Anthropology and Colonialism (Part 1): Racism, Orientalism and Writing Culture

As spoken about in our exploration of the history and theory of decolonisation, the towering presence of Edward Said looms large. Whilst Said’s disciplinary context in Orientalism (1978) was art history and comparative literature, his real point of critique was Western scholasticism in general. Perhaps the discipline with the most to answer for in regards to colonial representation of non-Western culture is the one that took this representation as its primary project; anthropology.

Orientalism can be said to have created a crisis in anthropology. How could anthropology continue to justify its quest to represent and quantify non-Western culture, when the very act itself is caught up in the long historical game of the colonial project (Sax, 1998)? How can anthropology be seen to be in solidarity with a move towards the dismantling of cultural and racialised hierarchies, called for by Said, when the substance of anthropology is cemented in a subject-object gaze?

Following Orientalism there were attempts to answer this question. Clifford and Marcus’ Writing Culture (1986) was one such effort, ushering in a reflexive/literary/ethnographic ‘turn’ in the discipline that questioned the ethics of ethnography, the authority of the anthropologist and their intentions, and the entire notion of faithful representation. Anthropology became not about constructing a ‘theory of everything’ to explain the othered peoples of the world, but an emancipatory, philosophical and self-critical discipline that could be used to help communities, in academic representation or in political and developmental projects. As such, it can be said that anthropology since then has attempted to decolonise. That is, it has attempted to untangle the remnants of its colonial past. But, I would argue, that ‘colonial past’ was not as clear-cut as we are made to believe.

One could argue, like Talal Asad had done earlier in setting the precedent for understanding anthropology’s dark colonial roots (Asad, 1973) that anthropology is inseparable from colonisation – there is something innately racist about White Western people attempting to analyse and speak for non-Western people. See Imogen’s post here about this troubled history.

But, the devil is in the details, as the angel might be too. Like any scholastic discipline, anthropology has been and continues to be in constant critical engagement with itself. Considering like Asad argues that its genesis was in the colonial encounter, it could be reasonably argued that out of all scholastic disciplines, it is the one therefore best placed to address and answer questions of colonisation.

Edward Tylor, and an evil-looking Evans-Pritchard (and informants Mekana and Kamanga)

It is historically popular, for example, to consider Edward Tylor, Bronislaw Malinowski or (to a lesser extent) Edward E. Evans-Pritchard (three important figures in early anthropology) as arch colonial racists. Each of them encountered the localised, animistic religions of the small indigenous societies they studied, and each responded to those cultures with varying degrees of colonial Western chauvinism, the type of which was brilliantly examined by Asad, Said and others. Tylor, the evolutionist, saw indigenous peoples as savages; their religions as child-like and primitive, yet precedents all the same to superior Western rationality (Tylor, 1871). Malinowski, the functionalist, also saw them as ‘pointless’ savages (as we know from his posthumously published diaries), but their economic and cultural life nonetheless a functional form of cultural exchange (Malinowski, 1968).


Evans-Pritchard, the theorist and philosopher, saw the complexity of Azande culture, and saw reason and practicality in their witchcraft and superstition, but nonetheless concluded it was something primitive that ‘cannot be true’ (Evans-Pritchard, 1937).

Whilst it’s easy to dismiss them for their old-fashioned racism, one only has to consider that the racism and chauvinism in their language was in order with the values and discourse of their day. Considering this, and considering the contributions they made, each of them were in fact highly progressive for their time!

Each of them actually contributed actively to the dismantling of colonial narratives about Indigenous people at the heart of the European scholastic institution, which in each case had hitherto dismissed Indigenous cultures as ‘savage’, inhuman and/or irrational.

This doesn’t excuse them, or suggest that anthropology isn’t guilty even today of harbouring a culture of colonisation – it merely gives context to the fact that if examined in an ulterior fashion, anthropology and its progression through time can actually be seen as a decolonising force. A force that, in spite of its historical genesis, was always concerned with emancipation and justice precisely because of the scientific and self-critical pursuit of truth.

The second part of this two-part series will examine where this leads us today!


Asad, T. (ed.) (1973) Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. New York: Humanities Press.

Clifford, J. & Marcus, G. E. (1986) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. University of California Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1937) Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande. Oxford University Press.

Sax, W. (1998) ‘The Hall of Mirrors: Orientalism, Anthropology, and the Other’, in American Anthropologist, 100 (2) (June 1998) p. 292-301.

Said, E. (1978) Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

Tylor, E. (1871) Primitive Culture: Researches Into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom Vols 1&2. London: John Murray.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s