The doctor who treated the radio sets.

Essais sur l’ethnocentrisme critique de Michael Singleton

British anthropologist Michael Singleton (b. 1939), now Professor Emeritus at UCL, is well known to growth objectors, particularly for his contributions to the journal Entropia. The collective work presented here pays tribute to him by exploring his « critical ethnocentrism ». In the first part, he proclaims: « Nothing outside of culture, not even development ». The other objective of the book is to contribute to the debate on development aid and North-South cooperation. For there has always been, in the background, this nagging question: to what extent do Westerners respect, or not, the cultural diversity of the peoples they have set out to « develop », nowadays often using the pretext of humanitarian aid? The answer is twofold: either relativistic — this is the assumed choice of Singleton — or (rather) universalist — this is the choice of his contradictory friends. Such a discussion necessarily requires all the nuances and conceptual perspectives imaginable, and poses essential philosophical questions: « The so-called universalism would in fact be an ethnocentric imperialism that ignores itself, » Stéphane Leyens suggests to launch the reflection (p. 9). In other words: development actors adopt a universalist ethnocentrism, which is certainly inescapable, but which must (should) also be critical of its limits. For Singleton, the nature-culture distinction, typical of Western onto-epistemology, is not relevant, and we must instead defend a form of nominalist constructivism where everything is given through language. For him, « development and intercultural cooperation should be fundamentally open processes, always in the making, generating new places », and certainly not a teleology (pp. 16 & 17). This radical position is discussed, sometimes bitterly, by eight of his colleagues or ex-students in the second part, under the angle of postcolonial studies or bioethics among others, by Christian Coméliau, Patrick Kelders, Isabelle Parmentier, Emmanuelle Piccoli, Laurent Ravez, Nupur Ray, Marcel Rémon and Stéphane Leyens. Of these contributions, I will subjectively retain that of Kelders for his fiery style brimming with conviction, which defends the universalist attitude through his fieldwork. The anthropologist’s long text (pp. 25–49), with its flowery and colourful style, its many philosophical references, and its picturesque anecdotes drawn from his experience as a white father among the WaKonongo of Tanzania, can serve as an introduction to his thought, for those who are not yet familiar with it. As a « final » point, he intervenes again (pp. 147–173) to answer his friends’ objections, but without really bringing any new elements. One can also consider this book as a valuable entry into the complex issue of development cooperation and aid. 

Bernard Legros

« The doctor who treated the radio sets. Essays on the critical ethnocentrism of Michael Singleton », Leyens Stéphane (ed.) presses universitaires de Namur, 2013 

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