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?‘.

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. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1433.2010.01315.x

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.

Embrace the Serpent: Representing Anthropological Relationships

Karamakate, Theo, Manduca (R-L)

Embrace of the Serpent is a 2015 film by Colombian director Ciro Guerra that shows two anthropological journeys into the Colombian Amazon. It cuts between two timelines, 1909 and 1940, to show two journeys up the Colombian Amazon by Western researchers Theo and, later, Evan—who are based on ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grünberg and ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes. In the film, the two journeys are connected through the single character, Karamakate, a shaman and their guide. Karamakate is one of the surviving members of a fictionalised tribe, who have access to powerful medicinal plants, that Theo believes he needs to survive. The film blends Amazonian mythology with the diaries and writings of the Koch-Grünberg and Evans Shultes, depicting these journeys from the indigenous point of view as much as the explorers’. In an interview Guerra says that,

in order for the film to be true to that [the indigenous point of view], I had to stop being faithful to the “truth” because, to them, ethnographic, anthropological, and historical truths were as fictional as imagination and dream, which for them was valid. (Guerra, 2016)

Guerra worked with local indigenous communities in the writing and production of the film and, after the film’s premiere in Venice, it was screened a number of times in the Colombian Amazon. The film is spoken in nine languages, one of which, Ocaina is only spoken by sixteen people, and Guerra says that it was a powerful experience for them to see their language represented on the screen (Guerra, 2016).

Embrace of the Serpent, while a kind of parable or mythological story, gives a complex depiction of field relationships between the two social scientists and their indigenous interlocutors. They are characters that are sympathetic to the indigenous Amazonians, with Guerra on stating that Koch-Grünberg was, “the first to refer to the indigenous people in humanistic terms as the people of the Amazon” (Guerra, 2016). And they are shown in a very good light in comparison to the other Europeans of the film, who are either missionaries or rubber barons. The gravely ill Theo travels with Manduca, who is local and loyal to Theo because he payed out Manduca’s debt to the rubber plantation. Yet both Theo and Evans, as characters, have a ‘dark’ side to them, they are conceited and can’t full empathise with the local tribes and, at times, their attempt to extract knowledge without considering the indigenous perspective emerges.

In one scene, a tribe that Theo has visited before, and seems to be on good terms with, steals his compass. He confronts them and grabs one of the children pushing him to try and get it back.

Karamakate: You’re nothing but a white 
Theo: Their orientation system is based on the winds and the position of the stars. If they learn how to use a compass, that knowledge will be lost.
Karamakate: You cannot forbid them to learn. Knowledge belongs to all men. But you can’t understand that, because you’re just a white.

Here Theo’s obsession with maintaining the purity of ‘traditional’ local knowledge turns into a form of paternalism, in which he feels he knows what they should want or need better than they do.

Embrace of the Serpent skilfully balances the complexity of representing historical anthropological research. It depicts multiple relationships that developed and change between the characters, as individuals not just archetypes, throughout these journeys. Manduca and Karamakate are not simply victims, rather they choose to help the white interlopers and, for good and bad, feel like these researchers were their best shot at telling their stories to the colonisers and capitalists that were destroying their communities.

Guerra doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable actions and opinions of the researchers, and yet, these relationships are never ‘black and white’. Well, in a literal sense, they actually are because the film is shot using black and white 35mm film. The decision to shoot without colour was originally inspired by seeing the old daguerreotype photographic plates, which were “devoid of exuberance and exoticism”, and then going to the Amazonian jungle Guerra realised that colour film couldn’t begin to really represent the multiple colours there (Guerra, 2016). It also has another effect, which I found shone through when watching the film:

“[W]hen I talked to the Amazonian people, I realized that with black-and-white images there was no difference between nature being green and us being something else. Every human, every bird, every drop of water is made up the same in black and white so it was perfectly coherent. ” (Guerra, 2016)


Embrace of the Serpent 2015, video recording, Ciudad Lunar Producciones, Colombia. Directed by C Guerra

Guerra, C., 2016. Embrace of the Serpent: An Interview with Ciro Guerra [WWW Document]. Cineaste Magazine. URL https://www.cineaste.com/spring2016/embrace-of-the-serpent-ciro-guerra (accessed 6.9.19).

Are We All Pawns in a Simulated Reality? Ethical conundrums in Surveillance Capitalism


I aim to track 10,000 steps daily on Health. Okay Google, what is the weather like in Ballarat tomorrow? I post my #OOTD at 8:30 am so that I can maximise my exposure to my Instagram followers. iPhone’s geotagging is a breeze, saves me the time to tag places and faces. Hey, you know what we were talking earlier today? Facebook showed me an ad about it, amazing! Spotify’s recommendations are so spot-on! So thankful for cloud storage! The Internet of Things (IoT) enables me to control my smart fridge, smart door and smart toilet from my smartphone.

Picture Credit: The Matrix

Do you love the UX/UI features on your digital devices? Hold up. While Wi-Fi enabled keyless doors or the Nest Learning Thermostat amongst many IoTs may give owners the perception and satisfaction that life is functional and integrated, do these products have any serious drawbacks?

The short answer? Yes, it may come at the cost of your privacy. Internet-connected devices or apps could be monitoring you as of this moment. Corporations and other unwelcomed data miners will try to exploit you by placing products or advertisements according to your behavioural data to encourage consumerism. 

Welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism.

Surveillance capitalism is the commodification of ‘reality’ and its transformation into behavioural data for analysis and sales. The ‘Big Five’, Apple, Alphabet, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon monopolise the largely uncontested power of data generation. Surveillance technologies allow the formation of Virtual Identity (VI) (Henschke 2017, p.185). VI is an informational representation that is linked and personalised to you. Personalising information is made using Thin Information or metadata. Examples of metadata are but not limited to: logs of your IP address across the Internet, locations of individuals in certain GPS enabled apps or even the average length of your phone calls. Your metadata is aggregated across time to substantiate the probability of prediction of your behaviour (Henschke 2017, p.197). Hence, producing recommendations in Spotify or Youtube are, in fact, made up of your quantified metadata, making it hard for you to disagree with the product placed in front of you. It is only after the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal that Facebook called for more governmental regulation.

Yeah, but isn’t this a governmental regulatory issue? What is anthropology relevance here?

Just as tech companies try to learn more about consumers (us) unobtrusively, haven’t anthropologists been trying to do the same with the ‘other’ for the last century? We are repeating history and relearning the mistakes again. I want to stress the importance of procedural ethics here. In 1964, Napoleon Chagnon arrived in 1964 to conduct fieldwork with the Yanomami (Eakin 2013, p.1). Chagnon sets out to prove natural selection theories on violence, staging fights to show his findings and exchanging steel tools for blood samples. Such unrestrained methods produced no value to the anthropological canon and served to further notions of biological racism. 

Ethics is relational. It is difficult to thoroughly plan for contingencies and alternatives because fields, contexts and histories of relations are often emergent through social activities or conversations, with each fieldworker producing different meanings through various mediums and methods (Kohn 2017, p.77). With that said, procedural ethics is still beneficial in providing a framework for considering moral thinking and decision-making. It moves away from reductive binary evolutional thoughts to consider a plurality of ways that meanings can be constructed.

Hence, ethics is an essential reflexive tool to balance the interests of the researcher, institutions and most importantly, our informants. Although procedural ethics is notorious for stifling creativity in the pursuit of endless application forms for the sake of audit compliance, it needs to be considered as to not undermine universal values such as freedom, democracy and privacy.


Eakin, E 2013, ‘How Napoleon Chagnon Became Our Most Controversial Anthropologist – The New York Times’, THe New York Times Magazine, accessed June 12, 2019, from <https://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/17/magazine/napoleon-chagnon-americas-most-controversial-anthropologist.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0&gt;

Henschke, A 2017, Ethics in an Age of Surveillance: Personal Information and Virtual Identities, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Kohn, T 2017, ‘On the Shifting Ethics and Contexts of Knowledge Production’, in L Josephides & AS Grønseth (eds), The Ethics of Knowledge Creation, Berghahn Books, New York, NY, pp. 76–97.

See Also:

Lionel’s piece on Technological Mediation

Anatol’s piece on Ethics of Applied Anthropology

Imogen’s piece on Beyond Academia

Cultural Appropriation & Cake?? A Bittersweet Analogy

Posted by Miley Cyrus June 5th 2019

I recently started following ‘thesweetfeminist’ A.K.A Becca Rea-Holloway on Instagram. She posts pictures of her cakes which are iced with a generous amount of buttercream and political advocacy. On June 20th 2018 Becca posted a photo of a cake which said “Abortion is Healthcare.” She has reposted this same cake many times since and particularly as of late with the 27 abortion bans that have been passed in 12 American states. Becca, however, wasn’t the only one to express her outrage via frosting. Miley Cyrus announced she’d be collaborating with Marc Jacobs to sell a jumper with the words “Don’t F*ck With My Freedom” of which all the profits are claimed to go to planned parenthood. One of the photos for this campaign depicts Miley licking a cake that not only resembles Becca’s creation, but is an EXACT replica. In response Becca wrote, “Cake art is for everyone, but this is inexcusable.” The issue is that her work was blatantly copied without her consent or any form of acknowledgement or compensation. Now while this may not be an example of cultural appropriation, parallels can be drawn from this case to the arguments presented by Brown (1998) in his paper “Can Culture be Copyrighted?”  

Posted by ‘thesweetfeminist’ June 20th 2018

Trying to copyright ‘culture’ is like trying to copyright ‘cake’ (for different reasons of course) but in the same way that they are both unstable grounds to work on. Firstly, how do we define culture? Do we need to distinguish between material, tangible culture and intangible cultural knowledge? Brown (1998) argues the notion that we can somehow ‘copyright’ culture is flawed because it rests on a romanticized and purist understanding. If we can ‘replicate’ culture then it must be original and authentic to begin with. I could argue this point further or I could insert a compelling quote from Edward Said (1994, p. 448): “All cultures are involved in one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogeneous, extraordinarily differentiated, and unmonolithic.” 

Now just because culture is fluid and cake is delicious, does that mean they should be a free for all where we can steal as many symbols and slices as we want without any consequences? While at first glance it may seem as though Brown (1998, p. 207) is arguing for the protection of a liberal democracy above all else, he makes an important declaration, “Reduction of inequalities in the distribution of power is just as essential for maintaining liberal democracy as is a free flow of information.”  

Becca & some of her other creations

Becca believes that, “Cake art is for everyone” and likewise Brown (1998) argues that ideas, knowledge and personal expression should not be threatened by copyright laws. Institutionalized secrecy has a tendency to result in abuses of power. For instance, the Church of Scientology has been attempting to privatize their religious texts and ‘sensitive’ information about their organization (and I think we can see how problematic it would be to keep that info confidential).  

Many debates about cultural appropriation have centered on control and the notion that by copyrighting cultural artefacts, symbols and knowledge the ‘original’ culture regains power. But will this really give power back to marginalized and minority voices? Instead Brown (1998, p. 208) asserts that greater change can be enacted through an “agreed-upon social goal” and mechanisms which provide compensation for the use of cultural symbols/knowledge. Brown (1998, p. 203) believes that all this talk about copyrighting culture is actually detracting from more important discussions such as “the fragility of native cultures in mass societies.” 

What can Becca’s feminist cakes and Brown’s (1998) arguments in favour of a liberal democracy teach us about cultural appropriation? For one, copyrighting something as crumby as cake and as elusive as culture is a problematic foundation to work on. Instead we should focus on developing ‘social goals’ which foster respect for cake artists and cultural ideas. We need to think critically about how compensation can best be given to those who have inspired us and how imbalances of power effect the actors involved. I realize that these suggestions are quite ambiguous and ‘fuzzy’, but when dealing with a phenomenon as complex as cultural appropriation, perhaps any possible solutions will be just as elusive.  


Brown, MF 1998, ‘Can Culture Be Copyrighted?’, Current Anthropology, Vol. 39, No. 2, pp. 193-222.

Said, EW 1994, Culture and imperialism. New York, Knopf.

Enjoy thinking about the pitfalls of defining & appropriating culture? See also:

Dyan’s article https://anthrozine.home.blog/2019/06/10/things-we-wish-we-knew-in-first-year-cultural-relativism/

Maddie’s article https://anthrozine.home.blog/2019/06/08/subtle-diasporic-traits/

Abbie’s article https://anthrozine.home.blog/2019/06/08/mauna-a-wakea-whose-culture-is-the-most-important/

The Elephant in The Anthropological Room

In the ‘Anthropological Room’ (or space), there are multiple peer-reviewed journals publishing new and upcoming anthropological research with various aims from ‘what it is to be human’, ‘ethnology’ to ‘critical analysis’. Had I known of these resources in my first year of anthropology, I would have been able to peruse through multiple journal volumes and discover my love for the anthropology of nature much sooner – because if we’re being honest, I was never entirely sure what the scope of ‘anthropology’ really covered.

Recently, I was introduced to a new academic journal that I hadn’t come across before when I was discussing colonialism with my supervisor. It is named, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. This is an international, peer-reviewed anthropology journal that seeks to situate ethnographic material “at the forefront of conceptual developments in the discipline” (HAU Journal 2017, p.1). To the novice anthropologist, such as myself, it sounds like a fine and dandy resource to keep up to date with emerging anthropological research! But wow, on further investigation it sure does have some problematic practices and colonial underpinnings.

On the home page, the journal explains its name as:


In Mauss’ classic work, The Gift, he included the Māori example of the ‘the hau of the gift’. He interpreted the ‘hau’ as the spiritual force of the giver in the gift, which demanded to be returned (Mauss 1925). However, his interpretation of ‘hau’ completely excluded Māori voices. His work is an explicit illustration of the Eurocentric appropriation of Indigenous knowledges and cultural belief systems that have, for so long, been a dark feature (or the elephant in the room) of anthropology.

On June 18th, 2018, a group of Māori anthropology scholars wrote an open letter to HAU. They asserted that the lack of acknowledgement for the term Hau – being taken from Māori culture – exhibited “an absence of ethics of care, respect, inclusiveness and openness within HAU’s leadership” (Mahi Tahi 2018, p.1). The scholars further questioned whether the journal upheld the spirit, understandings and ethos of the Hau concept in their practices. The journal responded, providing a justification for their appropriation of the term:

“Although this Maori concept has become anthropologist’s common parlance, HAUshould have consulted you before using it” (Ibid).

HAU’s unethical practices are unsurprising given the wider controversy surrounding the journal, involving issues with the practices of the journal’s management and their lack of response to public critiques. However, this was an extremely disappointing moment for the anthropology world, particularly as it undermined all decolonial efforts that many scholars had been engaging in. HAU have merely extended the appropriation and colonisation of Indigenous knowledges that Mauss established in his work by further misappropriating it as a marketing, and thus economic, tool for the popularisation of the journal.

The cultural appropriation practices of HAU spark broader concerns about how we can continue shifting the colonial patterning of anthropology. For many students just entering and exploring the anthropology discipline, this can be a daunting task. 

I believe it is our responsibility – particularly those self-locating as white settlers – to engage consciously and directly with Indigenous peoples. We must continually learn what practices can be integrated to best rectify the harm that continues to be inflicted against their communities in academia.

I am no expert in what decolonisation should look like or how it should be engaged with; but Indigenous scholars, Jeff Corntassel, Rita Dhamon and Zoe Todd, have suggested practical ways we can work towards this in academia. To monitor your personal ethics as beginner anthropologists, I would recommend actively incorporating at least two of their points into your work:

  • Self-location: We must self-locate to the conceptions of “settler” and settler colonialism (Snelgrove, Dhamoon and Corntassel 2014). This involves articulating (in your research, essays and day-to-day lives) how you situate yourself and your awareness of the colonial occupations of Indigenous lands (see my bio for an example).
  • Centring Indigenous scholars: As stated by Zoe Todd (2017), it is our responsibility as anthropologists to centre Indigenous scholars to “disrupt the privileging of euro-colonial thinking over Indigenous praxis”. We must not conceptualise Indigenous thought through a euro-colonial and philosophical lens. Instead, we must incorporate and centre Indigenous thinkers in our academic work to de-stabilise the Euro-American anthropologists that have been conventionally relied upon for the understanding of Indigenous philosophies.

*side note: the journal still has not, one year later, revised the description of their name on the website to recognise the Māori origins of the Hau concept (yikes…).*.


Davis, H. and Todd, Z 2017, ‘On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene’, ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, vol. 16, no.4.

Mahi Tahi 2018, ‘An Open Letter to the Hau Journal’s Board of Trustees’, accessed 5 June 2019, <https://www.asaanz.org/blog/2018/6/18/an-open-letter-to-the-hau-journals-board-of-trustees>.

Mauss, M 1925, The gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies. Routledge.

Snelgrove, C., Dhamoon, R.K. and Corntassel, J 2014, ‘Unsettling settler colonialism: The discourse and politics of settlers, and solidarity with Indigenous nations’, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol.3, no.2.

See Also: Imo’s A few lessons learned from Anthropology’s past; Lani’s Cultural Appropriation & Cake? A Bittersweet Analogy; Rob’s Acknowledgement of Country; Dyan’s “Go Back To Where You Came From!”: An Anthropological Look at Linnaeus, Taxonomy and Classification

See also:

My favourite anthropology journals:

American Anthropologist

Critique of Anthropology

Cultural Anthropology

Current Anthropology

Journal of Ecological Anthropology

Battle of the Ethics: Subsistence Looting

“Some of the 700 Iraqi antiquities…recovered from smugglers along the Syrian-Iraqi borders. Antiquities were looted from Iraq amid the chaos of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.” AFP PHOTO/LOUAI BESHARA

In a previous post, I talk about precarity.

My affair with Anthropology post-dates my commitment to Ancient World Studies – the one subject in high school that really interested me. Yet, for me, the most compelling part of the textbook wasn’t actually about the ancient past itself, but the politics of its afterlife: archaeological ethics, repatriation, conservation, 3D-printing and other technologies used in reproduction. The events of 2015 in Palmyra, Syria, including the grievous iconoclasm – that is, the destruction of monuments for religious or political purposes – and Khaled al-Asaad’s refusal to give up the location of ancient artefacts at the cost of his life, cemented my aspirations in becoming an archaeologist and helping safeguard the relics of the past from similar atrocities.

So, when I was speaking to an Ancient World Studies PhD student earlier this year about my interest in anthropology and archaeological ethics, she suggested taking a free online course called Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime, developed by Dr. Donna Yates at the University of Glasgow. It’s four weeks long, requires no existing knowledge on the topic, and is truly fascinating. I don’t think it’s entirely without fault, but it has some great (mysterious! unresolved!) case studies and encourages active engagement with your instructors and fellow learners, just like an actual class. Overall, I would highly recommend it as an entry point to learning about the theft, trafficking and forgery of art and antiquities.

What I found really interesting about the course was that it offered a distinctly anthropological perspective on looting that I’d previously never considered. When archaeology students learn about the practice of looting, we’re told one thing: the context of the artefact is lost forever, which means we’ll never know how the artefact relates to the site, period, or assemblage, and, consequently, the complete reconstruction of the archaeological record becomes impossible. As Cannon-Brookes (1994, p. 350) argues, artefacts without context are “cultural orphans…virtually useless for scholarly purposes”. With such unequivocally negative representations of looting, it’s difficult to re-imagine how else this narrative can be told.

But if there’s anything anthropology has taught me, it’s that there’s always another side to the story, a side that’s underrepresented or silenced by a more dominant voice. As Dr. Yates (2019) contends, the idea of looters as grave robbers and tomb raiders is far too simplistic. Many of the countries which harbour prolific black markets “have rich archaeological pasts but are economically poor” (Yates 2019) – an effect largely borne by colonialism and conflict, the historic and current imbalances of which continue to perpetuate chronic poverty, health insecurity, and political corruption and instability. These all contribute to an environment characterised by precarity, which forces those living in poverty to turn to “last resorts” like the illicit antiquities trade. A perspective that can provide more emic insights is evidently required by this multifaceted phenomena, and it’s a conversation that anthropology is positioned to initiate.

The pockmarks of looted sites are often compared to the craters of the moon. Source.

People who engage in illicit excavation for “saleable cultural objects due to extreme poverty” are known as “subsistence looters” (Yates 2012, emphasis added; Hollowell 2006). “Subsistence” here implies that the individual is economically disenfranchised: “they are looting for survival, not profit” (Yates 2012). Indeed, profit is almost inconceivable, as Borodkin reports, with looters receiving less than 1% of the final selling price (1995, p. 378). That’s not the only loss looters face: a destroyed site loses its potential for archaeological tourism. The antiquities black market therefore exploits the looters’ precarity, cyclically robbing them of the possibility to invest in a longer-term economically stable future.

Now, I’m not condoning the looting and trafficking of antiquities, but it no longer seems so straightforward to blame looters for putting their basic needs before the preservation of the archaeological record, nor does it seem fair to view looters as the sole perpetrators of the practice. If anything, as Renfrew and Elia (1993) argue, antiquities collectors are accountable for the demand that looters respond to – a demand that originates in the imperialist practices of 17th- and 18th-century Europe.

The sentiments of the academic, authoritative archaeologist have been the most vocal in the vilification of looting. Whilst this has taught student archaeologists that looting is bad and that we shouldn’t do it, this representation hasn’t helped the humanisation of looters nor the prevention of looting. This issue invites a dialogue on ethics between anthropologists and archaeologists to devise a collaborative solution.

Elia (Renfrew and Elia 1993, p. 17) asserts that “the only way to make a dent in the looting problem is to reduce the demand for antiquities by bringing about a change in social attitude whereby collecting is no longer considered socially acceptable.” I think this is true, but it’s still an archaeologist-centric view. Hardy (2012), on the other hand, has found that community-based practices such as education on the value of heritage and the founding of local museums for cultural tourism have been effective in reducing illicit antiquities trafficking in Mali. I would also imagine long-term solutions to economically support subsistence looters and the concurrent prohibition of museums from acquiring artefacts without context would deter the practice as well (a policy that some, but not all, museums have adopted): an artefact with zero value provides no incentive for looting, but it’s imperative that alternative economic opportunities are made available.

Ultimately, there needs to be a reconsideration of looting as a one-dimensional practice, with anthropology playing an important role in diverting focus toward what causes people to resort to subsistence looting in the first place, rather than fixating on its effects on the archaeological record.


Borodkin, LJ 1995, ‘The Economics of Antiquities Looting and a Proposed Legal Alternative’, Columbia Law Review, vol. 95, no. 2, pp. 377-417.

Cannon-Brookes, P 1994, ‘Antiquities in the market-place: Placing a price on documentation’, Antiquity, vol. 68, no. 295, pp. 349–50.

Hardy, SA 2012, ‘looting, the subsistence digging economy in Mali; and stemming the flow of looted antiquities from Mali to the USA’, weblog post 3 April, WordPress, viewed 14 May 2019, < https://conflictantiquities.wordpress.com/2012/04/03/mali-looting-export-usa-import/>

Hollowell, J 2006, ‘Moral arguments on subsistence digging’, in C Scarre & G Scarre (eds), The Ethics of Archaeology: Philosophical Perspectives on Archaeological Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., pp. 69-94.

Renfrew, C & Elia, R 1993, ‘Collectors are the Real Looters’, Archaeology, vol. 46, no. 3, pp. 16-17.

Yates, D 2012, Subsistence Digging, viewed 14 May 2019, <https://traffickingculture.org/encyclopedia/terminology/subsistence-digging/>.