Academic knowledges are organized around the idea of disciplines and fields of knowledge. These are deeply implicated in each other and share genealogical foundations in various classical and Enlightenment philosophies. Most of the ‘traditional’ disciplines are grounded in cultural world views which are either antagonistic to other belief systems or have no methodology for dealing with other knowledge systems.
Underpinning all of what is taught at universities is the belief in the concept of science as the all-embracing method for gaining an understanding of the world. Some disciplines, however, are more directly implicated in colonialism in that either they have derived their methods and understandings from the colonized world, or they have tested their ideas in the colonies. How the colonized were governed, for example, was determined by previous experiences in other colonies and by the prevailing theories about race, gender, climate and other factors generated by ‘scientific’ methods. Classification systems were developed specifically to cope with the mass of new knowledge generated by the discoveries of the ‘new world’. New colonies were the laboratories of Western science. Theories generated from the exploration and exploitation of colonies, and of the people who had prior ownership of these lands, formed the totalizing appropriation of the Other.
Robert Young argues that Hegel articulates a philosophical structure of the appropriation of the other as a form of knowledge which uncannily simulates the project of nineteenth-century imperialism; the construction of knowledges which all operate through forms of expropriation and incorporation of the other mimics at a conceptual level the geographical and economic absorption of the non-European world by the West.
David Goldberg claims that notions of the Other are more deeply embedded in classical philosophy but became racialized within the framework of liberalism and the ideas about people and society which developed as disciplines through liberalism. In an interesting discussion on the discourses which employ the word ‘civilization’, John Laffey suggests that the word ‘civilization’ entered Anglo-French usage in the second part of the eighteenth century, enabling the distinction to be drawn between those who saw themselves as civilized and those whom they then regarded as the ‘savages’ abroad and at home. As a standard of judgement, according to Laffey, the word ‘civilized’ became more defined with the help of Freud and more specialized in the way different disciplines employed the concept. One such use was comparative and allowed for comparisons between children and savages or children and women, for example. This way of thinking was elaborated further into psychological justifications for the distinctions between the civilized and the uncivilized. Freud’s influence on the way disciplines developed in relation to colonialism is further explored by Marianna Torgovnick, who examines the links between Freud and anthropology in her analysis of Malinowski’s book The Sexual Life of Savages. According to Turgovnick,
Freud’s explanation of the human psyche in terms of sexuality under-girded their endeavors and influenced the structure of many ethnographic enquiries at this stage of the discipline’s development even when those enquiries suggested (as they often did) modifications of Freudian paradigms, such as the Oedipus complex.
Henry Louis Gates Jr names Kant, Bacon, Hume, Jefferson and Hegel as ‘great intellectual racialists’ who have been influential in defining the role of literature and its relationship to humanity, ‘The salient sign of the black person’s humanity … would be the mastering of the very essence of Western civilization, the very foundation of the complex fiction upon which white Western culture has been constructed….’
Of all the disciplines, anthropology is the one most closely associated with the study of the Other and with the defining of primitivism. As Adam Kuper argued, ‘The anthropologists took this primitive society as their special subject, but in practice primitive society proved to be their own society (as they understood it) seen in a distorting mirror. The ethnographic ‘gaze’ of anthropology has collected, classified and represented other cultures to the extent that anthropologists are often the academics popularly perceived by the indigenous world as the epitome of all that it is bad with academics. Haunani Kay Trask accuses anthropologists of being ‘takers and users’ who ‘exploit the hospitality and generosity of native people’. Trinh T. Minh-ha makes similar references to anthropology and anthropologists, including those whose intent now is to train Third World anthropologists. ‘Gone out of date,’ she says, ‘then revitalised, the mission of civilizing savages mutates into the imperative of “making equal”.’ In writing a history of geography, Livingstone refers to this discipline as the ‘science of imperialism par excellence’. His comment relates to geographical studies into such things as the mapping of racial difference, the links which were drawn between climate and mental abilities, the use of map makers in French colonies for military intelligence and the development of acclimatization societies. As suggested above in the Introduction, history is also implicated in the construction of totalizing master discourses which control the Other. The history of the colonies, from the perspective of the colonizers, has effectively denied other views of what happened and what the significance of historical ‘facts’ may be to the colonized. ‘If history is written by the victor,’ argues Janet Abu-Lughod, ‘then it must, almost by definition, “deform” the history of the others.’ Donna Awatere claims that, ‘The process of recording what happened automatically favours the white occupiers because they won. In such a way a whole past is “created” and then given the authority of truth.’ These comments have been echoed wherever indigenous peoples have had the opportunity to ‘talk back’ to the academic world.
While disciplines are implicated in each other, particularly in their shared philosophical foundations, they are also insulated from each other through the maintenance of what are known as disciplinary boundaries. Basil Bernstein has shown how this works in his paper on the ‘classification and framing of knowledge’. Insulation enables disciplines to develop independently. Their histories are kept separate and ‘pure’. Concepts of ‘academic freedom’, the ‘search for truth’ and ‘democracy’ underpin the notion of independence and are vigorously defended by intellectuals. Insularity protects a discipline from the ‘outside’, enabling communities of scholars to distance themselves from others and, in the more extreme forms, to absolve themselves of responsibility for what occurs in other branches of their discipline, in the academy and in the world.
In the context of research and at a very pragmatic level researchers from different projects and different research teams can be in and out of the same community (much in the way many government social services are in and out of family homes), showing ‘as a collective’ little responsibility for the overall impact of their activities. At other levels criticism of individual researchers and their projects is deflected by the argument that those researchers are different in some really significant ‘scientific’ way from others. How indigenous communities are supposed to work this out is a mystery. There are formal organizations of disciplines, researchers and communities of scholars, many of which have ethical guidelines. These organizations are based on the idea that scholars consent to participate within them as scholars, as professionals, or as ethical human beings. Not all who carry out research in indigenous communities belong to, or are bound by, such collegial self-discipline.