Imperialism, Americanization, and the Social Sciences

Cultural imperialism rests on the power to universalize particularisms linked to a singular historical tradition by causing them to be misrecognized as such. (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1999, p. 41) If...

Cultural imperialism rests on the power to universalize particularisms linked to a singular historical tradition by causing them to be misrecognized as such. (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1999, p. 41)

If the social sciences are Eurocentric, does this also mean that they are imperialist?

Where Immanuel Wallerstein finds liberalism as the underpinning of the geoculture of the capitalist world-system, rooted in Eurocentrism, Bourdieu and Wacquant (1999) find their counterparts in the hegemonic theories current in academia. They speak of commonplace notions and theses with which one thinks, but about which one does not think (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1999, p. 41). And why not?

these presuppositions of discussion which remain undiscussed, owe much of their power to convince to the fact that, circulating from academic conferences to bestselling books, from semi-scholarly journals to expert’s evaluations, from commission reports to magazine covers, they are present everywhere simultaneously, from Berlin to Tokyo and from Milan to Mexico, and are powerfully supported and relayed by those allegedly neutral channels that are international organizations…and public policy think tanks. (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1999, p. 41)

The work of “theorization” not only abets but furthers the universalization of certain texts, while obscuring their historical origins. Bourdieu and Wacquant are here essentially in agreement with what Wallerstein argued in terms of the Eurocentrism of the social sciences, taking it deeper and linking it to a form of epistemic colonialism. As they explain it,

these commonplaces of the great new global vulgate that endless media repetition progressively transforms into universal common sense manage in the end to make one forget that they have their roots in the complex and controversial realities of a particular historical society, now tacitly constituted as model for every other and as yardstick for all things. (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1999, p. 42)

It’s not just the theories, or philosophical fashions that are globalized, as the origins of these are fairly easy to spot. Instead, what Bourdieu and Wacquant note really escapes scrutiny is the sudden, apparent globalization of seemingly technical terms and single concepts such as “multiculturalism.” We all end up on the same page either way, speaking an international lingua franca that is historically and ideologically situated within the authorized mindsets of a dominant world power (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1999, pp. 43-44). Here they move us from Eurocentrism to its more contemporary and specifically American variant.

The American Mecca (“By the way, will you be in Philadelphia?”)

Innocently and just out of curiosity, I was asked by a colleague if I would be in Philadelphia. I asked in return: “Why? What’s in Philadelphia that should interest me?” Of course my colleague was simply referring to the upcoming annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, when whole departments in Canada lose their faculty to this annual pilgrimage to the centre of anthropological power, to catch some of the light of the American luminaries, and (unintentionally?) massaging the ego of the monster. When I try to reverse the question, for fun, with American colleagues – “Will you be at CASCA this year?” – I get mild expressions of surprise at the question. We all travel to the AAA, it’s the centre; we don’t all go to CASCA, it’s the periphery. If one does not see the geoculture of the world-system at work in the political economy of academia, then one is just not looking.

Turning their attention specifically to the United States, and dominant theories there for discussing race and ethnicity, Bourdieu and Wacquant find the emergence of a globalized sociological orthodoxy, “one of the most striking proofs of the symbolic dominion and influence exercised by the USA over every kind of scholarly and, especially, semi-scholarly production, notably through the power of consecration they possess and through the material and symbolic profits that researchers in the dominated countries reap from a more or less assumed or ashamed adherence to the model derived from the USA” (1999, pp. 45-46). Where Wallerstein spoke of the original Eurocentrism of the social sciences, Bourdieu and Wacquant find this has particularly developed into contemporary Americanization, the Americanization of the Western world, and the Americanization of the universal. The products of American research, they say (quoting Thomas Bender), acquire “‘an international stature and a power of attraction’ comparable with those of ‘American cinema, pop music, computer software and basketball’” (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1999, p. 46). If the analysis of this as a simplistic form of imperialism, of violent imposition, does not work, it does not mean that a more subtle, more “collaborative” form of imperialism is not at work:

Symbolic violence is indeed never wielded but with a form of (extorted) complicity on the part of those who submit to it: the ‘globalization’ of the themes of American social doxa, or of its more or less sublimated transcription in semi-scholarly discourse, would not be possible without the collaboration, conscious or unconscious, directly or indirectly interested, of all the passeurs, ‘carriers’ and importers of designer or counterfeit cultural products (publishers, directors of cultural institutions such as museums, operas, galleries, journals, etc.) who, in the country itself or in target countries, propound and propagate, often in good faith, American cultural products, and all the American cultural authorities which, without being explicitly concerted, accompany, orchestrate and sometimes even organize the process of collective conversion to the new symbolic Mecca. (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1999, p. 46)

However, that is not sufficient for explaining the domination of American academic research products. What we need to pay attention to, Bourdieu and Wacquant argue, is the role of research granting agencies and philanthropic foundations, such as the Rockefeller Foundation (1999, p. 46). We could go further and point to a bevy of other granting foundations, from the Ford Foundation, to the Fullbright Scholar Program, and Wenner-Gren, all of which could be seen as performing the academic equivalent of the U.S. military’s former School of the Americas (known now as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation). Aside from these foundations, internationally scholarly publishing tends to reinforce the conceptual priorities of the dominant (Anglo-)American centre, and here Bourdieu and Wacquant single out Basil Blackwell in particular, for imposing titles that are more in accord with “planetary common sense” (such as the existence of an “underclass”), even with texts that not only debunk the concept, but whose authors and editors vigorously protest the imposition. Similarly, though “cultural studies” does not exist as an entity in French universities, this did not stop Routledge from publishing a compendium on French Cultural Studies (1999, p. 47).

Back to Anthropology and Imperialism

As has been set forth so far, the imperialism of anthropology is not simply based on the role of anthropologists in the service of this or that colonial administration. If that was the mere extent of the relationship, then that would be good news. Instead the relationship goes much deeper, one that is more structural, and less a collection of individual tales from the field. Anthropology was born in the Western world and institutionalized in a specific manner, in particular universities, at a critical point in capitalist world history. Interestingly, for those who study imperialism in the media, and the rise of visual anthropology, this was the same period that marked, as Shohat and Stam (2002, p. 117) put it, “the giddy heights of the imperial project, with an epoch where Europe held sway over vast tracts of alien territory and hosts of subjugated peoples.” Like cinema, institutionalized anthropology also emerged at the end of the 1800s, as the U.S. conquered the Philippines in a bloody war that some say killed at least 200,000 people in outright fighting, and as many 1.5 million people in the first four years of occupation; born around the same time as the American massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee in 1890; at roughly the same time as the 1884 Berlin Conference, when European powers agreed on the division of Africa into colonial possessions; again, in the same period as the British occupation of Egypt in 1882, and the Battle of Rorke’s Drift between the British and Zulus in 1879. The leading cinema-producing countries, were also the leading imperialist countries, and the leading seats of anthropology: Britain, France, Germany, and the U.S. Imperialism provided the subject matter, the supporting structures, the dominant conceptual concerns, and the motive for anthropology.

Institutional anthropology has been located within one particular centre, specifically a North American and northwestern European one. In terms of the continued dominance of American anthropology in particular, one has to bear in mind the sheer quantitative dominance in terms of number of scholars, number of university departments, associations, conferences, journals and research funds, a dominance that is so massive in quantitative terms that it acquires a qualitative value.

The very fact of “world anthropologies” makes reference to this domination, and is supposedly, presumably, an answer to it. More on that in later posts.


Bourdieu, Pierre, and Loïc Wacquant. 1999. “On the Cunning of Imperialist Reason.” Theory, Culture & Society 16 (1): 41-58.

Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. 2002. “The Imperial Imaginary.” In Kelly Askew and Richard R. Wilk, editors, The Anthropology of Media: A Reader, pp. 117-147. Oxford: Blackwell.

About Maximilian Forte

Anthropologist focusing on imperialism, neoliberalism, militarization, "humanitarian intervention," decolonization, Indigenous movements, and other topics in Political Anthropology. In addition, he teaches courses on visual anthropology, media ethnographies, and cultural imperialism. He is a full Professor in the Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. Please direct comments and inquiries to