Decolonising Anthropology, ‘The Cambridge Decolonise Social Anthropology Society (DecAnthSoc)’

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


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.

Johnson, A. 2017. ‘Violence and Vulnerability in Anthropology’. Allegra Lab, 5 October.

DiAngelo, D. R. 2018. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Beacon Press. 

Legacies of Enslavement Inquiry (Report). 2022. University of Cambridge. Available at:

Mogstad, H. and Tse, L-S. 2018. Decolonizing Anthropology. The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, Autumn 2018, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 53-72. 

Mbembe, A.J. (2015) ‘Decolonizing knowledge and the question of the archive’, Forms the basis of a series of public lectures given at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER), University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, University of Cape Town and University of Stellenbosch. Available at:

Navaro-Yashin, Y. 2012. The Make-Believe Space: Affective Geography in a Postwar Polity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.