What is the role of sympathy in imperial state building? In this essay, inspired by the empiricist philosopher David Hume and the anthropologist Nancy Munn, I develop a materialist concept of sympathy in an effort to cast new light on the expansion of colonial rule. I deploy this concept in an analysis of reports written just before WWII by officials charged with extending the Netherlands Indies government's reach within western New Guinea. Along with gifts and outright acts of coercion, these officials made sympathy into a central component of their practices. Instead of avoiding the natives' gaze, they sought out more or less intimate moments of identification with their subjects; they tried to adopt the Papuans' perspective to reform Papuan ways. In teasing out the causal force of sympathy, as these officials viewed it, I make causal claims of my own about the impact of this experience of empire on the Netherlands' subsequent policy in New Guinea. In doing so, I advocate an approach to anthropological analysis that is empirical, if not empiricist, one that insists on the power of circumstances to shape the imagination, and the power of the imagination to shape the world.
Cultural Anthropology has published many essays that critically engage Foucault’s conception of governmentality. See, for example, Paul Hanson’s “Governmentality, Language Ideology, and the Production of Needs in Malagasy Conservation and Development” (2007); Kaushik Ghosh’s “Between Global Flows and Local Dams: Indigenousness, Locality, and the Transnational Sphere in Jharkhand, India” (2006); Olga Demetriou’s “Streets Not Named: Discursive Dead Ends and the Politics of Orientation in Intercommunal Spatial Relations in Northern Greece” (2006); and Aradhana Sharma’s “Crossbreeding Institutions, Breeding Struggle: Women’s Empowerment, Neoliberal Governmentality, and State (Re)Formation in India” (2006).
Cultural Anthropology has also published other essays that analyze the practices and politics of ethnography. See, for example, Charles R. Hale’s “Activist Research v. Cultural Critique: Indigenous Land Rights and the Contradictions of Politically Engaged Anthropology” (2006); Quetzil E. Castañeda’s “Ethnography in the Forest: An Analysis of Ethics in the Morals of Anthropology” (2006); and Alexandra Bakalaki’s “Students, Natives, Colleagues: Encounters in Academia and in the Field” (1997).
About the Authors
Nancy Campbell is an Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Susan Shaw is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arizona.
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In the November 2008 issue of Cultural Anthropology, Nancy Campbell and Susan Shaw analyze the subtle interplay of harm reduction discourse and the strategies of illicit drug users, and illustrate how critical discourse and ethnographic practices can be adopted by the state and molded into regulatory surveillance. In “Incitements to Discourse: Illicit Drugs, Harm Reduction, and the Production of Ethnographic Subjects” Campbell and Shaw analyze how recent developments in the illicit drug and public health arenas have intensified the contradictions that both drug users and social science researchers inhabit. Substance abuse is a key site where governmentality “hits the ground,” and Campbell and Shaw situate drug users and drug ethnographers alike in the historical unfoldings of the forces of neoliberalism, the War on Drugs, and the HIV epidemic.
Campbell and Shaw show “how ethnographers were assimilated to the purposes of surveillance for the sake of governance while at the same time diffusing harm reduction norms and practices,” acting as instruments of governance even while criticizing these discourses and organizational forces. Noting such frequent assertions among drug users as “We always use bleach” and “We never share needles,” Campbell and Shaw understand these statements as strategic articulations of ethical personhood, but also as markers of how “the incitement to discourse intrinsic to contemporary drug ethnography dictates that all research participants voice their commitment to harm reduction…The structural dualities imposed upon ethnographic practice present ethical dilemmas that must be navigated in order for ethnographic observations to take place at all—for ethnographers, too, are ethical subjects subject to the enabling constraints of the discourse that speaks through them.”
By interrogating the norms created by the discourse between drug researchers and injections drug users, Nancy Campbell and Susan Shaw draw attention to the unintentional role of drug researchers in creating ethical subjects.
There are no easy answers to the complex role of drug researchers who work with federal agencies. This supplemental page uses Incitements as a central node for pulling together work on injection drug use (IDU) and drug research that might not otherwise be in conversation. To this end, this page includes resources for harm reduction and medical treatment, scholarly articles, and media representations of risk and addiction.
Two sections -- For Classroom Discussion and Homework Assignments -- are designed encourage students' critical thinking about the creation of ethical subjects, harm reduction, and ethnographic drug research.