Representing Colonial Violence as Progress

Gun, Germs & Steel remains an impactful text authored by Jared Diamond, whether we agree or disagree with him. Diamond argues that civilisations rise and fall on their ability to overcome the environmental constraints of the landscapes where groups settle.  The problem is that this argument and his subsequent work has not addressed its colonial framework, which defines human progress in narrow ways that elevate Western civilisations.

The popularity of Diamond’s work has been profound, and his influence extends into social and political discourses. In 2012 Diamond critiqued American politician Mitt Romney’s interpretation of his research. This is a good example of how social science can be effectively hijacked by political agendas outside of the researcher’s intention. In Diamond’s case, his accessible writing has captured the imagination of politicians who use his book to support both progressive and damaging environmental policies.

Diamond’s next book, Collapse, was widely criticised for being overly sympathetic to Chevron’s oil policies, rather than examining how Indigenous groups and other social protests led to changes in corporate environmental practises.

Diamond’s latest book The World Until Yesterday drew similar critiques from anthropologists in January 2013. He has been criticised for making sweeping generalisations about Indigenous groups without having training on ethnography or empirical data outside Papua New Guinea. Critics argue that Diamond fails to address ongoing methodological and epistemological critiques of his analysis. That is to say, Diamond does not address how his position as an outsider belonging to White Western culture may influence his narrow interpretation of Indigenous cultures.

I used to teach a sociology of technology course and Gun, Germs & Steel was required reading. Diamond is not a sociologist. He teaches geography and he secured his international reputation in evolutionary biology . His book The Third Chimpanzee was also wildly popular in the early 1990s and helped fuel a slight resurgence in sociobiology. This was another required text in the Sociology of the Family course when I was a student, although I dropped it by the time I was lecturing this course.

Do you use Diamond’s work? Is his research authoritative or relevant to your sociological work outside academia? Tell us in the comments!

PBS teaching resources on Gun, Germs & Steel.

This post was first published in Science on Google+.