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Daniel Speich Chassé

La situation coloniale

ISBN: 978-3-906817-09-5
DOI: http://doi.org/10.13098/infoclio.ch-lb-0005
Publication date: 2016


This contribution is about the framing of North-South-relations in the 20th century. From colonial times we have inherited a tradition of thinking about the globe in a fundamental dichotomy between the West and the rest of the world. It was instrumental in legitimizing colonial rule and it lingered on in global political imagination way past the decline of the European Empires. But there is also an opposing tradition that does not necessarily prolong such an antagonism. It suggests understanding the dichotomy itself as a crucial tension in recent global history and calls for further studies in this respect. An important source for such reasoning is a paper by the French anthropologist Georges Balandier on “La situation coloniale” that was published in 1951. It stands in the focus here. The argument is, firstly, that assuming a dichotomy between the West and the rest of the world prevents scholars from understanding global historical change, and, secondly, that such a dichotomy is still crucial in critical scholarship and in political imagination. We need to get a better historical understanding of the fact that Western scholars were always part of the picture that they took from other communities. The first sections of the contribution locate Balandier’s argument historically and sketch the role of social scientific expertise in late colonialism. Then the curious afterlife of Balandier’s 1951 text in the intellectual history of the recent past is reviewed. As a matter of fact, “La situation coloniale” has remained a textual source of irritation and inspiration ever since its original publication. This is so because the colonial situation, which Balandier suggested to study, has remained in place despite major changes in world politics. The contribution critically discusses French political thought in view of an American challenge. It asks to what extent scholars of post-colonial studies could profit from Balandier’s text today.