On the Production of Knowledge and the Mystification of Power Relations.

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

 “We remind ourselves that anthropology does not merely apprehend the world in which it is located, but that the world also determines how anthropology will apprehend it” Talal Asad – Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter

The colonial legacy of anthropology is increasingly central in critical assessments of its history and its relation to contemporary articulations. Despite recent efforts in the decolonization of the discipline, and the unmasking of colonial discourse, there is nevertheless repudiation of these implications, or at least an attempt at situating the development of anthropology as marginal within colonial history. One such example is The Expansive Moment: Anthropology in Britain and Africa 1918-1970 by anthropologist Jack Goody. Goody traces the emergence of British social anthropology by examining the interactions between prominent figures of the discipline through anecdotes and correspondences retrieved from different British institutions in an attempt to challenge the criticism of anthropology as a child of colonialism. He refutes this claim in two ways: First by denouncing the homogeneity of the ideological and social backgrounds of the anthropologist, and in their theoretical output, and second by pointing discontinuities present in the assumed linear alliance between colonial institutions and social anthropology. Though the bulk of early anthropological research was conducted in Africa, he claims that the ideological driving force was not in any sense acted out as willing or compliant to colonialism, but in earnest pursuit of knowledge and objectivity. Here I’d like to add that declarations of scientific objectivity presupposes a notion of neutrality; a claim which can mystify and distort ties to colonialism (Asad 101). In considering the above notion, the aim of my examination of Goody’s book is to investigate the power relations found in production of anthropological knowledge as elucidated in his discussion of agents and institutions, focusing on Bronislaw Malinowski, E.E Evans-Pritchard and the Rockefeller Foundation. Questions of when, what, why and how it is produced, oft overlooked by Goody himself, will be the driving force of my inquiry.

The overarching argument Goody makes, the denial of the centrality of colonialism in anthropology’s development, is undoubtedly politically charged. The history of colonialism, and its continuity and rearticulation in the anthropological discipline, has never been more salient in academic discourse than it is now. As such, his focus on colonialism in his discussion is rightly situated. Goody does an adequate job at materializing the contradictions and conflicts that were present during British anthropology’s formative years, rejecting a linear and homogenous account, particular in regards to the political views of the anthropologists he discusses. However, what’s curious about his account is that he is at once both rigorously political and astoundingly uncritical. While there is no denying that his focus on individual political persuasions is an important, albeit rather thin, addition in his analysis on whether colonialism had an effect on the production of anthropological knowledge, it’s his lack of critical engagement with the relationship present between individuals and power structures. While the actors in his book were shown to disagree and reject absolute exercise of colonial power, and even support emancipatory movements, he misses a critical opportunity in demonstrating that power is at once more structural, and more situated than he proposes. In order to elucidate my claims, we must return to the foundations of the discipline.

London School of Economics (LSE) professor Bronislaw Malinowski is often cited as being the founder of social anthropology due to his groundbreaking methodological fieldwork practices, and his ability to recruit many students (Goody 1-2). Malinowski’s popularity and development of functionalism as a school of thought garnered interest from funding groups, notably the American philanthropic organization “Laura Spellman Rockefeller Memorial” and the Rockefeller Foundation (RF), who provided financial support for research, mostly undertaken in colonial Africa (Goody 2). Goody makes explicit the fact that British social anthropology was funded by American philanthropy (via Rockefeller) and not through British institutions. While this elucidation can be seen as problematic in that American hegemonic practices were being diffused through their interest in anthropological research and further, in the colonies itself, Goody downplays their involvement since Americans apparently showed no direct interest in perpetuating British colonial efforts, and that by and large, they were “progressive” (Goody 154). This contradicts accusations he makes a bit later where that he argues that (and rightly so) Americans engage in their own form of colonial domination (Goody 198). While his differentiation between American and British imperialism is curious in itself, what’s more so his failure to question the motivations behind the Rockefeller Foundation’s funding, and the influence of America’s own colonial efforts. Nobody gives money for free. Donald Fisher (1986), in an attempt to shed light on this issue, points to the ideological structures found within the foundation itself and its strive for social control as motivation. According to him, the “watchwords” of Rockefeller philanthropy was “efficiency, control and planning” forcing anthropology to be more “empirical, realistic and practical” in their scientific approaches (Fisher, 5). He also noted that Rockefeller interest was critical in the discipline’s development, with anthropology offering “knowledge that would make the practice of colonial administration both more efficient and more humane, (increasing) social control” (ibid). Thus the knowledge produced by anthropologists funded was effectively utilized in practices of domination, a point Goody would no doubt deny. Furthermore, Fisher argues that Malinowski was the “link between Rockefeller money, the Colonial office and beneficiaries of these resources” (ibid). While Goody aims to detach Malinowski’s direct involvement in colonial efforts, he’s shown here as instrumental in generating knowledge that would inevitably benefit two major global powers, that of the Americans and British. This begs the question on whether or not Malinowski’s research and research methods were in some way informed and shaped by those who proliferated his development of the discipline. Why would one receive money for research if the research itself were not in some way profitable for those handing out cash?

In situating Malinowski as a link between the discipline and institutional power, this makes critical the fact that Malinowski trained most of those who would go on to cementing the discipline’s theoretical foundation. His influence shaped the research of his pupils (Goody 117), who would then engage in the reproduction of knowledge that was influenced by institutional alliances. Goody himself points out that Malinowski ran a tight ship in his disciplining and guiding of his students research interests and directions, thus exerting power over his pupils, and the knowledge produced (Goody 150). However, it’s important to note that Malinowski’s success in his achievements and in his pupils’ hinges on the fact that they had access to Africa due to British colonialism, in which the government obviously had to grant admission. The weight of this point is not given much attention in Goody’s account. The conditions, which made the development of social anthropology feasible was this accessibility to the field which was rooted in the existing “power relationships between dominating (European) and dominated (non-European) cultures (Asad, 99). It is in this exchange where we need to question how it effected the discipline and further more, how the knowledge produced was used, and if claims of objectivity can be upheld (ibid)

The epistemology of British social anthropology can thus be seen as being implicitly and explicitly shaped by existing global power relations through access and funding. Goody’s uncritical assessment of the influence and power between anthropological agents and institutions is also evident in his discussions of E.E Evans-Pritchard, another prolific anthropologist who was influenced in large part by Malinowski. While it is noted that he was apprehensive of colonial governments, Goody also points out that Evans-Pritchard had a close relationship with, and financial support from the Sudanese government. Even in these political relations, Goody claims that Evans-Pritchard viewed himself as “independent”, advising students to “keep right away from administration” (Goody 43) while working in the field. Though the advice is no doubt sound (although likely improbable) Goody fails to engage intellectually on the outcomes of Evans-Pritchard’s alliance with the Sudanese government. Since Sudan, at the time when this took place, was effectively an extension of the British colony, it would likely counter the claims of Evans-Pritchard as “independent”, and more perhaps view him more as a colonial agent, and the work he produced as instrumental to colonial efforts. Even though Goody attempts to point out contradictions in claiming Evans-Pritchard a tool of colonialism, he later discusses how Evans-Pritchard encouraged anthropologist Meyer Fortes to “participate in intelligence work in Africa”, since “he himself was a member of the military government in North Africa…. (and) he was dependent on support from official funds, in this case, from the government of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan” (Goody, 75).

The above discussion is simply a slice of the contradictions found in Goody’s book. The implicit (and sometimes explicit) power relations between the actors of his discussion and the various institutions are minimized in lieu of accounts of individuals and their ideological and social makeup. The importance he gives to individual action and influence is always at the expense of looking at structural forces, and the ways in which it informs their production of knowledge. As such, the book seems to mystify these relations, rather than materialize power dynamics. Talal Asad (2000), in his critique of the relationship between colonialism and anthropology, points out that

“it is not a matter of dispute that social anthropology emerged as a distinctive discipline at the beginning at the beginning of the colonial era, that it became a flourishing academic profession towards its close, or that throughout this period its efforts were devoted to a description and analysis – carried out by Europeans, for a European audience – of non-European societies dominated by European power. And yet there is a strange reluctance on the part of most professional anthropologists to consider seriously the power structure within which their discipline has taken shape” (Asad, 96)

Goody is very much part of this reluctance. While Goody is right in maintaining that most early anthropologists weren’t necessarily directly involved in perpetuating structures of power, they were nevertheless instrumental in maintain it, and that those structural did indeed have an influence on what kinds of knowledge were produced, and for what reason (Asad, 100). Furthermore, there was a “readiness to adapt to colonial ideology” (ibid) in that it was through colonialism that anthropology was able to flourish.

Goody also failed to engage with the effects of the knowledge produced beyond the temporal space he engages with. How is contemporary anthropology affected by its history? How has it effected those upon which were studied? Hasn’t our access to specific colonial spaces and colonized peoples inevitably shaped our discourses, regardless of early anthropologists intention and meaning? I acknowledge that answering these questions weren’t necessarily the aim of this book, but omission of these discussions makes him out to be an apologist, rather than an “objective” investigator. It’s also worth noting that Meyer Fortes, a pupil of Malinowski, was Goody’s own mentor. This raises the notion that this work may appear to be self-serving, with aim in reproducing the status quo, and furthermore, his legacy than truly critically engaging with the discipline’s colonial past.

Asad, Talal. “Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter.” Encyclopedia of Anthropology 6: Political Anthropology. Ed. Darshan Singh Maini. New Delhi: Mittal Publications, 2000. 90-102. Print.

Fisher, Donald. “Rockefeller Philanthropy: And the Rise of Social Anthropology.” Anthropology Today 2.1 (1986): 5-8. Online.



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