Asad on Anthropology and Colonialism

These are the opening paragraphs of Talal Asad's 1991 "Afterword: From the History of Colonial Anthropology to the Anthropology of Western Hegemony" in Colonial Situations: Essays on the Contextualization of Ethnographic Knowledge (George Stocking, ed). It's a short passage, but it frames the questions about colonial anthropology very nicely.

  The story of anthropology and colonialism is part of a larger narrative which has a rich array of characters and situations but a simple plot.
    When Europe conquered and ruled the world, its inhabitants went out to engage with innumerable peoples and places. European merchants, soldiers, missionaries, settlers, and administrators -- together with men of power who stayed at home -- they helped transform their non-European subjects, with varying degrees of violence, in a 'modern' direction. And of course, these subjects were not passive. The story recounts how they understood initial encounters with Europeans in indigenous cultural terms, how they resisted, adapted to, cooperated with, or challenged their new masters, and how they attempted to reinvent their disrupted lives. But it also tells of how the conditions of reinvention were increasingly defined by a new scheme of things -- new forms of power, work, and knowledge. It tells of European imperial dominance not as a temporary repression of subject populations but as an irrevocable process of transmutation, in which old desires and ways of life were destroyed and new ones took their place -- a story of change without historical precedent in its speed, global scope, and pervasiveness.
    It was in this world that anthropology emerged and developed as an academic discipline. Concerned at first to help classify non-European humanity in ways that would be consistent with Europe's story of triumph as 'progress', anthropologists then went out from Europe to the colonies in order to observe and describe the particularity of non-European communities, attending to their 'traditional' cultural forms or their subjection to 'modern' social change.
    There is nothing startling today in the suggestion that anthropological knowledge was part of the expansion of Europe's power, although there is a general consensus that the detailed implications of this bald statement need to be spelled out. The question then arises as to whether we want to fill in the broad picture of anthropology's growth that is already familiar to us or to illuminate through anthropology aspects of the transformation of which this discipline was a small part.
    It is possible, at any rate, to deal straight away with some vulgar misconceptions on this subject. The role of anthropologists in maintaining structures of imperial domination has, despite slogans to the contrary, usually been trivial; the knowledge they produced was often too esoteric for government use, and even where it was usable it was marginal in comparison to the vast body of information routinely accumulated by merchants, missionaries, and administrators. Of course, there were professional anthropologists who were nominated (or who offered their services) as experts on the social life of subjugated peoples. But their expertise was never indispensable to the grand process of imperial power. As for the motives of most anthropologists, these, like the motives of individuals engaged in any collective, institutional enterprise, were too complex, variable, and indeterminate to be identified as simple political instrumentalities.
    But if the role of anthropology for colonialism was relatively unimportant, the reverse proposition does not hold. The process of European global power has been central to the anthropological task of recording and analyzing the ways of life of subject populations, even when a serious consideration of that power was theoretically excluded. It is not merely that anthropological fieldwork was facilitated by European colonial power (although this well-known point deserves to be thought about in other than moralistic terms); it is that the fact of European power, as discourse and practice, was always part of the reality anthropologists sought to understand, and of the way they sought to understand it.
    What preexisting discourses and practices did anthropologists enter when they went at particular imperial times to particular colonial places?
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