Colonialism and the Limits of the Human: The Failure of Fieldwork

in Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print December 2001 | ISBN: 9780226983417
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226983462 | DOI:
Colonialism and the Limits of the Human: The Failure of Fieldwork

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The first well-organized German anthropological field expedition, and one of the earliest such undertakings ever, was mounted in 1907–9 by the Royal Museum of Ethnology in cooperation with the German navy. Contrary to the armchair-to-field narratives ubiquitous in histories of anthropology, the development of fieldwork had little to do with a desire for the kind of empathetic participant observation associated with anthropology today. As long as anthropologists defined their discipline as an inductive and comparative science, they were not particularly interested in focused studies of individual societies, except insofar as they provided raw data. Whether they sought a “total impression” of “natural peoples” or reconstructed culture-historical interactions, anthropologists depended on the extensive collections of metropolitan museums. Their turn to the field was a response to their dissatisfaction with the objects brought together by amateurs in the colonies, which anthropologists often regarded as inauthentic commodities or poorly documented curiosities.

Keywords: field expedition; anthropological fieldwork; German anthropology; participant observation; natural peoples; museums

Chapter.  7556 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Anthropology

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