May 3, 2010

The Subject(s) of Anthropology

What is anthropology? What does anthropology tell us about the world that we live in? What claims to truth does this “anthropology” have, and how can those claims be challenged, evaluated, and measured against other forms of knowledge? Anthropology is not as monolithic and unified as it may seem to a first year undergraduate who is forced to sit through her/his first class on the subject—despite the cohesive narratives that many introductory textbooks present. Still, certain ideals about anthropology—as promulgated by particular institutions, organizations, and individuals—do exist. Anthropologists have their particular characterizations of what it is that they actually do: they study humans. But not just any humans; historically speaking, anthropologists have made the non-western Others their intellectual stock and trade. This academic and methodological focus is what Michel-Rolph Trouillot calls the “Savage slot,” and it needs some dramatic rethinking if anthropology is to remain a viable mode of inquiry.

The anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn once wrote, “Seen from the outside, anthropological activities look, at best, harmlessly amusing, at worst, pretty idiotic” (Kluckhohn 1961: 13). A few pages later he also wrote, “Studying primitives enables us to see ourselves better” (Kluckhohn 1961: 16). This was in his famous text Mirror for Man, which was, according to the 1961 Preface, meant as a book “for the layman, not for the carping professional”. According to Kluckhohn, anthropology is perfectly suited to discover the common ground that exists between “human beings of all tribes and nations” (1961: 9). Why, of all disciplines from sociology to political science, is anthropology so well suited for this project? It seems that we, the audience of anthropology, are simply expected to accept this narrative as a matter of course.

In the preface to the 1949 edition of Coming of Age in Samoa, Margaret Mead wrote, “I had decided to become an anthropologist—in May, 1923—because Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict had presented the tasks of anthropology as more urgent than any other task which lay ready to the choice of a student of human behavior” (Mead 1960: ix). What was this calling that Mead felt so compelled to join? It was the discipline that was charged with documenting and analyzing “the cultures of people” that was “perishing rapidly” (1960: ix). For Mead (and other Boasians), anthropology was all about traveling to the margins of the western world, in order to salvage the remnants of what Michel-Rolph Trouillot might call the west’s imagined other half. Still, many questions remain unanswered, despite the hegemonic clarity of purpose that the American Anthropological Association exhibits. How did anthropology become the discipline that specializes in a world of Others? How did anthropology become the academic savior that the west sent out into the world to capture the essence of the “rest”?

According to Trouillot, “anthropology belongs to a discursive field that is an inherent part of the West’s geography of imagination. The internal tropes of anthropology matter much less than this larger discursive field within which it operates and upon whose existence it is premised” (Trouillot 2003: 8). While many anthropologists—past and present—define the field in what sounds like an objective, detached manner (as if anthropology suddenly and naturally arose specifically to bring the non-western world into focus), Trouillot argues instead that anthropology is a distinct part of the very system, or field of knowledge, that it claims to analyze, challenge, and illuminate. Anthropology, according to Trouillot, does not exist outside of either the west or the west’s Other; anthropology is the west, and the “other” is little more than a creative exercise in western self-reflection. The job of the anthropologists, then, is to hold up the mirror (as Kluckhohn’s title fittingly suggests).

This study of the Other, or the Savage slot, is not something that anthropology invented; instead, it is a practice that was once the domain travel accounts and literature (Trouillot 2003: 19). The west has been manufacturing its exotic Others for centuries, and it was only relatively recently that a particular specialized discipline arose to consolidate that effort. The problem, however, is that anthropologists accepted this role without questioning the overall philosophical project they became a part of. As Trouillot argues, anthropology “inherited a disciplinary monopoly over an object that it never bothered to theorize” (Trouillot 2003: 19). The foundations of anthropology relied upon a particular conception of the world that masks historical relationships while claiming to generate cross-cultural understanding and knowledge, all in the name of “humanity.”

The invention of anthropology was a part of the invention of the west itself. Anthropology and the west are co-constituted: “To historicize the West is to historicize anthropology and vice versa” (Trouillot 23). As Wolf writes, “We have been taught, inside the classroom and outside of it, that there exists an entity called the West, and that one can think of this West as a society and civilization independent of and in opposition to other societies and civilizations” (Wolf 1982: 5). Part of the creation of the western world, then, was the conceptual creation of the non-western Other, whose very existence was seen as evidence of the apparent division between the west and the non-west. The “people without history” (Wolf 1982) provided the self-defined west with grounds for investigating the basic nature of humanity. As Wolf explains, “If social and cultural distinctiveness and mutual separation were a hallmark of humankind, one would expect to find it most easily among the so-called primitive people” (1982: 4). And this is exactly the role that anthropology took charge of. Anthropologists, starting in the nineteenth century, explored the edges of the western world first by assuming that there was a west in the first place, and then by accepting the long-held notion of the Savage Other.

This intellectual practice has resulted, as Spivak and others have argued, in a radical erasure of the voice of the subaltern other—this is what Spivak refers to as “epistemic violence,” or the strategically employed use of western knowledge systems as a means of subjugation (Spivak 1988: 280). “The clearest example of such epistemic violence,” writes Spivak, “is the remotely orchestrated, far-flung, and heterogeneous project to constitute the colonial subject as Other. This project is also the asymmetrical obliteration of the trace of that Other in its precarious Subject-ivity” (Spivak 1988: 280-81). In speaking for the unvoiced Others, anthropologists and other western academics have only created silence and reified difference.

By accepting and playing into the west-Other dichotomy, anthropology has furthered this process of differentiation, while discreetly casting its intentions in benevolent light. This study of the non-west was undertaken, after all, in the name of knowledge, understanding, and humanity. However, as Trouillot forcefully counters, “To be sure, anthropologists to this day keep telling both undergraduates and lay readers that their practice is useful to better understand ‘ourselves,’ but without ever spelling out exactly the specifics of this understanding, the utopias behind this curiosity turned profession” (Trouillot 18). This is what needs to be challenged, rethought, and re-imagined.

Ultimately, Trouillot argues that anthropologists have to radically rethink the basic assumptions about their approach to the world if they are to remain viable in any way. There is, according to Trouillot, no such thing as the “Savage slot,” and there never was (2003: 27). And if anthropology has built its foundations around exploring this territory, what is left for anthropologists to study? How can they continue? Trouillot, Wolf, and Spivak argue that western academics have to critically challenge the very categories and assumptions that they use as basic starting points, lest they continue to cast shadows of silence upon the subjects that they claim to understand or give voice to. What is left of anthropology when this “Savage slot” is removed? What can anthropologists aspire to accomplish? As Trouillot argues, “At the very least, anthropologists can show that the Other, here and elsewhere, is indeed a product—symbolic and material—of the same processes that created the West” (Trouillot 28). There is no separate trajectory for the “west” and its others.

Human history cannot be broken down into discreet, absolute parts—human societies are not simply “billiard balls” that exist in compartmentalized realities that occasionally collide (Wolf 1982: 6). A new conception of the discipline has to reflect the complexities, interconnections, differences, and commonalities of human history, while avoiding the faulty foundations of exoticism and reified difference that has plagued the western project for far too long. As Trouillot argues, “There is no Other, but multitudes of others who are all others for different reasons, in spite of totalizing narratives” (2003: 27). The anthropological task is to reflect upon those reasons, while radically challenging the foundations of certain 'totalizing' narratives.


Kluckhohn, Clyde. 1961. Mirror for Man. New York: McGraw Hill.

Mead, Margaret. 1960. Coming of Age in Samoa. New York: Mentor Books.

Spivak, Gayatri. 1988. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Cary Nelson and Larry Grossberg, eds., Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
---1999. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolf. 2003. Global Transformations.

Wolf, Eric. 1982. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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