Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Colonial Lives, Imperial Contexts

Prof. Dr. Roy Dilley


There are two strands to my research, although one cannot properly be considered in isolation from the other. These strands are my area and substantive interests (West Africa and U.K.) on the one hand, and my methodological and theoretical interests on the other. My range of publications relates to a set of underlying theoretical issues that I have sought progressively to examine both in the abstract and in relation to ethnographic material.

The general thrust of my research is in the direction of an interpretative anthropology that takes as its central concerns the comprehension, translation and politics of modes of indigenous understanding of social reality. These understandings are embedded in a diverse range of social practices and in forms of cultural discourse. By pursuing a line of interpretative enquiry, my broad aim is to set up a framework of radical comparison that highlights not only indigenous understandings of social reality, but at the same time serves to assess our own cultural conceptions and our own framing of social reality. I have made significant contributions to international scholarship in at least three areas of anthropological enquiry:

  1. the anthropology of West Africa,
  2. cultural economics/economic anthropology, and
  3. interpretative anthropology.

The interpretivist stance in my work is particularly evident in publications dealing with the connections between the production of actors' meanings and the conduct of social practice. My writings on religion, power and knowledge, on oral literature and on dreaming and creativity are examples of this type. Another important strand is that work which deals with knowledge, interpretation and the anthropological method, evident in the publications on apprenticeship as a field technique as well as a local form of social institution.

My edited book The Problem of Context (1999) is a more general continuation of these interests, investigating specifically issues connected with the heart of interpretative anthropology. Stress on context in interpretation is a distinguishing feature of interpretative anthropology in that phenomena are illuminated by appeal to their surroundings; but these surroundings themselves are selected and interpreted in different ways. This work considers, therefore, the relationship between interpretation and context in social anthropological analyses, and it brings together a group of leading social anthropologists and anthropological linguists to examine a set of common problems. In the 46-page introduction to this volume, I attempt to lay bear the philosophical underpinnings of a range of social theoretical perspectives in interpretivism, and conclude that definitions of context have political and cultural implications for both the subject and object of analysis.

My new project is entitled Colonial Lives, Imperial Contexts, and its main aim is to examine the life and work of a French colonial administrator-scholar, Henri Gaden (1867-1939), who was Gouverneur de la Mauritanie for seven years (1920-27), a territory which then included parts of the Senegal river basin, the focus of my ethnographic fieldwork in the 1980s and 1990s. Of interest to me are not only his own ethnographic writings, but also the role he played in translating from Arabic and Pulaar the work of indigenous scholars, writers and poets. His role in encouraging local scholarship and publication of work from the vernacular did much to generate a tradition of ethnographic and historical writing that has continued today in one form or another.

Gaden was a significant colonial figure, a scholar of note, and a catalyst in developing a knowledge of indigenous affairs and a tradition of scholarship that gave Senegalese writers a sense of their own cultural and historical distinctiveness. He thus represents a figure that could be seen to blur a number of received but simplistic dichotomies apparent in some of the colonial and post-colonial literature on the colonial imagination. I intend to examine, therefore, not just the life of one colonial administrator scholar, but use him to open up a wider debate about colonial contexts.

During my research stay in Konstanz, I will complete the book manuscript which is currently 200,000 words in length, and which requires further additions and editing. I aim to publish the work in French (Karthala, Paris are interested in it) as well as English. The subject of the book - a historical ethnography of colonial practice and biography - relates to my broader theoretical interests concerning ignorance, knowledge and context. Besides working on the manuscript during my proposed period of study, I plan to spin off from this project a number of articles and scholarly pieces on these theoretical themes. More particularly, by giving further consideration to this historical and ethnographic material, I plan to extend my arguments about how knowledge and ignorance were construed in colonial contexts in West Africa, especially how over time these constructions shifted in relation to issues of power. This work is interdisciplinary in that it draws obviously on history and anthropology, and also engages with questions of pictorial representation. In addition, during my research day I would aim at organizing an international conference on the “anthropology of ignorance”, the proceedings of which will be published.



Henri Gaden à travers l’Afrique de l’Ouest (1894–1939). Fils de Bordeaux, aventurier africain. Paris: Éditions L’Harmattan 2015. (translated by Jean-Louis Balans)


Nearly Native, Barely Civilized: Henri Gaden’s Journey Across Colonial French West Africa (1894–1939). Leiden, Boston: Brill 2014.