Review of “The Scripts of Alberto Pollera, an Italian Officer in Colonial Eritrea”

Sorgoni, Barbara. 2007. “The scripts of Alberto Pollera, an Italian officer in colonial Eritrea: administration, ethnography, and gender” In Ordering Africa: Anthropology, European imperialism, and the politics of knowledge. Helen Tilley and Robert J. Gordon (eds). 285-308 pp.

By Myriam Tardif


This chapter, by Barbara Sorgoni, addresses Italian colonialism in Oriental Africa that lasted approximately 50 years. The author tries to demonstrate the need to acknowledge the links between ‘professional’, i.e. academic, anthropology and colonial power. She argues that the distinction we make between professional and pre-professional anthropology obscures the continuity between ethnographic genres and the relation that anthropology had to the different colonial administration. Anthropologists should take an historical move, in her opinion, by accounting for the extra-academic and extra-disciplinary influences on the constitution of the discipline. One of the way that could be done is by uncovering the homology between colonial and academic discursive patterns, such as proto-relativism or proto-functionalism. She constructs her argument in two parts. First, the importance of examining the links between administrative practices and professional anthropology, characterized by a division of labor of the production of ethnographic data. Second, to understand the creation process of discontinuous ethnic identities on the part of administrators and ethnographers.

She does it by examining the public and private life of Alberto Pollera, an Italian colonial administrator and civil judge that lived in Eritrea for about 20 years or more. In his writing, Pollera recognize the fact that his ethnographic knowledge and descriptive style, a ‘deeper knowledge’ gained through years of living amongst the “indigenous population”, was reflected in his administrative practice. He opposed strongly physical violence, but couldn’t see the violent nature of the civilizing mission, rooted in an evolutionary paradigm, in which he was taking part. In fact, he was very clear that this deeper knowledge of the native customs and ‘traditions’ should be used to enhance management and control techniques of the population that were colonized by the Italian Empire. One of the consequence of such “better and more humane, because softer” disciplinary techniques was to essentialize differences and to reinforce the segregation between two groups ‘on the field’. Another exemple of that, is the manipulation (or construction) of ‘traditions’ to reproduce relations of power. When dealing with gender issues, the fact that he mirrored the Italian (patriarchal) vision of justice, just reproduced and reinforced some kinds of power over others (those of the elder, rather than those of the women). We could say similar things on this point, like the application of racial laws that were reinforcing white supremacy and the evolutionist paradigm of the fascist Italian state. Hence, we can say that even if his work was not acknowledge by academics, it still had a profound impact ‘on the field’.

Sorgoni points to the complex nature of the articulation of Pollera’s personality and the fascist nature of the Italian colonial context, by underlying the hybrid nature of the colonial texts he was producing. In fact, there seems to be many contradictions between what Pollera was writing publicly and how he behaved in the private. Was he took under an impossible double-bind, by being in an inter-ractial union, and having had children, and being at the same time under the umbrella of a fascist regime that was forbidding such unions because of racist laws.

Two questions that needs to be addressed concerning this is; would it have been different if Pollera had been a professional anthropologist? How and why? It is also interesting to reflect on political role or impact of “relativism” today and of relation between the academic political economy to its historical context. What does it mean that we are so prompt to excuse behaviors of people in the past and we still use today a similar form of the “proto-relativistic” rhetoric, rooted in an evolutionary paradigm? Based on these questions, we had very interesting discussions in class that I will try briefly to sum up here.

First of all, like Bourdieu is doing in the sphere of academic production and reproduction (1988), it is interesting to look at how we create standards of professionalism; what makes it an amateur or a professional practice? Hence, a similar division of labor necessarily influences the type of anthropology being made, because of its relation to what is being studied. Your understanding will be different if you get your data from books that from long-term relationship with people, one of the reason explaining this being issues of translations. Of language, yes, but also of meta-communication (how do you interpret the data in the books without the proper context?). We can after that question the standards of ‘professional ethics’. In the context of the Imperial university (Chatterjee and Maira, 2014), who does the ethics protects? Is it to protect the integrity of participant, with regard to the politics of representation, or is it rather to protect the institution from legal pursuit? And how does national ethos influences those different degrees and standards of professionalization? Is there only one anthropology, in the continuation of the liberal project of a global and deterritorialized world, or is there still multiple anthropology that are in fact bracketed by the politics of the imperial border? To answer this question, one could draw from the implication of doing anthropology from within the fascist Italian empire, but it seems much more easier to understand the relation of anthropology to its context when it is in the past. How do we understand the relation of anthropology to the American empire, in relation to the ‘war on terror’ or to the transition toward ‘police states’, linked to the neoliberalization of everything. And this ties back to my second question relating to relativism and its link to current anthropology. I’ll finish my text today with a last question; is relativism a product of the colonial encounter?



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

Chatterjee, Piya and Sunaina Maira (Eds). 2014. The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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.


Wilder, Gary. 2007. “Colonial Ethnology and Political Rationality in French West Africa.” In Helen L. Tilley and Robert J Gordon (Eds.), Ordering Africa, pp. 336-375. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Wilder’s closing chapter to the edited volume Ordering Africa follows the editor’s encouragement to “move beyond questions of individual or epistemological complicity in colonialism” (Tilley 2007: 15) not by looking outside the frame of disciplinary involvement with the colonial project, but by delving further in it, demonstrating their inextricable intimacy. Wilder shows how a new “political rationality” emerged after World War I in France and its West African colonies in response to international anti-imperial sentiment, an expanded understanding of French nationhood that included the colonies, and wide ranging transformations brought to these latter by generations of colonial domination, which required “novel administrative strategies . . . organized around three interdependent objectives: political order, economic development, and social welfare” (Wilder 2007: 353). Wilder argues that the colonial predicament “provided the very categories of analysis, debate and policy,” giving shape to the theoretical innovations, training programs, data collection, and administrative decisions which all informed each other. More than complicity, anthropology and colonialism constituted a “shared field of colonial ethnology” (p. 337) dedicated to producing a practical science serving to facilitate an increasingly scientific form of administration.

This new orientation was visible at the Institut d’ethnologie – backed financially by the Ministère des colonies and the Ministère de l’éducation – which advocated for a colonial division of labour between “savants and technicians” (p. 338), educating not only ethnographers but also “administrators and colonials . . . to aid the overseas administration” (p. 339) and help it be more humane. It was also visible at the École coloniale, which developed an “ethnological focus” after WWI (p. 342) and “sought to integrate knowledge of native societies into a practical administrative sociology” (p. 343). The development of “‘society’ . . . [as] an object of scientific knowledge” changed the fundamental unit of policy-making from universal, abstract human to historically and culturally particular individuals, requiring detailed, practical knowledge to inform this scientifically oriented, sociological mode of administration (p. 344). “Knowledge production became an explicit priority” both for “overseas officials” (p. 344) concerned with the geographic particulars of native mentality and social structures, and for professional ethnologists concerned with enabling the ennobled colonial project. Within this shared field of activity, ethnographic description and colonial prescription not only influenced each other but “were intrinsically related” (p. 361) in their contradictory imperative to legitimize colonial relations by depicting culturally distinct, static, and socially backward natives, while at the same time transforming them into modern, productive economic actors. It is this fundamental contradiction that Wilder terms “colonial humanism” and which characterizes the emerging post-war political rationality.

This tension runs as a leitmotiv throughout Wilder’s chapter, and demonstrates the irreconcilable contradictions between ethnology and colonialism, the former leaning towards valuing human difference, the latter requiring that this difference be subsumed under a nation’s politico-economic project. The important message conveyed by Wilder’s text – and by the edited volume generally – is that this contradiction by no means precludes coexistence, nor even concerted action. In a sense, it is the contortions it elicits – on individual, institutional, or geopolitical levels alike – that are at the heart of much modern material and discursive formations. This is why Wilder calls it a “constitutive” contradiction. It shows up in Marcel Mauss’s and Maurice Delafosse’s theorizing, torn between the impulse to dignify and protect Native cultures, depicting them as “separate but equal” with their own practices and categories, yet situating them within a civilizational gradient, implying the possibility of social evolution (pp. 341; 347). It appears more dramatically in Henri Labouret who, also stuck between “static and evolutionary understandings of native society,” proposed that “‘methodical purging’ of select agitators” would allow for indigenous societies to naturally evolve towards a more civilized social state (p. 350) – a proposition whose basic tenets are at the heart of many contemporary foreign policies (the U.S government, for example, has had a particularly violent way of exporting democracy and economic prosperity – see e.g. González 2009). The tension shows up in almost pathetic ways in humanist colonial policy-making, struggling as it does with the contradictions of a colonial program whose successful implementation modernizes Native societies, eroding in the process the traditional hierarchical structures on which it relies for control, giving its colonial subjects a mobility and aspirations that threaten the very boundaries constitutive of its rule – eliciting deep anxieties that congeal around issues of citizenship and race (see also Stoler 2002). As Wilder states, “They dreamed of colonial subjects possessed by rational self-interest, consumerist desires and a productivist ethos, who were nevertheless embedded in indigenous relations of production” (2007: 354).

In a way, the colonial fantasy was the reverse of the ethnographic one. While Mauss – hoping to salvage what remained of pre-colonial societies – wished for cultural fixity mixed with social fluidity (a Native distinct yet amenable to the civilizing project), the colonial project required cultural flexibility mixed with social fixity – i.e. a Native adopting Western cultural categories (e.g. the rational, self-maximizing individual) embedded in traditional social structures. Stated more generally, “Administrators sought to promote socio-economic individuality without creating legal and political individuals” (p. 354). That this depiction of inter-war French colonial policy sounds eerily similar to Brown’s (2006) analysis of so-called neoliberalism in the U.S. is perhaps no coincidence. While Wilder’s argument about colonial humanism – which as a political rationality mobilized Native welfare no longer solely as a justification for colonial rule but as an economic strategy – tells us something about the specific relation of French ethnology to colonialism at the time, it also highlights the profound constitutive tension inherent to the overlapping of a capitalist ethos, enlightenment ideals, political rule, and knowledge production. What Wilder’s analysis seems to suggest is that while the specific contortions to which this tension gives rise are contingently variable through time and space in important ways, the underlying “constitutive contradiction” might point to an irresolvable strain that politics and knowledge production – writ large – put on each other. Perhaps this is less an argument for the death of anthropology – which, perhaps more than any other discipline, straddles that particular fault line – than one in favor of a different socio-political ethos.


Brown, W. 2006. “American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-Democratization.” Political Theory 34 (6): 690–714.

González, Roberto J. 2009. American Counterinsurgency: Human Science and the Human Terrain. Paradigm 34. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2002. Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule. Berkeley: University of California Press.


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.


Cinnamon, John M. (2007). “Colonial anthropologies and the primordial imagination in equatorial Africa.” In Helen Tilley and Robert J. Gordon (Eds.), Ordering Africa: Anthropology, European Imperialism, and the Politics of Knowledge (pp. 225 – 251). New York, New York: Manchester University Press.

In his chapter Colonial anthropologies and the primordial imagination in equatorial Africa, John Cinnamon, anthropologist and scholar of religion, politics, ethnicity and nationalism in Africa,  discusses the “Fang exceptionalism” with which the Fang people were characterized by European enthnographers. They were seen as a strong, healthy, militarily powerful,  technologically advanced, monotheistic and thereby somewhat civilized people in many European texts the Fang are studied in. Cinnamon’s objectives in this chapters are revealed when he says: “The goal is to illustrate how, in specific ways, colonial anthropology has both inherited and constructed its object over time” (226).

First, he points first to the existence of a “tribal paradigm” created by 19th and 20th century explorers, missionaries, and anthropologists. This paradigm was initially born of a “civilizing” colonial project which saw the colonial powers raising the “Dark Continent” into the light via religion, science and rationalism. However, as we will see many of these tribal paradigms were then reworked by Africans themselves.

Second, the interest of said explorers, missionaries, and anthropologists in the origins, history and migration of specific tribes “preoccupied both academic historians and anthropologists, and Africans themselves” (228). To this end, he follows the ethnographic work of four authors who wrote extensively about the peoples of equatorial Africa: Paul Belloni Du Chaillu, Henri Trilles, Georges Balandier, and James Fernandez

Paul Belloni Du Chaillu

Du Chaillu was a French-American zoologist and anthropologist who first arrived in Africa in 1855 and traveled extensively in the northern and southern Gabonese interior.

His Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa published at first in 1861 set the tone for future ethnographic accounts of the region and his accounts of Fang cannibalism made his work both popular and controversial.

Du Chaillu’s Fang were “profoundly other” and sat firmly in the tribal paradigm which saw them as being in need of Christian civilizing so that they may become contented farmers complicit in the colonial project.

Henri Trilles

Trilles was  a French Spiritan missionary who continued Du Chaillu’s work in the late 18oos, making 3 prolonged visits to Gabon between 1893 and 1907.

Although Trilles had a reputation for plagiarism and embellishment and was an unpopular figure amongst many of his peers, his writing on Fang origins, migration patterns and exceptionalism proved to be the aspects of his work which endured most forcefully, as these narratives seemed to have had traction with the Fang themselves, who re-appropriated and transformed them as they saw fit.

The passage on 233-234 outlining what Trilles saw as “predatory expansion via ingestion” is interesting both in that it is a example of Trilles’ Fang exceptionalism and for the parallels which can be made with colonialism in general, expanding and consolidating power by consuming bodies.

Georges Balandier and James Fernandez

It was two anthropologists, Georges Balandier who came to Gabon in 1949 and James Fernandez  who arrived in 1958 right before Gabonese independence who tried to make sense of Du Challiau and Trilles’ work. The anthropology being practiced in the mid twentieth century was decidedly different from that practiced by Trilles and Du Chaillu which made things challenging, but as pointed to on page 236  by the 1950’s, the enthnographies of Trille and Du Chaillu had been steeped Fang identity for the better part of a century and many of the ideas put forth by these two had become internalized to certain degrees by the Fang themselves.

Balandier’s research was focused on history, power relations, and conflict but still required a place to start from. Disentangling the history of Fang identity proved a challenge and as such Balandier was forced to use the idea of a “previous social cohesion” as a jump off point.

Fernandez, taking his cues more from symbolic anthropology, was more concerned with Gabonese religious movements but still perpetuated the concept of Fang exceptionalism by referring to them as “the terror of the autochthnous peoples” (241).

It is also worth noting that Balandier and Fernandez both attempted to be cautious in employing the aforementioned tribal paradigm but at the same time had no choice but to draw from sources which were very much influenced by it.

Mvet Epic

Lastly, Cinnamon points to the Mvet epic as an example of the ethnographic narratives of anthropologists being used to create auto-ethnographies which spoke against the horrors of colonialism and for the independence from said colonialism. The Mvet itself is written of as being somewhat complicated and open to different readings and thus competing narratives. However, Fang exceptionalism and the concept of Egyptian origin espoused by Trilles were were appealing to Fang and Beti wishing to construct post colonial identities, particularly during the “clan reunification” movement of the 1940s and 1950s. So it was that exceptionalism and origin narratives were further solidified by many of these auto-ethnographies, many of which were also deeply entangled with biblical narratives.

Concluding Thoughts

To conclude, Cinnamon argues that the trajectory of Fang studies was largely defined by the works of characters like Trilles and Du Challiu who were operating in Africa a good century before the discipline was formalized. Moreover, some of the ideas put forth by Du Challiu and Trilles resonated with the people themselves and thus were used for decidedly different ends than originally intended, helping Fang and Beti intellectuals to “create their own expressions of Fang exceptionalism” (245).

However, one of the arguments which underpins this chapter is that the content or veracity of these accounts of exceptionalism is not relevant, only how they constitute “exceptionalism [as] an ‘empirical phenomenon’, observable when it motivates public opinion, policy, behavior, or in this case, ethnographic representations” (226).  This might strike one as being a somewhat reductive approach to exceptionalism which, real or imagined, still has roots in material inequality and in the case of a comparison between the Fang and the “costal tribes”, varying degrees of “contact” with colonial powers. Even more curious is that such a position can be read as an attempt to sidestep some of the very content of the chapter such as Balandier’s approach to colonialism as a “total social phenomenon” in constant flux through “ongoing dynamic[s] of conflict, adaptation and crisis” (237). In such an analysis couched in examinations of power relations and subject positions it would seem that the content and veracity of exceptionalism ought to be taking center stage.

Nevertheless, the chapter is certainly valuable in the sense that it serves as an interesting example of how cultural identities can be constructed over time and that this dynamic and ongoing process often flows from frictions with actors external to the society in question. Moreover, this chapter raises some important questions. At what point was it that the narrative of Fangness reopened to the interpretation of Fang orators and intellectuals? Perhaps more importantly, how open is it?

In so far as these questions are raised, the article would have done well to have provided more tangible and concrete examples of what exact forms these reworkings and reinterpretations took.

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.


Pugach, Sara (2007).  “Of conjunctions, comportment, and clothing: the place of African teaching assistants in Berlin and Hamburg, 1889-1919.”  In Tilley, Helen and Robert J. Gordon (Eds.), Ordering Africa: Anthropology, European Imperialism, and the Politics of Knowledge (pp.145-172). Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

In writing this chapter, Sarah Pugach argues that she is attempting to draw African teaching assistants into German colonial history (120).  In doing so, Pugach is helping to illustrate the ways in which African scholars played an important role in contributing to and shaping German academe (120-121).  Furthermore, she also draws attention to colonialism’s role in early anthropology, arguing that in fact the earliest “anthropologists” were missionaries, who produced and wrote ethnographic works in colonial settings (122).  This chapter speaks to the complex entanglements and power relations that are created when ethnographic knowledge is being produced; in essence, Pugach illustrates the ways in which people use each other for academic and social gains.   Africans who contributed to academia in both the colonies and in Europe did have agency, and even often used stereotypes to their advantage, however at the same time the Germans were afraid of allowing them “too much power” (121) and thus ensured that they were squelched in various ways.

It is important to be aware of the intricacies of historical contexts in order to understand how knowledge is produced in Anthropology today, particularly in relation to societies and cultures outside of our own contexts.   Thus, in writing this chapter Pugach is enabling us to open our eyes to so much more than simply the position of African teaching assistants in late the 1800’s to early 1900’s in Germany.  African informants’ roles in German history were carefully documented, with their significant contributions to linguistic works and ethnographies having been particularly well-documented although Pugach argues that many of the aforementioned works remain unpublished, and are thus hidden from common knowledge (122).  Often, informants were unacknowledged in written work, though, and Pugach argues that they were certainly almost never recognized as co-authors of those works that did end up getting published nor were they given praise for their contributions to Anthropological works; even the ones that would have been impossible without an informant who knew the language and culture well (123).  In fact, even in texts that were about them informants were not directly quoted or even mentioned explicitly, particularly not by name (123).

Teaching assistants living in Germany at the time had quite a different experience than those who remained in colonies, serving as informants.  Through virtue of having more access to academic institutions, they were able to attain greater status and also had a tendency to be more educated, Pugach argues (123).  In drawing attention to academic knowledge, Pugach opens a space in which one might question how education contributes to knowledge production in Anthropology.  Also, she raises the issue of access to education by illustrating the ways in which social class in Africa played a role in enabling wealthier people to be educated and thus work as teaching assistants in Germany, while those who were not educated could only stay in the colonies and be informants whose contributions to academia were largely unrecognized.   Does access to academic education contribute to the production of knowledge in Antthropology, then, or simply more to the recognition of a person’s contributions based on his or her position within the academic institution?  In essence, while it may not have been her ultimate goal in writing this chapter, notions of contributions and recognition were central to Pugach’s chapter, and she quite clearly delineates it through illustrating the differences between African teaching assistants in Germany and colonial African contributions to ethnographic texts.  It is of course no coincidence that those who remained unnamed and thus unrecognized were also those who were less educated.

Furthermore, Pugach writes that Africans teaching in Germany had to be sure to dress the part (wearing western clothes, usually) as a part of the façade necessary to enable them to allow them to play the role of fitting in to German society (125-127).  However, it is important to note that although Pugach makes sure to establish that while African academics in Germany did quite well at playing the role of fitting in to German society, there was always an underlying fear on the part of the Germans that they could suddenly revert to being fully African, which was arguably synonymous with primitive (125-126).  Thus they were still considered suspect, and definitely did not get to be on par with white Germans (124), nor even with North African and Asian teaching assistants in similar positions (127).   In addition, Pugach argues that among African teaching assistants in Germany, some had a higher status than others. Often status depended on social class and cultural background (125-127), although most still occupied marginal positions in European society (129).  Limiting Africans’ mobility within German society was in large part due to the realization that African were not actually inferior to Germans (physically and mentally), which Pugach argues led to increased feelings of inferiority on the part of Germans (129-130).

The final question that arises when regarding Pugach’s chapter is that of why African assistants were willing to produce “ethnographic texts for a German public” in the first place (135).  Although Pugach initially argues that it is difficult to assess their reasons for doing so, I would argue that it is indeed possible to discern the probability that financial reasons definitely played a role (there are mentions of sending remittances home as well as instances where Africans and Germans bickered over the teaching assistants’ pay, throughout the chapter).  Pugach also points to the issue of intended audience, arguing that African teaching assistants’ ethnographic texts didn’t always conform to German readers’ expectations (138).  Further, Pugach argues that quite often African academics “used scholarship as a means of promoting” personal goals (138).  Finally, the argument Pugach most clearly seems to want to make in this chapter is that although there isn’t much published on the history of African-German relationships during the colonial period, what we are able to discern is that they were complex, but most importantly that they allowed Africans, through their contributions to ethnographic texts as well as their positions within German academia, to contest German ideals of “what it means to be African” (139).

The Production of Ethnographic Writing in the Context of Colonial Africa: Jean-Hervé Jezequel’s “Voices of their own? African participation in the production of colonial knowledge in French West Africa, 1889-1919.”

Jezequel, Jean-Hervé. (2007). “Voices of their own? African participation in the production of colonial knowledge in French West Africa, 1889-1919.” In Tilley, Helen and Robert J. Gordon (Eds.), Ordering Africa: Anthropology, European Imperialism, and the Politics of Knowledge (pp.145-172). Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Jean-Hervé Jezequel’s chapter focuses on the political and social history of ethnographic writing among West African educated elites, or indigènes, in French-speaking Africa during the late-nineteenth century to early-twentieth century (145-146). The authors who produced these ethnographies were African “schoolmasters trained at the Ecole Normale William Ponty in Senegal” (145). Due to the “structural inequalities” of colonial Africa, which influenced the status and scholarly division of labour between African ethnographers and colonial administrator-ethnographers, the contribution of these African authors to the discipline of anthropology and ethnographic writing was, and remains, overlooked (145-147). Jezequel’s examination constitutes one of the five imperial relationships investigated within the Ordering Africa volume and demonstrates how African educated elites, though restricted by imperial power structures, contributed to the development and material body of anthropological scholarship in the context of French colonialism (Tilley 3; 166). By investigating three contexts, “the history of knowledge production, the social history of African intermediaries, and the political history of the local arenas”, all of which influence how these African ethnographies were produced, read and stored, Jezequel reveals that these neglected ethnographies contain a wealth of data about the political and social realities of colonial West Africa and that within this colonial context, ethnographic writing, for African authors, became “a vehicle to advance their own interests” (146). In addition to revealing the ties between imperialism and anthropology, this chapter allowed the ANTH 603 participants to review how diverse motivations influence the production and interpretation of anthropological knowledge, but also appreciate that the discipline’s subjective qualities yield valuable information about the contexts wherein this knowledge was produced.

Jezequel begins the history of anthropological knowledge production in West Africa in 1895 and demonstrates that it is characterized by structural inequality and a division of scholarly labour (145-147). French colonial officials required ethnographic data as information about the local people and area provided them with “a better understanding of native cultures as well as a better means to control them” (146). Local informants, both illiterate and educated were utilized by French scholars and colonial administrators in order to acquire and produce this ethnographic information, which resulted in a division of scholarly labour, characterized by networks of local informants providing ethnographic data for French officials, who had publishing privileges (146-147). Interestingly, it is during this period that we see the emergence of indigenous studies, an example of the links between knowledge production and colonialism (146).

Despite the contributions of African informants, specifically the written work of literate informants, their role in the production of knowledge remained unofficial and subordinate as they were viewed by western administrator-ethnographers as lacking the skills to engage in ethnographic interpretation and writing (148-149). However, Jezequel identifies a change in the 1930s, as colonial authorities began encouraging local participation in indigenous studies (149). This encouragement, however, was tied to colonial motivations and was a method of procuring colonially-relevant data from educated Africans and discouraging “the publication efforts of detribalized Africans”, which could potentially threaten the legitimacy and ideology of the French colonial administration (149-151). Despite the dubious intentions of colonial administrators, by encouraging indigenous studies, the ethnographies produced by African authors began to be accepted and by the 1940s there were career opportunities for African ethnographers in academia, though they were still subordinate when compared to other academic positions and opportunities (152-153).

Though limited and smothered by the power and intellectual dynamics of colonialism, Jezequel encourages readers to see that the participation and material produced by African authors reveal valuable political and social information about the roles Africans played in the local and transnational dynamic of imperialism and knowledge production (153; Tilley 26). Jezequel demonstrates that as “knowledge intermediaries, capable of producing the information that colonial administrators needed”, educated Africans saw indigenous studies and ethnography as a method of achieving higher status and potentially navigating and succeeding in a “stratified colonial service” (158-162). In addition, African authors were also influenced by the local political arena. Knowing that their writing would be stored in local archives and that it would be referenced by colonial administrators, ethnographic writing was an opportunity to reinvent indigenous traditions or reinvent the legitimacy of an author and their family’s claim to local social and political power (163-165). Writing was an opportunity for educated Africans to benefit from the colonial administrations’ faith in the written archive and influence the colonial administrations’ perspective towards the local arena (163-164). This interpretation, heavily inspired by the work of Terence Ranger and Eric Hobsbawm, demonstrates how educated Africans appropriated a degree of power through colonial structures and standards of knowledge (164).

Producing knowledge was a method of social and political advancement within Africa’s colonial and local arenas (162). In these settings, individual and collective motivations for success and advancement influenced the interpretations and content of African auto-ethnographies (Tilley 7). In an effort to attain higher status, African authors could reproduce colonial discourse or strategically contest it within their ethnographic writing (162). By studying the contexts in which African ethnographies were produced and identifying who was reading and using African auto-ethnographies, Jezequel demonstrates that African authors had diverse motivations for participating in indigenous studies and ethnography, despite their ties to colonialism (153).

Colonial power incentives promoted the development of anthropological research and indigenous studies. However, the participation of African authors was an opportunity “for capturing power and influencing the colonial authorities”, who trusted written resources (165). Jezequel’s descriptive investigation provides insight on “the intricate ways imperialism and anthropology in Africa shaped one another” and that despite the inequalities that colonialism produced, African ethnographers contributed to this dynamic (166). The subjective motivations of colonial officials and African authors for producing ethnographic writing fosters scepticism about anthropology’s claim to scientific objectivity. Nonetheless, as Jezquel’s investigation demonstrates, subjectivity reveals information about social and political realities and the ideologies that drive anthropological interpretation. Recognizing the value of subjectivity provides contemporaries with the opportunity to understand the conditions in which anthropological knowledge was and continues to be produced.

However, to truly appreciate Jezequel’s work, the participation of African authors in colonialism and the production anthropological knowledge can no longer be neglected. By “privileging an elitist perspective” towards anthropology and its intellectual contributors, contemporary anthropologists prevent themselves from understanding how colonialism functions and the conditions in which anthropological knowledge was produced (153). Contemporary researchers must ask themselves if the continued disregard of African participation in the history of colonialism and anthropology is evidence of colonialism’s ongoing legacy. As the graduates of ANTH 603 concluded, contemporary researchers must be aware that the discipline of anthropology is historically intertwined with colonialism and that by ignoring this, we risk reproducing the power and intellectual inequities of this context.

Tilley, Helen. (2007). “Introduction: Africa, imperialism, and anthropology.” In Tilley, Helen and Robert J. Gordon (Eds.), Ordering Africa: Anthropology, European Imperialism, and the Politics of Knowledge (pp. 1-45). Manchester, UK: Manchester 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.

Review of “Introduction: Africa, Imperialism, and Anthropology”

Tilley, Helen. 2007. “Introduction: Africa, Imperialism, and Anthropology.” In Helen L. Tilley and Robert J Gordon (Eds.), Ordering Africa, pp. 1-45. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

In her introduction chapter, Helen Tilley sets the table for Ordering Africa: Anthropology, European Imperialism and the Politics of Knowledge, offering up some of the central themes of the anthology of which she is the primary editor. The beating heart of Ordering Africa is an analysis of the relationships between knowledge and control within colonial Africa and to what extent anthropology was imbricated, entangled or otherwise involved with these discourses and practices.

Concerning the latter point, Tilley posits that perhaps anthropology did not play as central a role in colonial policy as is conventionally thought. Although anthropologists and ethnographers operating in Africa during and after the colonial period were largely bankrolled by and thereby answerable to colonial powers, they were not always particularly influential when it came to their work being employed in matters such as colonial administration.

Tilley, through anthropologist Talal Asad, goes on to posit that the work produced by anthropologists was often times too abstract to be practically applied to colonial governance, especially when contrasted with the considerable body of work produced by missionaries, merchants, and administrators themselves. Tilley underscores this position quite directly on page 6, stating that “anthropology needed empires far more than empires needed anthropology”.

While their influence may have been somewhat marginal, the narratives produced by anthropologists often found themselves confined within or tied to colonial discourses, the aims of which were to create a kinder, gentler, and ultimately more efficient system of imperial exploitation. This becomes curious when one considers that although the works of big names like Maliknowski and Evans-Pritchard were largely tailored towards the colonial endeavor, the very knowledge they produced, depending on how it was framed, could at the same time be used to “challenge colonialism’s assumptions, objectives and political structures” (7).

For their part, African intellectuals were understandably less than thrilled with the role played by anthropologists and other social scientists in the African colonial project, regardless of their effectuality. Through a certain lens, this actually proved fortuitous for the field of anthropology. Indeed, as Tilley suggests, there is evidence that the resulting pushback from African intellectuals was a major catalyst in the rethinking of anthropology as a discipline and played no small part in impelling the study of anthropology itself which has since gone on to become a field of its own.

It is also worth noting, as Tilley does, that neither the field of anthropology nor the colonial and subaltern actors within Africa were necessarily static and insular entitles. Bearing this in mind, any epistemological study of Africa and empire ought to be grounded within larger contexts which consider how the interplay of the many heterogeneous interests at work both within and external to colonial-era Africa have constituted what Tilley describes on page 14 as a “shared experience”.

The truck and tension between empires, between empire and anthropologist, and among anthropologists themselves have rendered an epistemological landscape wherein wherein questions of intent and complicity are highly complicated and seldom particularly fruitful. The epistemological waters of colonial Africa are muddied further when one also takes into account the experience of the African subaltern(s) who have responded to anthropology and empire in a myriad of ways, variously rejecting anthropological and social scientific involvement (as was the case with many African intellectuals), embracing and internalizing colonial ethnographic identities produced by anthropologists (as was the case with the Fang peoples studied by Cinnamon), and incorporating anthropological work in the formulation of new methods of political ordering (as per Kenyatta).

Into this heady brew one may also wish to add the individual ideological dimensions of the anthropologists, administrators, and subalterns for whom issues of knowledge production, social control, and political and social change were matters of significant (although by no means exclusive) importance. Tilley points to the example (one among many) of the work done on Italian colonial administrator Alberto Pollera, who paved his paths with what he saw as good intentions. Further along the road, as we see all too often in such confused circumstances, this led to unforeseen circumstances as his ideology in practice remained steeped in ethnocentric concepts of racial superiority, ricocheting off of competing interests and ultimately reifying new stereotypes and prejudices in the name of destroying old ones.

Tilley concludes her introduction by highlighting the primary intentions and loci of Ordering Africa. The first concerns the transnational nature of the various actors and institutions involved in colonial era Africa. The boundaries surrounding the interpretation of events in colonial Africa were porous and saw anthropologists and administrators alike occupying numerous physical, institutional and intellectual milieus as this collective experience was woven. While it complicates any structured narrative, ignoring the transnational aspects of knowledge production in (and of) Africa is to paint picture bereft of many of the variables at work.

The second emerging pattern pertains to the creation of scholarly ‘clearinghouses’ within African colonies and their parent nation states and the marks made by them on both the discipline of anthropology and the ongoing discussions surrounding intellectual discourse and administration. Tilley makes a call for the necessity of incorporating the multifarious “disciplines, nations, methodologies, [and] underlying assumptions and objectives” (26) into said discussions.

The third thread considers where various administrators and anthropologists could be placed along a spectrum between the concerns for the creation of colonial policy on the one hand, and for social history and lived, on-the-ground reality on the other. The attendant tensions reveal a disconnect in our understanding of the knowledge-making relationship between administrator and anthropologist. Tilley also briefly points to the fact that studies of the trajectory of anthropology are often couched exclusively in socio-economic and political contexts that neglect to take into account a whole host of particular influences such as culture contact, alternative forms of societal organization, and functionalism.

Lastly, Tilley contends that, given the magnitude of its colonization by a parade of European interests, Africa is curiously understudied with regards to knowledge production. Moreover, when such issues are addressed, they remain specific to Africa and fail link up with similar discourses in other parts of the world.

As it relates to one of the core concerns of New Directions in Anthropological Research – the auto-ethnography of anthropologists and the means by which anthropological knowledge is produced and codified – Ordering Africa is a particularly relevant volume. The questions addressed in Ordering Africa exhibit a particular congruence with the reflexive concerns occupying a good deal of space in contemporary anthropological discourse. For whom and at whose expense is anthropological knowledge being produced? What happens when this knowledge descends from the Ivory tower and interacts with the world at large? How can we build on existing bodies of knowledge without falling into the same traps as our forerunners did when they buttressed disproportionate power relations and excluded or marginalized “other” narratives?

These questions are ones for which no easy, catch-all answer has emerged. While it makes no pretensions of being a definitive volume of any kind, Tilley makes clear her hopes that Ordering Africa will underscore the continued relevance of such questions and spur further discussions of the issues they bring to the fore.