Review of “The Scripts of Alberto Pollera, an Italian Officer in Colonial Eritrea”

Sorgoni, Barbara. 2007. “The scripts of Alberto Pollera, an Italian officer in colonial Eritrea: administration, ethnography, and gender” In Ordering Africa: Anthropology, European imperialism, and the politics of knowledge. Helen Tilley and Robert J. Gordon (eds). 285-308 pp.

By Myriam Tardif


This chapter, by Barbara Sorgoni, addresses Italian colonialism in Oriental Africa that lasted approximately 50 years. The author tries to demonstrate the need to acknowledge the links between ‘professional’, i.e. academic, anthropology and colonial power. She argues that the distinction we make between professional and pre-professional anthropology obscures the continuity between ethnographic genres and the relation that anthropology had to the different colonial administration. Anthropologists should take an historical move, in her opinion, by accounting for the extra-academic and extra-disciplinary influences on the constitution of the discipline. One of the way that could be done is by uncovering the homology between colonial and academic discursive patterns, such as proto-relativism or proto-functionalism. She constructs her argument in two parts. First, the importance of examining the links between administrative practices and professional anthropology, characterized by a division of labor of the production of ethnographic data. Second, to understand the creation process of discontinuous ethnic identities on the part of administrators and ethnographers.

She does it by examining the public and private life of Alberto Pollera, an Italian colonial administrator and civil judge that lived in Eritrea for about 20 years or more. In his writing, Pollera recognize the fact that his ethnographic knowledge and descriptive style, a ‘deeper knowledge’ gained through years of living amongst the “indigenous population”, was reflected in his administrative practice. He opposed strongly physical violence, but couldn’t see the violent nature of the civilizing mission, rooted in an evolutionary paradigm, in which he was taking part. In fact, he was very clear that this deeper knowledge of the native customs and ‘traditions’ should be used to enhance management and control techniques of the population that were colonized by the Italian Empire. One of the consequence of such “better and more humane, because softer” disciplinary techniques was to essentialize differences and to reinforce the segregation between two groups ‘on the field’. Another exemple of that, is the manipulation (or construction) of ‘traditions’ to reproduce relations of power. When dealing with gender issues, the fact that he mirrored the Italian (patriarchal) vision of justice, just reproduced and reinforced some kinds of power over others (those of the elder, rather than those of the women). We could say similar things on this point, like the application of racial laws that were reinforcing white supremacy and the evolutionist paradigm of the fascist Italian state. Hence, we can say that even if his work was not acknowledge by academics, it still had a profound impact ‘on the field’.

Sorgoni points to the complex nature of the articulation of Pollera’s personality and the fascist nature of the Italian colonial context, by underlying the hybrid nature of the colonial texts he was producing. In fact, there seems to be many contradictions between what Pollera was writing publicly and how he behaved in the private. Was he took under an impossible double-bind, by being in an inter-ractial union, and having had children, and being at the same time under the umbrella of a fascist regime that was forbidding such unions because of racist laws.

Two questions that needs to be addressed concerning this is; would it have been different if Pollera had been a professional anthropologist? How and why? It is also interesting to reflect on political role or impact of “relativism” today and of relation between the academic political economy to its historical context. What does it mean that we are so prompt to excuse behaviors of people in the past and we still use today a similar form of the “proto-relativistic” rhetoric, rooted in an evolutionary paradigm? Based on these questions, we had very interesting discussions in class that I will try briefly to sum up here.

First of all, like Bourdieu is doing in the sphere of academic production and reproduction (1988), it is interesting to look at how we create standards of professionalism; what makes it an amateur or a professional practice? Hence, a similar division of labor necessarily influences the type of anthropology being made, because of its relation to what is being studied. Your understanding will be different if you get your data from books that from long-term relationship with people, one of the reason explaining this being issues of translations. Of language, yes, but also of meta-communication (how do you interpret the data in the books without the proper context?). We can after that question the standards of ‘professional ethics’. In the context of the Imperial university (Chatterjee and Maira, 2014), who does the ethics protects? Is it to protect the integrity of participant, with regard to the politics of representation, or is it rather to protect the institution from legal pursuit? And how does national ethos influences those different degrees and standards of professionalization? Is there only one anthropology, in the continuation of the liberal project of a global and deterritorialized world, or is there still multiple anthropology that are in fact bracketed by the politics of the imperial border? To answer this question, one could draw from the implication of doing anthropology from within the fascist Italian empire, but it seems much more easier to understand the relation of anthropology to its context when it is in the past. How do we understand the relation of anthropology to the American empire, in relation to the ‘war on terror’ or to the transition toward ‘police states’, linked to the neoliberalization of everything. And this ties back to my second question relating to relativism and its link to current anthropology. I’ll finish my text today with a last question; is relativism a product of the colonial encounter?



Bourdieu, Pierre. (1988). Homo Academicus. Peter Collier, trans. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Chatterjee, Piya and Sunaina Maira (Eds). 2014. The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


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