Anthropology: The Empire on which the Sun Never Sets (Part 3)


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 3)

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

continued from part 2

After the Ethnography of the Dominated and Peripheral?

Questioning the dominance of ethnography in Anthropology is virtually a taboo subject, one of the practices of the discipline that is usually removed from question. Therefore, even in a volume such as this one, which has its conservative and defensive voices, it is interesting to see the dominance of ethnography subject to at least some polite debate. At the very least, this suggests that there is some doubt. However, I wish that I had seen more discussion in this volume similar to what Elizabeth Bird raises in positing that ‘what is ethnographic is not the way of gathering information, rather, ethnography is a “way of seeing”, to get close to those we study in order to better understand what their activities and experiences mean to them’ (2003, 8).

In ‘The crisis of anthropology,’ the chapter by Holger Jebens, we find some of the historical seeds of the fixation with ethnography, especially as defended by hegemonic Anthropology’s most prominent spokespersons. Jebens thus quotes Claude Lévi-Strauss who insisted that an anthropologist ‘“needs experience on the ground….It is a decisive moment in his education”’ (17). More than that, Jebens argues that ‘fieldwork came to be regarded as a ritual re-enactment of Malinowski’s stay in the Trobriand Islands as a kind of mythic event’ (17). In describing the ‘fervent doxology of fieldwork’ and the creation of a ‘fieldwork mystique’, Jebens presents ‘the ideology of fieldwork’ and its recourse to religious notions to justify itself, with ideas such as fieldwork being the ‘ritual of admission’ to the discipline, a ritual that involves the creation of a ‘new man’ from the field experience, the travail of fieldwork symbolising the ‘blood of the martyrs’ (17). No wonder then that calling fieldwork into question is taken by some as an ‘existential threat’ to the discipline (19). As Jebens presents in his chapter, some have argued that the ‘exaggeration’ of fieldwork helped the ‘anthropological guild’ to establish itself (I would say entrench itself, in addition) as an academic discipline, along with developing hierarchical grading and a system of leadership (p. 18). However even with such potentially revolutionary criticisms being aired in the chapter, Jebens feels the need to resort to what appears to be an orthodox defence of fieldwork, going as far as providing a list of activities that do not qualify as fieldwork, stressing that it is not the same thing as reading newspapers, analysing government documents, observing the activities of governing elites, or even tracking the internal logic of transnational development agencies and corporations (27). To preserve the integrity of fieldwork, Jebens argues in agreement with Bruce Kapferer, is to preserve the basis for criticising ‘on the basis of in-depth knowledge of other forms of existence’ (27). Can there no criticism otherwise? How does a Noam Chomsky find so much to criticise about the dominant ideologies, policies, and practices of his own society, without doing ethnographic ‘fieldwork’ in another society that is far removed from it, indeed without doing ‘fieldwork’ of any kind? Indeed, that is perhaps the reason why Chomsky can and does, and why so many anthropologists have much less to offer in the way of criticism, for all of their knowledge of other forms of existence. Certainly it is at the very least an illogical argument to make, that without ‘fieldwork’ among others we cannot criticise what currently dominates—when in actuality, as the ‘invented traditions’ years in Anthropology demonstrated, some of us may criticise the ‘poor and the powerless’ of the world-system while also making them legible to the authorities.

Even in Comaroff’s chapter in this volume, substantial value is attached to ethnography, without much in the way of question. Comaroff argues—despite claiming that anthropology is irrepressibly an indiscipline that ranges freely—that there is ‘no such thing as a postethnographic anthropology just as there is no such thing as a posttheoretical one’ (102). I would not dispute this way of formulating matters, since in that section of this chapter he is trying to balance theory and ethnography. My question is: why this exclusive and singular emphasis on ethnography specifically? Is this the only way anthropologists will talk about qualitative empirical research, and personal experience and reflection? Must these always and only be discussed under the sign of ‘ethnography’, when it is loaded with all sorts of baggage intended by some (such as Howell) to take you only to some places, some questions, and only with some groups of people?

Signe Howell’s chapter is indicative of the kinds of loads carried by ‘ethnography’, the conventions and expectations that are sometimes made to weigh on many of us. She speaks of ethnography in ‘distant’ and ‘unknown’ parts of the world as an ‘adventure’, and she faults graduate students for lacking this ‘spirit of adventure’. I need to be candid, without the commentary being misconstrued as any sort of attack on the messenger, who was not known to me before I read this chapter: ‘adventure’ is the last term I was hoping to encounter in this volume. This is a term so loaded with the imperialism of forced encounters and intervention that one cannot simply cast aside decades of anti-colonial criticism and go back to arguing that white people should go prove themselves in other societies and maybe have some fun while they are at it, while helping to advance their careers, and much more important, the reputation, honour, and distinction of a discipline that can behave as if it were another extraction industry. Yet, while I say that one cannot simply cast aside decades of anti-colonial criticism, apparently this is exactly what is happening in some quarters, which leads me to ask why this is so often ignored.

Indeed, in matters of ethnography and distinction Howell is straightforward about asserting that we ‘must become more proactive in the defense of our methods’ (141), that is, in defending our supposed historical monopoly on ethnography, and to always point out that when others do ethnography it’s not ‘really ethnography’ (141). This raises some interesting historical matters that are often overlooked by anthropologists. Ethnography in both Anthropology and Sociology emerged in the early twentieth-century as two ‘entirely independent intellectual developments’ (Brewer 2000, 11). It is not correct for Anthropologists today to claim something approximating patent rights to ethnography, especially not when many of us have quietly smuggled into our reading the lists the ethnographies of Sociologists such as William Foote Whyte, to name a later example in this history of ethnography in Sociology. Pitirim Sorokin, founder of Sociology at Harvard, did ethnographic work in Russia’s north in 1908 and 1909. Richard Thurnwald did a year of ethnographic fieldwork in New Guinea, before World War I, and before Bronislaw Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands. In Sociology at the University of Chicago, Robert E. Park was already advocating ethnography to his students in the 1920s, coining the phrase about getting the seat of one’s pants dirty (Brewer 2000, 13). Perhaps this has been missed by many since a few Sociologists themselves often tended to call ethnography by other names, such as field research or participant observation. Nonetheless, Deegan (2001,11), dates ethnography in Sociology at the University of Chicago to 1917, to the work of Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess. Though there are different chronologies, clearly ethnography in Sociology well predates the late 1930s, which is incorrectly ascribed by some as its beginning, perhaps in order to privilege the role of W. Lloyd Warner, an Anthropologist working in Sociology at Chicago. Yet, the Sociologists Nels Anderson (1923) and Edmund William Bradwin (1928) conducted ethnographic research in urban areas of North America well before then.

It may be that Howell does not count urban ethnography at home as being either real ethnography or real Anthropology. That Howell is predisposed to favouring the far away is not a matter of conjecture: ‘Anyone who has travelled in Central or Southeast Asia or Melanesia knows that there is no shortage of fascinating localities in which to settle to conduct in-depth anthropological fieldwork’ (149). The choice of term ‘to settle’ is fortuitous here, because it speaks to a settlers’ Anthropology. The ‘fascinating’ localities are not to be found at home, but are only those few remaining places in the world where really real ‘anthropology’ can ‘still’ be done. This position seems to add considerable weight to Ntarangwi’s conclusion that Anthropology remains stuck in its study of alterity.

Interesting given the other more conformist aspects of his chapter, Ulf Hannerz is perhaps the only contributor to the volume to establish some critical distance on this question. Anthropology, he warns (like Bird 2003), ‘cannot be reduced to a method—some sort of qualitative counterpart to statistics’ (186). Nonetheless, none of these specific contributors envisions anything like ‘anthropological commentary’, distinguished by what it says about the global problematic of the human condition, speaking to broad issues of domination and differentiation such as war, forced income inequalities, ‘humanitarian’ interventions, ‘human rights’, ‘development’, and so forth. After all, if generations of accumulated ethnographies do not afford us to speak without doing more ethnography before we speak out on current matters of grave public concern, then what is the value of that accumulated knowledge? Is it ‘dead’ per chance?

Distinction and Disciplinary Capital

It then seems that it is the ultimate question of distinction to which this volume boils down in addressing the ‘threats’ to the discipline. It is not difficult to sense the presence of a certain ‘despondency theory’ at work, where change is sometimes equated with loss, and ‘mixture’ with death of the original (see Sahlins 1999). While the contributions do vary, and offer different points for consideration, the basic thrust of the volume focuses on the academic politics of knowledge production: preserving the discipline as a discipline, developing core standards, and even branding.

First there is the argument that Anthropology must differ from all other endeavours if it is to maintain its distinction. The question then is not whether other approaches are valid, interesting, useful and offer potential for collaboration with Anthropologists, rather it is about keeping them at a distance to maintain what is entirely an artificial boundary, a figment of the nineteenth-century Eurocentric imagination. Why, I would also like to ask, should we keep the work of journalists at bay? Is it because some bureau chiefs lived continuously for years if not decades in the societies they wrote about, and we cannot hope to match that sort of long-term exposure and immersion? What about others, for example, dissidents who once worked in the CIA or State Department, and whose personal insights we cannot ourselves gain without doing covert research of the riskiest kind? Do we shun dialogue for the sake of boundary-maintenance? Does everyone agree with that as a job description for Anthropology?

Comaroff for his part does take note of the fear of dissipation and annihilation, repeating others who believe that a discipline that ‘takes to doing work that could as well be done, and be done as well, by journalists, technicians of ephemera, is indeed one without a distinctive subject, distinctive theoretical concepts, distinctive methods, or a distinctive place in the disciplinary division of labour’, and is thus a discipline that is ‘waiting to be erased’ (86). Howell echoes this fear: ‘what insights can anthropologists produce that a clever journalist cannot, or someone from cultural studies armed with exciting theoretical concepts?’ (152). To me, this question does not commend itself as an interesting or important one, except to note that it means we have largely sidelined certain issues which have now become the core of competing fields, such as post-colonialism, or race in cultural studies. I am not sure this disciplining has worked to the advantage of Anthropology.

Comaroff himself does not readily endorse this fear of dissipation either. His argument is that the perceived loss of distinctive subject matter, methods, concepts, and theories, and thus the loss of a ‘unique place’ in the ‘disciplinary division of labour’, is a concern that is ultimately based on ‘a fallacy of misplaced typification,’ which posits, ‘that anthropology is a species of knowledge defined by its topical reach and received techniques. In sum, we are what we study and how we study it’ (93). Yet even Comaroff does not escape this framework entirely either. When he notes that ‘other disciplines may equally be said to be in crisis’ (87) he does not take this opportunity to radically rethink Anthropology as a harbinger or leader in opening itself to different forms of knowledge, which is precisely what it claims to do outside of academic walls. Instead, Comaroff reassures conservative readers: ‘we are not dissolving into the other social sciences’—as if this were a bad thing—‘the difference between us and them could not be more marked’ (100). Anthropology can still ‘claim a unique place for itself in the world’, Comaroff adds (101).

The second argument made by three of the contributors, concerns ‘branding’. Howell, for example, says ‘there are clear signs that the trademarks of anthropology that underscored all ethnographic fieldwork are by many no longer perceived as essential’ (139, emphasis added), and among these changes are shorter times in the field, not learning other languages, the use of questionnaires, the lack of holism, studies in one’s own country, and becoming more multidisciplinary. While Gingrich does not address the ‘trademark’ issue explicitly,[1] he does argue that ‘a small field like ours needs to reach some minimum consensus about transnational quality standards’ (164). This then inevitably translates into a project for regaining hegemony, countering a plural ethic, and turning us into real disciplinarians, something akin to border patrol guards. Hannerz, in his chapter titled, ‘Diversity is our business’, makes the most concerted effort in this volume in terms of arguing for a ‘brand’.

‘Anthropology needs to cultivate a strong brand’, Hannerz argues (184). He explains why:

‘in times of not just neoliberal thought but also of media saturation and short attention spans, it may be that “brand” is a useful root metaphor, a word to think with in the world we live in. Brands should attract outsiders: customers, visitors, members of the public….they should preferably offer a fully acceptable identity for whoever may count as insiders to reflect on and be inspired by.’ (184)

This is one way in which Anthropology, according to Hannerz, should organise itself in order to adjust to neoliberalism, to produce yet another brand for the increasingly less thoughtful crowd, and not to challenge brands, short attention spans, or neoliberalism. In conceiving of the possibility of a ‘fully acceptable identity’ for insiders (anthropologists), Hannerz is imagining in terms of a hegemonic ‘one vision’. As he argues: ‘We should try to stabilise and institutionalise our own understanding of it’ (188).

The issue of branding stems from a broader discussion about disciplines and their permanence in the university system. Hannerz has two simultaneous positions here. On the one hand, disciplines have posed an ‘obstacle to vitality and creativity’ and it is possible that the ‘end’ of Anthropology could come about as part of a generalized dissolution of all disciplines, given that with ‘many current issues, tendencies, and phenomena’, discipline boundaries do ‘tend to get blurred’ (179). On the other hand, Hannerz would like the status quo to be preserved: ‘I do not think the best solution is to abolish disciplines, as bodies of knowledge and as intellectual communities’ (179). He does not explain further. Surely as a body of accumulated knowledge, Anthropology would remain (as long as there are libraries), and ‘intellectual communities’ have formed for thousands of years before the modern university system ever came into being, and they still form now outside of the walls of academia.

However, Hannerz is not too concerned with the potential disappearance of disciplines. ‘Disciplines would not seem likely to go away soon’, and he explains why he thinks so:

‘When U.S. universities tend to be overwhelmingly dominant in the global ranking lists of academic excellence, one might keep in mind that these institutions have mostly not seemed inclined to close down discipline departments in favour of alternative modes of organisation.’ (180)

Hannerz seems to make an important observation here: the hegemony of ‘disciplined’ knowledge owes its continued existence to U.S. dominance. Yet, this is where the neoliberal order later seems to cause him concern, contradicting his own position above:

‘The politicians of neoliberal academia would not appear to attach any particular importance to the reproduction of disciplines or to the survival of departments. In these times, I would be worried that arguments for a decline of disciplines and for the superiority of transdisciplinarity can turn into clichés that are made to serve as opportune alibis for politicians and administrators to do away with the autonomy of those clusters of intellectual activity that seem least profitable.’ (183)

Neoliberalism is not a problem for Hannerz, when it comes to branding and to the hegemony of the disciplines; however, neoliberalism does become a problem if arguments for overcoming disciplinary structures show any chance of winning. Note also how he suggests that Anthropology might be least profitable—when he and others in this volume devote paragraphs to boasting that Anthropology has never been bigger than it is now, with record numbers of students, practitioners, professional associations, journals, and new departments. If the narrative is unstable, it is not the only time one encounters this in the volume. Nevertheless, I do share the concern about the targeted elimination of Anthropology simply because it suits neoliberal administrators’ desires for ‘practical applications’ that can ‘partner with industry’. I therefore do not disagree with Hannerz in his (limited) criticisms of neoliberalism, I merely wish he would be more consistent and clear.

What is far more disconcerting and politically problematic, however, is the uncritical manner in which Hannerz boasts of Anthropology’s ‘friends in high places’ and its ‘signs of success’ (195). Hannerz apparently endorses Francis Fukuyama’s (2004) call for ‘“knowledge about the subtleties and nuances of how foreign societies work, knowledge that would help us better predict the behaviour of political actors, friendly and hostile, in the broader world”’ (196). If one reads the original article, the argument was framed as part of a U.S. response in its ‘global war on terror’, with Fukuyama himself being one of the original signatories of the ‘neoconservative’ Project for a New American Century (PNAC). Given that Hannerz imports this perspective into a validation of Anthropology, one can reasonably assume that along with ‘studying diversity’ to aid the imperial state, he would have little problem with ‘human terrain mapping’ and with the reproduction of Anthropology as a tool of global surveillance and global counterinsurgency. (Again, how little we have really achieved in decolonising anthropology.) Indeed, without any criticism or question, Hannerz quotes U.S. Senator John McCain (2007): ‘“understanding foreign cultures is not a luxury but a strategic necessity”’—which is part of McCain’s call for a yet another spy agency, a ‘new’ version of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), precursor to the CIA, which as Hannerz is quick to remind us, again without criticism, was where Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Gregory Bateson worked (196). While Hannerz ever so politely adds, ‘we may worry about the suggested company’, he notes what this new agency would do, quoting McCain, which would be to gather ‘“specialists in unconventional warfare, civil affairs, and psychological warfare; covert-action operators; and experts in anthropology, advertising, and other relevant disciplines from inside and outside the government”’ (196). Finally, Hannerz also quotes Obama, almost ending his chapter on this, saying there is a need to understand ‘non-Western cultures’ because, as Obama says, ‘“We don’t have good intelligence on them”’ (196). This might be a winning argument for Anthropology in some quarters; in others, it indicts anthropologists not as ‘handmaidens’ of imperialism, but rather as imperialists proper.

Conclusion: Threats, Dangers and Saviours

In the first chapter of the volume, ‘The crisis of anthropology’, Holger Jebens convincingly makes the case that ‘the whole history of the discipline can indeed be described as a history of dangers and threats’ (14), and he shows this by taking us through three historical phases: the 1830s, 1960s, and the 1990s. As Jebens further demonstrates, ‘even before anthropology established itself as an academic discipline, its practitioners were afraid that they would soon lose their object of research’ (15). That is a critically important observation, but by not pausing to focus attention on this point Jebens loses the chance for a significant revision of the history of the discipline. In the period before anthropology became institutionalised Anthropology, especially during the era of scientific racism and social Darwinism, with the dominance of racial and cultural evolutionary theories and typologies, it would be very difficult to plausibly argue that in that period those anthropologists identified with the people whom they studied. So it was not because of identification with threats against Indigenous Peoples that anthropologists mourned their own loss too. The much more sobering realisation therefore has to be that it was with the presumed/promised death of indigeneity that anthropologists instead promoted themselves. Evolutionism, and the policies it validated—whether extinctionist or assimilationist—required a permanent home outside of commercial freak shows and exhibitions at world fairs. While still ‘amateur,’ the American School of Ethnology in the mid-1800s U.S., and in the 1870s the federally-instituted Bureau of American Ethnology, both enshrined evolutionist perspectives (see Haller 1971). The latter was the first actual institution in the U.S. to produce self-described ‘anthropological’ research. Evolutionism produced the need for an institutionalised, professionalised, disciplined Anthropology—and it eventually found one, in spite of Franz Boas, indeed reviving after Boas. Danger—in this case the death of the indigenous—has been productive of Anthropology.

The question that remains after reading this volume is: why is ‘the end of anthropology’ the title, with the cover featuring an image of the extinct Dodo bird? After all, it is in this same volume that at numerous points we find boasts not just of the continued, tenacious survival of Anthropology, but even its expansion (see for example pages 9, 11, 28, 78, 102, 139, 155, 178, 203). One line of inquiry, that none of the contributors to this volume considered, has to do with other facets and potentialities produced by the incessant ‘crisis talk’. Crisis is akin to emergency, and it can be a way of attracting attention and potential support. With pleas emerging about imminent loss and decline, any increased visibility gained (for example via books about the end of anthropology, or the futures of anthropology) can be useful to gain greater recognition, with the objective of gaining material support to fund what is in fact a growing international bureaucracy surrounding both academic Anthropology and the NGOs that are most closely aligned or entangled with it, such as the aptly named emergency organisations, Cultural Survival Inc. and Survival International. That would be an externally-oriented facet of crisis talk. Then there is the internal function of crisis talk, which is to marshal order among the ranks, to enforce the boundaries of the discipline, and to ensure that certain intellectual agendas are upheld while others never see the light of day. That is why even some of the more dissenting and revolutionary chapters in the volume all contain some outline, some recipe, of how Anthropology ought  to be done and what it should mean. Crisis implies a threat of chaos, and there always seem to be those who will step in and either promise to end the first (if they did not first manufacture it themselves) and to prevent the latter. If anything, what seems to be lamented in this volume is not so much continued Euro-American hegemony, but a hegemony that continues without doctrinal cohesion and security—not so much the lack of a brand as the lack of a Vatican, to speak figuratively only. In some regards, the American Anthropological Association may well try to act as our Vatican.

None of this is to suggest that the volume is not a very interesting and clearly a very thought provoking volume that merits a wider discussion than its extremely high price will realistically afford. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the contributors, or something in between, or beyond, the volume does offer some productive points of both entry and departure for further research and analysis. I have tried to suggest a few above with various questions and criticisms. What lingers the most with me, as just one reader, are two key areas for more developed inquiry. One has to do with thinking outside of the mandated confines of disciplined knowledge, arrested by state and private authorities and placed behind academic walls. We may have won some friends in ‘high places’, but high places have a way of falling apart eventually, and those who stood with those at the top are sometimes called to account. Within the question of the professionalisation of the discipline lies a still largely unexplored area of how Anthropology serves as a western, largely white, middle-class mode of ‘consumption’, specifically the consumption of knowledge about the world that has been ‘appropriately’ filtered, organized, and translated. Of course getting a degree in Anthropology is not just like any other form of consumption, just as it is not merely an expression of curiosity: the process results in formal certification.

The second area of continued concern to me has to do with empire. When I said above that evolutionism produced the need for an institutionalised, professionalised, disciplined Anthropology, I was alluding to the strong points made in Adam Kuper’s chapter in this volume as covered here. However, we are neither dealing just with evolutionism, nor just with notions of ‘civilised’ and ‘primitive’ peoples. These constructs are part of a larger structure, and that is imperialism itself. As Linda Tuhiwai Smith explained effectively, knowledge and culture were extracted, appropriated, classified, and distributed, in an organised and systematic fashion through institutionalised disciplines, where knowledge and culture were treated much like other commodities (1999, 58–60). As she adds: ‘Imperialism and colonialism are the specific formations through which the West came to “see”, to “name” and to “know” indigenous communities’ (Smith 1999, 60). This is mentioned because the ‘complicity’ of Anthropology with imperialism should never have been reduced to a limited consideration of how anthropologists aided some administrations or participated in war and espionage, or how we may have performed as mere ‘handmaidens’ (which if anything diminishes our role). Instead what should also have been examined critically, and still needs to be done, is the degree to which the actual substance of our ideas and practice of the discipline mirror and further the imperial project of power and domination, not to be too blunt. On that kind of Anthropology, the sun has yet to set.

[1] Remember, these contributions do not actually speak to one another, unlike the ‘dialogue’ I am making them perform here.

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6 thoughts on “Anthropology: The Empire on which the Sun Never Sets (Part 3)

  1. Thank you for this “thick” and insightful review. It triggered memories of my readings of your earlier writings about fieldwork and ethnography which I have found very helpful. In my view you have the most coherent and least “deconstructive” understanding of the “crisis ‘in’ and ‘of’ Anthropology”.

  2. To put it succinctly: this is the global class combat. The transnational capitalist class is deciding on smashed on everyone else, having its riches, governmental power, complicit media figures and proxy motions such as the Tea Party to effectively conclude the capture of a rotting system.

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