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Kalahari revisionism, Vienna and the ‘indigenous peoples’ debate


The debate on the notion of ‘indigenous peoples’ is one of the newest facing anthropology. Yet its theoretical foundation is not new. It is implicit in both Kalahari revisionism and its opposite, the ecological approach that treats hunter-gatherers as exemplars of primal culture. It is also reminiscent of the earlier views of Wilhelm Schmidt, whose vision of the earliest culture circle was represented by living hunter-gatherers. That said, the notion of ‘indigenous peoples’ is more complex than earlier models; and its opponents, such as Adam Kuper, must struggle against both philosophical premises (which are relatively easy to challenge) and practical arguments in favour of keeping the notion (which are more resilient). This paper focuses on the ‘indigenous peoples’ debate in Africanist anthropology, but its wider aspects include the interconnections of theoretical premises within diverse schools in the discipline and the general relation between anthropological theory and practical politics.

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The title alludes to Adam Kuper's ‘Post-modernism, Cambridge and the Great Kalahari debate’, published in the first issue of Social Anthropology (Kuper 1992). My paper was presented at the eighth EASA conference, Vienna, 8–12 September 2004. Attendance was supported by grants from the British Academy and the School of Social and Political Studies, University of Edinburgh. I am grateful to Peter Skalník for inviting me to write and present the paper in his session; to the great many at the conference who made useful comments and suggestions; to Justin Kenrick, Jerome Lewis, Peter Pels, Sidsel Saugestad, James Suzman, and three anonymous referees for their written comments; and to Stefan Ecks and Han Vermeulen for help in obtaining bibliographical items.
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Social Anthropology
  • ISSN: 0964-0282
  • EISSN: 1469-8676
  • URL: /core/journals/social-anthropology
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