Regardless of whether we are more swayed by Wendy James’ characterization of Malinowski and friends as ‘frustrated radicals’ vis-à-vis the colonial system, or by Feuchtwang’s assertions that these anthropologists, “Did not analyze colonialism, they reproduced the colonial divide in an inverted form as a colonial ‘us’ interpreting or representing a colonized ‘them’” (98), we come to recognize equally in both views that anthropologists are for better or worse, ineluctably involved in the project of colonialism. While James is concerned morally with anthropologists’ intentions proper, Feuchtwang focuses on the politics that sweep up anthropological findings without regard to such intentions. 


Both perspectives are pertinent, and in assessing the complex relationships between anthropologist, administrator, and colonial subject, it is as difficult as it is important to ask in every instance, ‘pertinent how?’ As anthropologists we have a moral stake in knowing whether or not our predecessors acted in good faith, whether they directly or indirectly colluded or thwarted, abetted or frustrated, colonial regimes. We have a stake in knowing this because we ought to know whether today’s anthropological theory only took root in the acid-soil of colonialism or whether our very questions contain within them the seed of unconcern toward differential power relations.  Feuchtwang’s critique of functionalist orientations as evidencing arbitrary and dubious scope (78) and Forster’s criticism of functionalism as a ‘non-theory’ which smoothly dovetailed with colonialism (33) seem to suggest that the problem is indeed in the seed. 


Politically, it is of great consequence to know whether anthropology can survive Feuchtwang’s critique that the work of social anthropologists,  “However altruistically, [  ] was done within the system” (99).  The implications of Feuchtwang’s assertion here are troubling.  His assumption that anything done within ‘the system’ is inherently problematic seems true enough, but his tone seems to suggest that the inherent problematics of working ‘within the system’ are somehow too problematic. Are anthropologists who practice anything less than revolution then fated forever to the status of colonial lackey? It’s certainly imaginable.


The ever-present question of research-funding certainly does seem to lend legitimacy, at least in part, to a regretfully affirmative answer to the ‘lackey question’. James captures the tension of this position well with her analysis of the anthropologist’s double claim, “that he is extremely useful to administration and at the same time that he must be free to pursue his specialist interests” (49).  It would be interesting to look into the archives of these funding agencies and to see whether in grant proposals, (both successful and unsuccessful ones), the ‘useful to administration’ side of the scale has historically tipped lower than the ‘specialist interest’ side.  In point of fact, isn’t the practical importance of our work, (i.e., explaining ‘what is at stake’), the crucial factor in our grant applications today? This is an important issue: are anthropologists better conceived of as problem solvers, problem characterizers, or problem makers? James of course wants her reader to see these anthropologists as the “problem child of the colonial encounter in Africa” (James 43), but to what extent should we, with Feuchtwang, be suspicious that the anthropologists’ most pointed questions might in fact be more representative of innocent household impetuousness than genuine demand for social fairness?


The critique of whether or not and to what extent anthropologists functioned and function still as collaborators, dupes, or opponents of colonial systems rests ultimately on the improbable assumption that an individual might play out any one of these roles independently of the others. What such critique does, however, do, is to prompt a variety of questions which can move beyond the mere moral-categorizing of power relations and the tallying of consequences of anthropological participation, and help us to continue to reevaluate not whether, or whether no, but rather what ‘kind’ of participation anthropologists do and ought to have.


Perhaps, in cases of wildly disparate power differentials such as colonialism the anthropologist’s position is somewhat analogous to that of the war-zone photojournalist. The task of the photojournalist, (and again, I am suggesting not that this serves as a precedent for the anthropologist, but rather as a kind of analogous experience) is a morally-inconclusive one.  The images they record may never lie, but they never tell the truth either.  The photos never say anything at all, at least not on their own.  A certain consequence can be hoped for by the photojournalist, but never assumed.


But there is a crucial difference between the moral-engagement of the photojournalist and the anthropologist. Could, for example, an anthropologist ever make a similar statement as that famous execution photo taken by Eddie Adams on the streets of Saigon, (it’s the one where the guy with the revolver shoots the man wearing the plaid shirt). Why not? At the very least, the anthropologist can understand the photojournalist’s difficult position; he too sees himself as an idealistic soldier of a larger war who finds himself forfeiting battle after battle.

ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo japan

architecture

ryan sayre

anthropology

tokyo japan

architecture