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.

Things We Wish We Knew: Technological Mediation

Picture Credit: Wired Brain

With the advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data analytics, technologies now permeate and engage with humans in a radically different manner. Technologies actively mediate how people relate to the world. Technological mediation rests on the centrality that objects help shape relations between human beings and the world. This approach of technology does not view material objects as opposed to human subjects, or as mere extensions of humans, instead, it sees them as mediators of human-world relations.

Why do we need to know technological mediation?

Technological mediation is a “post-phenomenological” approach in the philosophy of technology (Rosenberger & Verbeek 2015, p.vii). Post-phenomenology is partially opposed to the phenomenological tradition (Verbeek 2015, p.26). Although inspired by the phenomenological focus on the experiential, it distances itself from phenomenology’s romanticism toward technology, favouring empirical analyses of actual technologies. Technological mediation is a framework that first, rejects human-centred subjectivity to factor in displacing the human body by non-human others. Next, ontologies are mapped horizontally rather than vertically. Horizontal ontologies assumes humans as embedded in a natural-cultural-technological assemblage (Weiss, Propen & Reid 2014, p.xvii). This is similar to the conceptualisation of hyperobjects. Technological mediation offers four ways of human-technology relations:

  • Embodiment relation(I–Technology) > World
    • Refers to a magnification/reduction structure. For example, binoculars enable the user to see further. The repetitive usage of binoculars in a particular setting would gradually embody itself within the user. 
  • Hermeneutic relationI > (Technology–World)
    • Refers to a transforming encounter with the world via the direct experience and interpretation of the technology itself. For example, checking the weather from a smartphone requires the direct interpretation of the user that transforms numbers to weather forecast knowledge. 
  • Alterity relationI > Technology – (– World)
    • Refers to devices or interfaces that are designed specifically to mimic the shape of person-to-person interaction. For example, withdrawing cash at ATMs or conversing with Siri.
  • Background relation: Makes up the user’s environmental context and shares an indirect relationship. 
    • For example, central air conditioning that operates on its pre-set settings. (Rosenberger & Verbeek 2015, pp.14–18)

Still unclear?

Another example,

I feel at ease having Google Maps directing a guided path to my destination and allows me to monitor traffic conditions. Sometimes during peak hours, I just ignore its recommendations when I know the route through the back street is quicker.

I feel in control when Google Maps adapts to my driving even though I may have missed a turn. 

With Google Maps, my family has increased confidence in my driving as they entrust the app to get to our destination.

As shown, navigational app users engage in ongoing discursive practices with the app through negotiating and subverting information (Weiss, Propen & Reid 2014, p.23). At times, the navigational app supplements the user by providing traffic information and in turn, the user may choose to use the app supplementally when the information does not correlate to the user’s knowledge.

With this brief illustration, I hope to have convince you why technological mediation is important and to demonstrate what might the future of anthropology look like.


Rosenberger, R & Verbeek, P-P (eds) 2015, Postphenomenological Investigations: Essays on Human-Technology Relations, Lexington Books, Lanham,MD.

Verbeek, P-P 2015, ‘Beyond interaction: a short introduction to mediation theory’, Interactions, vol. 22, no. 3, pp. 26–31.

Weiss, DM, Propen, AD & Reid, CE (eds) 2014, Design, Mediation, and the Posthuman, Lexington Books, New York, NY.

See Also:

Zane’s piece on Design Anthropology

Julia’s piece on Job Automation

Rita’s piece on Posthumanism

Lionel’s piece on Surveillance Capitalism

Duly Noted: Cash as Iconographic Representation of the State

Cash is ubiquitous in the exchange of material goods or services. Besides being concerned with the Australian dollar currency value in the global financial trade, banknotes and coins play a part in fostering a distinct national identity. Cash is transacted almost daily, generating an unobtrusive reminder of the iconography of the nation and in turn, subtly validates a particular history. 

Picture Credit: Stacks of USD$100

According to Michael Billig, the normality of transactions through cash seek to “construct and reproduce specific nations and nation-states as indispensable cornerstones of international geopolitical order known as banal nationalism” (1995, p.7). The national emblems and images printed on banknotes go mostly unnoticed in commercial transactions and most people do not stop to question the ideological functions and the specificity of historical narratives. Hence, banal nationalism is the experience of a whole complex of beliefs, assumptions, habits, representations and practices to be so natural as to be unassailable.

In 2015, Russia memorialised its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine by printing newly designed 100 rubles notes that has illustrations of the Crimean naval city of Sevastopol. These images are symbols that reflect Crimea as a “rightful” region of Russia and seeks to increase political confidence.

Picture Credit: 100 Rubles

However, recent scholarship scrutinising the relationalities between banknote symbolism and nationalism suggests otherwise. Jan Penrose argues that general banknote design processes are more ad hoc and haphazard than existing presumptions towards nation-building (2011, p.438). Although banknote design and production may variate culturally across generations, in many cases, particularly where the repertoire of national iconography is established and uncontested, the state appears to have no direct involvement with banknote production at all.

For example, take a look at the new Australian $20 note. It features a portrait of Mary Reibey, one of the first successful businesswomen in 19thcentury Australia, a colourful Kookaburra and the box-leaf wattle amongst many other colonial or native flora and fauna features.

Picture Credit: 2019 AUD$20

Now, take a look at the 1966 version which features Charles Kingsford Smith, an aviator who made the first trans-pacific flight from America to Australia. The salient difference only appears to be updated typography, improved security features to prevent counterfeiting and a “remarkable” white Australian figure. 

Picture Credit: 1966 AUD$20

Also, if nations view money as the key to reinforce nationalism, why do countries print their money outside of their borders? 

While printing national currencies is a crucial process in transforming an imagined community into a recognised nation, relationalities between national currencies and nationhood are only distinct during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Penrose 2011, p.432). This period saw currencies facilitate the centralisation of state administration, fusion of state and economy and formation of national identities. However, this meant that currencies serves to regulate people, actors, practices and outcomes that validates the existence of a state through the material reality of cash (Penrose 2011, p.438). Instead, it is the “non-state” actors that make contributions to constructing and intensifying the symbolism of the state. For example, I am obliged to use Australian dollars when transacting in Australia even if I am using a credit card, thereby recognising the governmental regulatory bodies that police and legitimises Australia as nation and state.

Was Billig wrong?

No. As practitioners of anthropology, the standard against which ethnography or any other empirical knowledges must be judged according to the temporalities of persons acting in that particular social setting (Carrithers et al. 1990, p.263). Representations of nationhood are fluid and flux from time to time as meanings shift from nationalism to globalism. Anthropologists must learn to discern such evidence as partial but reliable within recognisable limits. In so, duly note the significance of cash.


Billig, M 1995, Banal Nationalism, SAGE Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Carrithers, M, Barry, A, Brady, I, Geertz, C, Keesing, RM, Roth, PA, Rubinstein, RA & Whittaker, E 1990, ‘Is Anthropology Art or Science? [and Comments and Reply]’, Current Anthropology, vol. 31, no. 3, pp. 263–282.

Penrose, J 2011, ‘Designing the nation. Banknotes, banal nationalism and alternative conceptions of the state’, Political Geography, vol. 30, no. 8, pp. 429–440.

See Also:

Rita’s piece on Personhood

Maddie’s piece on Communitas

Lionel’s piece on Gambling

Lani’s piece on Collective Effervescence

Zane’s piece on Temporality

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.


Picture Credit: Side Mirror

“OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR” is a safety advisory placed on the passenger side mirror of motor vehicles mandated by the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards in the United States. Its purpose is to remind drivers on distance perception as convex mirrors give a useful field of view while making objects appear smaller. From an anthropological perspective, I feel a deep sense of irony as we go about our daily lives trying to ensure safety on the roads but fail to acknowledge that “objects”, or “hyperobjects” causing catastrophic environmental destruction are closer than they appear.

Hyperobjects are matter or ideological constructs that are:

  • Supertemporal, extending beyond the human imagination of space and time, refuting the idea of boundedness.
  • Viscous, sticking to any other object/subject and entraps them within its influence. 
  • Non-local, hyperobjects are felt or perceived indirectly
  • Phased, hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional space that may be invisible to the human senses
  • Interobjective, hyperobjects form interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects (Morton 2013, pp.1–7). 

Hyperobjects are real and yet are intrinsically difficult for humans to experience or understand fully. For example, climate change is an illustration of hyperobjects. Climate change envelops humans despite our attempts to detach ourselves from it. We experience climate change in the form of natural disasters such as droughts and monsoons. Climate change also appears to be periodically phased, allowing the Ozone layer to heal while other parts of the Earth continues to degrade. 

Why do we need to know hyperobjects?

Timothy Morton argues for a fluid conception between humans and objects: “no matter how hard we look, we won’t find a container in which all things fit” (2013, p.102). Rather than continuing to use the container analogy to organise social life, Morton asserts for a mesh analogy to decentre human exceptionalism and raise urgency towards the current ecological calamity that we, humans and objects alike, are responsible and are within the crisis. 

Picture Credit: Nuclear Powerplant

Humanity’s reaction to using ironic distancing to obscure environmental degradation is delaying attempts to create a sustainable future. Ironic distancing is the attempt to distance oneself from a problem or thing that one is already embedded within. Our current attitudes reflect ironic distancing and what Rob Nixon argues as “slow violence”. Slow violence is the product of neoliberalism’s deregulation of the economy, creating massive competition in resource extraction, indiscriminate dumping of waste, etc (Nixon 2011, p.11). Such activities enact “violence” toward the environment and impoverished communities that is noticeable in time to come.

Slow violence is spectacle-deficient. For example, the effects of losing biodiversity or exposure to nuclear radiation are invisible and latent for long periods (Nixon 2011, p.47). The Chernobyl disaster was censored by the Soviet government for eighteen days, hindering effective containment strategies to prevent radiation from spreading (Nixon 2011, p.51). As a result, there was pollution to water bodies, speculative radiation estimates and an increase in mental disorders and abortions from the fear of ionising radiation or radiophobia. Thus, hyperobjects blurs international, intergenerational and somatic temporalities. 

What does it mean for Anthropology?

While many “modern” anthropological concepts centres around the human, Morton argues for an Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) which I shall briefly summarise as moving away from human exceptionalism and assuming that objects have the agency for causality. In sum, “OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR” is a salient ontological reminder that our environment is afflicted with slow violence and humans need to start reconceptualising fundamental philosophical questions of existence and do away with using “distance” and “time” as defence mechanisms to shield us from the nearness and precarity of pollution and degradation. 


Morton, T 2013, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN.

Nixon, R 2011, Slow Violence and The Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

See Also:

Zane’s piece on Design Anthropology

Anatol’s piece on Reflexivity

Rita’s piece on Precarity

Sarah’s piece on future worlds

Art and Anthropology: Parallels in Practice

As part of my current thesis research in Queenstown Tasmania, I am interviewing Queenstown born local artists, newcomer artists and visiting artists in residence. When preparing for this process, I began to find myself comparing some parallels in practice between anthropologists and artists.

In practice, anthropologists extract meaning from an environment or group of people through observation and interview. In anthropological literature concerning interview technique, there is often an emphasis on constructing ‘extractive questions’. The data they collect is then often used to form an ethnography, which pays critical attention to the anthropologists’ observations. An artist that makes work in response to the dynamics of a particular locality and landscape similarly extracts meaning from their observations and develops a critical perspective on the world around them, producing artworks that represent that perspective. Ethnography and artwork are distinctly different products of this process, but both are unavoidably embroiled in the politics of representation.

This comparison may be easier to entertain for those who fall on the side of considering anthropology an art rather than a science, and those fully on board with the ethnographic turn. The relationship between art and anthropology is indeed often considered with the ethnographic turn at its center, with personal understandings, narratives and representations of culture being central to both disciplines.

There is a substantial amount of literature on the relationship between art and anthropology, including explorations of the fieldwork practices I began to describe above, and the implications of sensory ethnography as bringing the two fields into even more overlap. Sources I have found particularly useful are Schneider and Wright’s book ‘Between art and anthropology’ (2010), and an article ‘Archiving Epistemologies’ (Takagawara and Halloran 2017). Schneider and Wright present a series of ethical considerations that both artists and anthropologists face, and how they might learn directly from each other’s practices. The article cited conducts a direct dialogue between anthropologist and artist which sees them both listed as the authorship, and explores the direction in anthropology towards ‘explicative ethnography’ that can take ‘communicative visual, sensorial, and aural forms’ (2017, p.127).

As I write this I am doing my research while staying at a gallery that is hosting two artists in residence. They will stay here for a month, immersing themselves in local history, culture and landscape, with the obligation to produce a body of work during their stay that will eventually be edited, curated and shown at a gallery back in Melbourne. This reminds me of my own process of creating my thesis. I, too, will craft something from this place to be expedited back to a Melbourne audience, though academic in this case. It is with this speculative comparison in mind that I keep wondering: What are the future interdisciplinary possibilities that anthropology and art could produce? This is a question that I may not be able to attend to extensively within the scope of my small project, but I am excited to carry it with me into my future endeavors.


Takaragawa, S. and Halloran, L. (2017) ‘Exploring the Links of Contemporary Art and Anthropology: Archiving Epistemologies’, Critical Arts: A South-North Journal of Cultural & Media Studies, 31(2), pp. 127–139.

Schneider, A & Wright, C 2010, Between art and anthropology : contemporary ethnographic practice, Berg Publishers.

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 <;

Becoming a Person

In a previous post, I describe the notion of personhood.

I’m browsing skincare online when a chat window pops up from the bottom left corner of my screen.

>Hi! I’m Jessica. Is there anything I can help you with today?

I hesitate. The cynic in me is unsure, to begin with, whether this is one of those useless bots who will “refer” me in endless cycles to imaginary “colleagues”, none of whom can answer my query, or if there’s an actual person on the other end of the line, waiting, desperately, for someone to reply.

I decide to write back.

>Do you ship to Australia?

>Sorry, I can’t answer that. Let me refer you to one of my colleagues.

OK, “Jessica”, if that’s even your real name, refer me to one of your “colleagues”, or should I say, fellow bot

>Hi! I’m Gabby. Jessica forwarded your conversation to me. We do ship to Australia, but it’ll take a bit longer, around 2-3 weeks.

Well. She’s real. “She”? I couldn’t possibly know for sure. I was raised on the Internet playing avatar-based games, and spent the latter half of my teenhood in cyberspace communities; assuming an embodiment that doesn’t match one’s own is nothing new to me. How do I know that the skincare company isn’t just exploiting the probable femininity of their customer base? And, yeah, isn’t it weird that the majority of robot assistants – Siri, Alexa, Cortana – are “female”?

If this encounter with the unknown (and indeed, unknowable) seems familiar to you, you may also have ventured tentatively to imagine who else is “really” behind the screen. Like my mum, when she first discovered I was hanging out on the Internet: “Who are you really talking to?” It could be a bot, a human being with a real or fabricated persona, multiple people masquerading as a single user, or the reverse – a single person commanding multiple accounts.

A catfish, surprised by your sudden appearance on this blog. In the context of online dating, a “catfish” denotes a fictional persona created to lure others into a relationship.

Growing up, I spent most days at home with my sister watching VCRs, reading, and spending countless hours watching her play video games.

I was appointed the all-important role of repeatedly mashing a key to unleash a flurry of attacks on monsters who were just out of counter-attacking range in a certain side-scrolling massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG).

I remember my sister being married in-game to another user in the U.S., a guy named Nate, who would send her in-game gifts that cost real-life money. My 10-year-old brain, primed to squawk “stranger danger!” at any unfamiliar interaction, couldn’t comprehend the exchange. They had never met in real life, never even seen a photo of each other, and the extent of their marriage beyond the game consisted of MSN chats and illustrations of their avatars dating that my sister made.

Boellstorff’s (2008) exploration of intimacy, sexuality and love in the online virtual world Second Life prompted me to reflect on the virtuality-reality continuum; do virtual feelings mirror or eventuate in real feelings? What kinds of activity, both online and off, might “sustain or threaten the gap between actual and virtual?” (p. 172) For example, Turkle (1995, p. 241) observed that a person in a real-life relationship participating in an erotic online role-play who had no intention to de-virtualise (i.e. make real) the in-game romance, didn’t consider this an act of infidelity. Is this because the roles weren’t considered persons, merely characters in a fictional play?

On the other hand, Boellstorff found that a genuine emotional and romantic bond formed online would very much constitute cheating on one’s partner; in fact, some felt that it would be “worse to cheat [online] than in [real life],” because in “[real life] it’s a physical thing, but here it’s your mind.” (2008, p. 172).

Josan Gonzalez

Throughout my teens, I was a user of a microblogging platform and became friends with people from all over the world. I finally appreciated the kind of relationship you can have with only a username and text on a screen: as Tufekci calls it, “words without bodies” (2012, p. 32). I ended up meeting some of these friends in real life (thankfully no catfishes), and I’ve stayed in contact with many of them on other social media platforms.

In 2018, the exposure of Russian-sponsored propaganda campaigns that resulted in the termination of 201 accounts stunned our community. Documents had been leaked from the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a pro-Kremlin group labelled a “troll farm”. The documents revealed that Internet sockpuppets (online identities intended to deceive) were involved in a disinformation effort to sway American political discourse with propaganda geared specifically to Black American youth.

I remember in the aftermath of this event, some people expressed disbelief at having ever imagined a sense of friendship or solidarity with these accounts. They felt betrayed because they had actively endowed credibility and personhood and opened their community up to beings that were not really persons at all.

The online realm illustrates the plurality of personhood, not merely because it offers another platform for performing the self, but also because these varied manifestations of personhood have always existed in other less systematic forms that couldn’t exploit personhood in the same way. In thinking as we sometimes do in binaries of selves – the “self as a body” and the “self that is built by society” (Durkheim 1914, p. 318) – virtuality provides different ways for “being a person”…for better or worse.


Boellstorff, T 2015, Coming of age in Second Life: An anthropologist explores the virtually human. Princeton University Press.

Durkheim, É 1914, ‘Le Dualisme de la nature humaine et ses conditions sociales’, in Durkheim 1970, pp. 314-332; trans. 2005, Durkheimian Studies no. 11, pp. 35-45.

Tufekci, Z 2012, ‘We were always human’, in N Whitehead & M Wesch (eds.), Human No More, University Press of Colorado.

Turkle, S 2011, Life on the Screen. Simon and Schuster.

See also:

Maddie’s article, Subtle Diasporic Traits, for more insight into how the online is altering conceptions of the anthropological field.

Loaded Prepositions

A history lecturer once asked our class a question which disturbed me. Processing this question took some time.

Why, the lecturer asked, are we always learning about India and never learning from India?

I’ll preface with a qualification. The course was part of an interdisciplinary area studies program, associated with ANU’s South Asia Research Institute. So ‘India’ here could variously refer to ideas currently emanating from Indian citizens, ideas from canonical texts like the Bhagavad Gita, or ideas around political organisation, and so on.

The premise of this ‘learning from’ question may offend people for many reasons. University learning is pitched in terms of accumulating knowledge and ‘critical thinking’ skills. We learn about people. We learn from lecturers.

And learning from India in particular seems culturally and politically problematic: New Age spiritualists and other wealthy white people have a tendency to fetishize India. You might be thinking of Julia Roberts self-discovering herself via ‘India’ in the film Eat Pray Love, in a colonial and imperial way (Chandra 2015).

But a little historical research will reveal that not-learning-from can be equally troublesome. British colonisation of India was justified in part by pushing the idea that Europeans indeed had nothing to learn from ‘India’ (Nandy 2003 p. 15).

Julia Roberts and Swarmi Dharmdev.

A key tactic in British colonisation was convincing the population across the globe that Europeans were more ‘progressed’, and thus morally compelled to rule (Ibid.). India presented an exceptional case, however. The British had to reconcile with thousands of years of ‘civic living, a well-developed-literati tradition… and alternative traditions of philosophy, art and science’ (Ibid. 16-17) So the British claimed the subcontinent was degraded, having fallen from a prior superiority (Ibid. p. 22). In short, British superiority was declared through establishing there was nothing to be learnt from India.

Reframing the Question

So Julia Roberts is learning from India in a way that carries a colonial history, and yet not-learning-from was key to colonisation? What should we do?

Prepositions (from, with, about etc.) come loaded, so we can be more thoughtful about which ones we use. We can also reframe the question.

Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (2009, p. 194) asks ‘what happens when one takes indigenous thought seriously’? Though he is discussing the radical alterity presented to us by indigenous worlds, his argument can be applied to peoples anthropology studies in general.

For Viveiros de Castro, there are several tendencies which preclude anthropologists from taking indigenous thought seriously. Explaining indigenous thought in terms of ‘belief’ and ‘systems of belief’ is especially detrimental. ‘Belief’ tends towards taking indigenous thought as an opinion or a proposition (Ibid. p. 194-5). Thinking in these terms leads in two directions: people are rendered either irrational, or as voicing ‘some inborn esoteric science divining the inner, ultimate essence of things’ (Ibid. p. 195).

Instead we can allow the philosophies of others to disturb our own thinking. We can allow indigenous thought to deprive our own concepts – like temporality, design, or emic/etic – of their universality (Skafish 2014, p. 18). Adopting this stance can help working towards decolonisation, because it undermines academia’s ability to claim ultimate intellectual authority (Ibid.).

Let those categories be thrown into disarray!

We can now return to the question raised at the beginning of the post, accompanied by Vivieros de Castro. Learning from India can be problematic if we get caught up in legitimating or valorising ideas, even if this seems like an ethical move. Instead, we can let go of the intellectual authority to validate or invalidate the philosophies of others, and allow the ideas of others to undermine the concepts we take for granted. 


Chandra, S 2015, ”India Will Change You Forever’: Hinduism, Islam, and Whiteness in the American Empire’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 40, no. 2, pp. 487-512.

Nandy, A 2003, The Intimate Enemy, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Skafish, P 2014, ‘Introduction’, in E Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, pp. 9-33.

Viveiros de Castro, E 2009, Cannibal Metaphysics, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

See Also:

Check out Lani’s critique of self-discovery. She describes Eat Pray Love as great for an anthropology student to watch ‘for all the wrong reasons’. Lani has also contributed a post on cultural appropriation.

Reflexivity can also offer us better understanding of how we learn. You can read Anatol’s post here.

Allowing our concepts to be undermined can be disorientating and disconcerting. I write about this in another post, ‘Being Disconcerted’.