Sibeud, Emmanuelle. 2007. “The Elusive Bureau of Colonial Ethnography in France, 1907-1925.” In Helen L. Tilley and Robert J Gordon (Eds.), Ordering Africa, pp. 49-66. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

In this chapter, Sibeud follows the editors’ aim for the volume’s contributing authors “to move beyond questions of individual or epistemological complicity in colonialism . . . to incorporate broader structural and institutional dynamics” (Tilley 2007:15). Indeed, Sibeud’s account – which opens the section on “metropolitan agendas and institutions” – takes us through some of the negotiations, maneuvers, and situated interests of the various actors involved in the interaction between “French domination in colonial Africa and the reshaping of a French ‘science of humanity’ in the first decades of the twentieth century” (Sibeud 2007:49). Sibeud’s premise is that, in the decade preceding WWI, a gap opened up in the institutional distribution of anthropological knowledge that revealed the dialectic at work between metropolitan academic practice, colonial domination, and on-the-ground field research.

As Sibeud’s chapter makes clear, this dialectic can be seen to operate on many fronts. It was part of the disciplinary competition between a sociologically oriented ethnology and a culturally inclined ethnography for the legitimate succession to anthropology, which was then concerned mostly with anatomical matters. While the Société d’ethnographie and the Société d’anthropologie were both founded in 1859, the former began its declined in the 80s and had faded into marginality by the turn of the century. Disciplinary legitimacy was the inevitable gateway to paid academic positions and funding for research. Some, like Maurice Delafosse, became colonial officers for lack of academic positions available to ethnographers. Others, like Ernest Théodore Hamy, who in 1906 resigned from his post as first curator of the Musée d’ethnographie du Trocadéro for lack of funding, exemplify ethnography’s marginality at the time. But the fact that prominent ethnologist Marcel Mauss – professor and chair at the École Pratique des Hautes Études – applied to become his successor signals that a significant shift was underfoot.

According to Sibeud, Mauss recognized that a revival of ethnography was under way and began working towards bringing it under academic control. His essay of 1913 in the Revue de Paris that called for the creation of a Bureau of Ethnography – around which Sibeud’s narrative is constructed – shows the complicated gambit Mauss was attempting. Responding to the growing movement of “colonial officers who claimed to be ethnographers in their own right” (p. 49) – organized around Maurice Delafosse and Arnold van Gennep – he created with Durkheim and Verneau the Institut Français d’anthropologie, which provided ethnography with a stamp of academic legitimacy, gave colonial ethnographers the metropolitan recognition they were looking for, just as it made them accessories to his academic ethnology. His essay also appealed to colonial authorities, by arguing that the ethnography he was proposing offered tools for “enlightened colonization” (p. 49), avenues for recording disappearing Native cultures, and would not require additional funding as it already had a chair (his own) and would be staffed with colonial officers.

But colonial imperatives, ethnographic insight, and academic ethnology proved difficult to conciliate. While colonial ethnographers criticized metropolitan intellectuals for being ignorant of field conditions, they also side with them against the “racialist schemes” of colonial authorities “in defense of the cultural dignity of African societies” (p. 62). Indeed, and ironically, the evolutionist framework that had informed both the “modern, secular and republican science of humanity” (p. 50) and the theological argument for “primitive revelation” was being challenged by the accounts of wide human diversity that were being reported back from the colonial field. Just as Mauss and Delafosse worked against racialist science and such “Catholic missionary ethnology [as] showcased in [the journal] Anthropos” (p. 60), so did the colonial administration work in the opposite direction. The tension between secular republican ethnologists and Catholic ethnology also showed up in the movement against King Leopold’s crimes in the Congo, which made salient the “conflict between republican principles and colonial practice” (p. 61). The missionaries’ “primitive hypothesis” went against the “dignity of human culture” which emerged from the new science of humanity, a tension which resonated in the discourse held by the Revue indigene or by the Ligue des droits de l’homme, both concerned with “the rights of indigenous people” and with the “undemocratic management of colonial matters which threatened Republican principles as well as international peace” (p. 61). “Colonial lobbies” pushed back against this by promoting a scientific apology of their administrative practices, through the work of missionaries as “specialists of the indigenous soul” or through “‘scientific’ racial policy” (p. 61). The Ministry of Colonies encouraged ethnographic work in this direction, and “relaunched the Société d’ethnographie in 1913 to maintain control over ethnography,” employing missionaries as an alternative to having to deal with “prominent and committed intellectuals like Mauss” (p. 62). Paradoxically, the Ministry’s efforts to “commission surveys that were overtly political, hardly scientific, and which allowed no scope for colonial ethnographers” served to alienate these and push them further in the direction of the Parisian ethnologists (p. 62). Conversely, the new partnership created between colonial ethnographers and academic ethnologists also nourished the gap between these recently legitimated colonial ethnographers and their colonial administrators, which increasingly tended to view the former as “too academic to be efficient in colonial agency” (as in the case of Delafosse, who was denied the post of governor in 1919) (p. 62).

Sibeud’s narrative highlights what is perhaps a key element of the dynamic relationship between anthropology and colonialism. While the former was undeniably, and constitutively, tied to the latter, their relationship was far from straightforward. The momentary disjuncture that occurred at the turn of the century seems to suggest that while ethnography was mostly borne out of colonial conquest, the sensitivity it fostered was antithetical to the colonial project, and eventually promoted resistance to it. Conversely, the knowledge it produced – in its partnership with the more theoretically minded ethnological institutions in the metropole – proved distasteful to colonial authorities. Despite the popularity of the ethnographic “cultural turn” in French anthropology discussed above – or perhaps because of it – the dynamic relationship between the colonial field, the academic establishment, and colonial rule led to its dissolution into the “academic turn” of the late 20s and 30s, a turn marked by the creation of the Institut d’ethnology de la Sorbonne in 1925, which effectively instituted the replacement of ethnography by academic ethnology, “which received colonial subsidies but was not otherwise involved in colonial administration” (p. 63). Ethnology’s retreat into academia was a way to remove itself from the practical concerns of colonial administration; at the same time, “colonial authorities promoted their own research institutions,” which provided them with the means to control researchers (colonial officers) and to exclude those of metropolitan academia (p. 63), sheltering their work from political or epistemological considerations. In effect, it would seem that in the particular juncture discussed by Sibeud, colonialism and anthropology disengaged and recoiled from each other – to the extent that their contemporary epistemological and political space would allow – until both were forced back into their dialectical dance in the post-war de-colonial moment.


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