Mamdani the Anthropologist?

by Jun 30, 2009All Articles

posted by Louisa Lombard
In his post to open the debate on Mahmood Mamdani’s Saviors and Survivors, Alex de Waal mentioned the common theoretical threads that link Mamdani’s books. In addition to this neat theoretical project, a consistent methodological claim has marked Mamdani’s oeuvre.

In this contribution, I would like to consider Saviors and Survivors within the context of the Mamdani corpus on Africa. Alongside the Arendtian arguments he makes about Africa’s position within a global imperialist paradigm, Mamdani has consistently advocated a methodological shift away from area studies. For instance, whereas most scholars of “sub-Saharan Africa” omit South Africa as an exceptional case, Mamdani has repeatedly argued that it should be the paradigmatic one. He lays out the most explicit version of his area studies critique in When Victims Become Killers (2001), his book on how the Rwandan genocide became “thinkable”. He asserts that the predominant area studies approach to Africanist scholarship condemns the “‘expert’ ” to do no more than “cultivate his or her own ‘local’ patch”, with the effect that Africa, site of “new facts”, can never become the site for broader theories. I quote at length because his explanation speaks to many of the critiques offered thus far in this blog’s debate:

“…it is self-evident that the more you go beyond the local — without necessarily letting go of the local — the more you will need to appropriate secondary material. But this appropriation need not turn into a mindless reliance on others. To the extent you rely on others, better to stand on their shoulders than to lean against them, the more to see beyond the horizon where their sights came to rest. Thus my claim that the larger theoretical framework of this book… goes beyond a simple critique to a reinterpretation of, if you will, borrowed facts. This book is more than just an attempt to dig up new facts by expanding the scale of investigation; rather it is an attempt to rethink existing facts in light of rethought contexts thereby to illuminate old facts and core realities in a new light.” (p. xiii – xiv).

Cue the “area studies” scholars whose labors have produced the facts Mamdani appropriates to fuel his theories: the misinterpretations, the information ignored (and even, at times, the sloppiness)!(1) These corrections are important, given that the lessons people take from such discussions impact people’s lives. But they turn a microscope on Mamdani’s binoculars. As described in the excerpt above, Mamdani’s ambitious project is to locate the horizon above and beyond “the facts” of specific contexts. That is, his methodology entails a process of instrumentalization and interpretation of facts through which the details that do not fit the argument tend to fall away. Perhaps, like individual plants and trees, they are not visible on the horizon.

So how does Mamdani describe the horizon? He emphasizes the lasting impacts of colonialism, particularly in terms of how colonial administrators politicized ethnicity by establishing racial categories that demarcated the specific capacities and roles of “natives” and “settlers”. He considers colonialism an enduring dynamic of domination between the West and the rest (the “international community” is simply the “post-Cold War nom de guerre of the Western powers” (Saviors and Survivors, p. 12)). Thirdly, with the “war on terror” imperial projects have come to turn on a distinction between “good Muslims” (who espouse secular ideas and acquiesce to domination) and “bad Muslims” (who do not). Posts on this blog have pointed out that such a teleological approach to history ignores the messy, complicated, and mutually-dependent workings of relationships of governance (see especially Alex de Waal’s posting “Civilizing Projects, Tribal Administration, and the Color Khaki“; see also Jean-François Bayart’s work on “extraversion” for a critique of dependency theories(2)). Nevertheless, those of us who devote our time to more locally-organized, ethnographic research are often curious about the perspective of those like Mamdani who speak for the horizon.

In terms of disciplinary division of labor, anthropologists have tended to be the paradigmatic area studies adherents, and we chip away at the Grand Theories by arguing for the importance of particularized knowledge. “Yes, but…” say anthropologists in the stereotypical version of this dialogue, “Bongo Bongo doesn’t do it that way in the village.” Anthropologists have long since moved away from the model of studying and portraying “tribal peoples” as cut-off in space and time, but the methodological imperative to take seriously the lives and experiences of actual people in all their messy, particular fullness remains paramount. This has injected a certain melancholia; we would like to develop the grand theories that “travel” to explain the human condition, but we primarily attempt to interpret people, not texts, and that makes stylish synthesizing more difficult. (The low ranking assigned to cataloging the details of particular cases is a consideration that, admittedly, has occurred to me as I prepare to conduct dissertation research in a country few people have even heard of – the Central African Republic.) This dynamic perhaps helps explain why many Africanist anthropologists have found Mamdani’s work so theoretically useful, and why anthropology provides his departmental home at Columbia.

Yet, to what degree does the drive for theories beyond facts, for a sweeping horizon, come into tension with the urgency of the warning Mamdani sounds in Saviors and Survivors? The book, he explains, “is an argument against those who substitute moral certainty for knowledge” (p. 6). He intends this argument to speak to the Save Darfur activists who push for acting first, thinking later. And his book, ambitious in scope and reflective of wide reading, presents copious information to counter ignorance. But the neatness with which his analysis of Darfur ties together the threads of his corpus suggests a couple of possibilities, which need not be mutually exclusive: either it proves the perceptiveness of Mamdani’s paradigm, or that his preconceptions guided his quest for knowledge of the situation. To a degree, of course, preconceptions always shape research, and this has both productive and limiting effects.(3)

In an early publication on Darfur,(4) Mamdani appears more hopeful about the ICC and mainly concerned with broadening the ways the conflict was being represented in Western, and particularly American, accounts. For some readers, learning that the largest Darfur protests were smaller than the largest anti-Iraq war protests (see Kevin Funk’s contribution to this blog) will prove Mamdani a polemicist; for others, such details may seem less important than his illumination of the unequal dynamic of America’s, and Africa’s, positions in the world. As evidenced by the traffic on this blog, Saviors and Survivors has certainly initiated fruitful debate. But it would be unfortunate if the moral certainty with which Mamdani concludes his book were itself taken as the end of the search for knowledge.(5) There are always both “new facts” and new theories to be debated.


(1) In his critique of area studies, Mamdani laments the silliness that a scholar of Uganda should feel unable to discuss Rwanda; interesting, then, that some reviews of his Rwanda book emphasized both the strength of his analysis of Uganda and the weakness of his efforts to describe the DRC – for a thoughtful critique of When Victims Become Killers, see Mauro De Lorenzo and Jude Murison’s review in the January 2002 issue of African Affairs.
(2) Bayart, Jean-François. 2000. “Africa in the World: A History of Extraversion.” African Affairs. 99: 217-267.
(3) Other methodologies suggested on this blog, such as those of ethnography, (see Rebecca Hamilton’s posting critiquing Mamdani’s lack of interviews) have a greater tendency to up-end a researcher’s preconceptions – people tend to be more reflective and aware of contradictions in person than the press releases they issue would suggest.
(4) Mamdani, Mahmood. 2004. “Preliminary Thoughts on Darfur.” CODESRIA Bulletin. 3-4: 37-40.
(5) At least from the perspective of someone such as myself who has recently completed preliminary exams on the topic, Saviors and Survivors’ concluding chapter bears a surprising lack of references to the burgeoning critical literature on international law and humanitarianism. Those interested in more detailed treatments of the topic might consider the work of scholars such as Antony Anghie, Mark Duffield, David Kennedy, and Balakrishnan Rajagopal. And, for a particularly lyrical and precocious account, Amitav Ghosh’s 1994 article “The Global Reservation: Preliminary Notes Toward an Ethnography of International Peacekeeping,” in Cultural Anthropology 9(3): 412-422.

Louisa Lombard is a PhD candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. She is researching a project provisionally titled “Raiding Sovereignty in Central African Borderlands.”

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