Postcoloniality and the Postcolony: Theories of the Global and the Local

Sverker Finnström, M.A., Dept. of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology, Uppsala University

Previously published in the series Working Papers in Cultural Anthropology, No. 7, 1997. © Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology, Uppsala University and the author.

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The Growth of Ignorance?

Fox’s (1985) account exemplifies an overall problem when relying on the "colonial library," to use a term of Mudimbe (1994:xii-xiii). The analysis ‘confirms’ colonialism and colonial hegemony as the only source of power and cultural construction. Or, to exemplify with Mudimbe’s own words on Africa: "Modern African thought seems somehow to be basically a product of the West," with African intellectuals "transplanting Western intellectual manicheism" (Mudimbe 1988:185). Implicitly, colonialism therefore becomes the essence of today’s non-Western cultures and traditions. But the culture described must not be limited to a fabrication of the colonists only. Simultaneously, the makers of culture must not be limited to active colonisers, as well as local populations must not be reduced to passive objects of cultural formation. As Eriksen (1996:24f) writes, this dichotomisation of active Westerners versus passive non-Westerners, or ‘givers’ versus ‘perceivers,’ is a long-lasting misconception of Western thought. Unfortunately, this has often been a central aspect in more recent postcolonial theoretical writings also, with the main concepts of hegemony and resistance.

This theorisation, sometimes labelled as ‘postcolonial theory’ seems to originate from the early writers of counter-colonial resistance, like Franz Fanon, later developed by authors like Edward W. Said, V.Y. Mudimbe, Homi K. Babha, and Gayarti Chakravorty Spivak. A recent guide to these theoreticians, and many others in addition to them, is The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, an impressive volume edited by Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin (1995a). As the volume illustrates, contemporary approaches of postcolonial scholars are manifold. To mention a few sources of inspiration besides the ones already mentioned, there are psychoanalytical theories inspired by Lacan, power approaches inspired by the writing of Foucault, and poststructural deconstruction in the vein of Derrida and Barthes.

However, the above listed theoreticians are not my focus in the following discussion. But interestingly to note, the editors of The Post-Colonial Studies Reader are themselves highlighting some theoretical pitfalls when trying to capture the common feature of postcolonial theory. Thus, the editors promote "the binarisms of colonial discourse" as the conceptual tool for "post-colonial critics" in their re-writing of history (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin 1995b:8). Further, they are describing the intellectual background of the very same criticism as follows: "The colonial space is therefore an agonistic space. Despite the ‘imitation’ and ‘mimicry’ with which colonised peoples cope with the imperial presence, the relationship becomes one of constant, if implicit, contestation and opposition." (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin 1995b:9). My aim is not to further define postcolonial theorisation, or postcolonial theory as such, a far too problematic categorisation, but to discuss some problems with concepts like imitation, mimicry, binary polarities and constant opposition.

During the preceding years these kinds of postcolonial theoretical analyses have been criticised as being too elitist, in exemplifying "a condition of the diasporic imagination" (Werbner 1996:6f), rather than presenting fair accounts of actual life situations in the postcolonial states. To quote Chabal:

The present debate about our postcolonial identity is not one primarily concerned with the historical fact of the end of colonial rule (broadly from 1947 to 1964). There is indeed more talk today about the postcolonial than there was at the time of the end of empire. Nor is the postcolonial here meant to reflect the condition of African countries after independence. In the sense in which it is used in current cultural and ideological parlance, it refers to the implications of the postcolonial or postimperial condition of our own identity in the West today. It is, therefore, more a concern about ourselves than about those who do live in actual postcolonial societies. (Chabal 1996:37, italics mine)

Unfortunately, as Chabal notes, postcoloniality is too often ignoring the actual societies of the postcolonies. Postcoloniality is divorced from the postcolony. Theory is then living a life of its own, without undergoing the critical contextualising of an ethnographic field research. To illustrate, the historian David Washbrook has pointed out that the power/knowledge-concept of Foucault, widely used in postcolonial theorisation, cannot fairly explain how 63.000 British could colonise and dominate more than 300 million Indians. Instead the actual and complex interaction and dialectics between British elite groups, local elite groups and the variety of subaltern groups must be included as essential parts of the analysis (Washbrook 1995; see also Bayart 1993:70ff; Mazrui 1986:172). Thus it is too essentialistic to write only in terms of binary oppositions of colonisers and colonised. Further, no colonial state was working as a homogenous entity, they were all the result of a patchwork of conflicting and opposed social, political and economic interests.

This patchwork can be illustrated by the disagreement among the British colonisers how to deal with the retired Nubi soldiers of the King’s African Rifles of East Africa. The Nubis of the 1930s, historically originating from the former Equatoria of Emin Pasha, found themselves to be subject to long-lasting discussions among the British.[3] One idea was to give them ‘home-lands’ in Acholiland, northern Uganda, and therefore transform these former soldiers and petty-traders into peasants. By this the British wanted to incorporate them to the tribal model of the colonial administration. Another idea was to put them under Bugandan rule, incorporating the Nubi (generally West Nilers and Nilotics) as a Baganda (Bantu) sub-tribe. A third was to ‘repatriate’ them to the Sudan; and a fourth was to keep them outside the colonial administration, therefore letting them live outside or above existing chiefly structures. The Nubis themselves wanted to be recognised as an immigrant community, equal in status and function to the Arabs or Asians of Uganda (Hansen 1991).

Hansen highlights the strange logic of the colonial policy as it finally turned out, in using the terminology of the British Chief Secretary of that time:

It follows that the colonial administration did not recognize the Nubian claim to status as foreigners. Even if they could be called ‘immigrant natives’ they were after all ‘natives of Africa’ and could not claim to be foreigners or ‘non-natives.’ (Hansen 1991:574)[4]

The colonial policy turned out to be quite paradoxical, just as Uganda as a geographic entity is something of a colonial paradox. As illustrated, one should be aware of the reductionism in expecting consistency within any form of colonial rule. But just as ethnicity, or rather the eurocentric idea of tribalism, was the main means through which the colonial policy of indirect rule tried to keep control, so was ethnicity to become one of the main ways of protesting against the very same control (Mamdani 1995:223).

Consequently it is important not only to observe what the diversity of colonial processes did to a certain group of people, but how this group, and specific individuals within it, participated actively in these processes (cf. Schoenbrun 1993:41ff). I therefore agree with De Boeck (1996:94), who argues that the key binary categories in postcolonial theorisation, like hegemony and resistance, or the state versus the civil society, must be complemented with aspects of localised strategies of adaptation, accommodation and collaboration. He wants to create a new dynamic model of complex interaction, combining both global and local levels (De Boeck 1996:97; see also Mazrui 1986:76; Mbembe 1992a:3ff).

Anthropologists criticising development projects sometimes emphasise the importance of exploring the complex but often imperialistic and power-laden relation between scientific knowledge and actual localised knowledge in practice. This criticism can be applied to the binary polarisation of postcolonial theorisation as well. Thus, when Hobart, editor of a recent volume on development and anthropology, points out a common trend in conventional development projects, he could likewise be describing the binarism of postcolonial theorisation criticised above: "The relationship of developers and to-be-developed is constituted by the developers’ knowledge and categories" (Hobart 1993:2). Hobart is critical when it comes to trust in systematic, rational and scientific knowledge as universal and the only and solely version of knowledge. As this kind of one-sided knowledge claims increases so does the possibility of ignorance, if local agents are presented as mere objects to be changed (Hobart 1993:1, 14). Theory is then simplifying and homogenising actual postcolonial situations, and therefore objectifying the postcolonial subjects, rather than the other way round. As the late philosopher Paul Feyerabend describes the anthropologists, in his usual provocative manner:

And so they finally tell a story no indigenous person is likely to understand though it is a story not only about them, but about the way in which an initially ignorant stranger experienced their life. Using abstract categories we might say that the anthropologist transforms impressions into knowledge—but saying that we at once realize how culture-dependent this so called ‘knowledge’ really is. (Feyerabend 1991:143)

This can be related to an important but well-known argument, taken from the critique on positivism: scientific activity is to be understood as a "social project" rather than a "natural faculty or self-evident procedure for the production of truth" (Friedman 1994:246; see also Tambiah 1990:146f). Such a project, then, is inseparable not only from power relations, but from political domination as well.

It may seem unnecessary to point out the central task of anthropology, that of mediating local versions of history, society and culture. This is on the one hand manifested in indigenous versions of knowledge and wisdom, but just as important to observe is the practical and actual performance skills (Richards 1993). As Geertz points out, the locality is not restricted only to place, time, class and variety of issue, but also as to vernacular characterisations and imaginings of past as well as future happenings (Geertz 1983:215; cited in Hobart 1993:18).

This presents us with a rather different view of modernisation and global processes in comparison with conventional anthropology, the latter represented in well-known ethnographic writings like that of Evans-Pritchard (1949) or Gellner (1973a; 1973b; 1983; 1995). As I have argued elsewhere (Finnström 1996:60ff), in the analyses of these two anthropologists, modernisation is by definition resulting in cultural and social decomposition in non-Western societies. This is so because global processes and modernisation is wrongly equated with westernisation and development, as pointed out by scholars like Comaroff (1995), Hobart (1993) and Robertson (1990). [5]

Modernisation is best understood in relation to processes of industrialisation, urbanisation, secularisation, (Weberian) rational-isation, and the development of world market systems. I do not deny such processes, but, as I argue, most often analyses of modernisation result in a eurocentric and dichotomised picture of modernity versus tradition. [6] Thus modernity is most often understood as a state of mind resulting from modernisation: of homelessness and alienation. Another aspect of modernity often pointed out is the capacity of critical self-reflexivity (see, for example, Kellner 1992). A supposed consequence of this is that all that is solid melts into air, as a frequently cited author (Berman 1982), with reference to Karl Marx, argues.

However, this kind of analysis is impossible to separate from the eurocentric tendency of pinpointing European enlightenment as the single source of modernity. In this perspective, social change in non-Western cultures of today is seen as repetitions of nation-state formation of nineteenth century Europe. Europe is the norm and the archetype (see, for example, Berman 1982:175). History is thus understood by analogies rather than through specific realities, and categorisations like premodern or nonmodern implicitly equals the not yet modern (Mamdani 1996:9ff). Even further, modernisation is understood to be globally superseding tradition, and if the latter survives it is usually said to have turned into fundamentalism. Ahmed (1992) pinpoints the dilemma by asking why state formations like Ataturk’s Turkey most often are described as secular and therefore modern, while others, like Khomeini’s Iran or Gadaffi’s Libya are described as fundamentalistic rather than modern.

To avoid this static labelling, generalisations of cultural theory are better replaced with ethnographic particularities. As Comaroff and Comaroff put it:

[T]he radical opposition between prehistorical ‘tradition’ and capitalist ‘modernity’ survives in the discourses of our age, popular and professional alike. Indeed, in directing much of our attention to peoples on the other side of the great rift, do we not still foster a lurking primitivism? And, with it, all the myths of our own disenchantment? (Comaroff and Comaroff 1992:44)

Important to add, however, what happens globally is not a decomposition of tradition and global variation under the powerful light of Western enlightenment. On the contrary, what we often define as institutions of modern society, have actually been moulded through a web of traditionally and locally reasonable agencies of social identity and social action (Kaviraj 1994:178; Smart 1993:150ff). Thus cultural authenticity is manifested in the indigenisation of modernity (Sahlins 1994). Accordingly, neither global processes nor modernisation are expressions of a teleological evolution or westernisation that removes cultural differences (Comaroff 1995:245). Or, as Abu-Lughod (1991:150) writes: "the effects of extralocal and long-term processes are only manifested locally and specifically, produced in the actions of individuals living their particular lives, inscribed in their bodies and their words." Thus localisation is an essential feature of global processes and modernisation (De Boeck 1996; Robertson 1990). And accordingly: global processes, modernisation and even conversion can only be understood specifically, in terms of the premises of already existing cosmologies, therefore bounded in time and space (Horton 1975:229f; Schreuder and Oddie 1989). To highlight this is a central task of anthropology. But anthropologists should not only be occupied with the study of cultural and social variation. Just as important is to observe that humans, anthropologists as well as informants, are coeval, "living in the same era, subject to the same historical forces, struggling with the same issues" (Feierman 1990:38).

The efforts of dialogue and Buberian intersubjectivity is therefore essential when doing anthropological research. However, this must not result in the idealistic ignoring of the ubiquitousness of power relations; for example between the scholar writing the account and the subjects presented in this account. With this in mind, Geertz (1994) argues that the anthropological discipline needs a certain degree of readjustment: in their accounts anthropologists ought to emphasise that researcher and informants are sharing the same world but not necessarily opinions, sentiments, or commitments. Thus Geertz hopes to avoid the rather conventional way of presenting ethnography, that of framing essentially alien turns of minds in complete alien worlds. To summarise, the global reality is the same, both for researchers and informants, but the positions of power and locality differ.

When applying this perspective it becomes apparent that the dichotomy of modern versus traditional societies is not only a simpli-fication, it leads to a gross misrepresentation. It is a misrepresentation in its tendencies of essentialism, implicitly or explicitly presenting Western societies as modern, and non-Western societies as traditional. In this misrepresentation non-Western societies are presented, implicitly or explicitly, as the anti-thesis of the West, or, as it has been described, as "a sort of primitive grace from which the modern world has fallen" (Robarchek 1989:32). The Romanticism of the nineteenth century is deeply embedded in Western scholarship.

To deconstruct this eurocentric heritage, it is important to observe that traditional aspects of social life coexist with modern aspects. This can be illustrated in the context of the well-studied phenomenon of African witchcraft. With material from central Malawi, Englund (1996) argues that witchcraft does not question the modern aspects of life as such. Rather than a dichotomy of the traditional and the modern, these two aspects of cultural and social life work as complements, since they most often do not exclude each other (cf. Comaroff 1987:306; Richards 1996:35). Instead of talking about witchcraft as a discourse about modernity—in other words, as a kind of protest against the intruding changes of Western modernisation—witchcraft works as one of many aspects of modernity. In this perspective the assumption of a single and hegemonic modernity of Western origin is substituted with the notion of a plurality of localised modernities, "multiple manifestations of global forces operating in local worlds" (Englund 1996:258). The aim is to avoid defining modernity by contrast to tradition. As I see it, this is an analytically important point to make. At the same time, however, it is just as important not to fall into "optimistic rhetoric," in only describing modernity and tradition as if in complete harmony (Kurkiala 1997:240).

The Nyole of eastern Uganda presents us with another example. As Whyte (1990) writes, in 1970 the Nyole, especially the younger people, referred to their cotton cash-cropping as a traditional way of subsistence. Cotton was thought of as an indigenous crop, part of the Nyole cultural system of agriculture, even though it was introduced by the British colonisers as late as at the time of World War I. Thus tradition is not primarily the things of long ago, or exclusively referring to the heritage of precolonial times. Rather, in the eyes of the younger Nyole, tradition refers to habitus, the things which are done (Whyte 1990:308). Thus, modernisation and the global marketing essentially mingles with tradition when it comes to processes of every-day life and identity formation. As I see it, the Nyole understanding of cotton production as a cultural system can be seen as an example of local modernisation as well as localised modernity.

Even though the Malawi and Nyole examples go in line with the main argument in Bayart’s (1993) book on African politics and colonial inheritance, he still makes a rather conventional division of the identification with tradition versus ethnic identity: "Far from the problematical intangibility of tradition, ethnic consciousness reveals social change, of which it is a matrix." (Bayart 1993:50). But if we not are to over-stress colonialism as the hegemonic fabricator of identity formation, the "intangibility of tradition" is best understood as a matrix of social power and social change just as ethnic consciousness is, since both ethnic identity and the expressions of tradition are lived through relations and exchanges. To stay alive traditions must change, and they constantly do (Ranger 1994). However, I do not think Bayart would disagree with this. Thus the standard dichotomies of modernity versus tradition, of centre versus periphery and of hegemony versus resistance are too stiff, since the dynamics of the locality are circumscribed to binary categories of Western thought and domination (Appadurai 1990; Mbembe 1992a; Robertson 1990).


3. Nubis are not to be wrongly equated with the Nubians of southern Egypt and northern Sudan. I therefore prefer to call them Nubis, not Nubians as some authors do. Hansen (1991:564), himself using the term Nubian, still argues that in the long run the term Nubi is the most preferable term to use.

4. See also, for example, Mamdani's (1996:111ff) discussion on the colonial idea of "native foreigners."

5. This idea of equating modernisation, globalisation, and westernisation, whatever the last two terms are supposed to imply, is perhaps more explicit in sociology than in anthropology, but is at the same time, as I see it, one of the most striking aspects of early postcolonial theorisation.

6. See, for example, Giddens (1990:100ff) schematic categorisation of the pre-modern versus the modern.

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