The Elephant in The Anthropological Room

In the ‘Anthropological Room’ (or space), there are multiple peer-reviewed journals publishing new and upcoming anthropological research with various aims from ‘what it is to be human’, ‘ethnology’ to ‘critical analysis’. Had I known of these resources in my first year of anthropology, I would have been able to peruse through multiple journal volumes and discover my love for the anthropology of nature much sooner – because if we’re being honest, I was never entirely sure what the scope of ‘anthropology’ really covered.

Recently, I was introduced to a new academic journal that I hadn’t come across before when I was discussing colonialism with my supervisor. It is named, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. This is an international, peer-reviewed anthropology journal that seeks to situate ethnographic material “at the forefront of conceptual developments in the discipline” (HAU Journal 2017, p.1). To the novice anthropologist, such as myself, it sounds like a fine and dandy resource to keep up to date with emerging anthropological research! But wow, on further investigation it sure does have some problematic practices and colonial underpinnings.

On the home page, the journal explains its name as:

Source

In Mauss’ classic work, The Gift, he included the Māori example of the ‘the hau of the gift’. He interpreted the ‘hau’ as the spiritual force of the giver in the gift, which demanded to be returned (Mauss 1925). However, his interpretation of ‘hau’ completely excluded Māori voices. His work is an explicit illustration of the Eurocentric appropriation of Indigenous knowledges and cultural belief systems that have, for so long, been a dark feature (or the elephant in the room) of anthropology.

On June 18th, 2018, a group of Māori anthropology scholars wrote an open letter to HAU. They asserted that the lack of acknowledgement for the term Hau – being taken from Māori culture – exhibited “an absence of ethics of care, respect, inclusiveness and openness within HAU’s leadership” (Mahi Tahi 2018, p.1). The scholars further questioned whether the journal upheld the spirit, understandings and ethos of the Hau concept in their practices. The journal responded, providing a justification for their appropriation of the term:

“Although this Maori concept has become anthropologist’s common parlance, HAUshould have consulted you before using it” (Ibid).

HAU’s unethical practices are unsurprising given the wider controversy surrounding the journal, involving issues with the practices of the journal’s management and their lack of response to public critiques. However, this was an extremely disappointing moment for the anthropology world, particularly as it undermined all decolonial efforts that many scholars had been engaging in. HAU have merely extended the appropriation and colonisation of Indigenous knowledges that Mauss established in his work by further misappropriating it as a marketing, and thus economic, tool for the popularisation of the journal.

The cultural appropriation practices of HAU spark broader concerns about how we can continue shifting the colonial patterning of anthropology. For many students just entering and exploring the anthropology discipline, this can be a daunting task. 

I believe it is our responsibility – particularly those self-locating as white settlers – to engage consciously and directly with Indigenous peoples. We must continually learn what practices can be integrated to best rectify the harm that continues to be inflicted against their communities in academia.

I am no expert in what decolonisation should look like or how it should be engaged with; but Indigenous scholars, Jeff Corntassel, Rita Dhamon and Zoe Todd, have suggested practical ways we can work towards this in academia. To monitor your personal ethics as beginner anthropologists, I would recommend actively incorporating at least two of their points into your work:

  • Self-location: We must self-locate to the conceptions of “settler” and settler colonialism (Snelgrove, Dhamoon and Corntassel 2014). This involves articulating (in your research, essays and day-to-day lives) how you situate yourself and your awareness of the colonial occupations of Indigenous lands (see my bio for an example).
  • Centring Indigenous scholars: As stated by Zoe Todd (2017), it is our responsibility as anthropologists to centre Indigenous scholars to “disrupt the privileging of euro-colonial thinking over Indigenous praxis”. We must not conceptualise Indigenous thought through a euro-colonial and philosophical lens. Instead, we must incorporate and centre Indigenous thinkers in our academic work to de-stabilise the Euro-American anthropologists that have been conventionally relied upon for the understanding of Indigenous philosophies.

*side note: the journal still has not, one year later, revised the description of their name on the website to recognise the Māori origins of the Hau concept (yikes…).*.


References:

Davis, H. and Todd, Z 2017, ‘On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene’, ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, vol. 16, no.4.

Mahi Tahi 2018, ‘An Open Letter to the Hau Journal’s Board of Trustees’, accessed 5 June 2019, <https://www.asaanz.org/blog/2018/6/18/an-open-letter-to-the-hau-journals-board-of-trustees>.

Mauss, M 1925, The gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. Routledge.

Snelgrove, C., Dhamoon, R.K. and Corntassel, J 2014, ‘Unsettling settler colonialism: The discourse and politics of settlers, and solidarity with Indigenous nations’, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol.3, no.2.

See Also: Imo’s A few lessons learned from Anthropology’s past; Lani’s Cultural Appropriation & Cake? A Bittersweet Analogy; Rob’s Acknowledgement of Country; Dyan’s “Go Back To Where You Came From!”: An Anthropological Look at Linnaeus, Taxonomy and Classification

See also:

My favourite anthropology journals:

American Anthropologist

Critique of Anthropology

Cultural Anthropology

Current Anthropology

Journal of Ecological Anthropology

2 thoughts on “The Elephant in The Anthropological Room”

  1. […] To qualify this statement, it’s important to emphasise that such a conversation could come in many forms. It could be a conversation between a student and the anthropology of gender about possibilities and alternatives (hyperlink to gender article). It could also be a similar discussion on a much larger scale. A notable example is Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, which stimulated a public discussion in the United States in the late 1920s around the perceived difficulties of adolescence (Shankman 2009, p. 116). It’s important, in having such a conversation, to think about who might be excluded or not listened to. […]

    Liked by 1 person

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