Seeking to challenge the totalizing theory of an ‘ethnographic state’, this article examines a mid-nineteenth-century paradigm shift that impacted the colonial study of borderland populations along India's North-West Frontier. While the establishment of metropolitan ethnographic societies in the 1870s facilitated the rise of socio-cultural evolutionism, colonial agents also utilized folklore and proverb studies to represent the borderland societies as dynamic cultural entities reactive to British encroachment. Four case-studies, moreover, demonstrate that a variety of motivations compelled colonial agents to produce ethnographic material. These factors included personal scholarly ambition, political activism, and a commitment to transregional ‘scientific’ data collection projects. This study complicates the relationship between knowledge production and state power by reasserting the significance of personality as an operative force in the formation of colonial discourse.