There is More than One Way of Being an Anthropologist
In 2009, just as I was finishing my PhD, I attended the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Philadelphia. The ‘AAA’ conference is a major event in the anthropological calendar; a chance to meet up with colleagues from distant places and to hear about new research. It is also an opportunity to showcase one’s own work, and to network with important people. All the folly and status anxiety of the academy seems condensed in the AAA conference. Amazing (but obscure) anthropologists give exciting new papers to largely empty rooms, while next door a huge crowd listens to an academic superstar repeat things that they said decades ago. The conference moves between different North American cities each year. But it is always held in a large corporate chain hotel, and is too expensive for many scholars in the developing world to attend. As you can probably tell, I’m not a fan.
On my first evening at the Philadelphia AAA, I ate dinner with a table-full of anthropologists that were older and more accomplished than me. I knew some of them very well. Others were strangers whose work I had read for years. Early in the meal, one white European luminary stared fixedly at me from across the table, before asking “where are you from?”. They were not satisfied with the answer ‘England’. They wanted to know where I was from. As a mixed-race, ethnically indeterminate person, this sort of thing happens to me all the time (Sanchez 2021). The answer is that I am partly from Cuba, which means that I am partly Afro-Latino. My colleague-interrogator seemed pleased by this response, as though it confirmed a wise suspicion that they had been mulling over. They loudly proclaimed that I looked like a “Honduran Gang Member”. Apparently this person had the authority to make such a judgement because they were a white European that conducted field research in Latin America. When the meal ended they used their hands to throw up a mock gang sign in my direction. Just like gangbangers do in American films.
I left the meal feeling disrespected and humiliated. I had no criminal record, and was not wearing some cinematic version of gang colours. At that time, I didn’t even have any visible tattoos. I just looked like how a man from my background would look. Nonetheless, a senior scholar at a major professional event had drawn everybody’s attention to the fun ethnographic fact that there was a Spic at the table. At that event, what I was proved to be more important than what I did. The lesson I drew from this experience was that the ambient noise of academia is a Bourgeois White identity. If you were fortunate enough to be from such a background, then it was perfectly fine to ‘be yourself’. In all likelihood, you would not need to think about it, since most of your colleagues would have similar bodies and habitus. However, if you deviated from this norm then your very presence was jarring, and you were less likely to be engaged with as a professional equal. I assume that this happens to other people a lot more often than it does to me. Here, assimilation into the dominant culture implies a tacit suppression of one’s own identity (cf. Sosa El Fakih 2022).
Decolonisation is an effort to reshape our professional field, by critically interrogating the ambient cultural noise of what we do. Without such a movement, not everybody will be able to sit at our tables with confidence and respect. As a result, the discipline will remain impoverished in its understanding of the human condition.
It Will Never Be in Your Interest To Be Ignorant of Something
The decolonisation of anthropology is not new. The discipline has profoundly interrogated the colonial origins of ethnographic knowledge, and the colonial resonances of contemporary life for decades (Asad 1975; Harrison 1991; Smith 1999. cf Overing 2006). Nonetheless, the current politics of decolonisation are still fraught with accusations of naivety and intellectual vandalism (Lewis 2021; Hann 2022, Sahlins 2017. cf Sanchez 2023). However, in such an environment the intellectual decolonisation of anthropology need not be considered a project of violence. It is rather a project of expansion, which seeks to consider a broader range of ideas, methodologies, and human experiences (Sanchez 2021: 4). I understand this impulse to be integral to the ethnographic imagination.
Historically, the intellectual and political foundation of anthropology has rested on efforts to test assumptions about human social life through comparative cultural enquiry. In doing so, anthropology is the discipline that is supposed to unsettle the most reductive of social scientific ideas. This is the method that allowed the canonical figure of Marcel Mauss to unravel the ‘natural economy’ concept, by showing that gift exchange in non-market societies could be calculating, productive, and sophisticated (2002 ). Alpa Shah describes this destabilising ethnographic method as a ‘revolutionary praxis’ that is integral to what we do as a discipline (2017). Decolonisation is a process that ought to engage the entire anthropological community, to ensure that everybody can speak and that we all learn more as a consequence.
The blunt ‘othering’ of a colleague at the dinner table is an expression of coloniality. But more broadly, so is the systematised exclusion of non-canonical ideas from one’s imagination. Such imaginative exclusion can be unintentional, which is why effort is needed to highlight implicit coloniality in everyday academic life (cf. Maldonado-Torres 2007). As Patricia Uberoi, Nandini Sundar’s, and Satish Deshpande’s efforts to trace an alternative genealogy of Indian anthropology would suggest (Uberoi et al. 2007), there are substantial areas of disciplinary history that, although recognised by regional specialists, remain largely peripheral to the professional genealogy that many anthropologists acknowledge (Allen & Jobson made similar observations about the contribution of Black scholars to anthropological theory since the 1980s. See Allen & Jobson 2016). An over emphasis on the normative genealogies make it harder for some people to identify with the anthropological endeavour (Hlatshwayo & Alexander 2021). Moreover, it is harder to understand the breadth and possibilities of the discipline.
The ongoing project of decolonisation will require more self-reflection in the centres of anthropological power, not just on our engagements with history, but on the uneven distribution of contemporary intellectual authority and prestige. I do not want the world to ignore the American and European anthropologists, or to erase them from history (cf Hage 2017). I simply hope that we all benefit from a wider range of professional possibilities, and hear from a broader range of people. My belief is that these are the core aims of the decolonisation movement, and they are essentially productive.
Andrew Sanchez is a social anthropologist whose research is largely about economy, power and working life. He also writes about race and decolonisation, and is currently working on a collaborative project called ‘Mixed Race Thought in the Culture Wars’. Prior to joining the University of Cambridge in 2016, he held teaching and research positions at the LSE, the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, and the University of Kent.
Allen, J. & R. Jobson. 2016. ‘The Decolonizing Generation: (Race) and Theory in Anthropology since the Eighties’ Current Anthropology 57(2): 129–148
Asad, T. 1975 Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. Ithaca Press.
Hage, G. 2017. ‘“Anthropology Is a White Colonialist Project” Can’t Be the End of the Conversation’. Media Diversified, 4 September 2017.
Hann, C. 2022 “Colonial Encounters. From Caliban and Owain Glyndŵr to Ilham Tohti and Petra Köpping” (unpublished Abschiedsvorlesung lecture, Halle, 23rd June 2022)
Harrison, F. V. (ed.). 1991. Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving further toward an Anthropology for Liberation. American Anthropological Association.
Hlatshwayo, M. N., & I. Alexander. 2021., ‘“We’ve Been Taught to Understand that We Don’t Have Anything to Contribute towards Knowledge”: Exploring Academics’ Understanding of Decolonising Curricula in Higher Education’, Journal of Education (University of KwaZulu-Natal) 82: 44–59.
Maldonado-Torres, N. 2007. ‘On the Coloniality of Being: Contributions to the Development of a Concept’, Cultural Studies 21, no. 20–23: 240–270,
Mauss, M. 2002. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies Routledge Classics
Overing, J. 2006. ‘The Backlash to Decolonizing Intellectuality’ Anthropology and Humanism 31(1): 11–40
Sanchez, A. 2021. ‘The Colour of Anthropology’. Reading Against Racism: A Berghahn Collection
Sanchez, A. 2023. [in press] ‘Kill Your Ancestors: Clickbait Wars and Decolonisation’ American Ethnologist
Sahlins, M. 2017 ‘Emeritus Rant’ Facebook, 31st August 2017
Shah, A. 2017. ‘Ethnography?: Participant Observation, a Potentially Revolutionary Praxis’. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7:1: 45-59
Smith, L. T. 1999. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. St. Martin’s Press.
Sosa El Fakih, E. 2022. ‘Why It’s Problematic To Say You’re a White-Passing Latine’ BELatina, February 22nd 2022.
Uberoi, P., Sundar, N, Deshpande, S. 2007. Anthropology in the East: Founders of Indian Sociology and Anthropology. Permanent Black.