Being History

Being History

by Robert Launay

AI (Dall-E) portrait of "painting of historian walking through portrait gallery and seeing a picture of themselves"
AI (Dall-E) generated “painting of historian walking through portrait gallery and seeing a picture of themselves”

I have taught the history of anthropology since 1978, give or take a year (who’s counting?). At the beginning and the end of my career, I have had to cope with the same question: why should students have to study the history of the discipline? The rationale underlying such a question has shifted radically, though. The 1980s were the heyday of positivism, the conviction that social “sciences” like anthropology should actually be scientific, that is to say as much like Physics as possible. Students in physics didn’t have to study the history of their discipline; so why anthropologists? As positivist convictions faded in favor of a focus on “reflexivity”, studying the history of the discipline began to make more intuitive sense to students . . . until recently. Now that “decolonizing anthropology” has become a fashionable enterprise, students want to know why they are being asked to read the writings of dead, straight, white European males, assigned by a (not quite dead yet) straight while European male professor. Worse, these authors are often accused of complicity, if not active collaboration, with the colonial enterprise.

Understandably, many “senior” anthropologists (we even have our own organization in the American Anthropological Association) have reacted defensively, loudly proclaiming (not entirely without reason) that this is a caricatural misrepresentation of the discipline. Such declarations of innocence, preaching as they do to the choir, are of relatively little effect. Instead, I would suggest that anthropologists of my generation should take full advantage of their long engagement with the discipline to cast a critical and analytical eye on the changes we have experienced.

Indeed, I have found my capacity to take a long-term view based on my own experience in the field has critically informed my understanding of Islam in West Africa. The relatively recent engagement of Muslim youth with what they consider to be a more rigorous practice of Islam, a new kind of emphasis on Islamic piety, has understandably captured the attention of a younger generation of anthropologists working in the region. With a few notable exceptions, what these scholars miss is an understanding of the modes of Islamic piety and practice that the new paradigm seeks to replace. The fact that I lived in and studied a Muslim community before these new paradigms were established has provided me with a different perspective, one which I occasionally refer to as “the revenge of the geezers.” In the 1970s and 1980s, when I was in the field, expectations of piety tended to mirror social hierarchies. Elders were presumed to be more pious than youth, men than women, persons of free descent than persons of slave descent, those who had performed the hajj than those who had not. This was an evaluative grid. Needless to say, the behavior of individuals did not necessarily conform to expectations, for better as well as for worse. More important, such expectations were ambivalent and context dependent. An elderly woman of slave status who had performed the hajj might on most occasions be a model of religious propriety, but on occasion would join other women of slave descent to sing and dance obscenely, behavior that was simultaneously a stigma and prerogative of slave status. New uniform standards of piety rule out such ambiguities, underpinning if less openly other hierarchical paradigms of distinction. My task as an anthropologist is neither to reminisce nostalgically about past forms of piety or to celebrate (or deplore) the advent of new ones, but rather to analyze sympathetically the costs and benefits of each, the implications of what has been gained and what has been lost.

Having lived through fundamental changes in the discipline, I feel similarly equipped to analyze the recent (and not-so-recent) transformations in anthropology. I have seen whole domains of study, once central to the discipline, disappear from view. Kinship theory is the most obvious candidate. It used to be the defining discourse of sociocultural anthropology. The easiest way to tell an anthropologist from a sociologist in those days was to mention matrilateral cross-cousin marriage and to watch for signs of bewilderment. Nowadays, I get the same look of incomprehension from graduate students in the field. From Morgan to Lounsbury, by way of Kroeber, Radcliffe-Brown, Murdock, and Lévi-Strauss, the analysis of kinship terminology remained a fundamental, if quite arcane, preoccupation of many if not most practitioners of the discipline. It really seemed to matter whether you were a partisan of descent theory or alliance theory. Then, all of a sudden, these discourses faded into insignificance, at least judging from the pages of American Anthropologist.

At the same time that kinship fell of the anthropological map, the focus of the anthropology of religion changed almost as radically. When I began researching and writing about Islam in Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, I was acutely conscious that my work was peripheral to the field. The anthropology of religion was all about cosmology, witchcraft, shamanism, ancestor worship and the like. The anthropology of Islam, especially in Morocco and Indonesia (in the wake of Clifford Geertz), was only beginning to emerge as a legitimate sub-specialty. The situation has now entirely reversed. The anthropology of Islam and of Christianity are quite at the center of the anthropology of religion, with witchcraft and shamanism relegated to the margins.

The shifting focus of anthropology reflects changes, not only in anthropological theory but also in the world at large. Contemporary critics point out that this focus on unfamiliar kinship or religious systems was profoundly shaped by colonial domination. Colonized peoples were divided up into discrete local cultures or societies, each with its discrete systems of thought, kinship, religion, economy, or politics. The fact that these supposedly discrete societies were often relatively recent groupings of populations of diverse origins responding to shifting political and economic realities was entirely masked by such systems of classification. Anthropologists, at least the best of them, were hardly unaware of this messy history; rather, they chose to bracket it methodologically in their quest for cultural coherence. These understandings reflected a colonial vision of the colonized world. Worse, the emphasis on radically unfamiliar systems of thought, kinship, religion, etc. served implicitly to exoticize colonized peoples. This is not to suggest at all that anthropologist consciously set out to impose such a colonial vision, that they were apologists for colonial rule. Particularly after the Second World War, some anthropologists quietly (too quietly!) and others openly opposed colonial domination. Even so, the colonial paradigm of small-scale self-contained cultures was a framework that anthropologists—though not the colonized subjects they studied!—took entirely for granted, a way of thinking about the world that, at the time (but no longer) made intuitive sense.

It no longer makes intuitive sense because the world, and not only the discipline of anthropology has changed. The dissolution of the old colonial empires, the failure of massive development schemes, and the triumph of neoliberal economic ideology have thoroughly dislocated the rural communities that anthropologists identified as exemplifying particular “cultures”. As more and more villagers move to towns, the kin groupings that were the glue of rural societies fade into irrelevance. Kinship increasingly takes the form of networks rather than “descent groups”, unilineal or otherwise. These shifts are accompanied by the rapid spread of global religions, Islam and Christianity, that in different ways often actively and self-consciously reject “tradition”.

Anthropologists who have grown up in the wake of these shifts are acutely conscious of the colonial biases of their predecessors, but at the same time incapable of grasping why their predecessors would take such biases for granted rather than contesting them. At the same time, their own biases incline them to throw out the baby with the bathwater. One cannot understand the past of colonized peoples without understanding the importance of the kin groupings, religious ideologies, and political economies that have since disappeared. When I was in the field in Africa in the 1970s and 1980s, kin groups were phenomenally real and not simply fictions of the colonial anthropological imagination. This is hardly to suggest that they were accurately represented and analyzed in anthropological writings. Our understandings are bound to shift, for better or worse. But the forms of amnesia that some contemporary scholars seem to abdicate erase, not only the history of the discipline, but also the history of the colonized peoples in whose name we perform such an erasure. I have become increasingly impatient with the self-righteousness of some critics, but also some defenders, of the anthropological tradition. Over my long career, I have had ample occasion to become aware of some, but certainly not all, of my blind spots and to try to correct them. Understanding that my predecessors were often incapable of perceiving what, in retrospect, seems obvious to us makes me feel increasingly humble. What else will future generations find that we do not notice, although it seems plain enough to them? If aging has brought me, not only a long-term perspective but also humility, it has in its own way been a blessing.


Robert Launay (BA Columbia 1970; PhD Cambridge 1976) has taught anthropology at Northwestern since 1976. He has conducted field research among Muslims in northern Côte d’Ivoire, about whom he has published two books and numerous articles. He is now working on the early (16th-18th century) “prehistory” of anthropology. His latest book is Savages, Romans, and Despots: Thinking about Others from Montaigne to Herder (University of Chicago Press 2018).

3 Replies to “Being History”

  1. Aah, my friend and esteemed fellow senior colleague, there is much to admire in your discussion. Nevertheless, I must take issue with the notion that “our” old-fashioned ethnography was generally directed by colonial perspectives, or even interests. There is so much we could discuss, but let me just mention your paradoxical treatment of kinship and religion in the old days. On the one hand you speak of the old-time emphasis on kinship and on shamanism and witchcraft as serving “to exoticize colonialized peoples.” But you then say from your own experience how “phenomenally real” kin groups were “and not simply fictions of the colonial imagination.” I can attest to how phenomenally real the spirits were that possessed the mediums among the Oromo where I worked in Ethiopia in the mid-1960s. Is it possible that these ethnographic accounts were actually reasonable approximations of the way the people lived and thought back then?
    There are many reasons for ethnographers seeming to treat the peoples they studied as having “discrete systems of thought, kinship, religion, economy, or politics” that were not dictated by colonial interests or activity. The reasons require investigation; perhaps there were good heuristic reasons for such approaches. Furthermore, there were many exceptions to this practice. The problems of permeable borders, overlap, “diffusion,” etc. were always of interest and problematic. A historicist understanding might reveal these better than presentist interests.

  2. I fully agree with you that anthropological representations were not, at least for the most part, “dictated by colonial interests or policy.” But, like anyone else, they were creatures of their time and place, and often took the colonized world for granted. There were indeed heuristic reasons for taking cultures, societies, dare I say “tribes”? as self-contained discrete entities, a heuristic which formed the basis of some remarkable ethnographies. Yet this was also a distorted reality — rather like Mercator maps of the world. But you are quite right that kin groups, witchcraft, and possession cults were real. I can personally attest to that. The shift in perspective that has allowed contemporary anthropologists to see the limitations of their predecessors also, I am afraid, blinds them to realities that their predecessors witnessed and analyzed at first hand. I have lived to understand some of the phenomena to which my predecessors were blind, while also aware of others to which my younger colleagues are equally blind. I am increasingly reluctant to cast the first stone ..l.in either direction.

  3. Dear Herb and Robert,
    Thanks for addressing the issue of the current trend of dissing (as in distancing and disagreeing) the past of anthropology as a discipline. As Robert notes, we are all products of our time, which does not mean that we accepted what we were taught or culturally bred to assume was reality. In the early part of the 20th century the world was indeed in a colonial frame and there were many communities that so-called “modernity” had rarely touched. Early anthropologists, like Malinowski and Evans-Pritchard, studied communities that were more or less isolated from colonial control and so-called modernity. Both these scholars, by the way, did not parrot or agree with the colonial administrators, but attempted to analyze what they saw and heard in the local language as objective as they thought they could. For all the criticism of Margaret Mead, much of which was jealousy, her work brought anthropology into public view as a way of connecting to what most people considered exotic. When you read “Coming of Age,” you realize that culture plays a major role in who we are but basically we have similar drives. To argue that ethnographers “exoticized” the people they studied ignores the many texts that promoted the idea of a shared humanity. We were the only social science that, for the most part, considered humanity as having evolved. Those who wish to “decolonize” the discipline should consider that the historical record is replete with colonization and domination since the time of the first written records. The ethnographic documentation of communities that were either burdened directly by such domination or were outside the mainstream is a valuable corrective to what gets written in texts.
    When I arrived for fieldwork in a tribal community in North Yemen in 1978, this part of Yemen had never been part of Western colonial domination (unlike the British protectorate created in the south). There was no electricity for the villages, which came soon after, no TV and virtually no government aid. The traditional agriculture I studied had changed little from what I started reading about in 13th and 14th century Yemeni agricultural texts. Today, of course, Yemen is very much embroiled in the neocolonial (a more useful term than post-colonial) and neoliberal political and economic mesh that dominates the Middle East. To really understand the rapid social and cultural change in Yemen requires knowing what came before.

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