History of Dutch-speaking Anthropology

Directed by

  • Thomas Beaufils (Université de Lille, IRHiS UMR CNRS 8529)


Dutch-speaking anthropology is a field of research which has been little explored by researchers in the humanities and social sciences. (...)

However, this is a considerable field of study and many archives – access to which is not easy because learning of the Dutch language is uncommon – deserve more intensive investment and exploration. The same applies to the ethnographic contexts historically related to this tradition. While some of its figures have acquired a modest reputation, it is clear that the complex geographical delimitations of these Dutch-speaking “worlds” and the abundant and sometimes nebulous terminology used to designate these territories do not promote the readability and understanding of an anthropology the logic and unity of which are very difficult to guess. Indeed, it is hard for the layman to grasp terms such as the Netherlands, the old Netherlands, the Spanish Netherlands, the Austrian Netherlands, Holland, Flanders, Flanders, French Flanders, Friesland, the Republic of the United Provinces, etc. – not to mention Belgium, whose Dutch-speaking part is not necessarily easy for everyone to distinguish from the French-speaking part.

Dutch or Flemish missionaries, administrators and travellers echoed the life habits of the populations encountered in colonial situations, as early as the establishment of trading posts in the 17th and 18th centuries. From these multiple contacts, a rich Dutch-speaking anthropology was born. In the 19th century, the Kingdom of the Netherlands constituted a vast colonial empire consisting mainly of the Dutch Indies, Suriname and the Dutch Antilles; anthropological production in the context of Belgium’s colonial expansion must also be taken into account, as must that of South Africa, considering its populations of Dutch origin. Dutch and Flemish colonial agents, scholars and writers shared their experiences and discoveries in books that were often of high quality, but which could also prove to be denigrating or subjective towards the populations studied. The birth of anthropology in Belgium and the Netherlands took place mainly in this colonial context.

Domestically, the Dutch and Flemish also undertook ethnographic studies, mainly from the 1910s onwards, to collect field data on folklore and disappearing folk traditions, replaced by modern lifestyles. The Dutch language distinguishes between Volkenkunde (ethnology of non-European civilizations) and Volkskunde (ethnology of the Netherlands and Flanders, often translated as folklore). It was also in the 1910s that another type of ethnologist appeared, such as J. P. B. de Josselin de Jong, leader of the famous Leiden anthropological school, who distanced himself from the colonial policy of the Dutch state and even took sides with the colonized populations until he became involved, intellectually speaking, in the struggle for their independence.

Since the 1950s, Dutch-speaking anthropology has no longer been limited only to former colonial and national territories, but has become very open to extremely diverse regions around the world. Many figures have marked or still mark Dutch and Belgian post-war anthropology. The end of the colonies and the profound transformation of their societies have led to a radical paradigm shift for Belgian and Dutch anthropologists, following a new post-colonial sensitivity. On the other hand, it was quite late that the discipline ceased to be a field of study exclusively reserved for a male intelligentsia. Within the framework of the research theme “History of Dutch-speaking anthropology”, BEROSE proposes that the diversity and transformations of this anthropology should be made more visible and by participating in a better delimitation of this field of study through topical files that will present ethnologists and anthropologists, the journals and institutions that constitute the history of this anthropology, as well as anthropological concepts, themes and traditions related to our core problematics.

The massive digitisation of ethnographic documents and collections, currently underway in Flanders and the Netherlands, promotes greater collaboration between researchers, research organisations, libraries and museum institutions around the world. One can only hope that this considerable effort to make documents available will make it possible to produce new research in the field of the history of Dutch-speaking anthropology and to give birth to a generation of young researchers who will in turn take up this exciting subject to study. The contributions presented in BEROSE will contribute to this effort and will highlight in particular the fruitful links and interactions between Dutch-speaking anthropology and other national traditions.

Thomas Beaufils

This presentation is an abridged version of Beaufils, Thomas, 2019.« Anthropologie néerlandophone : une introduction historique » , in BEROSE - International Encyclopaedia of the Histories of Anthropology, Paris.

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