ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


Postcolonial perspectives on the Enlightenment and ethics (World Council of Anthropological Associations Ethics Taskforce)

Location Chrystal Macmillan Building, Seminar Room 4
Date and Start Time 20 June, 2014 at 11:00


Raminder Kaur (University of Sussex) email
Soumendra Patnaik (University of Delhi) email
Mail All Convenors


The panel considers the contradictory tensions, effects and/or resolutions of the 'light 'and 'dark' strands of 'Enlightenment missions'. We ask how ethical discourses manifest themselves in articulation with specific cultures, politics and intellectual traditions.

Long Abstract

Much has been written about the spread of Enlightenment ideas across the world. This panel considers the legacies of Enlightenment ideas, or what Arjun Appadurai has described as 'ideoscapes', around the notion of ethics from the perspective of its former colonies. Whilst colonialism spread with a quest for 'civilising the native' in tandem with ideals of justice, equality, human rights and democracy, indigenous views were either derided or discouraged. We ask panellists to consider the contradictory tensions, effects and/or resolutions of the 'light 'and 'dark' strands of 'Enlightenment missions' from historical perspectives and/or with reference to contemporary case studies as they arise with reference to ethnographic praxis, development politics, international aid and/or transnational governance. We ask how do ethical discourses manifest themselves in articulation with specific cultures, politics and intellectual traditions.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Ethical debate in development discourse in guidelines India: the impossibilities and possibilities of universal ethics

Author: Soumendra Patnaik (University of Delhi)  email


The paper seeks to explore the contradictory tensions emerging out of the search for universal ethics by development practitioners and the denial of it by academic professionals.

Long Abstract

Although in the formative years of anthropology, some practitioners had envisioned its goal as the discovery of universal principles that could explain human behaviour through comparisons across the globe, such exercises were rarely undertaken after 1950s. With the rise of post-modernism and cultural deconstructionism, the search for 'general' or 'universal' has become a difficult proposition.

Immanuel Kant's idea of an interiorised universal altruistic ethic (1964; originally 1785) highlights the moral imperative of freely choosing what is right solely because it is right. The act would not remain truly moral if it is extrinsically motivated and not intrinsically free. This remains a formalistic ethic and for many anthropologists and social scientists its content remains problematic in the absence of a specific cultural context in which human interaction takes place.

In this paper, I propose to deal with this issue in three sections. Firstly, I situate ethical discourses within the discipline of anthropology in general before moving to examine central issues of the ethical debate in India. Secondly, I examine the nature of development discourse in India as reflected in its constitutional provisions, legislative measures and civil society voices to make ethical concerns in India more meaningful. Finally, I attempt to elucidate what insight the Indian subcontinent has to offer in developing a universal ethical guideline(or denying it) for the stakeholders in the field of development cooperation.The paper seeks to examine the dialectics of values between local and universal which articulate with development concerns that are truly humanistic.

Enlightenment, imperialism and the 'exotic' other: ideological domination and cultural agency in colonial Calcutta

Author: Urmi Bhattacharyya (Jawaharlal Nehru University)  email


This paper critically engages with the notion of the imagined 'exoticized' Orient, and its projection as the powerless, less-civilized Other, to bring to light its contradictory relation to the idea of ethical benevolence and reason in the Enlightenment era.

Long Abstract

The age of Enlightenment, indicated by the growth of reason, objectivity, and social ethics, was also followed by the Western empire's growing conquests, travels, and the creation of an imagined category of the Orient. This reductive concept encapsulated the entire trajectories of diverse civilizations and multiple cultural traditions of the non-West, rendering the Other as relatively powerless, inferior, and requiring command and reconstruction. With reference to the idea of Enlightenment, this paper then considers the ideas of philosopher David Hume, with relation to his emphasis on inquiry being based on observation and experience, and his notion of ethics and morality being formed through the existence of feelings and actions of benevolence.

This being the referential backdrop, the paper thus explores the process of 'exoticization' of the Orient in the context of colonial India, to highlight the contradictory development of ethics and social inquiry under colonialism. By rendering the 'Oriental Other' as 'exotic', crude, and powerless, the imperialist tendencies then challenged the very elements of Enlightenment such as liberty, human progress through experience, reason, and the significance of social benevolence. By illustrating instances of the popularity and re-invention of religious festivals like the Durga Puja in the colonial city of Calcutta, the paper also attempts to reconnoiter the situation of the Other in the colonies, their ideological domination by the colonizer, and their role in the transformation of the ideological landscape of the colonial subject through 'invented traditions' focusing on indigenous modes of expressing social collectivity.

Adoption and enlightenment

Author: Nayanika Mookherjee (Durham University)  email


The paper seeks to explore the relationship between adoption and principles of enlightenment in order to address its humanitarian foundation.

Long Abstract

Increasingly adoption and more so transnational adoption is deemed to be an important ethical practice. This paper seeks to unravel the relationship between adoption and various principles of enlightenment. Posited between the viewpoints of adoptee network groups and the global focus on adoption, the paper seeks to critically address the humanitarian foundation that seems to underpin the global availability of children and their displacement.

Sami culture and laws in the light of Scandinavian Enlightenment in Lapland

Author: Dawid Bunikowski (University of the Arctic)  email


The paper focuses on how Sami people as indigenous people have been depreciated by Scandinavian states that brought with it Enlightenment ideas to do with the nation state, progress, and Protestantism, and destroyed the traditional way of life of so-called "dark", "dirty" people.

Long Abstract

Sami customary laws have not been recognized since the end of the 18th century. Sami culture was depreciated and destroyed in Scandinavia in the 19th and 20th centuries. Even now in Finland, the land rights of Sami people remain unresolved human rights problem, an issue that was highlighted by the UN Human Rights Committee. Although last decade the Constitutional Committee in the Finnish Parliament asserted that the right of the state to the Sami people's land (Lapland) is doubtful, yet the recognition of the Sami people to administer hunting grounds and fishing waters remains unclear. The Sami are not lords in their own country. About half of the Sami population in Finland have been forced to move outside Lapland due to unemployment and the lack of opportunities.

"I felt that I was being treated as dirt", says a Sami leader from Norway. The words "The Lapp people are childlike people (…)it is the goal of Norwegianization that they are brought to the maturity of man…"(Rector Gjølme, 1886) were applied to the whole society. Missions, religious, educational programme etc. to these ends, were deemed "ethical" from this point of view, and morally justified.

The closing of borders from the 19th century, the modern education system, language policies, revived Lutheran ethics, and property law regimes from the 19th and the 20th centuries destroyed a large part of traditional Sami ways of life, knowledge, property rules, reindeer husbandry, and indigenous languages. Nowadays the feeling of injustice is strong among Sami.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.