Steinmetz on colonialism

George Steinmetz offers a comparative sociology of colonialism in The Devil’s Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa.  More specifically, he wants to explain differences in the implementation of “native policy” within German colonial regimes around the turn of the twentieth century.  He finds that there are significant differences across three major instances of German colonialism (Samoa, Qingdao, Southwest Africa), and he wants to know why. (For example, the Namibia regime was much more violent than the Samoa or Qingdao examples.) This is a causal question, and Steinmetz is one of the most talented sociologists of his cohort in American sociology. So it is worth looking at his reasoning in detail.

One reason this is interesting to me is that it seems to represent a hard case for the perspective of analytical sociology (linklink), with its goal of providing an overarching model of all valid sociological explanations. On its face, Steinmetz’s analysis doesn’t look much like Coleman’s boat — identify a macro pattern of interest, look for the actors whose behavior gives rise to the pattern, and try to identify individual-level circumstances that cause the pattern through the individuals’ actions.  So let’s look in a little bit of detail at the explanations that Steinmetz offers.

Here are the guiding research goals for Steinmetz’s study.

Social theorists have often treated colonialism as a monolithic object, a uniform condition. Yet even a cursory overview of the historical literature indicates that colonialism is actually an extremely capacious category, encompassing everything from pillage and massacre in the Spanish conquest of the New World to the peaceful coexistence between British rulers and Chinese subjects in late colonial Hong Kong. The colonies that made up the German overseas empire, which lasted from 1884 until the end of World War I, exemplify the enormous variability even within the more delimited category of modern colonialism. This specifically modern variant of European colonialism, as opposed to the early modern (or earlier) forms, is my focus in this book.  I have selected three colonies to illustrate the wide spectrum of colonial native policy, which I will argue below, was the core activity of the modern colonial state.  These colonies are German Southwest Africa, forerunner of modern-day Namibia; German Samoa, precursor of the contemporary nation-state of Samoa; and Kiaochow, a colony that consisted of the city of Qingdao and its surrounding hinterland in China’s Shandong Province. (1)

What I try to account for in this book — my “explanandum” — is colonial native policy. Four determining structures or causal mechanisms were especially important in each of these colonies: (1) precolonial ethnographic discourses or representations, (2) symbolic competition among colonial officials for recognition of their superior ethnographic acuity, (3) colonizers’ cross-identification with imagos of the colonized, and (4) responses by the colonized, including resistance, collaboration, and everything in between.  Two other mechanisms influenced colonial native policy to varying degrees: [5] “economic” dynamics related to capitalist profit seeking (plantation agriculture, mining, trade, and smaller-scale forms of business) and [6] the “political pressures generated by the international system of states. (2)

This book does not attempt to identify any singular, general model of colonial rule.  Indeed, general theory and general laws are widely recognized as implausible goals in the social sciences.  Historians have always preferred complex, overdetermined, conjunctural accounts, but sociologists and some other social scientists have been reluctant to abandon the chimerical goals of parsimony and “general theory.” Rather than attempt to use colonial comparisons to fabricate a uniform model of the colonial state, I will seek instead to identify a limited set of generative social structures or mechanisms and to track the ways they interacted to provide ongoing policies. Even though each instance of colonial native policy was shaped by a different constellation of influences, the four primary mechanisms named above were always present and efficacious to varying degrees. (3)

Note that Steinmetz proceeds here in a clearly comparativist fashion (three cases with salient similarities and differences); and he proceeds with the language of causal mechanism in view.  The comparativist orientation implies a desire to identify causal differences across the cases that would account for the differences in outcomes in the cases.  He suggests later in the analysis that all six factors mentioned here are causally relevant; but that the general structural causes (5 and 6) do not account for the variation in the cases.   These structural factors perhaps account for the similarities rather than the differences across the cases. But Steinmetz emphasizes repeatedly that general theories of colonialism cannot account for the wide variation that is found across these three cases.  “The patterns of variation among these three colonies are as puzzling as is the sheer degree of heterogeneity” (19).

So what kind of account does Steinmetz offer for the four key mechanisms he cites?  Consider first factor (2) above, the idea that the specifics of colonial rule depended a great deal on the circumstances of the professional and ideological “field” within which colonial administrators were recruited and served.  (Here is a posting on Bourdieu’s concept of “field”; link.)  “Social fields are organized around differences — differences of perception and practice.  It is difficult to imagine what sorts of materials actors could use in their efforts to carve out hierarchies of cultural distinction if they were faced with cultural formations as flat and uniform as Saidian ‘Orientalism'” (45-46).  The idea here is that the particular intellectual and professional environment established certain points of difference around which participants competed. These dividing lines set the terms of professional competition, and prospective colonial administrators as well as functioning administrators needed to establish their program for governance around a distinctive package of these assumptions.

Was the colonial state characterized by common perceptions of distinction and stakes of conflict? German colonial administrators did in fact compete for a specific form of cultural distinction within the ambit of the colonial state, and this struggle guided each individual toward particular kinds of native policy.  … The colonial stage thus became an exaggerated version of imperial Germany’s three-way intraelite class struggle. (48, 49)

This mechanism is a fairly clear one; and it provides a promising basis for explaining some of the otherwise puzzling aspects of colonial rule and native policy.  It derives, fundamentally, from Bourdieu’s theories of social capital.  Consider an analogy with current military policies in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Suppose there are two large ideas of strategy in the air, counter-insurgency and state-building.  Suppose that each of these frameworks of thought has resonance with different groups of powerful political leaders within the government.  And suppose that senior military commanders are interested in establishing their credentials as effective strategists.  It makes sense to imagine that there may be a competition for choosing on-the-ground strategies and tactics that align with the grand strategy the theater commander thinks will further his long-range career success the best.

This mechanism is consistent with an agent-centered theory of explanation: actors (administrators or generals) are immersed in a policy environment in which conflicting ideas about success are debated; the actors seek to align their actions to the framework they judge to be most likely to prevail (and preserve their careers).  No one wants to be the last Curtis LeMay in Vietnam when the prevailing view back home is “winning hearts and minds.”  The explanation postulates a social fact — the prevalence of several intellectual frameworks about the other, several ethnographic discourses; and the individual’s immersion in these discourses permits him or her to act strategically in pursuing advantageous goals.

We can often begin to understand why one strand of precolonial discourse rather than another guided colonial practice once we know who was put in charge of a given colony. (54)

So this illustrates the way that factors (1) and (2) work in Steinmetz’s explanation.  What about (3)?  This falls in the category of what Steinmetz calls “symbolic and imaginary identifications” (55).  Here Steinmetz turns away from conscious calculation and jockeying on the part of the colonial administrator in the direction of a non-rational psychology. Steinmetz draws on psychoanalytic theory and the theories of Lacan here. But it remains an agent-centered analysis.  Steinmetz refers to elements of mentality as an explanation of the administrators’ behavior, and their possession of this mentality needs its own explanation.  But what proceeds from the assumption of this mentality is straightforward; it is a projection of behavior based on a theory of the mental framework of the actor.

The fourth factor in Steinmetz’s analysis turns to the states of agency of the colonized.  Here he refers to strategies of response by the subject people to the facts of colonial rule, ranging from cooperation to resistance.

Resistance is located on the opposite side from cooperation. Colonized peoples were able to modulate and revise native policies. By signing up as a native policeman one might be able to temper colonial abuses of power. More frontal forms of resistance could bring a regime of native policy to an abrupt halt and force the colonial state to seek a new approach. (66)

This aspect of the story too is highly compatible with a microfoundations approach; it is straightforward to see how social mobilization theory can be fleshed out in ways that make it an agent-centered approach.

Here is how Steinmetz sums up his account:

The colonial state, I have argued here, can best be understood as a kind of field, one that is structured around opposing principles and interests and around conflict over specific stakes.  Actors in the field of the colonial state competed to accumulate ethnographic capital.  This field’s internal heterogeneity and the fact that a field is “a space of possibilities” with an “immense elasticity” meant that colonial policy was never a smooth, continuous process but was prone to sudden shifts in direction. The relative autonomy of the colonial government from the metropolitan state and its independence from other fields in terms of its definition of symbolic capital meant that it was, in fact, a kind of state, even if political theorists have paid little attention to it. Just as it is impossible to generalize about the contents of ethnographic discourse or the policies of the colonial state,neither can one characaterize the “mind of the colonizer” in general terms, except to say that it was as complex and internally contradictory as the subjectivity of the colonized. (517-518)

It should also be noted that a great deal of Steinmetz’s account is not explanatory, but rather descriptive and narrative.  He provides detailed accounts of the history and behavior of the colonial regimes in these three settings, and much of the value of the book indeed derives from the research underlying these descriptive accounts.

So Steinmetz’s account seems to have several important characteristics.  First, it is interested in providing a contextualized explanation of differences in nominally similar outcomes (different instances of German colonial rule).  Second, it is interested in providing an account of the causal mechanisms that shaped each of the instances, in such a way as to account for their differences.  Third, the mechanisms that he highlights are largely agent-centered mechanisms.  Fourth, the account deliberately highlights the contingency of the developments it describes.  Individuals and particular institutions play a role, as well as historical occurrences that were themselves highly contingent.  And finally, there is a pervasive use of collective concepts like field, ideology, worldview, and ethnography that play a crucial causal role in the story.  These concepts identify a supra-individual factor.  But each of them can be provided with a microfoundational account.  So Steinmetz’s analysis here seems to be largely consistent with microfoundationalism.  It diverges from analytical sociology in one important respect, however: Steinmetz does not couch his explanatory goals in terms of the idea of deriving social outcomes from individual-level actions and relations.  Rather, it is for the reader to confirm that the mechanisms cited do in fact have appropriate microfoundations.

(Steinmetz discusses his theoretical approach to colonialism in his interview included in the “interviews” page. Here is an appreciative review of The Devil’s Handwritinglink.)


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