In the last couple of years melbourne and sydney have seen the closure of many of their queer nightclubs, including clubs MercatBasement, which closed in 2017 (Webb 2016), and Hugs & Kisses and Lounge, which closed just this year (Buckley 2019). Developers and hospitality groups are buying up these venues with 24-hour licences (Buckley 2018; 2019). As a result of changing policy and laws, such as the removal of liquor and sounds licenses that stop venues being able to stay open, sell alcohol, and play music late at night, it has become more difficult to open new queer nightclubbing spaces. According to the owner of Hugs & Kisses, Hugo Atkins, ‘It seems like it’s getting harder and harder for these sorts of things to exist … thinking about what certain scenes and cultures are going to do and not having a place to express themselves is quite sad for a city like Melbourne.’ (Buckley 2019).
these scenes and why are they important?
These scenes are communities of practice, and spaces for collective effervescence, but more importantly spaces for marginalised people, especially queer and gender diverse people and people of colour, to come together and find safe spaces to create community. Yes, nightclubs are known for being spaces of risky behaviour, such as sex and drug taking. But, I think, more importantly, they are also spaces of free form dancing where you are ‘forced to occupy your body—to take up space, and to navigate other bodies’, says DJ Sezzo (Bugg 2018). Clubbing culture offers both something fundamental to being human—dancing and moving to a rhythm (LaMothe 2019) and something radical in that it is ‘process of shaping an encounter through the collective inscription of individual subjectivity’ (Bugg 2018). This second point means that it is a radical space where expression of difference is fundamental to constructing community (Bugg 2018).
These clubs are also liminal spaces of queer expression (Olds & DJ Sezzo 2018). Prominent melbourne DJ and clup theoriest, DJ Sezzo, believes that beyond self-expression, these places are places of community and resistance (Thompson 2018). Resistance to the dominant hetero-normative culture. Resistance to the dominant white colonial structure. Resistance in the form of bringing marginalised people together and creating a space where they can ‘experience each other in a joyful way’, says DJ Sezzo (Thompson 2018). Resistance by queering the city. And resistance, I would argue, in contributing to creating activist communities that extend beyond the club, communities that challenge the State, communities that, as I myself have experienced, go out and support Indigenous lead protests such as the protection of the Djab Wurrung trees.
DJ Brooke Powers long time resident of the club Hugs & Kisses reflects saying, ‘We knew it was our space and we could be whoever we wanted to be.’ (Buckley 2019). What happens when these spaces are shut down? It is yet to be seen in melbourne what the community response will be.
NB: I have purposefully not capitalised ‘melbourne’ and ‘sydney’ in order to deligitimise these names of colonisers on land that always was and always will be Aboriginal land.
You’ve been very solemn there in the corner, Squid, and I’d like to hear your thoughts on the term “Capitalocene” and what it means for the people who write about humans and non humans?
First allow me to introduce myself. I am the envoy of Donna Haraway, who is a dear friend of my squid squad. Haraway also agrees with you, Spider, that the term Anthropocene avoids calling out capitalism and also puts too much emphasis on humans (2015, 159). Donna always says that language how we build our world, and unfortunately the name of the Anthropocene puts humans in the middle of it (Haraway et al 2016, 538).
Donna Haraway uses a multitude of terms, including the “Capitalocene”, the “Plantationcene” and the “Chthulucene” (Haraway et al 2016). The Plantationcene is an effort to acknowledge that the destructive habits of humans do not only date back to the onset of industrial capitalism. They actually began with the earlier colonialist history that fed into capitalism, where slave labour was used to exploit land for agricultural and mineral purposes. Yet Donna is often criticised for being too political for using the term “Capitalocene” and “Plantationcene”. Humans are strange creatures like this, they try to evade any kind of responsibility, but Haraway actually says that the responsibility of humans is also a “response- ability” (2015, 164).
Humans need to work out how to live with their non-human kin. In fact, in Donna Haraway’s recent book the “Chthulucene manifesto” she has even said that we could even call this present era the “Chthulucene” rather than the “Anthropocene”. This is not actually to honour our leader Cthulhu, but it is to show that humans actually have tentacles (and webs and roots) in the non-human world. When humans study and write about the world, they should make an effort to include the narratives of all entities like us, mushrooms, spiders and squid. I don’t just want to hear the old trees and polar bear narrative. Just look at what is happening with the sixth Great Extinction of plants and animals, maybe a better name for this period is just ‘the trouble’ (Haraway et al 2016, 537).
Haraway says that people are hesitant to act because they haven’t read the newest critique of the system (Terranova 2016). This is one of the problems with academia, it is easy from those academics to say that you don’t know how the world works, because you haven’t read a particular theory and you are just a student, or a taxi driver, or a mushroom, or a spider. The most important thing is that people are recognising that the current system is destructive, even if they don’t have the most fully developed critique of it. What we need to focus on is less on having a perfect vision of what is going on right now and turn towards where we could be going, looking at the possibilities of life on Earth. Science fiction and speculative anthropology are ways of accomplishing this vision, which is why Haraway often works with science fiction writers and anthropologists to create stories for Earthly survival (Terranova 2016).
What I am proposing is a call-to-action for our human kin to respond to this climate emergency and resist individualist or human-centred ways of depicting the world. Otherwise there will be grave and perhaps even chthonic consequences for all of us, a true Cthulu eruption of doomsday proportions! Beware!
What you are saying seems very morbid, Squid, but I agree with you. Imagining a shared future can be a useful way of acting in the present to avoid the worst of this oncoming storm. My mycelium networks have been retelling a lecture by Bruno Latour, who says that even though the apocalypse is a bit of a literary trope, the only way to move humans to respond to this storm is by telling stories. By the way, where is our friend the ant, who always brings messages of hope from Bruno Latour?
An ANT scurries in, late to the gathering, but carrying a message of hope from Bruno Latour:
So sorry I’m late. It’s so hard to get anywhere on time on the antway, it’s only one lane. I do come bearing a gift for the anthropologists in the room, that is, from my colleague Bruno Latour, who sends his regards.I know you may have your criticisms of the Anthropocene, but really it is an amazing gift. In the age of the Anthropocene, we are acknowledging that humans are quite literally re-shaping the earth (Latour 2014). The links between humans and non-humans are no longer merely the objects of symbolism and myth (Latour 2014). Many hard scientists are realising they too need to ponder the relationship between physical and cultural anthropology, and the blurring of nature and culture (Latour 2014). The Anthropocene has destabilised the hierarchy between hard sciences and social sciences, relieved anthropologists somewhat of having to question: ‘Are we an art or a science?’ and brought a greater appreciation for the multispecies anthropological work anthropologists like Anna Tsing are doing. Isn’t this exciting?!
Yes it most certainly is. More enthusiasm for interdisciplinary collaboration is a gift of the Anthropocene. If we compare disciplines to genres, it seems even more obvious (Haraway D et al. 2016, p. 553)! Imagine one discipline is a science fiction novel and the other a mystery novel (Haraway D et al. 2016, p. 553). There’d be no reason to doubt we could have a science fiction mystery novel, would there be (Haraway D et al. 2016, p. 553)?
That’s very true, Mushroom. And this sort of collaboration is already happening at AURA (Aarhus University Research on the Anthropo-cene) (Latour et al. 2018, p. 598), which is a hopeful outcome, one that shows us that there isn’t even ‘interdisciplinarity’ in the same sense any more, because there are no longer two sides. In the Anthropocene there is no longer a physical and a cultural side–and humans are the center for everyone and for no one. (Latour 2014). And Bruno is very excited about the opportunity for collaborative work with geo-scientists because their science ‘is not a science of the globe, it is a highly local, pluralised, multiple kind of science (Latour2014b)’ (Latour et al. 2018, p. 597). The epistemology of the globe is what got us in the mess we are in. This epistemology is why perhaps Platationocene is a more productive term to describe this era (Latour et al. 2018, p. 591). Bruno would agree with Donna that the Plantationocene is both useful for the reasons you have stated, Squid, but also because, and I think Anna would agree, ‘it refers to a certain, historically specific, way of appropriating the land, namely an appropriation of land as if land was not there. Plantationocene is a historical ‘de-soilization’ of the Earth’ (Latour et al. 2018, pp. 591-592). The modernist and capitalist project is literally founded on the mass extraction of minerals and plants from the Earth and the removal of people from their lands. Metaphorically humans have also been separated from the Earth with the ideology that humans are outside of nature.
Mushroom: By labeling this new age the Platationocene it shifts our awareness to the need for more analytical work in the field that is ‘soil-rich’, and grounded in the arts of noticing (Latour et al. 2018, pp. 598-599)(Tsing 2015, p. 37). This is what anthropologists do best!
Yes, exactly, this highly local and pluralised sort of work (Latour et al. 2018, p. 597)! Except now, the field has also changed. We know that any field study (be that anthropological) will be ‘studying devastated sites in crisis’ (Latour 2014). But don’t be confused, this is still a message of hope. Latour believes that it is best to think we are in the apocalypse now (Latour et al. 2018, p. 601). And yes the apocalypse may be a bit of a literary trope, but rather than being catastrophising, apocalyptic thinking spurs us into action (Latour et al. 2018, pp. 603-604). We are not living in the indifferent time ‘after’ an apocalyptic time, nor are we ignorantly waiting for the apocalypse to happen in the future, but we are in it now (Latour et al. 2018, p. 601). The arrival of the Anthropocene as the apocalypse destroys modernization’s ideas about linear progress that fuel capitalism. It also reveals the entanglements, as you might say Mushroom, across space and time of different species to each other as they face extinction (Latour et al. 2018, pp. 604-605). And these entanglements include humans, and as Squid says, the Anthropocene raises the question of human moral and political responsibility (Latour 2014). I think the key question here for scientists (anthropologists included!) is ‘how do we redistribute human agency without being humanist, or post-humanist, or anti-humanist’ while simultaneously humans have become the center of all of our research and the question of what it means to be human has become blurry, as it is now recognised that we are morally tied to what used to be called ‘beyond the human’ (Latour 2014). The gift of the Anthropocene (and perhaps it is a difficult pill to swallow), in short, is that how we define: time, space, and otherness (Latour 2014)–all very important concepts to anthropologists–and consequently how we define anthropology as a discipline needs to change and be reworked!
Terranova, F. (Dir.). 2016. Donna Haraway: Storytelling for Earthly Survival. Icarus Films.
It’s a chilly winter evening and you find yourself in a dimly lit basement bar. Smoke from cigarettes is wafting around the room, and you can hear people clicking their fingers to the soft beats of jazz music. It’s an Anthropo Scene gathering. Some of the most outspoken anthropologists, Anna Tsing, Jason W Moore, Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour were unable to attend this gathering, but they have sent envoys to carry their messages. These envoys seem to be posing as undercover social scientists, wearing ill-fitting hip couture in an effort to blend in. They mingle in a corner discussing topics ranging from philosophy to geology to anthropology and you sit at a table nearby and listen eagerly…
What is the Anthropocene?
Anonymous blob wearing dark glasses and a beret: Well, from my understanding, it is a term that was first proposed by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stroermer to the scientific community in 2000 to describe a new geological epoque for the earth (Raffnsøe 2016, p. 3)(Moore, A. 2015, p. 32). The idea is that we have moved into an era where humans have become the most influential factor in global changes–most notably biodiversity loss, climate change and changes in the earth’s fossil record (Raffnsøe 2016, p. 4). It is contested whether this shift began with the Neolithic introduction of farming or much more recently around the time of the Industrial Revolution which caused a massive increase in carbon dioxide levels (Raffnsøe 2016, p. 4)(Tsing 2015, p.19). The shift has also been marked by the testing of nuclear bombs in mid-20th century which disseminated radioactive isotopes all over the globe (Raffnsøe 2016, p. 4). This era is said to continue today and will continue to shape the earth for an indefinite future…
But tell me, what does that mean for anthropology?
Yes, how did this topic of geological science become so influential to social and political sciences?
Mushroom: Excuse me let me introduce myself. I was bred from an old and deep mycelium, to bring us the message of the Anthropocene anthropologist Anna Tsing. Simply put, in the Anthropocene ‘progress’ stops making sense (2015 p. 25). This view of the world that has been clouded by dreams of progress, science, and advancement is destabilised (Tsing 2015, pp. 20-21). And with it, the Enlightenment dualism between nature and culture and humans and nature is brought into question. This realisation that, in the Anthropocene, humans cause more disturbance to the earth, and by extension non-human beings, than other geological forces means that the distinction between humans and nature is blurred.
Anthropology as a discipline is more important now than ever. The progress mentality that drove humans to look ahead has failed us, and instead we need to start looking around (Tsing 2015, p. 22). We need to revitalize arts of noticing (Tsing 2015, p. 37), like ethnography and anthropology more generally. Anna wants me to pass on the message about the very useful concept of assemblage (Tsing 2015, p. 22). Keeping in mind the concept of assemblage helps us to ask how varied species, human and non-human, influence each other (Tsing 2015, pp. 22-23). The nature of the field has changed. Despite the looming ‘anthropos’ of the Anthropocene that refuses to acknowledge our collaborative survival with non-human beings (Tsing 2015, p. 19), the Anthropocene also forces anthropologists to take note of how the focal subjects our study, humans, are entwined in the lifeways outside of ourselves (Tsing 2015, p. 23). It brings anthropologists an appreciation for multi-species and multi-sited ethnographies. Anna also wanted me to read you this quote from Ursula K. Le Guin:
‘I am not proposing a return to the Stone Age. My intent is not reactionary, nor even conservative, but simply subversive. It seems that the utopian imagination is trapped, like capitalism and industrialism and the human population, in a one-way future consisting only of growth. All I’m trying to do is figure out how to put a pig on the tracks.’ (Tsing 2015, p. 17)
Perhaps the work of anthropologists in the Anthropocene can be that pig on the tracks, to persuade humanity to stop and look around.
Spider: Let me cut in here, I’m a spider who crept out of Jason Moore’s book “Capitalism and The Web of Life”. I’m here to talk about how Jason Moore thinks the concept of the “Anthropocene” needs to be reframed (2015). I agree that what we are seeing an unprecedented climate emergency, but the name “Anthropocene” can be used be humans to evade responsibility and create apathy. We have even seen corporations hijack the word “Anthropocene” by using it as a buzz word to suggest human exceptionalism. For example, look at this article in The Economist where the Anthropocene is elevated as giving “humans an unexpected promotion—to the status of geological movers and shakers” (The Economist 2016). The reason that the planetary life support system is dying is because of capitalism, a political and economic system that values profit and an uneven distribution of resources.
My suggestion is to rename this era the “capitalocene”, but I’m not just arguing “about replacing one word with another” (Moore 2015, 81). We need to reframe the thinking around it as well. Theorists of the Anthropocene are trying to collapse the old dualisms such as nature/culture. Yet placing emphasis on the idea that it is human activity that is destroying an external nature is also dualistic. Humans aren’t an external force that are impacting the natural world, they are inextricably linked together in the earth system, like it’s just one big web. Capitalism as a socio-economic system is also part of this web, and it is the growth of capitalism is what has caused colossal imbalances in the Earth system.
Anthropocene theorists haven’t quite acknowledged this, although they have tried to overcome dualistic thinking by using new terms such as “assemblages”. I disagree that these theoretical tools are able to destabilise the capitalistic categorisation of nature as a resource external to humans. Post modernist concepts such as “assemblage” diffuse knowledge and make it harder to locate the power imbalances that are destroying living systems (Moore 2015, 5). If we describe the source of climate destruction as the entire human race, as the name “Anthropocene” suggests, then the corporations and countries who contribute the most to climate destruction are let off the hook. The worst experiences of the climate emergency will be in countries who don’t have the infrastructure to cope with extreme climates, which is unfair because it is the Global West and large corporations who contribute the most carbon emissions. The term “Capitolocene” highlights these contradictions.
Ethnocentrism – from the Greek ‘ethnos’ and centre
The term was coined in the late 19th Century by the German sociologist Gumplowicz, and soon after popularised by the American sociologist Sumner (Bizumic 2014). Most commonly ethnocentrism is described as a belief that:
One’s own ethnic group or culture is at the centre of everything
One’s own group is superior to other groups, and all other groups are scaled and rated in reference to it (Etinson 2018, p. 210)
What is often called ethnocentrism’s antithesis, cultural relativism, is meant to overcome ethnocentrism and evolutionist beliefs that there are superior and inferior races and cultures.
Everyone is susceptible to ethnocentrism. Like in the video above it can occur in more innocuous ways when we’re like ‘Ewww that’s so weird they do that!,’ but ethnocentrism also occurs in the form of colonialism where people are forced to assimilate into another culture because their culture is deemed morally and otherwise inferior and wrong (Etinson 2018, p. 18).
Another way ethnocentrism is described is not that it is a belief in itself, but that it is a bias that affects the process of forming or maintaining beliefs (Etinson 2018, p.213) . This bias may kick in when:
Someone attempts to interpret and evaluate a phenomenon occurring in another culture with limited cultural experience and understanding of that culture
Someone projects their cultural experience into a foreign cultural practice blinding them to the underlying values of that practice, which may actually familiar
Someone exoticises a foreign culture and over-emphasises differences, sometimes in order to justify colonial domination – two good examples are the early anthropological myth of the ‘noble savage’, and Saïd’s ‘orientalism’
Someone dogmatically holds onto a culturally held belief or opinion, for example the role of human activity in causing global warming, despite evidence to the contrary (Etinson 2018, pp. 214-218).
Anthropocentrism - from the Greek 'anthropos' - 'human being' and centre
Gumplowicz compared the term ethnocentrism to geocentrism, the belief that the earth is at the centre of the universe, and anthropocentrism, the belief that humans are the most important entity on the earth and in the universe (Etinson 2018).
And while I think ethnocentrism a really important concept to think through in anthropology, if we are to think about the current anthropology we also need to be thinking seriously about anthropocentrism (which I wasn’t introduced to until third year anthro).
But what is anthropology without humans at the centre? … Simply, it exists!
This is what I wish I knew about in first year—the multispecies turn, and more-than-human anthropology. It’s an anthropology that fights against anthropocentrism and the false dichotomy between humans and Nature that follows. Humans and human culture does not exist outside of nature. Humans are entangled is ecological relations with all sorts of non-human beings. Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World about the matsutake mushroom is one popular example of an ethnography about these entanglements. In an age that some are calling the Anthropocene we, as anthropologists, need to be more aware than ever of our anthropocentrism!
Bizumic, B 2014, ‘Who Coined the Concept of Ethnocentrism? A Brief Report’, Journal of Social and Political Psychology, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 3-10.
Etinson, A 2018, ‘Some Myths about Ethnocentrism’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 96, no. 2, pp. 209-224.
The notion of what ‘the field’ is in anthropology has been
expanding over the last few decades. As anthropologist Clifford Geertz is
famously quoted saying: ‘The locus of study is not the object of study.
Anthropologists don’t study villages (tribes, towns, neighborhoods…); they
study in villages.’ (1973, p. 22).
Even studying in villages is a bit
antiquated in anthropology these days—many anthropologists study communities of
practice that occur in many locations or studying the webs that link people and
non-human beings across many locations.
But what do anthropologists do if they aren’t researchers in
academia…? Not surprisingly, the work that anthropologists do is similarly
diverse and expanding.
I interviewed (with Lani’s help) four anthropology graduates and asked them what kind of work they are doing now and how their anthropology degrees have helped them. Maybe it was just a coincidence, or maybe it says something about job opportunities available to anthropologists but two of the five people interviewed worked in user experience and two of the four worked in product design. Meet the interviewees:
Studied: a Masters
in design anthropology (applied anthropology)
Works as: a
consultant at a small consultancy Elabor8 on internal employee culture and
engagement and product design.
Previously worked: doing
user experience at Australia Post
Anthropology (Honours) and a post grad diploma in IT.
Works as: a user
experience consultant at an IT company
Previously worked: in
Anthropology and Media & Communications
Works as: a
freelance digital marketer doing marketing and product design
and Social Theory
Works as: a journalist, writer, university journalism teacher and a researcher at the Polish Academy of Sciences working on an argument about contemporary food culture
as an ESL teacher and freelance journalist and as a reporter for
Fairfax Media (before it was taken over by Nine), the Polish Press
Agency and the Guardian
A side note: I realise this is a bit of a long article, but the following are answers from each interview (either in audio format, transcribed, or notes that I took from a conversation that wasn’t recorded) and edited by myself to answer some broad questions that any job seeker may have. Feel free to skip through and follow the thread of a particular person who you find relatable to your interests, or read all the answers to a particular question that interests you! I hope you enjoy and feel a bit more comfy in your outlook for the future–I know it can be scary wondering what you will do after you finish your degree.
Why is anthropology
useful in your work?
Overview: Generally anthropology was seen as useful to people’s work because it has taught them to listen and empathise with other people, to try to understand their behaviour and their lives. This understanding enables the interviewees to solve problems that their customers or clients identify themselves.
Pasquale: ‘Anthropology is really about learning how to understand people, how to understand behaviour, how to understand what’s happening. And more and more organisations now really want to know what’s going on, because they realise now that they haven’t been listening, that they haven’t understood about their clients, their customers, their users. They haven’t even really understood their business all that well. And the great thing about anthropology is it gives you tools like ethnography, and, you know, the way you think about bias and what you are bringing to the work, which I think actually helps companies a lot.’
‘The first step in a design thinking model is you’ve got to empathise
with the people who are the target of your project. Well, how do you do
that? That’s what people learn when you do anthropology: is how to
empathise, how to understand what’s going on, how to make sure you’re
not bringing your biases to your work, how to make sure you can get
information even when you may not have proper access to people. All of
that, they’re all things that anthropologists learn to do and work out
on a regular basis…It’s also important at other points in the model when
you are trying to define the problem. You want to define the problem with
the people, not just make it up as you are going along. When you try
to come up with other ideas, you want to bring the people along, so
that you can brainstorm those ideas. When you are actually prototyping
things, you want to make sure you are including them so they can give
you a sense that this thing is going to work or not. So throughout that
whole design thinking methodology there’s just anthropology at various
points, as far as I’m concerned.
Paulina: ‘I think what anthropology taught me was to always analyse the categories we take for granted. Not everybody lives the same, not everybody eats the same and not everybody dies the same. I see over and over again how normative some journalism/writing/academia can be — constantly reaffirming the same structures and the same processes without looking for the differences and contradictions. I grew up bicultural and bilingual, so I already knew this on some level, but anthropology gave me the necessary disciplinary training to analyse it.’
Are there many other
anthropologists in your field?
Overview: As anthropology graduates, the interviewees generally felt like they were quite unique in their fields, with the exception of user experience, IT, and marketing being growing fields for anthropologists because companies are seeking them out for the skills and knowledge that they bring. People with social work, legal, psychology, sociology, politics, and history backgrounds often do similar types of work to anthropologists. An anthropology degree can bring an advantageous edge that others don’t have because anthropologists ask different kinds of questions, use different sorts of methods and get different results.
on I would have said there weren’t that many, but I think what’s happening now
particularly in areas like IT, people are looking at anthropology and
ethnography and they actually like what they see, because they want people that
can be comfortable in planning and in going in and investigating what’s going
on somewhere, or what people are thinking…There is a fast growing area of user
research…or UX research (which is slightly different)’
Paulina: ‘I think
most people writing about Poland for English-language publications — if I
restrict it to this example — are politics or history majors. Many of them seem
to have done PPE-style degrees at OxBridge-type institutions. They do really
good work, but again, some of them seem to reaffirm structures instead of
questioning them (reporting on the state and its institutions as if liberal
democracy is the only thing to have ever existed), which during this period of
political meltdown is more than a little problematic. Anthropologists ask
different questions and I think the more they participate in public discourse,
the better we will all be. So get to it!’
What are some thoughts and advice for finding the right work using your anthropology degree?
Pasquale: ‘In the
mean time you may have to take up jobs that aren’t that funky. But I think once
you’ve realised you want to go in a certain direction then you just keep trying
to get into that area.’
Paulina: ‘While I
was freelancing, I worked as an ESL teacher in Poland and Australia, which was
a great fall-back job (actually, teaching is probably the most useful thing I
have ever done). And what better place to flex your anthropological muscles
than in another country, in a cross-cultural context.’
A note on writing from Paulina:
‘Writing, on the other hand is a lifelong pursuit with no certain outcome.
Being instrumental about it can kill it, being too idealistic about it can kill
it too — you shouldn’t do it unless it’s something you feel you need to do.
Definitely don’t do it if you want people to like you — they won’t.’
Some final advice from Katie
Geertz, C 1973, The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books.
[Images my own from my travels around this continent – I hope they make you feel as calm as they make me feel.]
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
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:
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.
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.
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.