Review of “Political intelligence, colonial ethnography, and analytical anthropology in the Sudan”

Johnson, Douglas H. (2007). “Political intelligence, colonial ethnography, and analytical anthropology in the Sudan.” In Tilley, Helen and Robert J. Gordon (Eds.), Ordering Africa: Anthropology, European Imperialism, and the Politics of Knowledge (pp.309-335). Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

In writing this chapter, Douglas Johnson intended to demonstrate that the role of anthropology in Sudan had more than one purpose and that anthropologists were not simply subjected to the political direction of the colonial regime, but had the power to affect government administrators. Johnson begins developing his argument by acknowledging the fact that the colonial government of Sudan supported anthropological research. He argues that the Sudanese government not only encouraged colonial administrators to become familiar with anthropological instructions, but also helped to subsidize publication outlets that allowed missionaries, administrators, educators, and academics to disseminate their ethnographic research. Following this acknowledgement, Johnson presents two approaches for interpreting the early colonial patronage of anthropology in Sudan. The first approach is exemplified by the work of Abdel Ghaffar Mohammed Ahmed, who cites numerous government documents demonstrating that early anthropologists in Sudan were responsible for introducing the local population to the colonial administrators, showing them not only how local societies were organized, but also how they could be controlled and exploited. As an alternative to Ahmed’s reading of history, Johnson presents the work of Wendy James, whose analysis of Evans-Pritchard’s monographic writing came to the conclusion that social anthropology in Sudan began to develop only after the end of the World War I by increasingly becoming critical of the colonial regime.

Johnson develops his analysis of Sudanese anthropology in the following way: first, he examines the role of prewar anthropology in the advancement of colonial interests in Sudan. Second, by analyzing two government publications, the Sudan Intelligence Report (SIR) and the Sudan Notes and Records (SNR) that Ahmed cites in his research, Johnson examines how the documentation of ethnographic knowledge in Sudan changed during the period between 1896 and 1936. Finally, Johnson turns to the work of Evans-Pritchard to critically reflect on the professionalization of anthropology and ethnographic reporting in colonial Sudan.

In his analysis of prewar anthropology, Johnson notes that while many colonial administrators recognized that in order to better govern and educate their subjects they needed to gain a clearer cultural understanding of local populations (a colonial strategy for which anthropological instructions were essential), they were unable or unwilling to do so in a meaningful way. The anthropology that these administrators had learned as young students in Britain appeared “to have left little impression” on them once their work in Sudan began (p. 315). It was clear, Johnson concludes, that many administrators continued to rely predominantly on British cultural practices to solve local problems and legal disputes.

The ethnographic reports issued by SIR, for instance, a publication that monitored the political situation of Sudan, contained politically sensitive information that helped government officials to maintain control over the colony, and differed substantially from the 19th century travel journals that preceded them – and yet these reports still failed to truly grasp the point of view of local inhabitants. Considering that many educators, government agents, missionaries, and professional scholars could produce an ethnographic report, Johnson’s discussion of the SIR suggests that the ability to describe cultural observations and experiences in a written form does not make a person into a professional anthropologist. In the case of the SNR, a newer, semi-scholarly journal, Johnson argues that although the publication initially had a purpose similar to the SIR (to produce ethnographic information that would help colonial administrators govern more effectively), by mid-1920s the SNR had become increasingly professionalized, publishing articles that were increasingly irrelevant for the colonial administration.

The professionalization of the SNR also coincided with the appearance of Evans-Pritchard in Sudan, who was the first professional anthropologist, according to Johnson, hired by the government to conduct research expected to benefit the colonial administration. This experience, Johnson argues, led Evans-Pritchard to realize that the different, and sometimes competing, interests of colonial administrators and the interests of anthropologists. Evans-Pritchard argued that the colonial government itself was responsible for creating problems for the local populations (especially in the case of Southern Sudan) by coercing them to accept changes to their organizational social structures that had no value for them. Furthermore, Evans-Pritchard also claimed that the demands of governmental professions prevented colonial administrators from really trying to understand the concerns and the point of view of local populations. According to Johnson, even though the professionalization of the SNR forced many colonial administrators to adopt a style of ethnographic writing that was more compatible with an anthropological approach, the reports they produced failed to incorporate the more nuanced lessons of anthropological theories used by professional anthropologists. Colonial administrators tended to argue that at best ethnographic research could only provide background information for new administrators and that anthropological research tended to be too theoretical for practical government use.

Johnson argues that although the relationship between colonial administrators and anthropologists was generally friendly, the professionalization of anthropology introduced a gap between these two groups in their work in Sudan. In contrast to Ahmed, who argued that anthropologists were the ones who first introduced local populations to the colonial administration, Johnson concludes his chapter by arguing that it was in fact the colonial administration that introduced anthropologists to the local populations. Johnson asserts that even though anthropologists provided reference points for colonial administrators in their own research, the specific research that the government wanted anthropologists to produce was too constrained in scope to sustain the discipline as a whole.

In this chapter, Johnson highlights the importance of distinguishing between professional anthropology and ethnographic writing, a distinction that Ahmed did not make in his critique of early anthropology in Sudan. Is this difference important? Johnson’s argument suggests that the distinction between professionalized anthropology and the ability to produce an ethnographic report is equivalent to the difference between an anthropology that is critical of colonial regime and an anthropology that is more complicit with colonial powers. Central to Johnson’s argument is the work of Evans-Pritchard, who is presented in this chapter as an upstanding critic of the colonial regime, seeking to portray local inhabitants “not as subject peoples to be controlled, nor as exotic ‘Others’, but as part of the total human community” (p. 329). However, in our class discussion a passage from the book The Expansive Moment written by Jack Goody (1995) was read aloud in which Evans-Pritchard critiques colonial officials for failing to recognize the value of anthropological knowledge for facilitating colonial control in Sudan. Such direct contestation of Evans-Pritchard character does undermine one of the main arguments in text, especially since Johnson chose to avoid discussing alternative representations of Evans-Pritchard’s relationship with the colonial administration. However, the passage from Goody’s book also demonstrates that colonial bureaucrats were unable to appreciate the cultural attentiveness of anthropology, which suggests a certain level of disinterest on the part of government administrators for anthropological knowledge. Perhaps, the more professional anthropology that Johnson seeks to article was not as important for the colonial project, considering that the government employed agents, who could collect “the right” kind of information much more effectively. At the same time, the conflicting representations of Evans-Pritchard also demonstrate that the role of anthropology in maintaining the colonial status quo should not be underestimated. After all, the most celebrated anthropologist of Sudan wanted to use anthropology to help administrators become better at colonial governance.

Works Cited

Goody, Jack. (1995). The Expansive Moment: The rise of Social Anthropology in Britain and Africa 1918-1970. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.


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