Empire of Abstraction: British Social Anthropology in the “Dependencies”

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By Nile A. Davies

It would seem to be no more than a truism that no material can be successfully manipulated until its properties are known, whether it be a chemical compound or a society of human beings; and from that it would appear to follow that the science whose material is human society should be called upon when nothing else than the complete transformation of a society is in question.

Lucy Mair, “Colonial Administration as a Science” (1933)

On March 24th 1945, the British scientific journal Nature breathlessly reported that £120,000,000 of research funds (the equivalent of over 5 billion USD today) would be made available by the passing of the Colonial Development and Welfare Bill: a momentous commitment to the expansion of colonial study “which should be of interest to administrators, scientific men and technologists, and all who are concerned with the welfare and advancement of the British Colonial possessions.” The material conditions of colonial research would significantly determine the scope and energies of empirical labor in the social sciences. Specifically, ideas of colonial welfare drew conspicuously on the authority of experts in Social Anthropology—in its varying professional and institutional forms—to apprehend the flux and metamorphosis of human relations in a new international order.

Such extraordinary expenditures reflected broad desires throughout the previous decade for a science of administration—a means with which to know and understand a field of possibilities in an age of global “interpenetration” in colonized societies which, in their particularity, could not be addressed by “the application of general principles, however humanitarian.”[1] As data pertaining to the “forces and spirit of native institutions” were increasingly called upon for the maintenance of social cohesion, there emerged an imperative for the cultivation of “specially trained investigators [devoted to] comprehensive studies in the light of a sociological knowledge of the life of a community.”

Table of Contents from Lucy Mair, Welfare in the British Colonies (London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1944).

The history of colonial welfare recalls the contours of “governmentality,” the term coined by Michel Foucault to describe how power is secured through forms of expertise and intervention, attending to “the welfare of the population, the improvement of its condition, the increase of its wealth, longevity, health, etc.”[2] Drawn into the enterprise of administration, the design and formulation of social and economic research by anthropologists became increasingly associated with the high moral purpose of colonial reform. But, as Joanna Lewis notes, such a remit encompassed an impossibly wide range of aims and instruments for control: “animating civil society against social collapse; devising urban remedies for the incapacitated and the destitute; correcting the deviant” (75). Beset by the threat of rapid social change and indigenous nationalisms, the potential of the worldview offered up by intimate knowledge of the social structure suggested a means by which history itself might be forestalled. Well poised to anticipate the unforeseeable in a world of collapsing regimes, the great enthusiasm for structural functionalism in particular—akin to the field of international relations and its entanglements with empire—derived from its popular image as a tool of divination, seeming to equate the kinds of total social knowledge claimed by its practitioners with a scientifically derived vision of the future.

Formalizing the central importance of social analysis to the task of government, in 1944, the Colonial Social Science Research Council (CSSRC) was formed in order to advise the Secretary of State of the Colonies regarding “schemes of a sociological or anthropological nature.” Among the founding members of the council was Raymond Firth, the esteemed ethnologist of Polynesian society whose thesis (on the “Wealth and Work of the Maori”) had been supervised by Bronislaw Malinowski, pater familias of the discipline as it took form around the life and work of those who attended his seminar at the London School of Economics. But for professional academics striving for dominance amidst the competition of so-called “practical men,” the expansion of new territories for research raised serious questions about the value and legitimacy of knowledge production. As Benoît de L’Estoile has noted, the struggle for “a monopoly of competence on non-western social phenomena” generated new factions in the milieu of colonial expertise between academics and administrators, whose mutual engagements “in the field” marked divergent relationships to the value of colonial study as a means for the production of social theory.[3]

Front matter of Raymond Firth, Human Types (London: Nelson and Sons, 1938). Image by John Krygier via A Series of Series.

At the same time, increasing demand and material support for the study of the world-system had allowed a new generation of social and natural scientists to turn their attention towards the field from the metropole. For its part, the Royal Anthropological Institute awarded the Wellcome Medal each year “for the best research essay on the application of anthropological methods to the problems of native peoples, particularly those arising from intercourse between native peoples, or between primitive natives and civilised races.” Lucy Mair, another former student of Malinowski’s (cited at the beginning of this essay) received the award in 1935. This “immaterial” value of the colonies for the prospect of scholarship was shared by Lord Hailey, Chairman of the Colonial Research Committee. As he suggested in the preamble to the mammoth administrative compendium, An African Survey (1938):

A considerable part of the activity of the intellectual world is expended today in the study of social institutions, systems of law, and political developments which can now only be examined in retrospect. But Africa presents itself as a living laboratory in which the reward of study may prove to be not only the satisfaction of an intellectual impulse, but an effective addition of the welfare of the people. (xxiv)

Hailey’s romantic claims about the ends of imperial study proved to be prophetic for the postwar period, and spoke to the experimental approach in which such schemes were elaborated. While the natural sciences held out the promise of material riches to be “exploited” in an empire of neglect, anthropologists similarly stood to profit from their engagements in a social order that was shifting beyond recognition. Beyond the preservative impulse of ethnographic practice in the early 20th century, fixed on salvaging the “primitive” from the threshold of extinction, the contingencies of a collapsing empire presented the opportunity for colonial science to fulfil a gamut of ethical duties as the ideological arm of an administration that governed the flow of capital itself. As Hailey would later note in 1943:

No one can dispute the value of the humanitarian impulse which has in the past so often provided a corrective to practices which might have prejudiced the interests of native peoples. But we can no longer afford to regard policy as mainly an exercise in applied ethics. We now have a definite objective before us—the ideal of colonial self-government—and all our thinking on social and economic problems must be directed to organising the life of colonial communities to fit them for that end. […] It is in the light of this consideration that we must seek to determine the position of the capitalist and the proper function of capital.

What was this “proper function” of capital? In an address at Chatham House in April 1944, Bernard Bourdillon, then Governor of Nigeria, described the affective indifference, the ideological exhaustion of a precarious empire whose deprivation under the doctrine of laissez-faire could only suggest the great deception of the civilizing mandate itself. In the thrall of liberal torpor, the fate of Britain’s so-called “dependencies” had long been characterized by the slow violence of a debilitating austerity, borne out by starvation and disease in insolvent colonies, unable to develop their (often plentiful) resources in the absence of revenues. The receipt of financial assistance by the poorest colonies to balance their ailing budgets reflected the management of the population at its minimum, confined within the vicious cycle of deficiency: “regarded as poor relations, who could not, in all decency, be allowed to starve, but whose first duty was to earn a bare subsistence, and to relieve their reluctant benefactors of what was regarded as a wholly unprofitable obligation.”

O.G.R Williams to J.C Meggitt, “Housing conditions for poorer classes in and around Freetown” (C.S.O. M/54/34, 1939). Photograph by author.

As the tide of decolonization became an inescapable reality, desires for a deliberate strategy towards the improvement of social conditions both at home and abroad sought to recuperate the notion of mutual benefit between colony and metropole. The move to restore the ethical entanglements of a “People’s Empire,” long left out of mind, suggested the refraction of a burgeoning conception of the welfare state in Britain, whose origins in The Beveridge Report—published in 1942—turned towards the cause of “abolishing” society’s major ills: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. In spite of an apparent commitment to universalism—in the establishment of a National Health Service in 1946, and state insurance for unemployment and pensions, for example—the report would garner criticism for privileging the model of the male breadwinner at the expense of working wives, whilst otherwise reflecting a palliative approach to poverty that failed to address its root causes. While ideas of domestic welfare shared many of the rhetorical devices that characterized the project of colonial reform (with improvements in public health, education and living standards chief among them), save for a single glancing reference, the Beveridge Report made no mention of the colonies or their place within this expansive and much-feted vision for postwar society.

On the contrary, the long road to economic solvency and the raising of living standards was understood to lie within colonial societies themselves, however enervated or held in abeyance by preceding policies. British plans for the autonomy of the overseas territories centered on the rhetoric of extraction under the general directive for colonized societies to exploit their own resources—as Bourdillon would note, “including that most important of all natural resources, the capacity of the people themselves.” Increased investment from the metropole would in turn provide for the welfare of colonial subjects in the event of their independence through the generation of something that might be called “human capital”, and by turning towards the earth itself as a repository of untapped value. The appointment of experts in the fields of imperial geology, agronomy and forestry turned the labors of scientific discovery towards a political economy of “growth” for the mitigation of social inequalities on a planetary scale.

But the professional and institutional entanglements of anthropologists to the field inextricably linked them to a social system of subjection that they could not fully claim to disavow. Senior anthropologists in particular appeared to retain a kind of primitivism, neglecting in their studies the administrative issues of growing urban centers for “tribal” or “village studies.” By the end of the 1940s, the earlier promise and possibility of Anthropology’s relationship to the colonial endeavor was increasingly questioned by its most prominent practitioners. At a special public meeting of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1949, Firth spoke alongside the Oxford anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard about the growing tensions and demands of professional practice in a period in which the vast majority of anthropological research was supported by state funds. “After long and shameful neglect by the British people and Government,” he declared, “it is now realised that it is impossible to govern colonial peoples without knowledge of their ways of life.” (179) And yet, Firth and Evans-Pritchard observed the anxieties in certain academic circles of what such a union would mean for the production of knowledge: “lest the colonial tail wag the anthropological dog—lest basic scientific problems be overlooked in favour of those of more pressing practical interest.” (138)

Buildings of the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), founded in 1948 as the East African Institute of Social Research. Photograph via MISR.

Even before the conclusion of the Second World War, the experiences of fascism had proved to be a cautionary tale in which both the value and peril of social theory lay in its uses within a broader marketplace of applied science as an instrument of power-knowledge, capable of being wielded by states and their governments. Myopic fears of the “race war” to ensue from the collapse of white settler societies found their reflection in research agendas and the funding of applied studies. With an eye on neighboring Kenya, Audrey Richards—another of Malinowski’s “charmed circle”—became director of Uganda’s East African Institute of Social Research in 1950, a center established at Makerere College for the purpose of accumulating “anthropological and economic data on the peoples and problems of East Africa.”

This was also the scene of a burgeoning inquiry into “race relations.” In 1948, Firth’s student Kenneth Little published Negroes in Britain, a study of urban segregation and the fraught sentiments of “community” in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay, infamously portrayed by the Daily Express in 1936: “Half-Caste Girl: she presents a city with one of its big problems.” (49) Its streets would endure in the cultural imagination as a focal point of salacious reporting on the colonies of “coloured juveniles” born in the poor “slums” of seaport towns across the British Isles. Working class migrants in Cardiff’s Loudoun Square were captured in the pages of the left-leaning weekly, Picture Post byits staffphotographer Bert Hardy, whose efforts to represent the human face of residents in the “deeply-depressed quarter” are a complex amalgam of pity and social conscience documentary, recalling the iconic depictions of American poverty by photographers attached to the Farm Security Administration in the era of the New Deal. Meanwhile, the American sociologist St Clair Drake, who with Horace R. Clayton Jr. had co-authored the voluminous study Black Metropolis in 1945, had conducted research in Tiger Bay for his 1954 University of Chicago dissertation and responded directly to some of the claims made in Little’s study. Subjects of empire, he avowed, whether in Britain or its extremities, were united by their fate to be subjects of the survey and the study, misrepresented, slandered or otherwise examined with disciplinary instruments and the logics of reform and government.

Amidst revolutionary struggle and the rise of African nationalist movements, other scholarship emerging from this milieu appeared to display certain deficiencies in vision emanating from the colonial situation—the professional certitude and patronizing racism with which social scientists made and mythologized their objects. In 1955, the geographer Frank Debenham—another senior figure in the CSSRC’s council—published Nyasaland: Land of the Lake as part of The Corona Library, a series of “authoritative and readable” surveys sponsored by the Colonial Office.Writing in his review of Debenham’s book in the Journal of Negro Education, the historian Rayford Logan observed the bewildering disconnect between the well-documented experiences of civil discord under white-minority rule in the territory and the world as it was rendered in print:

[Debenham] seriously states: “We need not call the African lazy, since there is little obligation to work hard, but we must certainly call him lucky” (p. 104). He opposes a rigid policy of restricting freehold land for Europeans. His over-all view blandly disregards the discontent among the Africans in Nyasaland: “If only Nyasaland people are left to themselves and not incited from elsewhere there should be contentment under the new regime very soon, a return in fact to the situation of a few years ago when there was complete amity as a whole between black and white, and there were all the essentials for a real partnership satisfactory to both colours.”

In hindsight, these problems of perception appear to have become evident—if not exactly solvable—even to those most apparently endowed with the greatest faculties of interpretation and insight into the arcane mechanisms of the social world. Michael Banton, a student of Kenneth Little’s and the first editor of the journal Sociology, recalled his professional errata in the 2005 article “Finding, and Correcting, My Mistakes”. Writing candidly of his earliest forays into colonial research, he described the evolution and decline of structural functionalism, which was “founded upon a view of action as using scarce means to attain given ends but had in my, perhaps faulty, perception become a top-down theory of the social system.” Such reflections suggest the disenchantments of an analytical framework which threatened to occlude as much as it sought to understand, in which whole worlds went unnoticed or misread. More than 50 years after his earliest studies in the “coloured quarter” of London’s East End and Freetown, the capital of British West Africa, Banton still appeared—against all good intentions—stumped: “There were failings that should be accounted blind spots rather than mistakes…. Why was my vision blinkered?”


Nile A. Davies is a doctoral candidate in Anthropology and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University. His dissertation examines the  politics and sentiments of reconstruction and the aftermaths of “disaster” in postwar Sierra Leone.


Featured Image: Cardiff’s Tiger Bay in the 1950s. Photograph by Bert Hardy, via WalesOnline.


[1] Mair, Lucy. “Colonial Administration as a Science.” Journal of the Royal African Society 32, no. 129 (1933): 367.

[2] Foucault, Michel. The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality. Edited by Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991 [1978], p.100.

[3] Pels, Peter. “Global ‘experts’ and ‘African’ Minds: Tanganyika Anthropology as Public and Secret Service, 1925-61.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17, no. 4 (2011): 788-810. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41350755.

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