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How can we decolonize the study of difference?

How can we decolonize the study of difference?

Ryan Schram
ANTH 2700: Key debates in anthropology
Social Sciences Building 410 (A02)
Week of May 09, 2022 (Week 11)

Slides available at http://anthro.rschram.org/2700/2022/11

Main reading: Bamford (2004)

Is anthropology a form of colonialism?

According to Shah (2007), the 1901 and 1931 censuses of British India are major sources for the official sense of the category of tribe (see also Fuller 2016, 2017).

They were designed by “anthropologists,” or so they said:

  • Herbert Hope Risley created the 1901 census, and this and other bureaucratic records of the colonial population were based on his understanding of racial differences.
  • John Henry Hutton created the 1931 census. He has a more credible claim to being an anthropologist. He was appointed as a professor of anthropology at Cambridge, so some anthropologists must have thought he was OK. But even in his own day he was out of step, and relied on an evolutionary framework for human social and cultural differences.

Insofar as Risley and Hutton’s censuses count and sort people into categories that they designed, then their “anthropology” is purely an etic perspective.

Does a census create an imagined community?

In a revised edition of Imagined Communities, Anderson says that the census, the map, and the museum are three core tools of colonial power, and three seeds of a future national consciousness (Anderson [1983] 2006, chap. 10). But why?

  • Answers to a census question about identity are exonyms by definition.
  • A colonial census sorts people of one territory into many small categories of identity. A national imagined community is based on a mass population and a normative standard of a dominant culture.
  • Colonial censuses tend to place different communal identities on a scale from primitive to civilized (see Risley and Hutton).
    • Anderson seems to suggest that any modern postcolonial nation would also see itself as a colonizer of some marginalized communities inside of itself.

If an imagined community of a nation inherits a conceptual framework from colonial knowledge, then so too does anthropology.

Thinking like a census taker

Anthropology today does not have any vestige of racial theories or evolutionary types. It instead frames difference in a lens of cultural relativism.

Anthropology learns from the ground up, like a child being taught by a parent. But every anthropologist will always filter what they observe through categories they already possess. Everyone does that.

As a way of understanding people, anthropology has to make a specific commitment to a theory of the world in the most basic sense, a theory of what makes things what they are: an ontology.

Metanarratives of change, for instance, can differ greatly but still have the same stock characters

  • Individual people
  • Social, collective forces

The metanarratives differ in the relationships between these two types of thing, but in any of the dominant frameworks, everything is either one or the other. They have the same ontological commitments.

The anthropologist is never the only analyst in the room

Anthropologists are people watching people.

There is nothing special to what anthropologists do; everyone is always doing fieldwork in their own lives.

Kamea people analyze each other, but with different categories

  • They don’t only ask: “Where were you born?”
  • Men might also ask: “What trees and plants contributed to your birth, and where were they planted?” (see Bamford 2007, 43)

Secret knowledge revealed only to men makes the second question more salient, but only because it rests on ontological assumptions about biology, bodies, and selfhood.

Strong and weak readings of alternative ontologies

Imagine you meet someone who says “I am a sea eagle” or “My yams respect me and I respect them.”

The weak reading of these statements is that sea eagle and a yam’s attitudes are metaphors for something else.

  • The weak reading leaves your own ontological commitments secure, because you assume that these statements represent thoughts of a collective consciousness.

The strong reading is that these statements produce a specific shared reality

  • Yams have the capacity to feel emotions if everyone acts as if they do.
  • A woman can be a biological mother after death, but only if we collectively will ourselves to ignore the role of doctors, nurses, IVF clinics, and the county clerk who issues the birth certificate.

A person contains multitudes

Marilyn Strathern on the question of personhood and social theory:

Far from being regarded as unique entities, Melanesian persons are as dividually as they are individually conceived. They contain a generalized sociality within. Indeed, persons are frequently constructed as the plural and composite site of the relationships that produced them. (Strathern 1988, 13)


We do not, of course, have to imagine that these ideas exist as a set of ground rules or a kind of template for everything that Melanesians do or say.... The intention is not an ontological statement to the effect that there exists a type of social life based on premises in inverse relation to our own. Rather it is to utilize the language that belongs to our own in order to create contrast internal to it. Consequently, the strategy of an us/them divide is not meant to suggest that Melanesian societies can be presented in a timeless, monolithic way.... The intention is to make explicit the practice of anthropological description itself. (Strathern 1988, 15–16)

Composite personhood and situational gender

Kamea men are men in the context of male initiation. Masculinity is situational, and in other contexts other genders come to the fore.

The fallacy of the cultural reading of dividual personhood

In other words, take note of the strong and weak readings of ontological relativity

  • Weak reading: Melanesians are dividuals; Westerners are individuals
  • Strong reading: Everyone is either dividual or individual, depending on the situation.

Expanding the weak reading reveals its flaws

  • Melanesian societies are based on a dividual person
    • because each person in a Melanesian society learns to think of themselves
      • as a dividual person
        • a collection of parts of relationships, and
        • a fluid self that shifts in different situations
      • and not an individual person
        • a unitary, coherent, consistent mind in a single physical body
        • with fixed, essential traits, and
        • distinct from the collective forces that constrain it

Seeing the different assumptions that guide people’s actions should lead us to reflect on unseen similarities, not differences.

Writing an essay

Any written work of scholarship has one purpose: to argue for a single claim.

In any essay, everything has to contribute to supporting one main claim, whether it’s one paragraph long or a 100,000-word book.

The second essay for this class

In the second essay, you are asked to identify an anthropologist whose work you want to know better. I am asking you:

  • How does your chosen scholar build upon or speak back to some of the main ideas in cultural anthropology?

That is, you are making a claim to answer one of two possible questions:

  • How does your chosen scholar build upon some of the main ideas in cultural anthropology?
  • How does your chosen scholar speak back to some of the main ideas in cultural anthropology?

Building support for a claim

These questions—and any essay question—have multiple possible answers. There are no right and wrong answers. Some answers have better reasons for them.

Your best reasons in support of an answer will be based on a close reading of the chosen scholar’s empirical research

Basic, concrete facts about them, their words, their statements .
An inference about their perspective, orientation, outlook, or assumptions.

An argument is like a building

An argument has, in the most basic form, three kinds of materials:

  • The main claim
  • The factual evidence
  • The conceptual lenses, or what Stephen Toulmin ([1958] 2003) calls the “warrants” for a claim.

Writing is a circular process

Write first, think later.

References and further reading

Anderson, Benedict Richard O’Gorman. (1983) 2006. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Bamford, Sandra. 2004. “Conceiving Relatedness: Non-Substantial Relations Among the Kamea of Papua New Guinea.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 10 (2): 287–306. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9655.2004.00190.x.

———. 2007. Biology Unmoored: Melanesian Reflections on Life and Biotechnology. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Fuller, C. J. 2016. “Colonial Anthropology and the Decline of the Raj: Caste, Religion and Political Change in India in the Early Twentieth Century1.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 26 (3): 463–86. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1356186315000486.

———. 2017. “Ethnographic inquiry in colonial India: Herbert Risley, William Crooke, and the study of tribes and castes.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 23 (3): 603–21. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9655.12654.

Shah, Alpa. 2007. “The Dark Side of Indigeneity?: Indigenous People, Rights and Development in India.” History Compass 5 (6): 1806–32. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1478-0542.2007.00471.x.

Strathern, Marilyn. 1988. The Gender of the Gift: Problems with Women and Problems with Society in Melanesia. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press. https://dx.doi.org/10.1525/9780520910713.

Toulmin, Stephen. (1958) 2003. The Uses of Argument. Updated edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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