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The Uncanniness of Missionary Others

A Discursive Analysis of a Century of Anthropological Writings on Missionary Ethnographers

Travis Warren Cooper


This article examines discussions of missionaries penned by anthropologists and existing in disciplinary consciousness. Questions of alterity, distance and sameness, the potentially exploitative effects of ethnography, and the uncomfortable colonialist underpinnings of both missionary and anthropological pasts come to the fore in these texts. Drawing on a wealth of journal articles, ethnographic monographs, and edited volumes, I identify, describe, and analyze six predominant discourses on missionaries, including anthropological depictions of missionaries as foils (Discourse One), as intermediaries (Discourse Two), and as present in good or bad manifestations (Discourse Three). Other threads constitute missionaries as data (Discourse Four), conceive of them as methodological ancestors and ethnographic colleagues (Discourse Five), or identify them reflexively as both anthropologists and Christians (Discourse Six). I suggest that missionaries serve as an archetypical foil against which the anthropological discipline emerges. Missionary ethnographers are for anthropologists a necessarily uncanny, repressed, productive other.