Anthropology and Colonialism

Anthropology and Colonialism

Anthropology and Colonialism 

The history of anthropology is connected to the problematic history of colonialism and this is where we must begin our journey. The actual “beginning” of anthropology is hard to identify because human beings have, to some extent, always been interested in studying each other. There are early travel writers and philosophers who studied and wrote about the diversity of human culture long before anthropology was officially recognized as a field of study (Guest 68). But, before colonialism, anthropology was a field of study that didn’t have any clear value to European society (Lewis 300; Lewis 269). During the Era of European expansion from the 16th-20th centuries, European countries strove to expand their control beyond European borders and across the entire globe. Because human beings do not like to be controlled by foreign powers, the colonial governments struggled to colonize in most cases (Nevins 675; Sullivan 806). During this time, early anthropologists sought to re-brand their work in a way that could assist colonial governments in their missions (Kuper 1973) because, if you can understand a people, you can better exercise control over them.

So, what is colonialism?

We use the word “colonialism” to refer to the control of land and its people by a foreign power.  While there are still some colonies today, the peak of colonialism took place from the 16th-20th centuries. European powers sought to expand control of the world in order to control its resources (this includes minerals, gems, waterways/trade routes, spices, and, in many cases, people). In some colonial situations, the native people were viewed as an obstacle to circumvent while, in other cases, the native people were viewed as resources to be enslaved. In all situations, the native people were viewed as objects without equal standing or claim to human rights. 

Why do we care about colonialism now?

Look at a world map and identify which parts of the world were colonized. With, arguably, the exception of two countries (Lesotho and Ethiopia) the entire African continent was colonized, all of South America was colonized as well as the Pacific. More than half of the Middle East and Asia were colonized by European countries during this time. When we look at the world as a whole, we can see that the wealth disparity between the richer European (and European heritage) countries and the significantly poorer nations in the rest of the world reflect colonial borders. This is no coincidence! When European colonial governments were mining other parts of the world and stealing their valuable resources while simultaneously enslaving the people for free labor. The colonial powers became steadily richer while native people became poorer (Lewis, 582; Trask, 23, 67, Trask, 68) This wealth disparity led to technological advancements in the European and European-heritage nations while the robbed nations were weakened over and over again which led to the disparity that impacts our daily lives today.   

Perhaps most importantly, we can consider our own history to understand the impact of colonialism. As you know, the Eastern United States was colonized by the British until that community rebelled against the British crown and became the American colonists. The Southern states were colonized by the French until they were sold to the American colonists and the Southwest United States was colonized by the Spanish until it was taken by American colonists through warfare (in between, much of that territory was Mexico’s land after Mexico pushed Spain out. It was taken by the Americans. California transitioned from Mexican to American rule in 1850).

We live in a former colony and our colonial heritage impacts all areas of our lives. Consider the two majority languages that we speak in our country: English and Spanish. These are not native languages, these are the languages of the colonizer. Consider the majority religion: Christianity. This is the religion brought over by the colonists. Our judicial system, legal structure, style of dress, the holidays we celebrate, our gender roles are all cultural forms that were brought to this land through European heritage. So, we cannot separate our modern lives from colonial history and we cannot forget.

What did colonial anthropologists actually do?

Anthropologists working for colonial regimes produced a great deal of work that was intended to assist the colonial governments in their efforts by:


  • Producing propaganda intended to construct native peoples as “savage” or less-than-human (while producing propaganda that their own people were “civilized”). When these early anthropologists were viewed as “experts” they were taken at their word by Europeans living at home. And, when anthropologists produced accounts of culture that were steeped in racism, they were justifying the abusive control that European powers sought to keep over the rest of the world. (Crewe and Axelby 28-31; (Kuper 111).
  • Developing a hierarchy of cultural value. European anthropologists believed that their culture was, inherently, the “best” culture. They then strove to compare all other cultures against that standard in order to determine which people were more advanced than the rest. This logic is inherently flawed because the European standard of greatness is not a universal standard and these cultural hierarchies were not objective (Ibid; Trouillot 2003; 1;  Mines 312-313). 
  • Collecting census data. By surveying the number and types of people in each community, the colonial governments could better exercise control (Kuper 111).
  • Studying and learning the local culture and languages. It was easier to control a population if you could understand how they spoke to each other and about themselves (Kuper).
  • Studying and learning about local judicial systems so that the foreign governments could use them to better control the local population (Kuper).


Cultural anthropology during this time did not look at all like the cultural anthropology of today. We call anthropologists of this era armchair anthropologists because they did not spend a great deal of time among the people who they claimed to be experts in (Guest 69; Launay 167). In fact, some never visited the people at all. Armchair anthropologists would rely on information provided by missionaries and government officials in the field; they would then write lengthy articles and books on the native peoples. As you probably know, this type of research is in no way reliable and did not actually reflect the people’s cultures.  


Early anthropologists’ impact on native lands is hotly debated. While we know that anthropologists were offered funding and access to native lands during the colonial project (Guest 69; Crewe and Axelby 28-31; Kuper 113), and that many of these anthropologists marketed themselves as helpful to colonial governments in order access funding and field sites (Kuper 94-114), the exact relationship between anthropology and colonialism is widely contested (Stocking 3-8; Asad 1991). Anthropologist Adam Kuper argues that the anthropologists in the field were largely ignored by government officials as eccentrics while anthropologist Talal Asad argues that the contributions of early anthropologists were too specific to our field to be helpful to colonial administrators.  


Did anthropologists directly help colonial governments? This is unclear. But what is clear is that early anthropology was steeped in a worldview of white, European supremacy during its early development (Wolf, Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva 18-19). Whether each individual anthropologist was assisting or resisting the colonial effort, they were working within a framework that constructed the world in a binary construct of European whiteness versus the rest of the world (Trouillot 2003, 103; Said, 1). This worldview is deeply flawed, problematic, and leads modern anthropologists to overcome our damaging history (James, Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva 32-33).   


At this point, you need to understand how important critical thinking is in this class (and, indeed, in all classes). Each anthropologist that we read and study in our course will have a political viewpoint, personal bias, and academic agenda. All people are steeped in a particular worldview and this worldview will inevitably come through in our work. Some colonial anthropologists will strive to construct native peoples as subhuman while some post-colonial anthropologists might fail to fully recognize a damaging cultural practice within a community.


Cultural Relativism


Colonial anthropologists practiced ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is measuring the achievements or cultural practices of another community against your own standards. In other words, if your favorite color is blue then you might say that a green car is ugly because it isn’t blue. In this circumstance, we know that the judgment is not objective because not everyone agrees that blue is better than green. This was the logical mistake that many fields made during colonialism: they decided that European culture was the best and then measured everyone else’s value against how European their cultures were (Hammond 1; Lewin 586; Lentin 394).


Anthropologist Franz Boas developed the concept of cultural relativism in direct response to this kind of ethnocentric thinking. Cultural relativism is the most important skill to learn in this course. Cultural relativism is the principle that all cultural beliefs and practices are equally valid in their own context. In other words, we cannot judge a culture against our own standards but must, instead, strive to understand how other people understand themselves and then examine their culture through their own, culturally-specific logic.


Franz Boas was a salvage anthropologist (an anthropologist collecting cultural data for a community that is threatened by extinction) who worked to record the languages of some Native American groups who were being wiped out by the colonial American efforts (Zumwalt, 164, 166-67).


Throughout this course, I will strive to present you with cultural practices that are extremely different from your own including cannibalism, polygamy, incest, and more. You never have to agree with or even like these cultural practices, but your task is to strive to understand how they make sense in their own context. When you feel challenged by a cultural worldview, ask yourself, “what would have to be true for this to be the case?” You’ll need to closely and holistically examine the cultures in order to make sense of a practice that is otherwise impossible to understand.


Applying cultural relativism - the liberated woman


We can look at the example of a “liberated woman” to better understand how cultural relativism works. While no two people in the United States embrace the exact same cultural values, the majority understand that the dominating idea of a “liberated woman” is a woman who is free to show her skin (Mascia-Lees 206-207). In others words, many women’s liberation movements in the United States are of the view that a woman's body is natural, not inherently sinful, and that a woman should remain safe in public no matter how little clothing she is wearing  (Mascia-Lees 33-58).


This worldview makes sense in its own, culturally-specific context. However, there are many other forms of women’s liberation in the US and across the world that incorporate a different form of logic and, ultimately, arrive at a different conclusion. In some religious communities - including some Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities - a liberated woman is a woman who is freed from the male gaze. In this context, a woman who covers most of her body is not pressured to be judged by society or to look attractive to men. To people in this culture, true freedom is the freedom from showing skin (Abu-Lughod, 787; Mascias-Lees 63-65). 


While these two value systems seem contradictory, they both make equal sense in their own context and are both designed to achieve the same outcome. By practicing cultural relativism, we can move past the idea that these two cultural practices are mutually exclusive. Both cultural views and forms of clothing are designed to liberate women from oppression and both provide a certain sense of freedom; they simply express the same cultural value in different ways. 


In communities that hold this value system, women should not be threatened, harmed, or insulted if they choose to cover their skin.  As you likely know, wearing a bikini in a strict Muslim community would be inappropriate and potentially dangerous. Similarly, wearing a full traditional Muslim covering in the US has been dangerous for some women who have been attacked, insulted, or threatened because women are expected to uncover in this culture. In both cases, women are expected to internalize a specific value system that makes sense in context and anthropologists can examine both to better understand the larger human experience (Lewin 1-38). 

You will learn later in this class that feminism is the principle that all genders and expressions of gender are equally valid and that all genders should be treated equally in society. Contrary to popular misconceptions, feminists do not believe that women are superior to men and feminists do not believe that women (or men, or any other gender) should have to change their behaviors in order to gain power in society (Mascia-Lees 33-58; Chapman 177-178). If you are annoyed or remain unconvinced by feminism then please hang in there for now - we will examine feminism at length at the end of the semester and this will give you a chance to reconsider. I always tell my students that, if you don’t agree with something, then you should learn as much as you can about it so that you can more effectively argue against it. Give me the chance to fully introduce you to this system of thought before you pass your final judgement and know that you don’t have to change your beliefs in order to learn about someone else’s. 

Now, you’ll read the work of feminist anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod titled, “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” Abu-Lughod addresses some incredibly controversial issues surrounding the US invasion of the Middle East after 9/11. Abu-Lughod argues that different groups of women empower themselves in different ways and that, when we try to view another groups’ liberation through our own, culturally-specific lens, we can foster irreparable conflict.   


An example of cultural relativism


Anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard was a British anthropologist who lived among the Azande people. The Azande are a people who live in central Africa (in the North Eastern region) and live in a hot area where there is very little shade. These people build tall granaries on wooden stilts to hold their food and supplies so that no animals are able to get it. The people often meet under the granaries to talk and share the news of the day. Unfortunately, sometimes the termites of the region will chew through the granary stilts, causing the granary to collapse and tragically killing (or injuring) everyone underneath. In the worldview of the Azande, a person who dies in this type of accident has been killed by an act of witchcraft. This situation was particularly interesting to Evans-Pritchard and led to his publication on the matter.


When Evans Pritchard tried to explain to the local people that, actually, it was termites that were causing the tragedy, the local people turned to him and explained that they understood termites caused the collapse, but the odds that a person was standing underneath the granary at that exact moment was caused by witchcraft. In Azande society, they believe that misfortune is caused by witchcraft (Evans-Pritchard, 19). This is not an entirely unique worldview because, actually, most cultures have beliefs like this. Consider the last time that you saw a blue pendant hanging in someone’s doorway, car, or as a necklace. These blue pendants are used to ward off the “Evil Eye.” Many cultures have a manifestation of the evil eye. It is believed in these cultures that when a person feels extremely jealous or angry with you then they can actually harm you by having such strong feelings. The idea that a person's feelings or thoughts can lead to negative outcomes serves two functions in a society:


1.         This belief prevents antisocial behavior. We define antisocial behavior as any behavior that does not conform with society's expectations. So, for example, if you get into a fight with a person in public and then learn that they fell and broke their leg afterward, you might be accused of hurting them with your anger. In Azande society, a person who is accused of witchcraft is often kicked out of the community or sometimes killed. So, many of the Azande will make a big effort to maintain composure and to not behave with great jealousy because they don't want to be accused of being witches (Evans-Pritchard, 1935, 419). Anthropologists call these “witchcraft accusations” and they serve the function of preventing antisocial behavior. (Evans-Pritchard, 25; Peterson-Bidoshi)


2.         This belief explains misfortune. To many human beings, life can feel exceptionally illogical and out of control. All cultures find a way to explain why bad things happen. Witchcraft beliefs explain misfortune by tying the misfortune to people's intentions. (Evans-Pritchard, 30).

The Azande believe that a person is born with a physical ability to curse another with witchcraft powers. In this society, witches are both men and women and the ability is passed down genetically (from mother to daughter and father to son) (Gillies and Evans-Pritchard, 1976, p.2). The substance that gives the person powers is called “mangu” and it’s believed that it can be seen at night. In this society, a person does not necessarily know that they were born with mangu, and they can harm an enemy accidentally. 


By practicing cultural relativism, we can understand this belief system and its own culturally specific logic. By looking cross culturally, we can understand that we have similar beliefs in our own culture , and by examining the function we can see the role that this belief system plays in society.


Works Cited


Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Do Muslim Women (Still) Need Saving?” American Anthropologist, vol. 104,

no. 3, ser. 2002. 2002, doi:10.4159/9780674726338-002.


“Anthropologists Engaged.” Anthropology and Development: Culture, Morality and Politics in a Globalised World, by Emma Crewe and Richard Axelby, Cambridge University Press, 2014, pp. 28–31.


Asad, Talal. “Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter.” The Politics of Anthropology, doi:10.1515/9783110806458.85.

Boas, Franz. The Mind of a Primitive Man. Forgotten Books, 2015.


“Chapter 4.” We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, by Philip Gourevitch, Picador/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux,           



Dewalt, Billie R., and Kathleen M. Dewalt. Participant Observation: a Guide for Fieldworkers. Md., 2011.


Edgerton, Robert B.  Sick societies : challenging the myth of primitive harmony / Robert B. Edgerton  Free Press ; Maxwell Macmillan Canada ; Maxwell Macmillan International New York : Toronto : New York  1992


Evans-Pritchard, E. E., and Eva Gillies. Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Clarendon Press, 2014.


“Feminism.” Culture Wars. an Encyclopedia of Issues, Viewpoints, and Voices, by Roger Chapman, M.E. Sharpe, 2010, pp. 177–178.


Forte, Maximilian C. “Anthropology and Colonialism: More from Diane Lewis (1973).” ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY, 18 Feb. 2009.

Guest, Kenneth J. Essentials of Cultural Anthropology: A Toolkit for a Global Age (Second Edition). W.W. Norton & Company, 2017.

Hammond, Ross A., and Robert Axelrod. “The Evolution of Ethnocentrism - Ross A. Hammond, Robert Axelrod, 2006.” SAGE Journals.

“Imaginative Geography and Its Representations.” Orientalism, by Edward W. Said, Vintage Books, 2004, pp. 49–72.

Kuper, Adam. Anthropology and Anthropologists: the Modern British School. Routledge, 2014.

Launay, R.G. (2005), Une Science Impériale Pour L'Afrique? La Construction des Savoirs Africanistes en France 1878–1930. American Anthropologist, 107: 167-168. doi:10.1525/aa.2005.107.1.167

Lentin, Alana. "Replacing ‘race’, historicizing ‘culture’ in multiculturalism." Patterns of prejudice 39.4 (2005): 379-396.

Lewin, Ellen. “Introduction.” Feminist Anthropology: A Reader, Blackwell Publishing, 2001, pp. 1–38.

Lindenbaum, Shirley. “An Annotated History of Kuru.” Medicine Anthropology Theory | An Open-Access Journal in the Anthropology of Health, Illness, and Medicine, vol. 2, no. 1, 2015, p. 95., doi:10.17157/mat.2.1.217.

Mascia-Lees, Frances E. Gender and Difference in a Globalizing World: Twenty-First-Century Anthropology. Verlag Nicht Ermittelbar, 2010.

Malinowski, Bronislaw, et al. A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. Stanford University Press, 1989.


Malinowski, Bronislaw. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: an Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.


Mines, D.P. (2003), Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India. American Ethnologist, 30: 312-313. doi:10.1525/ae.2003.30.2.312


Nelson, Katie. “Introduction to Anthropology.” Perspectives: an Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology, 2017.

Nevins, Allan. The Emergence of Modern America: 1865-1878. Macmillan, 1969.

Peterson-Bidoshi, Kristin. “The Dordolec: Albanian House Dolls and the Evil Eye.” Journal of American Folklore, vol. 119, no. 473, 2006, pp. 337–355., doi:10.1353/jaf.2006.0030.

“Production.” Sweetness and Power: the Place of Sugar in Modern History, by Sidney Winfried Mintz, Penguin Books, 2018, pp. 20–73.


Said, Edward W. “Introduction” Orientalism, First Vintage Books Edition. 1979.

Stocking, George W. Race, Culture, and Evolution.

Sullivan, Paul. “Ambivalence and Conquest: Recent Studies of Maya Resistance, Revolt, and Revolution in the Colonial Period.” Ethnohistory, vol. 51, no. 4, Fall 2004, pp. 805–809

“The Emergence of Modern America” by Allan Nevins, professor of American History, Cornell University. (New York: Macmillan. 1927)

Trask, Haunani-Kay. From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai'i. University of Hawai'i Press, 2005.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

“West to the Indians: Northwest Coast Fieldwork, Employment by Science, and Marriage.” Franz Boas: The Emergence of the Anthropologist, by ROSEMARY LÉVY ZUMWALT, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2019, pp. 162–191. JSTOR, Accessed 7 May 2020.

Zuberi, Tukufu, and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. White Logic, White Methods: Racism and Methodology. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008.




Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash