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Amselle, Jean-Loup & Sibeud, Emmanuelle, eds. – Maurice Delafosse. Entre orientalisme et ethnographie : l'itinéraire d'un africaniste (1870-1926). Paris, Maisonneuve & Larose, 1998*

Karel Arnaut

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In a recently published biography of Mary Douglas, Richard Fardon1 quotes, then, Mary Tew situating her early interest in anthropology in her pre-Oxford years at the Colonial Office, saying : "They [anthropologists] were the experts, while we civil servants were on the menial side, and I used to ask them, `How do you get to be an adviser and not a servant ?'". In post-WWII Britain (and France) where anthropology and colonial rule were relatively separately institutionalised, this question was not very hard to answer. In pre-WWI France, it was.

In the first section of the edited volume on Maurice Delafosse (1870-1926), Dimier and Conklin convincingly document the dissenting voice of a servant ("administrateur") seeking to present himself as an adviser ("Broussard"), who offers his scientific and practical, i.e. "ethnographic" expertise ("savant de la brousse", "indigénologue") to amend French colonial rule in Africa. Unlike Delafosse himself, who was more or less banned from the colonies after his return in 1909--with the exception of a two-year stay in Dakar (1916-1917), under the aegis of his mentor François-Joseph Clozel--his protest was somewhat later appropriated to argue for the appropriateness of the Third Republic's version of colonial rule.

Delafosse was a participant-observer to the emerging split between servants and experts, to the growing division of labour between the workers of "l'État ethnographe" and the thinkers of Durkheimian descent (Mauss, Griaule). To the latter the editors, Amselle and Sibeud, attribute the scholarly disqualification of Delafosse by the French africanists whose amnesia made Delafosse disappear into the "coulisses de l'histoire"2. However, reinventing Delafosse is much more than to deliberate the Firthian question of guilt--whether Delafosse was the bastard of imperialism and the Durkheimians the legitimate children of the Enlightenment. Recovering history, in this project, is a double operation. First, it intends to articulate Delafosse's biography in the full ambiguity of French imperialism under the Third Republic. Second, it envolves reestablishing lost continuities, e.g. between the political and historical ethnography of Delafosse and the political anthropology of Georges Balandier. In this the missing-link is the late Denise Paulme (1909-1998), to whom the book is dedicated. That the latter is a post-1998 palimpsest on the original brief of the conference, becomes clear in the little attention that is given by the different contributors to retracing the historic rhizome that connects the administrator ethnographer with later and contemporary africanists. The seventeen articles in the volume, which stem from the 1996 conference "Orientalisme et ethnographie chez Maurice Delafosse" are never lead too far astray from their core activity. To a large extent, they answer less Amselle's brief to apply "une épistémologie continuiste" than to explore the "oeuvre ambiguë" of "le savant de la brousse". In doing this, the book provides a wealth of detail and insight in so many different aspects of French West Africa and the Parisian anthropologic scene from roughly 1890 to 1930.

From it arises a Delafosse who subscribes to, and is himself inscribed in, what Mahmood Mamdani3 has called the bifurcated state : a combination of racial segregation and ethnic pluralism, that characterized both English and French versions of indirect rule. Delafosse's "republican" ideas about the fundamental equality of mankind indeed tempered the received principles on the black and white divide (Conklin), but we cannot miss the point that his disdain for the Liberian "évolué" (Amselle), for the "demi-civilisé" (Sibeud), and for local "research assistants" (Jezequel) corroborate the racial categorical grid (Zerilli). Delafosse's ethnic pluralism takes the form of a cultural essentialism of a Frobenian kind (Zobel) and is mainly based on comparative linguistics, as becomes clear from his writings on the Anno-Mango region (Viti) on the Songhay (Nicolai) and in the construction of the Voltaic sociocultural area4.

However, there is enough ambiguity in Delafosse's repertoire of ideas to contradict both his guiding racial and his cultural distinctions. Sibeud attributes to him an editorial in France noire, the journal of the "Société des pionniers africains", in which he pleads for the breeding, by "métissage" of French men and indigenous women, of a Franco-African race that would be "conductive to the elevation of the African race and favourable for the development of our influence in Africa". Frémeaux pointedly observes that ethnic diversity in Delafosse's classic, Haut-Sénégal-Niger, is subsumed under one African culture which he saw as presently emerging ; a development actually commencing with French colonial rule.

As "négrologue" Delafosse is credited with historicising "l'âme nègre" (Triaud). This, according to Amselle, is the result of an "orientalising" operation on (West) African civilisation : at once a unification and a characterisation as counter-Islamic. The full ambiguity of Delafosse's position towards Islam is further revealed, on the one hand, in his invention of an open-minded, pacifist Black Islam ("islam noir"), and, on the other hand, in his sustained interest in the Arab language resulting in the publication of the French translation of the Tarikh El-Fettach (1913), together with his father in law, Octave Houdas (Schmitz). Triaud concludes that, together with his two "godfathers", Houdas and Clozel, Delafosse succeeded in introducing the French Soudan into world history and, through history, into the heart of the civilised "oecumene". Amselle adds that Delafosse's hierarchic scheme of ethnic groups is based on their relative openness to external influence. As in the case of the Senufo, the administrator-ethnographer reduces the diversity of observed social and cultural elements to a specific "genius" of invisible character. Launay claims that this "project corresponds to a different phase of the colonial enterprise : if classification was essential during the period of inventory and appropriation, then characterization emerged as vital for consolidation and rule".

Such homologies take Sibeud's point that "in 1910 there is no mechanical link between ethnography and colonial management", one step further. The question remains whether this book has gone far enough in exploring these structural correspondences, whether the conference and the book have taken advantage of this richly documented case to further the debate on colonial anthropology. Nonetheless, it is no small merit to have seriously addressed the need to spell out what Nicholas Thomas5 phrased the "heterogeneity and tension among colonizers", indeed, their workers and their thinkers, or--as Mary Douglas remembered from Henry Balfour--their spinners and their weavers.

* Cet ouvrage fait l'objet d'un double compte rendu.

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1 Cf. Richard Fardon, Mary Douglas : an Intellectual Biography (London : Routledge, 1999), p. 24.
2 Cf. Benoît Hazard, "Orientalisme et ethnographie chez Maurice Delafosse" (L'Homme, 146, 1998 : 265-268), p. 265.
3 Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject : Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism (Kampala : Fountain Publishers ; Cape Town : David Philip ; London : James Currey, 1996).
4 B. Hazard, op. cit.
5 Nicholas Thomas, Colonialism's Culture : Anthropology, Travel, Government (Cambridge : Polity Press, 1994).
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Karel Arnaut, « Amselle, Jean-Loup & Sibeud, Emmanuelle, eds. – Maurice Delafosse. Entre orientalisme et ethnographie : l'itinéraire d'un africaniste (1870-1926). Paris, Maisonneuve & Larose, 1998* »Cahiers d’études africaines [En ligne], 157 | 2000, mis en ligne le 24 avril 2003, consulté le 01 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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