Anthropology and Colonialism (Part 3): Ethics, Ontology and Cosmopolitical Peace

Skip forward from anthropology’s colonial beginnings, through its emancipatory movements of cultural relativism and structuralism, and through the period of postcolonial and reflexive critique – in our contemporary era, anthropology has come a long way.

Many of the considerations of colonialist thinking; racism, ethnocentrism and exploititative behaviour of any kind, have become subsumed into the general field of ethics and equity (Kohn, 2012). As sites of constant investigation, ethics and equity studies in theory assure a process of continual decolonisation.

Like with Indigenous affairs in Australia, it is not just political good-will and do-goodery that assures decolonisation of anthropological method (Foley, 2012), precisely because Postcolonial critique demonstrates that racism and colonial mentalities are deep ontological instincts which are difficult to understand and change. A powerful aspect of the anthropology of recent years of the so-called ‘Ontological Turn’ (Holbraad and Pederson, 2017) is in the way it gives primacy to thinking about the reality of different cultural metaphysical systems (Viveiros de Castro, 1998). Tylor and Malinowski were certainly ahead of their day, but as we have seen their thought was still steeped in divisive assumptions. Boaz and Lévi-Strauss also, despite their enlightened understanding, still accepted the a priori status of the Western objectivist view of reality which, in the end, represents a form of dominating, colonial thinking (Bird-David 1999).

‘Ontological Turn’ anthropology is based upon the influences of Melanesianists Roy Wagner and Marilyn Strathern, each representing the American and British ‘cultural’ and ‘social’ anthropological traditions respectively, and the Brazilian Viveiros de Castro, who being Fracophone draws upon and thus largely represents the French anthropological tradition, of Lévi-Strauss, Marcel Maus and others (Holbraad and Pederson, 2017). In treating Indigenous metaphysics on their own terms and by asking reflexive ontological questions, this new kind of anthropology theoretically represents a decolonial progression towards anthropology as a ‘science (for) the ontological self-determination of the world’s peoples’ (Viveiros de Castro 2002), and a ‘permanent decolonisation of thought’ (Viveiros de Castro, 2013).

The science-based writings of Stengers (2010), Haraway (2007) and Latour (2017) speak in similar terms about a cosmopolitical imaginary; a sense of epistemological and ontological peace which ameliorates both colonial and biological forms of domination. Engaging in ‘ontological thinking’ is a means to understand how our own categories about nature, science, thought and human culture, as Westerners, exist in parallel with other Indigenous ways of knowing and being. By intellectually encountering the Other with a shared sense of respect, we thus allow our own anthropological and ontological categories to be impressed upon by those of Others – in this case, the culture and traditions of the non-Western world. This allows for a radical decolonisation of thinking, a departure from a sense of Western intellectual hubris, and the possibility to participate intellectually with others with a sense of mutual reciprocity (Holbraad et al, 2014).

Critics of Viveiros de Castro and others of the ‘ontological turn’ suggest that this new kind of anthropology isn’t new at all, but merely the same emancipatory, power-dismantling and decolonizing intellectual work that has been at the core of anthropology for decades (Turner, 2009). Other critics such as Todd (2016) suggest that even with decolonial anthropology, more emphasis is needed on the importance of Indigenous scholarship. Todd’s observation echoes a general move towards a generalised remembering of anthropology’s colonialist beginnings, and a call for greater receptivity and collaboration with Indigenous communities and Indigenous scholarship; communities who in the context of anthropology have always been silenced, and spoken for.

Todd has extended her critique further, reminding us of the relationship between theory and application, and how removed academic anthropologists continuing to speak about Indigenous people without their collaboration is from reality, and how utterly colonialist the academic and institutional culture remains today. There is a necessity therefore for a constant engagement with, and respect for, Indigenous communities; who have been, regardless of all of the positive and emancipatory history of anthropology given here, historically the silent objects of the White anthropological gaze. Lest anthropology remain, ‘a room full of white people sitting around talking about people of colour’ (Todd, 2018). These considerations are vividly explored with great practicality in Linda Tuhiwai-Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies (1999); an essential text, now 20 years old, for the ethical practice of ethnographic work today.

With all the above, it is safe to say that as the years have gone by anthropology has transformed a great deal. Whether or not we can even speak anymore about it as a singular discipline, opens up the question as to the existence of many anthropologies in our decolonial age (Boškovic, 2010). In conclusion, in returning to narrative of the colonial encounter, perhaps anthropologists were never merely the servants of colonial powers whose job it was to uphold racialised hierarchies to justify colonial expansion. Or maybe most of them were?

Regardless, the fact remains that there was a parallel and heterodox history which is important to remember – a history of anthropologists, like our own Donald Thomson, as dissenters and radicals; who slipped through the cracks of unjust colonial systems and were present, at the forefront, in the intellectual fight to challenge racism, domination and the intellectual culture of the Colonial age. Anthropology always has been concerned with making sense of otherness, to make the ‘strange familiar’ as the adage goes; and it seems there is work still to be done!


Boškovic, A. (2010) Other People’s Anthropologies: Ethnographic Practice on the Margins. New York: Bergahn Books.

Bird‐David, N. (1999) ‘”Animism” Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology’, in Current Anthropology. 40 (S1) Special Issue Culture, February 1999, S67-S91. The University of Chicago Press.

Foley, G. (2012) ‘Memoriam to my Friend and Mentor: Bruce McGuinness’, in Tracker Magazine. 10th October, 2012. Accessed 10th June 2019 <>

Haraway, D. (2007) When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Holbraad, M., Pederson M. A., & Viveiros de Castro (2014) The Politics of Ontology: Anthropological Positions, in The Politics of Ontology. Society for Cultural Anthropology, June 13 (2014). Accessed 11th June <;

Holbraad, M. & Pederson, M. A. (2017) The Ontological Turn: An Anthropological Exposition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kohn, T. (2017) On the Shifting Ethics and Contexts of Knowledge Production, in The Ethics of Knowledge-Creation. 1, 76 – 97.

Latour, B. (2017) Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. London: Polity Press.

Stengers, I. (2010) Cosmopolitics I+2. University of Minnesota Press.

Said, E. (1978) Orientalism. New York: Pantheon.

Todd, Z. (2016) ‘An Indigenous Feminist’s Take On The Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word For Colonialism’, in Academic Freedom and the Contemporary Academy. 29 (1) 4-22.

Todd, Z. (2018) ‘The Decolonial Turn 2.0: the reckoning’, in Anthrodendum, June 15th, 2018. Accessed 10th June, 2019 <;

Tuhiwai-Smith, L. (1999) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (2nd ed). London: Zed Books.

Turner, T. (2009) ‘The Crisis of Late Structuralism. Perspectivism and Animism: Rethinking Culture, Nature, Spirit, and Bodiliness’, in Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America. 7 (1) 3-42.

Viveiros de Castro, E. (2002) ‘The Relative Native’, translated by Julia Sauma and Martin Holbraad, in HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. 3 (3, 2013) 473–502. First published in 2002.

Viveiros de Castro, E.(2013) Cannibal Metaphysics, transl. Peter Skafish. New York: Univocal.

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