Key Concepts: Colonial Rule; Participant – Observation; Cultural Translation and
Idiomatic Speech, Objectivity
1. Colonial Rule and its Aftermath
- Nineteenth-century administrative and bureaucratic interventions came to play a
disruptive role in the lives of people around the world, as they were
reconstituted as “subjects” of colonial rule and emerging nation states.
- During the first half of the twentieth century, the breakup of empires spawned
large-scale displacements of people. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire after
WW 1 was followed by violence of various forms:
o Structural violence of poverty and the threat of starvation
o Racist ideologies that led to terror and discrimination
o Ethno-nationalist exclusions orchestrated by emerging states and empires
Ex: manifest destiny; based on a notion of nationality which is
built around what people claim as their ethnological group
Ex: Germany, the rise of the nationalist party
Israel, the rise of the Jewish state
Canadian example: Quebec, nationalist pride
o Modern warfare
o “Ethnic Cleansing”
- Evans-Pritchard, a British anthropologist, goes to work in the Anglo-Egyptian
Condominium Government of the Sudan (1899-1956). Past WW2 for a full
o The Sudan was administered as a British Imperial possession.
o Pursuing a policy of divide and rule, stressed the ethnic differences and
frictions between the Sudan’s many ethnic and tribal groups. From 1924
onwards, the British divided the Sudan into two separate territories-a
predominantly Muslim-Arabic speaking north, and a predominantly
Animist and Christian South.
Christian because they put up 2 strucutarly very different ways of
ruling; in the north where there were already forms of dynasties,
the idea would be to go in and conquer the head of the dynasty and
once you had him, everybody else below him also came under your
In the south, where there were more tribal groups, they sent in
district commissioners who ruled directly
o The Colonial administration in the South requests Evans-Pritchard’s help.
o Evans Pritchard is the first one to do participant observation research in Africa
He took their philosophy extremely seriously
o They do not know how to govern the Nuer, who are war-like and steal
cattle from their neighbors, the Dinka.
o Evans-Pritchard wrote:
“I think there generally is a hostile attitude to anthropological
inquiries. Anthropology smells to them as cultural colonialism, an
arrogant assertion of European superiority; and they have some
justification for their suspicions and resentment, for
anthropologists in the past too readily lent and sold themselves in
the service of colonial interests” (1976: 250).
Why were the Nuer hostile to the British?
Unfortunately, much if not most ethnographic fieldwork in the 20 century took place
under political conditions of colonization and/or occupation in which people were
subjected, as we have seen in the case of North American Indians, and now will see in
the case of the Nuer of Southern Sudan. When evans-Pritchard went to study the Nuer
he was a member of the conquering group!
In the introduction to the Nuer we learn that it was the re-conquest of the Anglo-
Egyptian Sudan in 1899 by the British that forms the context for his study of the Nuer
in the 1930s.
He begins his research by reading reports of early explorers, colonial administrators,
Furthermore his study of the Nuer, in which he intends “to describe the life of the
Nuer, and to lay bare some of their principles of their social structure” is hoped to be
of some value to both anthropology students, and to colonial administrators (7).
I do not mean to suggest E-P’s study is therefore contaminated by colonialism.
But as students learning to be critical readers of ethnography, you must pay attention
to the wider historical and political contexts that frame a particular study of a
particular people at a particular time.
You should always ask yourself:
1.How did the ethnographer gain access to the community he/she writes
2. How do political and economic arrangements mark the relationship
between ethnographer and those being observed, studied?
3. What theoretical concerns motivate the study?
These questions change over time. So part of your task is to figure out what
the questions are and why they are being asked at that particular time. EP wrote: One cannot have the answers without knowing what the
questions are. One needs a rigorous training in general theory before
attempting field research…to know what is significant in the light of
But EP goes on to say that it is not jus