No Homo Bro: Viewing Humans as Primates and the Nature/Culture Divide

Humans are primates. First scandalously suggested – or, at least, first credited as being suggested – by Charles Darwin, this taxonomical classification has since been confirmed by genetic DNA testing. Humans are very much primates, with our genetic similarity to chimpanzees, our closest relatives, as being ‘wellover 99%’ (Waldau 2007, 105; original emphasis removed). Humans are closer to chimps, genetically, than African elephants are to Asian elephants (ibid.).

This fact has caused ideological problems for much of the Western world. The Christian Bible has long advocated man’s dominion over animals – not over other animals, but over animals, period. There is a deep-seated belief in the idea that human are somehow intrinsically separate from, and “above”, the animal world (not to mention the worlds of plants and fungi). This view remains common today, with many Western and Westernized peoples ‘count[ing] themselves a significant cut above animals’ (Sheets-Johnstone 2010, 347); viewing humanity as inherently ‘set apart from the rest of nature’ (Waldau 2007, 107). Carl Linnaeus’ classification of humans as animals, and, later, following Darwin, the taxonomical restructuring of humans as primates, has challenged this deeply held conviction of the Western world’s. And think about it: We classified ourselves as primates. Classification is a human concept, bounded by human-created terms and ideologies. Even the scientific concepts of genetics and DNA are arguably bound to specifically human understandings and framings of these concepts.

So why, then, do so many people still reject the idea that we are “like primates”, or that primates are “like us”? Much of it is tied to the perceived “nature/culture” divide and the socially-held idea that ‘in virtue of culture, humans transcend nature’ (Sheets-Johnstone 2010, 347). Yet modern academic critiques (both positive and negative) of the so-titled “Anthropocene” recognise this divide as ‘an untenable approach’ (Fuentes 2012, 142). Rather, our (human) place in the world and our relationship with “nature”, is ‘an important arena for [ongoing] anthropological analysis’ (Fuentes 2012, 141). This includes, undoubtedly, our ideological relationship with ourselves as primates, as well as our ideological and physical relationships with other non-human primates. The emergence of ethnoprimatology in the anthropological field is evidence of this growing interest in the link(s) between humans and primates. Fuentes writes that an ‘ethnoprimatological [sic] orientation accepts humans as primates and sees value in including other primates as co-participants in shaping social and ecological space’ (Fuentes 2012, 142). Here, ethnoprimatology draws heavily on the concept of the Anthropocene.

Certainly, the insisted separation between humans and primates is revealed to be a distinctly ­Western phenomenon. In many places, humans live in close co-habitation alongside other non-human primates, such as in South- and Southeast Asia, as well as in parts of Africa. Diogo (2018) argues that the negative view of primates is a uniquely European phenomenon, as many other people(s) who interact frequently with primates tend to have a much closer and even reverent relationship with them. He cites Egyptian hieroglyphs depicting Babi, the baboon God, as well as Balinese temples filled with real and sculpted long-tailed monkeys. Waldau (2007), too, references the words of gorilla scientist Dian Fossey’s guide Manuel, who, when encountering free-ranging gorillas in Rwanda, exclaimed ‘Kweli ndugu yanga’, a Swahili phrase meaning ‘Truly my kin’ (Waldau 2007, 104). This reveals intrinsic differences between Western and non-Western views regarding other non-human primates, and our relationship with them.

Of course, this culturally perceived kinship between Swahili peoples and gorillas in no way justifies or legitimises the colonial and very racialized history of Europeans referring to Black African humans as apes. Inspired by Linnaeus’s proposed sub-species (see my companion post here), the early days of physical anthropology were rife with apparently “scientific” comparisons between the physiology of Black African humans and great apes such as gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans. Black Africans (and their kin across the colonies) were routinely referred to as “less evolved” or “less advanced” than their white European counterparts; further down on the evolutionary ladder and more akin to the apes than to “civilised” humans. (Of course, the idea that evolution is a “ladder” at all is a complete fallacy, but that’s an argument for another day). As such, colonial regimes of slavery, segregation, and apartheid could be legitimised through “scientific” terms. Yet once again, we see Diogo’s (2018) claim that this negative view of primates is a distinctly European perspective. Being likened to primates is, in itself, arguably not a “negative” thing – since humans are primates, and there may be much to admire in the lifestyles of primates across the globe. Only in the Christian European view were primates viewed as below humans, and therefore to be like primates was also to be below (other) humans. Modern anthropological and ethnoprimatological analyses critique these understandings, both historical and ongoing, and question, quite literally, what it means “to be human” – and to be primates.

Image Source: Business Insider


Diogo, R 2018, ‘Links Between the Discovery or Primates and Anatomical Comparisons with Humans, the Chain of Being, Our Place in Nature, and Racism’, Journal of Morphology, Vol. 279, Issue 4, pp.472-493

Fuentes, A 2012, ‘Proposal 2: Humans as Niche Constructors, As Primates and With Primates: Synergies for Anthropology in the Anthropocene’, Cambridge Anthropology, Vol. 30, Issue 2, pp.141-146

Sheets-Johnstone, M 2010, ‘The Descent of Man, Human Nature and the Nature/Culture Divide’, Anthropological Theory, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp.343-360

Waldau, P 2007, ‘Kweli Ndugu Yanga – The Religious Horizons of “Humans are Primates”’, Worldviews, Vol. 11, No. 1, pp.103-123

See More:

“Go Back To Where You Came From!” An Anthropological Look at Linnaeus, Taxonomy, and Classification

Things We Wish We Knew In First Year: Ethnocentrism (and Anthropocentrism)

The Anthropo Scene Part I

The Anthropo Scene Part II

Things We Wish We Knew: Temporality

Studies of temporality consider experiences of time, and how experiences of time are mediated. This mediation could be variously through objects, materials, institutions, interactions and categories. With this list alone, you already start to sense how most anything can be studied in temporal terms. This is why temporality is an crucial concept: it pervades the social world.

I’ll start sketching temporality with a concrete example. The example comes from design anthropology, an area often foregrounding temporality. But keep in mind you can attend to temporality in almost every anthropological analysis.

Making Time

Contrasting a product design studio with eco-home builders, Anusas and Harkness (2016) show how ways of making things ‘invoke or at least encourage’ different temporalities (p. 55).

The design studio was in a large UK city, with many projects running at once (Ibid. p. 57). Due to pressure from clients, faster design methods were favoured (Ibid., 61). Getting projects ‘off the books’ quickly also meant sustaining the business (Ibid.). Designers focused on what was about to occur or would soon occur. Rarely did they think in time frames greater than weeks (Ibid. p. 58). Coping with projects this way, the designers’ experience of the present can be called ‘close-present’ (Ibid.).

Close-present temporality could be seen in ‘much of the verbal, bodily and material sociality’ of the studio (Ibid. p. 59). For example, the designers often said ‘time is in short supply’, gesticulating to convey this shortage, and leading them to favour speedy design tools such as 3D printing (Ibid. p. 61). Note that a preference for certain tools also means a certain relationship with those tools.

Harkness’ fieldwork was with Earthship builders in Scotland and New Mexico. For these builders, temporality wasn’t sensed as either close-present, nor in short supply (Ibid. p. 61). Earthship builders seek to create sustainable new dwellings, taking a preference for ‘natural’ and recycled materials, along with renewable energy. In turn, these builders make new ways of living, with ‘impulses towards creating alternative futures’, ‘to bring change to the world, to shift the ground, to alter the rules’ (Ibid. p. 62).

An Earthship in construction.

Anusas and Harkness call the temporality made by Earthship building a ‘far reaching present’. Sustainable materials and a shared awareness of environmental issues gave a means to make this temporality ‘real or manifest’ (Ibid. p. 65). In other words, the action of building also made experiences of the present. This included relationships with humans, nonhumans and materials. Though the studio designers had similar environmental and ethical concerns, commercial restraints hindered an experience of the present as far-reaching (Ibid. p. 66).

Let’s look to the history of temporality in anthropology, to contextualise Anusas and Harkness’ approach. In the early 1990s, Nancy Munn (1992) gauged anthropological research on temporality. She found a neglect for one factor. Anthropologists had written too little about temporality as being constantly mediated through everyday life (Munn 1992, p. 116). For instance, Evans-Pritchard (1940) argued the Neur perceive time through local seasonal categories, the main two being tot and mai (p. 96). But this focus on abstract concepts led Evans-Pritchard to neglect how temporal experiences are mediated everyday through mundane social life (Ibid p. 96).

The design studio/Earthships contrast shows how temporal experiences are mediated through mundane practices like making and labouring, as well as through materials and things. Temporality does involve high-level abstraction. But it cannot be grasped only at an abstract level. Nor can it be grasped solely through obvious materials and things like clocks and calendars (Bear 2016 p. 48) or lunar cycles (Munn 1992 p.96).

Temporality pervades social life. Nurturing a sensitivity to the temporal will add nuance to your anthropological literacy, so start thinking temporally!


Anusas, M and Harkness, R 2016 ‘Different Presents in the Making’, in R Charlotte Smith, K Tang Vangkilde, M Gislev Kjaersgaard, T Otto, J Halse and T Binder (eds), Design Anthropological Futures, Bloomsbury, London, pp. 55-70.

Bear, L 2016, ‘Time as Technique’, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 45, pp. 487-502.

Evans-Prichard, EE 1940, The Neur: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Munn, N 1992, ‘The Cultural Anthropology of Time: A Critical Essay’, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 21, pp. 93-123.

Rabinow, P and Marcus, G 2008, Designs for an Anthropology of the Contemporary, Duke University Press, Durham.

See also:

Can we think about the design studio/Earthships example in relation to the art/science debate? Is the art/science distinction helpful here? Can anthropologists study experience in a scientific way?

Rob mentions categories in his post on ontology. Is temporality a category?

Next time your ice-cream is melting, think about temporality!

Mary Douglas’s Garden

What is a weed? Perhaps that’s a trick question. And no, I’m not talking about marijuana (although according to Agriculture Victoria, marijuana is, in fact, classified as a “noxious weed”. There you have it!). I’m talking about common garden weeds – plants like dandelions, morning glory (bindweed), crabweed, spiny emex, etc. The kinds of plants you’d recognise by sight but maybe not necessarily by name. Taxonomically speaking, there is no single family or genera of “weeds”; no uniform classificatory status. Merriam-Webster (that most cited of online dictionaries) defines a ‘weed’ as “a plant that is not valued where it is growing”, “usually of vigorous growth,” and “one that tends to overgrow or choke out more desirable plants”. They are productive and voracious growers – voracious not in the food-hungry sense of the word, but in their eagerness, their enthusiasm to grow – appearing in spaces where other plants simply wouldn’t survive; such as on concrete pathways and in rooftop gutters. They grow quickly and reproduce abundantly, colonizing available ground with speed. Certainly, they are intrinsically bound to these concepts of space and place: ‘Many plants become weeds simply by being in the wrong place’ (Creswell 1997, 335; emphasis added). Take the common dandelion, for example (Taraxacum officinale). A meadow filled with their bright yellow flowers – a literalization of the Anthropological “field” if ever there was one – would be considered charming. Look at all that yellow! Yet when a dandelion appears in a garden or public pathway, they are no longer considered charming. They are immediately relegated to the category of the “weed”.

But what, you ask, does any of this have to do with Anthropology? You want to study people, not weeds. Well, fair enough. But think about it: Who defines this notion of “right” and “wrong” places for weeds to grow? Mary Douglas, a prominent Anthropologist you’re bound to come across in your studies, is perhaps most famous for her argument that dirt is simply ‘matter out of place’ (Douglas 1965, 198). So, too, are weeds simply plants that are “out of place”. They are weeds only in relation to their unwanted-ness; and, specifically, to human want and un-want. A cat, or a deer, or a bee, or a tree, has no concept of a weed; for weeds ‘are creatures of human disturbance’ (Tsing 2017, 3; emphasis added). For me, weeds highlight the human obsession with classifying things and putting them in their “right place”. This linguistic and ideological obsession is ‘deeply engrained in the way we think and act’ (Creswell 1997, 334); in how we think about and interact with the world around us. We order this world in carefully constructed ways, both scientifically – through taxonomy and nomenclature (see my companion post on Carl Linnaeus’s legacy here) – and practically. Gardens are personifications of this botanical ordering, with each plant put in its correct place, ‘forming a harmonious whole’ (Creswell 1997, 335) in which weeds would be a disturbance: ‘useless, harmful, and undesirable’ (ibid.). In removing such “weeds” from the human-cultivated space of the garden – in performing the verbal act, “to weed” – the gardener ensures that the physical world ‘conforms to the structure of ideas’ (Douglas 1965, 199). Things belong where they belong, and must remain so, bounded and boxed eternally. A garden full of weeds is not a garden at all but a representation of the “natural” and the “wild”, encroaching on the “human” and the “civilised”. Colonial terminology abounds.

Certainly, our pedantic categorising of the world around us reveals more about ourselves than, arguably, any inherent properties of the world itself. A weed is not a weed until a human deems it so, and a human only deems it so when a plant has the wild, untamed audacity to grow where it is not wanted. Anything can be a weed, in that sense (okay, except for maybe trees – which grow too slowly and would be “weeded out” before they reached anything approaching maturity). Conversely, it appears that plants can occasionally escape the denomination of “weed”, too. In my grandmother’s retirement village in South Africa, a common species of clover (nomenclature unknown), with its dainty purple flowers – long relegated to the category of “weed” in the village inhabitants’ previous suburban gardens – had achieved an ideological revolution, and was now present in almost every garden and window-box in the village. My mother was horrified. “But it’s a weed!” she cried, repeatedly. And yet the inhabitants of the retirement village had now deemed it not so. The ease with which the “weedy” clover grew was now coveted, and the flowers “sweet” and “pretty”. It makes me think of the Shakespearian idiom “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Would a weed by any other name be considered as “weedy”? As unwanted? As out of place? Clearly not.

Image Source: Travel Like a Local: Vermont


Creswell, T 1997, ‘Weeds, Plagues, and Bodily Secretions: A Geographical Interpretation of Metaphors of Displacement’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 87, No. 2, pp.330-345

Douglas, M 1965, ‘Pollution’, in W.A. Lessa and E.Z. Vogt (Eds.), Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, Third Edition, Harper & Row Publishers, U.S.A., pp.196-202

Tsing, A 2017, ‘The Buck, The Bull, and The Dream of the Stag: Some Unexpected Weeds of the Anthropocene’, Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society, Vol. 42, Issue 1, pp.3-21

See Also:

A Schooey of Lager and a Shot of Anthropology

In this post I’ll be speaking directly from personal experiences of slinging booze and how I, over the years, have not been able to stop myself from seeing my world of work through an anthropological lens.

First, a brief description of the bar to set the scene:

On entry the bar is dark and its wood paneling, teal velvet and painted brick, gold lamé curtains and pink neon light tie together a paradoxically obvious and non-specific nostalgic aesthetic. The bar staff and owners are all women, ranging from 22-34 years old, and they stand behind a long bar that takes up much of the space, making sitting at the bar the most obvious option for positioning oneself in the space. Lone customers and regulars always make for those bar stools, whereas those in groups might order standing at the bar and then move collectively to a table outside or to a booth by the window. The bar has 4 beer taps served only in schooners, a large volume of a small range of tinnies (canned beer), liquor for cocktail-making and shot-taking, and a growing number of hats stacked in high places to serve the sartorial whims of the bar team.

From my side of the bar I watch a steady stream of people, known and unknown, come through the front door every night. It is my job to serve them what they order, yes, but more so it is my job to maintain a particular social environment. This is an environment of alcohol consumption practices, social relations on both sides of the bar and the spatial realm of the bar itself, unspoken rules, and unexpected forms of community and ritual.

For some, the fact that we don’t sell pub staple Carlton Draught is disorientating. For others, a lack of high-end whiskey is a disappointment. Many are more than happy to just choose from what we stock with no expectations. The process of ordering is a kind of negotiation in which the customer indicates preferences, and the bartender sells them whatever experience the bar can offer as closest fitting to those preferences.

The bar top itself is the site of exchange of alcohol for money, but also a site in which social relations are mediated: a safe barrier between bartender and stranger, a place for regulars and bartenders to lean in and exchange affection, even a platform on which to dance where both bartender and regular can be raised up above the room in a joyous performance of territorial freedom. It’s a place where payment is occasionally even waived for ‘friends of the bar’. These are our long term customers, our friends and family, and the local network of other bartenders and bar owners (who also have a Facebook group to warn of troublesome customers leaving venues and what direction they are headed, to ask for advice and to raise community issues). Over the years working in several bars I’ve noticed that nearly all of these instances of giving, or gifting, rather than selling are done through the medium of shots. They’re quick to pour, and after one customary tap on the bar top, they’re quick to drink. Shots are how we show affection and gratitude. When the bar team huddles together on a busy night after one of us queries ‘Morale?’, shots are how we bolster our team spirit and ward off weariness.

There have been varied anthropological studies of drinking culture and the bar environment, and some have even been corporately commissioned by breweries and distilleries to investigate how sales actually work in individualised bar environments. The reason that these sales vary, surely, is because bars are not universally identical spaces with a common clientele. I believe the environment of a bar can support as much of a community as a church, with a similarly regular rotation of social interactions, support for personal issues, and a safe space to meet. Granted, this community’s binding ritual practice is the consumption of alcohol rather than any spiritual worship.

So, where is the line between capital-driven hospitality and a community? In my current family-like environment, my job often feels like a mutual investment in our community that each of our small team is committed to. The sales philosophy is implicitly based on building relationships. The business makes the most out of a harshly capitalistic system by refusing to aspire to unlimited growth and corporate empire, instead privileging locality and familiarity by catering to a clientele who share similar values.

And a note to first year anthropology students:

Make the most of what you start to see from anthropological perspectives in your everyday life. The ‘field’ does not have to be some far off village, or even your neighbor’s backyard. Your backyard is a great place to start!

See also:

Wilson, T. M. (2005) Drinking cultures : alcohol and identity. Berg.

Thing We Wish We Knew in First Year : Art/Science Debate

AnthropOLOGY. It is the ‘ology’ that often misleads those unfamiliar with anthropology to assume that it is a science. It is indeed a social science, but the degree to which it can be considered truly scientific has long been a subject of debate, mostly within the discipline itself.

This is the art/science debate, in which some use the data-collection, theory-based analysis and systematic ordering of the world within anthropology to argue that it is a science, and others use the intimacy of participant observation, literary description and subjectivity of it all to call it an art. While it would seemingly make sense to just decide that anthropology is perhaps both a bit art and and a bit science, there are important political and ethical implications to which side one approaches the discipline with, in theory and in practice.

There are prominent anthropologists on both sides of the debate, and sometimes their arguments are published side by side, like with this Harris and Geertz debate (Endicott and Welsch 2005). Marvin Harris argued that anthropology should be used to discover ‘verifiable laws’ of culture, like a scientific method, through his theory of cultural materialism (an evolutionary model). Geertz conversely says that anthropology is about creating deeper interpretations of culture, and that it should not be concerned with proving or disproving things. The politics of these different viewpoints become clear when observing a cultural setting; will you look at a scenario as something in which evolutionary functions of cultural forms can be identified, or will you prioritise the investigation of meaning and symbolism? As a researcher, are you a scientist seeking to prove objective fact? Or are you a glorified tourist armed with critical theory?

I would personally take pride in embodying the latter, but how you interpret the scope of anthropology is, as always and wonderfully, entirely up to you.


Endicott, K.M. and Welsch R.L. (2005), Taking sides: clashing views on controversial issues in Anthropology (third edition) Iowa: McGraw Hill, issue 9, pp. 168-191.

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year : Ethnography

The word ‘Ethnography’ can etymologically be broken down into two root concepts: the writing (graphy) of people (ethnos). ‘People’ in this sense, refers to their culture and systems of meaning.

Though ethnography can be written for a variety of reasons, and any piece of writing can be ‘ethnographic’ in nature through an attention to describing culture, ethnography is most explicitly linked to social and cultural anthropology as the product of anthropological investigation and qualitative research. It is a transcription of observation in which the experiences of the anthropologist are recorded with varying emphasis on the participatory presence of the ethnographer themselves in their research environment; it may be autobiographical or make no mention of self at all, with every degree in between as a possibility.

In origin ethnography is often attributed to Bronislaw Malinowski (a name you’ll hear a lot if you’re studying anthropology), who in his Argonauts of the Western Pacific was one of the first to write descriptively from an attempted emic , or insider, perspective. Ethnography is produced from participant observation in which the researcher is immersed in a group, sometimes without hypotheses to test, instead forming their theory from what is observed and from existing cultural theory.

The proliferation of ethnography as a common academic text since Malinowski’s work has lead to the emergence of too many revered publications and academics to count. As anthropology has shifted its focus and experienced philosophical ‘turns’, so has the content and form of ethnography transformed. Postcolonial, postmodern and feminist discourses in the latter half of the twentieth century paved the way for current forays into multi-sited and multifocal research, meaning that the people or culture written about in ethnography might be drawn from multiple locations, transnationally, from the digital world, or even using the absence of location. The focus of the research can also be interdisciplinary, with ethnography providing a descriptive supplement to something else.

Each of the contributors to this blog are likely to use some form of ethnography in their honours theses, but a text that can be described as an ethnography proper will generally be a product of months to years of immersion in ‘the field’ (physical or otherwise), and culminate in a long published piece as a book or in an academic journal.

Check out these ethnographies for some of the greats of the past century of ethnographic writing (ordered by year) :

Malinowski, B. (1922). Argonauts of the Western Pacific : an account of native enterprise and adventure in the archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. Routledge & Kegan Paul

Evans-Pritchard, E.E.  (1937). Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Mead, M. (1943).  Coming of Age in Samoa: a study of adolescence and sex in primitive societies, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Turnbull, C. M. (1968). The forest people. New York, Simon & Schuster.

Taussig, M.  (1980). The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, University of North Carolina Press.

Scheper-Hughes, N. (1993).  Death without Weeping: the violence of everyday life in Brazil, University of California Press.

Graeber, D. (2009) Direct action : an ethnography. AK Press.

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Participant Observation

Image result for participant observation cartoon

“Not sure if stalking, or participant observation”

Anthropologists and sociologists claim participant observation to be a method that distinguishes their fieldwork from other types of social science. Whereas quantitative methods involve cold hard numbers (which seems boring, to be honest), qualitative methods are more based on feelings, observations and language. Yet participant observation is still a rigorous method! A participant observer tries to immerse themselves in new experiences whilst suspending all judgement and being open to new experiences. This is a difficult feat for anyone, it takes a lot of patience and self-critique.

The general order to participant observation is that a researcher will connect with a group or community, then integrate into this group in order to watch and learn about social structures, patterns and behaviours. Participant observation is usually overt, the participants know that the anthropologist is observing them with the intention of writing about them, and have given informed consent. In the past, anthropologists have been more covert, but this raises a whole host of ethical issues around such deception and extraction of knowledge. The researcher is responsible for minimising any potential risks that might be inflicted upon the participants from the research, the Australian Anthropological Association has a code of conduct for more information on this matter.  

Participant observation can change depending on the field, but the standard depiction of it, is of a researcher joining in on the everyday or routine tasks of their participants. It also might involve some conversations with participants, scribbling observations in notebooks and waiting around. During this time, the researcher often monitors their internal thoughts and prejudices. This might include considering how their own identity and experience effect their feelings and interactions with participants, which they sometimes record in a journal of self-reflection. The researcher must also be mindful that participants behaviour may change, since the participant know they are being researched. For example, they might subconsciously try to mirror what they believe the research is about. The researcher will often check with the participants to see if they feel as though they are being represented accurately.

You don’t have to do participant observation in a faraway place, you can do it in your own community. There are different types of participant observation, ranging from complete involvement, where the researcher is already a member of the group, to passive involvement. For some more information about how complete participant observation is used by activists, see this post.

At the end, the researcher will remove themselves from the situation and often compile their observations in the form of an ethnography. Through this deep sense of engagement with a group of people, participant observation can unveil things that might be below the surface level, that are subconscious, taboo or rarely talked about amongst a group of people (Guest et al., 2013). This means that participant observers are able to shed light on different experiences of being human, which not only generates knowledge about the world but also fosters empathy and openness.


Australian Anthropological Society. 2019, Code of Ethics. Retrieved from 

DeWalt, K. M. DeWalt, B. R. 2011, Participant observation: a guide for fieldworkers. Rowman & Littlefield. pp 2-11

Guest, G., Namey, E., & Mitchell, M. 2013, “Participant Observation” Collecting qualitative data 55 City Road, London: SAGE Publications. pp. 75-112.

Things We Wish We Knew in First Year: Reflexivity

Image courtesy of author

‘Reflexivity’ is about acknowledging the relationship between a researcher and their subject, and to what degree the researcher influences the outcome of their research (whether in social sciences or natural sciences) (Salzman, 2002). Within anthropology this requires reflecting on the biases and impact of the researcher, as an active social actor, in the field. Reflexivity, or the ‘reflexive turn’, in the discipline emerged out of criticisms of the supposed scientific objectivity of mainstream anthropology, primarily by postcolonial and feminist scholars in the 1970s and 80s (Salzman, 2002). The kinds of questions that reflexivity asks include:

  • To what degree does an ethnographer shape the actions of their informants?
  • In what ways does the history, and identity, of the ethnographer influence what they see as important (or see at all) in the field?
  • Are there things that researchers are unable to see in their field because of their gender, for example, or class?
  • Is objectivity possible? Or does it just reflect the views of the writer (historically white and European).
  • Does the attempt to achieve objectivity, or the authoritative voice, perpetuate power relationships between ethnographer and informants, and in doing so maintain colonial relationships?
  • Can writing truly describe a culture or social system?

Reflexive research has become the norm in contemporary social science, but how one goes about achieving reflexivity, as well as the relative weight of objectivity/subjectivity that is possible, is still a grey area to be negotiated by every anthropologist. There is an argument that ‘reflexive’ research can become narcissistic and self-defeating if it just consists of a subjective reflection by the researcher, (Madden, 2010, p. 26). Madden argues for a reflexivity that has a commitment to producing better research data (by factoring in the researcher’s effect on the field) while also dealing with the identity and socio-political position of the researcher:

“The overall point I want to make about reflexivity in ethnography is that, despite the strict meaning of the term, reflexivity is not really about ‘you, the ethnography’; it’s still about ‘them, the participants.’” (2010, p. 26)


Madden, R., 2010. Being Ethnographic: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Ethnography. SAGE.

Salzman, P.C., 2002. On Reflexivity. American Anthropologist 104, 805–813.

For classic examples of ethnographic reflexivity see also:

Behar, R., Gordon, D.A., 1995. Women Writing Culture. University of California Press.

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

Geertz, C., 1988. Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Stanford University Press.

Maton, K., 2003. Reflexivity, Relationism, & Research: Pierre Bourdieu and the Epistemic Conditions of Social Scientific Knowledge. Space and Culture 6, 52–65.

Rabinow, P., 1977. Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco. University of California Press.

Rosaldo, R., 1980. Ilongot Headhunting, 1883-1974: A Study in Society and History. Stanford University Press.

Sangren, P.S., 2007. Anthropology of Anthropology?: Further Reflections on Reflexivity. Anthropology Today 23, 13–16.

An Anthropology of Scientific Things

A profile on Stefan Helmreich

Stefan Helmreich Lecture Slide

Whether anthropology is an art or a science is a long debate (see Julia’s post here), but what can the anthropology of science look like? Anthropology and sociology of scientific research has an extensive history and now a lot of that research, along with the philosophy and history of science, falls under the inter-disciplinary category of STS, or Science and Technology Studies.

Bruno Latour is perhaps the most well-known science studies scholar within anthropology, with the book he co-authored with Steve Woolgar Laboratory Life: the Social Construction of Scientific Facts (1979), having been very influential in the social studies of science (and very controversial at the time, part of the so-called ‘science wars’. Latour and Woolgar argued that ‘facts’ both emerged from and only had meaning within social networks of people and institutions. Often simplistically portrayed as a ‘science-denier’ he now has taken up climate change advocacy to find ways of engaging the public with scientific knowledge (Vrieze, 2017).

Stefan Helmreich, a professor at MIT, is another important anthropologist of science whose research delves into human and non-human relationships, specifically through the lens of scientific research. He has written on artificial life—Silicon Second Nature (1998)—, marine biologists—Alien Ocean (2009)—, and most recently his research has been on waves: from a variety of points of view including from oceanographers, computational life scientists and audio-engineers—Sounding the Limits of Life (2016).

Speaking about waves Helmreich, in a 2014 lecture, says that he is interested in studying them as scientific things, in other words, things that simultaneously exist ‘out there’ but “cannot be separated from the formalisms describing them” (2014, p. 267). Because, in the ocean, it’s so hard to determine what a ‘single’ wave is, working with oceanographers, Helmreich sees that their understanding of waves is totally bound up in the representations, the computer models:

“Waves are mash-ups, amalgams of watery events, instrumented captures of those events, and mathematical portraits of those events, often described statistically rather than singularly” (2014, p. 272)

The waves that oceanographer’s are modelling are, in some ways, human creations at the same time as things in and of themselves. Particularly when ocean waves are of such importance in anthropogenic climate change, waves are inherently connected to human activities. In this way Helmreich proposes that waves have a history, intimately connected with human history. Even the scientific models of waves depend on an entire technological and social infrastructure of buoys, satellites, and computer models.


Helmreich, S., 2014. Waves: An anthropology of scientific things. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4, 265–284.

Vrieze, J. de, 2017. Bruno Latour, a veteran of the ‘science wars,’ has a new mission [WWW Document]. Science | AAAS. URL (accessed 6.11.19).

See Also:

What is Deep Sea Mining? Video with Stefan Helmreich

Ethics of applied anthropology

The Human Terrain System (HTS) was a US military program that ran from February 2007 through until September 2014. Growing out of a ‘cultural turn’ in the US military, it enlisted social scientists, including anthropologists, to provide cultural knowledge during the counterinsurgency war in Iraq and Afghanistan (Forte, 2011). The argument was that cultural information would be used for military occupations anyway and, by at least engaging with the military, anthropologists could give better information for the military. This could lead to less violence by the military because of better understanding of how local cultures work (2011, p. 150).

While the program was greeted with favourable press at first, it quickly started receiving major criticism, particularly from anthropologists (2011). The American Anthropological Association (AAA) released statements stating that the HTS was incompatible with the AAA’s code of ethics on a range of fronts. In the end, partly because of the efforts of the AAA and others, there were very few anthropologists in the program.

Understandably a very large number of anthropologists were horrified by the concept of ‘embedded’ ethnographers working within the US counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Particularly given how the discipline sees itself in the wake of the Postcolonial and Marxist criticisms of the discipline in the 60s and 70s: that it was a ‘handmaiden’ to colonialism & imperialism (Forte, 2011, p. 150). While the relationship between anthropological research and colonial administration within colonised countries has been well documented, the complex relationships between anthropology and the military-industrial complex are not as widely discussed.

David H. Price is an American anthropologist who has a series of books looking at some of these varied connections, in the US context, from World War I and through the Cold War. Especially during the two world wars, there were anthropologists who were actively involved with the national intelligence organisations, including as spies, language instructors and strategic analysts (Price, 2008). During the McCarthy era of the Cold War (1940s and 50s), anthropologists were targeted and put under surveillance by the FBI, creating a difficult atmosphere for activist or radical anthropological writing (Price, 2004). As the Cold War developed, more subtle relationships between the CIA and anthropology evolved (Price, 2016),

In Cold War Anthropology (2016) Price discusses what he calls the dual use of anthropology, which has long been a term known to natural scientists (particularly chemists and physicists) in which ‘basic’ research is often used for military and commercial uses, and vice versa. He argues that such interconnection, witting or unwitting, is often not talked about in the case of anthropology. While he discusses one example of a CIA agent going undercover as an anthropologist in the field, a lot of the influence came through the funding opportunities that were shaped by Pentagon and CIA funds, often as gifts to universities channelled through ‘front organisations’ or well-known ‘neutral’ philanthropic organisations. Funding structures can easily shape the kinds of research being undertaken, sometimes to the advantage (or not) of the CIA and US military. In fact the AAA’s first code of ethics was developed in the wake of the ‘Thai Affair’ in which anthropologists contributed to counterinsurgency operations in Thailand in the 1970s (Price, 2016).

Obviously not all anthropologists were involved or complicit in the manoeuvring of the CIA and the Pentagon during the Cold War, but it is a good reminder that the political economy of knowledge production can have profound influences on academic research, including anthropology.


Forte, M.C., 2011. The Human Terrain System and Anthropology: A Review of Ongoing Public Debates. American Anthropologist 113, 149–153.

Price, D.H., 2016. Cold War anthropology: the CIA, the Pentagon, and the growth of dual use anthropology. Duke University Press, Durham.

Price, D.H., 2008. Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War. Duke University Press.

Price, D.H., 2004. Threatening anthropology: Mccarthyism and the FBI’s surveillance of activist anthropologists. Duke University Press, Durham.