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.

Anthro poetry

Ethnography these days can be like a jumble of different genres, including poetry, prose, narrative, memoirs and other forms of experimental writing. This pastiche captures anthropology as an art form rather than as a science.

The term ethnography means to write about people. Most early ethnography tried to seem objective by using constructions such as the passive tense, third person pronouns and scientific terminology (Maynard and Cahnmann-Taylor 2010, 2). Yet this detached tone was misleading, since ethnographers are individuals with distinct experiences who can only ever create interpretations of social reality. Since Geertz argued that anthropology is more of an art form, many ethnographers have written “thick description” and embraced their subjectivity by and being reflective of their own position (1979).

Anthropologists such as Adrie Kusserow, Nomi Stone, Michael Jackson, Ivan Brady and Renato Rosaldo have been using poetry to represent their perspectives in ethnography since the 1980s (Maynard and Cahnmann-Taylor 2010, 5). The Society for Humanistic Anthropology also runs an annual poetry competition, to prompt anthropologists to explore the interests of their discipline in other literary forms. Poetry already shares many of the same seeds of cultural anthropology, it is based on human experiences and representation.

Ethnographic poetry is not to be confused with the analysis of poetry within ethnography. Some ethnographers analyse the metaphor and literary forms of a culture, whereas other ethnographers use poetry as a literary genre to convey their experiences during field work. Clearly some ethnographic texts are more suitable to use poetry than others. When encountering a poem nestled in an ethnography, the reader might wonder why the anthropologist doesn’t just pursue poetry as a separate practice, rather than trying to be like a renaissance figure who tries to dabble in a bit of everything. Poetry is an abstract form that might cause misunderstanding for anthropologists who are trying to describe elements of human culture.

But if we assume that anthropology is not just about advancing knowledge, but an attempt to capture and translate other life rhythms and experiences, then poetry is a good fit for anthropology. If everything that could have been known has been known before, there are only “new ways of making them felt- of examining what those ideas feel like being lived” (Lorde 1977, 250). Lorde considers poetry the “revelatory distillation of experience” (248). It should never be considered as a luxury practice that is hidden away in private notebooks (248), just as anthropologists should not be limited to rigid writing styles to circulate within the confines of their ivory towers. For example, the anthropologist Ruth Benedict published her poetry under the name “Anne Singleton”, to avoid scrutiny from Franz Boaz and her other academic associates, who didn’t take poetry seriously (Maynard and Cahnmann-Taylor 2010, 5). The potential of poetry to capture insights into human experience is clear in the following poem of anthropologist and poet Adrie Kusserow (2016, 27-28):

Thirty-One, Anthropologist, No Gods Left,

If meaning has shape,

then I am searching for a bowl of it.


I don’t know anything anymore

except this:

If Knowledge came to me

in the thickest part of the night,

woke me with a flashlight,

asked me, What do you know?

I would say, nothing, nothing at all,

except diving, and loving this world.

There is plenty of academic writing in ethnography that unfortunately leaves the reader feeling indifferent, alienated or bored. Even the subjects of ethnography, whether people or places, can become “frozen in time” (Kusserow 2013, n.p). Poetry in ethnography can capture the flashes of perception that ethnographers experience. This can have a jolting effect, by displacing the reader from a sense of comfort and reserved distance. For this reason, ethnographers should accept poetic licence as a gift.


Tyler, S. 1984, The Poetic Turn in Postmodern Anthropology: The Poetry of Paul Friedrich. American Anthropologist, 86(2), new series. pp 328-336

Geertz, Clifford. 1973, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture.” In The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic Books. pp 3–30. 

Maynard, K, Cahnmann‐Taylor, M.  2010, Anthropology at the Edge of Words: Where Poetry and Ethnography Meet. Anthropology and Humanism, Vol. 35, Issue 1, pp 2–19,

Kusserow, A. 2016, A Different Kind of Ethnography: Imaginative Practices and Creative Methodologies. Edited by Elliott, D and Culhane, D. pp 27- 29.

Lorde, A. 1977, “Poetry Is Not A Luxury”. Chrysalis: A Magazine of Female Culture. Pp 248-250.

Polston, P. 2013, A Conversation With Anthropologist/Poet Adrie Kusserow. Seven Days.

Welcome to Anthrozine

We would like to acknowledge that we illegitimately live and work on lands and waters stolen from the peoples of the Kulin nation, particularly the Woiwurrung (Wurundjeri Willam) and Boonwurrung (Yalukit Willam) people from here in Narrm (Port Phillip Bay/Melbourne), for which sovereignty was never ceded and for which no treaty has ever been made. We duly pay respect to all those who live here and in the lands beyond, and to their families and elders; those in the past, those in our present time, and those emerging now, onwards to the future.

We would also like to acknowledge the problematic role that our discipline of anthropology has played in relation to First Nations people in this country and beyond in the past, and state our ongoing commitment to correcting this relationship, towards its continual reform as a field of research, study and practice exceptionally based upon justice, emancipation and respect. Decolonize now.

M.C. Escher’s Plane Filling II. An assemblage of creatures.

Hello and welcome to Anthrozine, a blog created by Anthropology Honours students at the University of Melbourne to give you the (abridged) A to Z on anthropology, and a smattering of other digressions that illustrate the expansive philosophies and scopes of anthropology.

This blog forms part of our assessment for the Honours subject Philosophy & Scope of Anthropology, taught by Tammy Kohn, whom you might be lucky enough to meet in your first year subject(s) (we would highly recommend attending lectures for a glimpse of Louie, Tammy’s very sweet dog).

We created this blog with the memory of our undergraduate years in mind: the fresh curiosity and intrigue, the concomitant confusion and disorientation, the persistent tendency to justify human behaviour or cultural habits with anthropological theory…And although we’re still learning, we thought we might be able to demystify some of the pre-eminent ideas and debates taking place in anthropology – from the past, the present, and the future.

Our hope is that after browsing through this blog, you’ll see the mundane and familiar in a new light: birthday celebrations will become sites of liminality, going to the footy will become an instance of collective effervescence, and you’ll start interrogating the ethnocentrism of established assumptions and norms, and consider culturally relative perspectives in encounters with the unfamiliar.

Here you’ll find a collection of definitions and clarifications that we wish we knew in first year (which are by no means expert or absolute), and articles which have been situated in relation to the past, present and future. Rather than strict categories, these links are only one way to guide your perusal of the blog. For example, posts about past debates in anthropology will be found in the “past” link, whilst posts about the directions in which anthropology is heading will be in the “future” link. Some posts will be in more than one, or even all three, and they don’t have to be read in a linear fashion. Some posts also utilise tags, which can be clicked to bring up all other posts on that topic. At the bottom of the blog, you’ll find our author biographies on the left and a search bar on the right.

Please also feel free to comment or ask questions, we hope you enjoy reading this blog as much as we enjoyed writing it!

— Anthropology Honours Class of 2019.