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  • Julian Steward, American Anthropology, and Colonialism
  • Marc Pinkoski (bio)

Tribal peoples have traditionally been understood by Westerners as the last remnants of a hypothetical earlier stage of cultural evolution, and this so-called "primitive" stage of human development is a necessary preamble to any discussion of human beings and the meaning of their lives. Indeed, the stereotype of primitive peoples anchors the whole edifice of Western social thought. We need the primitive so that we can distinguish Western civilization from it and congratulate ourselves on the progress we have made. John Locke and Thomas Hobbes may have articulated the idea formally by beginning their theories of the social contract with the hypothetical stage wherein primitive people established a society, but subsequent generations of Western people have wholeheartedly accepted the image without any critical examinations of its validity. Thus the attitude of many philosophers is that American Indians must represent the stage of human development in which superstition and ignorance reigned supreme.

Vine Deloria 2004:3–4


The relationship between anthropological theory and colonialism in North America has been widely neglected in the historiography of the discipline.1 This omission occurs despite the increasing call for a greater disciplinary self-reflection on our work and on our relationships with those with whom we work. Over the past three-and-a-half decades, calls for disciplinary self-reflection have been best articulated by those scholars working explicitly on the critique of the relationship between anthropology and colonialism (Asad 1973; Stocking 1990, 1995), and those working with an "interpretivist" method (Geertz 1973; Rabinow 1977; Marcus and Fischer 1986). The two approaches are not mutually exclusive by any means, and the interpretivists, as a rule, have been influenced by the critiques of colonialism offered by Said, Asad, Fanon, and Deloria. [End Page 172] Within anthropology, the critique of colonialism is represented most authoritatively in the work of Talal Asad, and most prominently in his edited collection Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter(Asad 1973). Asad's essentially hopeful message about the promise for anthropology to "transcend itself" is predicated on focusing a new anthropological method on

the historical power relationship between the West and the Third World and to examine the ways in which it has been dialectically linked to the practical conditions, the working assumptions and the intellectual product of all disciplines representing the European understanding of non-European humanity.

(Asad 1973:18–19)

In his introductory essay Asad explains that imperial forces permitted anthropological studies to take place since "[t]he colonial power structure made the object of anthropological study accessible and safe—because of it sustained physical proximity between the observing European and the living non-European became a practical possibility" (1973:17). In his analysis of British social anthropology, Asad articulates what would later become a focal point in the discipline regarding the embedded structural relationship between anthropology and colonialism by situating this relationship within the power of worldwide political economy. He explains that

[t]he reason for this asymmetry is the dialectic of world power. Anthropologists can claim to have contributed to the cultural heritage of the societies they study by a sympathetic recording of indigenous forms of life that would have been left to posterity. But they have also contributed, sometimes indirectly, towards maintaining the structure of power represented by the colonial system.

(Asad 1973:17)

Asad's text is complemented by several other representative works on the topic: Kathleen Gough's slightly earlier cry that anthropology was the "child of imperialism" in her "New Proposals for Anthropologists" (1968); Diane Lewis's concurrent essay, "Anthropology and Colonialism," in Current Anthropology (1973); George Stocking's edited History of Anthropology, Volume 7, Colonial Situations: Essays on the Contextualization of Ethnographic Knowledge (1991); and finally, Peter Pels's Annual Review of Anthropology survey, "The Anthropology of Colonialism" (1997). In each of these works, the author engages in [End Page 173] critical analyses of the discipline to expose and hopefully de-couple anthropology's relationship with colonial practices. Taken together these scholars demonstrate that the discipline of anthropology is deeply intertwined with politics of imperialism and colonial practices; and, they agree that the discipline needs to address this history fully, because the...


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