Des aires culturelles au transnationalisme

Lundi 12 décembre 2016

Sidney W. Mintz, The localization of anthropological practice. From area studies to transnationalism, Critique of Anthropology, Vol.18, No.2 (1998): 117–133.

Au tournant des années 2000 s'est développé, en particulier à l'EHESS, un débat crucial pour l'avenir de l'anthropologie sur l'avenir des études d'aires culturelles ou area studies, accusées d'essentialiser les groupes sociaux partageant une même culture. En opposition frontale aux anthropologues immergés dans une région, une langue et une histoire particulières par des enquêtes de longue durée sur un terrain strictement localisé, s'étaient développées depuis la fin des années 1980 l'ethnographie multi-sites et l'ethnologie globale, qui répondent au fait majeur de notre temps, les migrations massives et le développement exponentiel des diasporas. Sidney Mintz (1922–2015), qui enseigna l'anthropologie à Yale (1951–1974) puis à Johns Hopkins, pionnier de l'ethnographie multi-sites à partir de 1948 aux Caraïbes (Puerto Rico, Jamaïque, Haïti), formula progressivement la théorie de cette mutation jusqu'à cette conférence prononcée à Chicago en 1995.

L'analyse de Mintz, dont voici des extraits, est fondée sur un jeu d'échelles dans la localisation des populations étudiées et des rétrécissements successifs du global au local, visant à faire ressortir l'universalité des identités relationnelles et transnationales.

Migrations et affaiblissement de l'Etat-nation

The new anthropology is many things, among them the study of human groups in motion. That motion is thought to be more than international; it is transnational. When I ask students who used the term 'transnational' why they don't say 'international' instead, they tell me 'transnational' means people in motion, people going back and forth. A renewed anthropology aims to take account of this situation, of the seemingly weakened condition of the state [l'Etat-nation], and of the accompanying doubtful condition of our cherished categories, such as 'region', 'culture', 'ethnic group' and 'society'.

'It is now widely understood', Clifford explains, 'that the old localizing strategies — by bounded community, by organic culture, by region, by center and periphery — may obscure as much as they reveal' (James Clifford Clifford, 'Diasporas', Cultural Anthropology 9 (1994): 302-38). Citing and quoting a study of Mexicans whose lives link Californian and Mexican locales, Clifford writes: 'Separate places become effectively a single community "through the continuous circulation of people, money, goods and information.'

Cent millions de migrants au 19e siècle

Sir W. Arthur Lewis, who managed to make it out of the tiny Caribbean island of St Lucia to become a Nobel laureate in economics long before the word 'transnationalism' had been coined, tells us something about world migration in his wonderful little book on international trade (W. Arthur Lewis, The Evolution of the International Economic Order, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press,1978). In the course of the 19th century, around 100 million people left their homes to make journeys across oceans, primarily in search of gainful employment. Fifty million of them were Europeans, who went mostly to European colonies, or erstwhile colonies administered by people of European origin: Canada, Argentina, Uruguay, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and the United States, among others.

The other 50 million or so were non-European, and were considered non-white by Europeans. They were known as 'coolies', 'Chinamen', 'Africans', blackbirds', 'kanakas', and by many other names. But they were non-European, and they were considered nonwhite. They went to a different set of former or persisting European colonies, and hardly at all to any genuinely sovereign or democratic countries. They came from other colonies, such as parts of Africa or India; or from ancient and politically weakened states, such as China. The lands which received them included islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, such as Mauritius and Fiji, as well as the Indonesian archipelago, Malaysia and Singapore; the Caribbean colonies, such as French Guadeloupe and Martinique, and British Jamaica and Trinidad, along with their neighboring mainlands, including British, Dutch and French Guiana; other parts of South America, and Africa, especially East and South. South Africa and Kenya were among the odd places to which both sorts went: 'temperate oases', where whites went to settle, then brought foreign nonwhites to work for them.

Esclaves puis travailleurs «engagés» [forcés] (bonded labor)

[Indentured labour «travail en servitude»]

In the case of the New World, the people who were brought here to ease the transition to free labor had, of course, been preceded by the ancestors of the slave laborers. Nearly all of those had been African. But a substantial movement of indentured and contracted Europeans had taken place coeval with that slavery, and in some places (such as Barbados, and the 13 American colonies in the 17th century), the migration of bound nonslaves had largely preceded it. Adding this chapter to the story by dropping back at least another century has the effect of narrowing the focus somewhat, since it refers in this instance not to the slavery of the Old World, but only to the slavery of the region extending from the United States to Brazil, and including the Caribbean islands. The use of enslaved Africans, primarily for agricultural labor, had been initiated in the Americas in Santo Domingo within 12 years of the Discovery, and did not end in the New World until 1888, in Brazil.

This, of course, reduces the frame even more. As we move backward a hundred years from the end of the 19th century to the end of the 18th, our New World focus shrinks from the Hemisphere to the region stretching from around the Jamestown Colony in what became the state of Virginia, to around the city of Bahia, now Salvador, founded in 1549 in the Portuguese colony of Brazil. But the core of this wider region was composed of the Caribbean islands which, though relatively tiny, received nearly one third of the more than 10 million enslaved Africans who are believed to have reached the New World alive.

Le paradigme des économies sucrières

Eric Williams once likened the boom-and-bust succession of sugar economies in the Caribbean islands to a relay race. The image is not entirely apt; but it makes the point that, even while this was a key economic area within an emergent world economy, different parts of it rose and fell at different points in time. For example, the Spaniards were sole masters at the very beginning, but they were soon eclipsed by northern Europe. They only came back into bold relief in the late 18th century, eventually capitalizing on the people's war that ended slavery and the plantation system in French St Domingue in 1804. From the mid-17th century onward, it had been Barbados and then Jamaica that had been most important; they had been supplanted to some degree by St Domingue, as were the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. By the middle of the 19th century, /124/ slavery was either gone or going, and the inflow of nonwhite migrants to the Caribbean was coming mainly from elsewhere besides Africa. The Caribbean regional economy in its totality was being outpaced, particularly by parallel developments in Africa and the Indian Ocean, and by the rise of beet sugar economies in Europe itself.

Thereafter, the Caribbean Sea would become a North American lake, and no longer a key economic area. But the centuries between the Columbian Discovery and the Spanish-American War had been intensely contested by the European powers interested in the region, and the history of all of its component parts is intertangled throughout. The plantation system perfected there would become a model for other areas, and other crops and staples. The Caribbean had been Europe's first brush with the New World Other, and was the first part of the non-European world to be hugged so tightly to the European breast. Hence it is a historically distinctive region. Though it is absolutely correct to say that so is any other, each such region is distinctive because it is not just like any other.

Now I have reduced the scale of the canvas to a clutch of little islands, and the chronology to the period approximately 1650-1900 — which corresponds to that of the transformation of a few novel edibles and smokables into staples of proletarian habit. In doing so I have of course also reintroduced the apparently outworn idea of a region. This region is one to which people in large numbers have been coming from a great many different places and cultures for 400 years, and one which has played a particular role in the evolution of the modern world. My larger point in doing so, of course, is to suggest that perhaps what is now called 'transnationalism' — I use the term to stand for a lot of additional terminology — is not an entirely unprecedented phenomenon.

Réflexion sur les aires culturelles

[A l'issue de la seconde guerre mondiale,
les area studies sont une création de la Guerre Froide.]

(129) Then when peace came, the Cold War came with it. Culture areas — what had once been the Plains area or the Tropical Forest area, the domain of Otis T. Mason, Clark Wissler, or A.L. Kroeber — soon turned into Russian Studies and African Studies and Middle Eastern Studies. This was not exclusively owing to the Cold War, but it was much encouraged by it, particularly because of the bubbling fountains of money that soon became available for research. I recall a meeting at Yale when Dean William DeVane, a medievalist, sat helplessly by, while many millions were doled out among a half-dozen area programs on the PRC, Africa, the Soviet Union and so on. 'Ah', he sighed, 'if only the Middle Ages could rise up and become a communist threat!'

Area studies encouraged, willy nilly, a good deal of bad research — not so much insidious, I suspect, as pedestrian. I do not think that the Human Relations Area Files could ever have achieved its cryogenic distinction without so-called 'defense' money, for instance. The Laboratoire d'Anthropologie Sociale still has a large dead space given over to that odd thesaurus of Frazerian curiosa, as do many hapless research institutions in the United States. But not everything area studies led to was bad. Among those of us who ended up at Columbia around 1946, after the war, one small group was /130/ selected by Julian Steward to participate in his project on Puerto Rico.


I realized that there were various connections among the societies that comprised the region and among the peoples who inhabited it, some of which were historical in origin, others defined by contemporary economic, political and other bonds. I did not come to think of the region as naturally coherent, or as irreversibly integrated, even in the odd, seemingly non-cultural ways — there is no commonality of language, religion, sentimental affiliation or political ideology, let alone of sexual mores, relations between parents and children, cuisine, or much else — in which it can be thought of as sharing 'a culture'. But the longer I read about it and worked on it, the more I thought I could see of its commonalities, as well as of its internal differences.

La place de l'histoire

Area studies do not, of course, solve any teaching or research problems automatically, and they certainly don't eliminate mediocrity. But they can serve as a basis upon which to identify and study research problems that are culturally specific, and that deal with particular historical traditions. Learning how to root one's research problem in concrete information about places and people can lend self-confidence, despite our fears, and may expedite additional learning, rather than merely obstruct it. It is striking to hear students confess that they feel afraid to say anything, so critical have they been made by being taught at such length about the errors of their predecessors.


The new theories of transnationalism and globalization are not respectful enough of history, especially of the history of exploration, conquest and the global division of labor.