Alice L. CONKLIN : The New « Ethnology » and « La Situation Coloniale » in Interwar France

Journal article by Alice L. Conklin ; Published in French Politics, Culture and Society, Vol. 20, 2002.

‘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 … ‘

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.

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