Review of “Internationalization and ‘scientific nationalism’: the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures between the wars”

De L’estoile, Benoît. 2007. “Internationalization and ‘scientific nationalism’: the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures between the wars.” In Helen L. Tilley and Robert J Gordon (Eds.), Ordering Africa, pp. 95-116. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

In this chapter, Benoît De L’estoile discusses the role of the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures (IIALC) in shaping the discipline of anthropology during the time period between the world wars. According to De L’estoile, the institute was the site of intense disputes as two competing approaches to anthropological research emerged under the leadership of Bronisław Malinowski and Henri Labouret. These conflicts signified a crossroads for anthropological research methods, as well as an enduring tension between the universal and the particular.

The IIALC was founded in 1926 with the intention of functioning as a coordinating agency offering multiple forms of resources to researchers engaged in the study of Africa. The international character of the institution was evident in its organizational hierarchy, which was initially structured as follows: the chairman of IIALC was Lord Lugard, who represented Britain, the two directors of IIALC Maurice Delafosse and Dietrich Westermann, who represented, respectively, France and Germany, and the general secretary Hanns Vischer, who represented Switzerland. Even though the institution sought to cultivate an international image, De L’estoile argues that the differences between British and French approaches, which both sought to articulate the “proper” way of conducting anthropological research in Africa, contributed to a political terrain of dispute within the organization. However, De L’estoile also notes that the institution’s European partners were initially united in the belief that research conducted on the African continent would allow colonial agents to master the “shifting colonial ground,” enabling them to peacefully overcome “conflicts between various stakeholders in African matters, especially between rival colonial powers” (p. 98). In this way, in spite of competing methodological viewpoints, the shared colonial interests of the IIALC’s members kept the organization together until WWII.

De L’estoile is primarily concerned with articulating how disputes over the deployment of research methodology in Africa were negotiated within the framework of the institution. According to De L’estoile, the French method of research entailed accumulating as much information about the object of research as possible. The collection of such vast amounts of data was organized with the help of a large network of research collaborators to which colonial bureaucrats, amateur ethnographers and “educated Africans” (those who had been educated in colonial schools) all belonged, “working together to collectively produce an ethnographic encyclopedia of the content” (p. 96). The principle researcher of such a project, in other words, did not actually conduct fieldwork, but instead was the recipient of collectively-gathered data that he or she in turn synthesized, analyzed and categorized for later use. The general purpose of this research method was to record, understand, and reconstruct the “rapidly disappearing past” of Africa, which many researchers in France hoped to present at the new Museum of Man, inaugurated in 1937 (p. 97).

The British approach, advocated by Bronisław Malinowski, sought to transform the French model of organizing research practice. He recognized that the French approach of separating research tasks not only dictated the framework for anthropological investigations, but that it also reflected the epistemological assumptions implicit in the method. According to De L’estoile, Malinowski argued that the epistemological distinction between fact and theory was misleading. This distinction, reflected in the labour divisions between the data collectors living in the colonial field (those dealing in “facts”), and the data analyzers who remained in Europe to study Africa from afar (theorists), belied that fact that “observation was always dependent on a theoretical framework which had to be adapted by the fieldworker” (p. 104). Malinowski argued that theoretical training would allow anthropologists in the field to produce more rigorous and accurate ethnographic research, providing them with a more informed position from which to study the complex and dramatic changes occurring in Africa.

Initially, the IIALC adopted the French model of conducting research under the influence of Henri Labouret, who replaced Delafosse as a director of the institute. Labouret’s own research relied on the contributions of a vast network of European administrators, missionaries, and educated African subjects, all of whom were encouraged to write ethnographic pieces. Thus, the initial primary concern of the institute was to help researchers build networks of correspondents, instead of providing training on how to do proper fieldwork research. However, as Malinowski’s influence over the IIALC continued to grow, his research methodology, which emphasized the importance of theoretical training and fieldwork, became more widely used. As a way of maintaining his clout in the institution, Labouret insisted that the methods used in the field should depend on the particularity of a specific area. For this reason, Labouret also maintained that researchers should consult with the government in places where they seek to conduct research in order “to discover what problems they [the government] considered to be of the greatest importance and urgency” (p. 105).

Malinowski, however, having secured the financial support from British and American foundations and institutions, argued that the international character of the IIALC should be upheld regardless of the methodological disputes present in the discipline. Labouret, on the other hand, after failing to secure financial support from the French colonial authorities, adopted a nationalistic rhetoric, which was deployed against scientific interests of the discipline. Having lost the power to control the definition of research practice, De L’estoile argues that the nationalist argument used by the proponents of the French model was invoked “to protect their own turf from a menacing hegemony” (p. 107).

This chapter presents another deserved critique of early anthropological practice, demonstrating how the political negotiations inside the IIALC resulted in an outcome that mirrored the tension between the particular and the universal. Proponents of the French research model, who initially deployed universalistic arguments in order to advance their position, were forced adopt a rhetoric that emphasized the significance of the particular in a struggle against the universal. Clearly, such a reversal in rhetoric demonstrates a certain level of hypocrisy on behalf of the supporters of the French method. Philosophically, this dramatic shift also reveals a certain level of awareness of the hegemonic power associated with the new research discourse, as well as an awareness of the appropriate response to such imposition. In other words, even though early 20th century anthropologists generally upheld universalistic conceptions in theory, the story of the IIALC demonstrates an emerging awareness of the significance of the particular. However, considering the colonial context of the time (a context that the colonial-run IIALC had a stake in maintaining), this awareness of particularity was likely never meant to include other groups and colonial subjects, who struggled against universalizing forces.


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