretation of the underlying moral aspects. I do not see the “control” of the discourse as necessarily a negative, simply an artifact of the place in which the world finds itself today, nor do I see the rise of other voices as a good or a bad thing. Much like evolutionary change, it just is, without any inherent value judgment laid on top of it.

  4. It’s hard for me to judge the impact of American-centered social sciences without quite being able to pinpoint where and how the ideas circulate outside of Academia. . . .

    I’m tempted to say that the ideas don’t circulate as broadly as American movies and basketball. BUT, even in the news media you see social scientists (e.g. economists) being brought in as experts on the state of the world, to translate to the public.

    Having the money to fund so many academic positions, journals, etc. is definitely a large part of American dominance. Many international students at my college couldn’t aim for a PhD for academic teaching/research jobs because they had to consider the range of jobs that would be available when they went back home. Anthropology, especially, was seen as non-essential.

    It also strikes me that trying to achieve a balance of dominance among academics would only fix part of the problem. Certainly it would be more ideal, maybe a step in the right direction, but it still places academic PhDs at the center.

  5. “but it still places academic PhDs at the center”

    Absolutely, it could solve nothing apart from fixing the numbers. Very good point that you raise here, especially since the question is what kind of “non-hegemonic anthropology” is promised in return/in response/instead of the American-dominated one? The discussion as presented by Bourdieu and Wacquant tends not to raise those questions, but instead implies (perhaps) that other nations produce other anthropologies — to use anthropology as an example, which they don’t. One question then is: do other nations really produce other anthropologies? If not, if instead we see multiple local variations on a global theme, then “American dominance” might well continue without dominant Americans.

    The other problematic issue concerns the dividing up of anthropology in parcels that correspond with the identities of nation-states. To some extent, yes, anthropology is a “national” effort, given state support for universities, centralized research funding, academic publishing, etc. On the other hand, I am not sure there is a “Canadian anthropology” as much as “anthropology in Canada.”

    Some of that “anthropology in Canada” is in fact American anthropology — with four-field departments at McGill and the University of Toronto, for example, a four-field approach that emerged in the U.S. — and others follow the British model, where anthropology really just means social anthropology. Perhaps the most “Canadian” feature are the many anthropology programs that coexist in dual sociology-anthropology departments, such as mine (in fact the only two universities in which I have worked in Canada had combined departments) — and the compromises that produces might spur the development of something distinctive. But not yet.

    Thanks very much, the comments become a vital counterpart/counterweight to the main post, much appreciated.

  6. Interesting. My college in the U.S. also had a dual anthropology-sociology department. I don’t know how common it is at other schools.

  7. “do other nations really produce other anthropologies?”

    Also, while America might be at the center of academic knowledge production, other countries are engaged in other forms of production even more fundamental to the American way of life.

    Consider the impressive quantity and diversity of consumer items produced in China each year. Clothing, food, oil, etc., and so much of it comes from other places….

    Does it need to be balanced? Trade and exchange doesn’t seem wholly wrong. However, one side is primarily working in factories, etc., while the other is working in classrooms focusing on knowledge production. And the latter, in many cases, often don’t produce much of worth at all, or intentionally or unintentionally do work that helps sustain their own position in the world, or produce valuable knowledge (for example medicine) that’s only shared with those who can afford it, or, through scholarships and international programs with select individuals. And as you seemed to suggest, some of these programs also appear to be constructed to with the intent of furthering U.S. strategic ties with specific places.

    Business and marketing efforts on the U.S. strike me as an odd mix, selling others’ products but of obviously spending a lot of time negotiating production and prices to their advantage.

  8. i think, at least part of the answer lies in fetishisation of theory. there would be no ‘market-place of ideas’ if the ‘theoretical contribution’ was not the most valued asset (or value in itself).

    this combination of marketization/commoditization and theoretisation of anthropology (that go hand in hand of course) somehow led to american dominance (or rather peripheralisation of other ways of ‘doing anthropology’). how, i am not quite sure. but that is point taken by Kacper Poblocki in Whither Anthropology Without Nation-State (CoA 2009, 29/2) – a view from central and eastern europe…

  9. Interesting idea Martin…but I’m not sure. Theory can be done anywhere, and has been done, except that it is often ignored if it seem too “peripheral” to what is current and mainstream in world centres of academic production. I can think of a couple of cases, of how the post-colonialist rage centered on a few select authors, mostly in UK and US universities. Those based in India itself, as brilliant as they have been, have been published locally and generally do not circulate along with the Spivaks and Bhabhas.

    Ethnography, especially overseas, requires some real financial backing though. It can’t be done by everyone, everywhere.

  10. i see your point. the argument combining two views would go something like this: because of political economy of anthropology, where theory is a value which anthropologists evaluate, only those at centers (or with ‘real financial backing’) will be able to contribute fast enough (speed of anthropological theoretical fads is not unimportant – you have to be discussing the newest theory in order to compete at the market place of ideas and publish in journals). why some from the periphery make it, i dunno.

  11. oh, and of course: to peripheralise others you just need to show, that they are provincial (i.e. use theory crudely, unlike us in centers), positivistic, too politicised (i.e. not theoretical enough) etc. if an academic does it at the beginning of any article while re-using ethnography or insights of others s/he increases value of theoretical contribution (while lowering those of others)

    i am not sure if this argumentation works – i am just trying to argue Kacper’s point as i understand it.

  12. What I’m wondering is why people in other places would be so interested in being accepted within American theory and publication circles. On the flip side, if U.S. anthropologists don’t have any interest in going to meetings in Canada, why would you want them to come?

    Maybe it’s, specifically, a manufactured fetish for American theory, and for acceptance within American anthropology circles, with all the publishing and funding opportunities that go along with that? At least that’s what this quote from above seems to suggest:

    “passeurs . . . in the country itself or in target countries, propound and propagate, often in good faith, American cultural products, and all the American cultural authorities which, without being explicitly concerted, accompany, orchestrate and sometimes even organize the process of collective conversion to the new symbolic Mecca.”

    I just came across, on Netflix, a film on 18th century American history like those shown in middle and high school classrooms in the U.S. Here’s one section that sounds like a walking advertisement for higher education:

    “By the middle of the 18th Century, colonists endorsed the idea that education should not be kept from ordinary citizens as it had been in Europe, but should be available to all. Many of America’s revolutionary leaders could claim attendance in the higher institutions such as Yale, Harvard, and William and Mary, which were created in the early colonial period. Today, America’s universities and colleges are the cornerstone of the nation’s independent free mind and a source of innovation and a prepared workforce.” (source: 18th Century Turning Points in U.S. History)

    It declares everyone’s right to formal, institutionalized education, as if you’re being slighted if you don’t get it – a lesser citizen – and then suggests that to be free, a leader, independent, and job-ready, you have to attend one of the U.S. colleges or universities. For future employers, it starts putting in place the idea that you’d do best to hire one of these people over any other. Even crazier, the videos are allowed to throw out the “facts” at kids without any supporting evidence, as if anything else would confuse their young minds. I think that’s one way American intellectualism is fetishized, one way the market is being created, at least within the U.S.

  13. “if U.S. anthropologists don’t have any interest in going to meetings in Canada, why would you want them to come?”

    …because they are such hard drinkers, and their politically incorrect jokes, amplified by laughter that is way too loud inside a small bistro, is welcome relief from polite sobriety?

    Just kidding, come on.

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