Hunt, Nancy Rose (2007.) “Colonial medical anthropology and the making of the central African infertility belt” In Helen Tilley and Robert J. Gordon (Eds.), Ordering Africa: Anthropology, European Imperialism, and the Politics of Knowledge (pp. 252 – 281). New York, New York: Manchester University Press.

“Why aren’t the natives having more children?” This is the question at the heart of Nancy Rose Hunt’s article on the origins of medical anthropology. It is a story of ambivalence and ambiguity, with a wide cast of characters, each of whom has a blurry role in the drama that unfolds. The two individuals at the heart of the story are Charles Lodewyckx and Anne Retel-Laurentin, two Europeans acting as producers of anthropological knowledge, although neither was an anthropologist by vocation. I will focus on the account of Anne Retel-Laurentin, both in the interst of space, and since it better illustrates the ethical and professional concerns raised in the article.

The crisis in question spanned from the early 1930s to the mid 1950s in various colonial territories of Central Africa. Lodewyckx was active in the Congo, and dealt mostly with Mongo people. Retel-Laurentin was in the French-administered region of Ubangi-Shari, where she was a physician serving Nzakara women with fertility problems. The author says that Retel-Laurentin has a “background in ethnology” and alludes to prior training without much explication, but makes it clear that she was not a professional academic. Nevertheless she produced a corpus of ethnographic notes drawn from her patients, whom she treated in an effort to resolve the ongoing epidemic of infertility. Any anthropological research performed today in an academic environment today requires vetting for ethical issues that may arise. Anne Retel-Laurentin did her work before such standards were in place, and being outside the academic establishment, they would not have applied to her anyway. Her notes would very likely not be publishable today, given the power dynamic underlying them. She was a medical doctor, trained in France and the women who informed her study were the patients of her practice.  Over time, she came to be known as a kind of local savior who assisted women in conceiving and bearing children, and she apparently did little to discourage this image.

Retel-Laurentin already had the upper hand over her informants because she was their physician. She was informed of their most intimate thoughts and feelings, and knew their bodies intimately. By the time she attained the status of folk hero, her observations were certainly outside the realm of the scientific. This raises several questions for the reader. First- can her accounts, though scientifically compromised, still be considered useful ethnographically? Secondly- if they are useful, should they be refused on ethical grounds, since they were extracted from an extremely unequal power relationship? Retel-Laurentin saw herself as a feminist and an anti-colonialist critic, but in the terms of 2015 discourse, her work in deeply tainted by its political nature. To both questions I have suggested above, I have an ambivalent emotional response. The data is not scientifically valid, because of its method of extraction, but I put little stock in the portrayal of cultural anthropology as ‘scientific’. I consider the discipline to be  a closer cousin to journalism than it is to biology, but I also cannot help but be troubled by Retel-Laurentin’s study of women who had her utmost trust and confidence. Certainly she could not publish the notes if they were taken in present day France, or in the United States or Canada, because of the expectation of doctor-patient privilege. Whether this concept was enshrined in law in 1950’s Metropolitan France, I can’t say- nor whether it qould apply in a colonial territory, but I believe firmly in the spirit of that relationship, and I believe that Retel-Laurentin acted in violation of it.

That being said, I still have a hard time recommending the erasure of her work. Doing so, to me, implies that not just the methods, but the knowledge itself is bad in some sense. I think of historical examples like Nazi V-2 rocket research putting humans on the moon, or human vivisections in Imperial Japan providing medical data for modern physicians to better treat their patients. Knowledge obtained unethically is not itself unethical in either of those cases. However, anthropological knowledge, is not made of the same stuff as knowledge from other disciplines. Disciplines which rely on the scientific method treat their data as valid because it is repeatable under controlled circumstances. Ethnography could never be this way, because its subject matter is human sentiment, opinion, memory and emotion. All of these things change constantly and fluidly and have no firm rules or patterns that govern them. Culture is beyond the laws of physics. So if the data cannot be characterized as a flow of particles or waves, what then is its material? Ethnography, I submit, is made of relationships. The data ethnographers report is not the result of personal relationships, nor is it a discrete product extracted from interactions. By the nature of ethnographic study, the results reported are merely still images of a relationship, curated by the ethnographer and presented in an ordered way.

Retel-Laurentin never treated her patients with any malice, or anything but the best intentions (as far as this article says). I do not contend that she intended to exploit or degrade them in any way. However, I believe that the nature of her relationship with the women she treated in Ubangi-Shari makes her notes unsuitable for publication as anthropology. I do not advocate for their deletion, but I do not endorse them for inclusion in anthropological texts, either. I realize that my stance invites a further discussion on what is admissible from the corpus of ‘non-professional’ anthropology. My reaction is no doubt emotional on some level, and lacks a firm basis in codified ethics. I invite this discussion. Not only do I need it, but I feel that my discipline does too.


Stoecker, Holger. 2007. “The Advancement of African Studies in Berlin by the ‘Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft’ 1920-1945*”. In Helen L. Tilley and Robert J Gordon (Eds.), Ordering Africa, pp. 49-66. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.


Germany’s colonial empire was never very large, nor very profitable for its administrators. It was a vestigial appendage of Imperial Germany, and it was captured mostly out of a spirit of competition with France and England. Still, its loss, like many of the trappings of Imperial power, had powerful repercussions for the people of the Weimar Republic and the ensuing Third Reich. Stoecker’s article shows an anthropology mobilized by nationalist forces in pursuit of long-lost Colonial power.

The Notsgemeinschaft, later renamed the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, then mercifully abbreviated DFG, was a product of postwar reconstruction in Germany. The recently republicanized nation was in dire financial straits, and Academia was suffering from the same deprivaitons as society at large. The DFG was actually founded as an ’emergency’ organization to consolidate scarce scientific funding into one organization nationwide. Beginning in 1920, the DFG was established as a private organization, albeit one whose main source of funding was the government. This collection of committees and subcommittees was organized based on academic disciplines, and admirably enough the ultimate approval or denial of grants was in the hands of legitimate experts in the fields represented.

Interestingly enough, anthropology had to struggle for inclusion in the DFG as an independent  department, originally being seconded to Geology, of all things. The Committee, devoted to Ethnology, Anthropology, Folklore, Prehistory and Native Languages’ (71) was from its inception, devoted to Africanism. Furthermore, the money allocated for studies in Africa went almost entirely to applicants from Berlin. With members appointed indefinitely by a department head who was subject only to non-binding recommendations, and a veto practiced by ‘autocratic’ DFG president Friedrich Schmidt-Ott, there was never really a chance for a less dogmatic distribution of funds.

The old Berlin establishment received most of its disbursements between 1925-1933 (before the group’s reorganization under the Nazi government) (73) and they were contingent on following a particular methodology known as Afrikanistik. This method stressed linguistics above all else, and was itself subject to expectations of productivity. A study would have to produce a book, or an article to be considered ‘productive’ for the DFG, and even equipment like audio recorders and photography gear were rationed very strictly with the understanding that their use was ancillary to print publishing. (77)These rigid standards for research were established with the tacit understanding (later made explicit under the Nazis) that the German Colonial Empire would be reclaimed. In fact, the DFG anthropology group was producing research for this express goal as late as 1943, when the defeat at Stalingrad dashed any hopes of recapturing colonies. (83)

The story that is told in this chapter is presented without a beginning or an end. We enter the narrative a few years after Germany’s colonies are confiscated by the Entente, and we end after the collapse of the Nazi government without much resolution as to the fate of German anthropology or the academics who conducted it in the preceding 25 years. Therefore, we see anthropology essentially in the service of a colonial administration that no longer exists, or else a future one that is yet to be established. The DFG collaborated directly with the Nazi armed forces, using African POW’s in internment camps for linguistic research, and presumably would have done likewise in any campaign to retake Cameroun, Namibia or Tanzania. But in actual practice, the organization seems to have participated almost in a colonial  anthropology of potential. The author makes no mention of collaboration during the actual era of colonial administration- which seems to be a crucial element of the story, especially given that the German colonial empire was notoriously brutal to its conquered subjects, including the perpetration of genocide against the Herero people.

Notably, the DFG and its related organizations were largely dominated by individual personalities. The Forschungsgemeinschaft was known as the personal dominion of its President Schmidt-Ott, who was replaced by the equally autocratic Johannes Stark- a creature of the Nazi government. (79) Stoecker identifies Stark’s regime as functioning on the Fuhrerprinzip (leader principle) established by the Nazis, but it seems that even his predecessor had few or no checks on his authority. Subcommittees likewise were treated as personal fiefdoms and research topics were vetted and approved by men like Georg Thilenius who made no secrets of their pet projects and interests, to the exclusion of all others. The DFG’s obsessive focus on colonial-minded research- was it an accurate reflection of German popular sentiment or merely the product of these few men with unlimited power in their respective posts? We cannot tell from this article alone. The author’s focus is quite conservative and he does not permit himself to speculate as to the legitimacy of the research performed- but the reader cannot help but wonder.


Bourdieu, Pierre. 1988. Homo Academicus. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.


The lector, a young and impressionable acolyte for Academia, tries to claim innocence. He is no political actor, because he has so little power. He holds just a little capital; he is a tiny cog in a vast machine (116). But in French academia, Bourdieu shows us, there is none righteous. No, not one. Academia is a system of power, where knowledge and information are exchanged as currency, and the precious, privileged few defend their positions against encroaching hordes. The beauty of Homo Academicus is the paradoxical nature of its composition- mobilizing sociological analysis against sociology itself, using opaque language against opaque thinkers and speaking from a position of social privilege to alleviate the inequality from which Bourdieu himself profits.
Before exploring the theoretical content of Homo Academicus, it is fitting to invest a few lines on his prose. It is no secret that Bourdieu writes in extremely dense and obscure language, even when describing concepts that seem to be fairly straightforward. The effect is, to say the least, alienating. Some pages seem, on the first reading, unintelligible. However, no writer adopts a style so intricate and unique without a reason. Is he writing that way to exclude readers who cannot follow the prose? Perhaps quite the opposite. Reviewer Donald Fisher opines that the paragraph-sentences that characterize the book may actually represent “self-conscious attempts to explicate every side of each complicated social relation as thoroughly as possible.” (Fisher 11)
Whether intentional or not, Bourdieu’s writing undoubtedly contains a certain democratic affect. After all, when he invests 1,000 words in a definition, it is typically because of frequent detours to thoroughly explain tangential concepts to the matter at hand. Read generously, this is no obscurity, so much as it is inelegant democracy. The concepts that make up this book are laid bare in all their ugly, inefficient totality- requiring a great deal of time, but no particular specialized knowledge to unpack. Democracy is very much an issue of concern in Homo Academicus, after all. The text concerns the years 1967-1971, which saw monumental changes in the face of French academia, following the demonstrations of the Spring of ’68. What is unclear, at first, is whether the author sees the increasing accessibility of higher education as a step forward or not. After all, he is unambiguously critical of the closed-off nature of academic departments, but he registers little, if any, pleasure at the thought of greatly-increased enrollment in the institutions he studies.
In a book themed so heavily on critique, one may attempt to find a protagonist of the narrative. He has a great deal of scorn reserved for the entrenched department heads and administrators who are concerned mostly with the defense of their discipline against outside influence. However, the young lecturers at the bottom of the department are also culpable for the sins of academia to Bourdieu. The student demonstrators of 1968 onward escape any lionization at the author’s hands- being classed instead as conscious and calculating political actors. The refusal to elevate one party above the others, or attach some moral superiority to one party demonstrates an admirable distance from the events, especially given Bourdieu’s position in the midst of the system he describes. We can ask, then- what does Bourdieu seem to value in academia?
The actual instruction of students plays a very small role in the narrative of Homo Academicus. That age-old question, what is it to do academia, is very much at issue, and unfortunately there is no clear answer here. Bourdieu classifies academics as primarily either researchers or administrators- one concerned with producing knowledge, one concerned with the internal functioning of the department. However, this dichotomy exists within a larger dichotomy- that of social versus scientific departments. These oppositional pairings are almost definitely a residue of Claude Levi-Strauss’ work, and perhaps part of the effort to make ‘familiar’ occupations such as professor, into ‘exotic’ social roles by classifying Frenchmen as though they were remote tribesmen in the tristes tropiques.
Deprived of a definition of doing academia, Bourdieu instead demonstrates what it is to do sociology. He writes that the social sciences and the arts are situated between the two poles of society and science, and therefore in a privileged position to observe and describe the others. Seizing on this mandate, Bourdie mobilizes the specialized ways of knowing and producing knowledge that make sociology unique. The book features numerous charts and graphs, documenting and indexing the members of the French academic elite. There is a special emphasis on family backgrounds and economic class, garnered both from personal research and survey data, then codified for the reader in expansive visual representations.
Within this analysis of academics as a social class, Bourdieu is mostly focused on the way that academic knowledge is reproduced. Reproduction, he says, is the seat of the old guard’s power because they command the resources of hiring and promotion. In this way, the knowledge of a department is defended against heretical outside information. Simultaneously, the knowledge produced within a department is artificially increased in value because the means of its production are kept obscure and inaccessible to the general public.
Obscurity itself is a resource in the University, and Bourdieu mobilizes it for his own study. That is to say, the application of privileged knowledge and ways of forming knowledge are applied to de-mystify the inherently mystical inner workings of a University department. In the English edition’s 344 pages, there are some 20 charts, graphs and classifications all of which are presented without comment as to how they were created, and in a way that would be largely incomprehensible to an uninitiated reader. This is the moment where Bourdieu brings to bear his own expertise and the specialized machinery of his department in order to bring it into the daylight. The tables and charts show fairly innocuous data- fathers’ occupations, average years in a given position, sources of capital etc. but it is the act of exposing that is performative here. Bourdieu harnesses his own position of authority in the field of sociology, to strip away from himself and his colleagues the very source of that authority- the opaque obscurity of a closed and entrenched University. To Bourdieu, this is his function as a sociologist between the social and scientific worlds of the University- in the world but not of it.

Fisher, Donald. (1990). “Reviewed Work: Homo Academicus”. The Journal of Higher Education 61(5): 581-591.



Abowd, Thomas (2014). “The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement and Violations of Academic Freedom at Wayne State University.” Chatterjee Piya, and Sunania, Maria (Eds.) The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent (pp. 169-186). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Thomas Abowd was a member of Wayne State University’s anthropology department from 2003 until 2009, when his employer decided not to renew his contract. In that time, he organized ten campus events protesting Israel’s policies towards Palestine, taught nineteen classes, of which he estimates one third dealt with the same issue,  and received zero complaints from his students regarding the way he was presenting that conflict. However, he found that his point of view was incompatible with a minority of the school’s administration, (p 178) who embarked on a campaign of harassment that ultimately lead to his dismissal.

Abowd’s article is a personal narrative, but it also gives a parallel account of the BDS movement from its inception. Abowd espouses BDS because of its origins in the  anti-apartheid campaign of the same name, which he believes had a major effect in defeating South Africa’s system of institutionalized racism. He provides the genealogy mostly to provide supporting examples of how similar programs have faced hostility and harassment. Columbia’s program was considered a success and had a great deal of support among the student body, but it was publicly disowned by the school’s  own president nevertheless. (174)

Abowd details the success of BDS at Wayne State, noting that the movement was mostly faculty-led although it was heavily supported among the student body, whose council voted in favor of BDS during the first year he was on the faculty. Abowd portrays the administration as hopelessly out of touch with the will of its students, who are 20-22% Arab (176), favoring instead the minority view of the campus’ tiny Jewish community- Abowd says (and specifies that he means this in a literal sense) that the number of students and faculty combined who publicly endorse a pro-Israel point of view can be counted on one hand.

Abowd ultimately found himself facing a disciplinary action which was corrupted from the very beginning by the administration attempting to deny his contract-guaranteed union counsel, and which devolved from there into an overtly racialized display of hostility. One particular faculty member would badger him on several occasions over his ethnicity and religion, which he refused to disclose during the hearing. Abowd, however, left the hearing without a reprimand and with his job. Then the next year, Wayne State declined to renew his expiring contract, this following an incident which Abowd describes as ” a series of clumsy violations of [his] union contract by the dean of the college…” (182) I found this anticlimax to the story strange and opaque. Abowd offers no explanation of what the alleged violations were, or how they connected to the campaign that was waged against him by the unnamed Zionists in the school’s administration who had aligned themselves against him and his activism. One wonders if he withheld details due to an ongoing legal action, or even a non-disclosure agreement? If nothing else, it muddies the waters of his relatively clear and unambiguous narrative of harassment.

Dr. Abowd’s story certainly evokes sympathy and exposes an abusive campus culture, where the opinions of students and faculty are trumped by minority interests in the administration. However, he also mars his account in several glaring ways. First of all, when he detours to discuss Israel-Palestine as a conflict (arguably unnecessary in itself) , he demonstrates a tendency to use almost comically whitewashed language. Palestinian opposition to Israeli occupation is ” brilliant organizing of Palestinians revolting with stones and direct action…” (171) and he goes out of his way to clarify that Palestinian militancy “[poses] no capacity to win back one inch of Palestinian land…” (170). Both of those quotations refer to the First Intifada, which was an armed uprising against Israeli occupation by Hamas, PFLP as much as it was a campaign of demonstrations. It seems Dr. Abowd feels that he cannot present the uprising as both just and violent. One does not need to deny the disparity in military power between Hamas and the IDF, or the hopelessness of armed struggle against a vastly superior foe, to endorse Palestinian liberation- but Abowd still presents a strange, neutered version of Palestinian resistance, intended to be compared to over-the-top references to f-16 fighter jets being unleashed on civilian targets. The facts speak for themselves without being manicured, and a struggle against academic censorship looks weak when it is besmirched with this brand of cherry-picking.

Secondly, Abowd shows no capacity for self-reflection or criticism. All opposition to his point of view is the work of racists, right-wing agitators and other conspiratorial forces. He identifies a cabal of “shrill…anti-arab racists and right-wing Zionists” (176) as his malefactors on campus, and never considers that there could be a legitimate campus interest in pro-Israel policy. He says that Hillel events were ill-attended, and that Jews were a vanishing minority on campus. He neglects, of course, that Israel has many supporters in America who are not Jewish- conservative protestants being overwhelmingly pro-Israel, for instance.

Furthermore, he seems willfully ignorant of the fact that minorities with unpopular views will of course minimize their public presence. If the student body truly is so overwhelmingly anti-Israel, it would seem natural for individuals on the opposite side of the issue to keep their opinions discrete in public. The point, of course, is that the majority of the campus was probably on his side, but it does not make minority opinion inherently invalid. None of that excuses the cruel, unreasonable and likely illegal manor in which the WSU administration treated Dr. Abowd, but he weakens his own position by treating his political opponents as though they were his enemies. Academia can only suffer from such a rigid, exclusionary point of view.