The Zero Anthropology Project

Webfolio for Maximilian C. ForteZERO ANTHROPOLOGY PROJECT






This is a revised version of an early ZAP essay about the relationship between imperialism and anthropology.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Anthropology might look it came to us with a dual consciousness. On one side, a consciousness influenced by ideals of science and objectivity, pursuing the goal of developing a commanding knowledge about human others. On the other side, a consciousness of itself as a creature of imperialism, guided by a scientific paradigm that imperialism made possible. Does this mean that anthropology effectively has two personalities? Or is there more in common between the above two “sides” than one might think?

Imperialism: Making Scientific Anthropology Thinkable

An article that I like to refer to in my opening sessions in Decolonizing Anthropology is one by Joseph G. Jorgensen and Eric R. Wolf [(1970) “Anthropology on the warpath in Thailand” (a special supplement). The New York Review of Books, 15 (9), November 19]. In that article the two authors speak of a problem that has “dogged anthropologists from the inception of the discipline”:

“European conquest and colonialism had, after all, provided the field for anthropology’s operations and, especially in the nineteenth century, its intellectual ethic of ‘scientific objectivity’. But ‘scientific objectivity,’ we believe, implies the estrangement of the anthropologist from the people among whom he works”.

This is a complicated issue that the two authors raised. Clearly, they wanted to make intellectual room for an anthropology that was committed to revolutionary action. The passage above raises at least four questions: (1) Why is it that scientific objectivity must lead to “estrangement”? (If we understand such objectivity to mean that one is willing to acknowledge the objective structures and conditions in which one works, and that stand outside of oneself, then it is a necessary part of any critical assessment of reality.) (2) Is “estrangement” necessarily negative—can it not also refer to the process of making the familiar strange, of questioning the taken-for-granted features of the status quo? (3) Regardless of the warmth of one’s ideological commitment to a group of people, was it not professional and social distance that made the anthropologist a stranger in the first place? (4) Should anthropologists only be studying persons, communities, groups, movements with which they share some ideological affinity?

Jorgensen and Wolf draw support for their position from Claude Lévi-Strauss [(1966) “Anthropology: Its achievements and future”. Current Anthropology, 7 (2): 124–127]. There is nothing dispassionate about anthropology, Lévi-Strauss argues, it is not mere contemplation of things at a distance. Anthropology is the outcome of,

“an historical process, which has made the larger part of mankind subservient to the other, and during which millions of innocent human beings have had their resources plundered, their institutions and beliefs destroyed while they themselves were ruthlessly killed, thrown into bondage, and contaminated by diseases they were unable to resist. Anthropology is the daughter to this era of violence”. (Lévi-Strauss, 1966, p. 126)

Like Jorgensen and Wolf, Lévi-Strauss finds the imprint of colonialism in anthropology’s very epistemology: “Its capacity to assess more objectively the facts pertaining to the human condition reflects, on the epistemological level, a state of affairs in which one part of mankind treats the other as an object.”

Turning to Stanley Diamond at the end of their article, Jorgensen and Wolf hammer home the point about the dominant epistemological method of anthropology:

“it is precisely the objective study, the reified examination, which is proving to be an illusion. In this situation, there can be no more students of Man studying men as fixed specimens in fixed environments. This was a privilege that the Western world preserved for itself as a consequence of domination. There can only be men who learn to bear witness to each other. In the struggle for the creation of culture against collective and dehumanizing forces, no matter [what] their ideological pretension…there can only be partisans”. [Stanley Diamond. (1964). “A revolutionary discipline”. Current Anthropology, 5 (5): 432–437]

The relationship between imperialism and anthropology, therefore, runs very much deeper than a mere bureaucratic relationship with colonial administrations and the provision of reports, data, and advice. That kind of superficial relationship to imperialism can be changed much more easily than the foundational paradigm that makes the doing of anthropology doable and thinkable.

What strikes me now is how much of the discussion points to something that is striking by its absence: why must anthropologists always study the “poor and the powerless,” and how do we aid them by studying them? In other words, we should question our orientation of always and only studying down, to borrow Laura Nader’s words. A different anthropology would be one that unmasks the powerful—their institutions, networks, myths, rituals, and resources—and it can also be a collaborative venture done with a community that in the past might itself have been the exclusive focus of an anthropology that studied down the power scale.

“A different anthropology would be one that
unmasks the powerful”

Anthropology as Anti-Colonial Protest

In the same critical spirit of Lévi-Strauss, Jorgensen and Wolf point out that anthropology has another side to it. They argue that,

“in the tradition of Montaigne and Rousseau, [anthropologists] radically questioned the pretensions to superiority of Western civilization, while seeking alternative visions of man. This latter aspect of the anthropological consciousness has always been recognized in the United States, to the enduring credit of such men as Franz Boas, Robert Redfield, and Paul Radin. Throughout the history of the profession anthropologists have condemned the assault of the American government on American Indians (although the ‘solutions’ they suggested were not, and perhaps could not have been, better than those from any other source); and the Association has defended the social and cultural rights of minority peoples, and taken early and unequivocal positions against fascism and racism. The Nazis, it should be noted, understood this aspect of the discipline in Europe and systematically sought to cut the heart out of German anthropology, reducing it to a reflex of the regime”.

Jorgensen and Wolf thus raise the relativist tradition in anthropology, and they specifically refer to Montaigne and Rousseau.

Jorgensen and Wolf end their article by stating, “Admittedly, anthropology was ambiguously conceived”. It’s not very clear to me that in its conception in the US and UK there was notable ambiguity, especially given the strong mark of polygenesis and scientific racism both in the Anthropological Society of London, and in the American School of Ethnology during the mid-1800s, as anthropology was being conceived before it became fully professionalized.

Thinking about alternatives, Jorgensen and Wolf state that, “in our view, [anthropology] must disengage itself from its connection with colonial aims or it will become intellectually trivial.” For me this is both a positive goal and a subtle shift in their message. By this point in their article they have completely dropped any discussion of the epistemology of the discipline, how the structures of thought inherent to anthropology and its “credibility” (their word) are rooted in an objectivity that is itself rendered operational by the colonial experience. They certainly do conceive of an altered role for anthropology, however, which I support even if I am not clear as to the extent to which they took up this role themselves: “Anthropologists must be willing to testify in behalf of the oppressed peoples of the world, including those whom we professionally define as primitives and peasants”. Expert witnesses, speaking in defence of the oppressed would seem to be a critically important role. This still leaves some questions open: from where does their expertise spring? What marks their expertise as “anthropological” as different from the testimony of others? And why do “we” need experts to mediate when the oppressed often do, can, and demand to speak for themselves?

An Anti-Imperial Tradition?

Jorgensen and Wolf raised the figure of Michel de Montaigne, speaking to the roots of cultural relativism in anthropology, and the radical critique of Western superiority that they believe they saw resting within anthropology. In the past I have had occasion to read and use Montaigne’s famous essay, “Of Cannibals” ([1578-1580]). I was especially impressed by his introduction of Brazilian indigenous commentary on French society, thanks to three Brazilian Indians brought to France. They provide a rare commentary for the colonial epoch, and a strong critique of imperial society, noting first that it was amazing that the men they met submitted to a monarch who was little more than a child, and then this: “they had observed, that there were among us men full and crammed with all manner of commodities, while, in the meantime, their halves were begging at their doors, lean, and half-starved with hunger and poverty; and they thought it strange that these necessitous halves were able to suffer so great an inequality and injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throats, or set fire to their houses”.

Richard Handler has written [(1986). “Of cannibals and custom: Montaigne’s cultural relativism”. Anthropology Today, Vol. 2, No. 5 (Oct), pp. 12–14] a very relevant critical, yet sympathetic analysis of some of the contradictions within the work of Montaigne, which could in fact not only undo Montaigne’s own theses, while providing support for criticisms of cultural relativism, but they also betray one critically important approach marking all anthropology and subjected to a withering critique by Vassos Argyrou. Montaigne’s argument is, in Handler’s words, that “we justify what are necessarily relative ideas—that is, those that come to us via customs—absolutes” (Handler, 1986, p. 12). Handler quotes at length from Montaigne’s essay, “Of Custom”. I will quote the same passage from a translation different than the one available to Handler, simply because it is the one that is available to all interested readers:

“The laws of conscience, which we pretend to be derived from nature, proceed from custom; every one, having an inward veneration for the opinions and manners approved and received among his own people, cannot, without very great reluctance, depart from them, nor apply himself to them without applause. In times past, when those of Crete would curse any one, they prayed the gods to engage him in some ill custom. But the principal effect of its power is, so to seize and ensnare us, that it is hardly in us to disengage ourselves from its gripe, or so to come to ourselves, as to consider of and to weigh the things it enjoins. To say the truth, by reason that we suck it in with our milk, and that the face of the world presents itself in this posture to our first sight, it seems as if we were born upon condition to follow on this track; and the common fancies that we find in repute everywhere about us, and infused into our minds with the seed of our fathers, appear to be the most universal and genuine: from whence it comes to pass, that whatever is off the hinges of custom, is believed to be also off the hinges of reason; how unreasonably, for the most part, God knows”.

As Handler explains, what Montaigne is doing here is arguing what has become a central thesis in relativist anthropology: that people naturalize arbitrary cultural constructs, mistaking the relativity of customs for absolutes of “nature” or “reason”. According to Handler, Montaigne argues that “humans do not easily recognize the element of bias that inevitably accompanies a culturally particular worldview—that is, that humans more frequently defend, with whatever arguments are at hand, than criticize or relativize their customary orientation to the world” (Handler, 1986, p. 12).

The first ambiguity, if not outright contradiction that Handler finds, lies in Montaigne’s retention of an assumption of an absolute and universal reason. As Handler explains, “to say that people unreasonably mistake ‘what is off the hinges of custom’ for ‘what is off the hinges of reason’ is to suggest that despite the natives’ confusion of custom and reason, there nonetheless exists some absolute faculty of reason by which, if they appealed to it, they could avoid their confusion” (Handler, 1986, p. 13). Thus, despite Montaigne underlining the power of custom to shape reason itself, “he refuses to relinquish a notion of reason understood as a culturally neutral faculty capable of impartial judgment” (Handler, 1986, p. 13). There is yet another way of explaining this “contradiction,” and it will come up again when we talk about Argyrou, and that is simply this: where does Montaigne stand that is dominated by pure reason and is unaffected by the arbitrary power of custom?

Without Any Difference

As Handler points out, Montaigne’s thinking gives weight to the Enlightenment belief in universal reason—reason that is the same for all persons and all cultures at all times: “In Montaigne, reason similarly takes on universalistic implications, since in spite of his insistence on the diversity of custom, he reserves a place for reason—at least for ‘reasonable’ reason—above and beyond custom, a reason that can transcend custom and judge it” (Handler, 1986, p. 13). The crucial point to observe here is that when your logic guarantees such universal human unity, your interpretation of cultural differences is that they are mere surface phenomena: same contents, but different form. In this regard, the relativist position melts into the universalist one, and anthropology becomes an exercise not in “understanding” or “explaining” difference, but rather just explaining it away.

Tzvetan Todorov [(1984). The Conquest of America. New York: HarperCollins] also takes issue with depictions of Amerindian cultural difference as rooted in a basic, pristine human nature that existed before the development of civilization. Handler says that Todorov’s argument is that this is a “superficially charitable view of exotic others [that] does no better than racism and ethnocentrism when it comes to inter-cultural understanding” (Handler, 1986, p. 13). Handler reminds us of what Montaigne says above, that even in defending relativism he can only do so by way of an appeal to an absolute human “nature”: the reason that we suck in with our milk, that is infused in our minds by the seed of the father (Handler, 1986, p. 13).

What anthropologists know from cultural evolutionists as the thesis of the psychic unity of humankind found earlier expression in Bartolomé de las Casas’ idea of the Christian unity of humankind: every human can become a Christian (Todorov, 1984, p. 161). In the Papal Bull of 1537, Pope Paul III reissued the declaration to “go forth and make disciples of all nations,” because all are capable of receiving Christ. “Without any difference” becomes a critical component of las Casas’ defense of the humanity of the Amerindians (Todorov, 1984, p. 162). Christian universalism implies an essential non-difference among all humans, Todorov explains. He points to a quote from Saint John Chrysostom, used by las Casas in his debates at Valldolid: “Just as there is no natural difference in the creation of man, so there is no difference in the call to salvation of all men, barbarous or otherwise, since God’s grace can correct the minds of barbarians, so that they have a reasonable understanding” (quoted in Todorov, 1984, p. 162). It’s a position that helps las Casas to explain away difference, when seemingly defending it: though the Amerindians may appear to us to be “indolent” and indifferent to wealth, that is only because they still observe a basic Christian virtue that we have forgotten, which is to be content with no more than what is necessary for survival.

Todorov’s critique of las Casas’ document, Apologética Historia, is penetrating:

“If it is incontestable that the prejudice of superiority is an obstacle in the road to knowledge, we must also admit that the prejudice of equality is a still greater one, for it consists in identifying the other purely and simply with one’s own ‘ego ideal’ (or with oneself)”. (Todorov, 1984, p. 165)

They may be different now, but they will not always be so—this is the perspective and the program being criticized by Todorov. (It also seems apparent, Todorov tells us, that las Casas could not live up to his own universalist creed, as he “never shows the slightest tenderness toward the Muslims” [p. Todorov, 1984, 166].)

Handler adds that “in European history the emergence of an anthropological ability to understand others has not necessarily led to compassionate interaction with them” (Handler, 1986, p. 13). Indeed, relying on Todorov, he notes that cultural relativism can be enlisted in the service of individualistic pragmatism, where one uses one’s alleged understanding of others in order to better manipulate others (Handler, 1986, p. 13).

Handler’s key conclusion is that “a science of others’ customs should not blind us to the customary underpinnings of our own sciences” (Handler, 1986, p. 14).

Can Anthropology be Anti-Imperialist?

In “New Proposals for Anthropologists” [(1968). Current Anthropology, 9 (5): 403–435] Kathleen Gough comments on the institutional positioning of professional anthropologists (in Europe and North America presumably) and how this impacts on their place in a world experiencing momentous upheavals. She writes:

“From the beginning, we have inhabited a triple environment, involving obligations first to the people we studied, second to our colleagues and our science, and third to the powers who employed us in universities or who funded our research. In many cases we seem now to be in danger of being torn apart by the conflicts between the first and third set of obligations, whiles the second set of loyalties, to our subject as an objective and humane endeavour, are being severely tested and jeopardized”. (Gough, 1968, p. 405)

The passage could have been written 40 years later in another crisis decade that presents so many reminders of her own. Some might argue about the order of her list, or that those elements should not even form discrete items in a list since they are all tied to one another: the funding of research is tied to the research of the people we study, which is itself tied to our colleagues who read our research or hire us to teach it. Even then, Gough and others were reflecting on what to do next in the face of worldwide crisis. In fact she quotes a 1966 paper by Peter Worsley, significantly titled, “The End of Anthropology?” Her suggested direction, given that specialization in small-scale societies is losing currency in a world of rapidly expanding scales of social interaction, is that we start to study large-scale social systems. Then we must be prepared for the fact that our work will resemble that of political scientists, economists, and sociologists. What we must do, Gough urges, is to study “modern society as a single, interdependent world social system” (Gough, 1968, p. 405). This leads us to the study of imperialism ultimately.

Why have anthropologists not been at the forefront of studies of imperialism, failing to study it as a unitary phenomenon? One reason Gough suggests is the impact of the process of specialization within anthropology, and between anthropology and the other disciplines. A second reason is the tradition of fieldwork in small-scale societies, which is simply the wrong methodological basis for contemplating overarching global phenomena such as imperialism. A third is our general unwillingness to offend the governments upon whom we depend for funding and access. A fourth reason is what she calls in the language of her time, “the bureaucratic, counter-revolutionary setting” in which anthropologists work in universities, contributing to a sense of impotence and reliance on machine-like models (Gough, 1968, p. 406). (Updating her terms, we would be speaking of the corporatization of the university, the spread of neo-liberalism, the chilling of academic freedom, and the push toward business-relevant research.)

In one broad sweep, Gough provides many useful clues about the relationship between anthropology and imperialism: (1) we do not study imperialism, so that “critiquing” it becomes more difficult, and unusual; (2) we cannot study imperialism, because we have the wrong methods; and, (3) we should not study imperialism, because it might offend sponsors and bosses, and could unseat us. Ironic then, that the discipline that is institutionalized in universities at the same time as Euro-American imperialism reached new giddy heights in the late 19th century, the discipline that was imperialism’s traveling companion if not scout, is the discipline that is disarmed from studying the context, causes and conditions of its own creation and current existence. Anthropology is about the study of others out of fear of facing ourselves? That would be rather depressing, a kind of forced narcissism.


Thus far what we have encountered above are the following issues relating anthropology to empire:

(a) the imperial nature of anthropology’s inherent epistemology;
(b) the colonial positioning of anthropologists in the field;
(c) the dependence on sponsorship by imperial powers;
(d) a crisis of confidence regarding the nature and purpose of our expertise; and,
(e) doubts about whether we ever have, or ever could, actually understand difference.

We already know that anthropology, as we have learned it, is a Western construct. Anthropology is a Western way of producing knowledge of the world, based on many, disparate, small parts of the world. It is also one Western way of consuming the world. But it’s not simply a way of gaining knowledge of the world, not the anthropology that we have been taught. Nobody—no students, no professors—can really say that the only reason or the most important reason that they entered anthropology is that they were interested in just knowing more about other cultures. It is not an innocent quest for knowledge. One does not need degrees to learn about other cultures, and learning about other cultures does not lead to degrees (for most humans). You may have a thirst for knowledge, but something else is motivating you as well, and that something else is of critical importance. When one enrols in a degree program, one is enlisting in an industrialized, professionalized, system of production, one of whose outputs is credentials and another being power. Anthropology in institutions is not just there to teach the world about the world: it is there to teach a small club of society’s members about the “right ways” of knowing that world.

Likewise, ethnography would seem to be the very last candidate on a list of preferred, sane, and humane ways of getting to know others. Getting to know other people does not mean that we intimately scrutinize them, document them in our notes, and lay out their lives (according to the accepted formulas) for an audience of specialist surveyors, inspectors, and guardians of the discipline. Wanting to share knowledge about others should not mean that we think that only we can explain others, and that we can even explain others to themselves, like expert demystifiers, who have risen above it all. Otherwise it would seem absurd: those who taught me about themselves, as I was ignorant about them, need me to explain them to themselves?

However, it is not absurd, it is functionally useful for maintaining the Westerner in the position of protagonist. Anthropology as a science is a way for the West to maintain its imperial centrality in explaining the rest of the world to the rest of the world. It teaches the world that all legitimate and valid interpretations of the world are to be made by Westerners. Our appreciation for “science” reflects our lust for influence and desire for rewards. “Science” sells. Science develops innovative means of control. Science offers us better means of efficiently managing the animals.

Some of the “big questions” asked by the Zero Anthropology Project thus are:

• Can a decolonized anthropology exist as anthropology as we know it?
• Would not the real decolonization of anthropology mean its termination and then reconstruction?
• Would a decolonized anthropology even be recognized as anthropology?

It is not because of its mental endowments that only the Western world has given birth to anthropology, but rather because exotic cultures, treated by us as mere things, could be studied accordingly as things. Between our attitude toward them and their attitude toward us, there has been no parity. Lévi-Strauss put this better than I have:

“Therefore, if native cultures are ever to look at anthropology as a legitimate pursuit and not as a sequel to the colonial era or that of economic domination, it cannot suffice for the players simply to change camps while the anthropological game remains the same. Anthropology itself must undergo a deep transformation in order to carry on its work among those cultures for whose study it was intended because they lack a written record of their history”. (Lévi-Strauss, 1966, p. 126)


Image: The old Trinidad Public Library building in Port of Spain, Trinidad. In its final years of use, it was the home of the Heritage Library, where the author first worked after obtaining his doctorate. This archival photo is in the public domain.



© 2011-2020, Maximilian C. Forte.