Close encounters

Close encounters

Ryan Schram
ANTH 2700: Key debates in anthropology
Social Sciences Building 410 (A02)
Week of March 14, 2022 (Week 4)

Slides available at

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.

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:

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 versus Wolf

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.

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:

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

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

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

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

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 pollyannish liberal reformism?

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:

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.

Goody, J. R. 1999. “’Anarchy Brown’.” Cambridge Anthropology 21 (3): 1–8.

Hogbin, H. Ian. 1946. “Local Government for New Guinea.” Oceania 17 (1): 38–66.

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

Lewis, Diane. 1973. “Anthropology and Colonialism.” Current Anthropology 14 (5): 581–602.

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.

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

Sahlins, Marshall. 1988. “Cosmologies of Capitalism: The Trans-Pacific Sector of “The World System”.” Proceeedings of the British Academy 74: 1–51.

———. 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.

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.