Wilder, Gary. 2007. “Colonial Ethnology and Political Rationality in French West Africa.” In Helen L. Tilley and Robert J Gordon (Eds.), Ordering Africa, pp. 336-375. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Wilder’s closing chapter to the edited volume Ordering Africa follows the editor’s encouragement to “move beyond questions of individual or epistemological complicity in colonialism” (Tilley 2007: 15) not by looking outside the frame of disciplinary involvement with the colonial project, but by delving further in it, demonstrating their inextricable intimacy. Wilder shows how a new “political rationality” emerged after World War I in France and its West African colonies in response to international anti-imperial sentiment, an expanded understanding of French nationhood that included the colonies, and wide ranging transformations brought to these latter by generations of colonial domination, which required “novel administrative strategies . . . organized around three interdependent objectives: political order, economic development, and social welfare” (Wilder 2007: 353). Wilder argues that the colonial predicament “provided the very categories of analysis, debate and policy,” giving shape to the theoretical innovations, training programs, data collection, and administrative decisions which all informed each other. More than complicity, anthropology and colonialism constituted a “shared field of colonial ethnology” (p. 337) dedicated to producing a practical science serving to facilitate an increasingly scientific form of administration.

This new orientation was visible at the Institut d’ethnologie – backed financially by the Ministère des colonies and the Ministère de l’éducation – which advocated for a colonial division of labour between “savants and technicians” (p. 338), educating not only ethnographers but also “administrators and colonials . . . to aid the overseas administration” (p. 339) and help it be more humane. It was also visible at the École coloniale, which developed an “ethnological focus” after WWI (p. 342) and “sought to integrate knowledge of native societies into a practical administrative sociology” (p. 343). The development of “‘society’ . . . [as] an object of scientific knowledge” changed the fundamental unit of policy-making from universal, abstract human to historically and culturally particular individuals, requiring detailed, practical knowledge to inform this scientifically oriented, sociological mode of administration (p. 344). “Knowledge production became an explicit priority” both for “overseas officials” (p. 344) concerned with the geographic particulars of native mentality and social structures, and for professional ethnologists concerned with enabling the ennobled colonial project. Within this shared field of activity, ethnographic description and colonial prescription not only influenced each other but “were intrinsically related” (p. 361) in their contradictory imperative to legitimize colonial relations by depicting culturally distinct, static, and socially backward natives, while at the same time transforming them into modern, productive economic actors. It is this fundamental contradiction that Wilder terms “colonial humanism” and which characterizes the emerging post-war political rationality.

This tension runs as a leitmotiv throughout Wilder’s chapter, and demonstrates the irreconcilable contradictions between ethnology and colonialism, the former leaning towards valuing human difference, the latter requiring that this difference be subsumed under a nation’s politico-economic project. The important message conveyed by Wilder’s text – and by the edited volume generally – is that this contradiction by no means precludes coexistence, nor even concerted action. In a sense, it is the contortions it elicits – on individual, institutional, or geopolitical levels alike – that are at the heart of much modern material and discursive formations. This is why Wilder calls it a “constitutive” contradiction. It shows up in Marcel Mauss’s and Maurice Delafosse’s theorizing, torn between the impulse to dignify and protect Native cultures, depicting them as “separate but equal” with their own practices and categories, yet situating them within a civilizational gradient, implying the possibility of social evolution (pp. 341; 347). It appears more dramatically in Henri Labouret who, also stuck between “static and evolutionary understandings of native society,” proposed that “‘methodical purging’ of select agitators” would allow for indigenous societies to naturally evolve towards a more civilized social state (p. 350) – a proposition whose basic tenets are at the heart of many contemporary foreign policies (the U.S government, for example, has had a particularly violent way of exporting democracy and economic prosperity – see e.g. González 2009). The tension shows up in almost pathetic ways in humanist colonial policy-making, struggling as it does with the contradictions of a colonial program whose successful implementation modernizes Native societies, eroding in the process the traditional hierarchical structures on which it relies for control, giving its colonial subjects a mobility and aspirations that threaten the very boundaries constitutive of its rule – eliciting deep anxieties that congeal around issues of citizenship and race (see also Stoler 2002). As Wilder states, “They dreamed of colonial subjects possessed by rational self-interest, consumerist desires and a productivist ethos, who were nevertheless embedded in indigenous relations of production” (2007: 354).

In a way, the colonial fantasy was the reverse of the ethnographic one. While Mauss – hoping to salvage what remained of pre-colonial societies – wished for cultural fixity mixed with social fluidity (a Native distinct yet amenable to the civilizing project), the colonial project required cultural flexibility mixed with social fixity – i.e. a Native adopting Western cultural categories (e.g. the rational, self-maximizing individual) embedded in traditional social structures. Stated more generally, “Administrators sought to promote socio-economic individuality without creating legal and political individuals” (p. 354). That this depiction of inter-war French colonial policy sounds eerily similar to Brown’s (2006) analysis of so-called neoliberalism in the U.S. is perhaps no coincidence. While Wilder’s argument about colonial humanism – which as a political rationality mobilized Native welfare no longer solely as a justification for colonial rule but as an economic strategy – tells us something about the specific relation of French ethnology to colonialism at the time, it also highlights the profound constitutive tension inherent to the overlapping of a capitalist ethos, enlightenment ideals, political rule, and knowledge production. What Wilder’s analysis seems to suggest is that while the specific contortions to which this tension gives rise are contingently variable through time and space in important ways, the underlying “constitutive contradiction” might point to an irresolvable strain that politics and knowledge production – writ large – put on each other. Perhaps this is less an argument for the death of anthropology – which, perhaps more than any other discipline, straddles that particular fault line – than one in favor of a different socio-political ethos.


Brown, W. 2006. “American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-Democratization.” Political Theory 34 (6): 690–714.

González, Roberto J. 2009. American Counterinsurgency: Human Science and the Human Terrain. Paradigm 34. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2002. Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule. Berkeley: University of California Press.


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