On Decolonising Anthropology

This entry is part 5 of 16 in the Decolonizing Anthropology series.

By Zodwa Radebe

Decolonisation can be understood as the process that decolonises what was colonised; not what was used to colonise. Therefore, it is absurd to think that anthropology can be used as a tool to decolonise because it was used to colonise. We need to unthink anthropology and imagine something like decolonised ethnic studies, which Maldonado-Torres explains as: “studies of and from the lived experience of the damned, that are able not only to offer positivistic analysis and corrected facts about certain communities but can also offer a radical critique of the sciences.” (2009:127)

As part of my doctoral studies, I am doing fieldwork in Vryheid, a small town in KwaZulu-Natal, which is one of the nine provinces in South Africa. On the first Sunday of my fieldwork, my cousin invited me to her church; one of those African independent churches. What really caught my attention as I entered the church was the seating arrangement: There were sections of rows that faced the front of the church. The rows on the left-hand side were designated to women and those on the right-hand side to young women and children. In front of the row that was designated to young women and children, was a row of chairs that faced the left-hand side of the church; these chairs were designated to men.  There was a table and two chairs in front for the pastor and her assistant and the pulpit was next to this table. There were exactly 22 people in the church that day and only three of them were men (an old man and two young men); therefore, the chairs in the front row were mostly empty. What was also interesting is that all the women greeted the men first before they greeted one another. Even the woman pastor, greeted the old man and then the two young men before she greeted the remainder of the congregation. It did not make sense to me that the women would begin by greeting the men who clearly were not there at the expense of women. This was disturbing to me, but I tried to forget about the incident as I left the church, since it was not part of my research interest; and I also did not have anyone with whom I could discuss these issues.

When we went to the church again, only the old man was present.  I wondered where the two young men were; they received so much attention, why did they not come back? I really felt sorry for the women who are clearly doing everything possible to make the men feel welcome in church, yet they were not interested. This reminded me of my own efforts to restore failed relationships with men in an attempt to fit in according to the social standards informed by the dominant discourse of patriarchy. maybe the difference is that my efforts were not consistent; and often infused with the logic that as the privileged class, men were in a better position and there was no need for me to support, nurture and “make” them.  These ideas were cemented once I was removed from the community and then they became just the ‘black condition’. Everything seemed too abstract, complex and unreal; and it required some ‘objectivity and critical thinking’ rather than just a response.

But, black conditions are part of the life and the experiences of women in this church. They have seen things we might never see; they have lived without men and were forced to play the role of men and women; they understand the vulnerability of not having the protection and support of their male counterparts; they know the pain of seeing how men are being sent away to work just to return and die in their hands; they have experienced the system that turns men into monsters; they live in a world where murder and rape is part of their existence; they have witnessed the dehumanisation of the black race where gender collapses; and they live in a society which Aimé Césaire defines as “drained of their essence cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, land confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creation destroyed, extraordinary possibility wiped out.” (1972: 6) It is this painful experience that has forced them to think; theorise about their conditions and formulate mechanisms to deal with these challenges. It is these mechanisms that have become tradition in most rural communities and are normally perceived as oppressive and nonsensical to outsiders; but these traditions are solely aimed at restoring their communities and bringing dignity to the dehumanisation. This indeed is thinking in action.

This experience forced me to think of what it means to decolonise anthropology such that we do not misrepresent the communities that we study. I argue that the idea of decolonising anthropology is still entangled within the western epistemology that maintains: (1.) Anthropologists have skills that can improve societal conditions (2.) Anthropology can delink itself from its colonial foundation to produce knowledge that is to the advantage of the oppressed. However, my filed work experience suggests that anthropologists do not have tools to read communities. Even though I am/was a ‘native’ anthropologist, I did not have automatic access to this community as argued by Jacobs-Huey (2002). In fact, my anthropological training was a hindrance, since it imposed foreign concepts, such as patriarchy, that are not part of the reality of this community. I had to draw from my personal experience to make sense of what was happening in that church. Also, the narrative shows that communities are actually capable of theorising about their conditions and come up with solutions that make their conditions more bearable. This means that communities do not need to read about their conditions; therefore, it is self-serving to publish the work that anthropologists do. The skills that anthropologists claim could benefit the communities are, in my opinion, more about sustaining their profession and being recognised in the intellectual space rather than changing the conditions of the communities for the better.

Secondly, delinking anthropology from its colonial foundations proves to be a mission impossible. The biggest criticism of anthropology has been its subject of study – ‘the other’. Levi-Strauss (1966) tried to justify the importance of studying ‘the other’ in an attempt to learn from those who are different from us. This could be read as a noble gesture indeed, since it demystifies the negative connotation of anthropology: that it creates ‘the other’. However, Fanon brings another dynamic to this question of ‘the other’ as he argues that, “it is the settler who has brought native into existence… and he is his property.” (1963: 27) Therefore, “the colonized could not be accommodated into any of the categories utilized in anthropology, the savage, the barbarian and civilized man.” (Maldonado-Torres, 2009: 122) As “the black is after all, a being that has not always existed.” (Gordon, forthcoming: 2) Clearly, the anthropological method cannot reach out to those who have been excluded from the human race – blacks. It is in this context that Gordon calls for philosophical anthropology that will offer a transition from method to methodology and methodological critique (forthcoming: 9).

My fieldwork experience challenges the foundations of anthropology and forces us think beyond the western methodological canon. Our research must be informed by the lived experiences of the ‘damned’. In fact, the insistence on studying the oppressed is the continuation of colonialism as Biko argues:  “the problem is white racism and it rests squarely on the laps of the white society.” (1987: 23) Maybe the first shift should be on the anthropological subject of study, from the ‘other’ to the ‘self’.


Biko, S.B. (1987). I write what I like. London: Bowerdean Press.

Césaire, A (1972). Discourse on colonialism. New York and London: Monthly Review Press.

Fanon, F. (1963). The wretched of the earth. New York: Grove Press

Gordon, L.R. (Forthcoming) Reasoning in black: African philosophy under the weight of misguided reason. In The Savannah Review, edited by Abiola Irele and published by Africa World Press.

Jacobs-Huey, L. (2002). Exchange across difference: The production of ethnographic knowledge. The natives are gazing and talking back: Reviewing the problematic of positional, voice, and accountability among “native” anthropologists. American Anthropologists, 104(3), 791-804

Levi-Strauss, C. (1966). The savage mind. Chicago University: Chicago Press

Maldonado-Torres, N. (2009). Rousseau and Fanon on inequality and human sciences. Creolizing Rousseau, Spring, Volume 15:1


NZ Radebe is a lecturer at the University of South Africa (UNISA) in the department of Anthropology and Archaeology where she teaches a third year module on qualitative research methods in anthropology. She is currently on sabbatical working on her doctoral studies. Her research topic is: Towards the Human Economy: Understanding the Different Economic Logic of Stokvels. She is a committed decolonial scholar, an activist and an artist that is imagining a world free from all forms of injustices. She has co-authored a book chapter titled: Decolonial Analysis of Coloniality in Anthropology, with Dr N.L. Hlabangane (2016) in Decolonizing the University in Africa, Knowledge Systems and Disciplines, S. J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni & S. Zondi (eds.)  She does storytelling performances in some black communities to open a space for communities to think, engage and express ideas that can contribute to a better world we are imagining.




Series Navigation<< Healing “the Break”: A DiaspoRican Project of ReturnA Decolonial Turn in Anthropology? A View from the Pacific >>

Decolonizing Anthropology is a series edited by Carole McGranahan and Uzma Z. Rizvi. To read the introductory essay to the series and see the list of contributors, please follow this link: http://savageminds.org/2016/04/19/decolonizing-anthropology/

7 thoughts on “On Decolonising Anthropology

  1. Splendid, provocative essay! It makes me wonder about two things:

    1) Isn’t the usefulness of anthropologists’ expertise pretty variable, empirically? Sure, there are plenty of places where anthropologists’ writing is useless to the people that it is about. But maybe there are other places where it is helpful (as an archive, as a set of outsider reflections, etc). It doesn’t seem to me something we can decide a priori, whether anthropologists have “skills that can improve societal conditions.” (In my fieldwork, there are some locals who have asked me for practical/policy advice, for what it’s worth.)

    2) I have some qualms about what I take to be your proposal to transform anthropology into critical ethnic studies. Mainly my thought is this: not all cultures (or cultural situations) are primarily structured by the categories of race or ethnicity. So if we were to stop doing anthropology and start doing “decolonised ethnic studies,” we would inevitably end up imposing the categories of race or ethnicity on some situations where they would apply poorly (or not at all).

    This makes me wonder if a category like “culture” (for all its well-known problems) may not ultimately be a more inclusive and less problematic general framework than “ethnicity” for a global field science? Or maybe there just is no good general category (ethnicity included) for a cross-contextual study of human societies. What do you think?

  2. First, I second what eli has written. This is, indeed, a splendid, provocative essay. I am very much on my mettle trying to think of how to reply. Given that I am an aging, white, male anthropologist who has lived and worked for more than half his life in East Asia, I know that I must tread carefully to avoid coming across as yet another unrepentant colonial positivist who can only thinly grasp what the world is like to the natives of the place he writes about.

    Let me turn, then, to your data. If my reading is correct, you attend a church service in a church where the seating is arranged to separate men and women and also, I am a bit unclear here, young women with children from other women, with the former sitting behind the chairs reserved for men, which remain mostly or totally empty. The discomfort you feel at this arrangement is stirred by the thought that patriarchy (now considered a bad thing) is an integral part of indigenous culture (something that the anthropologist is supposed to protect). As a native anthropologist, you find that the anthropological concepts you bring with you to the field are foreign to the situation in which you find yourself. To you, this calls into question the raison d’être for anthropology as a discipline. Please correct me if I have misread you.

    I imagine myself, this aging, white, male anthropologist responding to the same situation. It occurs to me that in Taiwan, where I did fieldwork, and in Japan, where I have lived and worked for more than three decades, it is common for women to perform regular offerings to ancestors or deities as part of their domestic routine and for men only to show up in force on major ritual occasions, where a kind of competitive showing off is part of the occasion. That leads me to wonder about the status of the services you attended. Would the men be there on other, more special, days?

    That thought triggers memories of similar scenes in novels set in Europe, where the congregation on most days is a handful of women and one or two old men, but the church is crowded at Christmas and Easter. I imagine the possibility of comparative research to look into the differences and distribution of these types of phenomena.

    Would this research be useful to the natives of any of the places included in the research? I can imagine it being used by pastors or priests concerned about low or declining male participation in their congregations to promote the creation of more special festive occasions to which more men might be lured. . . .

    But, yes, it is true. Pursuing this train of thought, I have averted my eyes from the sins of the discipline’s colonial past. But does simply rehearsing now well-known grievances and offering only despair. . . .Yes, we need to be reminded, and that you have done very well, indeed. What, I wonder, is the next step?

  3. Very interesting and as the comment above mentioned: provocative. Indeed, many of this questions has been display on the anthropological guild. In my experience, most notably in Latin America since the early 60’s. However, I do not share your first preposition, in which it is claim that: “it is absurd to think that anthropology can be used as a tool to decolonise because it was used to colonise.”

    In effect, in the case of Mexico anthropology has been a very vigorous tool to have several insights and sensibilities to the social problems and local (wrongly called indigenous people) communities has been facing since at least 200 years ago. I will not denied that anthropology worked as a tool used by the government in early last century to integrate the communities into the idea of a nation; however soon enough the same communities sume to the idea of “native anthropology”. The idea of taking consciousness of their own socio-historical condition. This is indeed a way of de-colonisation.

    Furthermore, there has been a number of scholars trying even to de-colonised the own discipline with that called “epistemologia del sur” or south epistemology. Leopoldo Zea, Enrique Dussel, Anibal Quijano, Bolivar Echeverria, Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui among others.

  4. Ditto Rene Cardain regarding the great work that is already being done by Quijano and others on ‘decoloniality’. You’d be surprised how much work has already been done on this topic. If your grasp of Spanish is not too strong, it’s worth checking out Mignolo, who has largely spread the ideas of ‘decoloniality’ to a more anglophone audience. Might help you further some of your thinking.

  5. I am not providing any answers but maybe clarity where I think I am misunderstood but also continuing thinking as this essay is a thinking process and I believe that in these engagements we are thinking together.

    I think the first point I want to make it clear is that I am speaking from a particular position, the position of being black. This is important to clarify because the main argument I am making is that when the disciplines in general and anthropology in particular were designed, they did not have a black person in mind because the blacks were/are non-human, but a construction or a product of colonialism that dispossessed, enslaved and disrupted their societies in its mission to conquer. Black people are thus objects of the colonialist, the property as Fanon puts it. The blacks are not the ‘other’ as Levi-Strauss explains the importance of studying/learning from those who are different from us, the blacks are not included in that category as they are not regarded as human beings but non-human. This means that we need to go back to the foundation of the university, why it was formed? and this is a difficult question but we need to ask it if we are to transform the universities, a proper diagnosis is critical. The logic that informed white supremacy needs to be studied, scrutinised so that it is dismantled as it is based on a particular pathology, not the other way round where all of the sudden the blacks that are at the centre being scrutinised to that they can be ‘helped’.

    This brings me on the second issue of the ‘decolonized ethnic studies’. I think in fact here I made a mistake, I should not have said ‘decolonized’ because ethnic studies are a product of a decolonisation process, therefore by their virtue are decolonized. This link gives a history of ethnic studies:

    Ethnic studies are not based on ‘ethnicity’ but on the damned demanding not to be object of study but contributors to knowledge production. As I have tried to show in my ‘case study’ that communities are producing knowledge. And secondly, what they produce needs to be understood as coping mechanism because of the continued disruption of colonialism now called globalisation, not cultures. The English maybe have a culture but not the damned have coping mechanisms transformed to traditions maybe.

    What disturbed me was my misreading of what was happening in the church based on my colonised mind. I felt that men were getting special treatment because of patriarchy but the community was responding to the disruption of its community, where men are feminized and weakened (Maldonado-Torres, 2007).

    I acknowledge that there are many attempts taking place to decolonize the universities especially from the global south. I am aware that I am not coming up with ‘new truths’ but adding to the existing thinking that is taking place globally. In fact I would like to thank the Unisa Decoloniality Summer Schools for opening a space that introduced decolonial thought where we learn from the leading decolonial scholars such Prof Ramon Grosfoguel, Prof Nelson Maldonado-Torres and Prof Enrique Dussel among others.

  6. Dear Decolonial Thinkier, thank you for your comment. Indeed, I know them but that is exactly one of the problem for us as Latin American people or social scientist or anthropologist for that matter. There is in fact still a asymmetrical knowledge production within the world academia whereas Anglo-Saxon scholars are – according to the number of publications – the most innovative and mos development form of scholarship. This is a form of colonialism, maybe we shall call it “scholarship colonialism”. The concepts, notions and models of grasping theoretically cultural and social phenomena often times – if not always – comes from Harvard, Yale, Berkley, Oxford, Cambridge and so on. Mignolo is one of the few who has been translated into English; however his “academical” traditions are rooted in Anglo-Saxon academia.

    The problem is that “native” – so to speak- scholars are almost never caught by the gaze of the west publishing houses and therefore cannot spread their work to a wider audiences. Many notable Mexican anthropologist, sociologist and philosophers have contribution to the development of humanist studies but are neglected from the centre of the knowledge production. It seems that every notable scholar from “abroad” meaning, Spivak, Mignolo, Apadurai etc, etc, needed to necessary passed through Western institutions to be notable.

    I think one of the notable contributions of de-colonisation of our discipline has been the effort of Lins Ribeiro and Escobar with “world anthropology.” This contributions of many anthropologist around the globe open a broader perspective and make our discipline a more democratic way of engagement.

    Lastly I’m inviting to all curious anthropologist and be curious and adventurous to engage in a more democratic form of engagement to established a “south” epistemology as Boaventura de Souza would call it.

  7. As I read the last two comments, I feel like the Sufi judge. Part of me is saying, yes, yes. Another is saying, we have heard this before, we have heard it a lot, where is the beef. The beef as a quarrel is clear. Anthropology was created as an academic discipline in Europe. People from the global north occupy the tenured positions at the most prestigious institutions and control the citable journals that serve as gatekeepers tithe positions they occupy. That now seems unfair from the perspective of those relegated to the periphery. But, no, this is not the whole story. One has to wonder why the same could be said of our colleagues in the natural sciences, but there the argument is muted, at least in part because the history is irrelevant to how people go about doing science.

    We hear the claim that to be black is to occupy a special position. Indeed, it is. But, bracketing for the moment the usual arguments mentioned above, does this make an epistemological difference? Indeed,it does, but so does every position a human being might occupy and, from mine Mikhail Bakhtin’s observation that we all have blind spots and all need each other to understand what is going on seems irrefutable. One has to ask
    in this context if the creation of separate ethnic studies disciplines is more than a jobs program and possibly even a contribution to enlarging the blind spots to which Bakhtin points. I agree, it could be more. Going off to rethink things from a neglected perspective can lead to fresh insights. But where is the evidence that it has? A few famous names are mentioned but then immediately tainted by the observation that they have made into the international tops of the heap under the current regime.

    I see a lot of north v south in this discussion and repeated mention of the Anglo-Saxon. Perhaps we should all look East. At the last meeting of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences (IUAES), the halls were filled with anthropologists from Eastern Europe (natural enough since the meetings were in Dubrovnik and organized by Croats and Slovenians), but there were also numerous participants from China and Japan. Among them are several who are key figures in putting together the recently formed East Asian Anthropological Association dedicated to providing a platform for East Asian perspectives. Its members meet in places like Beijing, Amoy, Taipei, Tokyo and Seoul and are working In a context strongly shaped by local colonial and imperial histories. Does anyone here pay attention to them?

    Reverting to an earlier point, isn’t it time to broaden our perspectives a bit?

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