Sophie Chao, ‘Decanonizing the Field’

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 towards achieving 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? 

Progressive teaching 

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).

‘Plantation Worlds’ by Sophie Sapp Moore and Aida Arosoaie.

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.’

Citational politics

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


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.

First Nations Initiative. n.d. ‘101 Ways to Disrupt Your Thinking’.

Gegeo, David W., and Karen A. Watson-Gegeo. 2002. ‘Whose Knowledge? Epistemological Collisions in Solomon Islands Community Development’. The Contemporary Pacific 14 (2): 377–409.

Guarasci, Bridge, Amelia Moore, and Sarah E. Vaughn. 2018. ‘Citation Matters: An Updated Reading List for a Progressive Environmental Anthropology’. Fieldsights. 2018.

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.

Hau’ofa, Epeli. 1975. ‘Anthropology and Pacific Islanders’. Oceania 45 (4): 283–89.

hooks, bell. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice to Freedom. London: Routledge.

Ikehara, Sam, Hi’ilei J. K. Hobart, Erin Suzuki, and Aimee Bahng. 2021. ‘The Transpacific in Relation: Anticolonial Solidarities and Feminist Collaboration’. Center-to-Center Relationalities: At the Nexus of Pacific Islands Studies and Trans-Pacific Studies. 2021.

Jobson, Ryan C. 2020. ‘The Case for Letting Anthropology Burn: Sociocultural Anthropology in 2019’. American Anthropologist 122 (2): 259–71.

Koshy, Susan, Lisa M. Cacho, Jodi A. Byrd, and Jordan Jefferson, eds. 2022. Colonial Racial Capitalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Liboiron, Max. 2021. Pollution Is Colonialism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Makhulu, Anne-Maria B., and Christen A. Smith. 2022. ‘#CiteBlackWomen’. Cultural Anthropology 37 (2): 177–81.

McGranahan, Carole. 2022. ‘Theory as Ethics’. American Ethnologist 49 (3): 289–301.

Sapp Moore, Sophie, and Aida Arosoaie. 2022. ‘Plantation Worlds’. Fieldsights. 2022.

Stewart-Harawira, Makere. 2013. ‘Challenging Knowledge Capitalism: Indigenous Research in the 21st Century’. Socialist Studies 9 (1): 39–51.

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.

Tsing, Anna L., Jennifer Deger, Alder K. Saxena, and FeiFei Zhou. 2021. ‘Feral Atlas: Teaching’. 2021.

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.