ANTH 423, Dr. Maximilian Forte, Dept. of Sociology & Anthropology, Concordia University

Decolonizing Anthropology

Kelly Frisby, 2013, Version 1

(Preliminary editing by Maximilian Forte)

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Decolonization (n.)
“1853 in political sense, American English, from de- + colonization. Earlier as a medical term” (Harper, 2013).

Decolonizing anthropology entails radical and critical perspectives that focus on the empowerment of the cultures being studied (Harrison, 1991a, p. 5). The arrival of a decolonized anthropology must shake itself from the shackles of rationalist and liberal intellectualism that is inextricable from global capitalism (Harrison, 1991b, p. 88). Thus, a liberated anthropology would be situated in a new world order of indigenous theory that is rooted in social justice (Harrison, 1991b, p. 89). Hymes (1969) a trailblazer for the case of decolonizing anthropology, argued that if the discipline was to progress from a position of dominance, “it must lose itself to find itself, must become as fully as possible a possession of the people of the world” (p. 54). Progressive Westerners, particularly women, can play a role in decolonization whereby “cross-cultural sharing of perceptions, experiences, and knowledge is essential for constructing valid comparative theory and devising effective strategies for social transformation” (Harrison, 1991b, p.89).

Feminist and ethnic scholarship have been largely ignored from the canon of anthropological discourse and are instead labelled as special interest trivia (Harrison, 1991a, p. 6). While the discipline has advocated for cross-cultural perspectives and tolerance towards diversity, paradoxically both modernist and postmodernist theory hold “native” theory as suspect (Harrison, 1991a, p. 6). Cultural, epistemological and theoretical approaches that differ from the conservative Eurocentric and androcentric canon have been deemed inferior and illegitimate in holding an esteemed intellectual position (Harrison, 1991a, p. 6-7). The decolonization of anthropology calls for leadership from indigenous theorists that “are contingent upon a sociopolitical climate and institutional alignments that allow for and support the democratization of intellectual and theoretical authority” (Harrison, 1991a, p. 7).

Groundbreaking work in anthropology such as Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter (Asad, 1973) and Reinventing Anthropology (Hymes, 1969) emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s and focused on “the legacy of anthropology’s origins in racist, capitalist Western societies actively engaged in colonial and imperialist domination of the Third World” (Gordon, 1991, p. 150). The radical critiques evolved to critically examining the researcher’s role in Third World representation and subsequent theoretical frameworks of analyzing the “Other” (Gordon, 1991, p. 150). Marxist anthropologists added historical insight into Western domination over the Third World and supported the overthrow of neocolonial institutions (Gordon, 1991, p. 150). However, the contemporary perspectives were limited in their scope to step outside of the objectifying “Other” paradigm that served to perpetuate what theorists were attempting to critique (Gordon, 1991, p. 150). Anthropological knowledge production serves to benefit the interests of the elites and therefore, Gordon (1991) argues that a decolonized anthropology will need to be reinvented outside of the West (p. 152).

In order to decolonize representation of the “Other,” Glenn H. Jordan (1991) argued that the New Cultural Anthropology, which emerged in the mid- to late-1980s, must incorporate reflexive and interpretive techniques in addition to radical innovations (p. 42). In addition, Escobar (1995) argued that although anthropology made some advances in the mid 1980s, the discipline still had a long way to go in conceptualizing the “Other” (p. 181). The new cultural anthropologists examined how texts established authority through privileged, single-voice narratives of superior intellect that subordinated both their readers and informants (Jordan, 1991, p. 44). For example, a link between anthropology and colonialism is uncovered in realist narratives such as the field notes of Evans-Pritchard in describing disdain for his servants in Nuer country (Jordan, 1991, p. 45).

Reflecting on his contribution to the new cultural anthropology in Writing Culture, James Clifford (2012) pointed to the contemporary decentring of the West and shifting power relations (p. 419). The historic origins of anthropology are embedded in the discipline’s contribution to building empire, even though many anthropologists believed that they were radically supporting indigenous culture (Clifford, 2012, p. 419). The post-war decolonizing process was reflected through such events as civil rights movements, the Vietnam devastation, and increasing cultural tolerance (Clifford, 2012, p. 420).

Both globalization and decolonization are inextricably tied to one another, and the contemporary world situation may be likened to “a contradictory, inescapably ambivalent, conjuncture: simultaneously post- and neo-colonial” (Clifford, 2012, p. 421). Clifford (2012) stresses decolonization as a historical process, not a single event that occurred at the end of colonial rule and the newfound sovereignty that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s (p. 425).

The discipline of anthropology and the process of empire are intertwined and are hard pressed to recollect a time historically when their boundaries were differentiated (Said, 1989, p. 214). A statement from the U.S. Department of Defense (1967) outlines how this relationship could potentially continue:

“the battle of ideas [requires] an understanding of the urban and rural populations with which our military personnel come in contact [and] need more knowledge about their beliefs, values, and motivations; their political, religious, and economic organizations; and the impact of various changes or innovations upon their socio-cultural patterns.” (cited in Said, 1989, p. 214)

Said (1989) contends that because U.S. imperialism has overtaken European colonial conquests as the global superpower, decolonization will transpire once Western anthropologists transfer a preoccupation with other cultures on to their own. Anthropology has evolved research attempts to safeguard indigenous cultures from progress while also introducing the field of studying “up” to the level of State administration and government (Hymes, 1969, p. 51). Hymes (1969) calls for a socialist humanism that seeks to both confront and transform power holders (p. 52). The difficultly remains in the objective illusion of discourse where the anthropologist attempts to study outside and beyond the grips of power while being trapped inside its constraints.

Vine Deloria, Jr., a revolutionary Native American scholar and activist wrote a scathing and controversial review of anthropologists in his book Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto. Deloria’s satirical account includes depicting anthropologists as “tall, gaunt white [men] wearing Bermuda shorts, a World War Two Army Air Corps flying jacket, an Australian bush hat and tennis shoes” (2012, p. 199). Although the description appears exaggerated and stereotypical, Deloria turns the standard participant observation centred on the objectification of indigenous peoples, back onto the anthropologist. In doing so, Deloria illuminates how generalizing observable characteristics to a population can imprison peoples within constraints of Western perception and influences how many indigenous peoples construct their own identity. Cecil King likens anthropological research ethics to the feeding schedule at a zoo, and calls for Indian, Metis, and Inuit self-determination (2012, pp. 208-209).

Adolfo de Oliveira (2009) argued that the category of “Indigenous” only exists in relationship to national states and can be disseminated as an insidious universal generalization because it lacks self-determination and autonomy (p. 4). Although de Oliveira (2009) acknowledges that the dialogical inclusion of indigenous perspectives is commonplace in the promotion of agency, it must be continually expressed due to the limited timespan the concept of decolonization has been practiced (p. 4). The hegemonic discourse this dialogue inhabits seems to perpetuate marginalization to the state but according to Brazilian anthropologist Roberto Cardoso de Oliveira, this is a starting point for ethnopolitics to gain sovereignty (cited in de Oliveira, 2009, p. 6). Said compares the colonized to the invisible position servants in 19th-century English novels held (1989, p. 210). Even decolonization via attempts at polyvocal texts, where space is allocated in a text to the informant’s voice, may continue to promote hegemony (Abu-Lughod, 1991, p. 143). For example, even if male researchers grant females a voice in research they are still dominating the overall process of knowledge production (Abu-Lughod, 1991, p. 143).

An illusion of fieldwork ideology contends that the ethnographer is able to elude confronting the polar extremes of “going native” or embodying a privileged whiteness (D’Amico-Samuels, 1991, p. 72-72). The structural roles of the researcher and researched must be reflexively identified to bridge divides, such as gender, colour, class, nationality, ethnicity, and culture (D’Amico-Samuels, 1991, p. 72-73). Anthropological field sites have segregated the Third World, as a site for voyeuristic participant observation and extractable data collection, from the Western world that is responsible for interpreting the data in ethnographic records that perpetuate racial and cultural hegemony (D’Amico-Samuels, 1991, p. 68-69). Said (1989) describes the relationship between the geographical location of the ethnographic field as a colonial “acquisition, subordination, and settlement of space” (p. 218). For anthropology to decolonize, D’Amico-Samuels (1991) suggests that the discipline “must start by situating itself, its practitioners, and the subjects of its research within the same planetary space and time and with reference to the same world political, economic and cultural hierarchy” (pp. 68-69). Gilliam (1991) postulates a parallel process of decolonization whereby an ethnography that traditionally exoticizes the Other is used to study the power and privilege of Western cultures (p. 168). The parallel process is highlighted by transferring the theme of “cargo cult,” that has been traditionally used to theorize Melanesian culture, onto U.S. culture as expressed through militarism and accumulation (Gilliam, 1991, p. 169). For example, Buck argued that the Melanesian cargo cult framework was used to support colonial administration (cited in Gilliam, 1991, p. 170). Extending the theory reveals how U.S. foreign policy “is increasingly based on the twin pillars of militarism and the myth, magic, and cult-like premises of superiority” (Gilliam, 1991, p. 171).

Anthropologists have taken responsibility for the “crisis of representation” that faced much critique from postcolonial informants and feminist, postmodern, postcolonial, and critical race theorists by decolonizing the research relationship and by focusing on activism as a research goal (Speed, 2006, pp. 66-67). In the context of human rights activism, anthropologists have stepped away from the universalism/relativism debate and instead focused on theorizing the ethical and practical dilemmas situated in the discourse (Speed, 2006, p. 67). Speed (2006, p. 67) raises important questions surrounding the anthropologist’s role in advocacy such as: are they able to remain critical and refrain from serving neoliberal pursuits?

Drawing on her own experience as an activist anthropologist in Chiapas, Speed (2006) suggests the use of collaborative research that integrates both activism and cultural critique (p. 67). In regards to the politics surrounding knowledge produced through ethnographic fieldwork, research activism “demonstrates a shared desire to see [informant’s] rights respected, a promise to involve them in decisions about the research, and a commitment to contribute something to their struggle through one’s research and analysis” (Speed, 2006, p. 71). For example, the Zapatistas demanded transparency and solidarity in research knowledge that was extracted in their struggle: “an air of “if you aren’t with us, you’re against us” prevailed” (Speed, 2006, p. 71). The researcher must have an obligation towards producing knowledge that benefits the people being studied because otherwise, objective neutrality supports systemic power relations (Hymes, 1969, p. 50).

Harrison suggests the importance of ethnographic material that can be widely distributed and understood by a popular audience, particularly being accessible to the populations under study. This can be achieved through mediums such as video, film, and drama and co-authorship with dispossessed and oppressed informants (Harrison, 1991a, p. 6). An example of this is demonstrated by African American anthropologist Katherine Dunham and her development of a dance pedagogy, called the Dunham technique, that incorporates a historical foundation with contemporary methods for decolonizing anthropological research (Cruz Banks, 2012, p. 159). Dunham’s work aligns with other African American female scholars who work to transform social injustice with anthro-performance (Cruz Banks, 2012, p. 159). The mission of Dunham’s innovative expression was to “cultivate positive self-esteem, intercultural understanding, community harmony, and link Black people and others to an African dignity and a spiritually enriching education” (Cruz Banks, 2012, p. 159). Dunham’s dance pedagogy is a departure from the Boasian participant observation model and dismantled the insider-outsider dichotomy by engaging with the community and critically examining the complexities of African diaspora (Cruz Banks, 2012, pp. 161-162).

The progression of a decolonizing anthropology has been toward one advocating for the advancement of liberation. Gordon (1991) promotes the instrumentalization of activist knowledge that undermines the problem of academia where “we have been taught to believe that knowledge, rationally derived and logically presented is enough to effect social change” (p. 164). There are many barriers to this being realized which include the domination of hegemonic ideologies and some of the oppressed peoples’ interest in maintaining the status quo and the subsequent pride that they have found in developing a position inside (Gordon, 1991, p. 155). It is therefore vital that anthropologists analyze the hegemonic structures of the culture’s oppression and translate this knowledge into activism that dismantles conditions negating liberation (Gordon, 1991, p. 162). Working to illuminate and support counter-hegemonic movements becomes a collaborative event between the anthropologist as both an intellectual and activist standing in solidarity with the collective political struggle (Gordon, 1991, p. 162).


Abu-Lughod, L. (1991). Writing against culture. In R. G. Fox (Ed.), Recapturing anthropology: Working in the present (pp. 137-162). Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Asad, T., (Ed.). (1973). Anthropology and the colonial encounter. New York, NY: Humanities Press.

Clifford, J. (2012). Feeling Historical. Cultural Anthropology, 27(3), 417-426.

Cruz Banks, O. (2012). Katherine Dunham: Decolonizing Anthropology Through African American Dance Pedagogy. Transforming Anthropology, 20(2), 159-168.

D’Amico-Samuels, D. (1991). Undoing Fieldwork: Personal, Political, Theoretical and Methodological Implications. In F. V. Harrison (Ed.), Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further toward an Anthropology for Liberation (pp. 68-87). Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.

Deloria, V., Jr. (2012). Custer Died for Your Sins. In A. C. Robben & J. A. Sluka (Eds.), Ethnographic fieldwork: An anthropological reader, 2nd ed. (pp. 199-206). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

De Oliveira, A. (2009). Introduction: Decolonising Approaches to Indigenous Rights. In A. de Oliveira (Ed.), Decolonising indigenous rights (pp. 1-16). New York, NY: Routledge.

Escobar, A. (1995). Encountering development: The making and unmaking of the Third World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gilliam, A. (1991). Militarism and Accumulation as Cargo Cult. In F. V. Harrison (Ed.), Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further toward an Anthropology for Liberation (pp. 168-188). Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.

Gordon, E. T. (1991). Anthropology and liberation. In F. V. Harrison (Ed.), Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further toward an Anthropology for Liberation (pp. 149-167). Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.

Harper, D. (2013). Decolonization. In Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0

Harrison, F. V. (1991a). Anthropology as an Agent of Transformation: Introductory Comments and Queries. In F. V. Harrison (Ed.), Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further toward an Anthropology for Liberation (pp. 1-11). Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.

Harrison, F. V. (1991b). Ethnography as Politics. In F. V. Harrison (Ed.), Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further toward an Anthropology for Liberation (pp. 88-109). Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.

Hymes, D. (1969). The use of anthropology: Critical, political, personal. In D. Hymes (Ed.), Reinventing anthropology (pp. 3-79). New York, N.Y.: Pantheon Books.

Jordan, G. H. (1991). On Ethnography in an Intertextual Situation: Reading Narratives or Deconstructing Discourse? In F. V. Harrison (Ed.), Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further toward an Anthropology for Liberation (pp. 42-67). Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.

King, C. (2012). Here Come the Anthros. In A. C. Robben & J. A. Sluka (Eds.), Ethnographic fieldwork: An anthropological reader, 2nd ed. (pp. 207-209). Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell.

Said, E. W. (1989). Representing the Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocutors. Critical Inquiry, 15(2), 205-225.

Speed, S. (2006). At the Crossroads of Human Rights and Anthropology: Toward a Critically Engaged Activist Research. American Anthropologist, 108(1), 66-76.