Colonialism and Academic Knowledge Production

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Colonialism and knowledge production:

Colonialism is much more than establishing colonies in the non-western world to exploit raw materials for the western metropolitan centres. It is a system of hegemonic power and domination of the colonized by the colonizers, economic, physical as well as psychological. Colonialism is a product of ‘western’ civilization who is obliged for its internal reason to extend in the world scale, the competition of its antagonistic economic dimension. Colonization doesn’t involve innocence and impunity. Rather it involves brute force in its true nakedness. It involves striping of societies from its essence, undermining of institutions, confiscating land, destruction of art and wiping out of all the possibilities for a better future. But the Colonizers prefer to write a different story. A story where they talk about progress, how they cured diseases and helped in raising the standard of living in the colonies as if they are on a civilizing mission of all the non-western peoples. What this story propagates is an image of a world divided into binaries of civilized Europe and savaged others. It is based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between Europe and other. Historically speaking, knowledge production is a political process. The notion of knowledge has gone through transformations in our time and this shapes our understanding of how knowledge is created and used. The most important aspect of knowledge production is the linkages between power and knowledge. The intimate relationship between Power and Knowledge has been mentioned in the works of classical writers like Marx, Weber, and Durkheim but it is Michel Foucault who provided some excellent work on this intimate relationship.

One important link between power and knowledge in the context of this commentary would be the relationship of legitimation shared by them. Power and knowledge both needs legitimation and that legitimation or the claim to credibility is given by each other to each other. So we can say that knowledge production always revolves around the political status of science and the ideological function it could serve. European modernity after the Enlightenment establishes western sciences with its deductive logic as the torchbearer of rationality and reason. Now it was time for its global export and imposition. Wherever Europeans set their feet, they bring with them their modernity, their science, and their reason. Therefore, we have to understand colonialism as a discourse to understand the systematic discipline by which the Europeans successfully was able to manage and produce the ‘Other’, politically, sociologically, Ideologically, scientifically and imaginatively during the post enlightenment era.

Anthropology as a discipline in the context of colonialism:

To understand knowledge production in the context of ‘colonialism’, before discussing the discipline of Anthropology, we should try to understand the roles played by the so-called non- scientific works, prior to the development of Anthropology as a ‘scientific’ discipline.
Those ‘travelers’ tales, trader’s endeavors and many other ‘unscientific’, anecdotal ways of explaining the ‘undiscovered other’ played a crucial part in the construction of ‘others’ by the west. Their romanticized, highly biased, an ethnocentric account of the adventures worked well for their personal gains back home but these informal accounts eventually shaped the emergence of institutionalized and formalized ways for getting information about the indigenous world and it accommodated the ideological underpinnings of colonialism.

Now let’s move on to the institutionalized and ‘scientific’ way of studying the non-western world. This institutionalized and ‘scientific’ ways of understanding non-western societies played a crucial role in institutionalizing racist theories based on which the construction of the
‘savaged other’ was possible. Anthropology as a discipline was organized in that context.

Anthropology was devoted to descriptions and analysis of non- European societies dominated by European power. The long-range goal of anthropology was basically the discovering of the general law of the nature of mankind. The circumstances of its founding, that is western expansionism and the ‘discovery’ of the non-western world, meant that there laws and proposition were based on a close study of the ‘Newly discovered primitives’. Since they were working under newly developed power relation i.e., colonialism, which accompanied domination and exploitation of the non-western world by the west, anthropologists were often called for information and advice or specially deployed in its effort to control and manipulate the non- western world. Therefore Anthropology can be considered as rooted in unequal power encounters between the west and the third world. This encounter gives Europe access to cultural and historical information of the third world which they have dominated. This helps in reaffirming the generalizations and re-enforcing the inequalities between the west and the other.

The information and perceptions developed by such disciplines as anthropology are acquired and used by the colonialists for exploitation. Most of the colonial anthropological pursuits were fuelled by colonial power structure which made the accessibility of their objects safe and methodology fluid. Their fieldworks reflected one-sided overviews and as a result, they often contributed, sometimes not directly, to the maintenance and reproduction of colonial power structure.

On the theoretical level, anthropology’s love affair with functionalism played an important role in the confirmation of biased perceptions of the ‘other’, as well as the advancement of colonial agendas. This resulted in too much focus on empirical evidence thereby leading to ignorance of hidden relations and forms in the studied societies. This empiricist philosophy was plagued by ethnocentrism as their concepts like acculturation, assimilation didn’t have room for domination and exploitation.

Anthropology in the inter-war period was different in its approach. It was defensive of the weaker cultures and societies, their way of life, languages, religious practices, native modes of production, and economic rationality. They provided a moral and intellectual defensive of native’s dignity as human- beings by negating evolutionary racist theories of the earlier arm- chair anthropologists. They also questioned the monopolization of the moral judgments by the ruling community. But colonial officialdom started questioning the validity and practicality of their work. This started a trend whereby the anthropologists started defending their work by insisting to be a ‘proper science’. When it comes to science the colonialist always viewed it as a symbol of great western achievement and its application on the natives looked encouraging.

To fall in the line of ‘proper science’ the anthropologist started shifting towards more dispassionate, objective study of people and claiming to yield proper information for the officialdom and the planners. This definitely helped in getting the fundings from the sponsoring authorities. Sponsorship or funding played a big role in developing anthropology in different lines. In different phases of colonialism, officials wanted a different kind of information and they influenced anthropological research through funding mechanisms to a large extent. By and large, we can say that knowledge produced by Anthropology as a discipline was uncritical of colonialism as a system of exploitation and domination. But with a gradual breakdown of colonialism, the position taken by anthropologist changed. Initially the handmaiden of colonial administration, anthropologists increasingly started writing sympathetically of the ‘others’.

A case for decolonization:

Research is a search for knowledge and truth. It is a systematic way of producing knowledge. But what is the truth? And what is knowledge? depends on the epistemological and ontological position of the researcher and researched. The methodology is the logic behind the approaches to doing the research. This logic makes the difference between natural sciences and social science. In social science, we study humans and the results of their interrelation. Initially social science was being developed in the line of natural sciences with its deductive logic i;e, Positivism. But the division happened with Wilhelm Dilthey and Max Weber taking social science to a more interpretative direction.

In colonial times, social science was dominated by the positivist approach. It was before social sciences took the famous ‘linguistic turn’. So to study the ‘non-western’ societies, anthropologists applied this positivist approach. This resulted in the objectification of human
beings as if they were not human beings with feelings, emotions and a thinking brain. As I discussed earlier through this ‘Othering’ of fellow human beings through the various mechanisms of discursive powers West has successfully created this ‘other’ to suit their bloody imperialist adventures.

The earlier 18th and 19th-century colonialism with its economic, cultural and scientific implications have ended. The empires changed their skins, readjusted their shares. The whole mechanism of looting and toying with the ‘others’ have changed. Democracy has become the new ride with Big-capital as the fuel. Colonizers have officially left but having their institutions remained at the right place. So we need to Decolonise and it should not be about only the handing over of colonizers governing instruments but it should be about total divesting of their cultural, bureaucratic and psychological implications. The academic knowledge production too needs to be decolonized by shunning the colonial methodologies and adopting more organically developed and reflexive indigenous methodologies. Only then our production of knowledge will be able to come out of the shadow of our colonial history.

Debasish Hazarika, Research Scholar, Department of HSS, Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati




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