- Empire and Anthropology in France
To non-specialists (amongst whom I count myself), the modern history of French anthropology presents as something of an enigma. It is dominated by two towering figures, one in the second half of the nineteenth and the other in the second half of the twentieth centuries. The earlier figure is Paul Broca, who brought anthropology into the heart of the republican establishment, as a hard, materialist, scientific, anti-clerical discipline devoted to assaying the physical differences between the races. Like many pillars of the Third Republic, Broca was a great institution builder – he founded a learned society (the Société d’Anthropologie), a research institute (the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie, part of the Third Section of the Ecole [End Page 277] Pratique des Hautes Etudes), an educational institution (the Ecole d’Anthropologie, loosely connected to the University of Paris) and a museum (the Musée Broca, displaying skulls). But what, apart from its secular materialism, attracted republicanism to this highly racialized physical anthropology? How was it compatible with the mission civilisatrice (civilizing mission), which lay at the core of French nationalism and especially of its republican variants and which allegedly viewed all humanity as assimilable to a French model? One answer could be that it was not – perhaps racial differences limited the applicability of the mission civilisatrice to certain amenable tribes (a view taken by Broca’s British counterpart, Robert Knox). Another answer, also distinctively French, was Lamarckism – physical differences could be modified by social experience and passed on in modified form to succeeding generations (a view taken by Broca’s phrenological counterparts).
Both of these views, however, ran aground at the end of the nineteenth century. Craniometry proved a dead end – it was too difficult to find consistent distinctions in skull shapes between peoples, they seemed to have no correlation to mental capacities, nor did they transmit hereditarily with any consistency – and Lamarckism was displaced by the revival of Mendelian genetics. Another factor, not often acknowledged in this context, also supervened at the end of the nineteenth century: empire. The imperial project was rather less compatible with fixed racial differences than we sometimes imagine. Its justifications, and indeed its activities and functions, as they peaked in the early twentieth century, were too much focused on economic exploitation and social development to allow biological differences to stand in the way. It was in this later period that the mission civilisatrice came into its own, not only in the French but also in the British and in the nascent American empires, for which ‘civilization’, ‘native improvement’, ‘trusteeship’ and, eventually, ‘development’ were becoming the watchwords.
Jump ahead a half a century and the second great figure of French anthropology, the late-blooming Claude Lévi-Strauss, appears on quite different terrain after the Second World War. Lévi-Strauss appears to reimplant anthropology at the heart of the French establishment, but a very different kind of anthropology and a very different kind of establishment. Conjuring up that distinctively French mix of philosophy, linguistics, psychoanalysis and structuralism, Lévi-Strauss reconceptualized anthropology as the study of human universals, showing how familiar anthropological categories such as kin, myth and ritual operated as logical systems, forming diverse but highly regular relationships and classifiable into a myriad of different patterns. By the time that Lévi-Strauss began himself to teach at the Ecole Pratique in 1948, anthropology was no longer a natural science, in the Third Section, but a social science, in the Sixth Section, where it sat alongside not anatomy but the Annales school of historians. What had happened in between? How had anthropology shaken off the physical [End Page 278] obsessions of Broca and refashioned itself as the science of culture? Did the advent of Lévi-Strauss represent ‘the inevitable triumph of good sociocultural anthropology over bad physical anthropology’ or, as Alice Conklin argues, rather ‘a more complex story of the gradual separation of racial science and ethnology from 1900 through to the end of World War II’ (p. 16)?
Perhaps that is...