Look! Anthropologists apply this one simple trick to get the results they want

A “Stop Adani” protest, 2018

You’ve been lured this far by a clickbait title, so I’m going to use this space to talk about something that I find exciting in current anthropology; activists who are using ethnography to reinforce their social justice agendas.

This seems against the aims of anthropology though?! Can you even be an activist and an anthropologist? My feeling is that anthropology actually has a distinct capacity to take a stance and make change in the world, through the practice of ethnography.

First, lets take a trip back a few years when the anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes rejected anthropology’s aspirations for extreme cultural relativism and objectivity, 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 the sides of the oppressor and the oppressed, and to not act in the face of suffering is to take the side of the oppressor. Scheper-Hughes believes it seems like a perpetuation of the colonial underpinnings of anthropology when ethnographers try to only be objective and detached from the communities they study.

Since Scheper-Hughes’ call for a militant anthropology, Juris has argued that anthropologists also have a role in alleviating oppression by using ethnography as a tool to build better resistance movements (2008). What Juris and other activist anthropologists advocate for is creating a feedback loop in ethnography, where the data is circulated within the community of participants to improve their practice. This could be a way of bringing anthropology back to a grounded level, rather than the problematic cycle of extracting knowledge from participants for audiences in the ivory tower of academia. Activists use the anthropological delights of thick description and complete participant observation, as insider ethnographers. This means that they can give feedback about social organisation and effective communication to activist communities that they usually already belong to. This type of ethnography is called “ethnography of resistance” (Urla & Helepololei 2014, 431) and the subjects of these studies are usually participants in resistance movements against capitalism and neo-liberal globalisation. Ethnography is a perfect tool for improving social justice movements, it shows the nuanced lives and interactions of subjects whilst also highlighting places where collective effervescence could be strengthened. The very practice of ethnography is a model of how to build a better world, it involves trying to understand and work with other people, and then giving their ideas back, “not as prescriptions, but as contributions, possibilities—as gifts” (Graeber 2004, 11). Some recent examples of activist ethnographers include Graeber (2002,  2009), Maeckelbergh (2018), Juris (2008) and Tominaga (2017).

Activist ethnography is distinguished from other types of ethnography through the position of the ethnographer, for example ethnographers who are activists will usually observe as a complete participant, whilst being very explicit about their position as a member of the group they are studying.  Many anthropologists in activist spaces also choose to not do interviews, because the participants do not want to be “subjects”, or because there are power imbalances in interviews that do not work well in anti-hierarchical organising collectives. It could also be because subjects are in positions where they need to remain anonymous. Another way of making ethnography more accessible to social movements is by publishing them in journals that don’t necessitate institutional access. It can involve using forms that aren’t journals to distribute them easily, including zines, social media and blogs… come and join the ranks of your fellow anthro-blog-ists!

David Graeber is an anthropologist who writes with thick description as opposed to using a lot of theory. His works are largely focussed on accessibility, targeting a popular audience. For example, Graeber’s ethnography “Direct Action” depicts the social relations of the Occupy Wall Street movement, whilst avoiding jargon and theory dumps in the text (2009). His vision for anthropology is that it could create a constant dialogue between the ethnographic project and the utopian vision (Graeber 2004, 12).

I’m excited at the possibility that activists can use ethnography and claim it as a grounded method to build a better world, rather than just watching the problems of the world from a distance. Anthropology also has a place in resisting the problems of colonialism and capitalism that it once contributed to.  


Graeber, D. 2004, Fragments of an anarchist anthropology. Prickly Paradigm Press ; distributed by University of Chicago 

Graeber, D. 2009, Direct action. [electronic resource] : an ethnography. AK Press.

Juris, J. 2008, Networking Futures: The Movements Against Corporate Globalisation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Maeckelbergh, M., 2018, “Don’t Get Arrested!” Trust, Miscommunication, and Repression at the 2008 Anti-G8 Mobilization in Japan. Political and Legal Anthropology Reveiw, 41(1). Pp 124-141.

McCurdy, P., & Uldam, J. 2014, Connecting Participant Observation Positions: Toward a Reflexive Framework for Studying Social Movements. Field Methods26(1), 40–55. 

Scheper Hughes, N. 1995, “The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology.” Current Anthropology 36: 3.

Sutherland, N., 2013, Social movements and activist ethnography. Organization, 20(4). Pp 1-45

Urla, J. Helepololei, J. 2014, “The Ethnography of Resistance Then and Now: On Thickness and Activist Engagement in the Twenty-First Century.” History and Anthropology: Rethinking Resistance in the 21st Century. Volume 25, Issue 4.Pp 431-451

2 thoughts on “Look! Anthropologists apply this one simple trick to get the results they want”

  1. […] You don’t have to do participant observation in a faraway place, you can do it in your own community. There are different types of participant observation, ranging from complete involvement, where the researcher is already a member of the group, to passive involvement. For some more information about how complete participant observation is used by activists, see this post. […]


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