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Shifts in Anthropological Thinking: Postcolonialism and Orientalism

Examining Edward Said’s Orientalism as a seminal text in postcolonial thought, this essay seeks to investigate the shift towards a more critical and reflexive anthropology brought about by decolonisation. While Said makes no explicit mention of anthropology, Orientalism can nonetheless be taken as a postcolonial critique of the discipline in response to the “crisis of representation”. The text poses questions central to the work of anthropology, forcing the discipline to reckon with its colonial roots. This essay therefore argues that Orientalism’s emphasis on power reflects a shift in anthropological thinking from a focus on culture, representing a turn away from Levi-Strauss’ structuralism insofar as it questions anthropology’s claim to be an ahistorical, objective and scientific endeavour.
Orientalism focuses on the structures of power underlying knowledge production, turning a critical gaze towards cultural representations. Said emphasises that we cannot ‘assume that the structure of Orientalism is nothing more than a structure of lies or myths which, were the truth about them to be told, would simply blow away’ (1978:14). That is, Orientalism is not simply an aesthetic fantasy based on epistemological assumptions, but a deliberate endeavour to maintain dominance and authority over the Orient that has enjoyed considerable durability and influence. Orientalist knowledge is therefore the result of a political and power-laden process of knowledge production. Said combines Foucault’s insights regarding the knowledge-power nexus with Gramsci’s notion of hegemony to suggest that Western dominance enabled the production of knowledge about other cultures that, in turn, became an instrument of continued Western domination (Kandiyoti 2002:281). Consequently, ‘that Orientalism makes sense at all depends more on the West than on the Orient’ (Said 1978:30) necessitating a historical anthropology that takes the cultural hegemony of the West as its object of inquiry (Kandiyoti 2002:284). Orientalism, taken as anthropological critique, thus encourages an anthropological analysis of Western thought and history since ‘its conceptual genealogy has profound implications for the ways in which non-Western traditions are now able to grow and change’ (Asad 1993:1 in Kandiyoti 2002:284). Where anthropology used to define itself unambiguously as the study of primitive societies, an acknowledgement of the power structures within which the discipline has taken shape has turned attention upon the West as an object of inquiry. Moreover, in debunking the assumptions that “true” knowledge is non-political (Said 1978:18), Said confronts the political circumstances, resulting from colonialism, informing anthropological knowledge and representation. The colonial power structure which made anthropological study possible had implications for the uses to which anthropological knowledge was put, and for the anthropologist’s claims to political neutrality (Asad 1973:91). This is significant since anthropology’s dependence on the continued economic and political support of the Western elites meant anthropological inquiry was oriented to their needs, being ‘objective (mystifying)’, ‘non-political (non-subversive)’, and ‘academic (elitist)’ (Gordon 1997:153 in Allen

Anthropological Analyses of Innovations in Biotechnologies

New biotechnologies, like IVF and stem cell research, are constantly changing the meaning of life and death, profound and dirty, what is natural and unnatural. IVF and other artificial reproductive technologies (ART) methods are used by people who previously were not able to procreate “naturally”. This has led to ethical debates where people are faced with dilemmas of abortion and makings of new legislation to regulate the use of biotechnologies (Bharadwaj, 2012). There are, in addition to ethical forums and legal legislative, other top-down and bottom-up approaches that govern which technologies suitable for use. For instance, in some Islamic communities social and religious “fatwas” are strongly influencing the use of different biotechnologies. (Inhorn, 2012a). In other religious communities, like Hinduism, it is believed to be a more symbiotic relationship between life and death, which makes stem cell research and other infertility treatments more popular (Bharadwaj