Anthropology: The Empire on which the Sun Never Sets (Part 1)

ANTHROPOLOGICAL FORUMThis is an Accepted Manuscript (AM) of an article published in Anthropological Forum: A Journal of Social Anthropology and Comparative Sociology, Volume 24, Issue 2, 2014, pages 197-218. It was published on April 14, 2014, and is available online with the PDF available here (it is free from now until two months from now).

DOI : 10.1080/00664677.2014.899201

If citing this article, please cite the version published in the journal if possible, as it contains the final copy edits, corrections, and pagination. This version is available as a complete paper PDF by clicking here.


Anthropology: The Empire on which the Sun Never Sets (Part 1)

By Maximilian C. Forte
Department of Sociology & Anthropology, Concordia University

Questions and debates about the end of anthropology are highlighted here for their potential value in revealing what the ‘crisis talk’ in the discipline really means, and what it may be masking. In this article the reader is invited to reflect on several questions: about anthropology as a discipline or as a praxis; about how anthropology can be not just revitalised, but revolutionised; about the place of ethnography in anthropology; and, the quest for distinction and the accumulation of disciplinary capital. More broadly, this article deals with the restructuring of anthropology within a context of continued imperialism.

Disciplines; Domination; Knowledge; Ethnography; Imperialism

The end of anthropology? Edited by Holger Jebens and Karl-Heinz Kohl. Sean Kingston Publishing, Wantage, UK, 2011, 254 pp., bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-1-907774-05-8 (hardback).

‘Anthropology, reified as the study of man, is the study of men in crisis by men in crisis. Anthropologists and their objects, the studied, despite opposing positions in the “scientific” equation, have this much in common: they are both, if not equally, objects of contemporary, imperial civilization. The anthropologist who treats the indigene as an object may define himself as relatively free and integrated, a person, but that is an illusion. In order to objectify the other, one is, at the same time, compelled to objectify the self.’ (Diamond 1969, 401)

‘The problem is already behind us,’ writes Maurice Godelier in his chapter in The End of Anthropology? (203). I was most sympathetic to this particular opening line in reviewing this collection, almost certainly because it spoke to the trajectory of my own experience. Let me explain, because this reveals much of how and why I frame certain problematic and controversial questions arising from the debates embedded in this volume. So here I am, professionally designated as an anthropologist. Yet, as a professor, I have never worked in an anthropology department as such—two successive universities in Canada hired me at the tenure-track level, and in both cases I was/am in a mixed sociology and anthropology department, where the enrolments in anthropology courses continue to decline, our MA program toys with extinction, and most of my courses are cross-listed with sociology. Moreover, I earned my Ph.D. from a department of anthropology that no longer exists as such, and that once before had even been dissolved. Add to that the fact that I entered anthropology only mid-way through my post-graduate career, and thus spent half of my life as a university student in a wide range of departments and interdisciplinary programs, across the social sciences and humanities—anthropology could not and did not erase any of that, it just added to it. I know almost nothing about kinship, and never had a course on the subject, nor have I ever produced any genealogical charts. Margaret Mead is not any ‘ancestor’ of mine, nor are most of the ‘classic’ figures in the Euro-American discipline. My ‘fieldwork’ (I do not have a friendly view of the term and its implicit disrespect for other people’s social orders categorized as ‘fields’) always involved a mix of participation, observation, conversation, debate, interviews, archival research, Internet research and media analysis: ‘good social science’ is how one former advisor called it, presumably as a backhanded compliment. Most of my reading extends beyond the discipline of anthropology, for a very simple reason best summed up once by Edmund Carpenter (1989, 12): ‘the difference between “important ideas” and ideas important in anthropology is often considerable’. The end of anthropology? Do I sound worried?

What most other academics refer to as ‘anthropology’—and for the purposes of this article I need to capitalize it as Anthropology from this point onwards—is something that I now tend to see more in the rear-view mirror, and it keeps getting smaller. However, we need to be clear that the end of Anthropology as we have known it is, neither for the contributors to the volume nor for myself, the end of Anthropology as we develop it, and it certainly cannot end anthropology as such—which I need to keep in the lower case for other purposes in this article as I explain below.

What we are speaking about then is the actual or potential end of Anthropology in two ways: a) the end of Anthropology as a professionalized and institutionalized discipline created in the late nineteenth-century European university system (Gulbenkian Commission 1996, 21–22), where Anthropology arose not as a mere ‘handmaiden’ of imperialism but as one of its very children, and it served the knowledge-gathering, planning, and ideological purposes of the imperial fatherland; and/or, b) a particular historical baggage of conventional assumptions, traditional methods, and received theories and concepts that for various reasons are no longer being upheld, are contested, and giving way to new approaches which also call themselves Anthropology, especially as they emerge from within the discipline itself. Then there is what in Anthropology is much neglected: the existence of anthropology. By the latter anthropology I mean the many informal, mundane and everyday anthropologies produced consciously or reproduced unconsciously by diverse communities and persons everywhere, as well as the anthropological narratives produced by (inter)state institutions and nongovernmental organisations—anywhere people have an interest in understanding and explaining themselves, others, and their place in the wider world. These anthropologies are rarely formally marked as ‘anthropology’, but not even that is entirely accurate any longer. Even in my limited experience I have interacted with what academics might call ‘cultural activists’ and ‘ethnic community organisers’ who call themselves ‘cultural anthropologists’ even without any university education in that discipline, or any university education at all. I have also encountered musicians and theologians that use the word ‘anthropology’ to refer to some ideal state of humanity, or as a philosophy of the human condition. Even when in Anthropology we read or hear about ‘anthropologies’ this is not what is meant however: what is being referred to are other Anthropology departments and traditions outside of the dominant core of the global capitalist system, specifically outside of the western European and Anglo-American world. Given all of these manifestations of anthropology, its proliferation and pluralisation, it is virtually impossible for that reason alone to brashly declare: anthropology is at an end. Whose anthropology? Where? Of what kind? For what purpose? Maurice Bloch’s response, not addressed in this volume, is worthy of note:

‘[there are] the general questions of anthropology, which exist irrespective of anthropology departments. In fact, I would consider that all human beings are anthropologists….It’s very possible that anthropology departments will disappear, there’s no reason why they should continue existing.’ (Bloch and Kaaristo 2007, n.p.)

Permanent Anthropology and Impermanent Indigeneity

In his introduction to the volume, Karl-Heinz Kohl opens with some striking questions of decline and continuity. As he observes, ‘talk of the decline of the classical object of anthropological studies is nothing new….leading representatives of the discipline…were haunted by the notion that the last “primitive peoples” were dying out right in front of their eyes. This nightmare is in fact older than academic anthropology itself’ (2). The problem here, as Kohl comments, is that ‘anthropologists often tend to identify with the supposed fate of the object of their research’ (3), hence the pessimism of some, dating back decades. The opportunity lost here for Kohl as for most others, and it is a crucial one I think, is not being able to see that Anthropology was built on the assumption of being the study of peoples always in the process of dying out. This is extinctionism, a correlate of evolutionism and imperial triumphalism that masked itself as ‘science’ (even as it drew on the Bible for support). Anthropology was not intended as the study of difference alone, but more precisely the study of the decline of difference as the world evolved towards Europe. From evolutionary theories to Franz Boas’ ‘salvage’ ethnography, to the reincarnation of evolutionism in modernization theories, and the more recent cases of ‘urgent’ anthropology, as well as the ‘invented traditions’ approaches, all of these betray the same built-in ‘pessimism’.

Even in the critical treatment by Kohl, the issue of the alleged impermanence of Indigenous others reveals an unsettled and thus sometimes contradictory narrative. On the one hand, when reflecting on his visits throughout many years to the villagers of Wamena in New Guinea, Kohl writes about cultural revitalisation, but in terms that depict it as an illusion:

‘Yet to revitalise something suggests that it must have died previously. While the visible surface may be the same, in being reinstated, the traditional dress has altered its meaning. The nakedness of these alleged primitives has become an attraction for tourists. Contemporary Dani have become citations, disguising themselves as what they supposedly once were.’ (2)

(Of course to ‘revitalise’ something does not suggest it is dead—the apposite word would have needed to be ‘revival’.) One question immediately arises then, if anthropologists identified their fate with that of the ‘primitives’: whether the changing nature of Anthropology whose continuity, like that of the ‘primitives’, is one that also relies on a display of superficial appearances, as an act of deception, a disguise. However, Kohl later emphasises that the Dani, like many others, show astonishing resilience and flexibility, able to bring their agency to bear on retaining cultural traditions of value to them (3)—what some of us call ‘resurgence’. They survive, anthropology survives.

Yet, it is at the very same time as Indigenous resurgence becomes manifest worldwide, and is even transnationalised, that many anthropologists find new ways to tear resurgence down by arguing that in matters of ‘tradition’ it was all a matter of ‘invention’—once again, Anthropology was about disappearing natives, not their bodies but their cultures. We should note that this critique of modern ‘inventions’ occurred as anthropologists came to recognise that, in Kohl’s words, ‘natives’ were ‘now speaking for themselves,’ and that ‘we no longer have a monopoly on presenting the “native’s point of view”’ (4). Kohl recognises this, but it also seems to irk him a little as when he says that native critiques of anthropology often came ‘from self-appointed spokespersons of the “natives”’ (5). He refers specifically to Haunani-Kay Trask, who strongly criticised Keesing’s (1989) thesis on the invention of tradition, but who in fact added: ‘Unlike Keesing, I cannot speak for other Natives’ (Trask, 1991, 160). One has to wonder why the significant point to make is about whether or not she is ‘self-appointed’ to speak (whatever that means), rather than the strong substance of her article. Moreover, what Kohl bypasses is the critique not of the past but of the continued complicity and collaboration of anthropologists with American empire, whether direct or indirect, and how scholarly authority can be converted into political capital—here Trask refers also to the work of Jocelyn Linnekin (1983):

‘What Linnekin or Keesing or any other anthropologist writes about Hawaiians has more potential power than what Hawaiians write about themselves. Proof of this rests in the use of Linnekin’s argument by the US Navy that Hawaiian nationalists have invented the sacred meaning of Kaho’olawe Island (which the US Navy has controlled and bombed since the Second World War) because nationalists need a “political and cultural symbol of protest” in the modern period (Linnekin 1983, 246). Here, the connection between anthropology and the colonial enterprise is explicit. When Natives accuse Western scholars of exploiting them, they have in mind the exact kind of situation I am describing. In fact, the Navy’s study was done by an anthropologist who, of course, cited fellow anthropologists, including Linnekin, to argue that the Hawaiian assertion of love and sacredness regarding Kaho’olawe was “fakery” (Keene 1986). Far from overstating their case, Native nationalists acutely comprehend the structure of their oppression, including that perpetuated by anthropologists.’ (Trask 1991, 166)

What Trask is also addressing in her passage is that the issue of the complicity of Anthropology with ‘colonialism’ is not something that we can afford to believe is safely sequestered in the past, a matter we have supposedly dealt with already and can now comfortably move on. There is more to be said on this as we proceed.

Kohl also provides a critique of ‘native’ perspectives in arguing that ‘native anthropologists do not look at their own society as the classical ethnographers have done, as “professional strangers”’, and that such native anthropologists ‘have yet to develop that alienating perspective, often connected to the painful effect of self-alienation, to which anthropology owes its most important insights’ (6). As oft repeated as it has been, by many, this is still for me a remarkable assertion, not to say suspicious—it really deserved explanation, and at least some substantiation. Neither is provided. Left as is, this is at best an awkward claim of differential humanness: unlike us, others experience no alienation. Others form part of perfectly homogeneous communities, where dissent and critical distance are unknown. This does not resonate even remotely in my own ethnographic experience. What such assumptions help to make clearer is the uncomfortable realisation that the decolonisation of Anthropology is still barely in its initial stages. More to the point, if this is the kind of Anthropology about whose fate we worry, then the real question should not be whether it is ending, rather it ought to be how we can go about ending it, quickly and once and for all. Fortunately, there is a significant element within even Euro-American Anthropology that consistently critiques (neo)colonialism, even if it would be too much to suggest that they, in any way, represent the core of the discipline.

‘Ultimately’, Kohl points out, ‘none of the contributors to this collection would assert that anthropology has come or is coming to an end’, and moreover, ‘there are even some doubts whether it is actually in a state of crisis’ (11). Rather than be quick to accuse the contributors of being in denial on the latter point, the suspension of crisis talk is actually quite fruitful for discussing what such talk represents. Nonetheless, I think it is a valid criticism to point out that, while the individual chapters differ, their unanimity on this ‘ultimate’ point can be disappointing for various reasons, namely the lack of diversity and thus limited room for debate.

Alien Natives

Kohl’s commentary on native and foreign anthropologists above takes us to the heart of the chapter by Adam Kuper, ‘The original sin of anthropology’. If Kohl reconsidered what Kuper argues, he might not be as confident in his claim that anthropologists study others as professional strangers, but that we are instead the carriers of our own worries and convictions which we transfer to others. In that sense, converting the ‘strange’ into the ‘familiar’ means that we are simply ‘studying’ what is familiar. One might also discuss the reality of the incomplete knowledge if not persistent ignorance of the professional strangers, undermining their claim to be better at explaining ‘natives’ than the ‘natives’ themselves. More broadly, and more profoundly, we could then address the issue of Eurocentrism, and what is apparently the continued belief of some that they are entitled, as experts, to explain the rest of the world to the rest of the world. These questions, unfortunately, do not get much fair play in this volume.

Kuper offers a sharp historical critique of established Anthropology, with the potential of shaking the discipline to its epistemic core. In his chapter he argues that ‘the original sin of anthropology was to take for granted that there were two diametrically opposed types of human society: the civilised and the primitive’, and to the extent that ‘Anthropology defined itself initially as the science of primitive society’, then ‘this was a very bad mistake’ (37). As he further explains, ‘the term “primitive society” implies a historical point of reference. It presumably defines a type of society ancestral to more advanced forms, on the analogy of an evolutionary history of natural species’ (37). More than that, ‘primitive society’ is an illusion: ‘primitive societies—indeed, primitive people—are figments of the Western imagination’ (37). What does this say then about the vitality a discipline, if founded on an illusion as Kuper argues? He does not spell out his answer, which is a pity because it could have offered a lone expression of real dissent in this volume.

However, what Kuper does say should give pause to those who would praise our status as ‘professional strangers’. As Kuper argues, ‘our opposite numbers,’ serve a purpose: ‘ideas of primitive society help us to think about our own societies….They are what we are not’ (37). ‘We’ were never studying ‘them’, so much as we were projecting ourselves. In his chapter Kuper presents a very solid and convincing case regarding the early concerns with incest, close-kin breeding, and marriage between cousins, as representative of worries of a particular English class. ‘Typical of the rising educated upper-middle class in England’, Kuper explains, was the preference for marriages between first cousins (42), as was the concern for the health of offspring produced by such unions. Promoted into discussion by Charles Darwin—whose case Kuper examines in great detail—anthropologists took on those ideas in developing studies based on the broad assumption that ‘primitive’ societies were kin-based. ‘As the experts on primitive society,’ Kuper tells us, ‘Victorian anthropologists were necessarily experts on kinship and marriage, because they took it for granted that the first societies were essentially kinship groups. Henry Maine set out a general law: “The history of political ideas begins, in fact, with the assumption that kinship in blood is the sole possible ground for community in political functions”’ (45). This classical approach is also directly challenged and refuted by Maurice Godelier in this volume, who explains with regard to the ‘celebrated truths’ that are ‘dead’ for him personally, that ‘nowhere are kinship relations, and even less the family, the basis of societies’ (213).

continue to part 2


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