Asad on Anthropology
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
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
What preexisting discourses
and practices did anthropologists enter when they went at particular imperial
times to particular colonial places?
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