Review of “Introduction: Africa, Imperialism, and Anthropology”

Tilley, Helen. 2007. “Introduction: Africa, Imperialism, and Anthropology.” In Helen L. Tilley and Robert J Gordon (Eds.), Ordering Africa, pp. 1-45. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

In her introduction chapter, Helen Tilley sets the table for Ordering Africa: Anthropology, European Imperialism and the Politics of Knowledge, offering up some of the central themes of the anthology of which she is the primary editor. The beating heart of Ordering Africa is an analysis of the relationships between knowledge and control within colonial Africa and to what extent anthropology was imbricated, entangled or otherwise involved with these discourses and practices.

Concerning the latter point, Tilley posits that perhaps anthropology did not play as central a role in colonial policy as is conventionally thought. Although anthropologists and ethnographers operating in Africa during and after the colonial period were largely bankrolled by and thereby answerable to colonial powers, they were not always particularly influential when it came to their work being employed in matters such as colonial administration.

Tilley, through anthropologist Talal Asad, goes on to posit that the work produced by anthropologists was often times too abstract to be practically applied to colonial governance, especially when contrasted with the considerable body of work produced by missionaries, merchants, and administrators themselves. Tilley underscores this position quite directly on page 6, stating that “anthropology needed empires far more than empires needed anthropology”.

While their influence may have been somewhat marginal, the narratives produced by anthropologists often found themselves confined within or tied to colonial discourses, the aims of which were to create a kinder, gentler, and ultimately more efficient system of imperial exploitation. This becomes curious when one considers that although the works of big names like Maliknowski and Evans-Pritchard were largely tailored towards the colonial endeavor, the very knowledge they produced, depending on how it was framed, could at the same time be used to “challenge colonialism’s assumptions, objectives and political structures” (7).

For their part, African intellectuals were understandably less than thrilled with the role played by anthropologists and other social scientists in the African colonial project, regardless of their effectuality. Through a certain lens, this actually proved fortuitous for the field of anthropology. Indeed, as Tilley suggests, there is evidence that the resulting pushback from African intellectuals was a major catalyst in the rethinking of anthropology as a discipline and played no small part in impelling the study of anthropology itself which has since gone on to become a field of its own.

It is also worth noting, as Tilley does, that neither the field of anthropology nor the colonial and subaltern actors within Africa were necessarily static and insular entitles. Bearing this in mind, any epistemological study of Africa and empire ought to be grounded within larger contexts which consider how the interplay of the many heterogeneous interests at work both within and external to colonial-era Africa have constituted what Tilley describes on page 14 as a “shared experience”.

The truck and tension between empires, between empire and anthropologist, and among anthropologists themselves have rendered an epistemological landscape wherein wherein questions of intent and complicity are highly complicated and seldom particularly fruitful. The epistemological waters of colonial Africa are muddied further when one also takes into account the experience of the African subaltern(s) who have responded to anthropology and empire in a myriad of ways, variously rejecting anthropological and social scientific involvement (as was the case with many African intellectuals), embracing and internalizing colonial ethnographic identities produced by anthropologists (as was the case with the Fang peoples studied by Cinnamon), and incorporating anthropological work in the formulation of new methods of political ordering (as per Kenyatta).

Into this heady brew one may also wish to add the individual ideological dimensions of the anthropologists, administrators, and subalterns for whom issues of knowledge production, social control, and political and social change were matters of significant (although by no means exclusive) importance. Tilley points to the example (one among many) of the work done on Italian colonial administrator Alberto Pollera, who paved his paths with what he saw as good intentions. Further along the road, as we see all too often in such confused circumstances, this led to unforeseen circumstances as his ideology in practice remained steeped in ethnocentric concepts of racial superiority, ricocheting off of competing interests and ultimately reifying new stereotypes and prejudices in the name of destroying old ones.

Tilley concludes her introduction by highlighting the primary intentions and loci of Ordering Africa. The first concerns the transnational nature of the various actors and institutions involved in colonial era Africa. The boundaries surrounding the interpretation of events in colonial Africa were porous and saw anthropologists and administrators alike occupying numerous physical, institutional and intellectual milieus as this collective experience was woven. While it complicates any structured narrative, ignoring the transnational aspects of knowledge production in (and of) Africa is to paint picture bereft of many of the variables at work.

The second emerging pattern pertains to the creation of scholarly ‘clearinghouses’ within African colonies and their parent nation states and the marks made by them on both the discipline of anthropology and the ongoing discussions surrounding intellectual discourse and administration. Tilley makes a call for the necessity of incorporating the multifarious “disciplines, nations, methodologies, [and] underlying assumptions and objectives” (26) into said discussions.

The third thread considers where various administrators and anthropologists could be placed along a spectrum between the concerns for the creation of colonial policy on the one hand, and for social history and lived, on-the-ground reality on the other. The attendant tensions reveal a disconnect in our understanding of the knowledge-making relationship between administrator and anthropologist. Tilley also briefly points to the fact that studies of the trajectory of anthropology are often couched exclusively in socio-economic and political contexts that neglect to take into account a whole host of particular influences such as culture contact, alternative forms of societal organization, and functionalism.

Lastly, Tilley contends that, given the magnitude of its colonization by a parade of European interests, Africa is curiously understudied with regards to knowledge production. Moreover, when such issues are addressed, they remain specific to Africa and fail link up with similar discourses in other parts of the world.

As it relates to one of the core concerns of New Directions in Anthropological Research – the auto-ethnography of anthropologists and the means by which anthropological knowledge is produced and codified – Ordering Africa is a particularly relevant volume. The questions addressed in Ordering Africa exhibit a particular congruence with the reflexive concerns occupying a good deal of space in contemporary anthropological discourse. For whom and at whose expense is anthropological knowledge being produced? What happens when this knowledge descends from the Ivory tower and interacts with the world at large? How can we build on existing bodies of knowledge without falling into the same traps as our forerunners did when they buttressed disproportionate power relations and excluded or marginalized “other” narratives?

These questions are ones for which no easy, catch-all answer has emerged. While it makes no pretensions of being a definitive volume of any kind, Tilley makes clear her hopes that Ordering Africa will underscore the continued relevance of such questions and spur further discussions of the issues they bring to the fore.


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