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Close encounters

Close encounters

Ryan Schram
ANTH 2700: Key debates in anthropology
Social Sciences Building 410 (A02)
Week of March 22, 2021 (Week 4)

Slides available at http://anthro.rschram.org/2700/2021/4

Main reading: Sahlins (1988)

Other reading: Sahlins (1992); Sahlins (1996)

A major debate in anthropology

Last week, I mentioned arguments by Wolf and would like to expand on them this week.

Wolf’s ideas are important as part of a larger debate between him and Marshall Sahlins.

  • Both Wolf and Sahlins agree on a two fundamental things
    • They agree that societies are not static, and that each society is a product of a history of contact.
    • They also both agree that anthropologists need to study history to understand the present of any one society.
  • But they also disagree on other major issues
    • They disagree on how societies change.
    • They disagree on the nature of cross-cultural encounters.
    • They disagree on what aspects of history anthropologists need to examine.

Domination is at issue

Clearly, the world of humanity is diverse and includes many different ways of life. It’s also clearly very unequal.

You can look at this two different ways:

  • The world is a mosaic of different cultures.
  • Societies of the world are part of a stratified global system, and each society contains within it separate, unequal strata
    • Some people’s norms, values, and ideas are selected as the standard for everyone else, both within one society and globally.
    • Other people’s perspectives and values are marginalized; they are different but they exist in the context of the dominant cultural stratum.

Wolf and Trouillot argue that anthropology is complicit in masking structures of cultural domination within and among societies in favor of the “mosaic of cultures” view (or the Star Trek view).

Both views have always been present in anthropology although have received different emphases at different times.

Radcliffe-Brown’s structural functionalism

As an example, let’s look back to anthropology’s classical period and the work of A. R. Radcliffe-Brown.

  • Radcliffe-Brown brought Durkheim’s ideas into British social anthropology to argue for a “structural functionalist” theory of society.
  • This was an argument against evolutionary and historical perspectives on society which claimed that you could understand social institutions by looking for their origins in the past.
    • A good illustration of Radcliffe-Brown’s attack on this position is in his analysis of the role of the mother’s brother in many different, unrelated patrilineal societies (Radcliffe-Brown [1924] 1952).

Radcliffe-Brown versus Wolf

  • Radcliffe-Brown argued that every society was oriented toward finding an equilibrium among different tendencies.
  • Social facts function to maintain this dynamic balance.
  • In this respect, Radcliffe-Brown might sound like exactly the sort of person that Eric Wolf wants to criticize.
  • If Eric Wolf ever told Radcliffe-Brown that he assumed that every society was a static, primitive isolate, what do you think A. R. “Anarchy” Radcliffe-Brown would say back?

Radcliffe-Brown, equilibrium, and colonialism as genocide

I don’t think it is entirely fair to say that Radcliffe-Brown is blind or ignorant of global structures of domination.

He does acknowledge contact, change, and domination in some of his writings. His comments on them are telling.

He notes that there are limits to the organic analogy.

  • “A pig does not become a hippopotamus” (Radcliffe-Brown 1952, 181).
    • Unlike an individual animal, societies can and sometimes do become something totally new.
    • The functional integration of a society will tend to reestablish balance in face of disruptive events. But if a disruption is powerful enough, the balance will shift and a new, stable form will replace the old one.
  • An organism lives and then dies. Societies don’t have to die (Radcliffe-Brown 1952, 183).
    • A better analogy for a society is a corporation, which is immortal and will outlast its mortal members.
    • A society will die if it is overwhelmed by a more powerful, aggressive force, and Radcliffe-Brown cites the destruction of Australian Aboriginal societies in the wake of Australian colonization as an example.

So Radcliffe-Brown recognizes that societies change, and that the domination of one society by another is a major part of that. But he can only see it in the extreme, as genocide and ethnocide.

Today it would be more common for people to say the opposite:

  • Australian Aboriginal and Indigenous societies survived the violent colonization of their worlds.
  • Later forms of colonial domination have transformed these Indigenous societies.

So what is “colonialism?”

In academic literature the terms colonialism and imperialism are often used in fuzzy ways, and may appear to be intersubstitutable. It can be useful to distinguish them

  • Imperialism is a global system that incorporates many different cultures and communities on unequal terms.
  • Colonialism refers to different kinds of processes whereby one society supplants or superimposes itself on a new society or territory.

Eric Wolf’s idea of the global imperial order is primarily economic, not political

In Europe and the People without History (1982), Eric Wolf examples several examples of cross-cultural contact and interaction that can be described as examples of colonial encounters.

  • The 17th century fur trade between Europeans and Native North Americans
  • The Atlantic system of traffic of African slaves by Europeans from African societies to the United States, Caribbean, and Latin American plantations.
  • The nascent global economy of agricultural commodities produced by slave labor for European consumers

Colonialism is the capitalist world-system in embryo.

Wolf also assumes that everyone in these encounters is driven by essentially the same material needs and wants, and hence behaves in pretty much the same ways.

Colonial encounters often have unintended and unanticipated effects

Perhaps without meaning to, Wolf also highlights that many changes caused by colonial encounters were unplanned and many of the biggest social and cultural impacts were side-effects.

Generally speaking, the political domination of colonized peoples by European states is one of many different kinds of cross-cultural encounter over the centuries of European expansion.

Sahlins argues that the colonial encounter is mediated by people’s symbolic categories

  • Sahlins examines similar kinds of cross-cultural encounters in history, but argues for another view of them.
  • Sahlins applies the lingusitic analogy to identify and explain the thinking of people involved in these encounters.
  • Recall Bashkow’s (2006) ethnography of Orokaiva.
    • Sahlins would say the same type of classification of new, foreign people, groups, and events is present everywhere on both sides of the encounter.
  • A structure of cultural domination emerges when this shared system of symbolic classification becomes recentered on the schema of the colonizers at the expense of the colonized.
    • Schools and religious missionaries, and not the violence of wealthy and powerful people, seem to be crucial to the real transformation of colonized people.
  • The fundamental reality of colonial domination is a domination of people’s minds.

Extra slide: The color line in two centuries

The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea. (Du Bois 1903, 13)

How should anthropology respond to this claim?

Extra slide: Anthropology and colonialism—Ignorance, complicity, or liberal reform?

Radcliffe-Brown’s (1952) offhand mention of Aboriginal experiences of colonial invasion as the “death” of their culture and social systems raises the question of what anthropologists thought about European colonialism, and how we should assess them today.

For most of its history, from the late 19th century to the end of the second World War, anthropologists lived in a system in which colonial control of one society by another was a normal thing. There were most likely a range of views:

  • Some probably supported colonialism as a global system, especially the contemporary 20th century system they knew as opposed to previous centuries.
  • Most took a view that was considered liberal at the time. Colonial policies based on noninterference, respect for people’s capacity to govern themselves, and recognition of indigenous forms of leadership and administration were good, and anthropology could contribute to enlightened, progressive colonial government (see, e.g. Hogbin 1946; Worsley 1956; see also Kuper 1973).

Anticolonial activism and scholarship created a new kind of knowledge of colonial racism and domination, and this ultimately had more of an influence on anthropology (see Lewis 1973).

References and further reading

Bashkow, Ira. 2006. The Meaning of Whitemen: Race and Modernity in the Orokaiva Cultural World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1903. “Of the Dawn of Freedom.” In The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches, 13–40. Chicago: A. C. McClurg.

Hogbin, H. Ian. 1946. “Local Government for New Guinea.” Oceania 17 (1): 38–66. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40328096.

Kuper, Adam. 1973. “Anthropology and Colonialism.” In Anthropologists and Anthropology : The British School, 1922-1972, 123–49. New York: Pica Press. http://archive.org/details/anthropologistsa0000kupe.

Lewis, Diane. 1973. “Anthropology and Colonialism.” Current Anthropology 14 (5): 581–602. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2741037.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1952. “On the Concept of Function in Social Science.” In Structure and Function in Primitive Society, 178–87. New York: The Free Press. https://archive.org/details/structurefunctio00radc.

———. (1924) 1952. “The Mother’s Brother in South Africa.” In Structure and Function in Primitive Society, 15–31. New York: The Free Press. https://archive.org/details/structurefunctio00radc.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1988. “Cosmologies of Capitalism: The Trans-Pacific Sector of “The World System”.” Proceeedings of the British Academy 74: 1–51. https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/sites/default/files/74p001.pdf.

———. 1992. “The Economics of Develop-Man in the Pacific.” Res 21: 13–25.

———. 1996. “The Sadness of Sweetness: The Native Anthropology of Western Cosmology.” Current Anthropology 37 (3): 395–428. https://doi.org/10.1086/204503.

Wolf, Eric R. 1982. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Worsley, Peter. 1956. “The Telefomin Case.” The Anti-Slavery Reporter and Aborigine’s Friend, 6th series, 10 (4): 74–76.

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