Colonialism (Anthropology)

Colonialism is significant for anthropology in three senses: (1) anthropology’s alleged collaboration with colonial government and broader complicity in the culture of imperialism has been extensively debated; (2) colonial processes have had far-reaching and diverse ramifications for social and cultural phenomena studied by anthropologists; and (3) colonialism and colonial culture have emerged as objects of anthropological analysis in themselves. The order of these points relates roughly to the chronology of debate and analysis around the topic within the discipline and beyond.

Anthropology and colonialism

The key text is understood retrospectively to have been the volume edited by "fTalal Asad, Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter (1974), a topic that has often been cited as though it charged the discipline with playing a collaborative role in colonial administration. A polemical stance had in fact been taken in earlier essays by Kathleen Gough (1968) that suggested that anthropologists had colluded in imperialism and neglected to describe the effects of capitalist expansion upon the societies they studied, but contributions to the Asad collection in fact variously exemplified, contested, and moved beyond the critique. James Faris argued persuasively that Nadel’s research in the Sudan was deliberately planned to assist the administration; Wendy James argued carefully if defensively that the liberal political sympathies of individual anthropologists were not accidental but were encouraged by the nature of the discipline itself; conflicts of interest between theoretically driven research and policy, between ethnographers’ and administrators’ concerns, among other factors, meant that anthropology rarely served colonial government.

Asad himself moved beyond this literal discussion of collaboration to an analysis of a larger field of representations in a contrast of anthropological and Orientalist constructions of non-European rule. He suggested that the latter emerged with the process of imperial conquest, and were therefore predisposed to emphasize the essentially despotic and irrational character of Islamic and non-Western polities, while anthropologists worked within a secure colonial order and tended to stress consent and continuity.

Although the caricatured critique was frequently referred to, it was followed up with surprisingly little historical research on the practical colonial involvement of anthropologists, and no further collection on the topic appeared until 1992 (Stocking 1992; for the best review, see Pels and Salemink 1994). As it became represented, the debate was constrained by too narrow a notion of colonialism, and an emphasis on practical collaboration to the detriment of wider discursive and imaginative continuities between anthropology and colonial ideology. fEdward Said’s Orientalism (1977) charged a range of European disciplines and cultural genres with documenting, reifying, and essen-tializing an Orient in a manner that was com-plicit with, if not always directly in the service of, the effort to dominate. The critique included anthropology more by implication than analysis, but did open up issues concerning the authoritative representation of colonized ethnic groups that had been anticipated by Asad but otherwise passed over.

Although Said concentrated on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Orientalism was understood as a discourse that had evolved over a long period, and anthropology could correspondingly also be considered less as a professional discipline and more as a larger body of discourse concerning non-European, or ‘less developed’ European societies, that was inevitably caught up in projects of dominance and self-definition.

Curiously, figures on both sides of the earlier debate had claimed either that anthropology was the legitimate child of the Enlightenment or the bastard of colonialism (Asad 1974: 16; Firth 1975: 43—4), as though these terms were themselves mutually exclusive. The Enlightenment, however, saw Clive’s victory at Plassey and the subsequent expansion of the East India Company in South Asia, the growth of the transatlantic slave trade, and British settlement in Australia, among many other unambiguously colonial initiatives; and the connections between imperial expansion and the growth of knowledge concerning non-European peoples were both evident and disturbing to many eighteenth-century philosophes and travellers (cf. Thomas 1994). The debate about the contamination of ethical social knowledge by politics and economics had a much longer history than those writing in the 1960s and 1970s appeared to realize.

So far as the understanding of late nineteenth and twentieth-century developments was concerned, scholarship moved beyond the activities of professional anthropologists and examined representations of others and popular ethnographic knowledge in world fairs, popular fiction, and postcards. This was also the period for which studies of the relation between ethnography (and related inquiries concerned with population and health, that frequently employed statistical methods), and government really did have something to offer: for colonial administrations in many parts of the world created techniques of observation, statistical classification and discipline that were integral to the culture of government, however unevenly they served its projection. Much recent writing in this area has been informed by Foucault’s arguments about discipline and governmentality, and by the writings of ^Heidegger and Derrida on representation (Cohn 1987; Pinney 1990; Mitchell in Dirks 1992).

Recent critical writing has also raised the issue of whether even liberal or radical texts in fact transcend the distancing and exoticizing textual strategies that characterize earlier, unashamedly authoritative forms of anthropology. It can be argued, in particular, that the emphasis upon the distinctive coherence of other cultural systems, in American cultural anthropology, reproduces the form of Orientalist typification, in the sense that essentialist propositions about Japanese or Balinese culture take the same form as earlier reifications of the Oriental mind, Asiatic society and so on, even if the object is particularized and the analysis more subtle. In riposte, of course, it could be argued that essentialist propositions are pervasive, and that what is problematic is not their presence but their particular character and effect. The earlier critique of anthropological collaboration has thus evolved into two distinct if mutually informed enterprises: one being a more wide-ranging critical history of ethnographic and travel writing, the other being a continuing and unresolved interrogation of contemporary ethnography that draws upon poststructuralist, feminist, and postcolonial theory.

Colonial transformations

Anthropological functionalism tended to ignore the ways in which the societies studied had been altered or influenced by colonial processes, except through inadequate notions of ‘acculturation’ and ‘cultural change’. From the 1960s onward, anthropologists drawing upon Marxist theory, and attempting to historicize the discipline, emphasized the incorporation of apparently traditional societies in wider relations of political and economic dominance, and pointed to various ways in which phenomena that had previously been taken to be integral elements of pre-contact society were in fact generated, stabilized, or reified because of colonial contact or actual administrative intervention. Peter France’s analysis of the Fijian system of land tenure (1969), that was rigidified under the British indirect rule regime, was a path-breaking if not widely recognized exemplar of such analysis, while more recent work in India has suggested that the caste system was at once rendered more central socially by the British assault upon traditional warrior-kingship and more deeply institutionalized through a range of administrative policies (Dirks 1986).

While post-contact change was certainly earlier underestimated, critiques of this kind tended to assume that colonized people passively accepted a variety of administrative impositions. Arguments that societies were remodelled in response or in opposition to European intrusions may overstate the efficacy and importance of colonial processes, and presume that the local social and cultural dynamics ceased to be efficacious from the moment of contact. In most regions, change entailed a more complex pattern of resistance and accommodation; changes were sometimes accepted not in the terms in which they were projected, but because they articulated with a prior indigenous agenda which was not necessarily understood by colonial agents. Colonialism clearly needs to be understood as an uneven process rather than an all-or-nothing ‘impact’. Some scholarship on the invention of indigenous or nationalist traditions has also a debunking character, that assumes a degree of gullibility or bad faith on the part of indigenous peoples and new elites. While this trend is highly problematic, the counter-critique in turn possesses a weakness, in the sense that the resilience of indigenous culture may be romantically overemphasized. If an earlier generation of anthropologists colluded in projects of colonial typification, contemporary ethnographers may collude in traditionalist efforts to validate the present for its elaboration of the past.

These questions need to remain open in part because colonial histories are so diverse. Prolonged settler colonization, entailing dispossession, leads to a different experience and colonial aftermath than the government or exploitation of peasant producers who remain upon their land; further distinctions can be made between mercantilism, informal neocolonialism, socialist colonialism, and so on. While there have been many impressive case-studies, including those concerned with colonialism in the ancient world, the medieval and early modern periods, and non-Western colonialisms (among others, the Japanese in East Asia), the sheer diversity of material has thus far inhibited anthropologically informed comparative synthesis.

The culture of colonizers

At a surprisingly late stage in the debate, anthropological historians drew attention to the fact that colonialism was not a homogeneous process, and that particular colonizing projects were, moreover, frequently internally divided and contested (Stoler in Dirks 1992). That is, while the emphasis had previously been upon the colonized, anthropologists began to differentiate among agents of colonialism such as missionaries, traders, and the state. They drew attention not only to predictable conflicts of interest between such groups (that had long been described if not theorized by historians) but also to deeper contradictions within colonizing efforts, for example around tensions between segregration and assimilation, or between metropolitan imperial and creole settler interests.

Colonializing societies — that were obviously always divided between metropolitan bases and temporary or long-term settler and trader projections – came to be seen as socially and culturally complex entities, to the same degree as the societies that were experiencing and responding to colonization. A shift of anthropological interest from indigenous peoples to colonizers complemented a move on the part of historians away from archive-based histories of Europeans toward oral histories of the colonized, and in many cases individual scholars worked in both fields. Greater sophistication in historical anthropology thus led to a deeper understanding, not of ‘both sides’ of colonial processes, but of the fact that there was a plethora of cross-cutting interests and differences among both colonizing and indigenous populations.

Feminist critique further differentiated colonial projects by suggesting the divergent interests of colonizing men and women, by exploring the particular roles of women missionaries and missionary wives, for example, and by examining the differentiated impact of colonial policies on women and men. These were often considerable, given the degree to which, at various times,missions, government policies, and labour recruiting practices explicitly aimed to transform the division of labour and domestic relations (see e.g. Jolly and Macintyre 1989). Gender has long been significant in colonial and indigenous imaginings of cross-cultural relationships — the feminization of the Oriental other has become a truism of critical discourse — but more can be done on the workings of notions of domesticity, familial forms, and the mutation of indigenous gender identities under colonization.

Parallels have been identified between administrative and evangelical efforts both within metropolitan countries and on the periphery (Comaroff and Comaroff 1991), such as the efforts that were widely projected and implemented from the late nineteenth century onward to sanitize and regulate societies, efforts that entailed much ethnographic, statistical and photographic documentation, and complex interpretive efforts as well as struggles to implement new divisions of space upon recalcitrant English slum-dwellers and African villagers. In this case, ‘colonialism’ might threaten to evaporate altogether as a category of analysis, to be displaced by modernizing social transformations that were implemented both abroad and at home (and in some cases by national elites in the absence of actual colonial rule; in Thailand and Japan, for example). While these closely linked projects need to be analysed further, the centrality of race in colonial imaginings and practices suggests that colonial relationships still need to be considered distinctively, however remarkably diversified they have been and are; and the continuing significance of racism and race makes the study of colonial histories — that are the antecedents to the contemporary global order — a priority for the discipline.

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