The government of cultures

The government of cultures

Ryan Schram
ANTH 2700: Key debates in anthropology
Social Sciences Building 410 (A02)
Week of May 02, 2022 (Week 10)

Slides available at

Main reading: Shah (2007)

Other reading: Appadurai (1998); Appadurai (1990)

Asking for trouble

Again the anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.” (2 Sam. 24:1, New International Version, cf. 1 Chron. 21:1)

Why is God angry about censuses?

A prison without walls

Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon

Remember the story from Week 8.

No one really needs to be in the watchtower; the prisoners assume someone is there, and so they monitor themselves.

Contrast this with the essence of power for Weber

Stated succinctly, this is: A gets B to do what B would not otherwise do (Dahl 1957, 202–3).

Michel Foucault gives us another view of power

While they overlap in some ways, I want to emphasize the difference between Weber and Foucault.

Political arithmetic

For Foucault, the nature of state authority has changed. It’s not about controlling people, it’s about shaping the conditions of a whole population.

Government is an art of making a whole population safe, healthy, prosperous, and happy. It does not operate on individuals, and it does not directly control or coerce people as individuals.

A government deals in statistics, that is, estimates of a population and its parameters: safety, health, GDP, etc. Statistics are the science of the state.

Knowledge is power

Power is that which shapes people into members of a mass population that can be measured. Power acts on action, not on people (Li 2007).

There are two crucial differences to this sense of power:

This leads to an important implication for the meaning of power:

Some thought experiments

What would a prison without walls and without guards look like?

The “Moriah Shock Incarceration Correctional Facility” is one example (DeMola 2022; Jaafari 2017).

Are schools prisons for children?

Everyone in a typical school is there because they want to contribute to education of children.

What if “Where are you from?” was the only question to answer?

No one forces you to answer census questions, and most people want to answer them. The questions themselves force you to think in certain ways.

A colonial panopticon

Colonialism is a regime based on this kind of knowledge. Through colonial knowledge, people become colonial subjects.

In its 500-years-or-more history, colonialism has been many different things. This is about the latter stages of European colonialism.

Autonomy as intervention

Indirect rule is worthy of special emphasis, since I think it had the biggest impact on today’s world. Mahmood Mamdani (1996) makes two important observations about indirect rule:

Indirect rule was not laissez-faire. It was a requirement that every colonial subject become a native, belong to a tribe, and live in a distinct homeland, under the rule of a “chief.”

Indirectly indirect rule in India

British India had been around too long, and develop so much of its own system, for Lugardian thinking to take hold. If anything, its early experiments inspired him.

These colonial regimes also relied on highly centralized control of knowledge in order to implement different kinds of subject positions for different communities (Cohn 1987; Chandra 2013).

Census categories are social facts with teeth. They have normative force.

Foucault and Weber again

References and further reading

Appadurai, Arjun. 1990. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy.” Theory, Culture & Society 7 (2-3): 295–310.

———. 1998. “Dead Certainty: Ethnic Violence in the Era of Globalization.” Development and Change 29 (4): 905–25.

Chandra, Uday. 2013. “Liberalism and Its Other: The Politics of Primitivism in Colonial and Postcolonial Indian Law.” Law & Society Review 47 (1): 135–68.

Cohn, Bernard S. 1987. “The census, social structure, and objectification in South Asia.” In An anthropologist among the historians and other essays, 224–54. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Dahl, Robert A. 1957. “The Concept of Power.” Behavioral Science 2 (3): 201–15.

DeMola, Pete. 2022. “New York Closes a Shock Camp and Staggers an Adirondacks Community.” The Albany Times Union, March 25, 2022, sec. News.

Jaafari, Joseph Darius. 2017. “A Prison With No Walls.” NationSwell. August 4, 2017.

Li, Tania Murray. 2007. “Governmentality.” Anthropologica 49 (2): 275–81.

Lugard, F. D. 1922. The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa. Edinburgh, London: W. Blackwood and Sons.

Mamdani, Mahmood. 1996. Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Shah, Alpa. 2007. “The Dark Side of Indigeneity?: Indigenous People, Rights and Development in India.” History Compass 5 (6): 1806–32.

Weber, Max. (1905) 1958. The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.