The colonial state as a social field: Ethnographic capital and native policy in the German overseas empire before 1914

  • Steinmetz G
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What led modern colonizers to treat their subject populations in radically differing ways, ranging from genocide to efforts to "salvage" precolonial cultures? In Southwest Africa, Germany massacred the Ovaherero and Witbooi; in Samoa, Germany pursued a program of cultural retraditionalization; and in the Chinese leasehold colony of Qingdao/Kiaochow. the Germans moved from policies of racialized segregation to a respectful civilizational exchange. Bourdieu is not generally seen as a theorist of empire, despite the partial genesis of his lifelong research program in the late colonial crucible of French Algeria (Bourdieu 1958; Yacine 2004). Nonetheless, Bourdieu theoretical work-most notably his conceptions of field and capital-helps solve the main riddle of the colonial state. Different European social groups competed inside the colonial state field for a specific form of symbolic capital: ethnographic capital. This involved exhibiting an alleged talent for judging the culture and character of the colonized, a gift for understanding "the natives." Competitive dynamics among the colonial rulers decisively shaped the ongoing production of native policies. Policy formation was also influenced by geopolitical and economic interests, responses by the colonized, and the metropolitan government final authority in appointing and dismissing colonial officials. The effects of these additional mechanisms were typically mediated by the internal dynamics of the semi-autonomous colonial state.

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  • George Steinmetz

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