Review: Custom, Modernity, and the Search for Kihooto: Kenyatta, Malinowski and the Making of Facing Mount Kenya

Berman, Bruce, and Lonsdale, John. (2007). “Custom, Modernity, and the Search for Kihooto: Kenyatta, Malinowski and the Making of Facing Mount Kenya.” In Helen Tilley and Robert J. Gordon (Eds.), Ordering Africa: Anthropology, European Imperialism, and the Politics of Knowledge (pp. 173-198). New York, New York: Manchester University Press.

How did Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya contribute both to the development of social anthropology and the representation of a subset of African peoples? For Berman and Lonsdale, it is the story of the creation of the text, as rooted in personal motivations – Kenyatta contacting Bronislaw Malinowski to work under his tutelage at the London School of Economics, so as to become a better “advocate” for the Kikuyu people (2007: 178); Kenyatta’s desire to be “his own man” (181); Malinowski’s desire to conduct research in Kenya that would be of the “participatory field research” method, and to promote his functionalist approaches to anthropology (with the belief such an approach would be politically useful to colonial administrators) (182) – that is central to Kenyatta’s search for kihooto, or recognition of his people by the British. While the text itself proved to be a flop, having sold some 500 copies, Berman and Lonsdale note that Facing Mount Kenya “represent[ed] the Kikuyu with more understanding than had any study since the Routledges’ of thirty years before” (193).

Berman and Lonsdale’s chapter suggests, albeit in an implicit manner, that anthropology as a discipline was used to build a nation-state, for in the aftermath of Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya, he eventually became the first president of an independent Kenya. One might then ask: to what extent was (and is) anthropology a part of colonial governance and administration? A tangential question – should anthropology be used in political arenas, such as the formation of a nation-state – revealed two conflicting viewpoints: the first which stated that anthropology should not; the second which claimed anthropology had no choice but to be involved in political arenas, for all worldly things were imbued with politics. Returning to the question of anthropology’s part in colonial governance and administration, and referring Berman and Lonsdale’s chapter to answer it, one might say, first, that anthropology was the means by which colonial governance was justified, for it provided accounts of the people being colonized, which were then used by missionaries to support claims on the latter as “[people] of guile” subject to “forces of evil” (178). Thus, ethnographic accounts referring to Africans as “primitive” contributed to their classification as such – and, ultimately, their self-identification as a “primitive race” (175) –, and placed the colonizers in the position of ‘benevolent guides’ who were ‘showing the primitives the way to civilization.’

Anthropology could also have been said to form a part of colonial administration because the funds available to support fieldwork were distributed by a finite number of financing bodies, like the Rockefeller Foundation, which financed Malinowski’s International African Institute (182). These organizations –organizations with close ties to colonial administrators –, thus dictated what kind of research was to be conducted, and in the process, contributed to the creation of ‘the African/Kenyan’ as a person to be categorized – both quantitatively and qualitatively – and controlled by administrative and colonial bodies. This select research would then have contributed to the creation of certain social policies, and depending on whether or not their implementation had been successful, further research funded by these same limited organizations would have been conducted, with the ultimate goal of ameliorating colonial and administrative control.

Finally, and interestingly, as Berman and Lonsdale also note, anthropology was also very much not a part of colonial governance and administration, for some works aimed to undermine, and even dismantle, the very fabric of colonialism by creating a nation of peoples independent of the said administrators. This is, for instance, exactly what Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya aimed to do. Through anthropology, Kenyatta was able to present, on a global scale, “an authoritative portrayal of [his] society” (174) – authority which allowed him, as a Kenyan, to stand on equal footing with British colonizers. Because of anthropology, then, Kenyatta’s authority was able to subvert, or at least provide a respectable alternative to, that of the British, which therefore allowed new portrayals of the Kikuyu to make it to the fore of scholarly and colloquial discourse. Here, it may be said that while anthropology was an integral part of colonial governance and administration of African colonies, it also was uniquely situated as a discipline to undermine its own colonial influence by giving an authoritative voice – a voice made manifest by the assistance of members of the colonizing nation, it should be noted, like Malinowski – to the colonized, and allowing this voice to serve as a counterweight to dominant discourses on sets and subsets of African peoples.

Marks as an indicator of class? A critique of Bourdieu’s analysis of academic marking

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

When a student receives the label of “brilliant” on a submitted paper, what does this mean? Pierre Bourdieu, in his manuscript titled Homo Academicus, claims such forms of classification are ultimately societal – or social –, but “performed in the guise of an operation of academic classification, […] through a specifically academic taxonomy” (1988: 207). That is to say, they are labels that reproduce social class through a system of marking intended to separate the ‘high performers’ from the rest. Here, then, academia is said to classify individuals on the basis of their scholarly worth – worth reflected in one’s original social class.

Yet, Bourdieu also notes that higher education and academic success has the ability to move those from the lower into the upper class (52). This appears to contradict what is mentioned in the postscript regarding the parallels between academic and social classification. After all, surely it does not make much sense to state in one instant that higher education allows for social mobility, and in another that the same system reinforces social rigidity.

Here, attention must be given to Bourdieu’s method of study of the institution that is the university – a methodology common no doubt to sociology. A cursory examination of the manuscript reveals numerous tables, each with extensive legends and numbers. The statistics located therein summarize sample findings (obtained from the Annales the l’Université de Paris, Who’s Who, and inquiries to university professors (227-228)) and generalize them to all students and faculty within the university, obfuscating contradictions such as the one abovementioned. Thus, one sees a table complete with grades and social classes, and because of its organization, infers that those getting excellent marks with mentions mainly have fathers in senior administrative positions and/or medicine, whereas those whose fathers are carpenters or technicians have lower grades (203-204).

Lost in the table, however, are the stories of the students being graded. As class discussions, and Bourdieu’s allusion to arts and science professors who have worked their way up (52), have made quite clear, higher education provides a way ‘out’ of a particular lifestyle, such that the working class student may receive excellent marks and comments lauding their worth as a scholar. Similarly, the upper class student may perform poorly, finding no worth in the process of struggling through a course (for this student might have a great inheritance of sorts). Still others may not even care about class distinctions, and may truly be in the university because they believe in learning as a process – one that does not need to have implications for financial and class-based mobility later on. And, finally, some may have had parents who were academics, but whose grandparents had never gone to school – a characteristic of many first-generation children whose parents are university-educated – thus suggesting that the educational level and profession of the grandparent, or of someone other than one’s parents, might also play a role in the way one performs academically, and the type of commentary they receive from professors. Bourdieu’s sociological study of the university makes very little mention of this.

This contradiction in Bourdieu’s text suggests that if one is to do a (social) scientific study of higher education – be it an anthropology of anthropology, a sociology of sociology, or otherwise –, then methods in addition to archival research and interviews must be used. What, for instance, are the life histories of those arts and science professors, mentioned in passing, that were once lower class? What kinds of messages did these labels – many of which were probably along the lines of “excellent,” “great insight,” and the like – send to these professors? And what place does motivation have in all of this – rather than separate individuals based on class, might the university separate individuals, at least in part, on the basis of motivation? Once the economic factors have been eliminated such that one can enter the university (not an easy task for many), it seems the fact individuals, from different socioeconomic classes, occupy the same lecture halls and write the same exams, should bring a certain level of equality in the classroom, such that what one’s father does for a living has a lesser effect on one’s performance, and phenomena like motivation and engagement gain more importance. It would thus be interesting to see what other social scientific research methods reveal.


Prashad, Vijay. (2014). “Teaching by Candlelight.” In Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira (Eds.), The Imperial University (pp. 329-341). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Should questions particular to the university – and just representation of the opinions of all members therein – focus solely on the issue of “academic freedom,” or something more? For Prashad, democracy within the university extends beyond this notion, and includes, for instance, an understanding of those factors that prevent some individuals from pursing a post-secondary education. Focusing on higher education in the United States, Prashad alludes to popular opinions on its problems (i.e. high cost of tuition), and how these lead to the narrowing of student opportunities to “enjoy the world of ideas and seek solutions to planetary problems and opportunities” (2014: 332), ultimately converting the university into a place of vocational training, rather than one of intellectual stimulation. Attention is also given to income inequality between university presidents and those occupying other positions therein, further transforming the university into something of a corporation, and justifying the use of liberal practices particular to this institution as being for the “pursuit of truth” (337). The author concludes with a call to action – a call for free higher education, a call for more cooperation and equitable resource allocation, and less hierarchy and militarism.

One term that, perhaps, could have been further unpacked in this text is that of ‘academic freedom.’ For Prashad, the concept is rooted in the ability of an academic to be protected by the university as a member of the tenured professoriate. As a tenured professor, one can, as Prashad demonstrates, teach a course for which the dean of one’s faculty disapproves, or retain a job when confronted with allegations of wrongdoing. Here, one notes this notion of freedom, then, is a right specific to the person that is the ‘academic.’ Yet, further on, Prashad alludes to a claim made by former University of Washington president Dr. Raymond B. Allen, who said only those engaged solitarily in the pursuit of truth should be granted academic freedom (337). This presents an interesting paradox for the notion of ‘academic freedom.’ After all, an academic might indeed be free to pursue any ‘truth’ they so desire – the fact that a couple or so of ‘radical academics’ exist in many university departments, as highlighted by Prashad, speaks to this effect. But that there exist means of force, which may be used to protect an academic’s freedom, suggests that when these particular means see their place questioned by the vast majority of academics (rather than by simply a minority of radical academics), even if these questions have been obtained through the ‘pursuit of truth,’ then the use of force might be curtailed such that ‘freedom’ becomes restricted. Furthermore, ‘academic freedom’ as Prashad has presented it suggests that it is solely those academics that have been protected by the university that are truly ‘free’ to research as they wish: yet, this overlooks factors, such as the types of research funded, which might limit a tenured academic’s ability to truly express themselves ‘freely.’

Finally, attention must be given to the comparison made of the US higher education system with that of other advanced industrialized countries, for Prashad’s comparison brings the issue of affordable higher education closer to home (i.e. Canada). Having a highly subsidized, public higher education, in and of itself, while a great step, cannot be the best, and certainly not the only, means of making higher education more accessible and affordable, as recent student strikes in Quebec have shown. There, higher education is a public good, and the government pays, according to Prashad, somewhere on the order of 55 to 70 percent of college bills: even so, numerous student strikes concerning tuition fees have occurred in Quebec. Here, one might something more than material considerations – be they government subsidies or otherwise – is necessary for proper democracy in the context of higher education. While it might be said Prashad has Marxist inclinations (i.e. because of the desire to teach a course on Marxism) – and thus roots notions of democracy in material affairs and capital –, one should also note that in this case – and, more specifically, in the case of the Quebec student protests –, perhaps attention should be given to the importance of ideology in the construction of an equally accessible system of higher education.

Review: Imperial University, Introduction

Chatterjee, Piya, and, Maira, Sunaina. (2014). “The Imperial University: Race, War, and the Nation-State.” In Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira (Eds.), The Imperial University (pp. 1-50). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

What does it mean to run a university ‘normally,’ when that which normalizes is antithetical to the very nature of the university? This is the question Chatterjee and Maira aim to answer in the opening chapter of their edited volume on the imperial university (2014). For these latter, the said university is characterized by multiple binaries, including: the protesting students (joined by faculty members) and the storm troopers, and certain faculty member’s paradoxical insider-and-outsider positions as members of the privileged tenured professoriate whose research and teaching material is critical in nature. With responses to the War on Terror and the Occupy movement having repercussions for the academe (i.e. the downsizing of universities and the cutting of critically-engaged faculty) in the form of a military-prison-industrial complex, the authors highlight four overlapping areas particular to academic repression in the imperial university: imperial cartographies (the racial construction of the state, the practices of the military, and the ideologies pertaining to civilizational superiority), academic containment (the regulation of that which is allowable and warranted to express in national culture), manifest knowledges (the concepts and politics that undergird social understandings of it is freedom, democracy, and citizenship entail), and heresies and freedoms (the undermining of academic freedoms by neoliberal practices).

A topic of great debate in class discussions was that apropos of the word ‘imperialism.’ What was meant by the term? Is the term essential to the construction of the university as we know it (i.e. if the system of imperialism external to the university were eliminated, would the institution change?)? Is the term ‘imperialism’ specific to the US, or can it be seen as a global phenomenon? Does the lack of definition of the term constitute a weakness, or strength, of the chapter? Should the term be unpacked, or has the chapter instead produced a discombobulated mess that must be packaged into a ‘whole’ identifiable as ‘imperialism’? Does a term other than ‘imperialism’ exist which could better represent what is taking place in US universities? Much like an ethnography that does not aim to answer the world’s questions, but rather pushes the ethnographer and those reading the ethnography to question those categories that have been created and reified over time, one might then say that this chapter, and specifically its liberal use of the term ‘imperialism,’ gives the reader not answers to the complex phenomenon that is the current state of the university, but rather the tools to ask new questions about how ‘business as usual’ is maintained in the academe.

An interesting point raised in class was that of the omission of factors internal to the university in maintaining it as a military-prison-industrial complex – for instance, the omission of those forces within the university that demand research be conducted in a certain way. At face value, neglecting those forces within the university might appear to be counterproductive to the project of understanding that which creates the imperial university. But what would one accomplish by exploring those factors internal to the university? One might say that such an endeavour would lead to a greater focus on those things within the university itself, rather than on the university proper. In this chapter, where the authors present the external factors impacting the imperial university – the military, the prisons, and the corporate world – one might say a panoptical-type point-of-view has been taken, whereby these external institutions have their gaze fixated on the university, but the university itself cannot see these institutions. In so doing, then, the university is brought to the foreground and the institutions acting upon it are pushed into the background. Thus, it becomes easier to depict the university as normally ‘peaceful’ (2014: 2, 12), mainly because those factors acting on the university are hidden (but are brought to light in this chapter). Here, one might say that an understanding of the imperial university must focus on those things external to the university, precisely because these are easily hidden from the establishment itself, which thereby facilitates the process of using the university as a central point of study.

Looking at those factors internal to the university, however, might lead to further exploration of not only the practices therein, but also the individuals that make up the university, thus shifting the focus away from the establishment that is the university to the individuals constituting the institution. Here, one would no longer have, so to speak, an ‘anthropology of anthropology’ (or an anthropology of academia), but rather something of an ‘auto-ethnography,’ or even an ‘oral history.’ Interestingly, this raises another interesting question about the process of anthropologizing anthropology: most notably, what kind of methodology should be used? Here is a topic that could have been explored in some depth by the authors.