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.

Anthropology and Colonialism (Part 2): Eugenics, Cultural Relativism and Structuralism

In the context of anthropology being a story of colonisation, anthropologists who emerged in the 20th century as a force for decolonial ends can be seen as historical disruptions. Or maybe they were just doing their discipline justice? Anthropology may have started out as the ethnological, categorical study of those deemed as savage – but in the 20th century it emerges as a discipline aimed at achieving justice through the unfalsifiable application of scientific method.

Franz Boas in Kwakwaka’wakw village, 1930.

This is certainly true of the work of Franz Boas, who began to have significant scholarly impact from the 1890s onwards. The school of American cultural anthropology that he formed, with its axiom of ‘cultural relativism’, was seminal in both the social and academic history of the Civil Rights movement, predating it by some decades, effectively laying the foundations for the scholastic dismantling of intellectual notions of racial superiority (Williams, 1996).

Varieties of scientific racism, including eugenics (the racial-genetic theory underpinning Nazi ideology), were extant in Western scholarship and popular discourse well up until the post-war period. It was common for intellectuals, scientists and cultural figures in Australia, Europe and the Americas to be fond of eugenics; to even posit it as the logical Darwinian conclusion of social science and biology. This included many academics at the University of Melbourne (Jones, 2011). It was only in 1945, when the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed, that racial theory in science began to be properly discredited. Whilst it is true that many anthropologists were eugenicists, its important to understand that the earliest people discrediting scientific racism, like Boas, were also anthropologists.

The history of anthropology in Australia is full of all sorts of interesting stories; of racism and exploitation but also of justice, emancipation and cosmopolitan peace. In one important instance, the historical encounter between anthropologists A.P. Elkin and Donald Thomson, the fault line of colonialism and conscience was fought out within the discipline of anthropology itself (Moore, 2000).

Elkin was the elder and superior; an Anglican reverend and theologian-turned anthropologist who was head of the anthropology department at Sydney University in the 1930s. In his many decades of anthropological work, he developed an encyclopedic knowledge of Aboriginal culture and history, actually campaigned for many Aboriginal causes and, with the same logic of our appraisal of Tylor, could be considered progressive for his time. But, he was nonetheless truly an arch historical racist; a ‘racial scientist’ working for the state who used his power and influence to recommend the genocidal policy of Assimilation as a means of ‘protective’ subjugation of Indigenous people.

The Reverend A.P. Elkin

It was due to the advice and recommendation of men like him that Indigenous people in Australia saw their ultimate oppression in the nation-wide foundation of the concentration-camp-like mission system, the concurrent policy of child removal that resulted in the Stolen Generations, and many other historical crimes (Wise, 1996). This is surely an example of where anthropology was used and co-opted by Colonial governments to justify and intellectually weaponize their expansion of power, though Elkin and the other Assimilationists of his day may not have seen it like that.

Pushing against him, at great personal cost, was Donald Thomson, a younger anthropologist from here at the University of Melbourne. Thomson worked for many years in Arnhem Land with the Yolgnu community, originally setting out to resolve the Caledon Bay Crisis which he and Yolgnu elder Wonggu successfully achieved, halting the murderous advances of white vigilantes and saving the life of Dhakiyarr, a young Yolgnu man in Darwin who was to be wrongfully executed.

Wonggu and Donald Thomson

Thomson and Wonggu’s resolution of Caledon was a decisive moment in the history of Aboriginal-European relations (Reynolds, 1998). Thomson subsequently became a great friend of Wonggu and the Yolgnu community, and later the Pintupi community of Central Australia, assisting in both of their fights for justice. He used his position and skills as an anthropologist to help protect their respective communities and cultures against governmental intervention, assisting in relieving some of the trauma of their colonisation and making recommendations to parliament, among other things (Peterson, 2005). The kinds of recommendations he was making, and the insight he had into the desires of Indigenous Australian people to achieve justice and self-determination, was at least 40 years ahead of his time. He was working in the 1920s-30s, against legislation that lasted well into the 1970s.

Thomson is credited with being one of the first White Australians to fight against Assimilation policy and to champion respect and understanding of Indigenous Australians (Morphy, 2002). It was a fight which he tirelessly pursued all of his life against the power of older institutional racists like A.P Elkin, who did much to discredit and sabotage him. Elkin was ultimately successful and Thomson could do nothing to halt the advancement of Assimilation policy, yet he nonetheless helped Indigenous communities a great deal and through the discipline of anthropology as a participant observer of great conscience and respect. The film Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigurr, 2001) is based upon a series of his photos. There is today a small plaque dedicated to him on the Professor’s Walk at Melbourne University, and now an exhibition in Arts West of his photos.

In line with recent successful attempts at setting the University’s history right (Dobbin, 2015), I think the John Medley building, the seat of our anthropological faculty (named after a man whose own dubious involvement with racist eugenics is still historically contested [Copp, 2017]), should be renamed in his honour.

Thomson in many ways set a global precedent, as the anthropology of the early-to-mid 20th century saw a succession of radicalization in kind. The American tradition of cultural anthropology which Boas had initiated continued emancipatory work by revolutionizing ways of thinking about Indigenous people, with the writings of Boas’ students A. L. Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead and others.

Kroeber, the father of Ursula Le Guin, is cited as an important early champion for the rights of Native Americans and achieved much public support through his sympathetic collaboration with Ishi, a Native American man from California. Their collaboration and Kroeber’s continuing work with Native American communities led to successful Indian land claims.

Kroeber and Ishi

Mead’s work in Samoa and Manus Island and her subsequent commentary as a public intellectual throughout the mid-20th century had many decolonial ends. She was often called to comment on issues of racism, and by providing scholarly anthropological context was able to disprove many racial categorical prejudices common in the popular discourse of her day (Mead, 1979). This includes her collaboration with the great James Baldwin, A Rap on Race (1971).

Boas eventually died in 1942 from a heart attack – at dinner, and in the arms of a young Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Lévi-Strauss had narrowly escaped Nazi persecution in wartime Europe, and arrived in the Americas in time to befriend Boas before witnessing his poetic demise. A highly educated and motivated man, he was really a product of the French intellectual tradition, and his subsequent influence of Boas’ cosmopolitan cultural anthropology, lay the groundwork for what was to come. He eventually travelled to the Amazon for fieldwork among several Indigenous communities, subsequently developing the anthropological theory of Structuralism (Lévi-Strauss, 1955). Dry and dense and drawing upon a range of semiological and mathematical theories, Structuralism was, beyond the vague doctrine of Boas’ cultural relativism, the first anthropological attempt to truly accept Indigenous knowledge systems on their own terms, reversing centuries of ‘savage’ interpretation (Bird-David, 1999).

Lévi-Strauss in the Amazon

Structuralism’s effect on anthropology, in the pursuit of flattening all racial and cultural hierarchies towards an understanding of the interconnectedness of all humanity, was powerful going into the 1960s and ’70s (Turner, 1999), as the Boassian school similarly continued. Many anthropologists at this time continued to dismantle and denaturalize racialized, colonial thinking about Others, towards more complex and respectful understandings of cultural difference (Sahlins, 1972; Geertz, 1973; Wagner, 1975).

Anthropology thusly embarked on the long historical journey of articulating cultural equality, by actively pushing against the force of Colonialism and scientific racism. We now arrive back at the time of Said’s Orientalism; the crisis that it caused in Western scholarship, the solutions posed in anthropology with Writing Culture, and the anthropological practices that we find today.

Please see the third and final part in this series!


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.

Copp, A. (2017) ‘Link to eugenics spur Melbourne universities to rename buildings’, in SBS News, 10th April, 2017. Accessed 10/6/2019 at <>

Dobbin, M. (2015) ‘Heart of darkness: Melbourne University’s racist professors’, in The Age, November 27, 2015. Accessed 10/6/2019 at <;

Friedman, P. K. (2014) ‘Boas and the Culture of Racism’, in Savage Minds, November 11, 2014. Accessed 10/6/2019 at <;

Jones, R. L. (2011) ‘Eugenics in Australia: The secret of Melbourne’s elite’, in The Conversation, September 21, 2011. Accessed 10th June, 2019 <;

Lévi-Strauss, C. (1955) Tristes Tropiques. Paris: Librairie Plon.

Mead, M & Baldwin, J. (1971) A Rap on Race. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co.

Mead, M. (1979) Margaret Mead, Some Personal Views. London: Walker Press.

Moore, J. (2000) Thomson of Arnhem Land (film). Sydney: ABC. Accessed 10/6/2019 at <>

Morphy, H. (2002) ‘Thomson, Donald Finlay Fergusson (1901–1970)’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.

Peterson, N. (2005) Donald Thomson In Arnhem Land. Melbourne: Miegunyah Press.

Reynolds, H. (1998) The Whispering in Our Hearts. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Sahlins, M. (1972) Stone Age Economics. New York: de Gruyter.

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.

Williams, V.J. (1996) Rethinking Race: Franz Boas and His Contemporaries. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Wise, T. (1996) Elkin, Adolphus Peter (1891–1979)’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography. Canberra: National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.

Anthropology and Colonialism (Part 1): Racism, Orientalism and Writing Culture

As spoken about in our exploration of the history and theory of decolonisation, the towering presence of Edward Said looms large. Whilst Said’s disciplinary context in Orientalism (1978) was art history and comparative literature, his real point of critique was Western scholasticism in general. Perhaps the discipline with the most to answer for in regards to colonial representation of non-Western culture is the one that took this representation as its primary project; anthropology.

Orientalism can be said to have created a crisis in anthropology. How could anthropology continue to justify its quest to represent and quantify non-Western culture, when the very act itself is caught up in the long historical game of the colonial project (Sax, 1998)? How can anthropology be seen to be in solidarity with a move towards the dismantling of cultural and racialised hierarchies, called for by Said, when the substance of anthropology is cemented in a subject-object gaze?

Following Orientalism there were attempts to answer this question. Clifford and Marcus’ Writing Culture (1986) was one such effort, ushering in a reflexive/literary/ethnographic ‘turn’ in the discipline that questioned the ethics of ethnography, the authority of the anthropologist and their intentions, and the entire notion of faithful representation. Anthropology became not about constructing a ‘theory of everything’ to explain the othered peoples of the world, but an emancipatory, philosophical and self-critical discipline that could be used to help communities, in academic representation or in political and developmental projects. As such, it can be said that anthropology since then has attempted to decolonise. That is, it has attempted to untangle the remnants of its colonial past. But, I would argue, that ‘colonial past’ was not as clear-cut as we are made to believe.

One could argue, like Talal Asad had done earlier in setting the precedent for understanding anthropology’s dark colonial roots (Asad, 1973) that anthropology is inseparable from colonisation – there is something innately racist about White Western people attempting to analyse and speak for non-Western people. See Imogen’s post here about this troubled history.

But, the devil is in the details, as the angel might be too. Like any scholastic discipline, anthropology has been and continues to be in constant critical engagement with itself. Considering like Asad argues that its genesis was in the colonial encounter, it could be reasonably argued that out of all scholastic disciplines, it is the one therefore best placed to address and answer questions of colonisation.

Edward Tylor, and an evil-looking Evans-Pritchard (and informants Mekana and Kamanga)

It is historically popular, for example, to consider Edward Tylor, Bronislaw Malinowski or (to a lesser extent) Edward E. Evans-Pritchard (three important figures in early anthropology) as arch colonial racists. Each of them encountered the localised, animistic religions of the small indigenous societies they studied, and each responded to those cultures with varying degrees of colonial Western chauvinism, the type of which was brilliantly examined by Asad, Said and others. Tylor, the evolutionist, saw indigenous peoples as savages; their religions as child-like and primitive, yet precedents all the same to superior Western rationality (Tylor, 1871). Malinowski, the functionalist, also saw them as ‘pointless’ savages (as we know from his posthumously published diaries), but their economic and cultural life nonetheless a functional form of cultural exchange (Malinowski, 1968).


Evans-Pritchard, the theorist and philosopher, saw the complexity of Azande culture, and saw reason and practicality in their witchcraft and superstition, but nonetheless concluded it was something primitive that ‘cannot be true’ (Evans-Pritchard, 1937).

Whilst it’s easy to dismiss them for their old-fashioned racism, one only has to consider that the racism and chauvinism in their language was in order with the values and discourse of their day. Considering this, and considering the contributions they made, each of them were in fact highly progressive for their time!

Each of them actually contributed actively to the dismantling of colonial narratives about Indigenous people at the heart of the European scholastic institution, which in each case had hitherto dismissed Indigenous cultures as ‘savage’, inhuman and/or irrational.

This doesn’t excuse them, or suggest that anthropology isn’t guilty even today of harbouring a culture of colonisation – it merely gives context to the fact that if examined in an ulterior fashion, anthropology and its progression through time can actually be seen as a decolonising force. A force that, in spite of its historical genesis, was always concerned with emancipation and justice precisely because of the scientific and self-critical pursuit of truth.

The second part of this two-part series will examine where this leads us today!


Asad, T. (ed.) (1973) Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. New York: Humanities Press.

Clifford, J. & Marcus, G. E. (1986) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. University of California Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1937) Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande. Oxford University Press.

Sax, W. (1998) ‘The Hall of Mirrors: Orientalism, Anthropology, and the Other’, in American Anthropologist, 100 (2) (June 1998) p. 292-301.

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

Tylor, E. (1871) Primitive Culture: Researches Into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom Vols 1&2. London: John Murray.

Things We Wish We Knew: Decolonisation

Decolonisation has become, as of these last few years, a buzz word! It is currently used in the context of popular anti-racist activism to mean the process of removing racist and hierarchical notions, vestiges of European colonialism, from all thought and action. This shift away from Eurocentric thinking and towards an anarchic, cosmopolitan, multi-centred view of the world and a respect for the perspectives and self-determination of its people, is to decolonise. But what does it mean to be Eurocentric?

To be Eurocentric means to embrace, consciously or not, a worldview centred and biased towards White European civilisation, with a general assumption of the authority, entitlement and superiority of White Europeans (Hobson 2012). See Imogen’s excellent exploration of the analogous notion of ethnocentrism, and anthropocentrism, here! This might seem a far-fetched notion that only White Supremacists would hold to, but it is a worldview that successfully dominated the planet for half a millennia, so there is reason enough to deduce (and evidence abounds) that it lingers, covertly, in much of our thought and discourse. But, how and why?

If Imperialism was the practice of building empire at home in Europe, Colonialism was the practice by those Imperial powers of invading and settling the peoples and lands beyond its borders, transforming Indigenous spaces into ‘colonies’ geared towards the extraction of wealth, and transforming Indigenous populations into subservient subjects (Howe 2002). To be colonial in thought and action is therefore to think and act in those terms; as if non-European life and culture is something lesser, to be dominated, colonised and extracted for wealth. On an intellectual level, the general theory of decolonisation is a legacy of Postcolonial studies, the literary, poetic and academic movement of mostly African, Caribbean and Asian writers from the 1950s onwards, which saw a wide-reaching and critical appraisal of the cultural legacy of European colonisation in all its forms and manifestations (Laurie et al 2019).

Firstly, a recollection of the context. White European domination of the world was long, violent and unparalleled in human history (Mignolo 2011). After some 500 years, colonial power variously weakened, and ideas of emancipation and freedom rose up in colonial spaces. Nationalist movements gained strength, mostly as a result of the miraculous and heroic struggle of the people and their leaders who endured immense suffering, and who fought, died and survived at incredible odds. From the late 19th century onward and particularly following the Second World War, European powers subsequently retreated and new nations were forged independent from colonial rule.

The process of decolonisation had thus begun; the governmental and social adaptation to self-determination, with the implementation of large-scale changes in economy, infrastructure, industry, legislation, and so on. Many of these nationalist projects were smooth and successful, many resulted in unimaginable bloodshed, but the result of it all was our contemporary world today (Glassner 1980).

One could say that with the collapse of European empires and their colonial control, the decolonisation of the world has thus been completed – but the type of decolonisation we are talking about refers to something different. Even in our post-colonial age, colonisation persists as a haunting psychological force; a habit of superiority and domination, and of trauma of subjugation, influencing the thoughts, behaviours and general culture of both former colonisers, and the formerly colonised (Pushkala 2015).

Frantz Fanon

One of the first major literary and theoretical demonstrations of this was by Frantz Fanon, a trained psychiatrist from Martinique, whose writings gave an account of the lingering psychopathology of oppression, and the necessity for an ‘inner’ decolonisation (Fanon 1961). The essays and poetry of Aimé Césaire (1955) expressed similar sentiments, while Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, in Decolonising the Mind (1986), called explicitly for the realisation that despite the retreat of European colonial power, colonisation continued to dominate the mental universe of the formerly-colonised through reification in thought and language.

Then, in the late 1970s, Edward Said wrote Orientalism (1978), and changed the face of Western scholarship forever. He demonstrated in great detail the patronising and racialised way in which Europeans had always represented non-Europeans, suggesting that European selfhood and the basis of its scholastic thought, like its historical economic base being in colonial extraction, had always been dependent upon the subjugation of the non-White other. He suggested, therefore, that Western scholarship wise up to this deeply-ingrained cultural habit, and eradicate orientalism from its thinking. To eradicate orientalism from thinking, in this context, is thus an aspect of how an intellectual discipline might engage in decolonisation.

That decolonisation as a term and discourse has been successful in entering popular parlance suggests that the anti-racist struggle has moved beyond the influence of the overt struggle of Civil Rights-era equity, and into the covert space of linguistic and ontological critique referenced in Postcolonial literature. This suggests that it isn’t just personal, conscious behaviour that creates racism and division, but the subconscious structures of thought, habit and tradition.

Colonisation, like trauma, haunts from the past; but everyone is a winner when it is addressed intelligently. Of recent years, many writers (Harrison, 1993; Tuhiwai-Smith, 1999; Land, 2016) all reference, in the titles of their respective works also, the earlier calls by Fanon, Césaire, Thiong’o and others to decolonise their respective scholarly disciplines – to engage in processes to identify the attitudes, sentiments and modes of thinking and existence, conscious or not, that perpetuate colonialist domination in thought, language and action. To decolonise is therefore to engage in those practices as an object of discovery; how and why the notion of domination and disrespect of the self-determination of the Other might pervade and limit our thinking. So, decolonise now!


Césaire, Aimé (1955) Discourse on Colonialism. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Fanon, F. (1963) The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.

Glassner, M. I. (1980) Systematic Political Geography 2nd Edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Harrison, F (1993) Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further Toward an Anthropology for Liberation. Washington D.C.: Association of Black Anthropologists – American Anthropological Association.

Hobson, J. (2012). The Eurocentric conception of world politics: western international theory, 1760-2010. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Howe, S. (2002) Empire: A Very Short Introduction. United States: Oxford University Press.

Land, C. (2015) Decolonizing Solidarity. London: Zed Books.

Laurie, T.; Stark, H.; Walker, B. (2019) ‘Critical Approaches to Continental Philosophy: Intellectual Community, Disciplinary Identity, and the Politics of Inclusion’, in Parrhesia: A Journal of Critical Philosophy, 30 (1-17).

Mignolo, W. (2011) The darker side of Western modernity : global futures, decolonial options. Durham: Duke University Press.

Pushkala, P. (2015) Crafting qualitative research : working in the postpositivist traditions. London: Routledge. 

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

Thiong’o, N. (1986) Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature. New Hampshire: Heinemann Educational.

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

Things We Wish We Knew: Animism

Animism refers broadly to the varieties of ‘nature religion’ of the world’s Indigenous peoples. But animism is not a religion – what even is a religion? In our materialist and scientific age, any assertion of a belief or knowledge in the non-material world is considered ‘religious’, yet religion was and is associated specifically with social and political phenonema; referring more to faith-based ideology that binds a community together (Morreal & Sonn, 2013).

There is still no scholarly consensus on what religion actually ‘is’, for it only emerged as a concept in the 1600s in the Enlightenment period as a distinction from ‘science’ (Nongbri, 2003). In the case of animism and in the Indigenous contexts it is found, that kind of division doesn’t exist. Anthropological study of it, due to confusions of it as a ‘religion’, has thus been fraught with contention. But can it be a religion? Maybe, but there is still something missing.

The first anthropological use of the term was by Edward Tylor, who used it to denote the various practices of non-Western Indigenous peoples who seemed to share the belief that everything in the world was alive and possessed a soul (Tylor, 1871). Anima means ‘soul, breath, or life’ in Latin; it is where we get the term animal (from animalis, ‘possessing life/soul’) and the word animation (the action of ‘imparting life’).

Tylor therefore chose animism against the earlier-proposed term spiritualism, because of the potential confusion with the then popular Western occult practice of Spiritualism, with its ouija boards and séances – the Victorian precursor to New Ageism. Tylor spent some time with them, too – remarking how it seemed to be a ‘survival and revival of savage thought’ (Bird-David, 1999). Check out Abbie’s post about Spiritualism here!

The word is thus an entirely anthropological construct, a theory proposed by Tylor to explain something he didn’t understand, and it is perhaps the first term, or neologism, to be coined in the discipline of anthropology in general. It is therefore surely one of the most important, precisely because it can help us understand how anthropology has come to understand Indigenous people, and how little this has changed in the 150 odd-years since.

According to anthropology and our scholarly categories, perhaps until recent times, every belief system that isn’t European scientific rationality, or isn’t part of or associated to some extent with, the world’s designated ‘major religions’, is said to be animism of some kind or another. The reason this logic seems incomplete is because it is.

Surely all the world’s indigenous peoples don’t believe the same thing about reality? But, if we really are all the same inside, wouldn’t it make sense that there are connections across cultures? There are, and the connections and categories shared between many Indigenous peoples designate the theory of animist ontology today, ever since the work of Tylor.

That everything has a soul, that humans-as-persons co-exist in a living world with other non-human persons, that a person’s consciousness transforms into something immaterial after death. That ghosts exist, that spirits exist, that it’s possible to be possessed by a malevolent spirit, to be cursed by someone with malevolent intent, and basically every other ghost story and supernatural and/or paranormal idea you can think of. These things are the bread and butter of animism, and despite great cultural distinctiveness and difference everywhere, these same patterns of belief and practice are found all over the world.

If we’re not going to be racist, then how can we dismiss these ideas outright, when they form the bedrock of so many cultural traditions? How can we accept animist ontology if it seems so irrational to our categories? These are the questions that have troubled anthropology since Tylor and, in essence, since the beginning of the Colonial encounter.

Tylor, like James Frazer and many others after him, was an evolutionist – he firmly believed in the idea that this animism was an evolutionary precursor to monotheistic religion and scientific rationality, which equated to the truism of pre-20th century European thought; that all Indigenous peoples were ‘children’ in the face of ‘adult’ Europeans.

Tylor thus dismissed animism as delusional, and this remained relatively unchanged in anthropology, despite many sociological and rational explanations for it (Durkheim, 1912; Evans-Pritchard, 1937) for decades. Hallowell (1960) revived, to some degree, a consideration of animism with a study of Canadian Aboriginal Ojibwa ontologies, while Levy-Strauss transformed anthropology and philosophy alike forever in the 1950s with a generalised theory of Structuralism, as a result of fieldwork in the Amazon basin. The variety of words that emerged in these studies, following Structuralism particularly; shamanism, totemism, spiritism, spiritualism; all essentially relate to the broad category of animism, or animic ontology (Sahlins, 2014).

In the past two decades in anthropology, animism studies has seen a revival. With the discipline’s increasingly decolonial impetus, new anthropological work is now filling in huge gaps in our knowledge of the metaphysics of the non-Western world (Bird-David, 1999; Viveiros de Castro, 1998; Descola, 2013).

According to the recent work of Descola and Viveiros de Castro (of which there is some dispute between), one of the many things that can be said about animistic beliefs is the striking reversal they pose to many of ‘our’ society’s core concepts of modernity, such as the agency, intelligence and personhood afforded to things in the natural world. Where modern capitalist civilisation and the values of the monotheistic tradition uphold humanity’s power and entitlement over nature (nature our object to do with what we will), animism holds the flattening of such hierarchies; we are the object of nature.

Where modernity holds the material nature of reality, animism holds the immaterial. Where modernity holds the unitary and cold image of the natural world, animism holds it to be multiplicitous and alive. Where modernity holds the plural and relative nature of human culture and the human mind, animism holds the unity of it (see Viveiros de Castro’s concept of multinaturalism, 2013). Where modernity holds that the source of human consciousness is the physical world, the physical body and the brain, animism holds that the source of the physical world and the physical body is consciousness .

Anthropology, like all scholastic pursuits, is rooted in post-Enlightenment scientific rationality. The anthropology of animism, as a pursuit to understand the nature of this seeming cosmological reversal, infers a natural encounter with radical alterity (Hage, 2013); it offers a unique opportunity to challenge our categories. Both epistemological; how it is that, through history, modern civilisation has constructed knowledge about the natural world and the self, and ontological; how it is that we experience and embody the world around us. As our culture progresses and we attempt to move towards an age of increasing justice, harmony, co-existence, and biological, cosmopolitan peace – perhaps we all too, shall become animists.


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.

Descola, P. (2013) Beyond Nature and Culture. University of Chicago Press.

Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1937) Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande. Oxford University Press.

Hage, G. (2012) Critical anthropological thought and the radical political imaginary today, in Critique of Anthropology 32 (3) 285–308. Philadelphia: Sage.

Hallowell, A. I. (1960) ‘Ojibwa Ontology: Behaviour and World View’, in Culture and History, ed. Diamond, S. New York: Colombia University Press

Morreall, J. & Sonn, T. (2013) ‘Myth 1: All Societies Have Religions’, in 50 Great Myths of Religion, 2–17 . New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell.

Nongbri, B. (2013) Before Religion: A History of a Modern Concept. Yale University Press. 

Tylor, E. (1871) Primitive Culture: Researches Into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom Vols 1&2. London: John Murray.

Viveiros de Castro, E (1998) ‘Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism’, in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 4 (3) (September, 1998), 469-488.

Things We Wish We Knew: Ontology

Ontology is branch of metaphysical philosophy concerned with the study of the nature of being (Merriam-Webster, 2019). It is also broadly related to categorisation; how knowledge about the nature of reality is linked together.

The key to understanding it is to understand that, as a general term, it does not relate to a scholastic or scientific discipline per se, but instead refers to the general orientation to understanding reality that anyone, or anything, might be guided by. This admission alone suggests the possibility of many ontologies; that all the world’s peoples, that all ‘sentient’ things, may have their own ontology.

But it sounds like it just means philosophy. Wrong! It can be reasonably argued that philosophy is something more culturally orientated; a literary field or discipline, or manner of communication, related to questions about life and existence, about the meaning of life, the fundamentals of human existence, about morality, and so on. Within the field of philosophy there might be three general areas; Epistemology relates to questions of knowledge, Axiology relates to value. Ontology then relates to that particular aspect of any kind of intellectual inquiry, philosophy included, that asks questions about the actual nature and substance of reality and the self (Devaux & Lamanna, 2009).

But isn’t that science? Yes, ‘science’ is and has always been concerned with discovering the makeup and substance of the physical universe. At the time of Isaac Newton, the founder of the scientific method, it was called ‘natural philosophy’.

Metaphysics, then, is concerned with the makeup and substance of the universe beyond the physical – the realm of mind. But can’t neuroscience, the positivist scientific study of the nervous system and the brain, explain the nature of the self and of awareness? The simple answer is no – it hasn’t been able to, and it can’t. Ontology, then, is any inquiry concerned with the intersection of both of these – how it is that mind and awareness interact and coexist with the physical universe.

But that still sounds like science! Maybe it is? Positivism means that only what can be proven is true. Well, no method of scientific observation can prove that awareness exists, no scientific observation can find where the observer is in the human brain. Yet, here we are. It seems, therefore, that something is missing. Our inquiry has become ontological.

Notice, as anthropologists are keen to notice, the seeming separation between nature (science) and culture (mind, awareness, metaphysics) in this equation. This demonstrates that the epistemological framework I have been using presupposes a division between the physical and metaphysical, between nature and culture. This framework I am using, how it is that I am thinking about what I know, is thus informed by something else – ‘an ontology’. That is, an overall ‘way’ in which I am positioned and am orientating myself in relation to my thinking mind and the world around me.

So, ontology just means how and what you think and believe about the world? No! That would be an epistemology, a philosophy, or an ideology. The ontological is something even more than that – how we live and experience, not merely how we think.

A way of life is an ontology.

Going back to its definitions of the categories of things, ontology is concerned with the way our categories and our knowledge, our epistemology, is linked together not by the way we think, but by the way we are. It isn’t merely a ‘world-view’, so much as how we experience and live out what constitutes the world and what constitutes the viewer, the act of viewing, and the nature of the viewed. Samkhya, the Indian philosophy underpinning the Yoga tradition, is an example of an ontology – it features an emanating, categorical map of the world, the mind, and the self (Larson et al, 2014).

The fundamental architecture of Samkhya darshana (perspective/philosophy)

So why is this relevant to our field of anthropology? Because! The more we understand about cultures different to our own, the more we understand that they have entirely different ontologies, not just epistemologies; different ways of experiencing the categories of things, different ways of discerning what is human, what is individuality, what is relatedness, what is kinship, what is nature, what is culture, and so on. They have different ways of thinking about these things that are entirely rational, just a different kind of ‘being rational’ than we are used to – just as they have different ways of experiencing things that are also as ‘rational’ as our own (Holbraad et al 2014).

Perhaps then anthropology is the apex discipline of understanding ontological difference, and of understanding the possibility of what we are not­ – and therefore, what we have the potential to be. I would agree!


Devaux, M & Lamanna, M. (2009) ‘The Rise and Early History of the Term Ontology (1606–1730)’, Quaestio Yearbook of the History of the Metaphysics. 9 (2009) 173–208.

Larson, G.J.; Bhattacharya, R.S.; Potter, K. (2014) The Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, Volume 4: Samkhya. Princeton University Press.

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

Merriam-Webster (2019) Ontology, accessed 10th June 2019 <;