Colonial and Anti-Imperial Anthropology

The following quotes come from John Gledhill’s Power and its Disguises: Anthropological Perspectives on Politics, 2nd ed. (London: Pluto, 2000).

page 1:

Half a century ago, the subject matter and relevance of political anthropology still seemed relatively easy to define. Under Western colonial regimes, one of the most valuable kinds of knowledge which anthropologists could offer to produce was that relating to indigenous systems of law and government. Most colonial governments had opted for systems of indirect rule. Colonial authority was to be mediated through indigenous leaders and the rule of Western law was to legitimate itself through a degree of accommodation to local ‘customs’.

In the last analysis, however, the laws and authority of the colonizers were pre-eminent. Anthropologists in the twentieth century found themselves in the same position as clerics in the Spanish-American Empire at the dawn of European global expansion. The authorities were interested in witchcraft accusations and blood feuds with a view to stamping out what was not acceptable to European ‘civilization’. Yet there were some areas of indigenous practice, such as customary law on property rights, which colonial regimes sought to manipulate for their own ends, and might even codify as law recognized by the colonial state. This bureaucratic restructuring of indigenous ‘traditions’ and socia1 organization was generally carried out within a framework of European preconceptions, giving anthropologists an opportunity to offer their services in the cause of making colonial administration work.

A particularly intractable problem for the colonial regimes was that of finding persons who could play the role of authority figures in areas where state-less or ‘acephalous’ societies predominated.

page 3:

…the critical strands of an anthropological approach to politics were not those that became hegemonic in the discipline in the period after 1940. This was the date when the British structural-functionalists established ‘political anthropology’ as a formalized sub-field.

…most of the profession did display ‘willingness to serve’. More significantly, the analyses of mainstream academic anthropology, in both Britain and the United States, proved incapable of confronting the fact that its object of study was a world structured by Western colonial expansion and capitalist imperialism in a systematic way.

pages 3-4:

it remains necessary to strive for the decolonization of anthropology today. The problem is not simply the relationship between the development of anthropology and formal colonial rule, but the historical legacies of Western domination, the continuing global hegemony of the Northern powers, and contemporary manifestations of racial and neo-colonial domination in the social and political life of metropolitan countries.

First, a note about terminology from a guilty party who frequently has used, and often still uses, the phrase “decolonized anthropology.” What Gledhill is speaking about is anthropology on the side of the colonizers, colonial anthropology in the sense that it served the mission of colonization. “Decolonized anthropology” can therefore sound strange, if we are still speaking of the anthropology of contemporary Western elites–it can sound strange because it suggests that these elites (Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, Radcliffe-Brown, etc.) were themselves colonized, that their discipline was occupied by dominant, foreign interests, and that we, their successors, need to liberate ourselves from that dominance much the same as colonized territories in Africa.

It’s not often that one gets to hear of the colonizer speaking of his/her decolonization. It’s a good idea, if anything because colonization involves at least two parties, then surely both should be transformed by a decolonizing process.

However, what remains is the fact that anthropology was not colonized; it was colonizing–so instead of “decolonizing anthropology,” it might be more precise to speak of anti-colonial anthropology or better yet, anti-imperial anthropology because we are in fact dealing with anthropology in the service of empire-building, and empires can be built without physical ownership of colonies.

Gledhill is right to suggest that what we might call a de-imperialization of anthropology is something that remains to be achieved. In many ways not only does it remain to be achieved, it is doubtful whether it has even begun. Yet, imperial anthropology is alive and…well, it’s alive. We find imperialism in anthropology on many levels:

  • monopolistic forms of knowledge production that remove local knowledge to the imperial centers, where “value” is then added;
  • the predominance of European and Euro-descended persons staffing the discipline;
  • the narrow range of languages in which anthropology is disseminated;
  • the degree of professionalization and institutionalization that create expertise and elites who administer truth;
  • the privileging of scientific discourse (anthropology as a “social science“);
  • the range of subjects covered which reflect the interests and imperatives of those in imperial centers who do the research;
  • the methodologies that reflect European epistemology;
  • and, the constant sucking up to power where “applied” anthropology almost invariably means serving corporate elites, the military, or other arms of the state, and privileging such service as scientific, objective and positive engagement (as opposed to “activism” and “advocacy,” which are bad things because they serve the non-powerful), among many other levels we could mention.

Gledhill also emphasizes the enduring Eurocentricity of anthropology as a problem to be overcome, stressing the value of understanding difference and bringing diverse cultural knowledges to bear on explaining problems, and not treating these other knowledges as problems in their own right, by virtue of the degree of absence in them of what is recognizably European-like. It’s as if we were arguing that they are rational and reasonable to the extent that their choices can be understood as equivalent to ours, or can be explained as logical in our terms. I doubt whether the “cultural relativism” that Western reactionaries so fear and scorn was ever really about accepting difference as much as it was about relating it to our own culture and concerns.

In the final quote above, and I may be deliberately misinterpreting Gledhill, there seems to be a linkage between creating a “decolonized” anthropology by means of developing a determined anti-imperialist perspective. If so, then I agree. If that’s not what he says, then I’ll say it. Anthropology after empire is one built in part by an anthropology that is against empire. Coincidentally, I found a condensed expression of this in a post on Boiling Frogs (great image for what it connotes about political passivity, or those who actively avoid things that are “too political”…and click here if you don’t understand the reference). In “Crossing Zero: The Vanishing Point for the American Empire,” Fitzgerald and Gould, writing about U.S. intervention in Afghanistan over the past 30+ years, state: “It is therefore appropriate to think of Zero line as the vanishing point for the American empire, the point beyond which its power and influence disappears.” Excellent. The same should be said about anthropology after empire, one that needs to devour its own waste before imperial anthropology can vanish, and one that needs to concern itself with contemporary imperialism.

I wonder about the availability of other options, and the degree to which they resemble taking a bath in warm(ing) water. Simply “proceeding” means business as usual, and that means imperial business as usual. It’s doubtful whether there is a “neutral” anthropology, something imagining itself as the inhabitant of a grey zone where power, morality, and accountability are magically dispelled by a wave of the hand. A “neutral” anthropology would have to be one developed and practiced in a vacuum, an anthropology of one person alone (because two might bring up disparity and power). If you can think of options, beyond the zero line and the boiling frog, please post your thoughts.

18 thoughts on “Colonial and Anti-Imperial Anthropology

  1. Douglas Smith

    In my rural Ontario community I sometimes fall into the role of the anthropologist, at other times into that of the native. In a recent group encounter I was sorely bruised by my deep ignorance as to what constitutes “politics” in terms of local knowledge. Against a background of increasing suspicion regarding my ultimate allegiance and purpose, I proposed that our group host an anti-development committee at the upcoming fall fair, which we were organizing. The committee was to sell green household products to help reimburse its lawyers. It was not to promote its own agenda.

    To my great surprise, the group unanimously refused the application on the grounds that it was “political”, and that if you let such things go ahead, they could come around later and “bite you in the ass.” Even though the committee had used conventional legal and procedural means to oppose the airport, it was nevertheless regarded as “anti-authority.”

    When I questioned this rationale, one of the group lunged across the table, yelling and stabbing his finger at me, threatening to leave the meeting in two minutes if he didn’t get his way. The group made no move to censure or restrain him. It was my impression that they actually approved of his behaviour.

    Needless to say, I no longer belong to this group. But the experience has left me wondering if Canadians have tended over the years to allow the arena of politics to shrink from a broad endorsement of participatory democracy to an ever-tightening identification with privileged authorities.

    Where then is the funding to get a post-colonial anthropologist over here to study such matters, which are critical for the prospects of peace on earth?

  2. Maximilian Forte

    Thanks very much for the comment Douglas, and if there was ever a Canadian anthropologist who should have been blogging it is you.

    If there is a country where citizens come closest to the boiling frog analogy, I think it is Canada. There are issues of fundamental importance to be discussed, and in the next election I would bet that once again one of the “hot button topics” will instead be something like “the number of places in daycare centres.” Politics is reserved for elites, we’re trained to think it’s a bad thing when we do it, and what we get are elections that resemble balloting in elementary school: vote red for pumpkin carving, or vote blue for finger painting.

  3. Stacie

    Wow, you’re really on an anthropology binge.

    “… giving anthropologists an opportunity to offer their services in the cause of making colonial administration work. ”

    This caught my eye only because I’m in the position of applying for a government food and nutrition school-related grant in WV that requires us to bring in a PhD social scientist as official evaluator. At first I kept getting turned down by people too busy to get involved in an applied project that diverges too much from their pet academic theories and research. You’d think that with the outrage about healthcare, plenty would jump on the opportunity to carry out a school nutrition project in the state that ranks 48-5o in almost every nutrition-related health disorder ( You know, an opportunity not to make colonial administration work but to work towards alleviating our own healthcare system of the massive costs we’re going to have down the road if obesity keeps increasing at the current rate.

    Finally, I had three highly qualified people, all anthropologists, contact me via mailing lists. When I said to one that we didn’t have the funds for two, she directly volunteered her time to get involved. I’m super happy with the progress we’re making, on both the community side and the social science side. I hope we get chosen to carry out the pilot program. It might restore my faith in the usefulness of anthropology and social science researchers.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Hi Stacie. I wonder if some might misconstrue what you are saying here. I don’t mean the part about three micro posts making for a binge–and if you read closely, the argument in the piece is that what we have been doing all along is all anthropology, not just the posts that have the word “anthropology” in their titles. I mean the second part. Are you saying you’re in the clear, this does not concern you, mission accomplished, moving on…or what?

  4. Stacie

    Sure, it’s all anthropology, but there’s a reason you put anthropology in these three titles.

    And yes, it does concern me. We’ve got the state, social scientists, and the local side and local knowledge. We’ve got applied anthropology. I don’t feel like a boiling frog, but then again, how could I from your analogy? I feel more like a frog in a warm sunny pond on a beautiful fall day. Except, our Greenbrier River is running very low right now, so as a frog I’m slightly concerned, but not about the social scientists.

    The list of points about where we find imperialism in anthropology just doesn’t seem to resonate, in this particular scenario, from my perspective. Feel free to correct me. I’m not sure it’s worth going through the list but here goes.

    “monopolistic forms of knowledge production that remove local knowledge to the imperial centers, where “value” is then added;”

    Collecting and analyzing information takes time and effort. Sometimes it’s genuinely useful to have someone trained in survey methods. Sometimes, even locally, people can’t figure out why things are going so poorly, for example why K-12 students aren’t always learning what we wish they were learning. Where is the imperial center? DC? Universities? What’s the local knowledge that we’re beginning with that’s being removed to those centers? Isn’t it more of a collaborative form of knowledge production if people around here are working with the social scientists to carry out the program and assessment? It seems to me the value is first and foremost local, because we can use their report as feedback, and if somebody decides to publish it in a journal that practically no one in the real world reads, what’s the harm in that?

    “the degree of professionalization and institutionalization that create expertise and elites who administer truth;”

    Ok, social scientists are experts in collecting and analyzing data, but nobody’s going to take their word as the holy grail. Sure they can help us out, but, like everyone, they don’t have all the answers.

    “the range of subjects covered which reflect the interests and imperatives of those in imperial centers who do the research;”

    Ok, yes, mostly. They define the overall bounds but there’s still room for flexibility. A really convincing local person (and we have them) could take that anthropologist and twist him/her around their finger and pull them along on their own agenda. So well, in fact, that the anthropologist might think it’s their own. In most cases I’d say there’s a back-and-forth play where it’s never entirely the imperial center’s direction or the anthropologist’s. In fact you have many agendas to navigate, even within one “local” area, since obviously all locals don’t think the same ways.

    “the constant sucking up to power where “applied” anthropology almost invariably means serving corporate elites, the military, or other arms of the state, and privileging such service as scientific, objective and positive engagement (as opposed to “activism” and “advocacy,” which are bad things because they serve the non-powerful)…”

    Yes, to some extent. But we pay tax dollars to get services. Is the scientific and objective part being labeled as positive and activism and advocacy as negative? I don’t see anything labeling activism or advocacy as negative. Why can’t they both be positive in their own ways? Nothing’s keeping anyone from pursuing both at the same time if both seem useful.

    Anyway, the “neutral” anthropology alternative sounds dull and useless, although if somebody prefers to work in a vacuum… whatever floats your boat…. Just not on my state university tax dollars. If that’s the solution, we might as well put them to work in a job that’s actually socially useful, like collecting garbage.

    Hope that clarifies.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      The two most important qualifications here are: (a) anthropology at home, and, (b) collaborative research (to the extent that is happening in the case you outlined, and I am not convinced it is). So in some senses it does not appear to be governed by the same “problematique.” But then again, it works as it does while ignoring the position of the researcher, and the researcher’s country, in a broader imperial system. More problematic perhaps is taking the tools forged from decades of digging into colonial Others, and bringing them back home.

      What might really bring these points to life is a soon-to-be-published special collection in Anthropologica, which will really drive home how social service expertise, health care, aid to the homeless, right at home, is a translation of imperial anthropology. Once I find out that it is available, I will post a note.

      1. Stacie

        That would be excellent if you could post when it’s available.

        I’m not sure you could (or should) ever be convinced of the collaborative extent of the project if you don’t live in this region and don’t know any of the people involved. I’m not even sure there’s a need for us to convince you. And it IS an actual project, not simply research. The research is only one component that helps with feedback and the write-up may or may not prove collaborative in the end. Collaboration is definitely more complicated that gathering everyone around the campfire to sing kumbaya.

      2. Maximilian Forte

        I agree that collaboration “is definitely more complicated that gathering everyone around the campfire to sing kumbaya.” I am not asking to be convinced, I am just saying that what you have given me is not enough to be convinced one way or another, but I think you may be trying to convince yourself…and I am not at all clear about what it is that you are trying to convince yourself about.

        Leaving aside the analogies and examples mentioned so far, let’s focus on a common occurrence: graduate students and faculty choosing research topics that are designed to exploit some niche, and being self-indulgent about it. A runner wants to write a thesis on “the culture of running,” and tells us that there is nothing published on that (maybe for a good reason?). That person is convinced that she is not part of the whole “colonial anthropology setup” because she is not invading another society, not exploiting natives, not furthering the foreign policy of her nation, not engaging in any kind of support for militarism–and to top it all off, she is a committed anarchist and vegan who recycles, does not drive, etc. So, as far as she is concerned, she is “free.” *You* people can discuss colonial anthropology among yourselves, she says, it has nothing to do with me.

        Except that the research tools she uses, their history, their assumptions, are colonial ones.

        Except that she still views herself as the expert who will do the speaking, thinking, and meaning-making for others, and who will convert their “information,” their “data” from their “field,” into knowledge.

        Except that she still adheres to a social science that was instituted as part of the management baggage of the capitalist world-system.

        Except that, in the end, she has reformed nothing at all, transformed nothing at all, and everything else continues as it has been.

  5. Stacie

    ALSO, Is imperial anthropology even as subtle as you make it out to be with the slowly boiling frog analogy? You might be an imperialist if: you fear your local collaborators will burn you alive with gasoline; if: you can’t travel without a security possee. Unless the people being colonized are patient and reserved, don’t complain much, aren’t you going to notice? Won’t people put up a fuss?

    Even around here, if I was working with gas companies trying to convince people to sign over their gas rights and let us drill into Marcellus shale, I’m not sure I could sleep at night. There’s so much outrage about how it might contaminate/destroy well water. Even if I had land and signed it over, several people would make it their personal duty to tell me what a horrible human being I was. If things like that don’t phase you, maybe you’re at risk of being a boiling frog without knowing, but otherwise I think it would be hard not to notice.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Interesting notes Stacie–I just wanted to confirm that I had read them, even if I can’t respond now: I have little time left and am about to put up something new. Maybe in the coming days I will come back to this.

    2. Maximilian Forte

      Ok, a little more time on my hands than I expected. The boiling frogs analogy was not about imperialism, but about being blissfully unaware. In anthropology, the equivalent of the boiling frog would be the one who thinks that there can be such a thing as a neutral anthropology that is uncontaminated by power and politics, that radically disassociates itself from the social context of its production.

      1. Stacie

        How is a neutral anthropology analogous to a boiling frog? Or do you mean an anthropologist who assumes he/she is neutral and is actually boiling? Boiling how? If there are huge power and political issues at stake, I still don’t see how he/she could not notice the boiling. That was my example of HTR researchers. As much as they insist on being neutral social scientists, how can they not notice they’re boiling in politics and power?

      2. Maximilian Forte

        First, I am definitely not arguing that there ever has been a neutral anthropology the way I described it, that keeps itself remote from discussions of power and inequality. As for people not noticing the boiling…are you serious? You mean you have only encountered highly conscious, concerned, activated types, rather than passive, indifferent, diffident types who hope things will just get better somehow?

  6. Stacie

    “*You* people can discuss colonial anthropology among yourselves, she says, it has nothing to do with me.

    Except that the research tools she uses, their history, their assumptions, are colonial ones.”

    Sure, I can agree. Doesn’t this leave anyone who has studied anthropology in an awkward predicament? Once you’ve studied it for four+ years it becomes part of your knowledge base, one of the tools you use for navigating society whether or not you’re a PhD.

    That makes colonial anthropology an essential (not sideline) activity of anthropology as a discipline. I’m not sure that’s something that we have as much power to fix here on the community end. Ideally, PhD anthropologists should all be addressing it in their theories and research. They’re the ones in charge of anthropology as a discipline. They’re the ones who determine what’s included in an anthropology curriculum. There’s no reason they HAVE to continue worshiping an anthropology that centers on the “accomplishments” of a few old, dead, white, European guys. The history of a discipline is one thing. They don’t have to continue with the history and traditions if they don’t want to.

    The larger institutionalized system of knowledge production is tougher. With the internet, it seems to me that academic journals and even libraries, to some extent, are becoming obsolete. Sure, there’s still a sense that science is the “true” knoweldge, but in many ways it’s become sidelined in importance and people secretly laugh at know-it-all academics.

    On: “You mean you have only encountered highly conscious, concerned, activated types, rather than passive, indifferent, diffident types who hope things will just get better somehow?”

    Good point, but are you referring to passive people who wouldn’t speak out and inform the anthropologist that this isn’t working, or are you referring to passive anthropologists who chug along, encountering obstacles and difficulties among people and hope they will work themselves out?

    On any given issue, there are usually multiple people involved, and at least one is usually willing to drop the ball and tell you off if something you’re doing is pissing people off. It depends on the place and the people. People around here are especially good at telling you exactly what they think, so I may be biased by location. Even in Guatemala, as soon as I posed the question of international aid, I got struck down by long rant about how we were only making things worse and should go home and work on the problems in our own country.

    If you’re referring to diffident/indifferent anthropologists, that sounds dangerous to me. They shouldn’t be there in the first place if they’re indifferent, maybe just in it for the thrill or the money. Anything that happens to them, in that scenario, is none of my concern, because people need to inform themselves and be responsible for their own actions, but the larger impact of their actions (and our funding/support of their actions as social scientists) is definitely something to worry about. It’s not so much about the frog boiling but about everyone else getting boiled with them as the water heats.

    1. Pedro Oliveira

      Dear Max,

      Thank you for stirring the pot as usual, with another very interesting discussion on de-colonizing anthropology. I was particularly struck by the first coment on the list. I fully agree with half of it and seem to fully disagree with the other half. Great when these things happen. They force us to define a position in a discipline where one of the recent most fashionable trends is to go around in circles and never really state much of what we actually ‘believe’ (why should we, if deconstructing the notion of belief to an academic audience is so much fun).
      De-colonizing anthropology in Europe, from my standpoint, would involve creating new kinds of applied anthropology that could both allow for greater class diversity within the discipline (let’s bring in the working classes, shall we?) and make it more than an exclusivist, academic field.
      Applied anthropology, in my view, can do a lot for anthropology in general. It does not need to be an elite-serving exercise, divorced from activism: on the contrary. Psychology made a very successful case in creating applied forms that pushed the discipline forward, also in terms of pure intellectual problems. I see no reason why that could not happen in anthropology.
      Psychology has created forms that are more elite-serving (business psychology, HCI, etc) and forms of social activism feeding each other (see the psychology of liberation in America, or the work of APA, Division 27, by the Society for Community Action-Research). In my blog, Chains of Difference, I explore a form of anthropology of science that could branch into many applications, encompassing both business anthropology and forms of social activism. You can find me on:
      Not only am I blogging about it as, out of the academic and funding circuits at the moment (if you read the blog, you can more or less guess why) I am trying to get published on the matter as an independent scholar. Why, once in our lives, as anthropologists, can’t we think of practical solutions for the future discipline rather than deconstructing what others see as a solution?
      Double-trained in psychology and anthropology, I find the critical life in anthropology far more interesting than other human sciences. But not when it leads to an impasse between academic exclusivism on the one side, and the people on the other. That, for me, is the true colonialism. Many thanks, Pedro

  7. Burton Sankeralli

    To decolonize anthropology we have to genealogically dismantle the entire intellectual enterprise going back at leasdt as far as Descartes.

    Then there is the small question as to what is one’s own grounding in this exercise of dismantling.

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