Why Do Anthropologists Pay Attention to the ‘Politics of Meaning’?

The classic interpretation of the ‘politics of meaning’ refers to the the ideologies that inform and legitimise domination and resistance in society/polities. These ideologies shape issues such as the way resources are distributed, which institutions are invested with power, and who has access to technology. This is what Eric Wolf (1990, p. 222) calls organisational or tactical power within a specific environment or setting, which defines which group of people in a society control the opportunities available for other members of the same society.

Power as Knowledge

The field of opportunity in a society is not created in isolation, but is the result of overarching energy flows between different societies and environments. Wolf (1990, p. 223) refers to this as structural power, which ‘orchestrates the settings themselves,’ and in the process constitutes what is known and what can be known. Wolf posits that this forms the background to  Foucault’s concept of power as knowledge, acting to ‘govern consciousness’ (Foucault 1984 as cited in Wolf 1990).

foucault knowledge

In Michel Foucault’s view, power is diffused through society in the form of knowledge. This means that power does not only manifest as repression or coercion, but it is also constituted as knowledge or discourse. In this form, power is productive, creating shared categories of meaning in the form of classifications that shape social structure and the worldview and behaviour of people in a society. This is where the politics of meaning comes into play, through the creation of knowledge that is deeply intertwined with power. As power changes and reconstitutes itself, so does knowledge, in a delicate balancing act between what is knowable and how it can be controlled.

This means that the political structure and economic organisation of a society are historically contingent and cannot truly be understood if taken in isolation, which is why the topic is of such interest to anthropologists. The politics of meaning thus becomes the ‘battlefield of representations’ which plays out in society, through the process of ‘their rearrangement in use’ (Clark 1999, p.6). 

Foucault posits that these categories of meaning circulate within a society and are internalized by its members, in the process becoming in and of themselves a source of normalizing power, through which people are subtly and unconsciously coerced to discipline themselves to conform to what they have internalized as being the ‘norm’ (Frazer, Hutchings 2011, p. 10).

This essay will be split in two parts. In the first section I will refer to an ethnography of Mandinka peasants in The Gambia (Carney, Watts 1990) to illustrate Wolf’s concept of organisational power, showing how the ‘politics of meaning’ can be used to legitimise the economic organisation of a society and to circumscribe the opportunities available to certain groupings of its members. In the second section, on the other hand, I will use two case studies – the first in Colonial Sumatra (Stoler 1985) and the second in Columbia (Taussig 1984) – to illustrate Foucault’s point regarding the interplay between knowledge and power as they both evolve over time.

The Mandinka in The Gambia

Carney and Watts (1990) studied the reasons for the failure of multiple projects aimed at diversifying and modernising the agricultural practices of the Mandinka in The Gambia, West Africa.

The social relations of production of the Mandinka were based on a system of family labour and household production. Traditionally, male Mandinka were involved in the farming of groundnuts in the highlands, while women farmed rice in the lowland swamps.

This economic organisation was predicated on a well-established classification of crop and property rights. Land available for the family to farm was labelled either as maruo (collective land) or kamanyango (individual plots). All members of the family had an obligation to work on the maruo lands to generate family income, which was controlled by the male head of the household. In return for their labour, each family member was allotted a small plot of land, known as kamanyango, that they could farm to generate their own private income.


When the value of groundnuts plummeted, the colonial authorities intervened to increase the production of rice. The way they set about it, however, did not take into consideration the politics of meaning underpinning organisational power and established order within the tribe (Wolf 1990; Carney, Watts 1990), unleashing highly charged contestations in the household production unit, and setting in motion a fierce battle in the ‘realm of representations’ between Mandinka men and women (Carney, Watts 1990, p. 207). This delegitimised the process and ultimately led to the failure of the project.

When the interventions occurred, first by colonial authorities, and post-colonially by international development organisations, men resisted moving to rice production because rice farming was a job traditionally done by women. Thus, project management focused on assisting Mandinka women to clear more swamp land and increase production. Tradition dictated that the person who cleared the land gained ownership and control over the crops. However, this threatened gender relations, creating a power struggle within the household production unit (Carney, Watts 1990)

Seeing as the goal of the project was to reduce rice imports, the colonial authorities labelled the crops from the newly cleared rice lands as subsistence crops, unknowingly wading into the highly contentious and political domain of the split between maruo or kamanyango (Carney, Watts 1990, p. 207). The association of the crops with family consumption enabled Mandinka men to categorise the lands as maruo, which implied that the proceeds from the hard labour of the women ended up under the control of the patriarch of the family, thus disenfranchising the women, whose labour was crucial for the development initiative was to succeed. As a result, any incentive for women to dedicate time beyond what was their obligation for maruo lands evaporated, and the productivity goals for the project were never met.

Colonial Sumatra

I will now turn to structural power (Wolf 1990, p. 223), with particular focus on the Foucauldian concept of power/knowledge as governing consciousness. Ann Stoler’s (1985) analysis of documentation and newspaper articles in Colonial Sumatra between the 1870s and 1920s highlights the historical contingency of meaning attributed to the actions of native workers over a period of over fifty years. She illustrates the dramatic shift in public discourse by comparing the newspaper coverage and official reports relating to two murders, 53 years apart.  When an Asian worker killed the wife and children of a plantation owner in 1876, the event was classified as a ‘private’ affair, resulting from conflict between the planter and his workers. As such, it was not reported in newspapers and was only mentioned in passing in other colony documents.


Over the following fifty years, however, geopolitical forces relating to the rise of Communism and fears of Nationalism, created a shift in structural power and discourse. At the same time the discourse of capitalism was proliferating, creating classifications that defined ‘the homeless as vagabonds, runaways as criminals, squatters as thieves, and recalcitrant workers as a political danger to company profits and private property’ (Stoler 1985, p. 655). These multiple sources of new classifications and discourse coalesced, creating a new way of seeing the world, and in the process reinterpreting what constituted danger, and how such danger was to be dealt with.

This meant that by 1929, which is when the second murder occurred, the event was infused with new meaning, with newspaper headlines and court documents linking it to the possibility of a communist, anti-colonialist uprising, with headlines attributing a potential “Moscow-Deli connection’ to the killing.

The strong, and extremely different, reaction of the European public to the murder is illustrated by an anecdote recounted by Stoler (p. 642), where she tells us that hundreds of European women living in Sumatra sent telegrams to Queen Wilhemina, begging her to protect them from the ‘extremist agitators’ (Stoler 1985, p. 653) that were endangering their lives. This shift in public opinion resulted in the mobilisation of the army in the region, ostensibly to quell the (non-existent) ‘extremist’ protests (Stoler 1985, p.642, 643).

Sartre (1976 as cited in Stoler 1985, p. 655) described colonial rhetoric as presenting ‘the natives as constantly endangering the colonialists everywhere. That is to say, it struck permanent fear into the colonialists and presented this angry fear as pure courage’ [1976:726]. This ‘othering’ and the classification of the ‘other’ as savage and dangerous, is a recurring theme in studies of colonial discourse and did not only happen in Colonial Sumatra.

The Peruvian Rubber Company in Putumayo

In an essay entitled ‘Culture of Terror’ (1984), Michael Taussig writes about how the colonial narrative about the savagery of the natives merged with pre-existing discourse about the natives dating back to the time of the Inca, creating a mythology about the auca, a word used by the Inca to refer to the ‘infidel, traitor, barbarian’ who rebelled against them.

When the Spanish and Portuguese arrived in the New World, they adopted the classification of auca, but infused it with additional layers of meaning, incorporating elements gleaned from European mythology relating to the ‘Wild Man.’  As a result, the word auca came to signify heathen, animal-like Indians who roamed naked in the forest, engaging in incestuous sexual relations and eating human flesh.

When a consortium of British and Peruvian investors set up the Peruvian Rubber Company in Putumayo in 1903, the auca mythology and tales of cannibalism terrorised them. The problem, of course, was that the more terrified the rubber-station managers became, the more viciously they treated their workers, terrorizing them in turn. Reports in the press describe the horrendous torture inflicted upon the Huitotos – brutal beatings, castrations, amputations, starvation, rape, and even crucifixions. There was no limit to the sadistic methods used by the rubber-station to suppress the fictionalised horror of the cannibal auca (Taussig 1984, p. 475).

‘“Their imagination was diseased,” wrote the Peruvian Judge Romulo Paredes in 1911, referring to the rubber-station managers, “and they saw everywhere attacks by Indians, conspiracies, uprisings, etc, and in order to save themselves from these fancied perils … they killed and killed without compassion” (Taussig 1984, p. 492).

Taussig’s account highlights the fact that the discourse of savagery and cannibalism let to the creation of a culture of terror that was all-encompassing and internalised by both the European settlers and the natives. In fact, the Indians who were coerced to collect rubber actually engaged in self-discipline, with an article published in Iquitos in 1908 saying that – ‘The Indian is so humble that as soon as he sees that the needle of the scale does not mark the ten kilos, he himself stretches out his hands and throws himself on the ground to receive the punishment’ (Taussig 1984, p. 476).


The three case studies highlighted in this essay illustrate why understanding ideology and the politics of meaning is crucial in anthropology, since that is how we can gain an insight into how political-economic systems (or ‘formations’) interact with systems of knowledge to produce and constitute social identities. Understanding the politics of meaning is therefore a key component of gaining a more comprehensive view of our societies.


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Clark, T.J. (1999) The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers. Princeton University Press.

Frazer, E. and Hutchings, K. (2011) ‘Avowing Violence: Foucault and Derrida on Politics, Discourse and Meaning.’ Philosophy & Social Criticism, 37 (1), pp. 3-23.

Lockman, Z. (2004) ‘Said’s Orientalism:  A Book and Its Aftermath.’ Contending Visions of the Middle East, pp. 182–214.

Lutz, C., and Collins, J. (2002) ‘The Color of Sex: Postwar Photographic Histories of Race and Gender.’ In Lancaster, R., Di Leonardo, M. (eds) The Gender/Sexuality Reader: Culture, History, Political Economy (pp. 291 – 308). Routledge, London.

Roseberry, W. (1989) Anthropologies and Histories: Essays in Culture, History, and Political Economy.  Rutgers University Press New Brunswick, NJ.

Said, E, W. (1978) Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. Pantheon Books: New York.

Shohat, E., Stam, R. (2014) ‘The Imperial Imaginary.’ In Unthinking Eurocentrism (pp. 126 – 147). Routledge, London.

Stoler, A. (1985) ‘Perceptions of Protest: Defining the Dangerous in Colonial Sumatra.’ American Ethnologist, 12 (4), pp. 642-658.

Taussig, M. (1984) ‘Culture of Terror—Space of Death. Roger Casement’s Putumayo Report and the Explanation of Torture.’ Comparative Studies in Society and History, 26 (3), pp. 467-497.

Wolf, E.R. (1990) ‘Facing Power – Old Insights, New Questions.’ In Vincent J. (ed.) The Anthropology of Politics. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, pp. 222 – 233.

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