ANTH 423, Political Anthropology
Concordia University -- Dr. Maximilian C. Forte
that takes cultures to be collective creations, that reifies them into texts
and objectifies their meanings, disguises and even mystifies the dynamics of
knowledge and its uses [is problematic]…. cultures do not simply constitute
webs of significance….They constitute ideologies, disguising human political
and economic realities as cosmically ordained. Even in classless societies,
cultural ideologies empower some, subordinate others, extract the labour of
some for the benefit of those whose interests the ideologies serve and
legitimate. Cultures are webs of mystification as well as signification. We
need to ask who creates and who defines cultural meanings, and to what
—Roger M. Keesing (1987: 161-162)
“Each agent, wittingly or unwittingly, willy nilly, is a producer and
reproducer of objective meaning. Because his actions and works are the
product of a modus operandi of which he is not the producer and has no
conscious mastery, they contain an 'objective intention'...which always
outruns his conscious intentions”
—Pierre Bourdieu (1977: 79)
A. OUTLINE OF PROBLEMS In
opposition to what are sometimes exaggerated portrayals of earlier
anthropological depictions of local cultures as organic and homogeneous
wholes seemingly existing outside of forces such as colonialism, slavery and
the world market, anthropologists have argued in recent decades that
cultures are not merely local but translocal, and are shaped by unequal
access to resources and inequalities in power.
addition, anthropology as a discipline came in for serious critique. Many
began to charge that anthropology had neglected not only the impact of
Western colonialism but also anthropology’s own fruition in colonial
settings, seemingly collaborating with colonialism itself. In summary,
anthropologists began to take note that the “remote” and “exotic”
communities they had been studying had been subject to, and made dependent
on, a global system of unequal development and power relations. Within these
same local communities, once portrayed as egalitarian, homogeneous, organic
wholes, anthropologists also re-examined internal inequalities in power
relations, and the unequal distribution of knowledge and other resources. As
a result, the dominant anthropological interest in this particular camp
turned squarely to ideology, hegemony, class, political economy and power.
emerged as critical focus of investigation and theorizing in anthropology
and has remained central in various approaches, e.g.: Marxist anthropology,
cultural materialism, political anthropology, feminist anthropology,
post-structuralist anthropology, and post-modernism. As a result,
anthropologists have sought to uncover the ideological, cultural, and social
organizational means by which some groups seek to attain or assert power as
well as the resistance faced by such groups.
On the other hand, we cannot treat any critique as necessarily offering a
solution or an incontestable set of counter-propositions. We might thus be
wary of overly conspiratorial notions of power as absolute, of institutions
exercising total control, of persons
either pawns or all-knowing subjects that master their own destinies, or of
all cultures as lacking coherence, intelligibility and affective value to
those who share in those cultures. The notion of cultures as unceasingly
contested, rife with conflict, unable to achieve stability and consensus
might also be one that is sometimes problematic. Therefore given the various
positions we will encounter on culture, power and anthropological
understandings, you should be most alert and critical, without being
this course we will investigate various sources and expressions of power, as
well as the ways in which anthropologists have sought to theorize and study
power in ethnographic and theoretical terms.
is only an abridged version of the many questions that this course will
raise. We can expect, however, that these questions will recur in the manner
of overarching questions binding the course.
What are the key concepts of “power”
utilized by anthropologists?
What are the diverse sources and
manifestations of power? Cultural? Economic? Political? How do they
What are the theoretical and
ethnographic formulations of ethnicity, class, and gender in relation to culture and
How do we connect the role of states
to the ethnography of power
How do we theorize the
relations between the conditions of material production, class, power
and culture, without recapitulating reductionist or determinist
How do we theorize the
agency of the individual in light of structures of power?
In which ways have
colonialism and globalization structured local power relations?
What are the
relationships between colonial power and anthropological knowledge?
(These are available for purchase in the Concordia Bookstore, SGW, and one
copy of each is available on the Course Reserve, Webster Circulation Desk)
Joan, ed. 2002. The Anthropology of Politics: A Reader in Ethnography, Theory, and
Critique. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
John. 2000. Power and its Disguises: Anthropological Perspectives on Politics.