The early journeys of academic colonialism



ALTHOUGH the publication of the 112th issue of the magazine Seminar on academic colonialism in December 1968 is still little known in the history of the social sciences, it represents an important moment that cannot be understood in isolation. It has to be placed within several sequences of a counter-hegemonic history that are still poorly known – at least in their simultaneity. In the context of this article, I would like to focus on three of these sequences: linguistic, Indian and transnational. Although the evolution of each of them can be considered autonomous and there is no real logic of convergence between them – which would imply a form of retrospective reading – it is quite clear that these sequences intersected at a particular moment (roughly the second half of the 1960s), the importance of which is relevant to a global vision of the social sciences.

It is often considered, more or less explicitly, that the special issue of Seminar on academic colonialism marks the first appearance of this expression. This is not the case. A few database searches show that it appears – albeit rather rarely – some decades earlier (see Figure 1 below). These occurrences provide a more complex picture of its meaning and the conditions of its circulation or non-circulation on a global scale.


Figure 1

Frequency of usage of academic colonialism (1960-1980)

Source: Google Ngram Viewer (consulted on 8 June 2021)


The first appearance of the phrase ‘academic colonialism’ seems to come from an article by Joseph E. Baker, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Iowa, in the journal College English in 1940, an article in which he distinguishes between regionalism and provinciality in the United States, considering that ‘what is true of the relation between Europe and America is true of the relation between our North Atlantic seaboard and the rest of the United States’: ‘Regionalism aims to discover matters of universal interest in the actual life of one’s own region. Provinciality makes the ignorant or aggressive assumption that merely local attitudes have universal value. Provinciality at its worst becomes cosmopolitan imperialism – the ignorant or aggressive attempt to impose the attitudes of one locality (Rome, Paris, London, New York, Berlin) on another locality.’

In the same line, in 1954, the American sociologist Carl Rosenquist, Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, named ‘academic colonialism’ the fact that American Southwestern social scientists were under-represented in such institutions as the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), insisting on how much they felt excluded: ‘You begin to wonder when your turn is coming. However, you find upon looking over the names of the officers, past and present, that almost all of them have come from the Northeast, a few from the Middle West or the Far West, almost none from the Southwest. A few years later you cease to notice and become resigned to being passed by.’

Four years later, the American historian of Russia Harold. H. Fisher evoked the same idea about the area of Slavic studies: ‘There appears to exist a kind of academic colonialism in the underdeveloped spaces that lie north of the Charles, west of the Hudson and south of the Potomac. The metropolis draws away from the colonies and semi-colonies some of their best products and returns less than it receives. The metropolis, in the mind of the colonial, is characterized by a kind of campanileism expressed in a perfunctory interest in and lack of knowledge of the hinterland.’



Besides this first kind of academic colonialism inscribing it into an infra-American framework of geographic domination, we notice another one that concerned the claims by African Americans to obtain greater recognition within the academy. As Kevin Yelvington reminds us, the Trinidadian historian teaching in the United States, Hollis R. Lynch, wrote on 8 April 1968 to SSRC’s Rowland L. Mitchell, Jr. that unless ‘Afro-American scholars [are] well represented on any committee established to promote Afro-American studies’, ‘there will be a justifiable cry on the part of Afro-Americans of “academic colonialism”.’ The same image will later be used by other leaders of the African-American fight against the absence of Black scholars in the academy, like for instance the African-American historian John Henrik Clarke, one of the founders of the African Heritage Studies Association in 1969.



A third layer of these early uses has to do with the presence of western scholars in the so-called ‘developing world’. In his 1963 novel Candle against the Wind, the Indian writer Kanatur Bhaskara Rao described day-to-day life in Indian universities: ‘And once in a while one could see a few “Down with Colonialism” placards as well. The student holding this placard tried to justify it by saying, that they were actually fighting against “Academic Colonialism”.’ On the other hand, this issue of academic presence in the Third World also became more and more vivid in the United States, as we can see from this testimony of the American political scientist and specialist of Latin American countries, Kalman H. Silvert, before the U.S. Senate Sub-committee on Government Research on 27 June 1967:

‘Certainly social science research in general, and most particularly survey research, has suffered during the last two years overseas, and especially so in the developing world. Many contributing reasons can be listed: the effects of given government-sponsored investigations, subventions of academic and quasi-academic entities by intelligence agencies, the heaviness of the flow of American researchers, disagreement among given influential groups with U.S. foreign policy, fears of “academic colonialism” and of competition and loss of prestige and jobs to foreign scholars, and so forth.’

He went on, describing how this situation was understood in the relevant countries:

‘In some nations […], there is a growing resentment of academic colonialism where the external investigator is seen as exploiting a national resource, namely, the social-cultural heritage of the people. Wherever possible, funds should be decentralized so that the control at the local level rests with a collaborating psychologist of that country.’



The fact that Silvert insists on ‘the last two years’ is no accident. A simple look at the uses of some similar phrases to academic colonialism, like scientific colonialism or intellectual colonialism eloquently shows that their rise starts during the second half of the 1960s (see Figure 2 below). Offering an answer to this concomitance implies going somewhat deeper into the logic of the academic Cold War.


Figure 2

Frequency of usage of three similar phrases (1800-2019)


Source: Google Ngram Viewer (consulted on 8 June 2021)


During the last decade, Mark Solovey and Hamilton Cravens, along with the Austrian sociologist Christian Dayé and other scholars, have studied what they call ‘Cold War Social Science’, namely the interweaving of the geopolitical stakes of the Cold War with the scientific stakes of the internationalization of social sciences.

The history of the social sciences is not independent but is part of a complex set of logics – scientific, political and military among others – that challenge the apparent separation of the different social spheres. The humanities and the social sciences, both western and communist, have not remained neutral. On the western side, they have benefited – and often in an important way – from public subsidies or from the work of philanthropic foundations such as the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation or the Fulbright Foundation for the elaboration of research programmes whose objective was not necessarily and purely motivated by the libido sciendi.



The example of Project Camelot is quite telling in this respect. This largescale and massively funded project which, with the declared aim of analyzing Latin American societies and cultures and under the scientific backing of a large number of American experts or experts living in the United States at the time, was in fact aimed, from 1964 onwards, at assessing the risks of a communist revolution in South America. Revealed in 1965 as being more of a political than a scientific project, it was cancelled in July of the same year. Involved in the denunciation of Project Camelot, the Norwegian sociologist wrote a paper in 1967 titled ‘Scientific colonialism’ that contributed to the beginning of a collective reflection, especially in the United States, about the links between science and politics.

This reflection has gathered all the more momentum since, as Frances Saunders and Tity de Vries studied it extensively, the role of the CIA in the funding of philanthropic foundations, intellectual reviews and organizations, was publicly revealed in 1967. Quite paradoxically, even though the consultants to the Camelot project were overwhelmingly sociologists, political scientists and psychologists, anthropology is undoubtedly the discipline in which the scientific consequences have been the most significant.



Although the long history of institutional relations between anthropology and the American government goes back to the Second World War, it was after the failure of Camelot that the main calls for the reinvention of anthropology were made. We can notably mention, among others, those by Dell Hymes and Kathleen Gough, both relying on the statement made in 1968 by Kathleen Gough: ‘Anthropology was born of Western imperialism.’ However, as the anthropologist Peter Pels clearly shows, the general trend was largely a will to move towards a reformulation of the ethical foundations of the discipline as well as the establishment of deontological codes protecting the populations studied.

In this respect, the failure of the Camelot project constituted a ‘turning point’ in the history of deontological codification in the discipline of anthropology. Voices calling for a broader ‘decolonisation (sic) of the social sciences’, as Jack Goody put it in 1969, were still rare. Only in a few cases, such as Gerald Berreman’s 1969 article about India, was there a direct observation of the claims advocated by scholars from the developing world.

If colonial India was under British dominance, independent India and its social sciences not only largely remained under the British yoke but also endured American epistemic hegemony, especially after the Ford Foundation established an office in New Delhi in 1952. This does not mean that no reaction to either domination was ever expressed before. Perhaps one of the best early examples is the lecture given in 1928 at Hooghly College, University of Calcutta, by the Indian philosopher Krishnachandra Bhattacharya, in which he takes up the idea of swaraj, used by Gandhi to describe Indian self-determination, and applies it to the field of ideas, considering that ‘the hybridisation of ideas brought about by our education and the impact of Western political, social and economic institutions of our daily life is one of the most distressing features of our present situation.’



The 1950s and 1960s represent a fundamental period for Indian sociology for at least two reasons. On the one hand, the constitution – under the aegis of the Department of Sociology of Bombay University headed by G.S. Ghurye – of the Indian Sociological Society in December 1951 and the founding in 1952 of the journal Sociological Bulletin, as well as the organization of the All-India Sociological Conferences from 1955 onwards by the Department of Sociology of Lucknow University, provided the basis for a growing institutionalization of the discipline while the number of university departments increased and gradually spread to all states of the country.

On the other hand, especially following an article written by the French anthropologist Louis Dumont and the British anthropologist
David F. Pocock in the first volume of Contributions to Indian Sociology, an important debate arose about
the specificities of an Indian sociology
(or a sociology in India) in contrast with a sociology of India. This debate contributed to laying some of
the foundations for a larger discussion like the one present in the special
issue of ‘Seminar’ about academic colonialism.

The chronology shall be taken in close consideration here. In 1967, as recalled by Nicole Sackley, 26 scholars from the University of New Delhi released a public statement against ‘U.S. infiltration in our universities’. The very same year, in his presidential address to the Conference of Indian Sociologists, convened by the Indian Sociological Society in Bombay (14-16 October 1967), M.N. Srinivas insisted on the fact that the mission consisting in saving Indian academics’ freedom to do what they consider worthwhile from the influence of fund-giving bodies and international ‘cooperative’ research ventures was a problem that should become a more crucial issue for sociologists than it used to be so far.



In July 1968, the Indian anthropologist J.P.S. Uberoi, a professor of sociology and anthropology at the University
of Delhi who had trained at the University of Manchester before obtaining his PhD at the Australian National University, presented a paper entitled ‘Science and Swaraj’ at a conference on urgent research in social anthropology held by the
Indian Institute of Advanced Study (Simla). Without any reference to Bhattacharya’s conference forty years before, he picked the same Hindi word to describe an epistemic world of power relations and domination:

‘There is no “world community of science”, unless that phrase be another name for the national and international science of rich nations. Scientistic internationalism is a bridge of illusion, a cloak of comfort across the chasm. The existing system of foreign aid in science, to which the internationalist notion of collaboration lends credence, in truth upholds the system of foreign dominance in all matters of scientific and professional life and organization. It is nothing but the satellite system, with an added subsidy. It subordinates the national science of the poor to the national and international science of the rich. It confirms our dependence and helplessness and will not end them. The reason for these effects is simple and fundamental: the national and the international systems inherently are synonymous for the rich but opposites for the poor. This relativism is the iron law of international collaboration.’



The swaraj counterpart lies in the capacity to ‘nationalize’ science in order to get released from scientific colonialism:

‘Every swarajist should recognize what are the essential preconditions, under this system, for the advancement of universal science in our environment. Until we can concentrate on decolonialization, learn to nationalize our problems and take our poverty seriously, we shall continue to be both colonial and unoriginal. A national school, avowed and conscious, can perhaps add relevance, meaning and potency to our science; continued assent to the international system cannot.’

The cancellation of Project Camelot, the revelations about the funding role of the CIA and the light they brought onto the relationship between some fractions of the American social sciences (within anthropology, sociology, political science, etc.) knew an Indian version in the summer of 1968 when it was discovered that the Himalayan Border Countries Project (HBCP) that had been implemented by the University of California, Berkeley, since 1967, benefited from a huge grant from the United States Department of Defence.

The December 1968 issue of ‘Seminar’ is undoubtedly the result of both a specific international and
Indian context that was not favourable to the United States, and a longer-term process about the refusal of any lingering economic, geopolitical and epistemic colonialism. This combination was not specifically Indian. It marks a number of other counter-hegemonic struggles throughout the world.



The consequences of the Camelot and CIA scandal are far from being limited to the ‘epistemological revolution’ (i.e. the challenging of the researcher’s impartiality and objectivity, as well as a renewed criticism of the notion of value-free research) identified by Solovey. In particular, this ‘revolution’ is not only visible in some western social science academic milieux. Indeed, although in other ways, it is also breaking out throughout the Latin American continent, and not only in Chile as it was studied by Juan José Navarro. A 1966 article by the Puerto Rican sociologist Manuel Maldonado-Denis noted that the ideal of a ‘value-free’ (libre de valores) social science had been replaced in the United States by a ‘scientific-social ideology’.

Moreover, while the reactions were not necessarily immediate and sometimes not based on the example of the Camelot project, they were clearly indicative of a near-global transformation in thinking about the links between social science and policy. Whereas in core western states the reflection upon the transformation of anthropology was mostly focused on the epistemological, methodological and ethical foundations of the discipline, more and more academics in the rest of the world started challenging the very presence or ‘infiltration’ of western social scientists on their ‘own’ fieldwork.

While many criticisms of the foreign presence and its role in the devaluation or disappearance of endogenous thinking had already been voiced before, they took a new turn in the second half of the 1960s, and even more precisely from 1967-1968 onwards. They notably started using increasingly similar formulations without a primary reference being detected: ‘academic colonialism’ of course, but also ‘scientific colonialism’ (Galtung), ‘intellectual imp-erialism’ as one can find it denounced by the Malaysian sociologist Syed Hussein Alatas in 1969, or ‘int-ellectual colonialism’ (colonialism intellectual) pointed out by the Colombian sociologist Orlando Fals Borda in 1970.



This capacity for naming, whose formative dimension is essential since it contributes greatly to the very existence of the cause, is just as effective when it comes to qualifying the ‘exit’ from this situation by calling for the ‘decolonization’ of the social sciences in general or of a particular discipline (sociology or anthropology most of the time). This can be read as early as 1967 in the writings of the Moroccan sociologist Abdelkébir Khatibi, or in 1971 in a text written by the Mexican anthropologist Rodolfo Stavenhagen.

This onomastic networking took place and gained momentum at the same time as the emergence of the Third World as a global political actor after the Bandoeng Conference and the gradual establishment of trans-national scholarly networks, generally sponsored by the UNESCO or by the CODESRIA (Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa), under the direction of Samir Amin, which allowed for the very real meeting of those who had often crossed paths only through words.

Considered through the prism of a global history of counter-hegemonic resistance in the social sciences, the special issue of ‘Seminar’ on academic colonialism should be read at the intersection of the different histories we have mentioned and not only from its political and epistemic value as has often been the case so far. A better consideration of the historicity of these resistances and their gradual connection with one another will certainly allow us to better understand how the absence of social science reflections in non-western countries does not reflect their non-existence at all, but rather their invisibility within a largely canonized history.



Syed Hussein Alatas, ‘Academic Imperialism’, address delivered before the Historical Society of Singapore, 26 September 1969.

Joseph E. Baker, ‘Provinciality’, College English 6, 1940, pp. 488-494.

Gerald D. Berreman, ‘Academic Colonialism: Not So Innocent Abroad’, The Nation, 10 November 1969, pp. 505-508.

Krishnachandra Bhattacharya, ‘Swaraj in Ideas (1928)’, in Sisirkumar Ghose (ed.), Four Indian Critical Essays: K. C. Bhattacharya, B.N. Seal, Rabindranath Tagore, Sri Aurobindo. Jijnasa, Calcutta, 1977, pp. 13-22.

Christian Dayé, Experts, Social Scientists, and Techniques of Prognosis in Cold War America. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2020.

Louis Dumont and David Pocock, ‘For a Sociology of India’, Contributions to Indian Sociology 1, 1957, pp. 7-19.

Orlando Fals Borda, Cienciapropia y colonialismointellectual. Nuestro Tiempo, Mexico, 1970.

Johan Galtung, ‘Scientific Colonialism’, Transition 30, 1967, pp. 10-15.

Harold H. Fisher, ‘Growing Pains of Slavic and East European Area Training’, American Slavic and East European Review 17(3), 1958, pp. 346-350.

Jack Goody, ‘Comparative Sociology and the Decolonization of the Social Sciences’, in Jack Goody, Comparative Studies in Kinship. Routledge and Kegan, London,1969, pp. 1-12.

Kathleen Gough, ‘Anthropology and Imperialism’, Monthly Review 19(11), 1968, pp.12-27.

Wayne H. Holtzman, ‘Cross-Cultural Studies in Psychology’, International Journal of Psychology 3(2), 1968, pp. 83-91.

Dell Hymes (ed.), Reinventing Anthropology. Pantheon Books, New York, 1972.

Abdelkébir Khatibi, Bilan de la sociologie au Maroc. Association pour la recherche en sciences humaines, Rabat, 1967.

Manuel Maldonado-Denis, ‘Sobre el uso y abuso de las cienciassociales: el casodel Proyecto Camelot’, Revista de ciencias sociales 10(4), 1966, pp. 403-416.

National Foundation for Social Sciences: Hearings Before the United States Senate Committee on Government Operations, Subcommittee on Government Research, Ninetieth Congress, First Session, Parts1 to 3. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, 1967.

Juan José Navarro, ‘Cold War in Latin America: The Camelot Project (1964-1965) and the Political and Academic Reactions of the Chilean Left’, Contemporary Sociology 10(5), 2011, p. 807-825.

Peter Pels, ‘Professions of Duplexity: A Prehistory of Ethical Codes in Anthropology’, Current Anthropology 40(2), 1999, pp. 101-114.

Karnatur Bhaskara Rao, Candle Against the Wind: An Explosive Novel of University Life in India. Samyukta Karnatak Press, Bangalore, 1963.

Carl M. Rosenquist, ‘Academic Colonialism’, The Southwestern Social Science Quarterly 35(1), 1954, pp. 3-10.

Nicole Sackley, ‘Foundation in the Field: The Ford Foundation New Delhi Office and the Construction of Development Knowledge, 1951-1970’, in John Krige and Helke Rausch (eds.), American Foundations and the Coproduction of World Order in the Twentieth Century. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen, 2012, pp. 232-60.

Frances S. Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and LettersThe Free Press, New York, 2000.

Mark Solovey, ‘Project Camelot and the 1960s Epistemological Revolution: Rethinking the Politics-Patronage-SocialScience Nexus’, Social Studies of Science31(2), 2001, pp. 171-206.

Mark Solovey and Hamilton Cravens (eds.), Cold War Social Science. Knowledge Production, Liberal Democracy, and Human Nature. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2012.

Rodolfo Stavenhagen, ‘Decolonializing Applied Social Sciences’, Human Organization 30(4), 1971, pp. 333-344.

J.P.S. Uberoi, ‘Science and Swaraj’, Contributions to Indian Sociology 2(1), 1968, pp. 119-123.

Tity de Vries, ‘The 1967 Central Intelligence Agency Scandal: Catalyst in a Transforming Relationship between State and People’, The Journal of American History 98(4), 2012, pp.1075-1092.

Kevin A. Yelvington, ‘“A Conference That Didn’t”: African Diaspora Studies and an Episode in Anthropology’s Identity Politics of Representation’, Critique of Anthropology 38(4), 2018, pp. 407-432.