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