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.

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

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 <;

Art + Anth (a multidisciplinary conversation) Pt. 2

A dialogue between Rob and Anatol on multiple lives and multiple disciplines.

In the present as were I still (installation view), Anatol Pitt, 2017, Photo: Christo Crocker

A: How does your art training influence the way you think about anthropology?

R: What strikes me is that much of the theory, the general sensibility even, of contemporary art, and of avant garde history in general, is concerned with a kind of qualitative research of our basic humanity. I totally agree with what you’ve said just now, I went through all kinds of disillusionment with ‘art writing culture’ and even art itself, as it has become gutted of the spirit of the avant garde in general, I feel. But now that I’m firmly in an academic discipline, the social sciences even, I maintain now more than ever that literary, artistic, cinematic, musical and theatrical modernism remains the forefront of human knowledge. An absolutely brazen statement, but I think it’s true.

Someone who has paid close attention to (the right kinds of) art, literature, cinema and music culture and so forth in the mid to late 20th century, has an innate sense of many of the insights of contemporary anthropology. That’s because artists don’t laboriously articulate the visions they have in analytical language, they use their imaginations to express what are in essence deep ontological insights. We the audience then allow ourselves to be impressed by these insights, in our act of viewing, or listening. Berger’s Ways of Seeing, as you know, is crucial in contemporary aesthetic theory and is now a few decades old, yet it has much to offer contemporary anthropology too, particularly in sensory ethnography and in some of the ‘ontological’ work of recent years.

But more than just the literature and theory around art and aesthetics, it is, as you say, just the ability to relate to artworks and to enjoy and consume artistic culture which I think has a lot to offer. As such, I think exposure to and a keen enjoyment of aesthetic cultures are essential for an intelligent understanding of the human and non-human world.

But the culture of writing is what we’re talking about here I guess. What do you think about disciplinary schisms?

tanpura study #2 (sa, ma, pa in C#) (installation view), Robert McDougall, 2014
found ceramic pots, wiring, lights, SD speakers, cotton, television, DVD with sound
Pepperhouse Studios, KOCHI, Kerala, India 2014
documentation video:

A: Schisms between disciplines or within disciplines? I do get frustrated by people not taking other disciplines seriously, or not trying to read very widely. I think a lot more people should have a better understanding of contemporary anthropology, but you can say the same about every discipline (be it physics, maths, law, geography, history, philosophy, gender studies, neuroscience, economics, biology etc etc.). I do sometimes worry about a lack of natural science literacy within the humanities and arts departments. I’m a big fan of interdisciplinary dialogue—though I understand that a lot of interdisciplinary research can lose the specificity or expertise that specific disciplines can bring.

Did you have a specific schism in mind?

R: I did in this context mean between art and anthropology, but yes I really agree that interdisciplinary dialogue is essential. I was talking this over with a visiting anthropologist recently, she was saying how another contemporary anthropologist was referencing something from Ancient Greece but got it totally wrong. Her husband is a Classics professor and realized as such, and they both remarked how pretentious it was, yet how no one seemed to notice because their/our anthropological peers aren’t expected to be versed in those kinds of studies. I went to a public Philosophy lecture here at Unimelb a few weeks ago on the subject of transformative experiences, and the visiting speaker, an esteemed Yale professor, seemed to be making claims in a parallel world where Arnold van Gennep’s rite de passage and Victor Turner’s subsequent work on liminality didn’t exist. It was in the same building as where I learned about those things!

In art school I guess we are really trained to try and look at everything, there are artists everywhere making work about everything, its amazing, and its common to meet artists who are experts in certain fields, and also common to meet artists who are real polymaths. They inspire me the most. But yes I find the lack of dialogue between philosophy and anthropology particularly fascinating, as if they are talking about different things – but that is a long historical story. This would include art history and theory, well versed in French philosophy, but often illiterate of anthropology – which I think has a lot more to offer, in so many ways. The artistic pursuit lends itself to anthropology and vice versa; art because of its imaginative and poetic ability to ask big questions, anthropology because of its basis in ethnography; the real world.

Art + Anth (a multidisciplinary conversation) Pt. 1

A dialogue between Rob and Anatol on multiple lives and multiple disciplines.

singled-channel excerpt from The Sokhumi Elegies, Robert McDougall, 2017

R: Both of us have backgrounds in Fine Art, which includes academic study of art history and theory, and anthropology. How and why did you decide each of these?

A: Well I grew up in a family in which art very important. My mum, brother and sister are artists. I actually got into art history through reading John Berger, who’s still one of my heroes (which reminds me that I haven’t read him in a while). Berger is also quite anthropological too, now that I think about it. Anthropology, as I mention in my bio, was kind of accidental. I had no plans to study anth originally but my girlfriend at the time was studying a 1st year anth unit on the history of capitalism and globalisation (this was at UWA in Perth) that I ended up transferring into.

You went to art school first right? Do you see your art practice and your studies/research as separate or that they dovetail one another?

R: Yes, I did an undergrad in Fine Art and then an Honours year, took a couple years doing residencies and exhibitions and then started with anthropology – my work was becoming increasingly anthropological in nature. The Sokhumi Elegies (2017) was a large-scale work I made in Georgia and the breakaway Republic of Abkhazia, about the War in 1992-1993. It was made up of collaborations with my friends, and my partner at the time also – all refugees from the War. I did what amounted to a year of solid fieldwork, in the Caucasus and beyond. I started to think about anthropology as a personal discipline I could commit to around that time – although there’d been a buildup to it for many years.

Actually I would consider myself foremost an artist, and artist-as-researcher, and anthropology is an aspect of that. Then again I plan on an academic career in anthropology, incorporating insights from art, culture and aesthetics. Then again, I consider myself foremost a philosopher (but in the medieval Alchemical sense, not in terms of the academic discipline), and as such my artistic and musical work, and the anthropological work I am now doing, is all an aspect of that. Hopefully that pretentious idea is applicable to academic tenure…

Sergei Paradjanov, the Armenian-Georgian Tbiliseli filmmaker, once said in an interview his greatest inspiration as an artist was ‘love, God and ethnography’, I would say at some point I started feeling the same. But interestingly now with this anthropological study the involvement of aesthetics is limited, such that I feel in unfamiliar terrain.

What about you? Why do you think they assist each other, and do you think anthropologists should know about art theory, do you think artists should know about anthropology? Berger was and is a great place to start!

A: That’s actually a difficult question. Firstly everything I do is informed by studying anthropology, it really has changed my orientation to the world. But on a literal level I think my artworks are informed so many of my interests (my current works I’m making are very ‘archaeological’), and more often than not trying to connect a wide variety of material/data I’ve come across, as well as my previous studies.

For example I did a series a few years ago that created stark landscapes by close-up photographing drawings I made on Japanese paper, using paint and white charcoal (see image below). They are about the relationship between drawing and photography but the technologies of vision of landscape documentary photography and how you can construct images through the process of documentation. Yet the title of the series (and accompanying video) is Enfoldment, which came from my interest in David Bohm’s theories of quantum physics in the 1970s, in which he theorised space-time as inherently deeply connected holographically to itself.  

TanDEM-X, inkjet print, Anatol Pitt, 2016

As far as if anthropologists should know art theory, I don’t know, but I definitely think that everyone should be more practiced in relating to artworks? I think art, at its best, can open you up to such a wide range of sensory experiences as well as many different ways of thinking about such a wide range of ideas. That’s a very clunky phrasing… I suppose I’m saying that the degree of freedom in art is good?

I love art because, on some level, it always exceeds language and interpretation. But maybe that’s just my excuse for not liking to talk about my own artwork ha.

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’.

Thinking with Tim Ingold

Sometimes when talking about anthropology, we can tend to talk about the discipline as though it is singular. Perhaps this is shorthand: we need a generalised ‘anthropology’ to make possible a general debate.

It’s also crucial not to obfuscate the diverse range of research methods, concepts, and ethical stances. So, what can we do to keep the anthropology’s diversity in mind?

One option: looking to thinkers whose style of doing anthropology diverges so much that some would wonder whether we can still call it anthropology. In this regard, I think Tim Ingold is helpful.

For some time now, Ingold has been trying to decouple anthropology and ethnography. For a discipline often defined through its use of ethnography, this decoupling presents a serious epistemological affront. 

For Ingold, ‘the collapse of anthropology into ethnography has deflected the discipline from its proper purpose’ (Ingold 2017, p. 21). What ‘proper purpose’? He offers a definition: ‘anthropology, I maintain, is a generous, open-ended, comparative, and yet critical inquiry into the conditions and possibilities of human life in the one world we inhabit’ (Ibid., 22). Ingold claims:

‘in finding ways to carry on… no specialist science, no indigenous group, no doctrine or philosophy already holds the key to the future if only we could find it. We have to make that future together, for ourselves, and this can only be done through dialogue. Anthropology exists to expand the scope of this dialogue: to make a conversation of human life itself’ (Ibid.).

To qualify this statement, I should stress that such a conversation could come in many forms. It could be between a student and the anthropology of gender, focused on alternatives and possibilities. A conversation can also happen on a much larger scale. In the Unites States during late 1920s, Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa started a large-scale conversation around the perceived difficulties of adolescence (Shankman 2009, p. 116). It’s imperative, in holding such conversations, to think about who might be excluded or not listened to.

How can anthropology best contribute to discussions about the future?

So why Ingold is so down on ethnography, when he’s so hopeful about anthropology? What would anthropology be, if not for ethnography?

Ingold doesn’t want to banish ethnography from anthropology. His concern is with misuse of the word ‘ethnography’. He thinks its misuse has negative effects. Encounters with people are not intrinsically ‘ethnographic’, rather, ‘what we could call ‘ethnographicness’’ is cast retrospectively after encounters’ (Ingold 2014 p. 386). Herein lies a temporal distortion. Casting encounters as ethnographic ‘consign[s] the incipient – the about-to-happen in unfolding relationships – to the temporal past of the already over… it is though, on meeting others face-to-face, one’s back is already turned on them’ (p. 386).

Ingold argues that anthropologists in the ‘field’ don’t experience the present as ‘ethnographic’. He suggests anthropologists should instead think in terms of participant observation. The reason for this is because participant observation asks anthropologists ‘to join in correspondence with those whom we learn or among whom we study, in a movement that goes forward rather than back in time’ (p. 390). In this way, anthropology can participate in dialogues of making futures.


Ingold, T 2014, ‘That’s Enough About Ethnography!’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 383-395.

Ingold, T 2017, ‘Anthropology Contra Ethnography’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 21-26.

Shankman, P 2009, The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Concept, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison.

See also:

Want to further explore anthropology’s purpose? Check out Maddie’s post ‘So What’s the Point of it All?‘.