Katherine Ambler
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Anthropology at the end of empire
Turning a ‘colonial science’ on Britain itself
in British culture after empire
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Anthropology struggled to escape its colonial heritage and find a place for itself in the era of decolonisation. Faced with losing access to colonial field sites, anthropologists at the University of Manchester sought to establish the applicability of anthropological theory to modern Britain throughout the 1950s and 1960s. They aimed to demonstrate how their expertise, which was derived from the study of Africa and other colonial regions, could be applied to labour, community or social relations in Britain. This work sought to position anthropologists as social scientific observers who could use their knowledge of different societies to provide guidance to the British government and public in a period of social change, industrial unrest and shifting ideas about national identity. It also reveals how the end of empire and the loss of the privileges of ‘colonial science’ forced scholars to find new ways to justify their expertise and to adapt their practices to win support from new patrons. This chapter focuses on the work of anthropologists based at the University of Manchester, analysing their research into factory-floor dynamics and rural communities. It connects recent historiography on ‘post-colonial careers’ and the links between imperial and domestic intellectual practices with work on the construction of knowledge within the social and human sciences, in order to highlight how social scientific ideas about modern Britain could make use of models developed to explain the social dynamics of the Empire.

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