Prof. Anand Singh
Anthropology, School of Social Sciences University of KwaZulu-Natal, Howard College Campus
[email protected]

As we approach the date set for the IUAES 2023 Congress, questions continue to abound about where it is to be convened and who are the rightful conveners for this once-in-five-years mega event.  The questions are not inappropriate since they are centred upon the juxtapositions of two issues that have been focal to anthropological research viz. truth and deception.  Both of these issues are indeed core to the very nature of human relations, predating the advent of the institutionalization of intellectual thought and the career-building that emerges out of it.  Numerous publications exist among anthropologists who have tried to deal with truth and deception in various ways (see for instance Susan D Blum: 2005, 2007; Peter Metcalf: 2002; Carole McGranahan: 2017).  Susan Blum (2007) in her book Lies that Bind: Chinese Truth, Other Truths,  portrays in a convincing way the inter-relationship between truth and language, and feels that it is, therefore, best left unaltered:

Blum considers the longstanding values that led to this style of interaction, as well as more recent factors, such as the government’s control overexpression. But Chinese society is not alone in the practice of such customs. The author observes that many Americans also excel in the manipulation of language, yet find simultaneous moral absolutism opposed to lying in any form. She also considers other traditions, including Japanese and Jewish, that struggle to control the boundaries of lying, balancing human needs with moral values in contrasting ways. Deception and lying, the book concludes, are distinctively cultural yet universal—inseparable from what it is to be a human being equipped with language in all its subtlety.

Against the background of the current turmoil in Anthropology’s international leadership, this blog tries to address questions around what humankind has faced over the last several millennia.  Crucial to this exercise is the fundamental issue about whether we are moving positively forward since the introduction of participant observation as a tool of verifying actualities on the ground about people and institutions, or are we moving forward without being cognoscente of our past?  While Blum’s position on the Chinese, visa vis the rest of the world, echoes the truism that I posit here, an interesting and challenging history brings contemporary practices in Anthropology and its cognate social science counterparts to the point of confrontation against the deceptions of the enlightenment period that began in the 16th century.  Several radically political altering phenomena occurred during this period.  It was witness to the rapid decline in the influences of the Roman Catholic Church through the concomitant challenges in the rise of Protestantism.  Islam’s grip over one of the most advanced civilizations of the world that is India was rapidly deteriorating.  By the time the Portuguese entered Goa, India, their fight was more against the Hindus than against Islamic invaders.  However, to Anthropologists, it was the rise in the intercontinental exploratory trips from western European countries that mattered.  They set the scene for what constitutes Anthropology and the broader fraternity of the Social Sciences and Humanities.  Key among these countries were Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Netherlands and Portugal.  All of these countries were outward-looking, battle-ready and determined to expand their influence through their royal allegiances, technologies and Christianity.

In the rise of 16th-century West European industrialization, there was a realism that sowed the seeds of connivance, coercion and capture of foreign territories, their resources and their people.  There was a realization that their spirit of adventurism, technologies that produced swifter outcomes in production, and organisational capacities, would outdo the lesser advanced populations in other parts of the world.  In India, and most other places of the world, while trade relations prevailed with neighbouring territories, accessible by land, rivers or the oceans, trade relations were either to cement cultural ties or engage in pragmatic exchange relations.  Maharajahs and their kingdoms in India operated as if they were self-contained independent units. They were devoid of any intentions to galvanize and to unite as a country.  At the time of India’s independence from Britain, there were as many as 565 “independent” kingdoms, almost oblivious to the impact that external intrusions into their territories had on their sovereignty.

Preceding the rise of Calvinist ideology within the wider context of the rise of Protestant thinking in the 16th century, was the Catholic Church.  Its takeover of political administration since the dismantling of the western side of the Roman Empire in 395 CE, and the much later demise of its eastern counterpart in 1453, created a space for the onset of Protestant forces.  The supremacy of the Church in the daily affairs of the people became the basis for oppositional politics against Papal control.  Charges against the Vatican were ironical, about excesses and over the indulgences in the clergy’s pursuits for materialistic niceties.  They went against the vows of Catholic rules of celibacy and simple lifestyles that ought to be dedicated to the Holy Spirit as well as to serve as role models to their followings. Protestant opposition set out to change this by advocating a return to the word of Christ from the very beginning of his time.  But it was also to change the system of allegiances in political and economic matters of the masses.

In Europe, bringing down the role of the Papal Administrations worked.  However, in the lands that were gradually conquered and among its people who were subjugated as economic slaves, religion once again reared its ugly head as a justification for their exploitative control.  In South Africa for instance White supremacy was justified through the widely held notion and the civilizational attribution that “the Blacks are the tillers of the soil, drawers of water and hewers of wood”.  The inscription intertwined with the Biblical notion of gentiles or outcastes who were to be brought in under the kingdom of heaven and the idea that people of European origin had a God-given right to rule over the less powerful natives of lands far away from the continent of Europe.

European presence was popularized as a civilizational responsibility that had to bring forth the “tribal savage” in at least two ways.  First, it had to upgrade its economic performance and productivity by introducing them to western technology.  This produced quicker results and was more efficient.  No thought, however, was given to the sustainability of natural resources through outcomes such as dustbowls in agricultural areas or depletion of protein sources that are land and ocean-based.  Second, they bound the captured populations into a web of exploitative economic relationships that were not only class-based but which, over time, rendered them incompetent and marginal to their own indigenous knowledge systems.  In the process, over the last three hundred years and a bit, at least 545 indigenous languages have disappeared and been replaced by the languages of the colonizers.  Invaluable losses have been incurred in the disappearances of indigenous knowledge systems as well.  Ironically, it is this very factor that western development policy advisors are today placing at the centre of their economic revival plans to resuscitate productivity and make people less dependent on exogenous criteria for their upliftment.

First among the Europeans to make contact with indigenous communities were explorers, missionaries and colonists.  Members from each category noted down their observations about phenotypical features of the people they met, their customs and rituals, food habits, economic relations and political structures.  In retrospect, and sadly so, our beloved career that is anthropology, served as one of the handmaidens of colonial rule, wittingly or unwittingly.  Anthropologists were well-trained observers in social arenas and in understanding the political structures of indigenous leadership.  They understood their uses and value to the colonisers, creating careers out of their acquired knowledge about the locals. Initial uses of the material that was gathered by the explorers, missionaries and colonists sought to establish the alleged superiority of the Europeans over everyone else in the world.  The theory of social evolution and the notion of the survival of the fittest allowed Europeans to bask in the make-belief glory of being among the most advanced in the world.  Their literacy, industrialization and oceanographic adventurism boosted their confidence in how much they could achieve through the capturing of foreign territories.  Industrialisation in Europe was viewed as the only place in the world where such heightened levels of innovation, creativity and productivity occurred.

That the two most populous nations in the world, China and India, were already engaging in knowledge transfers in scholarly exchanges through institutions such as the University in Nalanda, Bihar, India, or through trade relations, hardly counted in self-praises of themselves.  Established trade routes within India had long prevailed since the Mohenjodaro and Harrapa civilizations several thousand years prior to the establishment of the Roman Empire.  Later trade with Middle Eastern and African countries began to flourish through the use of ships that were substantially larger than what Europeans were using (Shashi Tharoor 2018).  Upon growing contact with India, the English abandoned their own shipyards in favour of Indian craftsmanship.  None of this, however, counted in the European lexicon of what constituted “industrialization” prior to the rise of Protestantism.  Max Weber’s thesis, for instance, on the theory of rationality, ascribed frugality and the power to reason in order to profit and accumulate capital as an exclusive European ability.  Little reference, if any at all, was ever paid to the entrepreneurial abilities of the peoples of the Near, Middle and far East.

Since the eighteenth century, newer forms of thoughts emerged in Western Europe, as missionaries, colonial agents, travellers and discoverers of populations in other continents began open debates about evolutionary perspectives of humankind.  West Europeans had gathered by then that their technology, intellectual pursuits and spirit of adventurism had set them apart from other communities of the world.  It fostered discussions and debates about where and in what, their advantages lied, and how they could use them to advance their burgeoning interests in their rapid pace of industrialization.  Their want for control over land and natural resources also led to the realization that indigenous minds and discourses about “the other” also needed to be under European control.  Debates about the social evolution of communities all over the world abounded throughout Western Europe, placing Europeans ahead of everyone else (John Beattie 1966).  While these early debates were entrenched in ethnocentric discourses, they somewhat unintentionally sought to raise the human ability to reason above blind faith in religion.  Their continued interactions through writings and new theories about social development began to separate the church from the state.

However, their intense and passionate debates and discussions stemmed more from conjecturing than from personal contact with “the other”[i].  Contact by anthropologists with communities outside Europe occurred towards the end of the 19th century.  Cambridge University academic, AC Haddon made his maiden trip in 1898 with his students to the Torres Strait Islands, and German physicist turned anthropologist, Franz Boas (1928), after settling in the United States, made his first trip to the Inuit Eskimos in 1883.  He lived with them in Baffin Island, situated in the Arctic corridor of Canada.  Boas lived among the Inuit as they did, learnt their language and their cosmology.  Both Haddon and Boas insisted upon the need to make contact and live with the people about whom they wished to write.  This spirit of learning at a personal level within the target group constituted some of the early steps towards the anthropological practice of ethnographic research and participant observation.  Together, efforts of both anthropologists and their students in the Torres Straits Islands and Baffin Island constituted significant efforts to divert from the ethnocentric styles of conjecturing and judgmental writings by the predecessor explorers, missionaries and travellers since the 16th century.  Their approach to research and their creation of new theories was also a stand against the racist practices of the late 19th to early 20th centuries (See Beattie 1966).  Their work was a radical shift away from the erstwhile writer and armchair theorist, Sir James Frazer, who when asked if he ever visited any of the communities he so eloquently wrote about, he replied: “God Forbid”.

Over the last three centuries’ religiously-motivated invasions and secular ideologies began setting the scene for wider application of their ideologies.  Initial religious invasions, especially Christianity and Islam, focused mainly on the conquered populations and their territories.  Secular ideologies, however, were exported through persuasive alliances by the more technologically and militarily powerful countries such as the United States of America (USA) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to less developing countries.  While Christianity and Islam sought to replace local religious beliefs and practices, socialism and capitalism sought to replace local models of economic activities and political structures.  Socialism (Karl Marx 1867) discouraged religion, but capitalism complimented the spread of Christianity (Nosipho Majeke 1952).

Throughout the medieval and modern ages, attitudes of undermining and patronizing people outside of the West European zone of influence continued to be undermined.  No better illustration of this hovers over our heads than the forthcoming World Anthropology Congress (WAC 2023), scheduled to be held in January 2023 at the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences (KISS), Bhubaneshwar, India.  Eagerness and enthusiasm were demonstrated in 2010 when they placed an offer to host an Inter-Congress.  It was accepted and delegates from numerous countries were present to witness the work of the KISS administration and their staff in their endeavours to serve the most marginalized of the state of Orissa’s population from their tribal populations.  There was no objection when KISS representatives made a second bid in 2013 at the Manchester Congress, to host the next Congress in 2018. Unfortunately, there were two contenders from India, and they lost to Brazil in the democratically based selection process.  KISS’s ever-enthusiastic management and its disciplinary interest, on account of its commitment to the cause of the indigenous children that it serves, to be a part of Anthropology’s international events, made another impressively prepared bid to host the 2023 Congress.  This time, against Croatia, they won impressively.  In 2020, nearly two years after it’s winning the bid, however, a bombshell was dropped on KISS by the IUAES Executive – that it could not host the Congress because of opposition to it as a “Factory School” that was trying to “Hinduise” the Orissa’s tribal populations. It came as a bolt from the blue not only to KISS but also to its other Anthropological partners, the collaborators of the Congress as well as to the majority of the Indian Anthropological fraternity, the direct stakeholders of the event who were looking forward to the organization of the Congress that comes to India, after nearly 45 years.

In our search to abide by the “truth” and keep away from “deception”, I have to put my anthropological skills of observation and my role as a participant-observer to test.  Between 2010 and 2020, the IUAES Executive did not have any objection to KISS as a host. All they did was to act in a singular letter and through a singular phone call to convey their message that KISS will no longer act as a host because of allegations against it.  I say “allegation” because it is not evidence-based, and any accusation remains false until it is proved with evidence. Unfortunately, however, there was no attempt on the part of IUAES to engage in the anthropological spirit of an on-site (re-)inspection, nay, participant observation, to verify accusations made against KISS. Neither was there any attempt to pay heed to the internationally published and evidence-based anthropology papers by American Fullbright scholar Prof Christine Finnan which provides a picture totally different from the allegations made by KISS’s self-styled accusers.  Nor even was there any sort of attempt, on the part of IUAES, either to seek for the opinion of the accused or to give any credence to the hundreds of letters communicated to IUAES in deference to its unfortunate decision. The ten years that preceded, the IUAES failed to be cognoscente of the allegations against their democratically chosen host for WAC 2023.  In an age, when the free flow of information is so empowering, we would have to ask the IUAES Exec whether their failure, over the period of a decade, to ask the relevant questions about this so-called “Factory School”, renders them incompetent to occupy positions of leadership in international Anthropology? Is the IUAES Executive not being deceptive about the Truth when they fail to acknowledge the fact that: In the process of becoming an integral part of India, the tribal populations of Orissa too are bound to absorb certain social, linguistic and religious practices, including certain elements of Hinduism, from the mainstream society, as in the process of acculturation, even while they are given their own space to maintain their own identity, in the true spirit of the anthropological approach of integration, which is also the declared policy of the Union Government?  It is much more so with the minority groups of South America, adopting either the Spanish or the Portuguese languages and Roman Catholic practices as well, due to the hegemonic power of the invading forces there.  We also witness how people of South Asian and Far-Eastern origin had changed their accents and adopted lifestyles, languages, accents and cuisine habits of their host countries, such as USA and UK, when they integrate into their mainstream economies.

Cold-shouldering and making an emphatic declaration of withdrawal of the rights from KISS and its three partners namely, the Universities of Sambalpur, Utkal and Delhi, is akin to engaging in a judgmental call that is as baseless as the Evolution theorists of the 19thcentury.  Only here a major difference has presented itself through the authentic work of a renowned Fullbright Scholarship visitor with bonafide credentials.  Christine Finnan is an anthropologist who through the use of participant observation denounced the idea that KISS is a clone of the Factory school akin to those operated by the Catholic Church in the USA, Canada and Poland.  Like the missionaries, explorers and colonists of yore, the IUAES Exec has sought to rely upon conjecturing and hearsay from questionable sources without following the precepts of methodologies so intrinsic to anthropological research.  They are sadly retrogressively “moving forward to the past”.

WAC 2023 is a test on the organizational capacity of Indian academics to host an international event as big as any other major event with thousands from all over the world.  Opposition to it is another such attempt to frustrate its citizens and partners to the state in hosting such a major event, as the country has been striving to undo the colonial excesses of the centuries-old Mughal and the subsequent European regimes, and move forward in its continuous efforts of national reconstruction and of bringing about sustainable development and livelihood to all its people including the subaltern and the indigenous communities.  It is heartening to note that KISS, through its exemplary initiatives in the interest of the indigenous communities, has been rendering a yeomen service to these outlying communities, and thereby engaging its bit in the process of nation-building. KISS should therefore never bow down to such reckless and insensitive manipulation of a people who are ever too willing to invite, cooperate with and accommodate outsiders for humanity’s sake.


[i]“The other” or “othering” arose out of critiques by social scientists who are keen to expose the conservatism that prevailed in historical writings about communities that are not European. See for instance: Sharpe, Jenny, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. “A Conversation with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Politics and the Imagination.” Signs 28, no. 2 (2003): 609-24. Accessed August 9, 2021. doi:10.1086/342588.