We welcome you to the inaugural edition of the Cambridge University Social Anthropology Society (CUSAS) Magazine, organised by the 2022-23 CUSAS Committee. We have entitled the Lent 2023 edition: ‘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.
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 list has included the work of Faye Harrison, Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Sophie Chao and Dion Enari, Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Anna Tsing, Ruha Benjamin, Ann Stoler, and Yael Navaro among many others.
The CUSAS Committee recognised how much recent scholarship has taken up decolonisation and methodologies, separately and in tandem, and sought to create space for our members to reflect based on personal experience, research context, histories, or tackling popular media events. We believed creating a space for reflection in this magazine would allow for further rumination within our community.
CUSAS’ work coincides with a larger decolonisation effort taking place within the University of Cambridge. Sian Lazar’s note and Decolonising Social Anthropology’s conversation, included in this edition, provide more context for how our Department, thus far, has grappled with this relatively recent shift in discourse at the University. Their work, alongside comments from Andrew Sanchez and Sophie Chao, also provide suggestions for further developing our decolonial strategies pertaining to teaching and accountability within the discipline.
We would also like to thank our student contributors for undertaking the topic of ‘decolonisation’ in imaginative ways. Their work considers the nuance of decolonisation attempts in various contexts around the world and suggests extensions for anthropological analysis to aid our discipline toward decolonisation.
It is important to note that this edition does not provide definitive answers, but exists as an opening for our Department, and others, to acknowledge the importance of decolonisation efforts. We hope to build on the anthropological legacy of laying bare the world around us and undressing the remnants of colonialism that remain within our work and our world.
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.
Abu-Lughod, L. 1991. ‘Writing Against Culture’. In Recapturing Anthropology, edited by R. C. Fox. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press. 137–162.
Allen, J. S. & R. C. Jobson 2016. ‘The Decolonizing Generation: (Race and) Theory in Anthropology since the Eighties’. Current Anthropology 57: 129–148.
Asad, T. 1973. Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. London: Ithaca Press.
Bejarano, C.A., L. López Juárez, M. Mijangos García, & D. Goldstein. 2019. Decolonizing Ethnography: Undocumented Immigrants and New Directions in Social Science. Durham: Duke University Press.
Benjamin, R. 2019. Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Benjamin, R. 2022. Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Berry, M. J., Argüelles, C. C., Cordis, S., Li Ihmoud, S., & Estrada, E. V. (2017). ‘Toward a Fugitive Anthropology: Gender, Race, and Violence in the Field’. Cultural Anthropology, 32(4): 537–565.
Chao, S., & Enari, D. 2021. ‘Decolonising Climate Change: A Call for Beyond-Human Imaginaries and Knowledge Generation’. ETropic: Electronic Journal of Studies in the Tropics, 20(2): 32-54.
Cusicanqui, Silvia Rivera. 2020. Ch’ixinakax Utxiwa: On Decolonising Practices and Discourses. United Kingdom: Wiley.
Jobson, R. C. 2020. ‘The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn: Sociocultural Anthropology in 2019’. American Anthropologist 122(2): 259–71.
Kimmerer, R. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions.
Koch, I. 2018. ‘Towards an Anthropology of Global Inequalities and their Local Manifestations: Social Anthropology in 2017’. Social Anthropology 26(2): 253-268
Low, S. M. and S. E. Merry. 2010. ‘Engaged Anthropology: Diversity and Dilemmas’. Current Anthropology 51, S2: 203-226.
Maeckelbergh, M. 2016. ‘Whose Ethics? Negotiating Ethics and Responsibility in the Field.’ In Impulse to Act: A New Anthropology of Resistance and Social Justice, edited by Othon Alexandrakis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 211-230.
Mogstad, H. and Tse, L-S. 2018. ‘Decolonizing Anthropology’. The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 36.2: 53-72.
Navaro, Yael. 2020. ‘The Aftermath of Mass Violence: A Negative Methodology’. Annual Review of Anthropology 49: 161-73.
Navaro, Yael, Zerrin Özlem Biner, Alice von Bieberstein, and Seda Altuğ. 2021. ‘Introduction: Reverberations of Violence Across Time and Space.’ In Reverberations: Violence Across Time and Space. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1-30.
Pels, P. & O. Salemink 1994. ‘Introduction: Five theses on ethnography as colonial practice’. History and Anthropology 8, 1–34.
Scheper-Hughes, N. 1995. ‘The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology’. Current Anthropology 36(3): 409–440.
Scheper-Hughes, N.2000. ‘Ire in Ireland’. Ethnography 1(1): 117–140.
Smith, L. T. 2012. Decolonizing Methodologies, 2nd edition. London: Zed Books.
Stoler, A.L. 2016. Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times. Durham: Duke University Press.
Visweswaran, K. 1998. ‘Race and the Culture of Anthropology’. American Anthropologist, 100(1): 70-83.
Todd, Z. 2016. ‘An Indigenous Feminist’s Take On The Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word For Colonialism’. Journal of Historical Sociology 29(1): 4–22.Tsing, A. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
We thank CUSAS for the opportunity to be able to publish a statement in their magazine. When we revitalised the group this year – after two years of pandemic lockdowns and remote meetings – we were not quite sure what to expect. Some of the founding members were no longer in the department; others, while still enrolled, would not be returning physically; others again were caught up in their busy workloads and felt they could not contribute. Some of us organised a first new meeting in Michaelmas to see if there was interest, whether the conversation could be re-focussed along the needs of students who had recently joined the department. This meeting took place at a Cambridge pub, with a table booked for eight that soon proved not to be large enough to fit all of us. Our excitement that so many –– MPhil students, a few PhD students, and one TA –– joined and showed enthusiasm for discussing these issues was met by the new students’ exasperation that this (the 11 or 12 of us) was the state of decolonising at Cambridge. Another recent change was that CUSAS has taken decolonising as their main theme this academic year. We welcome their decision and believe conversations should indeed be multiplied! But this also led to a small crisis of identity on our part, with many in the department still confusing our society with CUSAS. We asked ourselves: is there a need for our initiative alongside CUSAS? Do we run concurrent reading groups? Do students decide which meetings to go to or do they go to both? Our eventual answer: no, we are not the same. What we offer is distinct. Although we recognise CUSAS’s and, by extension, the department’s support, this group consciously continues to operate independently, while embracing the opportunity to collaborate.
But reflecting on the above two issues (the exasperation at the level of engagement and our misrecognition with CUSAS) reveals something about the University as well as, perhaps, about decolonising, but most importantly, about radical political activities at Cambridge in general. In the face of an institution that is so effective at presenting itself as a bulwark of 800-year limestone immutability in the tides of all things that are decried as faddish and short-lived political activism, we run the risk of amnesia. We often do not know what efforts have been made and whose shoulders—to use a well-worn trope—we stand on. Therefore, we are thankful to CUSAS for offering us this opportunity to set the record straight and reflect on how our society came about, what we have done and what we do.
We came together as a collective in the academic year of 2016-2017 with some MPhil students initiating a conversation within the department. This was inspired by earlier movements to decolonise higher learning institutions in the Global South (South Africa, Brazil, Mexico) and at the crest of discussions over #Rhodesmustfall in South Africa that quickly expanded to institutions and cities in the Global North. The next year, the society organised the first open decolonise meeting at the department, which was well-attended by undergraduates, postgraduates and staff members. Some of the reactions to this meeting, as well as the ongoing conversations, critical reflections and practical attempts at decolonising anthropology at Cambridge, were documented in the article ‘Decolonizing Anthropology: Reflections from Cambridge’ (2018: The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology) written by Heidi Mogstad and Lee-Shan Tse with the help of other students, who were the initial organisers of the Decolonise Anthropology Cambridge Society. We likewise participated in interdisciplinary meetings such as the 2018 Disorientation guide, and other events within the University and beyond. In line with the Society’s efforts, certain initiatives were taken by the department to decolonise its curricula and educational practice, such as setting up the ‘World Anthropology’, and later on ‘Anthropological Lives’ seminars. Over the pandemic, the webinar series we hosted became the literal space where discussions about race and colonialism could be held within the department. Invited speakers (among others, Nadia Fadil, Lori Allen, and Ana Ramos-Zayos) showed a far more active concern with anti- and decolonial critiques than anthropologists who were generally invited to our department’s Senior Seminars.
In the following article, we quote liberally (and with permission) from Heidi and Lee-Shan’s article to give a historical overview of our initiative, adding our comments to see what issues are yet to be addressed and have yet to be given the room they require.
However in initiatives such as ours, there is a risk of capturing or drowning out different positions. In our conversations in Michaelmas term, many of us were educated by our peers about a variety of issues. As with any so-called critical movement, there is an inevitable heterogeneity in terms of the multivocality of its members. One of the most arduous tasks has been to find mutuality in language that makes possible our engagement without having to rely on a singular agreed-upon definition. Therefore, we recognise that the ‘we’ we speak from rests on an impossibility; the historical weight we carry is differently shared. As a result, the ‘we’ of decolonising needs to be disaggregated. The ‘we’ in our group and our discussions remains inevitably partial; discussions surrounding its use are frequent and we do not advocate for any one solution. The ‘we’ that writes this uses the term acknowledging its inherent slipperiness and ambivalence. Many of our peers/teachers could not for different reasons contribute to this article, but we want to acknowledge our debt to them. We do not all share the same positions, nor speak from one homogenous voice. To showcase this we strove to create a polyphonic contribution to the magazine. We have asked our members to position themselves on issues they feel strongly about, which will be reproduced below.
As students in anthropology at Cambridge University, we have, inspired by student movements in the Global South, made efforts to bring to light the need to continue decolonising the university in general, and anthropology and our department specifically. However, in doing so, we have at different times come up against what Sara Ahmed (2012, 2016: 7–8) describes as ‘institutional brick walls’, walls that have sedimented through material and exclusionary histories, but which not everyone sees, and some appear invested in not-seeing. Having lived and/or studied among friends and family in the Global South and engaged with the by-now copious literature on anti/ post- and decoloniality, we noticed from the outset that our course syllabi were inundated with Euro-American authors and perspectives.
We were also alarmed at how we were being prepared – or, perhaps, not prepared – for ethnographic fieldwork. What struck us most was that our graduate training did not question or debate what appears to be a widespread sense of entitlement and possibility to study everything, everywhere – as if the world were an open laboratory (Navaro 2012). Crucially, this sense of entitlement is not shared by all members of our department, nor is it unique to Cambridge. As Alix Johnson (2017) argues: ‘While many continue to problematise the possibility that individual choices meaningfully offset structural inequalities in the field, on the whole anthropologists do not routinely question our very right to presence in places far from home’.
Decolonising the curriculum should include an unsettling of processes of fieldsite selection. Our research interests and field sites have been glossed over as prerequisite decisions to serve as the foundation for more focused discussions about theoretical and methodological considerations. This lack of attention obfuscates the array of complex practical and personal factors that work to both engender and constrain our affiliations to field sites. It also strengthens an image of anthropology as a discipline that allows researchers to inconsequentially and serendipitously select a community upon which their theoretical and methodological contributions can be made.
This reinforces an unequal power dynamic between researching and researched communities, as anthropologists are afforded disproportionate agency in designing their projects and finding their interlocutors. This uneven terrain reveals how boundaries of otherness are still drawn on colonial lines within anthropology, and how our ability to develop research projects is always imbricated by our own positionalities, the histories of our departments, and the perceived feasibility (and fundability) of our ideas. Our department consists of a diverse group of anthropologists studying very diverse locations and contexts, but seldom have connections between the two been meaningfully investigated or problematized.
True, most students come into the department already interested in specific topics, and sometimes already in contact with communities and field sites, but rarely do we have opportunities to critically examine the ways in which we develop such interests, and how they affect our interlocutors. Space to work through such questions and learn from the negotiation of others’ may allow us to gain greater self awareness, both individually and disciplinarily, and move towards a decolonised anthropology.
We were also struck by the deafening silence around race, structural racism and white privilege,
We further took issue with the insular teleology of our training, with its focus on cultivating the skills to develop, defend or reinvent the discipline rather than to contribute to inter-/intradisciplinary and extra-academic conversation.
Decolonizing anthropology at Cambridge also means decolonising its teleology and goals. The whole spectacle of anthropology at Cambridge is self-referential and self-celebratory: speakers are applauded, in rich crowded colonial rooms. It is a de-politicized and de-racialized scientific endeavour encouraging and motivating novelty and prestigious intellectual change rather than actual social and material change. The communities that are studied are not invited to the talks, and nor are they applauding.
In response, […] the staff proposed future meetings with different cohorts and announced a new lecture series on ‘World Theory’ that would bring in ‘non-Western’ social theorists and anthropologists. We are encouraged and excited about these developments, yet also wary. As Ahmed (2012: 113–140) observes, commitments to diversity are often ‘non-performatives’ that mark a symbolic affiliation with a favourable ideological position but fail to bring about purported practicable effects.
Decolonisation is often addressed as a trendy and self-legitimising intellectual project rather than as a fundamental societal need. The concrete “what” and “how” of decolonisation means and concerns various things for people from various positions with various lived experiences. For some, it is an endeavour; for others a way of life. For some, it concerns curricula, institutions, and hiring structures; for others, it concerns, in the first place, everyday aspects of life, the mind, the self, staying alive. These different ideas about and relations to decolonisation are, unfortunately, often hampering its transformative potential, while, maybe, they do not have to do so.
Decolonising is, indeed, about deconstructing. But it is also about reconstructing and reconnecting. It is not (only) about the past; it is, above all, about the present and the future. While decolonisation initiatives often concern exposing past wrongs and structural violences, they should not stop there. On the contrary, by merely (and pre-emptively) historicising colonial structures, we risk placing them in a passed ‘past’, overlooking current sufferings and structural asymmetries. Anthropology could serve as a discipline that polyphonically engages in addressing these current – indeed, variously historically grounded – colonial developments, experiences, sufferings, and violences of which it is, still, co-responsible. Such a decolonial anthropology could help us to listen to each other, to empathise with each other, to care for each other.
In the 2018 article, Heidi and Lee-Shan made several recommendations to the department and, more broadly, concerning the prospect of decolonising anthropology. Drawing on those considerations, we will conclude by addressing what decolonising anthropology at Cambridge might look like today. Heidi and Lee-Shan emphasised the importance of practising intellectual humility, which comes partly from our recognition that we have a lot of learning and unlearning left to do. This means recognising that, on certain matters, ‘our’ voices are not the ones that are most important to hear. We must also seriously and earnestly examine our own blind spots, biases and exclusions. It also requires the understanding that our critique is institutional and structural and not a personal attack on scholars (as is commonly interpreted). We have encountered faculty members and students who expressed suspicion and discomfort over what were sometimes interpreted as attacks on the canon or on their own anthropological work and careers. Often, the project was also glossed as a harmful expression of cultural essentialism or ‘identity politics’. Some of these responses can be interpreted as a form of “white fragility” (DiAngelo 2018), in part because the problems that were pointed out are structural and institutional. But decolonising should at times be both discomfortable and personal, indeed, grappling with such personal discomfort is an important and productive part of decolonial practice. We maintain that this work at Cambridge is not and never was wholly original; it fundamentally builds on critiques raised by indigenous, ethnic and racialized minorities and ‘world anthropologists’ for decades. But the burden of decolonising the discipline cannot exclusively fall on these voices –– often those who experience the systemic dehumanisation of not doing it the hardest. The burdens need to be horizontalized and we must understand that decolonising concerns us all. The beauty of anthropology is that some of its practitioners have always been willing to strive for diminishing suffering and broadening joy, to say it naively. Perhaps we need to understand better that decolonising is a fundamental contribution to this dual striving.
Diversifying the curriculum, while important, is an insufficient step towards decolonising anthropology. As Heidi and Lee-Shan wrote in their article, we do not believe that a complete and clean disengagement from our heritage is possible, or even desirable. But there remains a tendency to teach the history of anthropology as a history of auto-critique, and not, as many decolonial scholars maintain, as (also) a series of erasures, silences and misrecognitions (Allen and Jobson 2016). As Heidi and Lee-Shan write, a decolonial pedagogy should also entail ongoing questioning of what, and for whom, anthropology, in its current hegemonic expressions, is and does. The SAN3 lecture on Functionalism now makes mention of non-white anthropologists such as Archie Mafeje, Xiaotang Fei and Jomo Kenyatta, and ends in a quote by Achille Mbembe (2015): “the Western archive is singularly complex. It contains within itself the resources of its own refutation. It is neither monolithic, nor the exclusive property of the West.” While diversification allows us to multiply our perspectives, it is not an additive process; radical knowledge production would turn the question on its head. What if we started from the margins, taking seriously ‘the resources of [the archive’s] own refutation,’ rather than insisting on the coherence of the anthropological canon? Would this not be an opportunity for a university and a department that are both historically central to the colonial project to rehabilitate and foster radical pedagogy?
Decolonising the curriculum should not only question what we are taught, but also how we are trained to become anthropologists. This means moving away from an “open laboratory” model of field site selection, and paying critical attention to how our positionalities as researchers intersect with the complex histories and legacies of our interlocutors. Given the problematic histories attached to the bodies of Northern or Northern-based anthropologists, we cannot assume licence to find ourselves in a position of intimacy and trust with interlocutors across the world. Nor can we assume that our individual choices and personalities can meaningfully offset historically given and structural asymmetries in the field. These considerations, contextualised in the personal backgrounds of students and professors, must be embedded in new curricula. One repeated concern students have voiced in our past meetings is that there lacks a critical dialogical space within the department from which to voice these concerns. Inadvertently, this also speaks to our own position on the margins of the department. Could this be reconciled in the future, allowing a pedagogy that takes seriously the critical potential of ‘the resources of [the anthropological archive’s] own refutation’ as Mbembe implies? And how could this, in our view, crucial aspect of the supposedly ‘world-class’ education we receive here not be made the sole responsibility of students who take it on as extracurricular activities, in addition to their already heavy workload?
Finally, putting decolonial thought into practice entails taking responsibility for the spaces and worlds we inhabit. Indeed, decolonisation is not merely an intellectual struggle divorced from material structures of exclusion and oppression. It was in this light that we collectively read the report of Cambridge’s Legacies of Enslavement Commission (2022). A few critiques were made on the report, although we appreciate its value and the effort behind it. We, however, see a danger in that through addressing its history of injustice, Cambridge within the marketplace of neoliberal education uses this as a box-ticking exercise to perform corporate social responsibility or best practice. We also demand more transparency from the university and its departments relating to its current financial structure; it seems that the acknowledgment and the effort to address Cambridge’s wrongs only apply to the past, when it should be actively linked to its present state, both material and immaterial.
The Cambridge Decolonise Social Anthropology Society (DecAnthSoc) is a horizontally-organised group with open membership to all who are interested. We will be engaging in a variety of ongoing projects throughout Lent term, and hosting three social events in Lent Term (Weeks 2, 5 and 7). If you are interested in more material from DecAnthSoc, joining our group chats, or getting involved in other ways, please visit our Linktree at https://linktr.ee/decanthsoc.
Ahmed, S. 2012. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press
———. 2016. ‘How Not to Do Things with Words’. Wagadu: A Journal of Transnational Women’s and Gender Studies 16: 1–10.
———. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Allen, J. and R. Jobson. 2016. ‘The Decolonizing Generation: (Race) and Theory in Anthropology since the Eighties’. Current Anthropology 57.
The way we organise teaching in the Social Anthropology department respects lecturers’ autonomy (which I think is a very good thing) and so our decolonising initiatives have been quite fluid. In response to the initial meeting of the decolonise anthropology group some years ago now, I and I think most of my colleagues started by taking another look at our teaching practice and our reading lists. I realised that my lists had become a bit complacent and stale, which was quite challenging for me when I had thought of myself as one of the ‘good guys’. I therefore tried to bring in more non-canonical perspectives and texts throughout. I am not alone in this, and also I would not pretend to have finished that process. I must admit that with some of my development lectures, I found that in my reworking I ended up setting key texts by elite men from the Global South. I remain unsatisfied with my inability to resolve that particular question, but I hoped that taking a critical perspective on development as a colonial project and highlighting theory from the South I was at least doing something.
In general, I think that in the department we’ve tried to be integrative, by which I mean weaving decolonial principles throughout our work, to greater or lesser success. The two courses that we introduced and that are mentioned in this collection – on ‘World Theory’ and ‘Anthropological Lives’ – are now, we hope, more integrated into our main teaching rather than set somewhat apart as a space for ‘decolonial anthropology’. We’ve continued to work on this for SAN3, for example. Maybe it won’t work so well; we’ll have to see, and modify if necessary. Other initiatives we’ve been involved in have happened through the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, in the Haddon Library’s collections and in student admissions to the HSPS Tripos.
I do think that as teachers of anthropology we need to reckon with our colonial history as a discipline, which I think requires knowledge of how our canons developed, and of the various ways that anthropology’s colonial and imperial practices have been critiqued throughout our own disciplinary history. One thing that the decolonise anthropology meetings prompted for me was a reminder of the various waves of self-critique that we have been educated in as anthropologists. I’m thinking for example – for anglophone anthropology – of Talal Asad’s work (1973), the controversies over Project Camelot and the Vietnam war in the 1970s (see Price, 2016), Writing Culture in the 1980s, the critical anthropology of development in the 1990s (Escobar, 1995; Esteva & Prakash, 1998), and the debates about Human Terrain Systems in the early 2000s. My own formation was through the critical anthropology of development of the 1990s and of the social movements of the 1990s-2000s. The decolonising anthropology movement does feel more consequential to me, but I see precursors in our disciplinary history.
I also welcome the call to diversify the texts and authors we draw on, I just think that it’s an enormous challenge and not something that all of us can do straight away, although that doesn’t of course mean we should postpone it indefinitely. We are the products of our own education as well, and it is something of a balance, which we won’t always get right. But with new people coming into the department, new students to challenge and educate us, and new stuff to read, I think our anthropology will improve. Whether it will fully decolonise I don’t know – indeed I wonder if decolonisation is a process that would or could have an end. Perhaps declaring an end would be a form of political complacency and therefore undesirable.
I want to conclude this piece with some cautious reflections and questions that I’m grappling with. In an important article, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui (2010, 2012) critiques the social sciences’ gatopardismo – the policy of changing everything so that everything remains the same. She warns of academic practice that through the language of the decolonial might actually participate in the racialisation and exoticism of very recognisable and still colonial multiculturalism; creating new canons and ‘new gurus’ certified by the US academy and embedded in governmental projects. She advocates for a political economy of knowledge instead of a ‘geopolitics’ of knowledge, which I think is a good contrast to bear in mind. Her essay is utterly embedded in a particular Latin American indigenous and intellectual history of thought and experience that she demands her readers know and if we don’t, then learn about; and she regards North Atlantic academia with utter disdain. She points out that ‘Ideas run, like rivers, from the south to the north and are transformed into tributaries in major waves of thought. But just as in the global market for material goods, ideas leave the country converted into raw material, which become regurgitated and jumbled in the final product’ (2012: 104). Am I appropriating her thought by citing her in my teaching and writing (and therefore ‘decolonising’ my reading lists)? I find her body of work inspiring in her commitment to activism, which includes – among other things – both documenting indigenous movements and critiquing structures of internal colonialism. To me, this feels more anticolonial than decolonising. Can I contribute to such a project from Cambridge? Would it be avoiding responsibility if I were to say that this constitutes a kind of extraction and it’s not my place to do so? In sum, could we decolonise anthropology by trying to produce anticolonial anthropology, as far as we can and from wherever we are located in the political economy of knowledge?
Sian Lazar is the author of books on different kinds of collective politics in Bolivia and Argentina, and edited collections on citizenship and labour mobilisation. Her most recent book is How We Struggle: A Political Anthropology of Labour, published by Pluto Press. She is currently the Head of the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge.
Asad, T. (1973). Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter.
Escobar, A. (1995). Encountering Development. The Making and Unmaking of The Third World. Princeton University Press.
Esteva, G., & Prakash, M. S. (1998). Grassroots Postmodernism: Remaking the Soil of Cultures. Zed Books.
Price, D. H. (2016). Cold War Anthropology. The CIA, the Pentagon, and the growth of dual use anthropology. Duke University Press.
Rivera Cusicanqui, S. (2010). Ch’ixinakax utxiwa. Una reflexión sobre prácticas y discursos descolonizadores. Tinta Limon.Rivera Cusicanqui, S. (2012). Ch’ixinakax utxiwa: A Reflection on the Practices and Discourses of Decolonization. South Atlantic Quarterly, 111(1), 95-109.
There is More than One Way of Being an Anthropologist
In 2009, just as I was finishing my PhD, I attended the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Philadelphia. The ‘AAA’ conference is a major event in the anthropological calendar; a chance to meet up with colleagues from distant places and to hear about new research. It is also an opportunity to showcase one’s own work, and to network with important people. All the folly and status anxiety of the academy seems condensed in the AAA conference. Amazing (but obscure) anthropologists give exciting new papers to largely empty rooms, while next door a huge crowd listens to an academic superstar repeat things that they said decades ago. The conference moves between different North American cities each year. But it is always held in a large corporate chain hotel, and is too expensive for many scholars in the developing world to attend. As you can probably tell, I’m not a fan.
On my first evening at the Philadelphia AAA, I ate dinner with a table-full of anthropologists that were older and more accomplished than me. I knew some of them very well. Others were strangers whose work I had read for years. Early in the meal, one white European luminary stared fixedly at me from across the table, before asking “where are you from?”. They were not satisfied with the answer ‘England’. They wanted to know where I was from. As a mixed-race, ethnically indeterminate person, this sort of thing happens to me all the time (Sanchez 2021). The answer is that I am partly from Cuba, which means that I am partly Afro-Latino. My colleague-interrogator seemed pleased by this response, as though it confirmed a wise suspicion that they had been mulling over. They loudly proclaimed that I looked like a “Honduran Gang Member”. Apparently this person had the authority to make such a judgement because they were a white European that conducted field research in Latin America. When the meal ended they used their hands to throw up a mock gang sign in my direction. Just like gangbangers do in American films.
I left the meal feeling disrespected and humiliated. I had no criminal record, and was not wearing some cinematic version of gang colours. At that time, I didn’t even have any visible tattoos. I just looked like how a man from my background would look. Nonetheless, a senior scholar at a major professional event had drawn everybody’s attention to the fun ethnographic fact that there was a Spic at the table. At that event, what I was proved to be more important than what I did. The lesson I drew from this experience was that the ambient noise of academia is a Bourgeois White identity. If you were fortunate enough to be from such a background, then it was perfectly fine to ‘be yourself’. In all likelihood, you would not need to think about it, since most of your colleagues would have similar bodies and habitus. However, if you deviated from this norm then your very presence was jarring, and you were less likely to be engaged with as a professional equal. I assume that this happens to other people a lot more often than it does to me. Here, assimilation into the dominant culture implies a tacit suppression of one’s own identity (cf. Sosa El Fakih 2022).
Decolonisation is an effort to reshape our professional field, by critically interrogating the ambient cultural noise of what we do. Without such a movement, not everybody will be able to sit at our tables with confidence and respect. As a result, the discipline will remain impoverished in its understanding of the human condition.
It Will Never Be in Your Interest To Be Ignorant of Something
The decolonisation of anthropology is not new. The discipline has profoundly interrogated the colonial origins of ethnographic knowledge, and the colonial resonances of contemporary life for decades (Asad 1975; Harrison 1991; Smith 1999. cf Overing 2006). Nonetheless, the current politics of decolonisation are still fraught with accusations of naivety and intellectual vandalism (Lewis 2021; Hann 2022, Sahlins 2017. cf Sanchez 2023). However, in such an environment the intellectual decolonisation of anthropology need not be considered a project of violence. It is rather a project of expansion, which seeks to consider a broader range of ideas, methodologies, and human experiences (Sanchez 2021: 4). I understand this impulse to be integral to the ethnographic imagination.
Historically, the intellectual and political foundation of anthropology has rested on efforts to test assumptions about human social life through comparative cultural enquiry. In doing so, anthropology is the discipline that is supposed to unsettle the most reductive of social scientific ideas. This is the method that allowed the canonical figure of Marcel Mauss to unravel the ‘natural economy’ concept, by showing that gift exchange in non-market societies could be calculating, productive, and sophisticated (2002 ). Alpa Shah describes this destabilising ethnographic method as a ‘revolutionary praxis’ that is integral to what we do as a discipline (2017). Decolonisation is a process that ought to engage the entire anthropological community, to ensure that everybody can speak and that we all learn more as a consequence.
The blunt ‘othering’ of a colleague at the dinner table is an expression of coloniality. But more broadly, so is the systematised exclusion of non-canonical ideas from one’s imagination. Such imaginative exclusion can be unintentional, which is why effort is needed to highlight implicit coloniality in everyday academic life (cf. Maldonado-Torres 2007). As Patricia Uberoi, Nandini Sundar’s, and Satish Deshpande’s efforts to trace an alternative genealogy of Indian anthropology would suggest (Uberoi et al. 2007), there are substantial areas of disciplinary history that, although recognised by regional specialists, remain largely peripheral to the professional genealogy that many anthropologists acknowledge (Allen & Jobson made similar observations about the contribution of Black scholars to anthropological theory since the 1980s. See Allen & Jobson 2016). An over emphasis on the normative genealogies make it harder for some people to identify with the anthropological endeavour (Hlatshwayo & Alexander 2021). Moreover, it is harder to understand the breadth and possibilities of the discipline.
The ongoing project of decolonisation will require more self-reflection in the centres of anthropological power, not just on our engagements with history, but on the uneven distribution of contemporary intellectual authority and prestige. I do not want the world to ignore the American and European anthropologists, or to erase them from history (cf Hage 2017). I simply hope that we all benefit from a wider range of professional possibilities, and hear from a broader range of people. My belief is that these are the core aims of the decolonisation movement, and they are essentially productive.
Andrew Sanchez is a social anthropologist whose research is largely about economy, power and working life. He also writes about race and decolonisation, and is currently working on a collaborative project called ‘Mixed Race Thought in the Culture Wars’. Prior to joining the University of Cambridge in 2016, he held teaching and research positions at the LSE, the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, and the University of Kent.
Allen, J. & R. Jobson. 2016. ‘The Decolonizing Generation: (Race) and Theory in Anthropology since the Eighties’ Current Anthropology 57(2): 129–148
Asad, T. 1975 Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. Ithaca Press.
Hann, C. 2022 “Colonial Encounters. From Caliban and Owain Glyndŵr to Ilham Tohti and Petra Köpping” (unpublished Abschiedsvorlesung lecture, Halle, 23rd June 2022)
Harrison, F. V. (ed.). 1991. Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving further toward an Anthropology for Liberation. American Anthropological Association.
Hlatshwayo, M. N., & I. Alexander. 2021., ‘“We’ve Been Taught to Understand that We Don’t Have Anything to Contribute towards Knowledge”: Exploring Academics’ Understanding of Decolonising Curricula in Higher Education’, Journal of Education (University of KwaZulu-Natal) 82: 44–59.
Maldonado-Torres, N. 2007. ‘On the Coloniality of Being: Contributions to the Development of a Concept’, Cultural Studies 21, no. 20–23: 240–270,
Mauss, M. 2002. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies Routledge Classics
Overing, J. 2006. ‘The Backlash to Decolonizing Intellectuality’ Anthropology and Humanism 31(1): 11–40
I write this commentary from the positionality of a Sino-French female anthropologist, trained in Anglo-European forms of research, and operating within a discipline that has historically been instrumental (or instrumentalized) to further imperial logics of extraction and appropriation. I write this commentary from the positionality of a junior scholar living, working, and conducting fieldwork on unceded territories in Australia and Indonesian West Papua, where the theft of sovereignty by settler-colonial regimes over Indigenous bodies, landscapes, and livelihoods is as much of the past as it is of the present. I write this commentary with the cautionary words of Unangax̂ scholar Eve Tuck and diasporic settler of color Wayne Yang (2012) in mind. That ‘decolonization is not a metaphor’ and that even the most well-meaning of endeavors to this end can unwittingly dissolve into tokenistic gesturing or dissipate into performative posturing, in ways that ultimately entrench, rather than meaningfully unsettle, the status quo.
At a time when the ethics, values, and uses of anthropology are increasingly being interrogated within and beyond the field (e.g. Jobson 2020; Teaiwa and Joannemariebarker 1994), engaging with the matter of decolonisation can seem like an insurmountable challenge. Indeed, it can be paralyzing–and necessarily so. To take decolonisation seriously destabilizes the most fundamental infrastructures and institutions of knowledge production, together with the literal grounds upon which these infrastructures and institutions are built–the land, and consequently, who gets to own and be owned by it. It requires in turn taking seriously the forms of power, privilege, and positionality that ‘we’ are willing to reckon with, become responsible for, and relinquish. It brings us to ask: in an age when colonial racial capitalism (Koshy et al. 2022) and its multiple afterlives continue to haunt the worlds we inhabit and interpret, what is good anthropology and what good is anthropology?
This commentary does not by any means presume to offer answers or solutions to the momentous question of how one might truly decolonize ‘the field’ – both in the sense of the scholarly disciplines within which we conduct ethnographic research and the places and peoples who make this research possible. Instead, I outline a number of strategies for decanonizing the field(s) that might act as useful stepping-stones towardsachieving the bigger task of decolonization. In deploying the language of decanonization, I take up a term first articulated to me by Bidayuh feminist cultural geographer, June Rubis, in the course of planning a joint workshop on Indigenous knowledges and conservation science, and to whom I owe much of the thinking presented in this position paper.
The strategies I offer below examine decanonization in the contexts of progressive teaching, citational politics, self-identification, and theory-making. They are intended to foster thinking around some basic but consequential, questions. For instance, what counts as knowledge and who gets to produce it? What classifications, hierarchies, or stratifications in ways of knowing shape our experience and interpretation of our own and others’ worlds? What elisions, omissions, or silences partake in this interpretation? What determines who makes it into the canon, why, according to whom, and with what consequences? And what can I do about it?
Anthropologists don’t write nearly enough about what it means, and takes, to teach our discipline. So, let’s put our teaching caps on for a moment and think through decanonization in the realm of pedagogy – because if there is one place where the canon tends to show its true colors, it is in the humble classroom. And by the same token, it is the realm of teaching that some of the most interesting and necessary moves towards decanonization are happening. Such moves are led often by Indigenous and critical race scholars, who may not self-identify as anthropologists, but whose tactics for unsettling established centers of authorship/authority are vital to our discipline.
A powerful example of such decanonization at work in the sphere of pedagogy pertains to the emergence of open-access, periodically updated, and often collectively compiled bibliographies, syllabi, and reading lists. Examples of such resources include ‘101 Ways to Disrupt Your Thinking’ (First Nations Initiative, n.d.), the ‘Syllabus for a Progressive Environmental Anthropology’ (Guarasci, Moore, and Vaughn 2018), ‘Plantation Worlds’ (Sapp Moore and Arosoaie 2022), and ‘The TransPacific in Relation’ (Ikehara et al. 2021; see also Tsing et al. 2021).
Often organized around broad themes rather than authoritative figures, these and many other emergent resources bring into the fold and foreground intellectual genealogies and geographies absconded from conventional anthropological canons–notably scholarship produced by intellectuals, activists, and practitioners who self-identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. They invite critical interrogations of the intersections of academia, art, and activism through the inclusion of multi-modal resources beyond the text–podcasts, visual art, poems, comics, and more. They are framed from the outset as ‘invitations’, ‘experiments’, and ‘points of departure’ that are ‘ever-evolving and open-ended,’ rather than set in stone or exhaustive.
In expanding, challenging, and transforming how, and through whom, students come to understand and shape ours and consonant disciplines, these progressive teaching resources bring us to consider critically who is included and excluded from the ‘we’ of anthropology. In doing so, they provide fertile grounds for the classroom to remain, in African-American activist-scholar bell hooks (1994)’s words, ‘the most radical space of possibility in the academy.’
Progressive teaching brings us to the question of citational politics. In the space of Indigenous knowledges, Métis anthropologist Zoe Todd (2016), Māori scholar Makere Stewart-Harawira (2013), and others, have called out the elision of Indigenous ways of knowing and being within scholarly discussions and debates surrounding climate change in an age of planetary unraveling. Achieving meaningful conceptual collaborations towards the ends of social and environmental justice thus demands a critical consideration of the race and gender politics of citation within the discipline, a point powerfully articulated by Black feminist anthropologists Anne-Maria Makhulu and Christen Smith (2022) in their recent Colloquy #CiteBlackWomen.
This requires work in the world to overcome the structural and historical factors that predispose some knowledge systems to assert primary or supremacy over others – through organized activism, sustained protest, the slow grind of policy reform, and the sweeping force of revolution. For those of us not equipped or prepared to do this work, there is always the possibility of simpler, but no less meaningful acts towards decanonization, such as turning to one’s bibliography.
Flick through a draft-in-progress. Read the names. Consider the geographies and positionalities represented. Think about the (im)balance and its causes. Highlight on the page individuals cited in the text itself. What places and powers are you foregrounding or backgrounding? Again, why so? Ask yourself, as my Samoan colleague Dion Enari (2021) invited me to ask myself: whose voices and knowledge am I drawing from? How is this represented in my citations and acknowledgements? Whose voices are missing from the conversation, and why? What makes me decide to cite one scholar over another? What meanings and categories grow organically out of my research, and which are imposed? What impression of ownership over concepts and ideas am I creating in the process? What is this knowledge for and whom does this knowledge serve?
The question of citational representation and voice in turn raises the question of (self)-identification as a practice towards decanonizing the field. I am referring here not just to the ways in which we identify ourselves by disciplinary formation within our texts, but also as members of particular and situated communities, as inheritors of historical legacies, and as gendered, racialized, and otherwise inflected beings and relations.
My thinking around self-identification is informed first and foremost by the work of Red River Métis/Michif feminist geographer Max Liboiron. In their book Pollution is Colonialism (2021, 3, fn. 10), Liboiron critiques the tendency in scholarly texts to introduce Indigenous authors with their nation/affiliation while leaving settler and white scholars unmarked. This approach, Liboiron notes, is problematic because it “re-center settlers and whiteness as an unexceptional norm, while deviations have to be marked and named.” Struck by Liboiron’s words, I attempted to put their model into practice in a work-in-progress monograph.
This proved challenging. Very few scholars, I found, explicitly self-identify themselves through their relation to land or settler-colonialism on their websites, or in their publications. Trawls through the internet sometimes yielded identifications, but these were often of uncertain source and date. Some of the scholars I was citing had long since passed away and had been writing at a time when doing anthropology and being an anthropologist was something admittedly quite different. At what point, I wondered, can a lack of self-identification be justifiably translated to the status of ‘unmarked’?
With these questions in mind, I ended up adapting Liboiron’s methodology by contacting scholars directly to explain my citational approach and seek out how they wished to be self-identified. To my surprise, every one of the thirty-five scholars I wrote to responded within the week, with offerings of self-identifications, but also with many questions and caveats that were just as valuable to engage with. These included, for instance, the potentials and pitfalls of reducing any identity to a cultural, racial, geographic, or disciplinary affiliation – or, the difficulties in self-identifying across the multiple spheres of action and thought that animate who we are and what we do.
Putting into practice Liboiron’s methods thus led to incredibly rich and unexpected conversations that in turn opened up space for new kinds of connections around identity and identification with a diverse community of interlocutors. It radically changed the tenor of the text, along with the textures of the social and intellectual relations that made this, and all other texts, possible.
Last but not least, let me close with a word on theory-making. Following Māori education scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2012) and American anthropologist Carole McGranahan (2022), I understand “theory” in the broadest possible sense to encompass the diverse ways in which people interpret the world and in doing so, make a claim in and about the world (see also Teaiwa 2014). To decanonize the field, then, involves centering the experiential and speculative forms of theorization produced by the people upon whose cultures we build our careers and capital.
Acknowledging our interlocutors in the field as theorists counters or challenges the (often hierarchical) positioning of theory as apposite to, and distinct from, everyday practice, activist engagement, and grassroots discourse (Hau’ofa 1975; Gegeo and Watson-Gegeo 2002). It demands that we attend to the creative, critical, and innovative ways in which people articulate their worlds within, and against, and beyond, colonial-capitalist relations.
More broadly, decanonizing theory calls on us to interrogate, rather than take for granted, what theory does in the first place, how it is distributed, and who gets to decide what lies within and beyond its ambit. The intention here is to unsettle, enrich, and expand what Indian-American feminist theorist Sara Ahmed (2017) calls the ‘citational chain’ of academic theorizing that determines and delimits whom we see ourselves in conversation with.
To adopt this framing pushes against the (W)hite intellectual monopoly and ownership over theory as a particular and privileged mode of knowledge production and academic capital, conditioned by structures that govern who can theorize or be theorized about. Instead, it recognizes the complex, transforming, and praxis-based frameworks through which our interlocutors in the field, as active knowledge producers, understand, explain, and evaluate the nature of, and relationship between, local realities and global forces, as these arise through their identification of meaningful connections, resonances, gaps, and contradictions – some lived and remembered, others imagined and speculative.
* * *
The strategies I have outlined in this commentary are neither exhaustive, prescriptive, or exclusive. Their relevance and import are situated and contextual, relative to the setting and positionality of researched and researcher. Their sources of inspiration, too, are plural and particular. They stem from multiple realms of intellectual and engaged praxis that have and continue to help me think through other ways of doing and undoing anthropology. They offer modest but actionable forms of everyday practice and reflection that might move us beyond spaces of individuated incapacitation, and into spaces of coalitional possibility. I invoke them in the spirit of abolitionist love and radical freedom summoned by Queer Black Troublemaker and poet-activist Alexis Pauline Gumbs (2008), in the hope that they may gain ground and grow.
Sophie Chao is Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) Fellow and Lecturer in the Discipline of Anthropology at the University of Sydney. Her research investigates the intersections of Indigeneity, ecology, capitalism, health, and justice in the Pacific. Chao is author of In the Shadow of the Palms: More-Than-Human Becomings in West Papua and co-editor of The Promise of Multispecies Justice. She previously worked for the human rights organization Forest Peoples Programme in Indonesia, supporting the rights of forest-dwelling Indigenous peoples to their customary lands, resources, and livelihoods. For more information, please visit www.morethanhumanworlds.com.
Ahmed, Sara. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
Chao, Sophie, and Dion Enari. 2021. ‘Decolonising Climate Change: A Call for Beyond-Human Imaginaries and Knowledge Generation’. ETropic: Electronic Journal of Studies in the Tropics 20 (2): 32–54.
Gumbs, Alexis P. 2008. ‘Freedom Seeds: Growing Abolition in Durham, North Carolina.’ In Abolition Now!: Ten Years of Strategy and Struggle Against the Prison Industrial Complex, edited by The CRI0 Publications Collective, 145–56. Oakland, C.A.: AK Press.
Stewart-Harawira, Makere. 2013. ‘Challenging Knowledge Capitalism: Indigenous Research in the 21st Century’. Socialist Studies 9 (1): 39–51. https://doi.org/10.18740/S43S3V.
Teaiwa, Teresia K. 2014. ‘The Ancestors We Get to Choose: White Influences I Won’t Deny’. In Theorizing Native Studies, edited by Audra Simpson and Andrea Smith, 43–55. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Teaiwa, Teresia K., and Joannemariebarker. 1994. ‘Native Information’. Inscriptions 7: 16–41.
Todd, Zoe. 2016. ‘An Indigenous Feminist’s Take on the Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word for Colonialism’. Academic Freedom and the Contemporary Academy 29 (1): 4–22.
Tuck, Eve, and Wayne K. Yang. 2012. ‘Decolonization Is Not a Metaphor’. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1 (1): 1–40.Tuhiwai Smith, Linda. 2012. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. New York: Zed Books.
Horace Miner’s seminal text, ‘Body Rituals among The Nacirema’, (Miner 1956), is still immensely relevant today in anthropology. This exercise in style and framing, critiquing the ‘Othering’ and exoticism of anthropology in the 50’s, highlights an issue still present in the discipline: anthropology’s reckoning with its own ‘savage slot’ (Trouillot 2021). In a time when decolonisation is needed and should be embodied by scholars, a decolonial reading of ‘Body Rituals Among The Nacirema’ (Miner 1956) can helps us anthropologists to think through what it means to assess our own positionality and choices in our fieldwork.
In making the familiar appear strange in this text, Miner makes a strong critique of anthropology and its foundational texts, namely Linton’s Study of Man (Linton 1936), which was used as an introductory text for undergraduate students of anthropology. In the chapter on diffusion of culture, Linton describes an American man’s average morning, pointing out how every little detail is a result of the diffusion of culture, i.e., how the elements of the morning routine are borrowed from other cultures (Linton 1936: 326). This stands in stark contrast to ethnographic accounts of peoples from faraway lands, the ‘Other’, that are most commonly framed using this discourse of exoticism. Miner writes with biting irony:
Professor Linton first brought the ritual of the Nacirema to the attention of anthropologists twenty years ago (1936: 326), but the culture of this people is still very poorly understood. They are a North American group living in the territory between the Canadian Cree, the Yaqui and Tarahumare of Mexico, and the Carib and Arawak of the Antilles. Little is known of their origin, although tradition states that they came from the east. According to Nacirema mythology, their nation was originated by a culture hero, Notgnihsaw, who is otherwise known for two great feats of strength – the throwing of a piece of wampum across the river Pa-To-Mac and the chopping down of a cherry tree in which the Spirit of Truth resided. (Miner 1956: 503)
Miner is using the same ‘Othering’ discourse to make the argument that anthropology as a discipline has been mostly concerned with making the strange familiar. This famous phrase ‘Anthropology makes the familiar strange and the strange familiar’ is repeated to undergraduates and sprinkled across lectures and texts. It has loomed over anthropology, and still today, it is called upon, referenced, and repeated as a motto of sorts. Yet, the ethnographic subject who is deemed worthy of study, is more often than not the Other, from an ‘alien cultural world’ (Narayan 1993). In anthropological discourse, there are lingering ideas about which ‘natives’ should be studied according to the themes explored in fieldwork. According to Appadurai and evoked in Narayan’s article ‘How Native is A “Native” Anthropologist?’ (Narayan 1993):
‘Natives’ are incarcerated in bounded geographical spaces, immobile and untouched yet paradoxically available to the mobile outsider. Appadurai goes on to show how in anthropological discourse, ‘natives’ tied to particular places are also associated with particular ideas: one goes to India to study hierarchy, the circum-Mediterranean region for honour and shame, China for ancestor worship, and so on, forgetting that anthropological preoccupations represent ‘the temporary localization of ideas from many places’ (1988:46, emphasis in original). (Narayan 1993: 676)
Anthropology has a heavy colonial history that built the discipline and, still, today, anthropologists’ whose fieldwork was only possible in the colonial context are considered forefathers of anthropological method and theory. Bronislaw Malinowski’s ‘participant observation’ is still the preeminent method in ethnographic fieldwork and his legacy both in anthropological theory and methodology is still very much present. The posthumous publication of his personal diary from his time in the Trobriand islands, revealed quite a different discourse from Argonauts of the Western Pacific, one laced with racism and disdain (Malinowski 1922; 2020). Michel Trouillot would likely say that this is the discourse of the ‘savage slot’ in Anthropology upon which the discipline is founded. According to Trouillot, ‘Anthropology fills a pre established compartment within a wider symbolic field, the “Savage” slot of a thematic trilogy that helped to constitute the West as we know it’ (Trouillot 2021: 54).
Indeed, Christopher Columbus’s ‘mistake’ (Trouillot 2021: 59) leading to the ‘discovery’ of the Americas allowed the West to create itself in relation to its new alter-ego, its ‘Other’ (Trouillot 2021). Moreover, the European desire and fascination for ‘Elsewhere’ and utopia crafted this “savage slot” (Trouillot 2021) and the myth of the ‘noble savage’ (Rousseau 1958). However, as Trouillot points out, this myth existed well before it was named and as he puts it, ‘The myth of the noble savage is not a creation of the Enlightenment. Ever since the West became the West, Robinson has been looking for Friday’ (Trouillot 2021: 62).
This led to the proliferation of travel logs, missionary and colonial reports, ethnography, and utopian fiction, that we now perceive as entirely distinct from each other. Eventually, the scientific study of the ‘Other’ emancipated itself to become institutionalised, occupying eminent positions in academia and focusing its gaze on the ‘noble savage’. However, the discipline tends to gloss over what Trouillot calls a ‘curiosity turned profession’ (Trouillot 2021: 64). This convenient amnesia over the origins of the discipline allows it to emerge solely as an academic science.
In the context of decolonisation, anthropology has in recent years, emphasised the colonial legacy of anthropology in teaching. Terms like primitive or savage are obsolete today and the evolution of anthropological theory is a testament to this. Trouillot takes it a step further by exposing the entire genealogy of anthropology and how the ‘savage slot’ precedes it, how this discipline is premised by its existence. His view is that in the postmodern world, anthropology must not only reckon with the very conceptions that led to its existence and subsequent institutionalisation, but it must also shift its gaze toward the West and name it as such, not only for ethical and decolonial motives, but also because of a real lack of texts, especially in anthropology that engage critically with the West as a legitimate site of study. Miner doesn’t name the issue in the discipline, nor does he explain or analyse it, but he makes a strong point about ethnographic writing and framing. Trouillot takes this observation and exercise further, contextualising this issue in history, in the discipline and more widely in the West, naming it the ‘savage-slot’ and suggesting direction for the future of the discipline.
If we are to take this advice as young anthropologists, what does it mean for fieldwork and positionality of the researcher? Some would argue that choosing to be a ‘native’ anthropologist could be the answer to the ethical dilemmas posed by postmodernism and decolonisation. However, what does it mean to be a native anthropologist? Kirin Narayan explores this topic by looking at the multiplicity of identity, she writes:
I would argue that every anthropologist exhibits what Rosaldo has termed a ‘multiplex subjectivity’ with many crosscutting identifications (Rosaldo 1989: pp. 168-95). Which facet of our subjectivity we choose or are forced to accept as a defining identity can change, depending on the context and the prevailing vectors of power. (Narayan 1993: 676)
Indeed, she examines identity in a more nuanced way by showing how it is layered, how some facets of the ‘native’ anthropologist’s identity might align with their ethnographic subjects at times and at others clash. Narayan brings in her own complex identity to the discussion, showing through her fieldwork experiences in India, how at times she was an insider and at others an outsider. Born of an Indian father and a German American mother, Narayan’s mixed background, the different facets of identity and communities she is a part of aren’t taken into account when the label of ‘native’ anthropologist is tacked on to her when studying India. Would she be considered a native anthropologist if she were to study America or Germany? The premise of ‘native’ anthropology lies within an assumption of geographical and cultural boundedness that Appadurai, and Narayan take issue with (Narayan 1993). It ignores the possibility of different planes of identification, she writes:
The loci along which we are aligned or set apart from those whom we study are multiple and in flux. Factors such as education, gender, sexual orientation, class, race, or sheer duration of contacts may at different times outweigh the cultural identity we associate with insider or outsider status. (Narayan 1993: 671)
Narayan busts the myth of the ‘native’ anthropologist as an authentic insider by showing how complex identity truly is. Through her own examples from fieldwork, she shows the subtlety of ‘insider’ status and the unpredictability of alignment in identification. Moreover, she questions if a ‘native’ anthropologist has more insider access than an anthropologist engaging in long-term fieldwork, becoming a partial insider over time. In this sense, her argument is not only that ‘native’ anthropology is a kind of colonial era myth, but also that it is reductive. An anthropologist engaged in long-term fieldwork can through sensitive engagement gain insider insight as much as a ‘native’ anthropologist (Narayan 1993). Although not addressed directly, I would conjecture that the reductive conception of identity upon which the argument for ‘native’ anthropology is based, is largely tied to the ‘savage-slot’ (Trouillot 2021) that anthropology has been filling for so long. The non-Western anthropologist and any non-Western part of their identity comes to define them whereas their Western counterparts are not defined by these terms.
Narayan’s examples from her own fieldwork highlight for me, a young anthropologist, the ethical dilemma of my own identity in relation to my fieldwork and ethnographic subjects. I am a white, South-African Jew, born in France. My parents emigrated to France thirty years ago where they decided they would start a new life. My English, Scottish and Dutch ancestry make me neither a ‘real’ native of South Africa, nor a ‘real’ French native. If we were to refer ourselves to blood origins, my current country of residence, the UK, would be the closest match. However, I would find it hard to believe I would be labelled a ‘native’ anthropologist, not only because of anthropology’s ‘savage slot’ (Trouillot 2021) but also because of the racism that underlies the label of ‘native’ anthropologist (Narayan 1993).
Applying this thinking to myself, Would I be a native anthropologist doing fieldwork in France, in South Africa? Among Belarusian Jews? Narayan’s call to give more weight to narrative, rather than analysis, along with Trouillot’s call to consider the West as a legitimate site of study and Miner’s shift in perspective through irony and critique, adds levels of nuance to these ethical dilemmas that we must all as anthropologist reckon with and work actively to embody through our choices both in the field and in academia.
Olivia Lindsay is a graduate student in Social Anthropology with interests spanning from the anthropology of France to food and taste, colonialism, occultism, and digital anthropology amongst others. While studying Sociocultural Anthropology at McGill University, she had the opportunity to work in socio-environmental studies, mainly in Panama, looking at a farming community affected by natural disasters and the material culture and traditional medicine of the autonomous indigenous community of the Ngobe-Buglë. She currently researches the digital revival of the Jewish magic tradition and wine growers in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France.
Linton, R. 1936. The Study of Man : An Introduction. New York: New York.
Malinowski, B. 1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea / with a preface by Sir James George Frazer, F.B.A., F.R.S. London & New York: London & New York.
––––––– 2020. A Diary in the Strict Sense of the Term. London : Routledge.
Miner, H. 1956. ‘Body Ritual among the Nacirema’. American Anthropologist 58, 503–507.
Narayan, K. 1993. ‘How Native Is a “Native” Anthropologist?’ American Anthropologist 95, 671–686.
Rousseau, J. J. 1958. The Social Contract. London: London, 1958.Trouillot, M.-R. 2021. Trouillot Remixed: The Michel-Rolph Trouillot Reader, edited by Y. Bonilla, G. Beckett & M. L. Fernando. Duke University Press (available on-line: http://read.dukeupress.edu/books/book/2964/Trouillot-RemixedThe-Michel-Rolph-Trouillot-Reader, accessed 11 January 2023).
Why do development institutions and practitioners continue endorsing neo-colonial projects? There are many explanations. In this essay, I propose one: ‘development’s inclusionary complex’.
Development specialists are aware of the global issues derived from the unequal distribution of resources caused by global capitalist expansion and colonialism (Cardoso and Faletto 1979, Chang 2014, Mazzucato 2021, Putzel 2020, Wade 2006). However, development practice sanctioned by international institutions and national governments continues to fuel the same dynamics of extractivism and unequal accumulation that have caused poverty, precarity, and inequality in the ex-colonies. Most recently, development projects have embraced self-help schemes that give the poor the responsibility to alleviate their economic poverty by participating in a financialised global economy (Mawdsley 2018a & 2018b, Schwittay 2011). These initiatives follow the current development consensus reached at Addis Ababa in 2015, which looks to ‘leave no one behind’ while further incorporating the private sector as a development actor. According to their public messages, leading development institutions are set to follow the same development paradigm in the upcoming years.
In October 2022, World Bank President David Malpass opened his Annual Meetings Press Conference by reporting a grim scenario of 70 million people falling below the extreme poverty line because of the Covid-19 pandemic. In his brief speech, Malpass linked the current development crisis to the world’s economic decline due to high inflation, high-interest rates, and low capital flows. Malpass’ emphasis on the relationship between development and global economic growth is framed within the World Bank initiative to maximise finance for development by moving ‘from “billions” in official development assistance to “trillions” in [private] investments to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).1 At the same event, one of the Annual Meetings addressed ‘inclusive growth’ as ‘the key for a lasting recovery’. During the meeting, the Managing Director of the Center for Financial Inclusion, Mayada El-Zoghbi, defined inclusive growth as shared prosperity and identified digital finance as a critical tool for distributing wealth through trickle-down economics.
Inclusive growth has become a buzzword within development institutions that aim to achieve welfare through economic growth, financialisation, and private accumulation. For instance, a recently developed United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) search engine, Artificial Intelligence for Development Analytics (AIDA), shows 20,173 results for ‘inclusive growth’ for the 2022 UNDP reports only. Despite its popularity, inclusive growth is not as benevolent as it might seem. The assumption within international development institutions, like the World Bank, that economic growth will benefit everyone through trickle-down economics contrasts with the observed rise of inequality within growing economies.2 Inclusive growth through financialisation has tended to be about making profits and accumulating wealth through cheap labour and expensive debt. Also, the financialisation of the global economy has contracted the real economy, and it is widely reported that the financial crises have hit the poor the hardest.
Nevertheless, the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have endorsed inclusive growth through microfinance, micro insurance, and pyramidal market inclusion schemes (Cross and Street 2009, Dolan 2012, Elyachar 2012, Lazar 2004). Under these schemes, the impoverished have become desirable for private capital circulation and absorption.3 Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) initiatives have accumulated wealth in the hands of investors, corporations, and a few local entrepreneurs. For example, in Mexico, the non-profit financial organisation Compartamos, inaugurated in 1990, became a commercial bank in 2006 and is now the largest microfinance bank in Latin America. Yet, a 2015 study found that ‘the overall effects of [Compartamos’ microcredits] do not appear large or transformative’ (Angelucci, Karlan, and Zinman, 2015). With projects like Compartamos, financial inclusion looks very much like financial extractivism.
Simultaneously, environmental extractivism remains a development strategy across the Global South, including countries like Ecuador and Bolivia, that incorporated the indigenous notion of ‘Buen Vivir’ into their governments (Gudynas 2010, Radcliffe 2012, Walsh 2010). The extractive nature of development can be traced back to the Empire’s ‘civilising’ missions that followed capital and industrial growth to ensure the reintegration of wealth back into the metropole, as Hannah Arendt showed in her 1946 essay ‘Expansion and the Philosophy of Power’. Inclusive development has a colonial background. Today, economic growth through extractivism and financialisation are the main mechanisms to foster ‘inclusive growth’.
Put simply, developmental inclusiveness is based on a vertical division of the world according to which poor and ‘developing’ nations run behind the rich and ‘developed’ ones. The less developed are expected to make themselves doable to developers who come from or have been educated in the Global North. In this sense, conventional discourses conceptualise development as the successful integration into the dominant economic system, thus legitimising the durability of its unequal structures.
Development’s verticality exemplifies what Lomnitz (2005) calls ‘asymmetric negative reciprocity’, when an exchange results from coercion or exploitation, in this case, dating back to the colonial encounter. The record shows that development practice has had one direction only, from North to South. A project led by, let us say, Malawi to foster the development of, let us say, the UK has proved inconceivable to fellow students with whom I have discussed this speculative scenario. Development scholars like Chang (2014) and Mkandawire (1988) have shown how such vertical exchanges reproduced a colonial model of development where knowledge travels from North to South and wealth flows in the opposite direction while local populations carry the burden.
The inconceivability of a South to North development project derives from inherited colonial hierarchies of value and knowledge and a capitalist notion of progress as maximised growth and accumulation. Imagining a reversed developmental project can be profoundly disruptive; however, flipping the developmental ladder would preserve its inherited verticality and asymmetry. Such issues have been long discussed by critics like Escobar (1991, 2010), who invites us to think ‘post-development’, where difference meets equality, and Li (2017), who believes that instead of development, we should talk about justice, political conflict, and redistribution. However, these critics have not managed to overturn dominant development paradigms. I aim to contribute to this debate by illuminating ‘inclusion’ as a concept driving development’s coloniality today. I call ‘development’s inclusionary complex’ the latest update of a longstanding dynamic observed by Cardoso and Faletto (1979) in their essay on Dependency and Development in Latin America, where they linked ‘under development’ to colonial path-dependency.
Development experts are conscious of the colonial and capitalist background that explains the historical exploitation and impoverishment of marginalised groups and minorities, including indigenous groups, rural communities, the working classes, and slum dwellers. Despite specialists’ best intentions, development persists as a vertical and extractive enterprise. Why? I argue that contemporary development practitioners are constrained by a fundamental misconception: that the impoverished have been excluded from the global economy instead of unequally included. They have been misguided because contemporary development practice is heavily oriented towards inclusionary projects aimed at groups that have already been marginalised within the economic system. Historically, unequal inclusion is the problem, not the solution. In sticking to the inclusionary complex, development practitioners seek to solve the problem by prescribing its cause.
Inclusion is such a benevolent concept it might seem harmless, but it actualises development’s colonial and capitalist roots. Development’s inclusionary complex is an epistemic apparatus that frames inclusion as prosperous for all when it is not. As a conceptual tool, the inclusionary complex restricts development work to reproducing vertical and exclusionary projects and replicating development coloniality in its current neoliberal paradigm. As an obscuring mechanism, the positively charged notion of inclusion has helped reproduce development’s coloniality by hiding its exclusionary mechanisms through benevolent policies. However, history illuminates a different story.
At the fringes of the global capitalist system, but within its borders, more autonomous communities, often indigenous, have long been articulated with extractivism and the market economy. For example, Tutino (2018) shows how, as far back as 16th-Century Spanish rule, communities in the Mexican heartland lent their labour to the colonial silver trade. According to Tutino, their work sustained modern capitalism in Europe. These communities have been embedded in global capitalism since its beginnings but have not benefited substantially. After centuries of economic development, many are part of the disadvantaged countryside or the Mexico City slums. The same dynamic has been replicated throughout the colonised world. Nowadays, poor peasants and marginalised dwellers in the Global South are targeted by financial inclusion schemes that aim to achieve inclusive growth. These initiatives miss the point because, historically, the issue is not if people have been included but how. One could argue that financial inclusion today shares a similar logic to the silver trade in 16th-century Mexico.
The inclusionary fixation is conceptual but has visible consequences best explained through a geographical perspective. The global disaffected have not been excluded from capitalist development; they have been assimilated, varying in levels (and forms) of autonomy and exploitation. Anthropological perspectives show that development has underestimated the creative potential of difference by excluding alterity. Like Blaser (2019) and De la Cadena (2010) have shown in Paraguay and Perú, respectively, Other human and more than human ecological networks are often made uncommon to developmental projects. From the edges of the economic system to its core, economic development has included some and left behind others across concentric frontiers, namely the indigenous, the rural, and the urban.
At the indigenous frontier, development has reduced nature to raw materials,4 ontological and ecological alterity to cultural traits,5 and complex ownership regimes to enclosed private property.6 At the rural frontier, peasants that have successfully adopted what Li (2014) calls ‘capitalist relations’ (competition, accumulation, and growth) have faced the financialisation of the rural economy, increasing levels of debt,7 and displacement by the agroindustry.8 Under these circumstances, younger generations have fled to the growing cities, consolidating their inclusion into the modern economic system and becoming, as Davis (2017) shows in detail, ‘surplus populations’ at the urban periphery. Ostracised, the urban poor inhabit the core of the inclusionary promise, but they are not prosperous and embody deep exclusions and inequalities. People are pulled closer to the system’s centre so capital can circulate faster and with more significant returns.
As a neo-colonial mechanism of assimilation through dispossession, development must be addressed from a decolonial perspective and language. Inclusion fetishism obscures alternative vocabularies that respond to historical realities and might push development towards reparative and redistributive action. Writing epistemologically from the South, de Sousa Santos (2014) argues for the centrality of ‘cognitive decolonisation’. Throughout his text, de Sousa Santos uses a vocabulary suitable for rethinking development beyond inclusion while addressing the historical exclusions and violence of colonialism, capitalism, racism, and patriarchy. He uses simple terms like ‘undoing’, ‘liberating’, ‘recognising’, ‘deconstructing’, and ‘reconstructing’.
I argue that acknowledging development’s inclusionary complex and addressing its exclusionary aftermath are vital steps in building what de Sousa Santos calls an ‘ecology of autonomous knowledges’ (2014). Furthermore, undoing the inclusionary complex by adopting other languages might contribute to decolonising development practice and reorienting its resources to the service of horizontal and redistributive paradigms. Local spaces and communities are creative and productive in many ways that escape today’s emphasis on extractivism and financialisation. In a decolonised development landscape, there are otherworldly alternatives for achieving a good life across human and more-than-human ecologies.
1 World Bank 2015 Development Committee paper From Billions to Trillions: Transforming Development. Finance. Also: The United Nations’ Inter-Agency Task Force on Financing for Development.
3 For a paradigmatic example of the BoP’s rationality see C.K. Prahalad, The fortune at the bottom of the pyramid.
4 For instance, Tsing (2005) uses the term ‘resourcification’ to describe the transformation of nature into marketable resources in South Kalimantan, Indonesia.
5 Blaser (2019), for example, describes how an NGO accepted Yshiro socio-cosmic ecologies as cultural but not ecological and productive realities and alternatives in the Chaco region of Paraguay.
6 For a revealing discussion on the transformation of Amazonian Shuar property regimes as the result of development encounters see Walker (2020).
7 Schuster (2021), for instance, shows that the microfinance boom constitutes a ‘zone of risk’ for farmers in Northern Paraguay.
8 See Hetherington (2020) for a historical description of different ‘agribiopolitical alignments’ in Paraguay.
Alejandro Porcel Arraut studied International Relations at El Colegio de México (2014-2018) and worked at the Mexico City Transport Department. He left for the UK in 2021 to study for an MPhil in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge (2021-2022), and stayed for the PhD program thanks to the William Wyse Studentship. He currently researches labour formalisation, collective organisation, and the social reproduction of public bus infrastructures in Mexico City.
Angelucci, M, D. Karlan, and J. Zinman. 2015. ‘Microcredit Impacts: Evidence from a Randomised Microcredit Program Placement Experiment by Compartamos Banco’. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 7 (1): 151–82. https://doi.org/10.1257/app.20130537.
Arendt, H. 1946. ‘Expansion and the Philosophy of Power’. The Sewanee Review 54 (4): 601–16.
Gudynas, E. 2010. ‘Ten Urgent Theses about Extractivism in Relation to Current South American Progressivism’. Americas Policy Program.
Hetherington, K. 2020. ‘Agribiopolitics: The Health of Plants and Humans in the Age of Monocrops’. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 38 (4): 682–98. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263775820912757.
Li, T. 2014. Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier. Durham ; London: Duke University Press.
———. 2017. ‘After Development: Surplus Population and the Politics of Entitlement: Development and Change Distinguished Lecture 2016’. Development and Change 48 (6): 1247–61. https://doi.org/10.1111/dech.12344.
Lomnitz, C. 2005. ‘Sobre Reciprocidad Negativa’. Revista de Antropología Social 14: 311–39.
Tutino, J. 2018. The Mexican Heartland: How Communities Shaped Capitalism, a Nation, and World History, 1500-2000. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Tsing, A. 2005. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton Paperbacks. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.
United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs. 2020. Report of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Financing for Development 2020: Financing for Sustainable. Development Report. S.l.: UNITED NATIONS.
This essay seeks to challenge the idea of evidentiary knowledge in anthropology and to critically examine in what ways anthropologists —particularly those working with physical and digital archival methods—make use of ethnographic materials rooted in conflict-laden contexts. Our cases from Palestine and the United States—suffering from continuous colonial practices, ongoing dispossession, and identity erosion— highlight how knowledge production is a core feature of racial regimes, and thus challenge the idea that these archival materials constitute a holistic source of evidentiary knowledge.
Emphasising the epistemological problem of the lack of balance in power, we call on anthropology—the discipline devoted to understanding human lives—to critically investigate the prevailing conception of evidentiary knowledge, and instead of perceiving archives solely as repositories of evidentiary knowledge based on the presence and availability of materials, anthropologist should seriously consider absences, erasures, and silences in these same sites. This understanding, we argue, enables anthropologists to reread colonial archives ‘against their grains’, as Ann Stoler (2002) suggests. Thus, rather than normalising the archive in a way that maintains the status quo, anthropologists can transform it into a site of resistance, allowing change over time and joining ongoing scholarly efforts to establish decolonial archives.
The Establishment of Israeli Archives and the Destruction of Palestinian Archives
Since Israel’s establishment in 1948, it has continued to be increasingly preoccupied with creating and developing its archives. Most renowned among these efforts is its extensive police and military archives. The Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) Archive is the main historical archive of the Israeli military, established in 1948, serving Israel’s Defense Ministry and the IDF as a storage centre for their daily work, research, and legal purposes, and includes valuable files related to Palestine (Cohen 2011). Israel is also known for its national library archive (NLI), not only notable for its cultural treasures of Israeli and Jewish heritage collection, but also for its extensive Islamic and Middle East collection (Blumberg & Ukeles 2013), and while perceived by some as facilitating the flow of knowledge, others were nonetheless suspicious of it (e.g., Othman 2017), focusing on what is missing and erased from it.
Along with establishing its own archives, Israel has devoted substantial efforts to destroying Palestinian archives (Desai & Shahwan, 2022; Sela, 2018; Sleiman, 2016). The Great Book Robbery, a documentary film, explores Israel’s looting of 70,000 Palestinian books from private Palestinian libraries during the 1948 war, and shows that 6,000 of these books are now marked as ‘AP’–Abandoned Property. By trying to understand why thousands of books appropriated from Palestinian homes are still in the NLI, this documentary interweaves various storylines into a unified structure, portraying a story of a robbery, not of cultural preservation.
Israel was also responsible for the destruction of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) archives in Beirut during the invasion of 1982, raiding the offices of the Palestine Research Center (PRC), confiscating and seizing the archives that had been established in 1965 to gather and conserve Palestinian materials (Sleiman 2016). Moreover, the IDF also took over the Palestinian Cinema Institute (PCI), including its professional film archive (Sela 2017). Currently, the films are managed and controlled by the IDF, which conceals much of the information about their origins (Desai & Shahwan 2022).
The academic interest in archives, their politics, and the ways in which they were established or destroyed in the context of Palestine has been increasing. Examining Israel’s colonial archives holding plundered Palestinian materials, Rona Sela (2018), for example, provides insights into Israel’s colonial mechanism of looting and truth production. By focusing on the archives plundered by Israel in Beirut, she traces how Israel looted Palestinian archives and then controlled the materials in its own colonial archives. Sela traces the repressive means in which Palestinian archives were erased , including censorship and various restrictions, as well as the ways in which Israel limited the exposure and the use of Palestinian looted materials, altered their original identity, regulated their contents, and subjected them to its laws and terminology.
Similarly, Hana Sleiman (2016) details the various systematic powers that tried to silence the PLO archive. Furthermore, she shows how the looted documents were used later by Israeli research institutions to create a narrative depicting the PLO as a ‘terrorist organization at the nexus of international rogue actors, emphasising its connection to the Eastern bloc, Arab and Islamic countries, and other countries that allow subversive groups to operate, like many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America’ (49). Sleiman notes the irony behind Israel’s claim that its narrative is authentic because it is based on the PLO’s own documents and records. According to Sleiman, Israel’s claims to be fully faithful to the documents’ hidden script is simply putting into words the truth that the colonial archive is demanding.
Orouba Othman (2017) examines the ways in which the Palestinian historiography has been re-narrated to maintain Israeli hegemony, including its settler narratives. One example she brings is that while Palestinians have been depicted as simply having given up their spiritual and material possessions, the staff of the NLI has been portrayed as having risked their lives for these neglected documents. This imagery highlights what is conventionally considered the abyss between the Oriental, purportedly lacking the basic capacity to protect its culture, and the Western Zionist, always able to overcome obstacles. In this way, the moralistic-heroic Israeli narrative of the 1948 war was constructed, according to Othman.
Israel’s approach to archives, its long-standing national effort to build vast and detailed archives along with its policies, regulations, decisions regarding the release or lack of release of materials, and its constant attempts to destroy Palestinian archives, seems puzzling, perhaps even suspicious. Why are perpetrators of violence and those involved in conflicts so preoccupied with documenting and creating archives? Why do colonial archives tend to be very detailed archives? What might explain the tendency to restore and archive materials in this capacity? In which circumstances does Israel make the decision to keep its archival documents classified, censored, and out of reach? Conversely, in which circumstances does Israel decide to allow access to its archival documents, even leading initiatives and creating digital archives to enhance public access and knowledge?
The Censorship of Critical Race Theory Discourse
In the U.S., conservative popular media is abuzz with the term critical race theory (CRT) alongside aims to change and regulate the types of reading and content they deem inappropriate for discussions in schools and the workplace. Anti-CRT advocates claim these discussions, particularly within public schools, are harmful to the self-esteem of white children or introduce children to perspectives that parents may not share. They argue parents should have control over what their children learn and how. The term ‘critical race theory’ originated within legal academia as a starting point for acknowledging and analysing how racism is systemically embedded in U.S. law and legal practices (Bell 1992; Crenshaw et al. 1996; Delgado and Stefancic 2017). However, the term has been misappropriated through social media to discuss any direct or indirect inclusion of critical perspective suggesting racism exists and to brand this discussion illegitimate and inappropriate (Wallace-Wells 2021; Will 2021). Additionally, the term critical race theory is used as a catch-all to brand and restrict discussion about ‘Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion’ work, LGBTQ+ experiences, reproductive health, immigration, and alternative politics – ‘socialism, Marxism, communism, totalitarianism, or similar political systems’ – among other things deemed in conflict with ‘the principles of freedom upon which the U.S. was founded’ (Pendharker 2022). This suggests a kind of cultural anxiety (Grillo 2003: 158), whereby discussing racism, homophobia, and other controversial topics within education pushes against their fundamental sense of Americanness.
The misappropriation of the critical race theory and its circulation in online began during the COVID-19 lockdowns as a counter-discourse to the reignition of #BlackLivesMatter protests following the murder of George Floyd. The anti-critical race theory movement has moved from social media to attempts to regulate public education and workplace curriculums. The UCLA School of Law Critical Race Studies (CRS) Program launched the ‘CRT Forward Tracking Project’, which catalogues the various policy and legislation introduced to restrict the ability to create mandatory discussion or engagement from the local to national level with materials that suggests the U.S. has systemic racism or is misappropriated to restrict other diverse perspectives. The Project claims 20% of all proposed policies are introduced at the school district level (Sloan 2022). While this means school districts have more control over consideration of such complaints, there are real consequences for educators and students implicated in such complaints. Educators live in fear of being targeted individually and slandered online using the same misconstrued and inflammatory language that began this movement if they support retaining materials (texts, films, lessons, etc.) that depict experiences unpopular with the anti-CRT movement (First Person 2022; Waxman 2022). The parents of students of various backgrounds feel their children will not be exposed to relatable cultural representations or that may diversify how they understand the world and their relationship to it (Will 2021). The anti-critical race theory campaign attempts to censor what people can learn, share, and discuss while privileging the omission of materials that attempt to grapple with a messy national history that continues to reproduce inequality for many in the U.S.
These efforts echo the larger issues at stake with materials available to teach about diverse opinions and perspectives – the archive is already limited and shaped by colonialist values and anxieties. Stoler (2009: 3) discusses how exploring ‘the archive’ reveals the importance of documents and documentation, as they lend legitimacy and power and also illustrate the priorities of colonial powers and their institution of colonial rule as an economic, political, and legal reality. Archives also illustrate colonial ontologies, or how these colonial powers understood themselves and their ‘being’ and place in space, as distinct through the subjugation of groups of the ‘Other’ (Stoler 2009: 4; Stoler 2002: 6-8). Omission of materials created by groups of the ‘Other’ within ‘the archive’ or documentation outlining the extreme violence perpetuated against them, the nothingness or nonexistence it implies (Navaro 2020: 163), reduces the opportunity of introducing counternarratives that may undo the legitimacy and logics undergirding the continuance of colonial powers through subjugation as well as anticipated and actualized violence – a phenomenon that Stoler (2016) terms ‘duress’. Counternarrative was precisely the aim of those who coined the term critical race theory. Counternarrative also exists in the form of children’s and young adult literature or educational materials focused on the experiences or possible futures of those that have been historically Othered. These materials similarly unravel racism and colonialist logics in the public sphere, outside of legal academia, and create space for children or adults to muck through personal experiences of subjugation where they may lack the language to acknowledge the truth of its presence and impact in their lives.
The cases of Palestine and the United States offer a retrospective view that enables us to learn about the archive, its politics, and its influences. Both cases challenge the idea of the archive as an essential arena that can simply provide reliable information. It also demands that we pay attention to the role of colonial archives in shaping anthropological research, both methodologically and theoretically. Both the Palestinian and American cases show how political actors, perpetrators of violence, and victors in these contexts destroy narratives that threaten to undermine their legitimacy, narratives, discourses, and political interests. That is, our comparison highlights how knowledge production could be a core feature of conflict-laden contexts and racial regimes.
What production of knowledge processes should anthropology engage in to overcome the absences, erasures, silences, and ‘black holes,’ (Navaro 2020: 161) that could impact our research (Basu and De Jong 2016; Odumosu 2020)? And how should we capture these erasures ethnographically, without abandoning the idea of empiricism, the core of our ethnographic method? These questions are extremely salient in anthropology today due to the increasing incorporation of primary historical records in anthropological research and analysis, known as ‘the historical turn’, and the representation of settler-colonial relations, erasure of histories and narratives, cultural demolitions, conflict, and dispossessions within those records.
We contend that this critical view of the archive should be woven into anthropological training. In utilising an archive, whether physical or digital, a researcher must consider absence as significant to their analysis as what is present or dominant. The analysis should contemplate the implications of that absence of material as potentially constitutive of the material that is present. In some instances, such a view could call to question the fundamental legitimacy of the archive where material was sourced and may point to the impossibility of gathering certain information. Our aim is to advocate for an academic rebalancing in our disciplinary pedagogy, whereby decolonisation works through attention to and privileging the occluded and omitted perspectives and creations of the ‘Other’.
Adaiah Hudgins-Lopez is a writer, 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. Alaa Hajyahia is a Ph.D. student in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge. She is a 2022 Gates Cambridge Scholar and a member of King’s College.
Basu, P., & De Jong, F. 2016. Utopian archives, decolonial affordances. Introduction to Special Issue. Social Anthropology, 24(1), 5– 19. doi: 10.1111/1469-8676.12281.
Bell, Derrick. 1992. Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. New York: Basic Books.
Blumberg, D., & Ukeles, R. 2013. The National Library of Israel renewal: Opening access, democratizing knowledge, fostering culture. Alexandria, 24(3), 1-16.
Cohen, H. 2011. Good Arabs: The Israeli security agencies and the Israeli Arabs, 1948–1967. Univ of California Press.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas. 1996. Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement. New York: New Press.
Delgado, Richard and Jean Stefancic. 2017. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, 3rd edition. New York: New York University Press.
Desai, C., & Shahwan, R. 2022. Preserving Palestine: Visual archives, erased curriculum, and counter-archiving amid archival violence in the post-Oslo period. Curriculum Inquiry. 52(4), 469-489.
First Person. 2022. ‘A Librarian Spoke Against Censorship. Dark Money Came For Her.’ https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/17/opinion/librarian-book-bans-freedom-of-speech.html
Grillo, Ralph. 2003. ‘Cultural Essentialism and Cultural Anxiety’. Anthropological Theory, 3(2), 157–173.
Navaro, Yael. 2020. ‘The Aftermath of Mass Violence: A Negative Methodology’. Annual Review of Anthropology 49: 161-73.
Odumosu, T. 2020. The crying child: On colonial archives, digitization, and ethics of care in the cultural commons. Current Anthropology 61(S22), S289-S302.
Waxman, Alicia. 2022. ‘Anti-‘Critical Race Theory’ Laws are Working. Teachers are Thinking Twice about How They Talk about Race’. https://time.com/6192708/critical-race-theory-teachers-racism/ Will, Madeleine. 2021. ‘Calls to Ban Books by Black Authors are Increasing Amid Critical Race Theory Debates; Parents claim books about race make white children feel uncomfortable.’ Education Week 41(10): 11+.
What do they do now? They do the famous ajtapi ajtapi [attempt to pronounce the Aymara word apthapi] which is eating on the ground, they put an aguayo on the ground put the food on it and there you have to sit and eat. It does not seem right to me because it had cost so much to educate people to eat at a table and use cutlery. What they want is for us to go back to what was before, to eating on the ground, those practices it’s what they’re doing with this new law.
– Eugenia, Social Sciences Teacher at Colegio Valle Hermosa
It was February 2020, the first day of the new academic year at Colegio Valle Hermosa in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba and the Plurnination State was still shaken by recent political turmoil. In November 2019, the indigenous president Evo Morales and his closest cabinet members had fled the country after country-wide protests against suspected electoral fraud. Eugenia, the social sciences teacher who was ‘strongly aligned with the civic opposition that led to Morales’s downfall’, was content with the transitory head of state Jeanine Añez who took office holding a huge bible in her hand and proclaimed the holy book’s return to the palace. Eugenia hoped Añez will reverse the educational changes introduced under Morales and without any hesitancy announced to the class: “This law needs to be repealed. The law made us regress thousands of years. It’s more a model of the countryside, not the city”.
The law Eugenia was referring to is the introduced in 2010 educational law – 070 Avelino-Sinañi~Elizardo-Pérez (ASEP) – aimed at revolutionising the schooling system by placing the ‘decolonial, intercultural, intracultural and plurilingual’ (Article 1.6) at the very core of education. In the governmental understanding, decolonial education aids societal transformation through the recovery, revaluation and enrichment of indigenous knowledge and cultural self-reaffirmation (the ‘intracultural’) to reconstruct relations and common dialogue between the country’s nations or cultures (the ‘intercultural’). Many teachers at my fieldsite and others I’ve spoken to find the emphasis on the indigenous superfluous, even receding. An educational law should be first and foremost, as I further heard during Eugenia’s first day of school speech, ‘technological because those are the interests of today, not the intercultural, the ancestral but robotics, computing, IT, the web’.
Eugenia was adamant about her views: ‘Thank God scientific knowledge will be back.You do not need to know about pachamama [Mother Earth]. We know about it, challamos’, she further told the class pronouncing ch’alla – the pouring of liquids on the ground in exchange for Mother Earth’s protection – with an ejective consonant for an affricate, which is typical for non-Quechua speakers. Whilst, for Eugenia, the pachamama has no place within the school and the Christian God should regain its rightful standing inside the classroom walls. That is because, to her, the pachamama is not scientific but Christianity is: ‘We cannot think that the universe just emerged out of nowhere. I’ve heard an astronaut say that God’s marvellous creation is scientific. If during the past 14 years it did not enter schools we have to open up the Bible again and hear God’s words – it is im-por-tan-ti-simo [very important]’. Eugenia’s class discourse laid crystal clear a vision of what urban school education should and shouldn’t be about: it should be about scientific knowledge, technology, the city and Christian practices and shouldn’t be about the intercultural, ancestral, the countryside or the pachamama.
The principal of the school himself echoed the social sciences teacher’s worries about a negative influence of the law on the quality of education. During a reunion with parent delegates he responded to their concerns about the university entrance exams: ‘Before the law 070 education prepared for university, now with all the things about the socio-productive project, about the pachamama education has gone down’. The principal frequently talked about the pride he feels when students re-visit the school as university graduates, reminded current students that ‘one day they will be architects, lawyers, engineers’ and believed that public education should be able to prepare them for this task.
The word ‘scientific’ actually appears in law 070 as many as twenty-five times, ‘science’ a further twenty-one, and ‘technology’ or ‘technological’ as many as fifty-two. How come so many teachers were opposed to it to the extent that Eugenia, in an interview with me, sustained that ‘law 070 destroyed Bolivian education’? Blatant discrimination towards the indigenous is not the explanation for Eugenia, and others, who considered indigeneity an important part of Bolivian identity and culture. She showed admiration for national folkloric practices and defended indigenous rights. During one of our interviews she stressed that ‘if you want to have a culture of civism you need to know your roots, where you come from (…) Quechuas, Incas, Tiwanakotas, Collas, Aymaras, etc.’ To her, however, knowing where one comes from did not signify acting as one’s ancestors but recognising indigeneity as a partiality of a mestizo identity and culture – ‘we are a mestizo culture, we are mestizos because we are a mix of Spanish and indigenous’.
This mix, nevertheless, is compartmentalised into the ‘permitted’, or even desired forms, and the ‘disdained’, the kind capable of keeping the country behind. An important aspect differentiating the new law from its predecessors is its emphasis on education being ‘transformative of economic and social structures’ in the construction of the Plurinational State and Vivir Bien (Living Well)’. While Vivir Bien – a set of ideas evolving around life in harmony with oneself, others, the spiritual world and nature with roots in Andean indigenous thought – appears in the law 070 only ten times, it does so in order to upturn formulations for the construction of a new society based on its terms rather than, as mostly do scientific or technological, in descriptive enumerations or bureaucratic technicalities. The legal utopia of the law’s bureaucratic all-inclusiveness is not only overshadowed by the novelty and resounding character of indigenous markers in legal text but by the state’s broader performativity of an image associated with Andean indigeneity making it the public face of the national imaginary (see Postero 2017).
A common characteristic of the mid and late 20th century educational reforms is a particular form of imagining Indian participation that fits the, coined by the Bolivian sociologist Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui (2004), phrase ‘indio permitido’; (authorised or permitted Indian). The contemporary permitted Indian, as elaborated in the work of Charles Hale, conforms to the global multiculturalist framework, prevalent since the late 1980s, in which indigenous rights and cultural recognition are important as long as they do not upset the economic and political status quo (Hale 2004; Hale & Millaman 2006). The phrase suggests the use of cultural rights in the era of multiculturalism as a palliative for indigenous empowerment and mobilisation, rather than a strong shift from historical discrimination. The presence of ‘Indio permitido’ at the school manifested itself in the practice of folkloric dances without a critical take upon their origins and political meaning. There was also an ignorance of legislative recommendations with regards to the duration and amount of indigenous language teaching. The ‘indigenous’ was presented as an abstract and foreign concept of ‘the Quechua nation’ rather than as a vivid part of the students’ family culture and history . The socio-productive project, meant to include students in community matters, was ‘ticked off’ by giving presentations in younger classes without any involvement in the indigenous immigrant neighbourhood of the school. Despite being criticised by teachers for its pachamamismo, the law and governmental curriculums themselves do not provide explicit indications nor practical instructions for shattering school walls. Consequently, they do not equip schools with the means to learn with the community and environment, as you would expect from an education based on Vivir Bien but retain a focus of learning exclusively about them.
The inability to break through the barricades of ‘indio permitido’ is sustained by the prevalence of ‘orders of interactionality’ (Silverstein 2004: 644) tied to aspects of a cultural imaginary of civilization linked to the European. Silverstein conceived of orders of interactionality as the macro-social cultural conceptualisation in which microsociological interaction orders take place (ibid). Those orders infiltrate school life by structuring the culturally accepted and institutionally viable forms of interaction and their denotational capacity. Eugenia’s uneasiness towards apthapi quoted at the beginning of this text stems from an idea of superiority of European heritage and its congruity with contemporary practices of the ‘developed’ nations. Eating at a table and use of cutlery creates a distance between the human and the earth and its produce upholding the idea of human epistemic and economic dominance over nature challenged by Andean cosmovisions (see de la Cadena 2010; Allen 2002; Harris 2000). A ch’alla, accepted by Eugenia, involves watering the earth, usually with alcohol, in an act of blessing or simply gratefulness to Mother Earth; thus, acknowledging a relation that need not necessarily be horizontal. Yet, sitting and eating on the ground in apthapi brings the human down to the Earth’s level — a position historically reserved for the ‘authentic’ or rural and menial indigenous, which is incompatible with schooling towards urban youth professionalisation.
The power-turning aspects of the legal document and the new performative state imaginary enter into a conflictive encounter with rival imaginaries based on social-evolutionist ideas of development and Christianity that have held hegemony over the nation in the past centuries. Most teaching staff at Valle Hermosa saw schooling as a means to develop rather than decolonise the country. They worried about fostering student aspirations and study skills towards obtaining higher education and improving the ‘ranking’ of their country within the global nation-system, rather than ‘breaking the shackles’ of coloniality. The celebration and instruction of indigenous folklore and history at the school helped raise cultural awareness and cultural pride amongst school youth of indigenous roots, but remained within the scope of a neoliberal, multiculturalist framework where it would not be conceived as a threat to the country’s development.
Kasia Buzanska is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. She is currently writing a comparative doctoral thesis based on ethnographic research at two urban high schools in Bolivia and Poland. Her broader professional interests include the anthropology of schooling and youth, cognitive anthropology, sociolinguistics, media and political ecology. Before joining the Department of Social Anthropology, Kasia completed an MPhil in Latin American Studies at the University of Cambridge writing her thesis on Quechua language ideologies at a Bolivian university.
ALLEN C. 1988. The Hold Life Has: Coca and Cultural Identity in an Andean Community. US: Smithsonian Institution Press.
DE LA CADENA, M. 2010. ‘Indigenous Cospomolitcs in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections beyond “Politics”’. Cultural Anthropology 25.2 (2010): 334-70. DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1360.2010.01061
Colonialism and femininity have always intimately intertwined. Edward Said’s Orientalism draws our attention to the characterisation and feminisation of the Orient as integral to the epistemic construction of Empire. Writing on how early literary works would draw upon the ‘passive, seminal, feminine […]and even supine East’, (Said 1979) Said sets the feminine Orient in direct opposition with the active, masculine West. Beyond the literary, Orientalism manifests in visual elements as well. In Eugene Delacroix’s The Women of Algiers, the supine, sensual ‘native women’ look invitingly upon the viewer, their bodies indexing the romanticisation of the Orient. Colonialism’s visualisation of the native woman perceives the native woman as a product of pleasure to be exploited alongside the other resources. However, at a deeper level, the configuration of the colonised as feminine (or at the very least, emasculated) and the coloniser as masculine plays heavily on the trope of domination and exploitation in that the femininity is subjugated by the masculine. As such, the act of colonisation in itself is a field heavily steeped in power—in who decides the hierarchies and epistemic field of which the coloniser and colonised situates themselves. Turning it on its head, therefore, I propose that decolonisation can be understood as the shifting of the locus of power away from the hands of the colonisers and into the hands of the ‘native’. With this I challenge the term ‘decolonisation’—which I find problematic since it assumes a process that reaches a definite end point of ‘decolonised’. The example I present demonstrates how ‘decolonisation’ is not the removal of all traces of ‘colonisation’, but the transition from ‘colonised’ to ‘decolonisation’, is underpinned by the transition of narrative power from the colonisers to the ex-colonised.
I will discuss how the semiotics of femininity can index a nation’s positionality in their process of decolonisation. Just as colonialism etches itself in the imagery of subordinated women, I argue that decolonisation similarly embeds itself in the female body through the way femininity is seen and how it moves. I focus on the figure of the Singapore Girl, the airline stewardess of the national carrier Singapore Airlines that has attained pop cultural iconicity in Singapore and beyond. The Singapore Girl was a creation by Batey Ads in 1972 for the purposes of advertising the new national carrier, though she has been regularly criticised for hrt orientalist slant and one-sided representation of Singaporean Women (Straits Times 1986). Nonetheless, that was precisely what Australian adman Ian Batey intended. He described her as having the ‘natural looks of most young Asian women’ (Batey 2003: 120), and intended for her to display her ‘natural femininity, natural grace and warmth’ (ibid), qualities which he associated with her ‘Asian Heritage’. The visual of the Singapore Girl in her Sarong Kebaya (a form of traditional malay dress) also characterised this figure as an Asian icon with her ‘distinctive Asian womanhood in distinctly foreign countries’ (Teo 1987). This transformed her into a ‘symbol of Asian hospitality’ (Singapore Airlines n.d), where it ‘assert[ed] Malayan identity and hospitality’ (Roots, n.d).
The Singapore Girl can index these hierarchies of power because she is simultaneously imagined and signified by national and international forces that come together to shape the heterogenous semiotic ideology that surrounds her. Vicki Vantoch (2013) has conducted a similar analysis on how society’s idealised womanhood is imbued in the figure of the airline stewardess. In The Jet Sex (2013), Vantoch writes on how in the post WWII years ‘the airline stewardess became an American icon. Heralded as the apotheosis of postwar womanhood, the stewardess was popularly dubbed the “typical all-american girl”’ (2013: 27). In the same vein, the Singapore Girl embodies what the Singapore nation idealises in Singapore womanhood, which, in the discursiveness of her femininity, further indexes the nation’s positionality in the decolonisation process. However, in view of this we must recognise that the Singapore Girl is not simply shaped by what the nation reflexively imagines themselves to be, but is also constructed by the international, and, initially, predominantly Western clientele. They imbue the Singapore Girl with her exotic desirability. The Singapore Girl’s femininity, in the push and pull of national and international idealisations, demonstrates a breakthrough from the colonisation/decolonisation dichotomy as we study the shifting power dynamics shaping the image of the Singapore Girl from the West back into the East; and by corollary, the shift of a nation’s positionality in her self-perception of her relation to her colonial past.
The Singapore Girl of the 1970s
The Singapore Girl depicted in the late 1970s is clad in her sarong kebayaregardless of the different climates and parts of the world where she goes—retaining her ‘native self’ even as she has situated herself internationally, which further reinforces the exotic charm that she exudes. Wendy Chapkis characterised the Singapore Girl as ‘exotic cloth wrapped around an undemanding oriental gentleness’ (1986: 57). Her ethereal quality is reinforced as the Singapore Girl runs across the snow in her sarong kebaya, which is arguably impractical, and it’s precisely this juxtaposition that lends to our imagination of her.
The youthful femininity of the Singapore Girl is also realised in the opening scene, as three Singapore Girl figures dance with glee amongst the waves. The entire imagery of exotic beaches, young girls, and idyllic joy harkens to the mysticism and simplicity that stereotypes the Orient. The imagery of the feminine Orient is reinforced further in the emphasis on the smile of the Singapore Girl (‘make me share your gentle smile’ ), which exudes feminine warmth and care, further feeds into stereotypes of the gentle servile native woman. Even the jingle in and of itself – ‘Singapore Girl, you are a great way to fly’ – characterises the Singapore Girl as a commodity to be consumed and enjoyed onboard Singapore Airlines. This epistemically creates the power imbalance of consumer and product, which feeds into the coloniser/colonised rhetoric. The strong exotic slant of the Singapore Girl was what adman Batey intended.
In The 1970s, Singapore Airlines’ clientele would have largely catered to a Westernised, more wealthy audience where this imagination of the Orient would still have appealed. As a newly industrialised country seeking to increase its capacity as an exports-oriented industry, the positioning of the Singapore Girl with her exoticism that appealed to the eye of the Occident indexes the position of Singapore in the process of decolonisation. Both the economic and political positionality of Singapore was beneath the economies of the U.S. or the U.K. The colonial imagery, therefore, plays forth as an advertising tool to draw in the largely western clientele, while it indexes the relative reliance of the country on these markets economically and politically.
The Singapore Girl of the Early 1980s
The Singapore Girl of the early 1980s continued to be characterised by her soft-focus Oriental charm, though there is a tangible shift towards appealing to a local audience. She was portrayed as mysterious while she met and avoided the gaze of the viewer, feeding the trope of the exotic Orient. However, by the mid 1980s, the Singapore Girl was seen as interacting with the community more. The decision to divert from previous iterations of the Singapore Girl advertisements filmed overseas and situate the Singapore Girl back in Singapore – for her to ‘come home’ (Straits Times 1988) – demonstrated the idea of returning to her ‘Asian roots’. Her involvement in the activities of the community, attending a Malay Wedding, listening to an Indian fortune teller, further presented the increased engagement with ‘Asian traditions’. As such, this depiction of the Singapore Girl, while still bearing much of its exotic appeal, strove to localise this exoticism and transpose it to a traditional familiarity.
Studying her portrayal in the 1980s draws stronger links to the local cultural context as there was more effort to sell her in tandem with the Singaporean identity to appeal to local sales (New Nation 1976). By the 1980s, Singapore’s GDP growth rate was one of the fastest in the world, and the increasingly wealthy country meant that local Singaporean consumers were now consumers of the Singapore Girl. This influenced greater Singaporean-ness reflected in her portrayal. Moreover, with the increased economic and political independence of the nation, and as time creates greater distance between the Singapore Girl and her colonial past, there is a greater epistemic and visual assertion of her independence, and, by corollary, the nation.
Singapore Girl in the early 2000s
In the advertisement entitled ‘Singapore Girl Jazz’, filmed in the early 2000s, there is a further detachment from the Singapore Girl as a marketed product with greater inclusion of places to which Singapore Airlines flies. This demonstrates a further detachment from colonialist visualisations of her. This advertisement was distinct due to its more cosmopolitan slant—the Singapore Girl traverses through Sydney, Paris, Singapore and other cities, moving away from the exotic landscapes of temples as in the 1970s or “local culture” as with the 1980s. Nevertheless, the cosmopolitan Singapore Girl retains a desirable quality to her. As the jazz singer croons ‘Wherever in the world I go / Singapore Girl / You are a Great Way to Fly’, the swanky jazz music and the dreamy cinematography still, inadvertently, allude to the exotic desirability of the Singapore Girl.
With its continued detachment from Orientalist imagery, it indexes the lessening appeal of the exotic East in light of a post-colonial world as well as the rising positionality of Singapore in the global economic and political arena. Singapore Airlines was gaining its footing in the global aerospace industry, in tandem with Singapore’s gradual rise in the global economy as one of the four ‘“Asian Tigers’ alongside Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan for their rapidly high growth rates from 1960s to 1990s (Cite?). Beginning January 2001, Singapore was elected into a non-permanent seat in the UN Security Council, reflecting the country’s growing diplomatic and political weight in world affairs. With greater political and economic weight, the country moves deeper into her independence and sovereignty and is, therefore, ‘decolonised’ in the sense that it removes itself even further from the colonial economic and political baggage of its early days, the Orientalist ‘soft focus’ exoticism employed heavily in The Singapore Girl’s early days became a lesser part of her portrayal. As power shifts back into the hands of the decolonised to create their own narrative, the narrative and creation of the Singaporean Girl as an iconic object also shifts to appeal to the gaze of the Singaporean ‘native’—presenting her as cosmopolitan,forward-looking, while indexing the ambitions of the country.
The Singapore Girl of the present is very detached from the Orientalist pop iconicity it enjoyed in the past. Notably, advertisements centred on the charm of the Singapore Girl have not been released in the past decade. However, with the ‘decolonisation’ of the Singapore Girl comes atension that as Singapore moves ahead as an independent nation, the charm and appeal of the Singapore Girl is embedded into our national psyche. In a twisted form of Said’s Orientalism, the Orient, in itself, creates the imaginary landscapes that it fashions itself after. In a Channel 4 documentary, viewers were brought behind the scenes to look at Singapore Airlines’ new training regime. In the video, entitled ‘Does Singapore Airlines Have the Most Intense Cabin Crew Training in the World?’, Foo Juat Fung, Assistant Manager of Cabin Crew Training, remarks on how airline stewardesses ‘will have deportment classes to make sure they walk right. They will have grooming classes to make sure they look right’ (Channel 4 2019 ). This is part of a training regime aiming to deliver maximum customer satisfaction, as Singapore Airlines received second place in Skytrax’s World Best Airline Awards (World Airline Awards 2022). If the Singapore Girl’s customer service and her Oriental charm are congruent ideals, it illustrates how there is an inherent desire for the “charm” of the Singapore Girl to persist despite this charm’s connection to the Orientalist tropes in colonial narratives. There, somehow, lies an uncanny tension whereby the Singapore Girl becomes the vessel where Singapore’s post-colonial identity is asserted and, simultaneously, bears forms and mannerisms of coloniality from which the Singaporean state is distancing itself. As Singaporeans move ahead as an independent nation, the charm and appeal of the Singapore Girl has been embedded into our psyche with regards to the appeal and iconicity of the airlines. In a twisted form of Said’s Orientalism, the Orient in itself creates the imaginary landscapes that it fashions itself after. Instead of viewing them as opposing contradictions, it may do well to recognise how indexed meanings can coexist and be selectively recognised at will.
Given the conflicting and overlapping signification by both the national and the international embedded in the Singapore Girl, the Singapore Girl provides a prime example as to how decolonisation is not the jump between colonised and un-colonised, but a messy process of meaning-making and symbol-creation as a nation that moves from colonised to decolonised. Singaporeans can love the Singapore girl as iconic of their national airline, while recognising the Orientalist tropes that she embodies as well. To a certain extent, the many conflicting and overlapping iconic identities the Singapore Girl negotiates—as national icon, as an exotic good to be desired, as an air stewardess onboard an airline—reflects the intersectionality between economy, society and politics in decolonisation.
The Singapore Girl of 2023 is very detached from the pop cultural iconicity it enjoyed in the past. In fact, Singapore Girl-centred advertisements have not been released in the past decade. While the femininity of the Singapore Girl may no longer be the forefront of what defines her today, the changing configurations of femininity of the Singapore Girl embody a country’s evolving expectations of itself, the decolonisation process, and perhaps a ‘taking-back’ of the Singapore Girl’s narrative by Singaporeans as an assertion of her and the country’s independence. If anything, Singaporeans have claimed the Singapore Girl as an ultimate assertion of post-colonial identity, that despite her colonial roots, the Singapore Girl is very much a Singaporean Girl.
Bei Le Ng is a second-year HSPS student at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge, with a great enthusiasm for Anthropology and Politics. Having been raised in Singapore and remembering the fond memories her national carrier had given her, she sometimes likes to over-analyse their advertisements in her free time.
Batey, I. 2002. Asian Branding : A Great Way to Fly. Singapore: Pearson Education Asia.
Channel 4 Documentaries. 2019. ‘Does Singapore Airlines have the Most Intense Cabin Crew Training in the World?’ (available online: https://youtu.be/z8BnbjCPLFw, accessed 25 Jan 2023)
Chapkis, W. 1986. ‘Skin Deep’. In Beauty Secrets: Women and the Politics of Appearance. South End Press, 56-57.
New Singapore Girl ad. (1988, April 20). Straits Times.