In order to answer this question it is firstly necessary to highlight the issues surrounding the colonial endeavour. We will firstly examine colonialism of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the context of anthropological development. To illustrate the impact of this we will focus on the African empire and demonstrate the influence of ethnography by giving an example of one particular anthropologist’s input and comments on his project. Finally, drawing on a conclusion there will be an examination of the relationship between anthropology and colonialism aiming to show that the discipline needed colonialism perhaps more than the colonial government would like to admit they needed anthropology.
There is much controversy surrounding anthropology’s relationship to the colonial endeavour and some theorists have argued that European colonial projects provided the impetus for the discipline to grow and develop. The question as to whether anthropology is responsible for shoring up colonialism needs to be addressed and explained, however, firstly it is necessary to give a brief outline of the terms ‘imperialism’ and ‘colonialism’.
The terms imperialism and colonialism go hand in hand. Firstly imperialism refers to the practice of extending political power, especially through the acquisition of territory: In its classic form imperialism can be defined as “the military conquest of new territory by an expanding empire” (Seymour-smith:1986:146). Colonialism, on the other hand, can be described as “a specific form of imperialism in which territories annexed by a dominant power are clearly defined as subordinate in status,” (Seymour-smith:1986:43) where local government and political institutions are replaced by colonial authorities. It is said to be a system which uses direct rule, as opposed to indirect rule which is where the aforementioned are simply incorporated into the colonial power structure. A colony is a settlement made up from emigrants of its country. When the domestic life of a possession remains chiefly in the hands of the native people, it is called a dependency. As an example of this, Puerto Rico may be classified as a dependency of the United States. Most of the colonies that gained their independence after World War II are amongst the poorest nations world wide, many belonging to the underdeveloped countries that are so called the Third World. Whether colonialism is in some way to blame is not certain, however, it could be argued that imperialism is more concerned with exploitation as opposed to economic growth.
A combination of the two (imperialism and colonialism) has generally resulted in European countries (the major colonising nations) taking political and economic control over one or more foreign
states in order to exploit the labour force of the indigenous people for their own benefits.
During the late nineteenth century, parts of Europe colonised Africa. This, as an example, demonstrates strongly the reasoning behind the colonial endeavour and subsequently, the impact it had on the African people. Between eighteen eighty and nineteen ten, Africa was divided up amongst many European countries the predominant three being France, Portugal and Great Britain. By nineteen fourteen African-Liberia and Ethiopia were the only two independent states left.
There were many reasons to explain why the European nations competed with each other to gain colonies in Africa. The foremost being that the more territory that any one country was able to gain and control represented the level of power and prestige it would have in the world at large. The additional bonus was that Africa was discovered to be extremely rich in natural resources, which could then be imported back to the European market, creating huge profits for the controlling nation.
European rule took many forms such as making agreements with African chiefs to maintain order in the area for the opportunity to conduct trade. In rare cases the tribal chiefs would voluntarily request that one particular European nation take control of their territory in order to prevent other countries becoming involved. Thousands of treaties were signed by the African rulers giving away almost all of their rights to the Europeans, simply because they did not understand the significance of these treaties, and were totally unaware of the full measure of the implications in the world outside of Africa.
The African colonies were completely dependent on export trade, which was based on the exchange of Africa’s raw materials for manufactured goods from European nations. Not satisfied with the vast profits the colonial nations were making; it was then deemed necessary to divide its colonial subjects into a similar class structure to that which existed in Europe. They discovered that a form of class structure also existed amongst the African nations. Those with a class formation, were part of a relatively small group of bourgeois Africans often belonging to a particular tribe, however, they were given a limited bureaucratic authority by the colonial rulers, thus making them an elite group.
Whilst European countries were in the process of extending their power and control over continents such as Africa, for the purpose of capital gain, there was also felt to be a need to understand and interpret the lives and power structures already in place amongst the indigenous people so as to maintain control. British colonial powers were finding difficulties in maintenance and control of one notable group of individuals in the Sudan, namely the Nuer. This particular group of people were especially hostile to the British take-over and it is for this reason that the British colonial authorities decided to recruit the assistance of anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard.
Early in nineteen thirty, Evans-Pritchard was already involved in an ongoing fieldwork project, observing the Azande. He was reluctant to interrupt his work, but did, however, agree to do the research aiming to document Nuer political institutions, so that this people could be more effectively brought under British rule. On completion of his research Evans-Pritchard named his book “The Nuer” with the subtitle “A description of the modes of livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people”. The contents of the book were intended to assist the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan government who was employing Evans-Pritchard for his expertise in ethnography. British colonial officials relied heavily upon knowledge of native governments to enable them to put structures of power into place that would imitate native political systems, the objective being to endorse control of native populations in the most effective manner.
As an ethnographer, however, the position that Evans-Pritchard found himself in did present him with a dilemma. In order to conduct his research as a professional ethnographer, he was primarily concerned with the protection of his subjects, yet was expected by the government to betray the Nilotic people to some extent with his findings.
Evans-Pritchard’s research portrays the Nuer as a unified and pastoral group largely unaffected by colonialism. It could be argued, however, that he was not entirely capable of extracting the information that would oppose this portrayal. To demonstrate this argument, Evans-Pritchard notes a conversation he attempted with a man called Cuol. It is apparent from this example just how difficult and frustrating it was for Pritchard to gain Cuol’s trust “ I defy the most patient ethnologist to make heading against this kind of opposition. One is just driven crazy by it.” (E.Pritchard:1940:13) When questioned Cuol’s remarks are naturally of a suspicious nature, a prime example being when Cuol is asked for the name of his lineage: “Cuol; What will you do if I tell you? Will you take it to your country?” (ibid) With this kind of response one can understand why Pritchard became frustrated at times.
Whilst most anthropologists agree that the impact their discipline had on colonialism was slight, there is plenty of evidence to show that anthropology did try in several ways to be of service to the colonial effort. The formation of applied anthropology and the educating of the colonial office administrators support this statement. There is of course, the realisation that the relationship between anthropology and colonialism must be explored from more than one angle. Conducting ethnography under the conditions brought about by colonialism while it is happening is not the ideal approach of the anthropologist “probably the most favourable moment for ethnographical work is from ten to thirty years after a people has been brought under the influence of the official and the missionary.” (WHR Rivers,1913:7,cited in http://classes.yale.edu/anth500b/session_notes/SN_Malinowski.htm)
This would be because people who have already been subject to European invasion and missionary control will be less likely to fear the white man who comes into their territory holding a white flag.
British Anthropology was indeed very interested in assisting the colonial officials in their work and therefore put many proposals to the Prime Minister, Mr Asquith. They requested funding of a mere five hundred pounds a year in order to establish an anthropology school that would be of benefit to the colonial officials and traders. The anthropologists’ interest in the colonial government was spurred on by the prospects of both financial support and recognition for a discipline which was often met with ignorance and scepticism. “if the British government and public were not easily stirred to sense of the possible uses of anthropology, the colonial governments were equally impresses” (Kupar:1973:97) The colonial governments in the East were already aiming for their administrators to study the legal systems and languages of the colonised people “…but sociological research was not generally encouraged.” (ibid)
Anthropologists were, however, appointed in the African empire and by nineteen twenty in Papua, of the Australian administration. It emerged, however, that the ethnographic research was of less benefit to the colonial government than they had anticipated it would be. “The record in Africa is not very striking,…after difficulties with local administration, but their contracts were not renewed” (Kupar:1973:98) It appears also that little or no use was made of Evans-Pritchards’ study in the Sudan. Evans-Pritchard commented “Professor seligman once told me that in all the years he had worked in the Sudan or on the Sudanese problems he was never once asked his advice and that the only time he volunteered it, in connection with the rain-makers if the Nuba Hills, it was not taken. During the fifteen years in which I worked on sociological problems in the same region I was never once asked my advice on any question at all”(ibid)
To summarise, it could be argued that anthropology as a newly established discipline was reliant upon the colonial endeavour to gain recognition for there work and in a hope to become acknowledged as an expert ethnographers. Although, anthropology did play a minimal role in the appalling manner of which the colonised were treated, it was of little benefit to the European control as the stigma surrounding sociological work meant that it remained of little importance.