There are many ambiguities in the concept of being Western. Many individual use this description without fully understanding what it means or how the term developed. Generally when people are using the term ‘the West” or Western, they are simply referring to a lifestyle that includes a certain standard of living that includes a certain material well-being. Yet this broad and all-encompassing term is used without any clear meaning or substance in normal discourse. The term is not innocent, and it is used to further ideological perspectives that are biased towards a certain culture and set of values.
The colonial period in South Africa is interesting to study because it exemplifies some of the social contexts in which culture crashes can framed and the discourse that is used in the literature. The local natives in South Africa were viewed in a very negative manner and the discourse makes many claims of idleness and primitiveness. However, this perception was born out of ignorance and bias. This analysis will focus on the Hottentot tribe in South Africa and the discourse that was used to describe their tribe and their way of life. This tribe provides an enlightening use of discourse theory because the discourse used represents many hypocrisies and biasness towards the “other.”
How did the discourse used by early settlers in South Africa help shape the culture and the perceptions that emerged about the native peoples? Why was this important and what does the discourse reveal?
It is somewhat difficult to provide a definition to discourse analysis in reference to its use as a research tool. Instead of being a formalized methodology, it is more of a mind-set or epistemological approach. In this sense, Discourse Analysis is neither a qualitative nor a quantitative research method, but a manner of questioning the basic assumptions of quantitative and qualitative research methods. Discourse Analysis does not provide a tangible answer to problems based on scientific research, but it enables access to the ontological and epistemological assumptions behind a project, a statement, a method of research. An example is provided in the text. Palestinians’ fighting to regain land in the West Bank can either be referred to as “freedom fighters” or “terrorists”[footnoteRef:1]. Whichever term is chosen carries an ideological perspective that biases the individual simply by choosing the term. [1: (Hall)]
Using the discourse analysis is a relatively new phenomenon. Linguistic theories have penetrated the humanities and social sciences in recent decades and offer an interdisciplinary alternative to historical inquiry. The attractiveness of this approach is fairly clear though there is a wide array of possible applications. Whenever you use language you are representing a particular discourse no matter how you try to avoid it. The extent of the level of control that an individual has over the discourse is definitely debated, however the discourse selected provides many insights into the social practices of any given time period. Several ideas can be teased out by examining what is included in the discourse, or not included, and this can reveal many aspects of society as well as individual perceptions.
Although it is natural to look at the historical discourse through a skeptical perspective, it is important to realize that many intellectuals in history viewed the current events as truth based on their experience. As a result of their historical perspectives, it is interesting to study the spread of Western culture and their peoples because these ideas are often taken for granted in the modern perspective. This provides a perfect example because it is difficult to imagine the historical perspectives that prevailed in the minds of the population of who were exposed to discourse that promoted ideas of conquest and colonization. Much of the research that has been dedicated to studying this trend makes certain assumptions about the spread of culture and modernization of peoples and processes.
Idleness in South Africa
The local natives have everything in common with the dumb cattle, barring their human nature.(They) are handicapped in their speech, clucking like turkey-cocks or like the people of Alpine Germany who have developed goiter by drinking the hard snow-water. Their food consists of herbs, cattle, wild animals and fish. The animals are eaten with their internal organs. Having been shaken out a little, the intestines are not washed, but as soon as the animal has been slaughtered or discovered, these are eaten raw, skin and all.[footnoteRef:2] [2: (Coetzee)]
The description above is geared on the observations of Western settlers when they come into contact with the Hottentots of the Cape of Good Hope. The discourse that is used to describe these peoples portrays them as mere beasts who are the most uncivilized form of humanity imaginable. The explorers who wrote these passages documented many of the perceptions of these peoples in categories that attempted to comprehensively account for their lives in a scientific approach. It included factors such as their economy, language, customs, government, trade, appearance, dress, warfare, and many more. This led to a common conception of the tribe as idle and this perception spread throughout the Western discourse; “the laziest creatures that can be imagined[footnoteRef:3].” [3: Ibid p. 17]
During the phase of early colonialism, labor and poverty were viewed as opposite phenomenon. If you were poor then it was because you were lazy and if you owned capital then this was a result of the Christian work ethic. There was no room in the discourse for any other perspective. Thus the tribe was an interesting occurrence to try to frame within the discourse because they were both poor and industrious. Subsistence living is not a position for a lazy person. Rather, this is one of the most difficult and time consuming forms of life. The African natives undoubtedly spent nearly all of their time focused on survival and staying busy to that end.
This paradox is interesting because it points out the power of discourse. Though the Hottentot were definitely not lazy, when compared to their daily labors, however their standard of living was that of a native person without the advantages of modernity. However, to explain the Hottentot’s inability to accumulate material possessions and standard of living, it had to be explained through the Western paradigm. This paradigm had two poles. Either you were industrious and bettered your standard of living (based on the Western standard) or you were lazy and lived as savages. There was literally no room in the paradigm to explain the subsistence living lifestyle and thus explorers had trouble accounting for the native’s daily habits, their culture, and their way of life.
This point-of-view led many to try to convince the Hottentot members to sell their labor for Western efforts and to accept the Western perspective. For example, the missions tried to enlist the labor of the Hottentot people to help maintain the missions. If they could not enlist their help then they would be at the mercy of the farmers for food and they would also be viewed negatively against other missions that were more successful in acquiring native labor. However, when considered from a more objective perspective, it was not the Hottentot people that were the lazy ones to begin with. Rather it was the Western farmers who had plenty of leisure time due to their ability to control their food source. Therefore, examining this situation provides an excellent example of the power of a discourse.
Coetzee, J. Idleness in South Africa. Binghamton: Yale University Press, 1988. Digital.
Hall, S. “The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power.” n.d.
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