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Anthropology Curriculum and Its Discontents

from Alexander Cunningham


Anthropology Curriculumand Its Discontents

The Anthropology of North-East India: A Textbook

edited by T B Subba and G C Ghosh; Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2003; pp vi+380, Rs 145 (paperback).


f human sciences, anthropology has been among the most buoyant in recent times. Paradoxically, the buoyancy owes to the discipline’s newfound disbelief in its original mission, that is, representing other cultures. The disbelief, rather than impeding the growth of the discipline, has prompted innovative ways of thinking and writing anthropology. Exceptions notwithstanding, the graduate curriculum in Indian universities has not quite opened up to the new concerns, concepts, and methods of the discipline. The new textbook on The Anthropology of North-East India, its editors claim, is an attempt to respond to the current concerns of the discipline. To what extent it does so and fills the void in the Indian curriculum is the central concern of this review essay.

Constituting the North-east

The introductory essay by the editors rightly begins by problematising the category, north-east India. The north-east exists and does not exist. It had “extensions towards all directions beyond the region from very ancient times”. Within the region “ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences” prevail. At once, the editors emphasise the historical antecedents of the region and the characteristics of geographical location, habitation, economic pursuit, language, religion, and race that mark it off from the rest of India. The picture that emerges is that of a region imagined by way of residuality – “people of the north-east see themselves as a group, share a sense of fraternity and see themselves as distinct from the rest of India”, held together by “common suffering”, inhabitants of a landscape of unemployment and insurgency. “If there is anything that binds the region it is a sense of deprivation”. Such reduction to the economy marginalises the aspects of ethnicity and culture while constituting the identity of the region. Further, the editors’ implicit assumption of the northeast as an entity with unchanging geographical and cultural boundaries from colonial to postcolonial times does not go well with their attempts to historicise the category of north-east.

The introductory essay rather than bringing to the attention of students the crucial issues that bear upon thinking, learning, and practising anthropology in postcolonial India, settles for the soft option of indicating the organisation of the book and making a cursory summary of the main observations of the essays collated. The relationship between colonialism and anthropology has been a matter of growing interest world over but has not been sufficiently explored in the Indian curriculum. Viewed thus, the organisation of the book with a section on “Colonial North-East” is apt. Yet, the trappings of “four field” anthropology are revealed when the editors note: “regretfully, we have not been able to include Linguistic Anthropology”. Taxonomies while relevant should not be assumed as fixed. Consider, for instance, the current interest in the anthropology of violence and anthropology of globalisation that do not fall within the traditional, “four field” scheme. The scheme constrains the editors from discussing these and other aspects of anthropology, now considered important.

Enigma of Prehistory

The formidable forest-clad, hilly terrain of the north-east failed to tempt the colonial archaeologists; it was left out even from Alexander Cunningham’s pan-Indian archaeological gaze. Excavations during the colonial period were sparse and collections mostly confined to stone tools. In the post-independence period too, when the rest of the country witnessed buoyant archaeological activity, the north-east failed to receive deserving attention. The paper “Prehistoric Archaeology of the North-east” notes that archaeologically speaking, even today, the region is largely terra incognito.

The paper prioritises the need to construct a congruous chrono-cultural sequence of the region, connecting the stone age culture with the contemporary cultures. It recognises the hurdles involved, the major one being the lack of archaeological resources itself. Besides, migrations in the region date to the ancient period. There has also been forced resettlement by the state, as in the case of the Kuki, resettled by the British as buffers between administered and non-administered areas. The paper, however, does not explore the implications of migrations and colonial rule for the cultural trajectory of the region, rendering it neither unilinear nor wholly internally determined. Coupled with the ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity within the north-east, the situation raises two questions. How valid is the assumption of a congruous chrono-cultural sequence for the entire region? Even if it were valid, how feasible is its construction?

Besides, there is an even more fundamental question. This bears upon the relation between anthropology and archaeology. We can no longer afford to be content with partial views like archaeology is to anthropology what palaeontology is to zoology. The question that needs to be addressed is how the past is/was constructed in archaeology. As a system of scientific knowledge, archaeology orders the past within the western paradigm of development. Its origins may be traced, as in the case of anthropology, to colonial rule. The “oriental” landscape was excavated to discover the exotic “other”, which was turned into an object of display in the imperial museum. Subsequently, archaeology was recast into a project for building the nation, complete with its “traditions”. Archaeology, thus, is not a context-free and value-free science and the past it constructs is not one that may be drawn

Economic and Political Weekly January 14, 2006

upon uncritically by the anthropologist. While a graduate textbook cannot be expected to be comprehensive in its coverage of frontier knowledge it should not fail at least to mention this important question that continues to trouble the practitioners of the discipline.

Colonialism and Anthropology

The power-laden implications of anthropology came under radical fire in the 1960s. It was pointed out that anthropology grew out of the imperialist needs of governance of the colonies. The “authority” of anthropology was its political authority. The extended critique was that the discipline fulfilled a similar function in contemporary times by affirming the dominance of the western powers over the underdeveloped world. The radical anthropologists strove for an anthropology committed to the conquered rather than the conquerors.

With a closer understanding of the relationship between knowledge and power, the critique of anthropology attained a new dimension in the 1980s. It was pointed out that the “authority” of anthropology was derived, political dominance apart, from its epistemological authority. The epistemological premise was that of the modern, positivist science, with its characteristic belief in an objective truth that could be fully known. The premise had anthropology staking claim to represent other cultures. While radical anthropology dissented merely with the western imperialist origins of the discipline and its influences, the new thinking was critical of all anthropology. Itchallenged the fundamental presumption thatother cultures could be known and represented.

The section on “Colonial North-East” traces the anthropological career of two colonial administrators of north-east India during the first-half of the 20th century. The lives of J P Mills and J H Hutton, whose histories are traced, had much in common. Both held high positions in the administration in Assam for over two decades and were, in their capacity as honorary director of ethnography, “state anthropologists”. They wrote in scholarly journals and published monographs. Hutton’s career in India spanned about three decades, from 1909 to 1936. Mills served over three decades, from 1913 till independence. On retirement to England, both became active in professional bodies and taught in universities.

How do the works of Mills and Hutton, sharing similar administrativeanthropological career compare? Mills is viewed as “a beacon for the anthropology of north-east”, a “meticulous” field researcher, author of “monumental monographs”, and “a model” for the current times. In sharp contrast, Hutton was “an agent of the colonial power”. He was eurocentric in his perspective and viewed local people as uncivilised and criminalminded. His fieldwork was flawed, drew the hostility of the local people and was conducted under military escort. The outcome was biased and of inferior scholarship, “with no value at all”.

If the papers are to be believed, there is substantial difference in the levels of scholarship of Mills and Hutton. Even the paper on Hutton, severely critical of the whole range of colonial anthropologists spares Mills and recognises his Ao Nagas as “authoritative”. The paper fails to note what makes it more scientific and less colonial as compared to Hutton’s writings. It is even more intriguing when the paper notes that Hutton set the mould for Mills’ writing. Why is Mills whose work was patterned on Hutton’s evaluated as a serious scholar while Hutton himself is seen in poor light?

From scattered pointers in the two papers, one may infer certain differences in their personalities, political-historical contexts and fieldwork practices. Even while being a representative of an alien ruling power, Mills was relatively close to the people and more sympathetic to their interests. Mills arrived in the north-east seven years after Hutton and left eleven years after him. By the later phase of Mills’ fieldwork, the colonial administrator had assumed the new role of the arbitrator and mediator in settling inter-tribal conflicts and disputes arising from newly complicated property regimes and family organisational forms. While both Hutton and Mills were constrained by their limited proficiency in local languages, Mills innovated fieldwork strategies to overcome this. Together considered, their anthropological careers leave the important hint that there is need to distinguish between different writings within the genre of colonial representation.

The lives of the administratoranthropologists studied could have formed an effective springboard for a host of other questions too. For instance, exploring their lives offer the possibility to understand the “reverse impact” of colonial anthropology. What were the effects of the relocation of colonial administrator-anthropologists like Hutton and Mills in the anthropological circles in their home country? What did they teach and research? What kind of knowledge did they transmit? How did they use the material they had collected in India? What sort of reality about the people in colonies did they construct in the western classroom? Likewise, it would be interesting to explore the links between Europeanborn anthropologists with native anthropologists – Mills, for instance, produced collaborative works with Indian anthropologists like D N Majumdar and A Aiyyappan. Was it that not all Europeanborn anthropologists were “colonial” and not all native anthropologists “nationalist”? Or was it that despite differing viewpoints on colonialism the two were united in a shared epistemological premise?

Both the papers hesitate to explore the nuances of the relationship between colonialism and anthropology. They judge the colonial anthropological project by taking an ethical view of colonialism. While for the author of the paper on Hutton, colonialism was exploitative and oppressive and produced inferior scholarship, for the author of the Mills’ paper, colonialism was suffused with good intentions, it was indispensable for maintaining peace and assuring welfare in the country, and yielded superior scholarship. The former author rightly notes that even native anthropologists, if not sufficiently sensitised, may end up holding similar view of other cultures as the European-born anthropologists. Nevertheless, as the critique is confined to anthropology as a tool of colonial governance, the author misses the multiple components that constitute the hegemony of colonial anthropology. Unless the knowledge foundations of the discipline are critically examined, native anthropologists, despite their anti-colonial stance, might bank on similar methodologies and arrive at similar erroneous inferences as their colonial predecessors. It would be deficient in critical scholarship and serve only the hegemonic interests of the state and the ruling classes as in the colonial times.

Clearly, the relationship between colonialism and anthropology needs to be viewed in a more nuanced manner. That colonialism is not the same at all points of time and space has been recognised for some time. This is a historical question on which there is a fair degree of consensus

– though not reflected in the reviewed book. The point is to anthropologise our knowledge of the colonialism-anthropology relationship. This requires knowing the new sites and forms of conflict that colonialism generates, the new political

Economic and Political Weekly January 14, 2006 discourses, powers, desires and anxieties; the subjectivities that constitute these sites and are constituted by these.

The Body in Anthropology

During the early phase of its development, anthropology was largely preoccupied with distinguishing and describing races based on physical attributes. Towards this, a kit of scientific techniques was developed. Physical anthropology began with measuring the body. The initial concern with anatomy soon gave way to physiology. Blood groups were examined to identify possible racial patterns. The application of genetics gave further momentum to this branch of anthropological knowledge and recast it as biological anthropology.

What restricts the scope of biological anthropology is biologism itself. This ideology of science reduces human body to innate properties of germ cells. The studies collated in the book do recognise the difficulties of racial classification owing to migration and inter-mixing. A race with all its defining biological features is hard to find; biological traits often vary within an ethnic group and sometimes even within a family. Recognising the “impurity” of races is a step forward from colonial anthropology but the studies fail to explore the function of biological anthropology in postcolonial times.

While displaying a faint recognition of socio-cultural and environmental variables in human growth, the authors ignore the politics of biologism itself. This causes them to miss important historical connections such as those between dermatoglyphics and criminology, the colonial science of identifying “criminal” tribes. Interestingly, even while the anthropologists often fail to recognise the politics of biologism, their subjects do not. This is illustrated by the 2003 popular resistance in Nagaland to genome research that required collection of blood samples from every Naga tribe. It was suspected that the research was conceived to erase the Naga identity by showing that they are discrete and separate people. The people could have been misinformed about the purpose of research but they were deeply aware of the political uses such research could be put to.

Exploring Social Anthropology

The knowledge system of anthropology, as noted already, is enabled by the modernist episteme. As with other social sciences, anthropology sought to study human society by drawing inputs from physical sciences. Societies and people were classified with a view to explaining the norms and patterns of social order. The evolutionist idea of progress formed the basis of classification upon assumed intrinsic traits. Castes and tribes were viewed as primitives, located in the lower rungs of the evolutionary ladder. As these societies were essentialised in terms of original, static characteristics, their social change was seen as possible only through the civilising mission of Europeans. Subsequently, the critical anthropologists, who distanced themselves from the modernist episteme, historicised and deconstructed the traditional concepts and pointed to their problematic nature. Anthropologists now employ concepts like ethnicity that are free of essentialism and fixity that was characteristic of earlier categories like tribe, and forge refreshingly new notions like tribalism to understand the present ideological location of these communities.

The section ‘Social Anthropology of North-East India’ is bounded by the modernist episteme. The paper ‘Tribal Social Organisation’, for instance, defines tribal organisation on assumed essential traits. The episteme limits the scope of other papers too wherein novel themes like the Indian anthropological establishment and community management of natural resources are discussed. The paper on agrarian relations traces the historical trajectory of land rights but fails to anthropologise the question by examining the shifts in people’s relation with land and its bearing on their social lives. The discussion on the status of tribal women details the negative consequences of Indian military presence on the lives of women but disregards the radical assertion of women in the context of new subjectivity and identity constituted within the structure of domination and oppression.

A common lacuna of the papers is disregard to theory, including their own. This prevents them from addressing the rich nuances of their otherwise interesting empirical observations and drawing the attention of the larger scholarly community. Admittedly, the scant attention to theory is considerably true of the anthropology curriculum in the country as a whole. This has costly consequences. It perpetuates the subordination of nonwestern anthropologists of being native informants to the western anthropologists, enabling the latter to construct grand theories – an outcome unhealthy for the development of the discipline, in the west or the east.

Moving Ahead

The book raises some important questions like colonialism and anthropology and brings to focus certain issues like ecology that are just beginning to gain the attention of Indian anthropologists. Yet, there is little to cheer about. Despite its claims otherwise, the present volume like most other textbooks in circulation, fails to reflect the new concerns and debates in anthropology. There are several interesting questions that may be raised in the specific context of the north-east but scarcely addressed in the present volume. How was modernity conceived, experienced, resisted and embraced by the local people? What precisely has been the relationship between capital and the community? How did the local and the global interact? How did notions of gender, sexuality, and family change during the colonial period and after? What did conversion to Christianity mean for the local people? How did the communities respond to the making of the nation-state of India? How did the internal structures of power change in the postcolonial times? How can one understand inter-ethnic conflict, anthropologically speaking? How do people negotiate with the Indian state and global cultures? A new textbook on the region might advantageously look into at least some of these questions. That would make it more contemporary and dialogical and therefore more interesting to the students of north-east India to whom the book is primarily intended. This calls for more sensitive anthropology, especially important in the context of competing regimes of representation.



[We are obliged to S Preetha Nair, Tathagatan, and Bhawani Cheerath for their comments on an earlier version of this review essay.]

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