Category Archives: Easter 2023 Edition: Methodologies for Decolonisation

Xintian Ma, ‘Object Study as a Decolonisation Method in Museum: A Reflection from Cambridge MAA Digital Lab’

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The “World Cultures” gallery of Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA). 
Credit to the author.

The origin of collections in the museum is deeply colonial. Since the 16th century, ‘exotic’ things were collected by European explorers who placed them in cabinets of curiosity (Amsel-Arieli 2012). Later, museums were created to gather and showcase those objects, creating an ‘expression of the Western conviction in the onward march of the rational’ (MacKenzie 2017). Today, as a result of such a legacy, many objects in museums have been parts of collections through the colonial process. Therefore, to further advance the trajectory of decolonisation, understanding the colonial past of museum collections is an integral part of the effort. Objects situated as the trophies of colonialism, become a means for us to unpack the process in reverse. Methodologically, how can we utilise museum objects as a tool of decolonisation? The recent launch of the digital lab at Cambridge University Museum of Archeology and Anthropology (MAA) offers an insight into such a possibility. In the digital lab, museum objects are carefully catalogued and analysed to reach a wider audience while revealing their colonial history. By reflecting upon the MAA Digital Lab, I try to comment on the possibility of focusing on objects as a method for decolonising museums. I argue that object study helps us to understand the context of how collections have travelled, and in some cases been misidentified within the colonial context. By adding an object’s historical context back into its story, the dichotomy between provenance and collection is broken down, thus enriching our knowledge of both objects themselves and missing details from their colonial history.  

What is MAA Digital Lab? 

See MAA Digital Lab website:

The MAA Digital Lab was launched in late 2022 as an online platform aiming to create public digital engagement and access to its collections. It has a particular focus on the ‘transparency regarding legacies of colonialism, pushing towards greater dialogue, equality and change in our thought and practice, and diversifying the narratives and voices that speak to and about the collections’ (Elliott 2022). By doing so, the Digital Lab offers an extensive object catalogue of museum collections, a constantly updated section of blog posts, research notes, and online exhibitions. Furthermore, university staff, students, and external researchers are all openly invited to contribute to the blog-making. They are invited to start with an object from the museum catalogue and discuss the history of how those objects have connected to their source communities and how they arrived at the MAA. Currently, the blog posts are arranged according to two themes: 1) Object Diasporas that trace ‘the journeys by which artefacts have reached Cambridge, from complex local trajectories of production and use to the power relationships of colonial era collecting’, and 2) Substances of Wellbeing and Intoxication, objects related to drinks and other substances in “the social and cultural contexts in which they were consumed, the journeys they took and the interpretations offered by collectors and curators” (Elliott 2022). In short, the MAA Digital Lab is a comprehensive tool and source of knowledge, with detailed information about museum objects, and a place for constantly updated blog posts to reveal the travels and histories of objects in its collection. 

What makes the MAA Digital Lab distinctive, and how does it help us with decolonisation? First, the Digital Lab offers a rich catalogue of objects collected in museums. In the catalogue, the introduction does not only explain the provenance and visual appearance of each object but also provides a detailed context of how they have been treated before and after becoming a museum collection. For an instance, my current research focuses on the Tibetan Buddhist statues collected in MAA. When I look into an object in its digital archive, the context section provides a detailed description of how an object has travelled, been used, and physically changed across different periods. Taking an example, a Gilt lacquered wooden figure of Guanyin (MAA 1960.400.1-3) gives information about how its donor, John F. William, acquired the statue from the purchase of his grandfather, and how the votive deposit was removed before arriving. The votive offerings of the statue were taken out by Williams and are now separately collected by the MAA. By searching the descriptions from catalogues, we can add a new dimension to an object’s history not only through its physical appearance but also through the story both before and after it was placed in the museum. 

Gilt lacquered wooden figure of Guanyin from the Digital Catalogue (1960.400.1-3).

Moreover, the blog post and research note section also invite researchers to discover stories of colonial history by highlighting the diaspora of objects through their past misinterpretation and attribution. For example, one of the blog entries focuses on the figure of Guanyu, a warrior and a Taoist deity made in a southern Chinese Taoist temple during the early 19th century (Griffin 2022). The statue was presented to the Fitzwilliam Museum by Isaac Bernard, a British Captain serving a company involved in the Opium trade during the 1850s. The blog highlights the past misattribution of the statue from its British donor and the possibility of a renewed providence emerging from the context of the Opium War. Opium was valued as a medicine in China and British traders would exchange it for tea. However, opium became an addictive drug to millions of people in the country and China’s effort to end the opium trade sparked military conflicts with Britain, ending the war with two treaties ceding Hong Kong, giving more privileges to British traders, and forcing China to pay reparations (Griffin 2022). During such a historic period, this statue was brought to Cambridge. It was first considered by the donor as a “Pirate King and his Wife” when it was initially brought into the Fitzwilliam Museum, while another note on the statue misidentified the statue as a “Buddha” when it was transferred to the MAA (Griffin 2022). The blog posts, as the discussion of the Guanyu statue exemplifies, offer a discussion of how museum objects were interpreted in different ways under different ownerships. By looking at the process of interpretation, we can gain an insight into how an object was misinterpreted during the past, thus informing the colonial history each object has embodied. In summary, both the object catalogue and blog post sections from the MAA Digital Lab provide details of objects beyond their appearance by exploring contexts between provenance and museum collection. By looking at those contexts of objects as a research method, we can understand the colonial process of which an object may have been through. 

Blog Post on the figure of Guan Yu (Griffin 2022).

MAA Digital Lab and Decolonisation in Object Research 

Reflecting on the MAA Digital Lab, it offers a dialogue in the ethnographic approach of making an object’s biography. Through anthropological inquiry, an object is considered to have a social life, as it moves through different contexts of exchange, and acquires different identities and values (Appadurai 1986). To map an object’s social life, Kopytoff (1986) argues for the making of an object biography by highlighting the changes in its cultural value. Furthermore, Drazin (2020) also advocates for the use of object biography as an ethnographic method: we choose one object to follow and describe its changes, direction of travel, and finally create a biography that helps us ‘raise the critical perspective and alternative frameworks for understanding culture’ (63). Lastly, applying object biography to the museum, Alberti argues for objects as a relational site of the museum. As Alberti (2005) describes, the value and significance of things are imbued by people, and the life of an object in a museum reflects its contemporary social relationships through attributions of different meanings (561). Therefore, Alberti (2005) suggests that objects gather meanings ‘through associations with people they encountered on their way to the collection, thus linking the history of museums to broader scientific and civic cultures’ (559). 

Linking object biography as an anthropological method to the MAA Digital Lab, we can see how the Digital Lab allows us to engage with objects and their social relations through both digital catalogue and blog-making. On the one hand, the digital catalogue provides detailed descriptions of the source of an object and the context to which it may have been attributed, physically changed, or identified. On the other hand, those detailed descriptions then provide a resource for researchers to trace an object’s biography and learn about the processes of how they were possibly misattributed as a part of colonial history. The use of the Digital Lab thus echoes Drazin’s (2020) suggestion, where object biography enables us to raise such a ‘critical perspective’ in understanding culture by exploring the changes and contexts of an object’s colonial history. Moreover, resonating the Digital Lab with Alberti (2005), objects become a site where their colonial meanings were gathered through past social relations. By studying those relations, the history of the museum in broader topics such as the history of colonialism is discussed. Therefore, I suggest the Digital Lab integrates the decolonisation process by focusing on an object’s social life as a site of research in and of itself. By looking at past misattributions, identities and interpretations of objects, the Digital Lab can fill in the knowledge gap between an object’s origin and its placement in the museum. Those highlight how research into object biography may thus shed new light on colonial history, revealing contexts once made invisible by the forces of colonialism. 

Finally, as the MAA Digital Lab highlights the biographical context of an object, it provides an opportunity to discuss aspects which other museums may have overlooked. In many museums, objects are recorded with a description of their visual analysis and a brief information of their origin (in many museums, object databases only record each collection’s visual and physical aspects and the place of origin, accompanied by a legal note. A close example can be seen is the Fitzwilliam Museum database: However, the context of how objects have travelled and been misidentified in the process of becoming a part of the museum is often easily ignored. The in-between moment from origin to collection, as the MAA Digital Lab has demonstrated, becomes an important space to understand the colonial background of museum objects more broadly. Therefore, I suggest to further advance the decolonisation effort, we should take each object’s social life seriously. By breaking down the black box between provenance and collection, the MAA Digital Lab offers an opportunity for a research method where an object’s colonial history can be rediscovered and readdressed. Lastly, object study becomes a method of decolonisation by breaking down the duality between a museum’s provenance and collection. By paying attention to those liminal moments between origin and accession, the often overlooked details of an object’s colonial history come to life. 

Xintian Ma is from Guizhou province in Southwestern China. He is currently a MPhil student in Social Anthropological Research at the University of Cambridge. He recently graduated from the University of St Andrews with an undergraduate degree in International Relations and Social Anthropology. With research interests in politics, heritage, museums, religion and ethnicity, his MPhil dissertation focuses on the social life of Tibetan Buddhist statues collected in Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.


Alberti, S. J. M. M. 2005. Objects and the Museum. Isis, 96(4), 559–571. 

Amsel-Arieli, M. 2012. “Cabinets of Curiosity (wunderkammers)”, History Magazine, 13, 40-2. 

Appadurai, A. 1986. “Toward an Anthropology of Thing”, in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1-2

Drazin, A. 2020. “The Object Biography”, in Lineages and advancements in material culture studies. Routledge. 61-74.

Elliott, M. 2022. “Introducing MAA’s Digital Lab”, MAA Digital Lab. 

Kopytoff, I. 1986. “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process”, in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Arjun Appadurai, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 64-92. 

MAA. 2023. “Welcome to the MAA Digital Lab”, MAA Digital Lab. 

MAA. 2023. 1960.400.1-3: “Gilt lacquered wooden figure of Kwan Yin [Guanyin], God(dess) of Mercy”. 

MacKenzie, J. M. 2017. “Introduction”, in Museums and Empire. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press. 
Griffin, A. 2022. “The Buddha, the War God and the Pirate King”, MAA Digital Lab.

Sean French, ‘White and Colonised – Reflections and Methodologies for Studying a Complex Identity’

Walking up the Falls Road in Belfast in Northern Ireland, there are a series of colourful murals commemorating Irish Republican icons and addressing current Irish Republican issues. Alongside this, murals referencing global political struggles pepper the tapestry. The red, green and white cross of the Basque ikurriña flag – Not Spain. Not France. Nelson Mandela’s smiling face makes an appearance. One mural: NO to Israeli administrative detention! with the words ‘Hunger’ and ‘Strike’ joined by a chain is directly followed by another: End the forced strip searches. End internment (in Northern Ireland). It is preceded by a commemoration of the Irish hunger strikers of 1981. In my son’s veins flowed the blood of Irish rebels reads a mural in the Bogside in Derry, the words Ernesto Che Guevara Lynch arching above. It is hard not to compare these instances of colonised and oppressed people around the world, and this is not an accident. 

Against the backdrop of the Palestinian flag, an Irish man in a wheelchair brandishes a slingshot. The mural reads, ‘Oppression breeds resistance. They took his land, his legs, and finally his life’. Credit to the author.

A sense of ‘universal revolution’ (Arendt 1963) and universal solidarity permeates this street art. The Irish struggle is the same as any struggle of a colonised people, they seem to suggest. These murals are most prevalent in working-class areas which were most affected by the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I am a relatively more middle class Northern Irish Catholic but, standing on that street on a grey rain-spitting day looking at those images, I cannot deny that they still made me feel something. I would feel embarrassed to claim these struggles as if they were my own, but stories of family members who were involved in this dramatic violence feel ‘part of me’ to an extent and I cannot deny that this rhetoric registers with me on some vague sensory level. I encounter that rush of excitement, the literal hair on my neck responding, as something which feels beyond my conscious control, outside of me, my body reacts before my mind. The lines between identification and solidarity are easily blurred. To support these global struggles, do you have to feel that you are the same as the oppressed colonised people in them? Beyond perhaps some vague sense of ‘we’re all human’, of course not. Similarity does not predicate empathy. However, it certainly does seem to help in a lot of cases. A common theme of these murals is anti-colonialism and it is claimed wholeheartedly as an Irish affair too.

Standing there makes me think more about Irish Catholics as a ‘colonised people’ and about myself as a ‘colonised person’. Northern Ireland was colonised (and still is, technically) during the plantation of Ulster beginning in 1609. Irish Catholics were displaced and their culture suppressed for hundreds of years. However, a considerable chunk of Irish Catholics living in Northern Ireland nowadays, particularly middle-class ones, no longer quite ‘feel it’ as they once might have done. This is not to take away from the long-lasting and negative effects of the conflict on people in Northern Ireland or the structural discrimination against Irish people in the past. It’s just that, despite this, a considerable chunk of Irish Catholics generally do not claim the same level of discrimination as people from other colonial or postcolonial states. For one, we don’t have to contend with racism intersecting the legacy of colonisation. Nowadays, Caucasian-seeming Irish people are considered white and probably for a lot of people when they think of ‘Irish people’ they think of white people. On a side note,historically, this was not always the case (see, for example, ‘How the Irish became White’ by Noel Ignatiev [2009]). Similarly, the economy is doing well in Northern Ireland and is on the rise post-Troubles. For me personally, it is sometimes hard to feel that hard done by a legacy of colonisation. More of the legitimate righteous anger, at least in my case, is directed toward the past. That being said, the sense that ‘the peace process moves at two speeds’ is important to acknowledge, and a lot of people in working-class areas feel a clearer continuity with the past and present. 

Murals in Belfast interpreting the conflict in Northern Ireland. Credit to the author.

This ambivalence in a colonial identity should be put in context. Education reforms in 1940s Northern Ireland saw the introduction of a grammar school system as part of free secondary-level education for all which began a slow growth of a Catholic middle class, a social stratum previously dominated by Unionist Protestants (O’Connor 1993). The Catholic middle class continued to grow throughout the 20th century due to a number of factors including the introduction of fair employment legislation, expanded employment in education, health and welfare, and the increased educational opportunity previously mentioned (Elliott 2001). However, according to historian Marianne Elliott (2001), generally the Catholic community maintained an identity of being less privileged. Those Catholics who moved into the middle class often developed milder political views to those (often members of their own family) who remained working class (O’Connor 1993). This new social advantage was contrasted with a persistent sense of perceived Catholic oppression which O’Connor (1993) terms a ‘folk memory of shared disadvantage’ (89) and which can, she argues, result in a sense of identity conflict or guilt among Catholics who are in a generally more privileged position these days than in the past. Elliott terms this ambivalent attitude among Northern Irish Catholics ‘a resentful belonging’ (2001). 

This being said, it still inspires righteous anger in me when English people impersonate my accent after just meeting me or make assumptions about me because of it. It also irritates me when people confidently talk about Irish history without knowing the details. However, I wonder how different this is to the treatment of a working-class Northern English or a cockney accent in Southern England. Is it an issue of class connotations or a post-colonial legacy? Both, I suppose, but the experience today of being white and Irish in England is probably not a million miles away from class-based experiences of a white person in England. So when I look at the murals of global colonial struggles above and feel that affect stirring in me, I often wonder how legitimate it is. Should I indulge in it? A conflict between mind and body over that feeling – is it an identification with the colonised and oppressed? I am part-in and part-out. Mostly out, but there is something there. 

I wonder too sometimes why the Irish American identity is so popular in the United States. According to Wikipedia, nearly 12% of the U.S. population identify as Irish American. Despite huge waves of immigration from Ireland to the U.S., presumably all of this 12% are not just Irish but a mixture of ethnic backgrounds. Maybe the historical oppression of Irish people is a reason for its popularity today as an identity label. Maybe it is a means for white Americans to claim the ‘perks’ of being an underdog? A sense of heroic struggle and lineage of ‘pulling themselves up by the bootstraps’ without actually having to face any major structural barriers in the modern day? This is what Diane Negra (2006) has argued. Maybe I am doing something similar looking at those murals? 

Is this a factor as to why there have been so many Irish American crime dramas like ‘The Departed’, ‘The Town’, or ‘Gangs of New York’? The first few minutes of ‘The Departed’ is a monologue by the antagonist (or antihero) Frank Costello in which he says “Twenty years after an Irishman couldn’t get a f****** job, we had the presidency. May he rest in peace. That’s what the n****** don’t realise. If I got one thing against the black chappies, it’s this – no one gives it to you”. While this character is the villain, he is a charismatic villain. Perhaps this narrative which conflates racism and colonialism is thrown in as something which is expected to resonate with an Irish American audience?

All this is to say, feeling colonised as an Irish person is complicated and has the potential to be problematic in many ways beyond the example above. However, global identification with the colonised is not an inherently bad thing and can be a positive force. In my own life, I remember a conversation with a Palestinian woman when I mentioned the parallels people draw between the Irish Catholic situation and the Palestinians, half-expecting her to dismiss the comparison as ridiculous. However, she already knew about this and was enthusiastic about the sense of solidarity. She said she was glad that there were people in Europe who cared as strongly as many Irish Catholics seemed to. 

This identity as colonised Irish people is something nuanced, unresolved, and ambivalent. So how best to study it? I suggest a methodology which foregrounds ambivalence is perhaps most appropriate. Attention to moments of contradiction in which multiple views become juxtaposed in the same person, or to moments of half-formed vague sensation, may be more productive than asking people in interviews to try and formulate some clear-cut view on the political situation in Northern Ireland. If someone asked me in an interview about these topics, I probably would struggle to sum up the complexity of the lived experience of it. However, alternative methodologies, such as attention to vaguely sensed affects like the ones I felt looking at those murals can shine light on how the past remains present. A colonial identity may live on in the vague sensations of the body, but this is incongruent with ‘the rational mind’ (however that ‘rational mind’ is imagined). 

Humour is also a means for playing with, re-framing, and juxtaposing various attitudes toward the same object. Attending to moments of creative play in humour could perhaps reveal more than looking at straightforward literal statements of what people say in an interview. Irony, in particular, can keep multiple attitudes alive at once without clearly resolving them into any clear literal view. Post-ironic meme culture is also alive and well in Northern Ireland and it is hard to know what the hell kind of relationship to a colonised identity some of them suggest. For example:

Is this support for Irish Republicanism (English 2008)? Is it a kind of playful familiarising of the IRA? Why is Republicanism sexualised? Is it kind of mocking Republicanism too? Who is the imagined audience for this meme? Whatever is going on, these kinds of memes are very popular in Northern Ireland. Looking at the ways people engage with a meme like this is probably a very fruitful way to explore the complexities and nuances of modern Irish Catholic identity, how people perceive themselves as ‘colonised’, and what ‘decolonisation’ might mean to young Northern Irish Catholics. 

Another method could be to ignore the history of colonisation and ensuing struggles entirely and only pay attention to it indirectly if it emerges in your interlocutors’ lives. As Karen Lane (2019) argues in her paper entitled ‘Not-the-Troubles’, there is a meta-narrative in Northern Irish studies which can reproduce a reductionist view of peoples’ lives as completely characterised by the political tension and colonial history. She therefore tries to foreground how people themselves understand their lives and see how they made the conflict more or less relevant to them. In this case, there is a complicated dynamic where an anthropologist studying a colonised location may focus on (de)colonialism but, in the process, portray people’s lives in terms with which they don’t agree. While this is not inherently a problem – it is fair to disagree with your informants – it still highlights the power dynamic between anthropologist and informant. If the anthropologist is writing from an institution which is part of a history of colonial relationships then perhaps determining their interlocutors’ lives in terms of colonisation against their will is problematic, or at least worth reflecting on?

These methods of studying (de)colonisation are relevant, I suggest, to the Northern Irish context of colonialism. However, the extent to which they apply beyond it to other colonial contexts is an open question and beyond my expertise. In other contexts, the sense of identification as an oppressed colonised people may not be ambivalent at all. Colonial and postcolonial identities are also highly intersectional with race. However, perhaps attention to ambivalent identification is also still relevant to some extent in these contexts. Class dynamics may privilege certain individuals from these backgrounds over others. I leave it as an open question and encourage other researchers to consider foregrounding ambivalence as a methodology in itself for studying (de)colonialism. 

Sean French is a third year Social Anthropology PhD student at the University of Cambridge funded by the ESRC. His research looks at Protestant marching bands in Northern Ireland, political alienation, and the role of sound in politics. Sean likes writing post-apocalyptic fiction, playing the banjo, and engaging in community development work. 


Affleck, B. 2010 The Town. Warner Bros.

Arendt, H. 2006 On Revolution. Penguin Books.

Elliott, M. 2002 The Catholics of Ulster. Basic Books.

English, R. 2003 Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA. Oxford University Press.

Lane, K. 2019 Not-the-Troubles: disinterring the marginalised stories of the ordinary and the everyday. Anthropological Forum 29, 1:  62-76. 

Negra, D. 2006 The Irish in Us Irishness, Performativity, and Popular Culture. Durham: Duke University Press.

O’Connor, F. 1993 In search of a state: Catholics in Northern Ireland. Blackstaff Press.

Scorsese, M., J. Nicholson., L. DiCaprio, A. Baldwin, M. Sheen, M. Damon, M. Wahlberg, & V. Farmiga. 2006 The Departed. Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video.Scorsese, M., H. Shore, A. Brown, & J. Atmajian. 2002. Gangs of New York. Miramax.

Adaiah Hudgins-Lopez, ‘Speculative Methods as Place-Making for Anthropology’

The facts, alone, will not save us.

—Ruha Benjamin, ‘Racial Fictions, Biological Facts’ (2016: 2)

Anthropology, as a discipline, is deeply concerned with where it is going and how it can articulate its relevance to broader conversations. This includes discussion of decolonisation. While we embark on a journey to map formations and continuations of the structures in our world, and, retroactively, in our discipline, we have yet to outline or hypothesise concrete methods to undo these inequities. Here, I want to pull from conversations taking place amongst Black anthropologists, intellectuals, and other thinkers to hypothesise one way toward decolonisation through speculative methods. 

Speculative methods, as discussed by Ruha Benjamin (2016), extend academic thought through experimentation in fictional storytelling. Benjamin writes, ‘Fictions, in this sense, are not falsehoods but refashionings through which analysts experiment with different scenarios, trajectories, and reversals, elaborating new values and testing different possibilities for creating more just and equitable societies. Such fictions are not meant to convince others of what is, but to expand our own visions of what is possible’ (2). Her essay uses an original fiction story, an account of the revival of Black victims of police brutality from the perspective of Aiyana Mo’Nay Stanley Jones, to consider the implications of her research on race, biological and stem cell research, the state, and citizenship. Her story outlines how state power perpetuates inequities by continuing to weaponise biological and stem cell research in acting upon Black bodies under the guise of inclusive, restorative practices. Within this study, Benjamin demonstrates inconsistencies in academic thought around biological research, Black citizenship, and the state as articulated in the events of the story. It also highlights potential places for further exploration of these relationships that also implicate shortcomings or limitations in our discipline. 

An important aspect of Benjamin’s discussion revolves around the idea that anthropology is intimately connected to our conceptions of the future. Anthropologists work inductively and retroactively (based on the knowledge gleaned from being with and learning from our interlocutors in addition to employing reflexivity) to consider and expand our ideas about the relationships between cultures, abstract structures, ontologies, and epistemologies. We make arguments about how things were or are, but we leave discussions of how things might be or can be to realms of speculation. This suggests our discipline finds considerations of the future to be a tangential practice located away from pure, intellectual anthropological thought or a potentially dangerous practice due to its subjective nature. However, Benjamin’s practice illustrates one way of deepening anthropological thought requires us to partake in a reflexive practice—to use what we know was and is as starting points for what can be—that has the potential to underline what is missing within our research and how we construct our practices. 

‘Place-making’ relies as much on multisensory, embodied knowledge and spatial knowledge as temporal knowledge (Feld & Basso 1996; Pink 2008). Determining anthropology’s place relies on sharing a sense of our past, present, and future. While many different words exist to describe this phenomenon, I will employ the term sankofa. Sankofa, a Ghanaian Akan Twi term, means ‘to go back and get it’ or ‘to retrieve’. It is usually employed in African diasporic communities as a call to know and reclaim our history in order to understand who we are and to learn from this past in order to envision and prepare for our futures. Alondra Nelson (2002) defines Afrofuturism and its practices as a manifestation of this endeavour (9-10), some of which are particularly interested in a future where ‘blacks free themselves from the constraints of racism’ (11). 

Afrofuturist works employ sankofa (Samatar 2017) and imagination to ‘redefine culture and notions of Blackness’ while imagining Black people in the future (Womack 2013: 9), which serve as exercises of place-making for Black people through speculation and play. 

W.E.B. DuBois’s ‘The Comet’ (1920) turns the world of the early 20th century on its head and, in doing so, temporarily suspends racial distinctions and Jim Crow-era laws that lead to segregation and marginalisation. He allows his Black and white protagonists to relate to each other only to reinstate those separations as a way to emphasise their arbitrariness in his contemporary society, long before social scientists took race as a construct to be true. 

Image of Halley’s Comet in 1986. (Public domain)

Octavia E. Butler’s story, ‘Bloodchild’ (1995), places Black people in an alien world where gendered assumptions of birth and surrogacy, regulation of bodies, conceptions of love, and coming-of-age processes are flipped while remaining eerily akin to the experiences of Black bodies in chattel slavery. The graphic nature of alien-human reproduction jerks the reader into reflection about the relationship between race and reproductive labour in our everyday lives and the degrees of relation that relationship has to relatively recent history. 

Credit to Jonathan Djob Nkondo as published in:

Derrick Bell’s ‘The Space Traders’ (1992), which was later dramatised in the film Cosmic Slop (1994), sets forward a dilemma that questions the worth and value of Black people to non-Black communities in the face of opportunity to prosper. That these characters, even those advocating to save Black people, attempt to quantify or provide economic and social logics describing the value of Black people in the U.S. ultimately suggests how little Black lives are worth beyond functional utility to improve the outcomes of others. 

Cover for the film Cosmic Slop (1994), in which ‘The Space Traders’ was dramatised.

All of these stories use speculative fiction to suggest the ‘place ‘of Black lives (with a myriad of conceptual and identity intersections) in U.S. society contemporary to their writing. They also create space to reflect on how Black people can expand or shift their orientation to place in order to expand or shift how they envision their futures.

Envisioning the futures implied by anthropological research and our discipline’s past only strengthens our awareness of what our discipline can be and where it can go. For example, Aimee Meredith Cox (2020) reminds us that addressing issues of diversity and decolonisation in anthropology begins with acknowledging the long history of Black anthropological thought—here, she asserts the significance of St Clair Drake’s essays (1978; 1980) in envisioning the histories and trajectories of Black scholarship in anthropology—and ethnographic practice that coexisted with the formation of the discipline in the 20th century. She argues, this forces us to consider the place of non-white, Western praxis and thought as foundational to our ‘field’ and potentially instructive of ways forward to decolonise our discipline. As another example, Smaran Dayal (2022) argues the use of ‘science fictionality’ is employed in narrative to ‘provide a necessary corrective to anthropology’s ethnographic realism, which too easily slips into modes and discourses of othering…’ (3). Employing speculative methods resists the impulse within anthropology to categorise or label concepts or people in our retellings of ethnographic fieldwork and subsequent research findings. It creates more space for people within our research works. These are two examples where engaging in the exercise of envisioning futures contributes to more effective place-making for anthropology. 

We have also seen anthropologists engage in this exercise suggested by Benjamin. In ‘The Promises of Monsters’, Donna Haraway attempts to imagine an ‘absent, but perhaps possible, other present’ in our understandings of nature and social relations through consideration of stories (2011: 314). Likewise, Ruth Behar (1996) has drawn on her own creative writing in the form of poetry, fiction, memoir, filmmaking, etc. as examples with the capacity to expand our discipline’s capacity for reflexivity and consideration of our obligation to research interlocutors. Anthropologist Matthew Wolf-Meyer (2019) writes that ‘articulating futures—imagining them and bringing them into being—is an active process’ (14-15). What better way to consider the expansion of our discipline’s ideas actively than through exercises of storytelling based within the rich insights we have gleaned about people and cultures? 

Below, I have written a short speculative piece to explore the connections between migration, racialisation, identity, hope, and agency. My hope is this creative engagement illustrates the capacity of speculative methods for expanding the possibilities of decolonising anthropological research in shifting the types of foci or questions we address in our research contexts:


Viajar Dentro

The year is 2040. Espé finds herself on the other end of a perilous journey battered, bruised, and exhausted. She is with her kin and given a bed for the night. Yet, she cannot rest. Something is at work inside her, warring with her resolve.

Espé sat on the corner of the bed atop the shabby quilt that had seen many years and released a deep sigh. Every muscle in her body sang with fatigue and pain ushered in with the short, yet warm shower she took fifteen minutes prior. Her right hand worked a thick pink towel through her dark, wet shoulder length curls while her left hand kneaded an involuntary spasm in a sore thigh muscle. Her fragile, wide frame was draped in an oversized t-shirt and pajama pants borrowed from her aunt. Glancing around the small room, Espé noticed the blue wallpaper was yellowing in the corners and the furniture in the room, of which there was little, sat covered in a thin layer of dust. A single, burgundy armchair and chipped, mahogany side table with a small mirror faced the large bed upon which she rested. The sheer size of the bed, which could fit three or four people, only enhanced the narrowness of the room. Thankfully, the room was all hers for the night.

Rhythmically, she massaged the towel through her hair as her thoughts shifted to her father’s face the afternoon she fled from home. His gentle, dark eyes shone and he pursed his brown lips, his entire face contorted with something Espé could not identify. Finally, he softened,  placed his hands on her shoulders, and kissed her forehead. Mi hija, he said, buen viaje. Espero que esto no te lleve. My daughter, safe journey. I hope it doesn’t take you.

There were stories, many stories, about the way journeying across the desert changes a person. They said something changed when the desert could no longer take them, when one no longer felt inexplicable heat weighing on the body or brushed sand from their eyes to keep going. That something else decided to take them, to even the score. That something would take you and you would never realise it until it presented itself to you. Like a mirrored-self smiling back at your frowning face, uncanny and evil. Espé had tried to push such stories out of mind as she donned a X43 desert suit, to regulate her body temperature, and adjusted the helmet to push air and water into her body properly. Yet, when she and five others stepped into the Mexican desert, she shivered involuntarily.

As her fingers gripped the towel, she remembered the sensation of grains of sand flowing through her fingers, coarse yet delicate and fluid as water. The crunch of the X43 suit material against sand gathering in the crevices between forearm and bicep, thigh and calf muscle. The sound of howling winds against her helmet. The wind whirling sand and debris passed her group onto jagged rocks at the edge of the border, seeming to place that additional weight upon the ground just for them. That weight was their only hope of making it beyond the sensors, designed to notify the authorities of unauthorised crossing, buried below. She recalled the feeling of elation and dread when she crossed those rocks with only a minor scrape, the reality and worry over her unwanted presence in this new land counteracted only by the determination to reach her kin, begin a new life. 

After a moment, she realised her hands had slowed their work and begun to tremble. Squeezing the last moisture she could from her tight curls, she let the towel drop to her lap. A wave of overwhelm consumed her. Longing for her parents who still did not know she arrived and, given the tight surveillance of social media platforms, she could not inform them for a while. Contentment with warmth from the shower now settled into her bones. Gratitude for the distant aunt and uncle who ensured the home shared between migrants had space for her and sent her the funds to secure passage through a coyote with an X43 suit. Pain, aching within her, from the never-ending walk across the Sonoran desert, over the border, through the state of Arizona until she arrived in Cortez, Colorado. Pain from the stories she heard and the all-too-real horrors she witnessed in her journeying, which sat nestled in a pit below her ribcage. And, something else. This other feeling she could not name.

Espé stood to drape the wet towel over the dusty table and as she did her leg betrayed her. The spasm intensified in her thigh, causing her to trip and land on the floor. She winced knowing the knee she landed on would likely bruise overnight, flowering into a deliciously sickly blue against her brown skin. As she raised herself from the floor unsteadily, the sound of approaching footsteps disrupted the thick, night-time silence. 

Are you okay? Her uncle on the other side of the door.

. Espero no haberte despertado.

You didn’t. A pause. Esperanza, you should practice your English now. With us. 

Espé felt a rush of annoyance and fear, the heat rising from the pit below her chest to her cheeks. Si, tío. I try tomorrow.

She picked up the towel as her uncle’s footsteps retreated and smoothed the towel on the table. 

She glanced at herself in the mirror. It was not her. She was looking at something hollow, someone exhausted, a woman defeated. That is when Espé sees it. 

A glint in the eye of her reflection. It is…knowing. Her reflection slowly begins to smile. That smile hangs on Espé’s own cheeks. The smile is not hers; it comes from the pit in her chest that animates her easily like a marionette. The longer the smile remains, the more it bores into her, until with a final tug at her cheekbones, the smile dissolves into resignation. Her gaze drops to the floor. 

And then she cries.

Adaiah Hudgins-Lopez is a writer, dancer, creative, and PhD Social Anthropology student at the University of Cambridge. She is a 2021 and 2022 Gates Cambridge Scholar and member of Trinity College. Her writing and creative work centres Afrofuturist musings, narratives of migration, and explorations of community and movement building. She believes in the power of reciprocal storytelling to change the trajectory of how people relate to each other and the value of uplifting voices from the margins.


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Cox, Aimee Meredith. 2020. ‘Can Anthropology Get Free?’ Transforming Anthropology 28(2): 118-120.

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Samatar, Sofia. 2017. ‘Toward a Planetary History of Afrofuturism’. Research in African Literatures 48(4): 175-191.

St Clair Drake, John Gibbs. 1978. ‘Reflections on Anthropology and the Black Experience’. In Anthropology & Education Quarterly 9(2): 85-109.

———. 1980. ‘Anthropology and the Black Experience’. The Black Scholar 11(7): 2-31.

Wolf-Meyer, Matthew. 2019. Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.Womack, Ytasha L. 2013. Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. Chicago, IL: Chicago Review Press.

Edurne Sosa El Fakih, ‘Métele sazón, batería y reggaetón: Methodologies for Decolonisation Through Latin Music’

Del barrio a la academia. CC BY 2.0 license from link.

‘Bad Bunny is bigger than The Beatles’, I said, committed to the nth degree with the Bad Bunnyi Defense Manifesto speech I was delivering to a group of distant family members one hot Miami summer night last year. Of course I didn’t mean it. At least I didn’t mean it in the same way they heard it. They heard ‘I only listen to perreo dance music with misogynistic lyrics that glorify and romanticise money, drugs, and sex’. But what I meant was ‘shaming reggaeton and “urban music” for its themes and loreii is not only a classist, racist, and prejudiced thing to say, but it reinforces colonialist and imperialist ideas onto an already highly abused Latin collective’.

Reggaeton originated through youth’s musical innovations of the 1980s and 1990s in Panama and Puerto Rico, specifically through ‘multiple streams of migration and cultural exchange across the Caribbean basin’ (Bad Bunny Syllabus 2023). As Bad Bunny’s Coachella 2023 performance opening narrates: “it was when reggae and hip hop rose together from the underground of the Panama barrios and the Puerto Rican caseríos (public housing projects) of the 1980s to challenge authority and become the voice of the voiceless”.

In Panama, during the late 1970s, young people began the reggae en español movement by taking Jamaican dancehall records and rapping over them in Spanish, with prominent figures such as El General, who was descendant of West Indian labourers that migrated from Jamaica to Panama decades earlier to build the Panama Canal (Bad Bunny Syllabus 2023). As Marshall (2009:79) points out, El General’s early singles ‘Tu Pun Pun’ (1990), ‘Te Ves Buena’ (1990), and Muévelo (1992) were the inspiration for a generation of music across the Spanish-speaking regions of the continent. El General and his friends would pick up the B-sides of Jamaican singles on tape from DJ stands and forced the tapes on bus drivers while improvising live over them during the rides. This was during a time in Panama when people ‘didn’t want to sit next to [them] on the bus’ and dreadlocks were routinely cut off from people, by the dictatorships, first of Torrijos and later Noriega. As El General tells Twickel (2009:82), ‘they called me “El General,” because General Torrijos had the highest command’. 

In February 1995, six record labels in San Juan were raided by the Drugs and Vice Control Bureau of the Police Department of Puerto Rico, confiscating hundreds of underground cassettes and mixtapes (Rivera 2009: 111). Underground – the term used for the genre of rap and reggae music in Puerto Rico – incited a moral panic due to its vulgar and violent lyrics that spoke of sex, marihuana, and guns, which propelled fear against this subculture and the dangers of this ‘submundo’ (subworld or underworld). Some of the key points of the battle against underground music were focused on the influence and impact that the music would have on Puerto Rican youth. Another powerful critique was focused on the ‘marginality’ of the genre, how music primarily developed by the labouring-impoverished classes was producing a cultural malaise that threatened to contaminate the social core with imaginaries from the periphery of barriadas (slums), and caseríos. Rivera (2009: 112) in her work Policing Morality, Mano Dura Stylee, shows how ‘the policing of public morality serves to strengthen social consensus and demonise transgressors, as well as cement power relations, social prejudices, and structures of oppression’. 

Underground was censored due to its perceived ties with youth from poor communities who were seen as perpetrators of crime and social disorder. Policies like Pedro Rosselló’s (1992–96) Mano Dura Contra el Crimen (Tough Hand Against Crime) campaign implemented guards in caseríos, citizen surveillance systems, military occupation of housing projects, and banning of underground music. Considering that crime is directly linked to youth of the (racialized) labouring-impoverished classes, underground music challenges prevailing social structures by voicing the concerns of the invisible (Rivera 2009:111). Early reggaeton was a target for censorship for its obscene, ‘criminal’, and violent themes and aesthetics that challenged ideas of ‘proper behaviour’ held by the dominant public, governmental bodies, and religiousiii speech that regulated social order (Rivera 2009:129). 

Reggaeton as Decolonising Methodology

Since the 16th Century, Puerto Rico had been a colony of Spain, until 1869 when the colonial power allowed the island more independence. After the United States declared war on Spain to liberate Cuba in 1898, Puerto Rico was ‘ceded’ and transferred by the Spanish to the US. Having never enjoyed full autonomy, Puerto Ricans were granted U.S citizenship in 1917 through the Jones-Shafroth Act (Blakemore 2020); and until 1952, flying the Puerto Rican flag was considered a felony, as the only flag allowed was the American one. Today, Puerto Ricans lack some central rights of mainland Americans, such as casting electoral votes in the general election.

It is in this context that I identify reggaeton as a decolonizing method. Bad Bunny’s rise to stardom occurred during a time in 2016 when Puerto Rico was suffering a debt crisis of $72 billion USD. This can be seen as a continuation of a ‘pattern of dependency and debt’ on the United States (LeBrón 2016, Fusté 2017). This, coupled with 2017’s Hurricane Maria gave rise to what Bonilla (2020) terms ‘the coloniality of disaster’. It is during these unsettling times of catastrophic natural events and political and economic crisis – which intensify the country’s historic racial and colonial histories – that Bad Bunny releases ‘Estamos Bien’ (We Are Good) and performs for the first time in on national US television in The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. The song was not only played in the island during the hurricane’s aftermath to raise the spirits, but his performance in The Tonight Show directly addresses Puerto Rico’s struggles and the government’s ‘denial’ of the disaster. 

Bad Bunny, photographed while taking part in a demonstration demanding Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rossello's resignation in San Juan on July 17, 2019.
Eric Rojas / AFP Via Getty Images/AFP Via Getty Images

Considering that research is not a distant academic exercise but, as Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012: 5) suggests, ‘an activity that has something at stake and that occurs in a set of political and social conditions’, I propose reggaeton’s modern chart domination – lead up until recently by Bad Bunny – as a research tool for anthropologists to pay heed to. As an anthropologist that defines herself as ‘Latin’ or ‘Hispanic’, my training follows Western academia and ‘specific disciplinary methodologies’ that make it incredibly complex to describe the life and customs of people with a particular paradigm or research model (Smith 2012: 6). Paying close attention to reggaeton’s history, aesthetics, lyrics, and chart presence can tell us things just as vital and true as research participants during interviews. 

One of the most common difficulties for non-Western/white anthropologists is the fact that our academic education prevents us from ‘being in a “real” or “authentic” Indigenous position’ (Smith 2012: 14). And yet, speaking from a more ‘traditional’ Indigenous point of view not only does not make sense to the West, but is often simply reduced as meaningless and grammatically incorrect slang. Bad Bunny’s heartfelt speech during his acceptance of Best Música Urbana at the 2023 ‘gringo Grammys’iv was closed-captioned as ‘speaking non-English’, and his lyrics are regularly muted and censored. Still, the intentionality on decolonizing through reggaeton comes through when he is asked about the ‘non-English’ incident in a TIMES Magazine interview (Chow and Espada 2023), and his response is ‘it was porqueria (crap)’; and while opening his Stadium World Tour in Puerto Rico in 2022 he enters the Coliseo perreando and rapping ‘a mucha gente no le gusta mi lenguaje pero que se jodan eso fue lo que les traje (a lot of people don’t like my language but fuck them that’s what I brought them)’.v Bad Bunny is not an activist, and in several interviews has voiced his discomfort when he is forced to make a political statement. He calls himself ‘just a chamaquito (little boy)’,vi and like any other chamaquito, he feels uprootedness, anger, grief, love, and bellaqueo, and his songs speak of those experiences that resonate with billions of Latin people – and non-Latin people across the world.vii

CBS Grammys Telecast Skips Bad Bunny Closed Captions & Displays ...
See more at

What Bad Bunny has achieved, as opposed to other Latin music icons such as Shakira during her world-dominating period, is that he has intentionally shifted the centre from its imperial core, while never singing in English or tapping into the commercial American market. Through music, and propelled by the reach of social media, Bad Bunny has positioned himself at the very centre of global music, being the most streamed artist for three years in a row, beating Taylor Swift and Drake (Calvario 2022). I find it funny that during casual conversations in Cambridge, when I mention his name, nobody recognizes him or knows about him. Having only lived in very highly populated Hispanic and Latin places outside of my home country, finding that people do not recognize the top global artist, is a call to question if what we are writing and reading here about Latin America, is really what Latin America cares about. 

Reggaeton has been used as a decolonising methodology by the people, to break away colonial imaginaries of what is ‘right’ or ‘good’. From Tego Calderón, Daddy Yankee, and Calle 13, songs that speak and challenge colonial imaginaries have been made, played, and enjoyed throughout the continent. Anthropology as a discipline can learn from these local, cultural phenomena and focus its lens on sensory methodologies that voice the lives of a large community. Doing so will help anthropologists shorten the gaps in anthropological perspectives and do what we are supposed to do: listen, really listen to what people are saying (or singing about). What “The Bad Bunny Effect” does is force the conversation with our distant family members. It forced me to make a grand shocking statement that questioned our ‘good taste’ and ‘cultured’ imaginaries, because historically ‘good taste’ was defined by people who did not look like us. 

Welcome to the calentón.


i. Bad Bunny is the stage name of Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, a Puerto Rican rapper and singer, mainly in the genres of reggaeton and Latin trap. As of April 2023, Bad Bunny has been receiving an all-important counteresponse from the community and fandom, due to his comment on a TIMES Magazine interview regarding the industry’s systemic racism and history of exploitation of Black culture, whilst considering his lighter-skin complexion and perceived ‘whiteness’.

ii. ‘Lore’ is a contemporary internet term that refers to the worldbuilding and attractiveness of a specific theme or fantasy. My choice of this word here is deliberate, to be able to think and write with concepts that come from a local level, from people’s everyday language.

iii. The scope of this piece does not encompass the interesting intersection between religious imagery and reggaeton, which I believe is an exciting theme that has not been explored in anthropology. For an analysis on religious aesthetics, ambience, and sensations in media, see Birgit Meyer 2006.  

iv.  In 2020, Bad Bunny was nominated for the Grammys in two categories, after having participated only in the Latin Grammys prior to that. In a viral interview at the time, Bad Bunny says “to us, the Latin Grammys are the Grammys. But of course, I’m happy to be nominated for a gringo Grammy” (Exposito 2020).

v. Linda Smith outlines Ngugi Thiongo’s argument that ‘language carries culture’, and reggaeton produces a perfect convergence point for this inquiry. Puerto Rican slang such as bellaco (being horny) or bichote/a (gangster) has been widespread across Latin America and Spain and is now commonly used. Even Spanish artists such as Rosalía, who have a distinct Spaniard pronunciation of the Z and C, have decided to forego her native accent in her music and implement seseo (pronounce the letter C with the S sound) in her music. She also uses Boricua words such as gyales (derived from the Caribbean gyal that refers to a girl). The use and appropriation of the language of reggaeton by Spanish and European artists is an area requiring further examination.

vi. While this can be seen by some people as wasting and deferring the power and influence Bad Bunny has, I think anthropology is the most-fitted discipline to contextualise his divergence into a larger picture that considers personhood, the market, and societal expectations.

vii. One of his most used songs that expresses Puerto Rico’s struggles is El Apagón, for which the music video goes alongside a 22 min documentary about the island’s battles against beach privatisation, foreigners migration for tax  exemption purposes, and electricity and water shortages due to privatised companies. It features his ex-girlfriend, Gabriela Berlingeri, singing ‘Yo no me quiero ir de aquí. Lo que me pertenece se lo quedan ellos. Esta es mi playa, este es mi sol. Esta es mi tierra, esta soy yo’ (‘I don’t want to leave. They take what belongs to me. This is my beach; this is my sun. This is my land, this is me’). This sense of uprootedness echoes the complicated feelings of young Latin people having to migrate (normally to the United States) to find work, while at the same time seeing their lands gentrified and taken over by Americans working remote after the COVID-19 pandemic. In the same song, Bad Bunny pays homage to pioneer reggaetonero Tego Calderón, by taking Calderón’s quote ‘métele sazón, batería y reggaetón’ (add seasoning, drums and reggaeton), and rephrasing it to ‘le falta sazón, batería y reggaeton’ (it’s lacking seasoning, drums and reggaeton), referring to the foreigners in the island.

Edurne Sosa El Fakih is an MPhil student in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. She is a member of Girton College and Maria Luisa de Sanchez Scholarship recipient. Edurne has served as a content writer for BELatina and Nuestro Stories, focusing on Hispanic culture, heritage, and complex experiences in the United States. Her book, Al borde de un viaje (2021), is a creative project that addresses issues of uprooting, migration, and nostalgia. 


Blakemore, E. 2020. “Why Puerto Rico has debated U.S. statehood since its colonisation”. National Geographic. 

Bonilla, Y. 2020. “The coloniality of disaster: Race, empire, and the temporal logics of emergency in Puerto Rico, USA”. Political Geography 78:1-12.

Calvario, L. 2022. “Bad Bunny and Taylor Swift are Spotify’s 2022 most-streamed artists”. TODAY. 

Chow, A. and Espada, M. 2023. “Bad Bunny’s Next Move”. TIMES Magazine. 

Exposito, S. 2020. “Global superstar Bad Bunny has never won a ‘gringo Grammy.’ Will 2021 finally be his year?”. Los Angeles Times. 

Fusté, J. 2017. “Repeating Islands of Debt: Historicizing the Transcolonial Relationality of Puerto Rico’s Economic Crisis,” Radical History Review 128: 91-119.

LeBrón, M. 2016. People Before Debt, NACLA Report on the Americas, 48:2, 115-117. 

Marshall, W. 2009. Placing Panama in the Reggaeton Narrative: Editor’s Notes. In Reggaeton (eds) R. Rivera, W. Marshall, and D. Pacini Hernandez, 78-80. North Carolina: Duke University Press. 

Meyer, B. 2006. “Religious Sensations. Why Media, Aesthetics and Power Matter in the Study of Contemporary Religion”. Faculteit der Sociale Wetenschappen, Vrije UniversiteitAmsterdam.    

“Resources on Reggaetón”, Bad Bunny Syllabus, accessed April 15th, 2023,    

Rivera, R. 2009. Policing Morality, Mano Dura Stylee: The Case of Underground Rap and Reggae in Puerto Rico in the Mid-1990s. In Reggaeton (eds) R. Rivera, W. Marshall, and D. Pacini Hernandez, 110-134. North Carolina: Duke University Press. 

Smith, L. 2012. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed BooksTwickel, C. 2009. Muévelo (Move It!): From Panama to New York and Back Again, the Story of El General. In Reggaeton (eds) R. Rivera, W. Marshall, and D. Pacini Hernandez, 99-109. North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Ailin Yan, ‘Hypervisibility in the field, Invisibility in the Academy’

Square Word Calligraphy Classroom. Credit to the author.
This photograph was taken at the UCCA Ullens Centre of Contemporary Art exhibition, ‘Xu Bing: Thought and Method’, in August 2018. The encounter feels rather similar to viewers’ first encounter with Xu Bing’s calligraphy artwork ‘Square Word Calligraphy Classroom’. Xu’s conceptual artwork is an ingenious play on Chinese and English morphologies: while the characters look like real Chinese characters written in an elegant Kai form, they are in fact composed of letters from the English alphabet. Xu’s artwork for an English-reading audience is simultaneously strange and familiar, just like others’ encounter with me in the field, but also anthropology’s encounter with the Other. 


As previously told by my inviter (Clive) to the volunteering session, the main job of the day was to paint large sheets of paper in yellow and blue in preparation for a craft activity. On arrival, I introduced myself as a student researcher in social anthropology from Cambridge University and then elaborated on my master’s dissertation project on the Homes for Ukraine scheme to seek permission to write about the day. They all said yes. A middle-aged Englishman volunteering alongside me (who I will henceforth refer to as Tom) asked why that is of my particular interest. I explained that my godparents are hosting a Ukrainian family and that cultural exchanges are generally interesting, particularly given the trope of British stoicism. Tom contemplatively nodded, ‘I suppose so. And I guess the Japanese are quite similar in that way aren’t they’. 

‘That’s quite an interesting comparison. What do you mean by that?’ 

Excited by someone new and young being there, Clive redirected the conversation and probed at my background enthusiastically. He first asked me where I lived, to which I answered college accommodation, then asked me where I lived before moving to Cambridge, to which I answered London, and then asked me for how long I’ve lived in London. I sensed that they’re asking where I’m really from. Even though my Southern British English accent allows me to pass as a native in many contexts, this was a fair question, since at least according to my passport, I am a Chinese national. Picking my words carefully to reflect my complicated self-identification, I answered:

‘Well, I’m originally Chinese. But although I was born in Shanghai, I’ve been living and studying in England since I was 14 years-old, my godparents are English…it’s complicated. But yeah, I’m Chinese.’

‘Ah! I thought you’re from Japan!’ Tom reacted.

After learning that I’m Chinese, an uncomfortable debate between Clive, on the offence, and Tom and myself, on the defence, about whether Chinese art as a monolithic category is monotonous and unintellectual compared to Western Euro-American art ensued. I won’t dwell on the specifics here. But thanks to my elite British public-school education that allowed me to pursue History of Art (of the Euro-American West) as a serious subject, my rusty knowledge of the Western art canon was good enough to engage in a critical debate and earn their respect. Impressed, Tom figured that I’m quite an ‘artistic person’ and proceeded to ask whether I have an artistic practice or play any instruments. 

‘I play the violin and do a bit of photography, but not professionally.’

‘You weren’t forced to play it by your parents, were you?’ Tom asked sympathetically. 

Too stunned to speak, I took a few moments to process his question before honestly addressing it.

‘No. I started with the piano when I was around 4 or 5 but then naturally gravitated towards the violin. No one forced me to play it.’

The conversation meandered to touch on whether I’m an only-child because of the one-child policy, how the Chinese economy is ‘cracking’, the Chinese restaurant down the road where Tom always orders vegetable stir-fry, among other things. 


I tend to think of these passing conversations with members of an otherwise open and welcoming community of committed altruists as, at best, innocent and, at worst, ignorant. I do not think they meant to cause me any offence in trying to be friendly, and I hope my presence disrupting their racially and culturally biased imaginations was an educational experience for them. Now, I do wonder what perceptible part of me makes me Japanese and gives off the aura of an oppressive childhood. I joke about these comments to lighten their impact: he should’ve guessed Chinese simply by the fact that about 1 in 5 people is Chinese (Worldometers 2020). On another occasion, a volunteer asked me whether I’m Japanese because he saw my ‘tokyobike’-branded bicycle parked next to his. That would be like asking someone wearing a Patagonia-branded t-shirt whether they are from Argentina or Chile. That said, my understanding of and joking attitude towards this kind of behaviour do not negate the visceral effects of my stomach sinking, my mind blanking, my muscles tensing up, scrambling to come up with a polite, measured response. When Clive said “oh I just think Chinese art all look the same. You know. Foggy mountains and wispy clouds – and there’s no colour!”. I was in utter disbelief, fuming on the inside, but instead forced a smile on my face. “How did you come to that conclusion?”, “What makes you say that?”, “Really?”, “How interesting”. I had to keep my cool. 

In retrospect, it was quite naïve of me to have overlooked the awkward situations I might find myself in as a brown-eyed, olive-skinned, young, East Asian woman doing participant observation in white spaces (Andersen 2015; Brodkin et al. 2011). Keeping in mind the colonial roots and legacies of the discipline, my initial concerns expressed in the ethics and risk assessment forms for my project were centred around the axes of anthropologist and the subject, gender, refugee/non-refugee, and socioeconomic class. My preliminary fieldwork speaking to Ukrainian refugees, volunteers, and hosts gave me the impression that racial tension was unlikely to crop up. My fieldsites are considered wealthy, diverse, and cosmopolitan areas in Southeast England, so I thought it would just be a case of participating in activities with people who just happened to be mostly white, and especially volunteers: people who I assumed to be socially aware. I approached engagements in the field being aware of my habitus of a woman fieldworker from an elite institution interacting with potentially vulnerable people (Bourdieu 1977). Instead, it turned out that my intellectual Westernness was muffled by my hypervisible racial/ethnic traits, which inevitably put me on the receiving end of essentialising judgement and racial prejudice. 

Putting aside my capacity as an anthropologist, my dislocated identities (Shohat 2017 [1992]), contradictory social positionality (Berry et al. 2017), or out-of-placeness (Puwar 2004: 8) became the sources of confusion. Sans jargon, Tom and Clive couldn’t see me as Chinese Chinese as per my nationality, and became even more perplexed by my command of Western cultural knowledge. Their surprise seemed to be founded in the structural ambiguity that someone who is not us, or so often portrayed by a sizeable proportion of Western media as our mysterious enemy of the far East (see Yu 2019), can act like us and know us so well (cf. Berry et al. 2017; Mahmud 2014: Chap 1). How does she speak native-level English, is versed in the niche of Western art history, and developed a range of artistic interests out of her own free will? How did she get into an institution reputedly reserved for Euro-America’s upper crust? She’s unlike the stereotypical Chinese student who’s bad at English, socially awkward, and uneducated in our (more interesting, and thus superior) culture. My western, upper-middle class-ness is a mismatch with how they made China and a Chinese person out to be (cf. Lee 2021). More to their surprise, perhaps, was a Chinese anthropologist studying the “West”, or rather, them.  

The social encounter is foiled by the ethnographic element. In this case, the anthropological gaze is not directed at me, the foreigner, but at them, the natives. A young Chinese woman studying them to gain an understanding of the English/Ukrainian interface is a far cry from the trite figure of the social researcher–white, upper/upper-middle class–that has long dominated both academic and popular imaginations. When interlocutors like Tom and Clive asked me the perennial question of “what is anthropology” and “why anthropology”, even I default to the apologetic explanation that traditionally, anthropologists study peoples in faraway corners of the world–like a rural Chinese village–by participating in their day-to-day activities. But my reversed gaze (Ntarangwi 2010) disrupted the typical dynamic between the anthropologist and the subject. As an Uganda anthropologist, Christine Obbo observed that her Western colleagues and interested others “have responded to my fieldwork in their home countries in ways that reveal their discomfort when the accustomed power relationships between anthropologist and ‘native’ are reversed. The fieldnotes of a non-Westerner studying Americans upsets and makes them anxious because they feel that their culture is on the line.” (Obbo 1990:291). My interaction with Tom and Clive seemed to have triggered a similar kind of anxiety. From the provocative comments about Chinese cultural heritage to backhanded compliments about my apparent creativity, I interpret these as tactics for re-negotiating balance against what they perceived to be the double threat of 1) an English-like Chinese, and because of that 2) an anthropologist studying their culture. I don’t know how else to make sense of why someone of my father’s age would simultaneously compliment the Westernness of my knowledge base, while marking out my foreignness and say to my face that Chinese art “all look the same” one hour into our first proper conversation; it’s strangely reminiscent of the group of teenage girls asking me whether I eat dogs when I first arrived at boarding school. 

Outside of academic contexts, I’ve learnt to unpick, disarm, or retaliate these kinds of prejudicial–and I hate to say it–racist comments, mostly with blunt sarcasm. “Your English is very good”, “thanks, yours is not too bad either”. But with the reputation of the discipline and the institution on your shoulders, contacts and field access on the line, even more so the pressure to be a good representative of ‘my people’, the cost can be high for being quick-witted and perceived as that person who gets too easily triggered. Maintaining professional composure in these situations adds to the affective labour of research, and such coping strategies have profound methodological and epistemological implications (Chua & Mathur 2018; Navarro et al. 2013). If I abandon this site, will I be missing something? How do attitudes expressed by my interlocutors towards me impact the kind of knowledge I produce? Would it be ethical if I write about this in my thesis? Will I be taken seriously if I do write about it? I searched for answers to these questions in the literature only to come out feeling underrepresented. 

While the talk around decolonising methodology and diversifying epistemologies is bubbling with enthusiasm, I wonder if the anthropological “we” (Chua & Mathur 2018) are really walking the walk. As fieldwork continued, it became more and more apparent that the methodology taught to me in the academy–ethics, conceptual frameworks, ‘best practice’ and various other components relating to the question of ‘how to do anthropology’–are implicitly built upon the premise that anthropology is inherently a white, colonising discipline reproduced by white practitioners (Ahmed 2007; Lee 2021; Navarro, Williams, and Ahmad 2013). This assumption has its implicit and explicit manifestations. Explicitly, it exists the texts which are considered to be canonical, the reading lists, the most cited authors, and introductory lectures (Ntarangwi 2010; Tuhiwai Smith 1999). Building on this foundation, the preferences and expectations of universities, funders, journals, boards of professional associations, the consumers of ethnographic knowledge and so forth, enforce the implicit expectation for non-white non-Western researchers to study their own (Brodkin et al. 2011; Chua & Mathur 2018; Lee 2021; Nordling 2020). Not being the “somatic norm” in the anthropological space (Puwar 2004:8), non-white anthropologists studying white Western cultures have fallen through the cracks of the anthropologist-field matrix (Godina 2003). 

From Godina 2003: 482.

Reflecting on my own fieldwork experience, it occurs to me that disciplinary ethics are taught from the default position of whiteness and thus conflates the “structural and ocular whiteness of anthropology” (Lee 2021), ignoring “the complex, multiple, and slippery ways that the anthropologist’s phenotype and body mediate their engagement in the field and in the discipline” (ibid.). The sharp “double consciousness” (Du Bois 1968) I felt in the field as being both Western and Other, I imagine, must be so widely experienced in a globalised, diasporic world yet is so under-discussed. 

Hailed as a deeply reflexive discipline, the crux of the decolonising methodology problem here seems to be how to teach the “fourth possibility” (Godina 2003:482), an increasingly large group of people like me who are not quite white and not quite Western to do anthropology in the West. If in the Western academy we are taught to conduct ethical reflections from the positionality of a white, Western, anthropologist working in non-white, non-Western spaces or at “home”, do I, someone who does not fit into this configuration, carry with me the disciplinary guilt in the white, Western field? Despite the claim to diversity and the many turns anthropology has taken, to hold onto the idea that anthropology is “inevitably a unidirectional, colonial enterprise” only “recentres Westernness and whiteness” (Lee 2021). 


I thank a friend for the Patagonia t-shirt analogy – you made me giggle. I also thank Liana Chua for sharing her thoughts and providing me with useful resources. 

Ailin (Elizabeth) Yan is a graduate student reading Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Her thematic interests lie in the anthropology of migration, “multiculturalism”, art, and language. Enthusiastic about interdisciplinary knowledge production and public engagement, Ailin has contributed to research initiatives such as the Cambridge Digital Humanities Reactor programme on COP27 and energy colonialism in Egypt.


Ahmed, S. 2007. A phenomenology of whiteness. Feminist Theory 8, 149–168.

Anderson, E. 2015. ‘The White Space’. Sociology of Race and Ethnicity 1, 10–21.

Berry, M. J., C. Chávez Argüelles, S. Cordis, S. Ihmoud & E. Velásquez Estrada 2017. Toward a Fugitive Anthropology: Gender, Race, and Violence in the Field. Cultural Anthropology 32, 537–565.

Bourdieu, P. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge University Press.

Brodkin, K., S. Morgen & J. Hutchinson 2011. Anthropology as White Public Space? American Anthropologist 113, 545–556.

Chua, L. & N. Mathur 2018. Who are we? : reimagining alterity and affinity in anthropology. New York: Berghahn Books.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1968. The souls of black folk : essays and sketches. New York: Johnson Reprint.

Godina, V. V. 2003. Anthropological Fieldwork at the Beginning of the 21st Century. Crisis and Location of Knowledge. Anthropos 98, 473–487 (available on-line:, accessed ).

Lee, C. 2021. ‘You don’t look American’. American Ethnologist 48, 206–217.

Mahmud, L. 2014. The Brotherhood of Freemason Sisters. University of Chicago Press.

Navarro, T., B. Williams & A. Ahmad 2013. SITTING AT THE KITCHEN TABLE: Fieldnotes from Women of Color in Anthropology. Cultural Anthropology 28, 443–463.

Nordling, L. 2020. Who Gets to Study Whom? SAPIENS (available on-line:, accessed ).

Ntarangwi, M. 2010. Reversed Gaze. University of Illinois Press.

Obbo, C. 1990. Adventures with Fieldnotes. In Fieldnotes (ed) R. Sanjek. Cornell University Press (available on-line:, accessed May 2023).

Puwar, N. 2004. Space invaders : race, gender and bodies out of place. Oxford ; New York: Berg.

Shohat, E. 2017. On the Arab-Jew, Palestine, and Other Displacements: Selected Writings of Ella Shohat. Pluto Press (available on-line:, accessed May 2023).

Tuhiwai Smith, L. 1999. Decolonizing methodologies : research and indigenous peoples. London: Zed Books.

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Toyin Agbetu, ‘Jẹ Ireti – Decolonising Anthropology from a Scholar-Activist Perspective’

Dr Toyin Agbetu.
See here:

The Problem

Every year a group of students will ask me, ‘Why isn’t the decolonising anthropology module mandatory?’ My response is nearly always the same – not everyone agrees with an idea requiring unlearning, professional vulnerability, and a willingness to re-evaluate the meaning in what are assumed to be ‘dead’ ethnographic artefacts, innate ‘property’ rights, ‘irrational’ spiritual-political rituals and ‘uncivilised’ transgressive concepts. Despite the moral argument, it’s easier for the gatekeepers of academic institutions to keep things the same. 

Indeed, this is one of the reasons why Ryan Cecil Jobson’s call for letting anthropology burn continues to have currency among many young anthropologists (UCLA Department of Anthropology 2020). For those actively committed to challenging social injustice, the discipline’s old guard are seen as those who resist efforts ‘to imagine a future for the discipline unmoored from its classical objects and referents’ (2020: 261). They are perceived as an obstinate barrier to them assisting communities in dismantling structurally violent colonial legacies. Trying to explain the importance of decolonising anthropology to someone whose career has been based on their intellectual acquiescence to a model of modernity based on the normalisation of white supremacy, racial capitalism and heteropatriarchy typically invokes cognitive dissonance. 

Nevertheless, this does not grant scholar-activists like me a guilt-free licence to engage in holier-than-thou rhetoric. For as long as we serve as validating cogs embedded in the credentialisation systems of the neoliberal university, we simultaneously undermine our epistemic assaults upon the existing cognitive empire. Indeed, those of us employed to cultivate critical thinking amongst students are also regulated by marking schemas that mostly penalise the production of scripts demonstrating intellectual curiosity and theoretical innovation i.

The Rationale

At this point, it may be useful to declare that my concept of colonisation and thus – decolonisation was primarily formed via my exposure to the works of several prominent Pan Africanists and human right activists. In his classic 1950 text, Discours sur le colonialisme (Discourse on Colonialism), the poet and public intellectual Aimé Césaire argued that the colonial process is one of violent degradation and dehumanisation leading to the  ‘thingification’.ii of human beings (Césaire and Kelley 2000). Indeed in a 1967 interview, the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr later links this inhumane ‘thingification’ process directly to the enslavement of African people in America (NBC News 2018). Franz Fanon, the noted psychiatrist and political theorist, builds upon Césaire’s concepts, compellingly framing the anticolonial struggle as the process of colonised people overcoming the status of ‘thing-hood’ that has been forcefully imposed upon them. To reclaim their humanity and the right to self-determine with dignity, Fanon expresses the historical, practical and moral necessity of counter violence as a tool of transformation (1963). The human rights activist el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X) would later explain the rationale behind this on various occasions. Speaking of Africans in America, he famously stated;

‘We are peaceful people, we are loving people. We love everybody who loves us. But we don’t love anybody who doesn’t love us. We’re nonviolent with people who are nonviolent with us. But we are not nonviolent with anyone who is violent with us’ (Increase My Knowledge 2011).iii

Having acquired the aforementioned concept of coloniality reinforced with lived experienceiv of globalised Afriphobiav prior to my engaging with higher education, it may be helpful to contrast it with a brief examination of how the academy formed its theoretical conceptions of the term decolonising. One of the first academic utterings of the concept occurred around 1932. This is when the economist Julius Bonn referred to decolonising as a global reparations-based countermovement that sought to reverse the political, cultural and socio-economic effects of colonialism. In 1938, Bonn wrote The Crumbling of Empire, which specifically renders the terms counter-colonisation, or ‘decolonization’ movements, as the outcome of new political orientations dedicated to the ‘empire breaking’ processes that emerged after America’s declaration of independence. Interestingly, Bonn suggests that the clamour for self-determination by various nations at the start of the nineteenth century had not yet reached Africa, which apparently to him, ‘still needed the guidance of the white man [even] if it might take a century or more’ (Bonn 2018: 102–105, 362). There is an obvious problem with this notionvi if we consider that the journalist Henri Fonfrède used this term to describe what was occurring in Africa some ninety-six years earlier in 1836 when writing about the Décolonisation d’Alger (Decolonization of Algiers). 

Indeed, what emerges from researching academic literature for the roots of this concept, is that the term’s provenance is mired in murkiness. Almost every discipline claiming to engage with decolonising as an inclusive practice has redefined the who, what and how of the concept, despite the indisputable fact that the act of decolonisation has been in existence for as long as colonialism itself (Memmi 2004). Yet, when rendering decolonising through the lens of anthropology, we can see that on the right it is largely expressed as opposition to the visible legacies of imperialism in contemporary life. While on the left, decolonising anthropology is a concept that partially describes the activities of scholar-activists working to disrupt the tangible, dehumanising residues of colonialism as documented in the anthropologist Faye Harrison’s (1997) seminal text on the topic. 

Colonial Roots 

But can anthropology ever be decolonising? Let us not forget the historical background of the discipline’s partnership with the imperial project goes back further than that of the involvement of Northcote Whitridge Thomas. Although as he had the notoriety of being the first government anthropologist appointed to Britain’s colonial office in 1909, we can start exploring the genesis of the handmaiden narrative from around then. In Stocking’s historical survey of the discipline, he documents how socio-cultural anthropology’s involvement in practices that utilised little systematic questioning, analysis or deep consideration of ethical issues ran throughout its ‘classical period’ between 1925 to 1960 (Stocking 1988: 8). To explain why this topic is not merely theoretical to people of African heritage like me, please note that I was born in 1967, my father decades earlier. From my perspective and many ‘othered’ like me, colonialism, as are the tightly bound topics of ‘race’, racism and slavery, are contemporary issues that continue to plague the past, present and future lives of many generations of our families. 

Nevertheless, in several research projects where the word decolonising is invoked, the participation of interlocutors is predicated on their identification of systems of exploitation, typically mediated through capitalism. Yet, most vulnerable communities are not interested in mere criticisms of capitalist structures. They can’t eat that, it doesn’t shield them from harm. No. From Mehrez and Escobar to Asad and Tuhiwai Smith, a long line of scholars with heritage emanating from the Global South has exposed the disciplines’ tacit role in legitimising brutal systems of coercion (Mehrez 1991; Escobar 2012; Asad 1995; Smith 1999).  Decolonising Anthropology is not a static noun and should mean utilising academic freedom for ethnographic praxis or, at least, advocacy of liberatory means to challenge and make visible current systems of exploitation empowered by historically entrenched power asymmetries.  We must never shy away from studying up and documenting the inner working of any malpractice that we find. 

If we acknowledge that one of the enduring legacies of colonialism was the erasure or reframingvii of indigenous identities, cultures and homes, then we must accept that the types of violence used by imperialists were not limited to physical forms but were also, through disciplines like anthropology, those of an epistemic nature. Moreover, when the scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak writes that ‘[t]he clearest available example of such epistemic violence is the remotely orchestrated, far-flung, and heterogeneous project to constitute the colonial subject as Other’ (Spivak 1988: 280) her words invite a new research approach predicated on the genuine collaboration with Othered communities. I say this for Foucault (1982: 216) has suggested language, uttered or codified, with its power to include, exclude, prohibit, discourse as knowledge, becomes power capable of manifesting and maintaining systems of conflict. 

The Benefits 

However, Edward Said expands upon Foucault’s initial ideas by arguing that texts can both impose constraints that limit our ability to interpret their meaning or alternatively produce discourse representing resistance to oppressive power and colonial violence (1975: 9,17). For a scholar-activist like myself, anthropology is at its most useful when it enables collaborators to critique political economies and establish truths which challenge reductionist renditions of humans as pawns in a functionalist schema of cause and effect. However, for it to be authentic, decolonising anthropology is not exempt from the obligation of seeking objectivity and an adequate scholarly distance from the research object. Indeed, without this rigour decolonising anthropology can be easily dismissed solely as an instrument for polemic rhetoric.

‘As academics, we are not fighting with bullets, brute force or economic might. Our battle is about the discovery, definition and dissemination of material and other cultural spheres.’ (Chasi 2018: 44)

Mbembe (2016) writes that today’s universities are ‘large systems of authoritative control, standardisation, gradation, accountancy, classification, credits and penalties’. For these reasons, the scholar-activist utilising decolonising methodologies must not limit their concerns to the ethical transforming of how researchers source, produce and disseminate their findings. To do so restricts their influence on change to the personal capacity of individuals of goodwill. Authentic scholar-activism requires challenging systems of epistemic colonialism by seeking to institutionalise democratic access to the academy by organic intellectuals. This in turn requires the embedding of systems of ungrading (Blum 2021) and critical pedagogy in the transformational radical classroomviii defined by the public intellectual, bell hooks (1994). 

A Conclusion 

I close by sharing that I follow in the footsteps of many liberatory anthropologists, including the scholar-activist St. Clair Drake (1911-1990). When describing him, Gaines writes that many are ‘pragmatic leftist… [that work] both within and outside the system to achieve change’ (Gaines 2015). I assert that scholar-activists are primarily ethical researchers who are inherently aware that their institutional training is rooted in positivist epistemological understandings resistant to deviations from normative, mainstream perspectives. Moreover, it is my experience that most universities couch their support for decolonising projects in terms of equality, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). We are often told about efforts to remove Eurocentric bias from the curricula, to remove the names of imperialists from lecture halls, and to include more ‘people of colour’ in various capacities on campus as if this is enough. 

Yet, as laudable as these efforts are, these initiatives are forms of incremental change that can best be described as low-stakes distractions. Progressive they may be, radically transformative they are not. In today’s war-stricken, interconnected world, it is on all of us with a global, egalitarian vision to make our discipline relevant to humanity.  As ethical anthropologists and ethnographers, we can disseminate small- and large-scale ways that human communities have successfully eradicated poverty, socio-economic maldevelopment, commercial exploitation, land dispossession, and political marginalisation caused by what is ill-defined by Huntington as a Western fight against barbarism by ‘the world’s great civilizations, with their rich accomplishments in religion, art, literature, philosophy, science, technology, morality, and compassion’ (1993:47-48,321).  

Anthropology’s focus on humanity imbues its adherents with not just the responsibility to eradicate structural violence wrought during its colonial era but also the specialist knowledge to craft a shared language of change which is enriched by a fusion of interdisciplinary, creative thinkers. However, for as long as the very presence of the outsider within, inspires fear, so-called ‘native’ anthropologists carry the unjust burden of having to convince the discipline’s gatekeepers that their presence, alternative ideas and ways of working do not represent an existential threat to the long-term existence of our discipline. 

Jẹ Ireti (be optimistic). 


i. Indeed, I often refer to the deskwork process, where we systematically conform findings that we do not understand to fit into established theoretical frameworks as our colonising of the fieldwork.

ii. A theme later returned to by human right leader Martin Luther King Jr when speaking about the ‘thingification of the negro’ in a 1967 interview referencing his lauded “I have a dream speech” of 1963.

iii. This comment is believed to have been made in Detroit on 10 December 1963 and again on 28 June 1964 during a speech on the founding of the Organization of Afro-American Unity when he stated “Be nonviolent only with those who are nonviolent to you.”  

iv. My father migrated to the UK from Nigeria driven in part by the impoverished social-political conditions  caused by British colonialism.

v. See

vi. Unless of course, Algeria was located somewhere else other than North Africa!

vii. The names of humans through enslavement, of territories through settler occupation and settlement, the appropriation and plagiarism of knowledge on natural phenomenon, healing technologies and spiritual practices.

viii. Humans learn best and do better when allowing space for mistakes and abandoning dogmatic, pedagogical approaches based on harmful systems of competitive rating and coercion.

Dr Toyin Agbetu is a lecturer of social and political anthropology at University College London where he teaches using critical pedagogy on Decolonising Anthropology, Nationalism, Ethnicity and ‘Race’. He is also a community educator at Ligali, a Pan African, human-rights based organisation that uses a scholar-activist approach to challenging Afriphobia and the misrepresentation of African people, culture and history in the media, public spaces and public services. Toyin specialises in reparatory and social justice approaches to tackling cultural and structural violence. His doctoral research on Exhibitionary Praxis involved forming partnerships between institutional and grassroots communities for meaningful and sustainable change.


Asad, T., ed. 1995 Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Blum, S. D. 2021 Why Pedagogy Is an Anthropological Problem. Anthropology News (, accessed April 21, 2023).

Bonn, M. J.  2018 The Crumbling of Empire: The Disintegration of World Economy. 1st edition. London: Routledge.

Césaire, A. and R. D. G. Kelley. 2000 Discourse on Colonialism. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Chasi, C. 2018 Decolonising the Humanities: A Smash-and-Grab Approach. In The Palgrave Handbook of Media and Communication Research in Africa. B. Mutsvairo, ed. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 41–53 (, accessed April 14, 2023).

Escobar, A. 2012 Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Princeton University Press (, accessed January 10, 2022).

Fanon, F. 1963 The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove.

Foucault, M. 1982 The Archaeology of Knowledge: And the Discourse on Language. Reprint edition. Vintage.

Gaines, K. 2015 Scholar-Activist St. Clair Drake and the Transatlantic World of Black Radicalism. In The Other Special Relationship: Race, Rights, and Riots in Britain and the United States, R. D. G. Kelley & S. Tuck. Contemporary Black History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 75–93 (, accessed April 20, 2023).

Harrison, F. V., ed. 1997 Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further Toward an Anthropology for Liberation. 2nd Edition. Arlington, Va: American Anthropological Association.

hooks, b. 1994 Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Huntington, S. P. 1993 The Clash of Civilizations? Foreign Affairs 72(3). Council on Foreign Relations: 22–49.

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Jobson, R.C.  2020 The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn: Sociocultural Anthropology in 2019. American Anthropologist 122(2): 259–271.

Mbembe, A. J. 2016 Decolonizing the University: New Directions. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 15(1): 29–45.

Mehrez, S.  1991 The Subversive Poetics of Radical Bilingualism: Postcolonial Francophone North African Literature. In The Bounds of Race, Dominick LaCapra, ed. Perspectives on Hegemony and Resistance. Cornell University Press, 255–277 (, accessed January 8, 2022).

Memmi, A. 2004 Mythical Portrait of the Colonized. In The Colonizer and the Colonized. 4th edition. Routledge.

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Stocking, G. W. 1988 Objects and Others: Essays on Museums and Material Culture. Univ of Wisconsin Press.

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Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth, ‘Attempting Counter-Extractive Methodologies in Appalachia’

Like the trope that begins so many ethnographic accounts, this story starts with an entrance to “the field.” Though it reinforces divisions and alterity from places of scholarship and data — of places where information is gathered and those where it is processed and analysed — it is a reality of my fieldwork trips to Southeastern Ohio. Capital, scholarship, and best intentions usually flow in certain directions, and my starting point of the city of Columbus (the home of land-grant university The Ohio State University as well as the state capital of Ohio) is no exception to this flow. The campus of the university and streets of the city are decorated with the names of famous men complicit in the dispossession of land from American Indian groups (Lee et al. 2020) and gilded-age development that wrought mansions and palaces in some places while leaving holes and scars in others (Tribe 2012).

I drive my truck through sprawling suburban development and rolling farmland, coming at once the edge of the great Pleistocene glaciation. With a turn off the four-lane highway, it feels like I’ve dropped into the winding roads and forested flanks of West Virginia, my home state and other field sites of the past ten years. Two lane roads network a collection of small towns and villages in this area dominated by absentee ownership in a constellation of federal, state, and private land tenure practises. Each of the aptly named “Little Cities of the Black Diamonds,” mirror the geologic distinctions that sit on or below their surface. At the turn of the 20th century, they boomed with the extractive industry, providing labour to service the mining of coal, tapping of oil, quarrying of stone, and harvest of ceramic clay. Their names reflect back the colonial legacy of the United States, where dispossessed American Indian groups and long-dead barons of industry are presenced in their absence. Rendville, Shawnee, Congo, Haydenville, Nelsonvile, Corning, New Straitsville. 

Their architecture of wood-beamed houses and brick recall the quick and easy ways in which these boom towns were often constructed, while mammoth opera halls, churches, and mayor’s offices demonstrate the liveliness of social and political life in these towns that spawned the American labour movement (Blosser and Winnenberg 2006). The creeks that run though and among these little cities, were and are among some of the worst polluted in the United States, artefacts of unregulated extraction during the United States’ Gilded Age – the “Era of Good Stealing” whose theft continues through today. Sunday Creek and Monday Creek emerge from the hills of this area, tainted orange from ferrous sulphide that pours from un-reclaimed underground mines whose guts lie spilled on the surface in gob piles of coal waste. A century removed from the desolation of that iteration of the coal industry has seen a dramatic decline in the demographic who trickled out of the area as their ancestors had once poured in. 

However, there are those that continue to stay and fight, contrary to many popular narratives professed by national politicians and news outlets alike. The Little Cities of Black Diamonds Council leads tours and scholarship on the industrial heritage of the area that fostered the Knights of Labor and the nascent coalition of miners who organised across contemporary distinctions of race, class, and migration status to form the United Mine Workers of America in Columbus in 1890. The Rendville Historic Preservation Society and the Tablertown People of Color Museum hold the standards to remember the radical re-imagining of Black life in the late 19th century that took place in these hills. Rural Action and the Buckeye Trail Association attempt to reconnect the severance with the natural environment that happens land is removed from people and people are removed from land. Sunday Creek Associates physically fills in the gaps – restoring buildings, hosting children’s education camps, and looking to alternate economic futures for the region. Janis Ivory, John Winnenberg, Harry Ivory, David Butcher. These people are the reason I return. 

Since 2019, I have been partnering with them and many others on a garden of projects which sprout under the tacked-up sign of The Ohio Field School. Together, we use ethnographic toolkits to document and question how folks in this part of Ohio make meaning and sense of their changing environment and notions of place. Bringing together students, public folklorists, university faculty and staff, and community partners, the project operates under a theoretical framework of collaborative ethnography that attempts to resist the extractive methods that have leeched from coal, timber, and other industries into the documentation and critical analysis of the region.

(L to R) Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth with former Ohio Field School students Jacob Kopcienski and Lydia Smith, Ohio Field School partners Janis Ivory and Harry Ivory, and Alona Norwood of Black in Appalachia, presenting at the 2022 Appalachian Studies Association Annual Meetings. Credit to the author.

Sense of place in Appalachia is inextricably tied to the legacies of extractive industry. The material and social processes of extraction reach into every dimension of social, economic, political, and environmental life. Coal and timber are usually the most associated elements of extraction, but gas, oil, gold and other precious metals, clay, and a range of other raw materials and resources have been the focus of returned and renewed methods of material exploitation (Eller 2013). Such resource extraction and accompanying uneven development of infrastructure, healthcare, education, and other metrics of social attainment led many sociologists and anthropologists to consider an “internal colony” of the region (Lewis et al. 1978). Taking up the mantle of the history of activism in the region, Appalachian scholars began to frame the extraction and uneven development of Appalachian Communities as a colonising practise. 

Debates over the accuracy of applying a colonial model and attempts to decolonise a region that is at once also part of the global north with its own extractive tendrils elsewhere in the world have led Appalachian Studies Scholars beyond dualities to think extraction fundamentally as process (Scott and Hatcher 2016). In this way, Appalachian Studies scholars came to the discussion of decolonisation with a nuance and appreciation of process and overdetermination now becoming part of broad discussion on the framework’s place in method and theory. Coupled with a community-driven approach that always attempts to put the impacts of scholarship on those being studied first (Hinsdale et al. 1995), Appalachian Studies has a framework for us to do non-extractive work in our ethnographic efforts.

As a course offered through the Folklore Studies program at OSU, we also frame our work through Folklore’s coming-to-terms with its historical legacy of extractive work. Paternalism, selective representation, and material dispossession have all figured prominently in the history of the discipline’s academic and public-facing work. Reciprocal ethnography (Lawless 2019) and collaborative ethnography (Campbell and Lassiter 2014) have arisen as key methodologies to address the historical inequities at play in folklore research. Acknowledging the ongoing successes and failures of these methodologies (Lawrence 2022) and the various roles that ethnographers must take as organisers and facilitators first (Lassiter et al. 2020) are principles that have shaped our non-extractive field techniques. In other words, listening to what others identify as important, finding how your skills can respond, and realising that our work relationships are deeply human come with the practice of equitable ethnography in the field school setting.

In Appalachian Ohio, we have attempted to build a model for collaborative work that counters the legacy of extraction in the region: one that builds upon the efforts of community partners in Appalachian Ohio, that brings ethnographic methods to the service of residents and activists as partners rather than research subjects. The Field School is structured in a way to remain accountable to community partners, provide reciprocal engagement, and give students a chance to practise collaborative methods when the structures of their degree programs frequently deny that possibility (Borland et al. 2020). The outcomes of such structures and efforts on the part of students and instructors have been the development of an archive of thousands of interviews, photos, digitised records, and ethnographic field reports – all of which have seeded projects for theses and dissertations, as well as various exhibitions, events, and presentations. These kinds of outcomes are easily measured and appreciated by the institutions that house us but leave questions about the impact of our work for our collaborators.

As one community partner, John Winnenberg, has said ‘We’re the first to bleed and the last to heal,’ pointing to the legacy of precarity that historical and ongoing material dispossession of the region’s resources has continues to unfold. What use can ethnographic projects be to such problems? In discussions with community partners, our colleague Rachel Terman at Ohio University (Athens, OH) found that many residents described the work of imagining futures in cultural fields as building houses while still trying to put out the fires of opioid addiction, environmental degradation, quality housing, and access to sustainable livelihoods (Terman et al. 2021). Pivoting from the observant/participant ethnographer to a more active role that emphasised the skills of ethnography (listening, organisation, theme-building), we took on the roles of organisers and facilitators in the Sharing Visions program. With the relationships sustained throughout continued ethnographic work, we brought together community organisations to draw on each other’s material resources and knowledge of negotiating regionally-specific challenges during a series of summits. Field School partners were compensated through a grant program to address the issues identified through ethnographic research, but best answered by those addressing them in their everyday contexts. 

Nevertheless, the distance created by institutions that seek to represent such a broad constituency as the entire state of Ohio still draws issues. Can we do counter-extractive work without being there? Without living the environment and social lives alongside our partners? As OFS community partner David Butcher frequently puts it, ‘I still carry my lunch box to work every day’, referencing that the work he puts into documenting the history and contributions of people of colour to Southeast Ohio history is additional to his work at a coal-processing plant. This is common for our partners, who labour in evenings and weekends and into their seventh and eighth decades to continue to tell these stories while we’re afforded the luxury of our working hours. Cassie Patterson, one of the co-founders of The Ohio Field School, moved to the field schools’ previous site in Portsmouth, Ohio to begin Southern Ohio Folklife to address the gaps and silences that emerge as well as maintain the continuity needed to establish collaborative research. We attempt to be present and active members of community efforts as much as possible, but institutional settings default back to the mean, and our own bureaucratic and institutional fires always threaten to spread (such as the Ohio State Bill 83 aimed at restricting efforts of diversity, equity, and inclusion on Ohio’s campuses of higher education). 

In these contexts, we aspire to be counter-extractive: to build trust so that partners will invite our critique and analytical positions, to ensure that our partners are seen as producers and custodians of knowledge about their communities, to reciprocate their time and efforts in the ways they deem significant. With partners we’ve given presentations to the Society for Applied Anthropology, the International Society for Ethnology and Folklore, the American Folklore Society, and the Appalachian Studies Association, among others. We’re currently working on a volume with community partners as co-authors along with former students and faculty of the Ohio Field School. Every day we strive to be co-conspirators of our partners when extractors of experience, capital, and resources come knocking or knocking down, as they do.

I began this essay with a nod to the entrance to the field from my home and office in Columbus, Ohio. Fieldwork and “a field” begin with an abstraction of place, that there is a place that is meaningful to the ethnographer and that meaning can be found, known, and captured and distilled to its essence. How can we counter this extractive tendency? What can we leave in its place? What can be planted to grow, disperse, and even decompose (Ahlstone 2022)? What can be grafted onto existing structures that might bear alternate fruit than the economic gains of extraction? In spring 2024, I’ll be returning with a new Ohio Field School cohort to the region. We’ll see what happens when we stick our hands in the dark earth, not to pull something out, but to help something grow.

Dr Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Studies and Archivist for the Center for Folklore Studies at The Ohio State University (Columbus, OH). He completed his PhD in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kentucky (Lexington, KY) in 2019, and worked for several years in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (Washington, DC). His upcoming book Finding the Singing Spruce: Musical Instrument Makers and Appalachia’s Mountain Forests (West Virginia University Press, Fall 2023) looks at the intersection of craft economies, forest ecologies, and music in Appalachia. A book on The Ohio Field School with contributions from former students, instructors, and community partners is currently under contract with University Press of Kentucky and due to be released in late 2024. @craftethnography on Instagram


Ahlstone, Daisy. Decomposition as a Model for Concluding Collaborative Ethnographic Projects. 2022. Presentation at the Annual Meeting of the American Folklore Society. Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States.

Borland, Katherine, Cassie Rosita Patterson, and Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth. 2020. “The Ohio Field School: A Collaborative Model for University-Community Research.” Journal of Folklore and Education. 2020 (7).

Blosser, Cheryl and John Winnenberg. 2006. Agents of Change: The Pioneering Role of the Miners of the Little Cities of Black Diamonds in the Nation’s Labor Movement. Shawnee, Ohio: The Little Cities of Black Diamonds Council.

Campbell, Elizabeth and Luke Eric Lassiter. 2014.  Doing Ethnography Today: Theories, Methods, and Exercises. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Eller, Ronald. 2013. Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky.

Hinsdale, Mary Ann, Helen M. Lewis, and S. Maxine Waller. 1995. It Comes from the People: Community Development and Local Theology. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press.

Lassiter, Luke Eric, Brian Hoey, and Elizabeth Campbell, eds. 2020. I’m Afraid of That Water: A Collaborative Ethnography of a West Virginia Water Crisis. Morgantown, West Virginia: West Virginia University Press.

Lawrence, David Todd. 2022. “When We Blew It: Vulnerability, Trying, and Failure in Ethnographic Research.” Journal of Folklore Research, 59 (2): 129-147.

Lawless, Elaine. Reciprocal Ethnography and the Power of Women’s Narratives. 2019. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Lewis, Helen, Linda Johnson, and Donald Askins, eds. 1978. Colonialism in Modern America: The Appalachian Case. Boone, North Carolina: The Appalachian Consortium Press.

Terman, Rachel, Joy Kostanek, and Franchesca Rife. 2021. “Intergenerational Community Visions in Appalachian Ohio,” Journal of Appalachian Studies, 27 (2): 187-201.

Tribe, Ivan. 2012. Sprinkled with Coal Dust: Life and Work in the Hocking Coal Region, 1870-1900. Shawnee, Ohio: Black Diamond Press.

Scott, Shaunna and William Hatcher, eds. 2016. “Special Forum on Sustainable Economic Development,” Journal of Appalachian Studies.  22 (1).

Editors’ Welcome (Easter 2023)

Dear Reader,

We welcome you to the second edition of the Cambridge University Social Anthropology Society (CUSAS) Magazine, organised by the 2022-23 CUSAS Committee. We have entitled the Easter 2023 edition: ‘Methodologies for Decolonisation’. In selecting this focus, we hoped to allow room for a variety of inquiries and contexts of exploration within our Department’s scholarly community.

As we stated in our previous edition, CUSAS’ vision is of a Department wherein students and staff are exposed to challenging and diverse views which further their anthropological interest and facilitate both academic achievement and social change. We believe that focusing on methodology, broadly, and decolonising, in particular, are crucial to that aim. Decolonising our discipline and our institution requires us to take a look in the mirror and to dissect our histories, logics, and embodied experiences.

Throughout the year, CUSAS has created events that open up the opportunity for remembering, critically discussing, and learning about ‘decolonisation’ and ‘methodologies’ as explored in anthropology. This has included the inaugural bi-weekly CUSAS reading group, entitled ‘Decolonisation and Methodologies in Anthropology’, where members have been able to wrestle with a variety of scholarly work focused on questioning methodology and expanding our notions of ‘decolonisation’ within the discipline. This included an extended engagement with discussions of anthropology’s theoretical and methodological considerations in studies of the anthropocene, more-than-human relationships, and the environment. You can find a comprehensive bibliography from this year’s reading group here. Thank you to our 2022-23 CUSAS Committee for their contributions to and organisation of this reading group!

Building on our Lent edition, which focused on ‘Decolonisation’ (view our last edition here), the CUSAS Committee wanted to grant our members the opportunity to reflect on methodologies that align our discipline with decolonisation. Our contributors have written pieces that draw on personal experience, research context, histories, and popular culture.

CUSAS is pleased to feature the works of Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth and Toyin Agbetu. Dr Waugh-Quasebarth’s piece exemplifies how ethnographic research processes can be community-based and reciprocal and, therefore, decolonising through shifting power dynamics. Dr Agbetu’s discussion takes up the figure of the scholar-activist as an imperative for our discipline’s decolonial reckoning within our classrooms and research contexts.

We would also like to thank our student contributors for undertaking the topic of ‘methodologies for decolonisation’, a difficult endeavour to undertake, in impressively nuanced ways. Their work considers how decolonisation can appear in our ethnographic research and subsequent presentation in various contexts around the world, and suggests extensions for anthropological analysis to aid our discipline toward decolonisation.

As always, the pieces by our contributors do not aim to provide definitive answers. However, their arguments act as a starting point for discussions of decolonisation and methodologies in the discipline of anthropology. This is a vital conversation as we consider the future trajectories of our discipline and its ability to grow its capacity to contribute to our world.

We, the editors, would like to thank you for allowing us to initiate deeper discussion about decolonisation and methodologies within the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. This experience has been more than humbling. It has been instructive, liberating, and affirming. We look forward to seeing how these conversations flower within the Department in the coming academic year.


The CUSAS Magazine Co-Editors
Adaiah Hudgins-Lopez, PhD Social Anthropology
Edurne Sosa El-Fakih, MPhil Social Anthropology

Adaiah Hudgins-Lopez is a writer, dancer, and creative pursuing a PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. She is a 2021 and 2022 Gates Cambridge Scholar and a member of Trinity College. Her writing and creative work centres Afrofuturist musings, narratives of migration, and explorations of community and movement building. She believes in the power of reciprocal storytelling to change the trajectory of how people relate to each other and the value of uplifting voices from the margins.
Edurne Sosa El Fakih is an MPhil student in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. She is a member of Girton College and Maria Luisa de Sanchez Scholarship recipient. Edurne has served as a content writer for BELatina and Nuestro Stories, focusing on Hispanic culture, heritage, and complex experiences in the United States. Her book, Al borde de un viaje (2021), is a creative project that addresses issues of uprooting, migration, and nostalgia.