The Zero Anthropology Project

Webfolio for Maximilian C. ForteZERO ANTHROPOLOGY PROJECT






This is a revised essay on the current situation affecting hegemonic (US and UK) anthropology, and how it relates to the Zero Anthropology Project. The subject of the article has to do with nativism, indigeneity, and the role of anthropologists.

Anthropology: A Circling of Wagons?

One of the interesting arguments made by British anthropologist Adam Kuper, an expert on the history of the discipline in the UK, is that nativism was spawned by the marriage of American post-modernism and radical political engagement. How so? The result of the fusion of the two has meant that only the native can speak for the native. Kuper pronounced himself against this kind of essentialist identity politics. In “Culture, Identity and the Project of a Cosmopolitan Anthropology” (Man, 1994, 29 (3): 537-554), Kuper cautioned all anthropologists that nativism is an “obvious challenge”: at risk is the whole anthropological enterprise.

Kuper’s work served as one of the useful opening to a past course of mine, Decolonizing Anthropology. The “nativism” Kuper critiqued in his article might appear to involve an anthropology that rid itself of colonial ambitions to occupy other people’s representational territory. Having submitted other peoples to close and intimate inspection and analysis in a manner that echoed the zoological and anatomical precursors of institutionalized anthropology, colonial anthropology had now—in Kuper’s view—given way to a more apologetic version that withdrew from the exclusive claim to represent others. Some might have called this was a “decolonialized” anthropology, as in the colonialists resigning and withdrawing from territories they had settled, rather than a “decolonized anthropology” which can mean many other things.

Kuper was not arguing for a recolonized anthropology as much as a “cosmopolitan anthropology” that would rescue the collapsing discipline from what he saw as its hostile ethnic critics. On the other hand, his article does not mention that for a century the American Anthropological Association had no section for indigenous anthropologists—not very cosmopolitan. The American anthropological discipline, built on the backs of Indigenous Peoples, finally afforded them a distinct space within the AAA, a century after it was founded. Indigenous anthropologists won approval from the AAA to form a section, on December 5, 2007, with their section now named the “Association of Indigenous Anthropologists”. This development would have possibly complicated matters for Kuper, because what if the allegedly nativist native is also an anthropologist, is anthropology still in danger? And when a native becomes an anthropologist, is this not a concrete example of cosmopolitanism? More to the point perhaps, the formation of the AIA may be too little, too late, as indigenous studies programs have grown and spread across North America, and the AIA is easily rivaled in size and prominence by independent associations such as the Native American & Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA).

Kuper pointed out that it was primarily an American debate that involved contesting the authority of anthropologists to represent others. Some, such as myself, could have interpreted his article as representative of a conservative backlash, ironic because it would be a type of anthropological nativism. Kuper explains:

“The recent debates have been dominated by American scholars, and it is necessary to make explicit something they take for granted. The project of anthropology that is in dispute in their work is the American project of cultural anthropology, one quite distinct in the second half of the twentieth century from the dominantly European project of social anthropology. Moreover, the political spirit that often informs it has, again, a distinctively American character”. (p. 538)

In order to help him make his case, Kuper then devoted several pages to reprising the history of American anthropology and the evolution of the culture concept. Kuper argued that a paradox was at work. On the one hand,

“The post-modernists preferred the image of a cacophony of voices, commenting upon each other and as they say somewhat mysteriously ironicizing. The ethnographic object is multifaceted, it can only be partially and fleetingly glimpsed from any one perspective, and cannot be analysed. The assertion of objectivity in traditional ethnography had been in reality a display, promoting a claim to authority political as well as intellectual. The rhetorical performance of the ethnographer was a trick, an exercise in persuasion, and the critic’s job was to unmask it”. (p. 542)

Yet on the other hand,

“There was a kind of truth to which the ethnographer was nevertheless obliged to bear witness: the natives had to be given their unedited say. This prescription was justified by a political argument against domination, and in favour of democratic expression (most explicitly perhaps, in Marcus & Fischer 1986). The ethnographer therefore had the duty to bear witness for the natives, but without imposing an editorial voice. There was increasingly a vogue for ethnographies in which the ethnographer simply acts as a facilitator for a native autobiographer, or for oral histories. The ethnographer is a medium, translating and publishing texts (an enterprise which, interestingly enough, can be traced back to Boas)”. (p. 542)

The paradox is that on the one hand post-modern anthropologists cast doubt on the authority of ethnographies, and on the other hand reinvested ethnographies with legitimacy as long as they made native voices more prominent. But I am not sure there is a paradox there, as much as a distinction between two different modes of writing an ethnography, two different relationships, nor am I convinced that US post-modernists have a right to claim this kind of rethinking as their own invention. Not even Kuper is convinced, noting that it’s a tradition that goes back as far as Boas—long before there was a “post-modernism”.

What is Kuper’s underlying argument is that anthropologists should resume taking each other’s ethnographies as valid, authoritative accounts, and they should continue to occupy a dominant position where there is any discussion of native people (elsewhere he would later question the validity of the related concepts of native, indigenous, and primitive). In an article that preached the values of cosmopolitanism, Kuper appeared to be reviving a monopolist ethic that seized the terrain for the non-native expert on the natives. Kuper’s cosmopolitanism was one averse to encouraging radical political involvements: “This is, inevitably, a cosmopolitan project, and one that cannot be bound in the service of any political programme” (p. 551). Ironically, the Zero Anthropology Project has also come to eschew any activist pretences, not because of any fear of radical political change as such, as much as a desire for intellectual independence. As for radical political programs, cosmopolitanism may be counted by some as one of them.

What Kuper finds problematic is the following proposition:

“It is the voices struggling to articulate a message of liberation that the ethnographer must strain to hear. The ethnographer should therefore convey the messages of progressive forces to sympathizers abroad. Rosaldo, for instance, advises us to pay particular attention to ‘social criticism made from socially subordinate positions, where one can work more toward mobilizing resistance than persuading the powerful,’ and he cites approvingly as one example of what he has in mind ‘Fanon’s uncompromising rage’.” (p. 543)

This is not as problematic for ZAP as it is for Kuper—what Kuper is describing is a broader realism, that takes into account points of view that have long been ignored or even deliberately erased. It would seem to enhance anthropology’s claims to document reality to include such perspectives. Otherwise, what is the good argument for excluding them? Is that not a political decision?

I think that such a position, as Rosaldo’s, is a valuable formulation that provides the basis for an anthropology that is open to collaboration with a host of non-anthropologists, and I certainly share Rosaldo’s appreciation of Fanon. Kuper, on the other hand, would rather turn our attention to what he calls “the nativist challenge.” Viewed cynically, Kuper might be seen as performing a valuable service: by telegraphing his calls for emergency assistance, he indicates the presence of bleeding wounds. Some might smell the blood in the water.

“The Nativist Challenge”

Kuper is aware that indigenous critiques of anthropology were not invented by either post-modernists or politically correct anthropologists:

“To be sure, a native protest against metropolitan ethnographers had been articulated long before post-modernism swept into anthropological discourse. African intellectuals— and others—were making a nationalist case against foreign ethnographers, and sometimes against ethnography altogether from the 1960s onwards”. (p. 544)

But if that is the case, then why did Kuper spend the first half of his article writing as if nativism was primarily a fabrication of overly sensitive, self-doubting, post-modern Americans? Why did he cede to Americans territory that was not theirs to begin with?

Kuper certainly conceded that there was a relationship between anthropology and colonialism:

“To begin with, to be the subject of foreign, metropolitan, exoticizing ethnography is equated with the experience of colonialism. Certainly the two did often go together”. (p. 544)

Such a concession is necessary: not making it would have been untenable, considering the labour that would have been required to write out the history of British anthropologists serving colonial administrations, and American ethnologists and ethnographers serving the causes of scientific racism, westward American expansion, and the administration of captive American Indian populations. Not to mention the presence of anthropological entrepreneurs at freak shows and World Fairs.

However, even when making such concessions, there is an underlying hint of sarcasm in Kuper’s writing (perhaps I am being over sensitive here and thus imagining things). If I am correct, it would mean that Kuper was reluctant to make the concession. He wrote: “Everywhere the dominant Westerners do the ethnography, marginalizing the natives, packaging their way of life for exploitation (if only in the economically rather unprofitable business of academic life)” (p. 544). The bracketed comment seems as if it were meant to elicit chuckles at the idea that we can be exploiters. Unfortunately for Kuper that argument will not work, when we reflect on those of us who have made careers and earned salaries in return for our ethnographic adventures among the natives.

To better understand Kuper, let’s consider some of the key points of politically correct American anthropology that he subjects to criticism. First, there is the proposition that,

“The foreign ethnographer, imprisoned in a culturally-constructed mind-set, cannot truly understand the native, or master the inwardness of the native language. American intellectuals had been told for some time that white people could never appreciate what it meant to be black, that men could not understand women, and that only the ill or disabled could understand those similarly afflicted. Some believed it. Few argued publicly to the contrary. These American gospels penetrated anthropology, and some were led to the conclusion that only the native can understand the native, only the native has the right to study the native”. (p. 544)


“The nativist can also appropriate the premiss—mysteriously taken for granted in much of the recent literature—that the only reliable knowledge is self-knowledge. The native ethnographer can claim an intuitive understanding of the native. This may be taken to confer a natural and exclusive right to be the spokesperson of all natives”. (p. 544)


“Some would go further, and argue not only that the native should speak for the native, but that the native ethnographer should address himself or herself not to the foreign scholar but to a native audience; and should, indeed, write up the ethnography in the native language. This would avoid the distorting compromises that result from translation into one of the colonizing, metropolitan languages; and, moreover, would protect the confidences of the family from prying eyes”. (p. 544)

Kuper’s leading point is “these debates have had consequences for access to the field” (p. 545). He added: “The seventies spawned a whole library of books about the ways in which anthropology inspired and legitimated colonialism. I am sceptical about some of these historical claims” (p. 545). He understated his scepticism, but he also overstated the magnitude of literary production on the subject of anthropology and colonialism.

Researchers versus Ethnicity

The view that only natives should study natives, Kuper asserts, is an absurd dogma. Such a view has “potentially dangerous implications for the practice of anthropology today” (p. 545, emphasis added). We must beware, he says, “lest the question of whom we should study, who should make the study, and how it should be conducted is answered with reference to the ethnic identity of the investigator” (p. 545). Beware indeed: he raises the Nazi spectre in his next paragraph.

Kuper does make one surprising concession. Having insisted and repeated that the phenomenon he is attacking, nativism, is American—even if he later mentions that Africans pioneered the critique—he then tilts against nativism in the Greek academy, after pointing out that nativism dominated Nazi German ethnology, survived in Eastern Europe, and currently flourishes in some universities in contemporary Spain (pp. 545-546). Are they all Americans? Regardless, Kuper does raise very important questions:

“We must remember that there are alternative definitions of our project available. What does the process of ethnographic work really involve? Is the ethnographer analysing and composing ‘texts’ that are on a par with literary texts? And who reads the ethnographies, and for what purpose?” (p. 547).

Does Ethnography Matter?

Having raised these questions, Kuper leads himself and his readers, down a very interesting path, but it’s one that might see ethnography itself fall into a trap. In a discipline that has flaunted its ethnographic-ness, it is precisely this that Kuper lets fall onto the sharpened stakes in the pit. What anthropologists really contribute that is of value, is not a range of insider perspectives (which he patronizingly calls “folk models”), but rather that which is not developed through any fieldwork at all: “an analytical, historical and comparative perspective” (p. 549):

“Folk models serve as ways of thinking and as guides to action, but they do not address the comparative and more abstract project of the ethnographers”. (p. 549)

Indeed, like raw materials extracted from colonies and exported to the metropoles, the real production of ethnographic value does not occur in the site where ethnographic research was undertaken:

“The ethnography—before and after publication—is subjected to critical, collegial examination by other ethnographers, and also by geographers, historians, economists and so on, themselves engaged in local research and equipped with overlapping and complementary expertise. This is a conversation that today decisively shapes ethnographic production, and, of course, it may often include both local scientists and a variety of foreigners…”. (p. 549)

But if this is the case, then what was the harm in doing as Rosaldo recommended, by allowing readers to be exposed to a greater range of voices, including those that may be politically “uncomfortable” for them to hear? Why does Kuper’s defence of ethnographic authority have to mask the defence of a political status quo? This is unfortunate because Kuper is one of British anthropology’s most interesting and critical thinkers, whose analyses have unearthed all sorts of vital insights into the history of British anthropology.

However, aside from everything else, there is one key point of commonality between ZAP and what Kuper is saying about the real nature of anthropological writing: anthropologists must take responsibility for doing their own analysis, and such analysis should not be secluded from the insights offered by other disciplines. More than that, the real value of anthropology rests on its ability to analyze, not its ability to describe. Ethnography is not anthropology. Anthropology is not ethnography. Confusing the two has been one of the significant declines in the quality of knowledge produced by this discipline in disrepair.

“Ethnography is not anthropology.
Anthropology is not ethnography”.

Anthropological Cosmopolitanism?

Kuper emphasizes that “ethnographers should write for anthropologists” (p. 551). Leaving aside the fact that this means we must largely confine ourselves to writing journal articles, given that even academic book publishers prefer books that can sell to broader audiences, it raises a troubling realization. While seeking to push aside “ethnic” restrictions, the fact remains that when ethnographers write for anthropologists, those anthropologists are still primarily white, Euro-Americans. Such an anthropology, that arrogates to itself the label “cosmopolitan,” is merely a nativism with universalist pretenses.

It is an ironic cosmopolitanism, that defines and defends itself as cosmopolitan precisely by leaving out the native except as a provider of curious folk models to be subjected to the theoretical manipulations of the anthropological expert. The aim is a plain and familiar one: “We should once again address social scientists, and aspire to contribute a comparative dimension to the enlightenment project of a science of human variation in time and space” (p. 552). Kuper’s choice of the word “science” is not accidental: he uses it in opposition to the humanities, and anthropology has no place in the humanities in his view.

But who are the creators of that enlightenment project after all? What happens to anthropology if or when “the natives” say no to being studied by anthropologists? What kind of system would support a profession studying “human variation”?

Image: Topsail Beach, on the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland, facing Bell Island. Photograph by Maximilian C. Forte (2018), free for non-commercial reuse, with attribution.



© 2011-2020, Maximilian C. Forte.