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?‘.

Being Disconcerted

As a young boy, I was feminine. Or maybe I was just indiscriminate, loving both My Little Ponies and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Luckily, my parents didn’t police me as I neared the dress up box, pulling out some of the gaudier items. But my inability to obey the rules of gender would soon cause some problems. I would struggle with these problems, until a transformative moment in second year anthropology.

The Playtime Police

Being indiscriminate wasn’t grounds for suspicion during kinder, at least with the other kids. But by primary school the cohort had truly bifurcated. Without exception, the boys were playing with boys and the girls with girls.

Left in a kind of gender limbo, and with no friends, I decided to approach some friendly-looking girls during a sunny recess. Group ring leader Stacey Peterson* intercepted me before I could enter the cubby, duly notifying me her posse didn’t play with ‘gay people’. I didn’t know what gay people meant, but I can remember feeling ostracised. Not long after labelled a ‘gaybo’, this kind of policing would continue through to high school. For example, Matt MacDonald* took it upon himself to habitually sing Shania Twain’s ‘Man! I Feel Like a Woman’ whenever I was within earshot.

Reading Anthropology

I had intuited something not-quite-right about the rules shared by Stacey, Matt and their contemporaries. But with the help of anthropology, it became easy to see the strictures of gender as culturally and historically contingent. Elsewhere, particular gentials aren’t determining people as male or female (Helliwell 2001) and people are going about their lives quite capably without any mandate to keep things ‘natural’ (MacCormack 1980). We could also take these ideas towards a more speculative anthropology (Anderson et al. 2018): in another place, or another time, boys will play with My Little Ponies and no one will think twice, much less police, reprimand or taunt them. And nor will Shania Twain be co-opted.

A re-enactment of me reliving the Stacey Peterson encounter: textual healing.

Conceiving of This Encounter

There’s a few ways we could think about my encounter with the anthropology of gender.

Ghassan Hage (2012) has noted that, throughout the 20th century, people have sought social and political change with reference to a critical sociology that has ‘helped us see… relations of power and domination’ (p. 287). Hage calls this sociology-inspired politics an ‘anti-politics’.

In contrast, the kind of politics that might emerge from anthropology he calls ‘alter-politics’ (p. 288). Coming into contact with the radically different, whether through fieldwork or reading,

‘such difference disorients us to begin with and in the process of helping us reorient ourselves within it and in relation to it, anthropology widens our sphere of what is socially and culturally possible’ (Ibid.)

My experience reading about gender is a bit different to this, however. I had already felt an ongoing sense of disorientation with gender, and anthropology provided some tools for a further disorientation, eagerly received, followed by reorientation with new possibilities. This experience led me to pursue further disorientation throughout my bachelor’s degree.

Helen Verran (2013) has grappled with similar issues to Hage. Sketching experiences of disorientation and reorientation, Verran frames this in terms of epistemic disconcertment (p. 145). Marisol de la Cadena (2015) lucidly summarises Verran: ‘this disconcertment… is the feeling that assaults individuals – including their bodies – when the categories that pertain to their world-making practices and institutions are disrupted’ (p. 276).

For Verran, knowledge is not only cognitive, but variously located in ‘institutions, categories, arranged materials and communitive protocols’, meaning ‘the multiple pulls of these intense habits of knowing are felt bodily’ (p. 145-6). This is something I wish I knew in first year. As you encounter radically different worlds, remember that it is not only your brain being pulled around.

*not their real names


Anderson R, Backe E, Nelms T, Reddy E and Trombley J 2018, ‘Speculative Anthropologies’, Theorising the Contemporary, Fieldsites, December 2018. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/series/speculative-anthropologies

de la Cadena, M 2015, Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds, Duke University Press, Durham.

Hage, G 2015, ‘Critical Anthropological Though and the Radical Political Imaginary Today’, Critique of Anthropology, vol. 32, no. 3, pp. 285-308.

Helliwell, C 2001, ‘Engendering Sameness’,  Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, vol. 6.

MacCormack, C 1980, ‘Nature, Culture and Gender: A Critique’, in C MacCormack and M Strathern (eds), Nature, Culture and Gender, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 1-24.

Verran, H 2013, ‘Engagements Between Disparate Knowledge Traditions: Towards Doing Difference Generatively and in Good Faith’, in L Green (ed), Contested Ecologies: Dialogues in the South on Nature and Knowledge, HSRC Press, Cape Town, pp. 141-161,

See also:

I mentioned speculative anthropology. Cultural Anthropology has a series of short blog posts on this topic. Sarah’s Anthropozine post on ‘interplanetary anthropologist’ Ursula Le Guin also considers the imagining of future worlds.

You can listen to Ghassan Hage speak about alternate worlds and multiculturalism in this Familiar Strange podcast.