Primitiveness and Sovereignty: Conceptions of Temporality in Anthropology and Folklore Studies in Germany (1850s-1930s)

Christof Dejung, book project

In this project, I argue that in late 19th and early 20th century, claims for territorial sovereignty and social power were closely interlinked with particular notions of temporality. By taking Germany as an exemplary case, the project examines how notions of ‘backwardness’ and ‘primitiveness’, initially used by urban elites in order to legitimate colonial expansion and metropolitan predominance within Germany, could be redefined in order to become the foundation of both regional and national traditions. This was possible because the contemporary concept of ‘primitiveness’ involved two contradicting implications: On the one hand, it could be used within metropolitan centres for justifying the dominance of backward peripheries in the colonies and the European hinterland; on the other hand, it could be used to refer to timeless traditions and hence support regional and national quests for identity and self-empowerment.

This project examines these ambivalent and ever-shifting implications of primitiveness by focusing on the emerging scientific disciplines of anthropology and folklore studies, which were closely interrelated until the late 19th century. Scholars such as Adolf Bastian or Richard Andree examined both, domestic and colonial peoples and many later founders of societies for folklore studies had been members of anthropological societies as a matter of course. These ties, however, were gradually loosened at the turn of the century and folklorist examinations of domestic cultures were increasingly integrated into national and regional historical narratives.

The project examines the modes of temporality which justified this dissociation and explores in how far it was accompanied by an increased importance of racial theories in anthropological research. It therefore ties in with seminal works of scholars such as Johannes Fabian and Nicholas Thomas on the significance of temporal structures in anthropology but opens up completely new research trajectories by relating their findings to intra-European processes such as nationalism and domestic power struggles. In particular by analysing the epistemological shifts between the two different implications of primitiveness and by examining the sociopolitical processes involved, the project analyses what was described as ‘inventions of tradition’ by European social historians on the one hand and the ‘othering’ of non-European civilisations studied by global historians and postcolonial scholars on the other within one field of analysis and one theoretical framework. This postulate is often cited in postcolonial and global historical writings; however only a few studies so far really have implemented this claim in empirical analyses.

Project Leader