Decolonizing Disciplines

By Deborah A. Thomas, Professor of Anthropology and Editor-in-Chief of American Anthropologist

Last April, I attended a conference at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford titled “Decolonizing the Ethnographic Museum in Practice.” Organized by the Museum Ethnographers Group, the conference was designed to tackle some of the prevalent issues related to the practice of decolonization within ethnographic museums. Participants were asked to respond to a number of prompts, including: How do ethnographic museums ensure that what we bring to society matters? How do our practices ensure that our programming and pedagogical missions are meaningful? What kinds of knowledge are relevant for our contemporary audiences? In doing so, the organizers raised complex questions about what decolonizing museums would mean in relation to notions of history, identity, belonging, and meaning making, and they grappled with what, exactly, constituted practices of decolonization.The conference participants outlined several critical principles, many of which addressed issues related to representation and repatriation. But they also made the point that to decolonize the representational and theoretical modalities of museums, one must decolonize the staffs of museums.

This is an issue that a number of organizations have begun to tackle in different ways. The San Diego Museum of Man has established a new position, the Director of Decolonizing Initiatives (currently held by Jaclyn Roessel),designed to oversee practices of decolonization in relation to collections, their exhibition, and their return. Scholars of color working in museums and heritage have also formed critically important networks, including the UK-based collaborative Museum Detox and their US counterpart, Museum Hue, in order to support each other’s initiatives and careers within a field that has stubbornly remained predominantly white. Several US anthropological museums have also established pipeline programs. With “diversity” and “inclusion” becoming catchphrases, albeit often depoliticized ones, for important institutional shifts, it seems important to revisit the coordinates of our own field in relation to broader decolonization initiatives.

Many years ago, the argument was made by members of the Association of Black Anthropologists that a decolonized anthropology could emerge “from the critical intellectual traditions and counter-hegemonic struggles of Third World peoples” (Harrison 1991, 1). Seeking to move beyond both the reflexive “turn” and the emphasis on Marxist historical political economy and toward a recognition that the Western anthropological project was founded in relation to dominant imperial and white supremacist logics, these scholars joined with feminists and other allies to put forward a platform of decolonial anthropological practice, pedagogy, and public engagement. Recently deemed the “decolonizing generation” (Allen and Jobson 2016), this group of scholars built on pioneers such as Anténor Firmin, whose De l’égalité des races humaines (originally published in 1885) was constructed as a critique of Arthur de Gobineau’s racist theory of evolutionary polygenesis, and Zora Neale Hurston, whose erasure from the field’s canonical figures is by now legendary, despite having been Boas’s student and a prominent member of the community of artists and writers who made up the Harlem Renaissance. Members of the “decolonizing generation” sought to transform anthropological epistemologies, methodologies, pedagogical practices, and forms of public engagement in order to generate processes of “historical, financial, and intellectual accountability for not only the work we do, but also for the academic institutions in which we study, teach, and learn” (McGranahan and Rizvi 2016). Others would build parallel projects, including Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012), who has engaged with postcolonial critique and developed Indigenous archaeological practices (see also Bruchac, Hart, and Wobst 2010). The point here is that Western universalisms are most often transformed only when their limitations and internal contradictions are limned by investigators and practitioners who have directly experienced or who have come to affectively and cognitively understand the oppression generated by these universalisms.

Take, for example, the classic essay published some years ago by philosopher Charles Mills.In “Racial Liberalism” (2008), Mills deconstructed contemporary expressions of Kant’s and Locke’s contract theory in order to demonstrate the racial inequalities inscribed in liberalism—the ability of white “contractors” to continue to “subordinate and exploit non-white contractors for white benefit” (1381)—thereby pointing out the fundamental unfairness, and particularistic nature, of contract theory. Racism, in Mills’s deconstruction, became something other than an “internal inconsistency,” revealing how contract theory is embedded within unequal relations of power rather than being an abstractly philosophical ideal. By maintaining an ideal theory of society, Mills argued, philosophers made themselves exempt from contending with the centrality of white supremacy to their foundational tenets. Importantly for my purposes here, he related the generation and perpetuation of ideas to the demographics of the profession. “Demographically,” he argued, “philosophy is one of the very whitest of the humanities,” with only about one percent of American philosophers being African American and even less than that Asian American, Latinx, and Native American. What difference does this make? Within the field of philosophy, it means work dealing with race is ghettoized. “One can choose to do race or choose to do philosophy” (1383), he wrote, and philosophers of color were absent from the canon of philosophical knowledge formation. The result of this absence, Mills asserted, was that not only did the pantheon of philosophy greats remain closed to nonwhites, but these erasures were also reproduced to generations of students who would thus come to read the narrative of Western political philosophy as universal knowledge rather than as a particularist narrative of the West itself.

Teaching Mills’s essay in my Race,Nation,Empire graduate seminar during the spring semester prompted me to revisit the numbers for anthropology. An article published two decades ago in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (“No Surprise Here!” 1997) included a table in which the authors reported the results of their telephone survey of anthropology departments in the top twenty-five US universities (according to the listings compiled by US News and World Report) where they asked for the total number of standing faculty and the number of black anthropologists among them. Of 351 total faculty across the twenty-five universities, only fifteen were identified as black (equivalent to just over 4 percent). It was not the number that surprised me but rather the fact that, looking down the list, I could actually identify by name (without looking them up) each of the faculty in the departments listed. Curious about how this situation might have changed in the two decades since the article’s publication, I looked up these same universities’ departments online. I found that while the total number of black faculty had increased to twenty-seven, thanks no doubt to new generations (including my own) entering the field, I could still name everyone and could even identify those scholars who had moved from one institution on the list to another in the intervening years.

According to responses to a general membership survey administered by the AAA in 2015, of 3,199 male and 4,073 female anthropologists who responded, 3 percent of men and women self-identified as “Black or African American,” 6.5 percent identified as “Asian or Pacific Islander,” 8.5 percent identified as “Hispanic or Latino,” 2.1 percent identified as “American Indian, Native Alaskan, 1st Nation,” and 5.4 percent identified as “Two or More Racial Identities.” Like philosophy, we remain a predominantly white field despite the epistemological and methodological transformations that have been prompted by a very small minority of scholars and their allies over the last thirty years. It would seem that our own decolonization is woefully incomplete. There are, of course, many reasons for this, including the stubborn persistence of some of the epistemological binaries Lars Rodseth explores in his essay in this issue (see below). But these numbers should prompt us to revisit the systems we have in place to attract diverse student populations to our classes, to recruit anthropology majors and graduate students, to mentor scholars of color in our departments, and to find ways to popularize (and in some cases transform and make meaningful) the field of anthropology among high school students and the various publics with which we are engaged. Anthropology as a field has both solidified racial and “civilizational” hierarchies (here, I am thinking of the nineteenth-century proponents of Social Darwinism, some of whom worked in my own department) and worked to unseat them (here, of course, I am referring to our Boasian legacy). What tack will we take moving forward?


Given the important critiques of anthropology’s imperial history and its representational practices I allude to above, Lars Rodseth asks us to return our attention to the “culture concept” in his essay “Hegemonic Concepts of Culture: The Checkered History of Dark Anthropology.” Rodseth tracks a genealogy of the culture concept in order to think through the relationship between what Sherry Ortner has identified as the contemporary hegemony of hegemony (what she calls

anthropology’s “dark” counterpart) and the older Boasian tradition. Rodseth’s argument is that the focus on power, politics, and hegemony (undergirded by Gramsci and Foucault) has obscured the Boasian approach and its roots in German Romanticism, and that if we recover that tradition and its links with Herderian historicism and American pragmatism, we would be better able to integrate so-called dark anthropology with what he argues is its “lighter” theoretical tradition (what others might frame as a conflict between poststructural political vs. apolitical culturalist approaches). This integration, for Rodseth, would enable us to examine both the structures of power that constrain emancipatory action and the strategies individuals and communities mobilize on the ground in order to confront, negotiate, and refuse them.

In “On the Matter of Resources and Techno-Politics: The Case of Water and Iron in the South Indian Iron Age,” Peter G. Johansen and Andrew M. Bauer discuss how the practices of water management and iron production played a role in generating emergent social distinctions in northern Karnataka during the South Indian Iron Age (1200–300BCE). They use the frame of techno-politics to explore how Iron Age peoples transformed material substances into resources in order to argue for eradicating the distinction between natural resources and cultural products. By contrasting water with iron, they seek to provide a nuanced account of how different substances require different forms of techno-politics and resource management within the same cultural and historical context.

Chapurukha M.Kusimba and Jonathan R.Walz’s “When Did the Swahili Become Maritime?: A Reply to Fleisher et al. (2015), and to the Resurgence of Maritime Myopia in the Archaeology of the East African Coast” argues for a reconsideration of the relationship between land and sea and the extent to which inland African societies were central to the development of Swahili urbanism and maritimity. They assert that changes occurring on the East African coast require a comprehensive view of socioeconomic and political engagements across diverse vectors of these societies. Eliding the complex intercommunity networks,trade,and processes of resource exploitation, they argue, risks reinscribing older colonial assessments of the Swahili culture complex that emphasize innovations as the result of Islamic penetration. Cities, instead, should be understood as integrally entangled with the rural communities to which they are socially and economically tethered.

Eleanor A. Power and Elspeth Ready also consider the connections between urban and rural communities, but here in relation to the development of social capital and reputation within South India. In “Building Bigness: Reputation, Prominence, and Social Capital in Rural South India,” they are interested in how reputational standing in two Tamil villages affects the ways adults gain support from others. Their argument is that a reputation for generosity elicits the strongest network of support ties, while a reputation for influence (and connections to people outside the village) is associated with the weakest. Contributing to both cultural and evolutionary anthropology understandings of status and social relationships, their findings give us insights into the ways diverse groups—including women and others considered less prominent—gain centrality, influence, and authority within social groups and thus about the ways social capital is tied to altruistic practice not just inherited position.

With Gabriella Soto’s “Object Afterlives and the Burden of History: Between ‘Trash’ and ‘Heritage’ in the Steps of Migrants,” we turn our attention to the modern “ruins” created in and through the border-crossing process in the southern United States. Soto is concerned with the ways people who come into contact with these ruins assess them. To what extent are the piles of “stuff” left behind understood as trash? In what contexts do they become memorials? If they are elements of cultural heritage, how should they be handled, preserved, or disposed of? By analyzing these questions among stakeholders on the Arizona-Sonora border, Soto demonstrates the ways the material culture of undocumented migrants both instantiates the violence of US border policy and generates complex processes of negotiation among those who encounter it.

Andrea Flores also explores issues related to migration in “The Descendant Bargain: Latina Youth Remaking Kinship and Generation through Educational Sibcare in Nashville, Tennessee.” In this article, she investigates the role of older sisters in Latino immigrant-origin families and argues that they frame their same-generation care practices in the language of intergenerational support. Flores identifies this as the “descendant bargain” older sisters make as they mobilize their kinship obligations toward socioeconomic mobility, often sacrificing their own opportunities for advancement in order to secure those of their younger siblings. In doing so, she encourages us to acknowledge the centrality of youth in reorganizing kinship and generation in immigrant families.

Thurka Sangaramoorthy’s “‘Putting Band-Aids on Things That Need Stitches’: Immigration and the Landscape of Care in Rural America” also investigates aspects of immigrant experiences in the United States, this time vis-` a-vis health care. Her argument is that rapid immigration to rural and isolated areas already struggling with poverty, weak public infrastructures, and a preponderance of uninsured individuals has intensified problems within an already precarious health-care landscape. By characterizing the health care that emerges within the contemporary condition as “band-aid care,” Sangaramoorthy brings into view the informal practices that are generated by the neoliberal logics of health-care reform and that are designed to confront the exclusions and inequalities these create. She documents how processes of bartering, hoarding, and goodwill create a network of social obligations and moral responsibility in which both health-care providers and the immigrants for whom they are providing care are actively involved.

With “Calibrating Play: Sociotemporality in South Korean Digital Gaming Culture,” we move to a focus on what digital gaming can tell us about changing concepts and experiences of time. Stephen C. Rea examines game worlds to show how they help players develop both the quickness and endurance needed within contemporary Korean work and social life. He argues that calibration, a process that creates correspondences between both virtual and actual “taskscapes,” characterizes the ways Korean gamers align their play with contemporary sociotemporal expectations. In this way, he helps us to see how play mediates and makes sense of an uncertain labor market and therefore how what is learned and experienced in virtual reality can create real-world competencies.

Zainab Saleh also considers the ways mediation can change experiences of time and community. In “‘Toppling’ Saddam Hussein in London: Media, Meaning, and the Construction of an Iraqi Diasporic Community,” she explores how live television coverage of the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein’s statue during the US occupation transformed the ways Iraqis living in London understood their relationships to a diasporic homeland. She argues that this real-time broadcast turned diverse and complex communities of exile into a unified diasporic entity, thereby mitigating deep divisions within the London Iraqi population and creating the possibility of a shared vision for the future. Communal witnessing, in this case, created new potential for Iraqis in diaspora to be connected to a homeland by establishing for the first time the transnational connections that have come to characterize other populations on the move.

In Taha Kazi’s “Religious Television and Contesting Piety in Karachi, Pakistan,” we see the ways Muslims engaged religious talk shows to contest aspects of pious Islamic practice they considered to be incommensurate with their own daily lives and worldviews. Counter to expectations that forms of televangelism bolster conservative readings of religious adherence, Kazi demonstrates the complexity of Muslim engagement with Islam and ambivalence about Islamic media proliferation. While programmers attempt to encourage greater Islamic compliance and to defuse sectarian tensions, viewers engagements with programming (both religious talk shows and other Islamic televisual representations) tended to more actively question the extent to which Islamic tenets reflected their everyday realities and aspirations. Watching religious talk shows, and people’s responses to them, can give us complex windows into changing experiences of religious authority, Muslim agency, and everyday practice.

This issue also features a Vital Topics Forum organized by Mark Hauser titled “Archaeology as Bearing Witness.” The ten contributors to this forum thoughtfully consider the ways archaeological practice can tell us something about the structural violence people face across a range of settings as well as give us insights into the multiple and diverse roles of anthropology vis-à-vis various publics. Overall, they represent multiple perspectives, bringing to the fore questions about how we see what we see and how we choose to communicate it.

In our World Anthropologies section, we focus on medical anthropology as it is practiced in a number of contexts, including South Africa, Vietnam, Nigeria, Australia, and Canada. Practitioners discuss differences in their training, the extent to which medical anthropology is supported within their institutional homes, and the ways limitations of funding and mentorship constrain their ability to influence public debates and practices in relation to health and health care. They also elucidate some of the power dynamics of knowledge production, arguing that most trends within medical anthropology emanate from the “Global North,” with “Southern locales” seen largely as labs. As such, they, like the contributors to the Vital Topics Forum, raise questions about who can speak for whom and in what contexts.

In addition to a review essay by Elyshia Aseltine on documenting mass incarceration and a review of Noam Osband’s film The Radical Jew, our Multimodal Anthropologies section features two essays. Luis Felipe Rosado Murillo’s “What Does ‘Open Data’ Mean for Ethnographic Research?” thinks through the possibilities of data sharing through digital technologies. He considers what taking the concept of “open data” seriously might do for both fieldwork and theory building, laying out both the potential benefits (collaboration among scholars working in one single or several related sites) and drawbacks (surveillance and issues related to confidentiality and privacy). Ultimately, he argues that we must reconceptualize the “ethnographic archive” in order to move beyond the individualistic nature of academic production and asserts that if anthropological questions are integrated into the design and implementation of digital technologies then data sharing might generate important collaborations while also maintaining protections for privacy and anonymity. Conceiving of the digital database as an important tool for the development and dissemination of anthropological knowledge—in this case, knowledge concerning global environmental systems—is also at the center of Jason M. Kelly and Fiona P. McDonald’s essay, “A Multimodal Approach to the Anthropocene.” In the essay, they show how An Anthropocene Primer—a digital, multimodal pedagogical platform—creates the conditions for collaborative, participatory, open, and responsive forms of learning and action.

Our Public Anthropologies section features an essay by Emily K. Brunson, Jessica M. Mulligan, Elise Andaya, Milena A. Melo, and Susan Sered titled “Unrequited Engagement: Misadventures in Advocating for Medicaid Expansion.” The authors direct their ethnographic attention to one of the major benefits of the Affordable Care Act: the expansion of Medicaid to low-income adults. They present their findings (that Medicaid-facilitated access to health care has saved lives, while the absence of health coverage has led to job loss, disability, and death) while also pointing out the limitations of public anthropology in relation to broader healthcare debates. Having been unsuccessful in their attempts to publicize their research results in health-policy and clinical journals, the authors raise important questions about where qualitative anthropological research sits in relation to other forms of knowledge and about what this means in terms of translating this kind of work beyond the discipline.

Our website ( has several new offerings, including Casey Anderson’s discussion of his efforts to create a hands-on technology curriculum in rural Haiti and an extended discussion of the relevance of gaming to multimodal anthropological practice that was originally presented at the 2018 joint Society for Visual Anthropology and Society for Cultural Anthropology conference by the Multimodal Anthropologies section editors. Also on our website are new installments of our Public Anthropologies series on “De-Provincializing Development.” We round out this issue with seventeen book reviews, and an obituary of Geoffrey Ainsworth Harrison that was written by R. Brooke Thomas and Anthony Boyce.

First published in American Anthropologist.

Image c/o University of Pennsylvania

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