Was Anthropology the Child and Handmaiden of Colonialism?
Herbert Lewis (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Paper short abstract:
A critical re-examination of the trope of anthropology's complicity with colonialism with specific reference to early American cultural anthropology and British social anthropology.
Paper long abstract:
Critical writing about the origins of modern anthropology generally begins with the assumption that it was complicit with colonialism at its birth. This paper considers the early years of anthropology in the U.S. before and after the Boas "revolution" and in Britain after the establishment of Malinowski's reign at the LSE. I argue that the conventional wisdom is generally inaccurate and that the idea of anthropological collusion with colonialism originates as a politicized product of the torments of the late 1960s. In the U.S., even while racial ideology reigned in physical anthropology, studies of the languages and cultures of American Indians were carried out by devoted amateurs without connection to colonial policies. Franz Boas and his students fought the racism and invidious evolutionism of the earlier era and continued the researches of their predecessors. Only a handful of Americans had any contact with peoples in the colonial world before World War II. By the time the first PhD students were turned out of Malinowski's shop at the end of the 1920s the British Empire was centuries old and its administrators felt little need for interference from know-it-alls from the liberal-left LSE. Investigation of the researches and contributions of the early members of the ASA in Britain tends to exculpate them as well from the charge of handmaiden of colonialism.
Writing the history of anthropology in a global era [History of Anthropology Network]