The Strange Public Afterlife of Anthropological Theory

Didier Fassin, in an important recent intervention, directed our attention to the “public afterlife of ethnography.” We as anthropologists do not and cannot expect to control how anthropological theory and concepts are used.

A recent debate in my native Norway reminded me of the strange public afterlife of anthropological theory. This was the perennial debate over demographics in a Norway in which far-right ideas and sentiments—like in many other European countries—have over the past decade become increasingly mainstream and now also increasingly appear in academic and scholarly garb. A Norwegian political scientist affiliated with the Nobel Peace Institute in Oslo in Norway as a Director of Research recently dissented from a high-profile, government-commissioned report on immigration, integration and the welfare state in Norway of which he was a member. He warned that the report failed to take into account how “ethnic Norwegians” would in the near and foreseeable future find themselves in “a minority” in “their own country” if immigration were not more strictly controlled and regulated by the government. “Over the centuries,” he intoned, “this nation has developed a culture which is as distinct as other nation’s cultures, a culture which in no meaningful way can be summarized by reference to universal values.” He also warned that high and permanent immigration would present “an acute challenge to Norwegian culture.” “The task of the nation-state is to bring forward a specific culture, the national culture,” he continued. Never mind that both the Norwegian Constitution and the 1999 Human Rights Act make the centrality of international human rights legislation to Norwegian laws and legal practice perfectly clear. And never mind that Norway already has some of the most restrictive asylum practices in current Europe, and that the number of asylum applicants in Norway is down to a trickle due to these policies, at a time with the highest global refugee and displacement numbers since World War II.    

This is the intellectual face of far-right exclusionary nationalism in what Pankaj Mishra correctly diagnoses as an ‘age of anger’ for which the pivotal issue relating to national belonging still remains the ethnos and not the demos. It is hardly a co-incidence then that the political scientist in question has a record of recommending French racist and far-right literature which isn’t particularly “noble”—which Trump’s chief of staff Steve Bannon also per chance likesand that he has a personal blog replete with images from the Crusades.   

Reactions to the statement hinged on two ways of interpreting this statement: the term ‘ethnic Norwegians’ either indexed white skin color or an idea of a shared culture. If it referred to skin color, it would become another attempt to resuscitate long discredited racial theories, which our anthropological ancestors Franz Boas, Melville Herskovits, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Gene Weltfish and Ashley Montagu did so much to debunk. It would also be de facto racist. If he meant shared culture, the statement simply would not make any sense.  While Norwegian national imaginaries still retain the mythos of the Norwegian nation as essentially homogeneous— one accentuated by the contemporary far-right in Norway and elsewhere in the name of an exclusionary nationalism—but the presence of recent immigrants and also minorities such as the indigenous Saami, Jews, Catholics, and Roma makes this claim nonsensical.  Its appeal exhibits the exclusionary racialization of Norwegian national imaginaries, to which Marianne Gullestad directs critical attention in one of her last monographs.  

 At work here, in the minds of this political scientist and his fellow travelers, is what Arjun Appadurai diagnosed as a crucial feature of the troubled present in which we find ourselves – namely the ‘fear of small numbers.’  The current ‘fear of small numbers’ seems to apply to particular minorities, and those particular minorities in the European case these days more often than not turn out to be Muslims. Invoking simple arithmetic will of course do nothing to dissuade those who find themselves deeply immersed in the conspiratorial netherworlds of online “Eurabia”-fantasies. In fact,  saner Norwegian demographers who have pointed to the statistical impossibility of going from a 4.2 percent of Norway’s population being Muslim today to Muslim demographic dominance by 2060  have in fact received death threats.

Anthropological theory and concepts here enters the picture as a framework in which this very ‘fear of small numbers’ may be articulated in a language which is seemingly more ‘respectable’ than past and discredited racial theories. The heroic and indefatigable anthropologist Ashley Montagu, was perhaps the most passionate defender of the concept of ethnicity as an alternative and a substitute to race. Montagu was an early and quite controversial advocate in anthropological circles at the time –let us by all means remind ourselves –for the view of “race” as being essentially socially constructed. Montagu wanted to refer the concept of ‘race’ to the dustbin of conceptual history, and to replace it with “ethnic group.” Montagu’s seminal 1942 monograph exemplifies anthropology’s implications far beyond the anthropological ivory towers: not the least because Montagu went on to be the main author of UNESCO’s 1950s Expert Declaration on Race. This expert panel, which also included Claude Lévi-Strauss, declared ‘race’ not to be a biological reality but a socially constructed myth. Montagu proved central in ushering in this conceptual framework despite his apparent marginality in the discipline. According to David H. Price, Montagu  only once held tenured posts in the US, having been forced to resign from Rutgers in 1954 due to his speaking out against McCarthyism. Montagu’s seminal work formed an important backdrop to the late Norwegian anthropologist Fredrik W. Barth’s seminal 1969 title, which argued that boundary construction, rather than any essential features, were central in processes of ethnic identity making and mobilization.  

Endorsing a language of “race”—understood as a social construction born out of social practice— was for W. E. B. Du Bois and others necessary and crucial in order to create and sustain the networks of black identification and belonging. While it was a precondition for the civil rights struggle, in modern times use the term ‘race’ has been much more readily accepted in academic circles in the US than in Europe. But removing the term race from our conceptual vocabularies does not in and of itself do away with the lingering traces of racialized thinking

It seems that, as Alan H. Goodman, Yolanda T. Moses and Joseph L. Jones have argued, “we appear unable to escape the limits of the racial imagination.”

We will have to admit there is in fact little to prevent the term “ethnicity” from being used and abused in exclusionary nationalism in a manner that is exactly similar to the historical uses and abuses of the term “race.”
We will also have to realize the limitations inherent in our practice and in the strange afterlife of anthropological theory and concepts. For though we might, with Ronald Wald Sussman, continue to be utterly puzzled by the persistence of “the belief in the reality of biologically based human races” as well as the racism that “still abounds in the United States and Western Europe” in spite of there being “so much scientific evidence against it,” we could do worse than face the reality of our “dark times” and see that both racial thinking and racism is here to stay. Our “dark times” require a continuous intellectual and political effort to fend off the challenges posed by abuses of anthropological theory and concepts. At the very least, we need to “revisit the work of our intellectual ancestors, and voice it anew in changed times,” as Ira Bashkow has argued. 

Suggested readings

Appadurai, Arjun (2005). Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay On The Cartography of Anger. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Appiah, Kwame A. (2014). Lines of Descent: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Barth, Fredrik (ed.) (1969). Ethnic Groups And Boundaries. Oslo: Scandinavian University Press.

Goodman, Alan H., Moses, Yolanda T. and Jones, Joseph L. (2012). Race – Are We So Different? New York and London: Wiley-Blackwell.

Gullestad, Marianne (2006). Plausible Prejudice: Everyday experiences and social images of nation, culture and race. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

Mishra, Pankaj (2017). Age of Anger: A History of The Present. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Montagu, Ashley (1997). Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. New York: Altamira Press.

Price, David H. (2004). Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologist. Durham and London: Duke University Press.  

Sussman, Ronald W. (2014). The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of An Unscientific Idea. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.


Sindre Bangstad

Sindre Bangstad is a social anthropologist and research associate at KIFO (INstitute For Church, Religion and Worldview Research) in Oslo, Norway.

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