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.

Review of “Internationalization and ‘scientific nationalism’: the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures between the wars”

De L’estoile, Benoît. 2007. “Internationalization and ‘scientific nationalism’: the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures between the wars.” In Helen L. Tilley and Robert J Gordon (Eds.), Ordering Africa, pp. 95-116. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

In this chapter, Benoît De L’estoile discusses the role of the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures (IIALC) in shaping the discipline of anthropology during the time period between the world wars. According to De L’estoile, the institute was the site of intense disputes as two competing approaches to anthropological research emerged under the leadership of Bronisław Malinowski and Henri Labouret. These conflicts signified a crossroads for anthropological research methods, as well as an enduring tension between the universal and the particular.

The IIALC was founded in 1926 with the intention of functioning as a coordinating agency offering multiple forms of resources to researchers engaged in the study of Africa. The international character of the institution was evident in its organizational hierarchy, which was initially structured as follows: the chairman of IIALC was Lord Lugard, who represented Britain, the two directors of IIALC Maurice Delafosse and Dietrich Westermann, who represented, respectively, France and Germany, and the general secretary Hanns Vischer, who represented Switzerland. Even though the institution sought to cultivate an international image, De L’estoile argues that the differences between British and French approaches, which both sought to articulate the “proper” way of conducting anthropological research in Africa, contributed to a political terrain of dispute within the organization. However, De L’estoile also notes that the institution’s European partners were initially united in the belief that research conducted on the African continent would allow colonial agents to master the “shifting colonial ground,” enabling them to peacefully overcome “conflicts between various stakeholders in African matters, especially between rival colonial powers” (p. 98). In this way, in spite of competing methodological viewpoints, the shared colonial interests of the IIALC’s members kept the organization together until WWII.

De L’estoile is primarily concerned with articulating how disputes over the deployment of research methodology in Africa were negotiated within the framework of the institution. According to De L’estoile, the French method of research entailed accumulating as much information about the object of research as possible. The collection of such vast amounts of data was organized with the help of a large network of research collaborators to which colonial bureaucrats, amateur ethnographers and “educated Africans” (those who had been educated in colonial schools) all belonged, “working together to collectively produce an ethnographic encyclopedia of the content” (p. 96). The principle researcher of such a project, in other words, did not actually conduct fieldwork, but instead was the recipient of collectively-gathered data that he or she in turn synthesized, analyzed and categorized for later use. The general purpose of this research method was to record, understand, and reconstruct the “rapidly disappearing past” of Africa, which many researchers in France hoped to present at the new Museum of Man, inaugurated in 1937 (p. 97).

The British approach, advocated by Bronisław Malinowski, sought to transform the French model of organizing research practice. He recognized that the French approach of separating research tasks not only dictated the framework for anthropological investigations, but that it also reflected the epistemological assumptions implicit in the method. According to De L’estoile, Malinowski argued that the epistemological distinction between fact and theory was misleading. This distinction, reflected in the labour divisions between the data collectors living in the colonial field (those dealing in “facts”), and the data analyzers who remained in Europe to study Africa from afar (theorists), belied that fact that “observation was always dependent on a theoretical framework which had to be adapted by the fieldworker” (p. 104). Malinowski argued that theoretical training would allow anthropologists in the field to produce more rigorous and accurate ethnographic research, providing them with a more informed position from which to study the complex and dramatic changes occurring in Africa.

Initially, the IIALC adopted the French model of conducting research under the influence of Henri Labouret, who replaced Delafosse as a director of the institute. Labouret’s own research relied on the contributions of a vast network of European administrators, missionaries, and educated African subjects, all of whom were encouraged to write ethnographic pieces. Thus, the initial primary concern of the institute was to help researchers build networks of correspondents, instead of providing training on how to do proper fieldwork research. However, as Malinowski’s influence over the IIALC continued to grow, his research methodology, which emphasized the importance of theoretical training and fieldwork, became more widely used. As a way of maintaining his clout in the institution, Labouret insisted that the methods used in the field should depend on the particularity of a specific area. For this reason, Labouret also maintained that researchers should consult with the government in places where they seek to conduct research in order “to discover what problems they [the government] considered to be of the greatest importance and urgency” (p. 105).

Malinowski, however, having secured the financial support from British and American foundations and institutions, argued that the international character of the IIALC should be upheld regardless of the methodological disputes present in the discipline. Labouret, on the other hand, after failing to secure financial support from the French colonial authorities, adopted a nationalistic rhetoric, which was deployed against scientific interests of the discipline. Having lost the power to control the definition of research practice, De L’estoile argues that the nationalist argument used by the proponents of the French model was invoked “to protect their own turf from a menacing hegemony” (p. 107).

This chapter presents another deserved critique of early anthropological practice, demonstrating how the political negotiations inside the IIALC resulted in an outcome that mirrored the tension between the particular and the universal. Proponents of the French research model, who initially deployed universalistic arguments in order to advance their position, were forced adopt a rhetoric that emphasized the significance of the particular in a struggle against the universal. Clearly, such a reversal in rhetoric demonstrates a certain level of hypocrisy on behalf of the supporters of the French method. Philosophically, this dramatic shift also reveals a certain level of awareness of the hegemonic power associated with the new research discourse, as well as an awareness of the appropriate response to such imposition. In other words, even though early 20th century anthropologists generally upheld universalistic conceptions in theory, the story of the IIALC demonstrates an emerging awareness of the significance of the particular. However, considering the colonial context of the time (a context that the colonial-run IIALC had a stake in maintaining), this awareness of particularity was likely never meant to include other groups and colonial subjects, who struggled against universalizing forces.

Pierre Bourdieu and the 2012 Quebec Student Strike: the limitations of theory and its pessimistic lessons

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1984). Homo Academicus. Peter Collier, trans. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

For Bourdieu, the university is a symbol of higher education, representing both a social and a symbolic field which can be analyzed to demonstrate not only the mechanisms that govern the relationships between administration, students, faculty, and other actors and strictures that are in some form linked with the university, but also the operation of institutional processes within the university that contribute to the perpetuation of the dominant social order.

One feature of such analysis, according to Bourdieu, demonstrates how the position of a particular actor (a senior faculty member, for instance) within the hierarchy of the academic field determines his or her position in relation to not only the problems within the university, but also in relation to larger political events and issues that define the political landscape of a society. In the case of the May 68 crisis, Bourdieu argues that the affect of inflation in education helped to produce a class of junior teachers and lecturers, who were not able to get tenured full time professorial positions, as well as a class of disillusioned students, who were unable to get jobs promised to them because of the depreciating value of their university degree. Being situated at the bottom of the academic order, these two groups together formed a dissenting movement that sought to not only question this form of academic practice, but also, by threatening to leave the academic rat race, undervalued faculty and students sought to establish alternative goals that would “more or less completely redefine the game and the moves which permit one to win it” (p. 172). On the other hand, the full-time professors, being positioned in the upper echelons of the academic establishment, were more interested in upholding the status quo because they recognized that any disturbance of the system could potentially threaten their investment in the profession with which they identified, forcing them to lose the symbolic and economic privileges that their profession provided.

For Bourdieu, the university also represents an apparatus that redistributes forms of symbolical capital among multiple classes of a society. The assignment of grades, for instance, functions as a mechanism for redistributing forms of symbolic capital, triggering a sequence of events that can eventually influence how a particular actor is positioned socially and economically within the hierarchy of the social order. Drawing on this vision of education, Bourdieu argues that even though greater accessibility to higher education provided more formal opportunities to learn for more people, the social order was left relatively undisturbed because the educational mechanisms that contributed to shaping the composition of class society in France were more or less left unchanged. Even though this form of educational practice still produced so-called “lucky survivors”, who received the employment positions they anticipated upon the completion of their degree, Bourdieu argues that such instances of achievement constitute “a form of symbolic remuneration, comparable to a nominal rise in salary in a period of inflation” (p. 167). Bourdieu also recognizes that there are students who do not acknowledge, because of the market mechanisms that by a form of disguise uphold the symbolic value of university degrees, the diminished worth of their education and their marginal status within the dominant social order. The inability to acknowledge the injustice of inflationary schemes produced by the educational apparatus on behalf of students, according to Bourdieu, not only creates “fantasized alliances between agents holding different positions in social and academic space” at the moment of crisis, but can also “help to create partly orchestrated reactions to the crisis”, which would mask the urgency of a political moment (p. 164).

Nonetheless, Bourdieu’s argument suggests that there are certain historic conditions in place within the structure of the university that contradict the production practices of the educational establishment, generating forms of crisis that position the majority of dissenting actors in opposition to the minority that seeks to maintain the status quo. For Bourdieu, the emergence of crisis within the structure of the university occurs as a result of changes to the rules of participation. These transformations also redefine and bring into question the self-interested purpose of pursuing higher education. In other words, Bourdieu anticipates the occurrence of the crisis by assuming that the subjugated class will recognize the injustice of the new conditions produced by the university. The word ‘contradiction’ in Bourdieu’s analysis of the circumstances required for the occurrence of the crisis signals a form of imminent inevitability of class struggle within the setting of the university. Again, Bourdieu acknowledges that not all students would participate in such struggle, however his analysis suggests that the participation of students is unavoidable. The question is: to what extent? For instance, during the 2012 Quebec student strike, a conflict sparked by proposed tuition increases, student participation varied sharply between anglophone and francophone institutions. According to Bégin-Caouettea & Jones (2014), by March 22nd, 2012, among anglophone institutions in Quebec only eight departments at McGill and six departments at Concordia chose to go on strike, and few of these departments sustained a strike mandate over the course of the crisis (p. 417). Drawing on Bourdieu’s analysis, the question is: in comparison to francophone students, are anglophone students in Quebec somehow more easily susceptible to the disguise of market mechanisms that uphold the symbolic value of their degree, and for which the majority of anglophone students seem willing to pay higher tuition? Bégin-Caouettea & Jones (2014) argue that in Quebec there is a long history of francophone student movements, which since the Quiet Revolution fought for “democratic access to education, autonomy of institutions, secularism and regional representation” (p. 415).

My intention here is to draw attention to the significance of how historical context can shape actors’ approach and reaction to a particular crisis, as well as his or her conception of injustice and perception of self-interest. In other words, despite changes to the rules of participation within the academic space, which can subjugate subordinated actors even further, the historical context responsible for shaping actors’ conception of value, justice, and being can be responsible for creating conditions at the moment of crisis that not only diminish the expression and form of dissent, but also challenge the perception of an event as an occurrence of injustice. Bourdieu’s analysis suggests that the hierarchy of subjugation within the space of the university is more or less evident, which permits him to anticipate, at the moment when unfavorable changes become implemented, the contradictions within the system that will eventually lead to a crisis. He argues against a teleological vision of history while maintaining that there are certain conditions in place that make the university an increasingly politically unstable, and therefore revolutionary, space where at the moment of crisis all emancipatory future visions appear possible.

The pessimistic lesson of the 2012 Quebec student strike, however, suggests that certain historical conditions can reinforce the confines of the existing social order and diminish the revolutionary potential of the university during a moment of crisis. Drawing on my own experience of the 2012 Quebec student strike and the article by Bégin-Caouettea & Jones, I argue that historical particularity can complicate the self-evident hierarchy within the space of educational institution, which potentially can even prevent a full-scale crisis from occurring when the interests of subjugated classes are challenged.


Bégin-Caouettea, O., & Jones, G. A. (2014). Student organizations in Canada and Quebec’s ‘Maple Spring’. Studies in Higher Education, 39 (3), 412-425.

Review of De Genova’s “Within and Against the Imperial University”

Nicholas De Genova. 2014. “Within and Against the Imperial University”. In Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira (Eds.). The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent (pp. 301-328). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

In this chapter, Nicholas De Genova analyzes a critical juncture in his career, when, on March 26th, 2003, he spoke against the U.S. invasion of Iraq at an antiwar teach-in at Columbia University. His comments at the teach-in were covered by mass media and interpreted as a death wish for the thousands of U.S soldiers participating in the Iraq war, with grim consequences for both his personal and professional life. De Genova’s chapter consists of two parts. In the first part, De Genova explains the context of his remarks at the antiwar teach-in that generated the media controversy in the first place. In the second part of the chapter, he describes multiple events and encounters triggered by his remarks, and what these reactions reveal about the present reality of academic freedom.

De Genova contextualizes his speech by highlighting the “hysterical mania for war” prevalent in 2003 which was propagated by the mass media with “a jingoistic craving for the death of the Enemy” (p. 302). In response, he argues, the antiwar movement had to articulate an uncompromising, equally confrontational and incorrigible position critiquing the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In addition, De Genova emphasizes that when speaking at the antiwar teach-in he had to confront his audience with the fact that “if it was death that the prowar mob was seeking, then it was death indeed that they would reap” (p. 302). De Genova’s rhetoric was partially inspired by the events that occurred in Mogadishu, a city in Somalia where eighteen U.S. soldiers died during a military operation whose failure instigated the retreat of U.S. military forces from Somalia in 1993. Encouraged by the U.S. failure in Somalia, De Genova declared during his teach-in speech that he would welcome “a million Mogadishus now” in the hope of the same scenario to occur in Iraq, which would consequently enable the political self-determination of the Iraqi people (p. 303).  De Genova further contextualizes his comments by evoking the violent history of U.S nationalism and imperialism responsible for multiple forms of colonial conquest, genocide, slavery, racism and warfare. Considering the violent history of the United States, De Genova argues that all forms of American patriotism perpetuate the global domination of the American empire. For this reason, De Genova argues for the necessity of a discourse in the American antiwar movement which should be unconditionally unpatriotic, anticipating a world in which “the United States would have no place” (p. 303). De Genova concludes that the logic of an anti-imperialist position necessitates the endorsement of political scenarios in which the United States ultimately suffers a military defeat.

In the second part of the chapter, De Genova discusses how university officials, faculty members, members of Columbia University community, the media, members of congress and multiple other actors responded to his speech. De Genova argues, for instance, that the statement made by Columbia University’s president in response to the “a million Mogadishus” comment demonstrated empathy towards soldiers and their families, instead of innocent Iraqi civilians who are subjected to the violence of the U.S. military. In his own response, the chair of the anthropology department condemned any statements that would support violence against soldiers or civilians. In response, De Genova argues that both administrators fail to recognize the violent role of American soldiers in inflicting “the most devastating harm” on Iraqi civilians (p. 305). Overall, the administration of university denounced and publicly ridiculed De Genova while maintaining that he was nonetheless protected by the First Amendment and could not be fired, as demanded by 104 U.S. congressmen and filmmaker Steven Spielberg among many others. De Genova also received countless death threats, which caused numerous disruptions in his work and personal life, since his security and the security of his family had to be constantly considered on daily basis.

De Genova did receive some unconditional support from some colleagues and students at Columbia University. At the same time, however, there were also faculty members who argued that even though De Genova had the right to express his point of view, he, nonetheless, should also be accountable to a larger antiwar movement at Columbia. Rosalind Morris, for instance, argued that De Genova had to acknowledge the predicament and the damage that his infamous teach-in speech created for the antiwar movement at Columbia and in the United States. De Genova concludes that the dispute between faculty colleagues revealed the tacit responsibility tied to “permissible” free speech at Columbia as well as the boundaries of what is acceptable for an academic to say. The dispute reinforced a tacit code of conduct, demonstrating the limited conditions under which departmental collegiality would be upheld. De Genova further maintains that in such departmental circumstances he became treated as an object of toleration whose right to speak was frequently invoked, and yet who was ostensibly kept silent through his ongoing exclusion from the debates concerning his own speech. According to De Genova, the initial portrayal of his character as an outside agitator who acted irresponsibly by failing to stay within the unstated boundaries of acceptable academic “free speech,” instigated an institutional mechanism that sought to make him into an actual outsider. As a result of these processes, De Genova was never invited again to speak publicly at Columbia and his tenure promotion was eventually denied, in spite of his exemplary research and publication record.

Although the reaction of Columbia’s president and the more conservative U.S. congressmen and actors seem to be predictable, I found the discussion that was generated within the department and within the antiwar movement interesting and stimulating, producing difficult questions. For instance, does the use of polarizing antiwar arguments concerning the U.S. patriotism empower or disempower antiwar movements? In the case of U.S. military intervention in Iraq, should American antiwar activists, as David Scott put it, “talk about ‘patriotism’ as an obfuscation” while underlining and elaborating on the injustice of the war? (p. 312). Can the utopian vision of the world where the United States has no place be useful to the antiwar efforts of American activists? Personally, even though I understand the context of De Genova’s comments, I think his case demonstrates the importance of nuance when discussing political positions. The scholarly ability of articulating nuanced arguments is precisely what can keep academic work from being co-opted by the dominant powers. As the case with De Genova’s comments demonstrates, there is not always an adequate platform that will allow an academic to expand on the meaning of his or her initial comments, regardless of his or her willingness to engage in further debate on the topic. This is a pessimistic lesson, but it demonstrates how the university can function, in response to which antiwar activists and academics need to develop new strategies.