Envisioning Power

Anthropologist Eric Wolf (1923-1999) last book, Envisioning Power: Ideologies of Dominance and Power (1999) is not his most well-known work, but is a book that should be read by those seeking to understand how anthropological studies, and comparative cultural studies, can contribute to our understand of power and politics and their relation to ideas and ideology. Wolf's most well-known book, Europe and the People Without History (1982), will be covered in a future post. The book Envisioning Power offers three in-depth case studies (Kwakiult, Aztec and National Socialists of Germany), and a brief conclusion that summarizes his main conclusions. For those not interested in the detailed case studies, the first two chapters (Introduction and Contested Concepts) as well as the concluding chapter are worthwhile reads. I will not draw upon the case study content, at it is detailed and requires significant context.

As many voices had done during the 80s and 90s, the limitations of disciplinary silos was addressed by Wolf in this work, at a time when interdisciplinary work and programs were becoming more common practice: "I write these lines as an anthropologist, albeit as one who see his discipline as a link in the more encompassing effort of the human sciences to understand and explicate the multiple human conditions" (p. 19). And, later in the book stating that the "anthropologist's task should be neither to exalt nor to condone but to explain" (p. 134). While Wolf's approach tends to take an academic-as-authority approach that has been criticized, such faults do not make the book one not worth reading. Consider reflections on the power of ideas:

  • "One must not forget to ask who is using reason, rationality, logic, and emotional neutrality to do what to whom. As states and enterprises around the worked incorporated Enlightenment appeal to reason to enhance their managerial efficiency, the application of instrumental logic often exacted an exorbitant price… Those charged with dispensing reason can readily tag others as opponents of progress. Down to the present, the protagonists of reason have seen themselves as apostles of modernity. They have advocated industrialization, specialization, secularization, and rational bureaucratic allocation as reasoned options superior to unreasoned reliance on tradition." (p. 25)

And, on the nature of power more explicitly:

  • "Thinking of power in relational terms, rather than as a concentrated "power-pack," has the further advantage that it allows one to see power as an aspect of many kinds of relations. Power works differently in interpersonal relations, in institutional arenas, and on the level of whole societies." (p. 5)
  • "structural power. By this I mean the power manifest in relationships that not only operates within settings and domains but also organizes and orchestrates the settings themselves, and that specifies the direction and distribution of energy flows. In Marxian terms, this refers to the power to deploy and allocate social labor. It is also the modality of power addressed by Michel Foucault when he spoke of "governance," to mean the exercise of "action upon action" (1984, 427-28). These relations of power constitute structure power." (p. 5)

In the concluding remarks Wolf writes:

  • "The three case studies presented in this book revealed societies under increasing stress, facing multiplicity of tensions posed by ecological, social, political, or psychological crises. In each case the response entailed the development of an ideology that Kroeber would have characterized as an "extreme expression." These ideologies, carried forward by elites, were fashioned out of pre-existing cultural materials, but they are not to be understood as disembodied cultural schemata. They addressed the very character of power in society, specifically the power that structured the differentiation, mobilization, and deployment of social labor, and they rooted that power in the nature of the cosmos." (p. 274)

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Logan Cochrane

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