Fieldwork as a "Colonial Encounter"? The Impact and Dynamics of Fieldwork

Essay 2015 10 Pages

Ethnology / Cultural Anthropology



To what extent can it be argued that fieldwork resembles a “colonial encounter”?

Concerning the role and significance of fieldwork within the context of colonialism, there remains considerable debate, as well as subjective interpretation, in light of its ambiguous contribution to the colonial objective, and the motivations behind its implementation. Throughout this essay, I will explore the impact and dynamics of fieldwork in various settings, and seek to illustrate the extent to which the process itself resembles a “colonial encounter”. Before doing so, however, initial foundations must be laid through the clarification of terms, and detailing of context. In the forthcoming text, when referring to a “colonial encounter”, the defining aspects include its nature of acquisition and exploitation, as well as subversion from a dominant group to a yielding group, for the purposes of advancement and power. Fieldwork shall be recognised as any practical research conducted in a natural environment, insofar as that environment can be naturally observed. In order to expand on this topic effectively, I will draw on two primary case studies which will be accompanied by several influential theoretical perspectives. The first case study will be Schumaker’s (1999) reflections on the late colonial Northern Rhodesia, with specific attention paid to the practices of anthropologist and colonial administrator. Secondly, is Lackner’s (1973) writing on the effects and subsequent consequences of Indirect Rule in Eastern Nigeria between 1920 and 1940. After having considered these sources alongside theoretical input, I hope to present fieldwork as a process which does largely resemble a colonial encounter through its outcome, but must not be inescapably labelled as such, because individual, varying examples interdict any generalised, objective conclusion.

To begin this discussion, attention is first drawn to Schumaker’s (1999) case study of Northern Rhodesia from the 1920s to 1960s; the late colonial period. The specific emphasis in this enquiry relates to the fieldwork styles of both the colonial administrators, and the anthropologists working alongside them. In the 1930s, Schumaker explains, the governor of Northern Rhodesia founded an anthropological institute, the RLI (Rhodes-Livingstone Institute), which originally set out to “create a coordinated program of applied anthropology useful for colonial development” (1999:328). The researchers at this institute were trained to collect comparable data on a variety of different field sites. The context in which this fieldwork took place was socially and politically challenging: the northern British colonies were undergoing decolonisation, whilst the south experienced segregation and apartheid. Fieldwork, in this case, favours the notion of a colonial encounter, as its objective advances the colonial power. This is reflected by Schumaker when she states, “RLI anthropologists followed the model of the colonial administrator in more than dress, talk, and negotiation… Government patters of work and movement in the field influenced anthropological activity, and Africans sometimes perceived anthropologists to be following those patterns” (1999:336). The colonial government originally accepted anthropologists, as their work displayed features of administrative procedures. More so than even a passive compliance to colonial demands, anthropologists were seen to in fact purposefully and personally support the success of colonial power. For example, Max Gluckman, one of the RLI’s first directors, suggested situating a museum in a field site which was “conveniently located near the major tourist attraction of Victoria Falls” (1999:138), and which “provided a connection with the white public” (ibid), primarily for the cause of cultural promotion.

A large volume of academic insights also maintain this notion of anthropologist as colonial advocate. Turner (1971), for example, describes anthropologists as “apologists of colonialism” and “subtle agents of colonial supremacy” (1971:1), while Lewis (1973) asserts that anthropological fieldwork contributed to the gulf between Western and non-Western culture. This was arguably accomplished through recording the differences between each civilisation, but from the vantage point of what they perceived as the higher culture. She expands by suggesting that objectivity within fieldwork, that quintessential aspiration and summit of anthropological enquiry, is in fact responsible for the anthropologist’s “estrangement from, and… superordinate position in relation to, those he studied” (1973:585). Many similar notions are also forwarded by Asad (1973), who too recognised anthropological work as capable of reinforcing the colonial domination taking place in such contexts. This notion is furthermore validated within the context of Northern Rhodesia, particularly as anthropologist and administrator conducted largely similar duties in fieldwork, and ultimately for the same dominant structure of power.

However, the temptation at this point is to extrapolate from the few scattered examples and their support, that because fieldwork can and has resembled a colonial encounter, then it must unfailingly be a colonial encounter in a complete and definitive way. Further consideration of Schumaker’s case study reveals examples of when anthropologist and administrator in fact diverged in their methods of fieldwork. At times the anthropologist could even be seen defending those being colonised, thus bringing into question their true advocacy to the colonial power, which one could argue requires, or at least assumes, a sense of willingness and obligation to the cause. One particular example is that of an anthropologist, Ian Cunnison, who arrived in Northern Rhodesia in the 1950s, who “could not imagine any way that being like an administrator would have helped with fieldwork, since at that point it would have involved seeming to take the government’s side in relation to the people he was studying” (1999:341). This is a valuable instance of when an anthropologist’s “radicalism of a moral kind” (1973:44), as James puts it, in fact conflicts with the colonial administration. James frequently reiterates her belief that the anthropologist “cannot often be seen unambiguously as a willing agent of colonialism” (1973:42). Gough’s (1968) contribution to this area of debate is further support for this fact; “Anthropologists were of higher social status than their informants; they were usually of the dominant race, and they were protected by imperial law; yet, living closely with native peoples, they tended to take their part and to try to protect them against the worst forms of imperialist exploitation” (1968:13).

However, just as it would have been avoidant and sweeping to earlier assume that the similarities between administrator’s and anthropologist’s fieldwork could therefore justify all forms of fieldwork as colonial encounters, claiming the opposite in this case would be equally ill-advised and premature. Therefore, what I would suggest at this point is to entertain the prospect of a compromise between the two. Firstly, this requires a recognition that not all fieldwork can be classified as a colonial encounter in its strictest sense, because even individuals within a general ruling system can deviate (in their approach to fieldwork) from that which would be considered truly loyal to colonial objectives. Secondly, one must also realise and accept the part played by anthropologists and administrators alike, which has indeed done exactly that. This framework for interpreting colonial fieldwork is reminiscent of the term, popularised by Asad (1973), which describes anthropology as the “handmaiden of colonialism”. This notion proposes that anthropological fieldwork acts as an aid to colonial government, but only in a secondary way, and not necessarily without reluctance.

In order to fully expand upon this perspective, I now wish to present a second, comparative case study put forward by Lackner (1973) regarding the effects of Indirect Rule imposed onto Eastern Nigeria.



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Queen's University Belfast – School of History and Anthropology
fieldwork colonial encounter impact dynamics



Title: Fieldwork as a "Colonial Encounter"? The Impact and Dynamics of Fieldwork