Anthropology Magazine
Op-ed / Debate

Can Anthropology Be Decolonized?

In recent years, anthropology has increasingly reckoned with its colonial and racist roots. In a special forum, scholars weigh in on what “decolonizing” means—and share their visions for the future of the field.
A photograph features the corner of a large bookcase filled with books. The books’ various multicolored covers evoke patterns common on African wax print fabrics.

Nigerian British artist Yinka Shonibare critically explores themes of race and immigration in “The British Library,” installed at the Tate Modern in London in 2019.

Tabatha Fireman/Stringer/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic, along with the Black Lives Matter movement, have exposed the deep inequities and inadequacies of our social systems at a massive scale in the United States and elsewhere. These global upheavals have made many people rethink their priorities and values across nearly every aspect of life, from work to interpersonal relationships to politics.

These wider changes have also compelled many scholars and researchers who devote their careers to studying human society—including anthropologists—to think critically about the academic institutions they are a part of and about their own research and why it matters.

Over the last few years, anthropology’s theoretical and philosophical foundations, knowledge claims, and methods have all been deeply challenged. In the U.S., the discovery of human remains still in the possession of the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology raised questions about anthropology’s deeply troubling legacies of promoting scientific racism and justifying colonialism. Various sexual harassment cases against high-profile anthropologists have provoked a reckoning with how elite patronage networks within academia allow systemic abuse to continue.

Many anthropologists have been energized by renewed calls to decolonize the discipline. But others have dug in their heels, maintaining their investments in the ways the discipline has historically been practiced and institutionalized. [1] See, for example, the controversy generated around the 2021 address on “Decolonizing U.S. Anthropology” by Akhil Gupta, the outgoing president of the American Anthropological Association, at an annual meeting of fellow anthropologists in Baltimore, Maryland.

In response to these ongoing controversies and conversations, we have organized this special series to explore how anthropologists are attempting to reconceptualize the discipline so that it might generate more radically inclusive and just possibilities for human life. This series is part of a broader effort, partially funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation (SAPIENS’ publisher), to develop a concept we call “radical humanism.”

By asking about the foundational tenets of humanism, we are ultimately asking: Who is “the human” at the heart of anthropology?

WHAT IS HUMANISM?

To explain why we call for a radical humanism, we’ll start by unpacking what humanism, as a Western philosophy, claims about what it means to be human.

Humanism is commonly thought of as a secular worldview that prioritizes human freedom, democracy, and reason over religious devotion and rule. The American Humanist Association defines it as a “progressive philosophy of life that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good.” Humanism is foundational to modern legal and political ideas of the liberal subject, or the idea that human beings are individuals entitled to specific rights and liberties.

While that definition may seem innocuous, the roots of philosophical humanism are far more fraught. Humanism emerged alongside the Copernican Revolution and the European Renaissance of the 14th to 17th centuries. Its European proponents wanted to dislodge the role of religious institutions and thought, particularly theological conceptualizations of causality, in favor of reason and rationality. They saw freedom of thought as key to developing a new idea of “Man” as a secular political subject. But in doing so, they also claimed White, masculine, European views of the world as universally true and superior to all other possible views.

Who is “the human” at the heart of anthropology?

This view of humanity coincided with European expansionism to the Americas starting in the 15th century. Haitian American anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot argued this expansion created another category of humanity that remains fundamental to modern Western thinking: the “savage.” [2] Trouillot originally published the essay “Anthropology and the Savage Slot” in an edited volume in 1991, then later revised it.

This imagined “Other”—whether feared, pitied, or romanticized—served as a consistent foil for Europeans’ conceptions of their own humanity. This oppositional thinking of self versus Other was evident in the evangelizing mission of the Christian church, the imperializing mission of the state, and the extracting mission of emergent capitalism and plantation-based agriculture. The primary mechanism of this Othering was race: a secular tool of domination that structured global inequalities, disregarded Indigenous forms of knowledge, and justified slavery.

Jamaican writer and cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter refers to the myriad processes justified by humanism as “coloniality.” This term, for Wynter, describes not only the physical takeover of one group by another by colonizing a land and people, but also a whole system of creating knowledge: notions of value, politics, hierarchy, and universalism, among others. For Wynter, like Trouillot, the universalism of humanism requires an externally oriented framework for thinking about the self in contrast to an Other.

European humanism ultimately laid the groundwork for the central contradictions that we see in the U.S. and other liberal democracies today: the valuing and protection of freedom and human rights alongside a violent history of enslavement and other forms of unjust labor, imperialism, and environmental exploitation through the separation of nature and culture. The core of humanism, therefore, is not the noble protection of human freedom from religion but a secular imperialism grounded in white supremacy.

A RADICALLY HUMANIST ANTHROPOLOGY?

By drawing attention to the diverse practices of people around the world, anthropology—and its foundational principle of cultural relativism—has offered one way to destabilize European universalisms. However, the discipline has nevertheless perpetuated the idea that a comparative, scientific approach will produce generalizable knowledge about humans that could become legible to Western audiences.

In theory and in practice, anthropology has often devalued ways of knowing, being, and claiming humanity that do not fit into a European humanist model. To offer two concrete examples: Academic gatekeepers—such as tenured professors and administrators at universities, journal editors, and museum curators, among others—have often ensured the success of White, male fieldworkers, while ignoring the contributions of local and/or amateur researchers. They have also placed a primacy on English language scholarship and on written texts as opposed to oral, visual, or other modes of communicating and storytelling. This limits whose voices are valued and uplifted in the field and fails to recognize other ways people around the world express themselves and create knowledge.

Today, as scholars, we remain unsettled with anthropology’s place in the world and the work needed to reckon with its past. When we invited scholars to write for this special series for SAPIENS, we were envisioning the collection as a call for anthropology to adopt radically humanist practices and conventions as a way to be accountable to a past and present in which the field has enabled—and in many cases, solidified—processes of dispossession, racism, and other forms of exclusion and harm.

To consider these legacies and processes, we wanted to center the work of critical scholars of color who engage in anti/decolonial efforts within and outside of academic institutions. We asked the contributors to respond to the questions: Can anthropology be decolonized? And, if so, what should a 21st-century anthropology look like?

We are pleased to present this collection of reflections that together tease out and confront these questions.

THE CONTRIBUTIONS

Embracing the Poetry of Being Human

In his reflection, biological and bioarchaeological anthropologist Delande Justinvil argues that anthropology, in fact, cannot be decolonized. As a handmaiden of empire, the discipline is inextricably entangled with scientific racism and its insistence on a view of progress founded in civilizational hierarchies. He sees the way forward in undisciplined practices of care and repair, guided by the needs of communities and moving toward liberation and alternative possibilities.

Centering Black Lives in the Study of Human Remains

Aja Lans, a biological anthropologist, aligns with many of Justinvil’s points to consider how bioarchaeologists might re-theorize already existing collections of human remains. Working with the skeletal remains of Black women who died in New York City during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Lans struggles with how her research, meant to shed new light on the past life conditions for people of African descent, might also continue to inflict forms of violence and harm. She looks toward more creative, experimental ways of telling stories about Black life.

Planting Seeds for a More Ethical Future

Anthropologists Nicole Labruto and Anand Pandian, in a piece co-written with their collaborator Eric Jackson—an organizer, educator, filmmaker, and the co-founder of the Black Yield Institute (BYI) in Baltimore, Maryland—also advocate for the importance of experimental practices to address what decolonizing might look like. The three authors discuss their community-based collaborative research with BYI on issues related to food sovereignty and environmental stewardship. They locate anthropology’s imperial legacies not only in the scope of the questions academics ask, but also in the relentless pace of research and publishing.

To Decolonize, We Must End the World as We Know It

Finally, Jemima Pierre asks readers to understand colonialism as genocide, and to understand anthropology and its historic, pseudoscientific evolutionary theories as part and parcel of the violence of global conquest, imperialism, and slavery. Pierre argues that anthropology must more comprehensively reckon with the enduring legacies of colonialism within the field. “Decolonization,” would have to mean the “end of the world as it is,” within and beyond the academy.

REBUILDING ANTHROPOLOGY

We share our colleagues’ challenges to the discipline of anthropology and call for rebuilding the field anew.

One key part of this effort is realizing that reconsidering humanism is not just about decolonizing anthropology for the sake of the discipline. It means reshaping the problematic foundational ideas at the heart of most of our existing social and political structures: ideas of what it means to be human and who counts as a liberal subject.

We all must consider who is included or excluded from the narrow individualistic, rights-based version of humanity that humanism supports—and lay the foundation for ways of thinking and acting that put justice and equity at the center.

Deborah A. Thomas is the R. Jean Brownlee professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of the Center for Experimental Ethnography at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Modern BlacknessExceptional Violence, and Political Life in the Wake of the Plantation, and a co-editor of the volume Globalization and Race: Transformations in the Cultural Production of Blackness (with Kamari Maxine Clarke). Thomas also co-produced and co-directed the experimental documentary Four Days in May, co-curated the Bearing Witness Exhibit and co-directed the documentary Bad Friday: Rastafari After Coral Gardens. Prior to her life as an academic, she was a professional dancer with the New York–based Urban Bush Women.

Kamari Maxine Clarke is a Distinguished professor at the University of Toronto and the director of the Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies. She is also an adjunct professor in the anthropology department at the University of California, Los Angeles. Clarke has published nine books and over 50 peer-refereed journal articles and book chapters. Her monographs include Affective Justice, Fictions of Justice, and Mapping Yorùbá Networks. Clarke has received the 2019 Royal Anthropological Institute’s Amaury Talbot Book Prize, a distinguished chair in transnational justice and socio-legal studies, and the 2021 Guggenheim Prize for career excellence. Follow her on Twitter @KamMClarke.

Love our work?
Your support keeps SAPIENS accessible to all.
(RE)THINK HUMAN
Get our newsletter with new stories delivered to your inbox every Friday.
Love our work?
Your support keeps SAPIENS accessible to all.
(RE)THINK HUMAN
Get our newsletter with new stories delivered to your inbox every Friday.