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The manchester school in Africa and Israel: A critique

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There is a fundamental continuity in the problems posed by the Manchester School in Africa and Israel: in brief, what is the actual strength of the dominant systems, respectively colonial Indirect Rule and post-statehood Zionism? Analyses of conflicts and cleavages (between White and Black, Westerners and Orientals) began either from the problem: ‘how might conflicts contribute to broader integration, adaptation and adjustment’, or: ‘why are these conflicts and cleavages not disruptive to the general order’.

Whereas in the studies on Central Africa the strengths/weaknesses of the system were relatively opposed to the goodness/badness of the system, this is not the case in the studies of Israeli communities. These latter project a critical assessment of the viability and relevance of old ideals applied to new groups (e.g. Oriental Jews) under new circumstances (e.g. a high level of bureaucratization). Here the anthropologists implicitly test both the strength and the ‘goodness’ (i.e. relevance) of Zionism as embodied in Israeli Jewish society. In fact, the works on Israel do not only elaborate on the principles that lie behind the supposed integration of the society (as in the studies on Africa), but also on the principles that might reconcile reality and ideology. Since values are explicitly introduce into the analyses, the forms of presentation, and generally the mode of discourse are changed: the distance between the anthropologist and his objects is minimized by the use of a literary style, sympathetic words, the introduction of the anthropologist himself into the account, the presentation of people as subjects who make their own history.

Manchester forms of theory and presentation are not only deployed as explanatory devices, but may also be used to heighten the drama of the story itself: petty conflicts (‘human weaknesses’) contrast with devotion to common ideals; minor social cleavages only accentuate broader cohesion. Moreover, people are not presented as role-performers, but as human beings striving and struggling toward a better life — within the broader status quo. This mode of discourse might be partly explained by referring to the fieldwork situation in which these Israeli anthropologists were involved. All authors shared to some extent in a common cultural enterprise with the people they studied. Aronoff felt himself a member of a pioneering community; Shokeid had to meet expectations concerning the ‘fusion of exiles,’ while Deshen was involved in an election campaign. However, these anthropologists were not only committed to the people they studied, but also, out of their basically Zionist orientation, to the larger integration of Israeli society on western lines. Their analyses suggest ways in which these commitments can be reconciled on a theoretical level.

As stated in my review of the works of the Manchester School on Africa, the fieldwork situation there was characterized firstly by some measure of suspicion from both the colonial administration and the Africans, and secondly by the psychological and political difficulties encountered by the anthropologists in their efforts to identify wholeheartedly either with the colonial system or with the Africans as a political group. The anthropologist thus became an observer who identified with academe or with individual persons during fieldwork. The distance between the anthropologist and the Africans was reflected in the analyses by the rather strict separation between science and values: the strength of the system was studied, not the viability of either the European or African communities. The anthropologist took plains to look ‘neutral’ to his/her western academic audience [70], by means of his academic interests and formulations.

However, these differences in modes of discourse are subordinate to the real continuities in the applications of the paradigm. Functionalist Manchester anthropology, as applied both in Africa and Israel, tests the strength of the dominant systems within the status quo. Far from being a critical test, the theory itself presupposes the answer by the choice of assumptions and concepts.

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T. van Teeffelen studies anthropology at the University of Amsterdam.

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van Teeffelen, T. The manchester school in Africa and Israel: A critique. Dialect Anthropol 3, 67–83 (1978). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00257390

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  • Israeli Society
  • Colonial Administration
  • Dominant System
  • Explanatory Device
  • Literary Style