The New "Ethnology" and "La Situation Coloniale" in Interwar France
Conklin, Alice L., French Politics, Culture and Society
La proposition, avancee par Georges Balandier dans les annees 1950, que ce que j'observe, en realite, n'est pas un village kong ou une tribu fang, mais une situation coloniale, n'a d'une certaine maniere pas encore fini d'exercer ses effets subversifs dans la discipline. Le rapport des ethnologues a la domination coloniale ou postcoloniale n'est pas de servilite, mais de denegation. Tout se passe comme s'ils ne la voyaient pas et leur complicite, "objective" se reduit generalement a laisser croire qu'elle pourrait n'etre pas visible ... (1)
Jean Bazin's 1996 invocation of the enduring effects of Georges Balandier's critical insights of the 1950s is a testimonial to not just how revolutionary, but also how persuasive these insights were and remain. It is common currency now, even among those of us who are not anthropologists, that first European travelers, then European scientists "invented" places like "Africa" that tell us more about themselves/ourselves than the reality they purported to describe. The particular "invention" of the twentieth century was anthropologists' "discovery" of "pure cultures" untouched by history and especially by colonialism. Having found such peoples, anthropologists then devoted themselves to recording and preserving their "authentic" traditions before it was too late. Balandier's precocious contribution to the field, in this context, was to take the colonial situation itself as his object of study as early as 1951 and to tender visible the unequal power relations so discreetly evacuated by his more "complicit" professional colleagues. (2)
The above assessment offers a useful starting point for a discussion of Balandier's place in modero French ethnology, because in correctly identifying the latter's remarkable achievements Bazin nevertheless overemphasizes the "invisibility" of the empire for French anthropologists generally. Recent scholarship on the history of the social sciences in Europe has gone beyond the once useful, but now rather confining, trope of "preservationist" anthropology as the "handmaiden" of colonialism, to consider more closely the many different institutions--including colonial ones--that supported the emergence of the discipline in the first half of the twentieth century. Historians of anthropology have increasingly shown that "colonial" and "academic" knowledge of non-Western cultures helped to constitute each other at specific moments in time, while diverging at others. (3) Balandier's own work, I would like to suggest in this essay, is a case in point. It did not spring ex nihilo from a brilliant mind, although no one would deny that the latter was present. Rather, his confrontation with "la situation coloniale" was critically framed by at least two imperial factors at the beginning of his career. Both remind us that while the generation of anthropologists that mentored Balandier may have ignored colonialism when it carne to writing about native cultures, they openly sought the imprimatur of empire and the opportunities it afforded them for the institutionalization of their science.
What were these two factors? First was Balandier's own colonial "situation" as a state-employed anthropologist detached to French West Africa in the highly politicized post-Brazzaville context. Second, and my particular concern in this essay, was his earlier sociological training at the Institut d'ethnologie (IE) at the University of Paris and the Musee de l'homme (MH) at a moment when these two linked institutions were openly placing ethnological knowledge at the service of empire. (4) Founded in the interwar years by Marcel Mauss, Paul Rivet and Lucien Levy-Bruhl, the IE and the MH attempted to renovate anthropology in France by promoting the study of so-called primitive cultures in loco, rather than from armchairs in Paris. They baptized their new approach "ethnology" to …
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Publication information: Article title: The New "Ethnology" and "La Situation Coloniale" in Interwar France. Contributors: Conklin, Alice L. - Author. Journal title: French Politics, Culture and Society. Volume: 20. Issue: 2 Publication date: Summer 2002. Page number: 29+. © 2001 Berghahn Books, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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