Now that we have established a basic foundation for understanding a few rudimentary aspects of Culture, we can move forward to explore different ways to investigate and analyze cultural diversity. We will begin by touching on a brief history of the development of anthropology as a field of social inquiry and as well as the theoretical foundations that provide the basis for anthropological perspectives today. More importantly however, we will address how anthropological research and representation has historically been situated within systems of power and inequality. While the field of anthropology has changed in recent times, pejorative representations of marginalized people continues today in the popular media.
Early Anthropological Models: Documenting Difference
According to Marvin Harris (1968), the history of anthropological inquiry emerged from two particular trends: 1.) an interest in comparing people, and 2.) an interest in the history of human processes. Some of the earliest known ‘anthropological’ works date back to the writings of Greek and Roman historians, such as Herodotus and Tacitus, who documented detailed accounts of the tribal groups and communities, such as early Celtic and Germanic cultures, that were encountered and subsequently conquered by early empires. During the 13th and 14th centuries, prolific travelers such as Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta , produced descriptive narratives of their travels and the different communities and cultures they encountered. Yet, it was not until the 15th century when Anthropology became part of a systematic attempt to understand human diversity through the lens of a ‘natural order’ and ideas such as Race emerged. This period, referred to as the ‘Age of Enlightenment,’ was a time when European intellectuals and scholars engaged in an empirical analysis of reality through different fields of inquiry.
Social Evolution & Ethnocentrism
It is important to note, however, that the emerging field of social inquiry that is now known as Anthropology was initially embedded in ‘natural history’ studies which were a key part of European colonialism during the 16th-20th centuries. During this time, colonial administrators and a cohort of European intellectuals produced ethnographies of indigenous people and groups who lived in occupied territories, and the accounts and descriptions of ‘primitive people’ produced by colonial scholars incorporated local people as part of the natural environment. By the 19th century, Anthropology began to emerge as a distinct field, yet it remained theoretically informed by biological ‘laws’ and ‘principles’, such as evolutionary theory, that had gained immense popularity at that time. As a result, early anthropological models produced by scholars were based on linear evolutionary models that situated all societies along a single pathway from ‘primitive’ to ‘advanced’. These ethnocentric models were centered on the notion of ‘progress’ and represented non-European people as being ‘backward’, ‘behind’ and in need of ‘development’. These early representations of indigenous people were often used to justify the occupation of foreign territories and the atrocities committed by colonial regimes, and ideas about social evolution contributed to the development of the ‘social hygiene’ movement, also known as ‘eugenics’ in the United States. We will cover this in greater detail in the Race and Race Science lessons. For now we will focus on the outcomes of representation for those who are being represented.
Prejudice and Orientalism
We can see that throughout the history of Anthropology, there has been a distinctive pattern associated with power and representation. In most cases, representations are produced by those who are in power, and the powerless are usually the ones being represented. In his book, Orientalism (1978), Edward Said points out the social and political implications associated with power and representation as he described the inconsistencies between outsider representations of Arab men and his own experiences as an Arab man. According to Said, prejudiced outsider interpretations are shaped by the attitudes of imperialists in order to justify the occupation of foreign territories and the exploitation of indigenous people who live in those territories. Although Said’s analysis primarily targets artistic representations of the Middle East by European artists, his orientalist critique has been expanded to address pejorative representations of oppressed people worldwide.
Some Examples of Orientalism
The woman pictured above is Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman, 19th century Khoisan woman who was taken to Europe as part of a circus side show. Paternalistic images, such as the photographs of Europeans with indigenous people, aimed to represent indigenous people as ‘savage’ and ‘primitive’ and ignored the rich ecological knowledge and sophisticatred cultural systems that characterized each community. Films, such as the ‘documentary’ Africa Speaks! below often portrayed the natural environment, and even people, as wild and dangerous. The sophisticated kingdoms and civilizations throughout Africa were virtually ignored. For common Americans and Europeans, images and films like these provided the only source of information about peoples and cultures outside of their own.
Until recently, very few representations of indigenous people depicted daily life and social relations that emphasized similarities rather than differences with American and European culture. The screenshot from the 2010 film, Babies, posted below portrays a moment and sentiment that virtually every parent, regardless of race, culture or ethnicity, has experienced. Images that promote cross-cultural connections like this one compel the viewer to seriously call to question political policies and practices that marginalize and exploit indigenous people.
Othering and the Politics of Representation
Today Orientalism is situated within the context of Othering, which positions a person or group as a distant outsider. Othering can be as subtle as using the word ‘they’ to refer to a group or it can it can come in the form of blatant stereotyping in Media representations. Stuart Hall is a leading scholar on patterns of representation in popular media. The following video provides a brief overview of his work.
Anthropology as Cultural Critique
Critical Anthropology aims to identify and acknowledge biases and implicit values that form and frame previous ethnographies and popular assumptions within euro-centric culture. It uses critical theory to understand human behavior and cognition within social, historical and cultural contexts (Soyini Madison 2005). This approach to ethnography interrogates power relations in regards to race, gender, nationality and other factors that not only shape the human experience but also affect anthropological research. Critical ethnographers incorporate reflexivity into their methodologies by identifying themselves and their own cultural background as part of the research process. This approach not only acknowledges that the research findings are shaped by the researcher’s own interpretive framework and personal experiences, it recognizes that the process of collecting data is also affected by the researcher. Because of this, critical ethnographers present findings from their ethnographic research as their own interpretation and perspective rather than a scientific finding based on conclusive evidence, or Truth.
The above synopsis of the development of the field of anthropology and anthropological theory is a small chip off the tip of an enormous iceberg, but it should shed light on the ways that the discipline has come a very long way; From racist and subjective evolutionary models that portray non-European peoples as primitive and backward to a more reflexive approach that critically analyzes the producers of information and the ways that power shapes representation. As we move through the next module, it is important to consider how unique historical processes shape the human experience in different ways and thereby produce diversity.
The upcoming lessons will touch on the ways that Culture, Power and Representation are deeply interconnected and have a profound effect on cross-cultural interactions.
Readings: Hoglund, Johan. 2008. Electronic Empire: Orientalism Revisited in the Military Shooter. Games Studies Vol 8 Issue 1 (September)
For Discussion: As the Hoglund reading points out, orientalist representations continue into the present. Hoglund applied Said’s theoretical framework to show how the depictions of Arab men in American video games contribute to pejorative representations that serve to justify occupation – in this case, the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the negative outcomes imposed on Iraqi people. Search the internet for another example of contemporary Othering of a marginalized or oppressed group of people and conduct your own analysis: What is the prejudiced outsider representation ? Who is doing the representing and who is being represented? In what ways does the representation serve to justify exploitation, alienation or exclusion? What are the causes and consequences of this representation? Be sure to include a weblink to the image or representation in your post.
For Extra Credit: Watch Reel Bad Arabs or Hip Hop Beyond Beats and Rhymes and analyze the information in the film. Who produces the representation and what are the effects on people who are presented?