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The Seduction of Morocco for American Anthropology

by Paul Silverstein

Students of Morocco, particularly those with experience in the American academy, are often struck by the volume of anthropological research conducted in Moroccan towns, cities, villages, and tribes. The 1960s witnessed an explosion of ethnographic interest in Morocco, spearheaded by Clifford and Hildred Geertz but certainly shaped by a longer trajectory of ethnographic work on Morocco. It prompts the question: why Morocco? What brought all these American researchers there? Paul Silverstein unpacks the complex this complex history and suggests a handful of political and cultural factors for why there's so much groundbreaking ethnographic research based on fieldwork in Morocco.

How can we explain the oddly close relationship between American anthropologists and Morocco? Morocco—and North Africa more broadly—has been a prestige site for anthropological theorizing since the modern academic field came into existence in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Some central and durable anthropological concepts around collective cohesion, lineage segmentation, relational personhood, and habitus were formulated by social theorists on the basis of evidence from North Africa.


To a certain extent this goes back to the work of Tunis-born 14th-century scholar Ibn Khaldun whose theorization of ‘asabiyya (loosely, group feeling) became the basis for Emile Durkheim’s model of mechanical solidarity (as contrasted with the organic solidarity characterizing societies with more elaborated divisions of labor), as mediated by French colonial ethnologists who translated Khaldun’s oeuvre and, like Emile Masqueray (1886), applied it to characterize Algerian Kabyle society. Durkheimian functionalism was the foundation of much early and mid-20th century French colonial sociology of the Maghreb, including the work of Edmond Doutté, Léopold Justinard, René Maunier, and Edouard Michaux-Bellaire, among others, culminating in Robert Montagne’s political ethnography of southern Moroccan Berber tribes (1930).


Durkheim’s theories would similarly stimulate the shift in British social anthropology from the study of comparative religion—as exemplified notably by Edward Westermarck’s Ritual and Belief in Morocco (1926)—to a structural-functionalist model which reached its apogee with E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s segmentary lineage theory—first formulated in his studies of the Nuer of southern Sudan but refined in his later work in the Libyan Cyrenaica where he was stationed during the second world war—and subsequently revised and applied to Morocco by Ernest Gellner (1969)  in his studies of the central High Atlas and the American anthropologist David Hart (1976, 1981) in his work among the ‘Ait Atta of southern Morocco and the Aith Waryaghar of the northern Rif. The latter followed in the footsteps of his teacher Carleton Coon (1931), arguably the first American academic anthropologist to do long-term fieldwork in North Africa in the wake of the Rif War and who was later deployed as an OSS officer in Morocco during World War II. In this sense, anthropology’s relationship to North Africa has long been mediated by colonialism and military occupation, which at least partly explains its persistent focus on social and political organization.


It was against this sociopolitical preoccupation that Clifford and Hildred Geertz and their students set themselves in their research in the 1960s and 1970s which centered the cultural and symbolic foundations of Moroccan individual and collective identity. The Clifford Geertz (1974) and Lawrence Rosen (1979) particularly highlighted the relational, negotiated constitution of Moroccan personhood and social reality more broadly, underlining the transactional, communicative, and interpretive ways in which Moroccans made their world meaningful. Over the next several decades, other American anthropologists of Morocco—including foundationally Kenneth Brown, Dale Eickelman, Vincent Crapanzano, Kevin Dwyer, and Paul Rabinow, and later Elaine Combs-Schilling, Deborah Kapchan, David McMurray, Susan Ossman, Stefania Pandolfo, and Susan Slyomovics—expanded this symbolic and interpretive approach to embrace poststructuralist theory (particularly the insights of Bourdieu, Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan) and postmodern narrative forms of dialogism, life history, and self-reflexivity. They did so in dialogue with an emerging generation of Moroccan anthropologists—notably Abdellah Hammoudi, but also Ali Amahan, Hassan Rachik, and Mohamed Tozy—who carried forward some of the insights of French rural sociology (notably the work of Paul Pascon), structuralism, and practice theory.


In the last several decades, a new generation of American and Moroccan anthropologists—including Jamila Bargach, Cynthia Becker, Aomar Boum, David Crawford, Abdelmajid Hannoum, Katherine Hoffman, Hsain Ilahiane, Oren Kosansky, Rachel Newcomb, Karen Rignall, Emilio Spadola, and others—have built on the efforts of the earlier generations and incorporated the more recent insights and approaches of global political economy, media studies, gender theory, critical race theory, and postcolonial studies. In some cases, this has amounted to a return to older concerns with historical development, social transformation, economic infrastructure, and political legitimation that had been partially abandoned during the culturalist and postmodern turn of the 1970s and 1980s, but now as a critique of structures of power and authoritarianism, and in celebration of the dynamism and resilience of Morocco's diverse polity. If earlier anthropology had been put in the service of military colonialism, contemporary anthropologists have embraced decolonial and collaborative methodologies.


In some ways, these shifts mirror broader transformations in the relationship between the United States and Morocco over the past century. As Brian Edwards (2005) has traced, Morocco has in many ways functioned as one of America's intimate others, a screen onto which fantasies of freedom and danger have been alternatively projected: from the gunboat diplomacy of the late-18th century Barbary wars and the early 20th-century Perdicaris affair to the Hippie Orientalism of the Marrakesh Express. Indeed, the Tangier American Legation—the locale of the US diplomatic mission to Morocco from 1821 to 1956—continues to host American anthropology researchers to this day, just as it did Paul Bowles and other Beat intellectuals in years past. Morocco's very proximity to Europe, its relative political stability, and its favorable visa regime have facilitated a long history of travel of tourists and scholars. The American military presence in northern Morocco (particularly in Kenitra) from World War II through the 1970s furthered Moroccan-American intimacy, as has the Peace Corps mission which has sent over 5000 volunteers to provincial Morocco since 1963. Indeed, a number of American anthropologists first encountered Morocco as Peace Corps volunteers where they began to learn local dialects of Arabic and Amazigh languages.


Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, Morocco has hosted an increasing number of US study-abroad students and Arabic-language learners who in years past may have gone to Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, or Yemen. These experiences foster various forms of cultural, linguistic, and interpersonal intimacy which will likely further encourage new anthropological study. In the end, Morocco continues to seduce American anthropology as much because of any inherent fascination of its cultural diversity, as because of the very weight of its legacy as a site of past anthropological theory-making conjoined with the ease of conducting research there.


Coon, Carleton S. 1931. Tribes of the Rif. Cambridge: Peabody Museum of Harvard University.

Crapanzano, Vincent. 1973. The Ḥamadsha: A study in Moroccan ethnopsychiatry. Univ of California Press.


Dwyer, Daisy Hilse. 1979. "Law actual and perceived: the sexual politics of law in Morocco." Law and Society Review. 739-756.


----. 1978. "Women, Sufism, and Decision-Making in Moroccan Islam." In Women in the Muslim world. Harvard University Press. 585-598.

Edwards, Brian T.  2005. Morocco Bound: Disorienting America's Maghreb from Casablanca to the Marrakech Express.  Durham, NC:  Duke University Press.

Eickelman, Dale F. 1992. Knowledge and power in Morocco: The education of a twentieth-century notable. Vol. 1. Princeton University Press.


Geertz, Clifford. 1974. "From the Native's Point of View": on the Nature of Anthropological Understanding. Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 28 (1): 26-45.


Gellner, Ernest.  1969.  Saints of the Atlas.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Hart, David M. 1976. The Aith Waryaghar of the Morocan Rif: An Ethnography and History. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.


_____. 1981. Dadda 'Atta and his Forty Grandsons: The Socio-Political Organization of the Ait 'Atta of Southern Morocco. Cambridge: Middle East and North African Studies Press.


Masqueray, Émile. 1886. Formation des cités chez les populations sédentaires de l'Algérie. Kabyles du Djurdjura, Chaouïa de l'Aourâs, Beni Mzab. Paris: Ernest Leroux.


Montagne, Robert. 1930. Les Berbères et le Makhzen dans le Sud du Maroc. Essai sur la transformation politique des Berbères sédentaires (groupe Chleuh). Paris: Félix Alcan.

Pandolfo, Stefania. 1997. Impasse of the angels: scenes from a Moroccan space of memory. University of Chicago Press.


Rosen, Lawrence.  1979.  Social Identity and Points of Attachment: Approaches to Social Organization.  In Meaning and Order in Moroccan Society, edited by Clifford Geertz, Hildred Geertz and Lawrence Rosen. Pp. 19-122.  London: Cambridge University Press.


Westermarck, Edward. Ritual and Belief in Morocco. New York: Macmillan.

Meet Our Guest:
Paul Silverstein

Paul A. Silverstein is professor of anthropology at Reed College (Portland, USA). He is author of Algeria in France: Transpolitics, Race, Nation (Indiana, 2004) and Postcolonial France: Race, Islam, and the Future of the Republic (Pluto, 2018), among other publications. His recent ethnographic and archival work addresses issues of (post)coloniality, migration, masculinity, land rights, and race within Amazigh cultural politics in southeastern Morocco. His translation of Moha Layid’s The Sacrifice of Black Cows—a Moroccan novel set during the nationalist uprising against French colonialism— was recently published with the Modern Languages Association. He chairs the board of directors of the Middle East Research and Information Project and is a co-editor of the Public Cultures in the Middle East and North Africa book series with Indiana University Press.

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