Anthropology: The Empire on which the Sun Never Sets (Part 2)


This 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 2)

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

continued from part 1

Crisis and Praxis

Anthropology as a discipline, and anthropology as curiosity about difference or as a philosophy of the human condition, certainly overlap but they are not the same. Enforcers of the discipline have tended to monopolistically speak in the name of the project as a whole. This appropriation, whether intentional or simply a mistake, confuses analysis of the purposes of institutional Anthropology. In Patricia Spyer’s ‘What ends with the end of anthropology?’ in this volume, we see an example of the above. Spyer asks: ‘Would the end of anthropology correspond to the end of otherness as we know it?’ (61). While Spyer makes the valid point that ‘an open stance towards engaging with other lifeways and being potentially remade in the process assumes an even more urgent value in our current age of globalised flows and modernity at large’ (62), that does not actually explain why institutional, professional Anthropology is required. Instead the position seems to rely on a basic and unquestioned formula: Anthropology is the study of otherness, so while there is otherness we must have Anthropology. Many within Anthropology will find this logical; many without, will not understand why a professional discipline is claiming intellectual proprietary rights over otherness, since humans have always had an interest in understanding other humans, with or without the ‘aid’ of a specific profession that was first formally instituted in Europe during the imperial scramble for Africa. In mistaking discipline with project, profession with praxis, and ‘training’ with intellectual curiosity, Spyer is not able to convincingly cement her point that it is only with professional Anthropology that the ‘ability or even propensity to engage and think other lifeworlds and lifeways’ (63) can be realised. This engagement will happen regardless of Anthropology especially because it cannot be a mere discipline that can serve as the intermediary of all social relations on the planet and as the arbiter of the meanings that inform such social relations and are produced by them.

This does not mean to say that Spyer is ‘wrong’ for finding features of Anthropology worthy of praise, such as its ‘characteristic privileging of everyday nitty-grittiness—in the sense of finding virtue and instruction in it—and the tendency to make visible what is invisible’ (65). My question here has to do with the nature of the argument. This becomes clearer, ironically, when Spyer detours from her argument by going into pages and pages of detail from her previous ‘fieldwork’ experiences, all with the aim of showing the value of serendipity. The purpose was lost on me as a reader. Does serendipity end with the end of Anthropology? Does the loss of Anthropology mean people will not learn from serendipitous encounters anymore?

While in ‘The end of anthropology, again: On the future of an in/discipline,’ John Comaroff seems to begin with similar points, his argument is much more productive overall. At first, almost tongue-in-cheek, he asks: ‘As long as there are human beings living on the planet, we will, in principle at least, have an object of study. And after that, who cares?’ (82). Thankfully, he does not rest his argument on that point, but instead turns to issues of crisis and praxis in Anthropology. While he acknowledges Geertz’s point that we may appear to be ‘autopathological’ and suffer from ‘epistemological hypochondria’ (Geertz 1988, 71), Comaroff does better than Geertz in examining and explaining this, thus not reducing self-criticism to a form of pathology (which could suit the purposes of orthodox reactionaries in the discipline). Comaroff explains that ‘crisis and critique are closely connected’ (82) and that to the degree that ‘ours is a critical practice, then—and it is not always that, by any means—it will always be imbricated in crises. Perhaps intermittent iterations of the end of anthropology do not portend oblivion so much as prevent it’ (82). Here Comaroff meets with agreement by Gustavo Lins Ribeiro, who likens Anthropology to a ‘phoenix’: ‘Anthropology’s many deaths and rebirths indicate the discipline’s ability to transform itself’ (2006, 380).

As for Geertz (and numerous others) overdoing the continuing sense of crisis, alarm and anxiety from what has been called the post-modern turn in Anthropology, it is useful to have another perspective on this matter. Noting that the critique of the politics and poetics of ethnographic representation was dominated by Western Anthropologists, Mwenda Ntarangwi (2010, 1-2) observed that the critiques, rather than leading to the dismantling of canonical Anthropologies, resulted in ‘the very reinvigoration and worldwide expansion of these standards through elite centres of [A]nthropological production,’ reinforcing the authority and legitimacy of these Western critics as ‘the default “representers” of the realities of the Other that they study’. Elsewhere he raises the question of whether post-modernism was ‘a decoy by mainstream [A]nthropologists to show that they are concerned about their hegemony but not quite committed to transforming and decolonising it’ (Ntarangwi 2010, 19).

Back to Comaroff: when he posits that ‘the discipline ought to be understood as a praxis’ (93), I welcome that as a move to more fertile grounds. By praxis he means ‘Methodology, upper case’:

‘the principled practice by which theory and the concrete world are both constituted and brought into discursive relationship with one another. And they are epistemic in that they entail an orientation to the nature of knowledge itself, its philosophical underpinnings and its notions of truth, fact, value.’ (93)

‘Our topical horizons ought to be configured by our praxis,’ Comaroff adds, and that configuration rests in a ‘critical estrangement of the lived world’ as well as a ‘deconstruction of its surfaces and the relativising of its horizons’ (94). Likewise, Godelier in this volume asks anthropologists to ‘maintain a state of critical vigilance against the ever-possible intrusion of the judgments that the anthropologist’s own society has already formulated about other societies’, arguing that one must always try ‘to decentre oneself’, that is, ‘to suspend one’s own judgment, to push back to the very horizon of consciousness the presuppositions of one’s own culture and society’ (210). From there Comaroff brings into focus what is or ought to be seen as the ‘perennial question’ of this praxis:

‘What is it that actually gives substance to the dominant discourses and conventional practices of that world, to its subject positions and its semiosis, its received categories and their unruly undersides, to the manner in which it is perceived and experienced, fabricated, and contested?’ (94)

Reintrepreting discipline as praxis is, for me at least, a great starting point for more than just revitalising Anthropology, but for revolutionising it, and bringing it closer to other anthropologies. Rather than dwell too much on what makes the discipline a discipline, Comaroff’s position is that ‘ours really is an indiscipline whose conceptual foundations and techniques of knowledge production have almost infinite potential to open up new horizons’ (99). Indeed, as Comaroff argues, ‘ours has long been an undisciplined discipline, whose heterodoxy has always made its future hard to predict. And ultimately, to its great advantage, irrepressible’ (88). This reminds me of a former classmate who, asked to explain why he chose to enter Anthropology, answered that it was the one discipline where one has the freedom to do whatever one wants—the professor winced ever so slightly for just a brief moment, but I understood and appreciated the answer as expressing what ought to be one of the basics of a Charter of Free Thinking that gives the notion of ‘academic freedom’ real substance. Where Comaroff misses great opportunities, however, is precisely in not dwelling on what makes the discipline a discipline, with the result that the institutionalisation and compartmentalisation of knowledge—a system those of us living today did not invent and should feel no obligation to uphold—is left as ‘normal’ and thus removed from question. That in itself goes against the essence of what Comaroff argues is Anthropology as Methodology, as praxis, and what I see as a marriage between principle, ethics, and critique of whatever is established as the dominant norm and mode that works to restrict access to knowledge and resources, and to suppress dignity and justice.

Ideas for a Revolutionised Anthropology

On these questions of hegemony, discipline, praxis, and radical critique, Vincent Crapanzano does more than the other contributors in advancing arguments similar to the ones I am raising, with his chapter in this volume, titled ‘The end—the ends—of anthropology’. Very much unlike Signe Howell’s chapter (‘Whatever happened to the spirit of adventure?’), an admittedly conservative and nostalgic interjection that bemoans the decline of ‘fieldwork’ in ‘distant’ and ‘unknown’ parts of the world and largely stands as an opposite to Crapanzano’s chapter in every way, Crapanzano sets a distinct tone for his chapter with the following statement: ‘I do not want to idealise the discipline nor give it a significance it has never had and probably never will have’ (123). To avoid a future where we end in ‘a deadening academicism’, that, ‘however quickened by nostalgia, sentimentality and an elegiac sense of belatedness, is destined to repeat again and again its “tried and true wisdom”—the uncritical litany of class, gender, race and ethnicity, for example,’ Anthropology must, Crapanzano believes, ‘reckon with its artifice and the ethical, as well as the political and epistemological consequences of that reckoning’ (135). The ethical questions we will need to face, he argues (and I agree), extend well beyond the ethics of doing research (‘fieldwork’), where ethical questions are often reduced to basic procedural operations, outside of any larger context: ‘I think we have to ask why we have so often been content with delimiting our ethical concerns to so tiny a domain’ (132). In terms of the political reckoning he mentioned above, Crapanzano suggests that ‘we have not recognised how radical a critique of social and cultural understanding we can make, had we the will’ (114).

Bringing back to mind Comaroff’s ‘perennial question’ of anthropology above, Crapanzano argues that the alterity of the anthropological stance can serve as a corrective to unquestioned cultural assumptions and provides a foundation for social and cultural critique: ‘It impedes the replication of a society’s self-understanding…by distressing that understanding, often, though not uniquely, by revealing its negative undersong. Anthropology has an important iconoclastic dimension’ (133–134). He thus also questions the end of Anthropology ‘from a radically disquieting position: one that aims at breaking the complacency that comes with the institutionalisation of a discipline which by its very structure—the straddling it demands—ought to resist the deadening effects of that institutionalisation’ (113). Crapanzano comes close here to his fellow, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, who was one of the members of the Gulbenkian Commission on the restructuring of the social sciences whose 1996 report was published under the apt title, Open the social sciences. Unfortunately, that work was referenced by no one in this volume, which represents a loss for the depth of its discussion.

Crapanzano also has critical points to make about the hegemony of Anthropology as currently established. One has to do with the need to pluralise anthropology, to challenge ‘the hegemony of the self-stipulated “centres” of anthropological thought and practice in Europe and America’ (118). He objects not only to ‘American anthropology’s indifference to other anthropologies’ (117), but also that colleagues from outside of these hegemonic centres are often treated with ‘a certain condescension’ (118). Crapanzano rightly accuses the Anthropology of the centre of being parochial, primarily addressing U.S. colleagues, and possessing a sense of academic superiority that ‘certainly reflects the prevailing attitude of superiority held by most Americans and their displays, however bankrupt, of diplomatic, military and economic power’ (118; Borneman 1995, 665, makes some relevant and interesting points about Anthropology as a form of foreign policy). However, this too should remind us that rather than telling ourselves that we accomplished our mission of decolonising anthropology many years ago, which would help us to diminish if not ignore Crapanzano’s points above (also abundantly made by Ntarangwi [2010]), the critique remains far from finished. If the object of the critique were to be properly understood as one about Western hegemony (and not about whether this or that person collaborated with British authorities) and how newer forms of collaboration between Anthropologists and the U.S. military have emerged, then we are far from ending this discussion.

With respect to the question of anthropology beyond academia, as I spoke of earlier in this article, here too Crapanzano has sensed the existence of a form of alternative anthropologies when he criticises the little attention paid to what he calls ‘informants’ counter-ethnography: the eye they have on the anthropologist as a representative—a source of knowledge—of the anthropologist’s society and culture’ (121).

The politics of Anthropology also merit critical attention, and Crapanzano at least takes a few steps in this direction. He observes how ‘striking’ it is that,

‘a field that claims to be as critically self-reflective as anthropology and as sensitive to the formative power of institutions has not, to my knowledge, explored in any rigorous and historically sensitive way the relationship between the structure of the university and other relevant institutions and the manner in which anthropology frames, theorises, and conveys its subject matter.’ (123)

Crapanzano takes this further, noting that Anthropologists appear blind to the effect on the discipline not just of the structure of the university, and other dominant institutions, but also politics in the broad sense: ‘It is my impression that, after a conservative government has been in power for several years, American anthropology takes a positivist—a scientistic—turn’, and whether one agrees or not, ‘it does call attention to the need to investigate the relationship among anthropological practices, prevailing political currents and mediating institutions like funding agencies’ (124). Fortunately, some efforts by Anthropologists have emerged that focus on the political and institutional contexts of knowledge production in the discipline, one example being the volume by Meneley and Young (2005).

Lastly, Crapanzano also faults Anthropologists for being more concerned with how colleagues will respond to their research, ‘than to the way that research circulates and is made use of outside the discipline, the university and the scholarly community at large’ (124). In a period of renewed interest in ethnographic data by the military and intelligence apparatuses of various NATO member states, corporations, and missionary churches, this demands more attention than has been given by a resilient few within the discipline. More than just attention even, what is needed is confrontation on the question of who is being served by Anthropology’s dominant practice of ‘studying-down’.

In his chapter titled, ‘Transitions: notes on sociocultural anthropology’s present and its transnational potential’, Andre Gingrich suggests that a revolution of sorts is already underway: ‘The content and direction of sociocultural anthropology’s recent processes of self-examination…indicate a profound and sustained transition of almost unprecedented historical significance’ (157). Gingrich does not approve of ‘end’ talk as being analytically useful, but prefers instead the idea of ‘transition’: ‘sociocultural anthropology is undergoing a long process of transition into a transnational and global phase of critical research. Transitions are always accompanied by uncertainty and doubt about the exact outcome as well as about what is left behind’ (155). Marking these transitions in Anthropology has been the tendency to show less political naïveté and less of a positivist belief in pure science; being more multicentred as a discipline than ever; the majority of anthropologists being sceptical or cautious about the field’s political instrumentalisation by dominant powers; and, the fact that research is being done at home as much as elsewhere (159). As for what has become a virtually institutionalised and permanent backlash against the ‘writing culture’ debates in 1980s Anthropology, Godelier, like Gingrich, takes a more reasoned view: ‘There is in itself nothing surprising about deconstructing a discipline. It is a necessary and normal moment in the development of all sciences, natural as well as social’ (205). Godelier says that some forms of deconstruction could lead to the dissolution and disappearance of a discipline, but other forms may instead lead to the ‘reconstruction’ of the discipline on ‘new foundations’ which are ‘more rigorous, more critical and therefore analytically more effective than they were before’ (205).

Challenging Euro-American hegemony in Anthropology also unites the chapters by Crapanzano and Gingrich. Gingrich, following De L’Éstoile (2008), criticises ‘hegemonic internationalism’, that is where ‘internationalisation’ implies ‘cooperation on the basis of entities whose priorities nevertheless continue to be defined within national limits’ (160), and where Anglo-American hegemony, though increasingly contested, continues to exercise disproportionate influence. Moreover, Gingrich observes that all of the ‘diverse philosophical fragments in anthropology’s current epistemological activities have one common denominator: they are all derived from a common Euro-American epistemological legacy’, and he argues that ‘it will also be important to move beyond that legacy’ (171), but is not altogether clear on how that will be achieved. Nonetheless, he stresses that ‘breaking up’ and ‘leaving behind’ Anthropology’s current Euro-American epistemological monopoly is ‘perhaps the most important’ task, one of transnational and global dimensions (172).

Yet others in this volume do not share such goals of contestation as those above, or what I have called revolutionary goals. Ulf Hannerz, for example, would prefer if anthropologists would stop referring to the ‘rebellious streak’ in the discipline, tone down talk of ‘anthropology as cultural critique, and certainly not stress that it is a ‘subversive discipline’. I would agree too, if Hannerz had meant that anthropologists might be overselling the purported and highly debatable ‘radicalness’ of their discipline. But that is not the intention in Hannerz’s criticism. Instead he says: ‘I would not have recommended it, in the past or at present, as the best brand to take into negotiations with academic administrators or ministry officials who may nervously maximise order and predictability in their domains’ (185). More will follow on Hannerz’s chapter below, especially his generalized argument for conformity with the expectations and desires of dominant elites and their neoliberal designs. Unfortunately, the chapters do not speak to each other in this volume, so the occasion for a debate was lost within its pages, which is odd since the volume apparently emerged from two seminars where presumably participants would get a chance to address one another.

return to part 1

continue to part 3


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