History, anthropology, colonialism, and the study of India

Autobiography of an Archive is a collection of essays by Nicholas B. Dirks written since 1991, preceded by an autobiographical introduction. This review article discusses the collection in relation to Dirks's overall scholarship and the wider intellectual field in which history, anthropology, and colonialism intersect in the study of India. Dirks has written three books: The Hollow Crown (1987), an “ethnohistory” of a “little kingdom” in south India; Castes of Mind (2001), about colonialism, anthropology, and caste in India; and The Scandal of Empire (2006), which discusses the foundations of British imperial sovereignty. In The Hollow Crown and other writings, Dirks significantly contributed to the debate about the “rapprochement” between anthropology and history, which was prominent in the 1980s. But in the 1990s, Dirks thought, the rapprochement ground to a halt; the relationship between anthropology and colonialism then came to the fore, and Castes of Mind, as well as some of these essays, were influential critical studies of colonial anthropology. In recent essays, Dirks has examined the “politics of knowledge” and the postwar development of South Asian area studies in the United States. This article argues that although the relationship between anthropology and history is now rarely debated, historical anthropology has continued to develop since the 1980s. Moreover, anthropologists in general now recognize that history matters, and that colonialism crucially shaped modern society and culture in India, and other former colonial territories. Many of Dirks's conclusions about, for example, Indian kingdoms and caste in colonial discourse, have been criticized by other scholars. Nonetheless, anthropological writing, especially on India, is no longer unhistorical, as it once often was, and Dirks's scholarship has played a valuable part in bringing about this change.