Structuralism and Poststructuralism
AnthropologyPoststructuralism And Anthropology: Foucault And His Impact
Poststructuralism is a term loosely applied to members of the next generation of French thinkers after Lévi-Strauss who also concerned themselves with texts and discourses. Of these, Michel Foucault had the greatest impact on anthropology. Foucault's work is specifically concerned with the relationship between knowledge and power. Knowledge, for Foucault, is not primarily a collection of facts or even ideas, but only takes on significance within what he calls an episteme, an overarching framework situated in time, within which such ideas emerge as relevant and indeed possible. Though Foucault avoids Marxist terminology, one might characterize his epistemes as "modes of thinking" as opposed to "modes of production." In a similar manner, he situates "power" within a framework of possibilities determined by an overall system rather than as a property of individual actors. In Discipline and Punish (1975), he uses the modern prison system as a central example of how these two systems, of knowledge and of power, are fused in contemporary society. Discipline is, he argues, a central feature of modern institutions—prison, army, school—inscribing power relations on the bodies of subjects who must conform but must also be constantly monitored; this monitoring of subjects is the intellectual task of modern "disciplines"—psychology, sociology, anthropology, and others.
Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) argued in a similar vein that European and American expert knowledge of the "Orient" and particularly the Middle East was inextricably connected with the exercise of Western hegemony over the region. Such critiques have made anthropologists much more self-conscious about the implications of their own representations of "other," non-European peoples. James Clifford and George Marcus have been concerned with the ways in which such representations are constructed through writing, and the rhetorical means by which anthropologists lay claim to "authority." Talal Asad has suggested that anthropologists' attempts to arrive at ahistoricized definitions of such phenomena as religion serve to naturalize (that is, make cultural concepts and thought systems appear timeless, natural, and universal) post-Enlightenment systems of European thought while simultaneously problematizing other systems of practice, even in European history. Paul Rabinow has been perhaps the most adamant disciple of Foucault within the discipline, both as an exegete and as an ethnographer of modern France.
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