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

Dr Toyin Agbetu.
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The Problem

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

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

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

The Rationale

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

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

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

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

Colonial Roots 

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

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

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

The Benefits 

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

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

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

A Conclusion 

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

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

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

Jẹ Ireti (be optimistic). 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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