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Anthropological Quarterly 77.4 (2004) 793-817

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Gandhi or Gramsci?

The Use of Authoritative Sources in Anthropology

Queens College, CUNY
The English...have a habit of writing history; they pretend to study the manners and customs of all peoples.
—Mohandas K. Gandhi, Hind Swaraj

I became interested in the many Indian philosophers and philosophies that focused on the nature of the self, consciousness, emotion and related issues well before entering graduate school in anthropology. My attraction was partly due to what I felt to be the inadequacy of western philosophy and psychology—with which I was more familiar—to help me understand issues of the self's relationship to the mind, body and emotion and even to comprehend my own sense of self. Some Indian philosophers, such as those who identified with a school of thought called Advaita Vedānta, explored the self and related issues with great subtlety seeming to capture at times what I considered to be the complexity of existence and the fleeting, changing nature of the self. Western philosophical and psychological perspectives were intriguing yet felt fixed and mechanical, unable to reflect the elusiveness and multiplicity of the mind, emotion and human nature (though psychoanalysis seemed more reflective and better able than others to account for subtlety, [End Page 793] change and context). Basic insights of some of the Indian thinkers, such as that we have multiple selves coexisting with one stable or enduring self, which doesn't have fixed characteristics, or the belief that the self is distinct from the mind, I found original and at times even therapeutic in facing the stresses and anxieties that arise in life.

I was also intrigued by the political thinking of Gandhi who fought to end colonial domination while also striving to defeat the internal colonialism of caste and religious differentiation. Additionally, Gandhi strove to lead colonial oppressors to recognize their own inhumanity, and he felt that the only way to accomplish all of these ends was through non-violent non-cooperation. This seemed naive in the light of the European political perspectives I was exposed to in college academic work, but Gandhi and others who struggled in the freedom movement in India accomplished a lot and many continue to follow his method of nonviolent civil disobedience in various parts of the world. Gandhi recognized the power of collective action also asserted by Karl Marx, but for Gandhi the means of nonviolent action were directly connected to the ends of social justice he hoped for.

While studying in graduate school and working as a professor in anthropology specializing in South Asia, however, I was surprised that I never encountered these philosophical and political thinkers used as authoritative sources in anthropological writing. Anthropologists might use Foucault, Merleau-Ponty or Lacan to understand the self or the body in India or West Africa, or we might invoke Gramsci or Marx to understand political hierarchy in Latin America or the U.S., but we do not use Śankara or Gandhi to understand such issues in India or anywhere.

This paper argues that in anthropology, despite our fundamental effort to be deferential to alternative ways of perceiving the world, we have generally failed to engage prestigious, literate non-western philosophers and social analysts as what I call "authoritative sources" in our work. By "authoritative sources" I refer to philosophers and social analysts whose ideas we adopt, whose words we quote to help make sense of some object of study. Authoritative sources provide the principle theoretical insights that guide our work and draw meaning out of the ethnographic material we use. In other words, they teach ourselves and our readers something about the world. And with authoritative sources we do not usually establish the validity of their work in our own, but rather we introduce a quote or a set of insights, using the words of the authority as an originary point in our interpretive endeavors. I am not referring to the citation of western scholarship [End Page 794] in general, but to certain prestigious, canonized thinkers of the recent and...