A few lessons learned from Anthropology’s past

This history of anthropology as a discipline is rife with unethical and dehumanising intentions and methodologies. I think it’s important as student anthropologists to learn from this history—but not to let it get us down too much about the possibilities of the discipline! I know I have had my doubts and felt sheepish to say I was studying anthropology when entering Indigenous studies classes for example, knowing full well how anthropologist’s have been complicit as agents of colonial exploitation and of the genocide of many Indigenous peoples. There are reasons why it has been said that anthropology is the ‘handmaiden’ and ‘child’ of Western imperialism (Gough 1967).

Napoleon Chagnon, is an infamous anthropologist known for his study on the Yanomami people from the Amazon on the border of Brazil and Venezuela, and his book The Fierce People (1968) which falsely described the Yanomami as an essentially violent people (Tierney 2000, p.52). Chagnon’s case is a perfect example an anthropologist who sets out into the field with a ‘scientific’ theory they want to prove (in this case that there is natural selection towards violence in humans), and as a consequence causes insurmountable harm to the subjects of the research and also causes far-reaching, political consequences (Geertz 2001, pp.129-130). His methods to prove this theory were equally as unethical as his intentions. Namely, Chagnon bribed individuals with machetes and axes in exchange for their ‘tribal secrets’ or in exchange for violating their ‘tribal taboos’ (Tierney 2000, p.55), and staged fights between Yanomami for documentary purposes, which then became real fights and but he touted that the whole thing was ‘real’ (Tierney 2000, p.59; Geertz 2001, p.126). Chagnon wanted to confine the Yanomami in a nature reserve where only the only interaction they would have with the outside world would be with scientists who treated them like lab rats (Tierney 2000, p.60).  With the help of Dr. James Neel, Chagnon tested live measles vaccines. When an epidemic broke out that killed large numbers of Yanomami people, Chagnon was quoted saying: ‘That’s not our problem. We didn’t come here to save the Indians. We came here to study them.’ (Tierney 2000, p.60).

Here are also two examples of Yanomami people speaking back: (1) Davi Kopenawa Yanomami (2) Yanomami ask for their blood back (video below)

Is it really worth studying a group of people if you are not doing anything to improve their quality of life or help them make changes in their world that they want to make? I don’t think so.

And this has happened closer to home too. Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer, who has a building named after him at the University of Melbourne, was one of the first anthropologists to study Indigenous Australians in the late 19th century. While his work on their genealogies is still being used today to help in Central Australian land claims, he carried out his anthropological work with a eugenicist mindset (Dobbin 2015). He believed that Indigenous Australians were a race that was ‘doomed to die a slow death to make way for a new super white race’ (Dobbin 2015) and his recommendations to remove Indigenous children from their families at an early age directly influenced the Australian government’s genocidal policies of forced child removals between 1910-1970, which caused the Stolen Generations (Cummings, Blockland & La Forgia 1997, pp. 25-27).

Aims for a better anthropology:

  1. Avoid ethnocentrism, but remember that anthropology is not an ‘objective’ science (if such thing exists), and so every anthropologist much be self-reflexive about the position in which they inhabit and that positions relationship to power.
  2. I would say generally avoid deductive research methods–top-down research approaches that attempt to confirm a pre-formed theory i.e. what Chagnon did. Instead, inductive research methods–bottom-up research approaches that go from observation to broader generalisations of theory can be more useful and ethical. Besides, anthropology is all about being surprised by what you find. You can’t be really surprised if you go in with a theory to prove.
  3. Let’s all work to decolonise this discipline – remember and make others aware its deeply imperial, colonial, racist, genocidal past – and move forward to actually work with the people we study particularly if they are Indigenous peoples or other marginalised groups.


Cummings, B, Blockland, J, La Forgia R 1997, ‘Lessons from the Stolen Generations Litigation’, Adelaide Law Review, vol. 19, pp. 25-44.

Dobbin, M 2015, ‘Heart of darkness: Melbourne University’s racist professors’, The Age, 27 November, <https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/heart-of-darkness-melbourne-universitys-racist-professors-20151127-gl9whm.html&gt;

Geertz, C 2001, ‘Live among the Anthros’, The New York Review, vol. 48, no. 2, pp. 18-22.

Gough, K 1967, Anthropology and imperialism, Ann Arbor: Radical Education Project.

Tierney, P 2000, ‘The Fierce Anthropologist’, The New Yorker, 9 October.

See also:

Ferguson, B 2015, ‘History, explanation, and war among the Yanomami: A response to Chagnon’s Noble Savages’, Anthropological Theory, vol. 15, no. 4, p. 377-406.

8 thoughts on “A few lessons learned from Anthropology’s past”

  1. […] First, lets take a trip back a few years when the Anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes rejected the extreme cultural relativism and objectivity in this discipline, in favour of taking a moral stance in her ethnographic fieldwork (1995). She endeavoured to stand in solidarity with the communities she was studying, by being a witness to suffering and exploitation. Scheper-Hughes entered Brazil initially as an aid worker, which involved working with the community to ensure better infrastructure, workers rights and healthcare. Then later on in her life, she re-entered this same community as an anthropologist, but she felt disillusioned at the pressure to remain a detached and objective observer. Her work shows that there are only the sides of there are only two sides of the oppressor and the oppressed, and to not act on suffering is to take the place of the oppressor. She believes that always trying to be an objective ethnographer feels like like a perpetuation of the colonial underpinnings of anthropology. […]


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