What has anthropology learned from the anthropology of colonialism?

in Social Anthropology/Anthropologie sociale
Author: Peter Pels1
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  • 1 Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, Leiden University, PO Box 9500, NL‐2300 RA Leiden, The Netherlands

The emergence of the anthropology of colonialism in the 1990s has stimulated and enhanced critical reflection on the cultural and historical embedding of the discipline of anthropology, offering what is in effect a historiography of the discipline's present. How has this historical consciousness changed the contours of the discipline? Has it allowed anthropologists to critically distance their discipline from its intimate involvement with the world of modernity, development and the welfare state, as it first emerged under colonial rule? Have anthropologists learned that, instead of targeting and thus essentialising otherness, we should now study the processes by which human differences are constructed, hierarchised and negotiated? This presentation focuses on recent developments in European and North American anthropology in order to discuss the potential effects of the anthropology of colonialism's historical consciousness on anthropological ontologies (epitomised by current discussions on ‘indigenous peoples’), epistemologies (in reconceptualising ‘field’ and ‘method’) and ethics. It thus tries to outline the ways in which the critical promise of the anthropology of colonialism faces the obstacles that the present‐day heritage of colonialism puts in the way of realising its future potential.


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