Anthropology Lecture Series: Lecture 6 | Exploring the Ethnographic Studies of World Society | Prof. Xu Wei

On December 12, 2019, the 6th session of IIAS Anthropology Lecture Series in Fall 2019 was held at the Conference Room 205 of the Central Main Building at Tsinghua University. Associate Professor Xu Wei from the Institute of African Studies of Zhejiang Normal University gave a lecture on “African Studies in Anthropology: History, Status Quo and Reflection”. Prof. Jing Jun from the Department of Sociology of Tsinghua University presided over this lecture.

First of all, Prof. Xu Wei reviewed the history of African anthropological research. The area studies of African anthropology began during the British and French colonial period, during which a large number of anthropologists went to Africa to conduct fundamental research and created plenty of ethnography focusing on marriage and family, kinship system and social structure. The British colonial policy of “indirect rule” in Africa provided anthropologists with a place to use their abilities. In contrary, France promoted “direct rule” in the West African colonies, exporting culture directly to the colonies. In this context, French anthropological research places more emphasis on interdisciplinarity and application. German African colonists came and went in a hurry, with few results, but its ethnological theories during the Nazi period provided a source of thought for the apartheid system in South Africa, and together with British anthropology became the two major traditions of South African anthropological research.

The study of African anthropology in the United States started late, but after the 1980s, African studies in US sprang up and became the mainstream of academic circles. In view of the dominance of other countries, before Africa’s independence, local elites actively studied anthropology and defended local culture. However, after independence, anthropological studies overemphasized the cultural differences between tribes and were regarded by African elites as a colonial threat, hindering the modernization of nation-states. After the 1970s, the status of anthropology has changed. Native African scholars have placed more emphasis on social issues, such as indigenous human rights movements, nation-state construction and natural resource utilization, and interdisciplinary cooperation, and regarded anthropology as a tool of theories and practices for development and application, without paying attention to the theoretical construction of anthropology.

After that, Prof. Xu comprehensively analyzed the current situation and challenges of African anthropology. A scholar from Moi University in Kenya said, “We are separated from European anthropology. We don’t write so-called ethnography. We seek to solve our own social problems.” However, most anthropology faculty in African universities obtain degrees from the West, and their research is based on local empirical materials and often becomes a footnote to Western theories. Therefore, for Chinese anthropologists engaged in African studies, how to create original academic ideas and field materials is one of the challenges facing African anthropological research.

By Gao Liangmin & Cheng Yao