A Decolonial Turn in Anthropology? A View from the Pacific

This entry is part 6 of 20 in the Decolonizing Anthropology series.

By: Lisa Uperesa

Over the past two decades, non-White and non-Western scholars have posed serious challenges to the politics of knowledge production in anthropology and the academy more widely. In the wake of critiques of Orientalism, the articulation of indigenous methodologies, and the exploration of indigenous epistemologies, not to mention critiques of whiteness and white privilege, we might assume a new, more inclusive time in anthropology has begun. But has it? Drawing on my experience as a scholar trained in anthropology, as well as a decade of experience as a member and four years as board member including one as chair of an international anthropological scholarly organization, in this essay I explore the continuing dynamics of marginalization of indigenous Pacific scholars in and through the claiming of scholarship and scholarly organizations and anthropology itself as white public space.

My time at University of Hawaiʽi-Mānoa has taught me many things about being a Pacific academic trained in anthropology, living, working, and researching in our linked communities. In particular, it has reinforced to me the importance of positionality and the way it shapes our research process and writing. In my work with Samoan communities, I have noted that non-Samoan researchers who work with Samoan communities are not bound by cultural protocols of respect, acknowledgement of hierarchy, and gendered expectations that I had struggled with throughout my graduate research, and remain part of my work as a researcher. They are not bound by community expectations and eventual opinion not only shaping how the work would be communicated to the public, but also in expectations of service to the wider community from one’s position within the university. As I wrote about in our earlier volume on Indigenous Research in/of Oceania (2010), this “weight” of expectation can be particularly fraught for our junior scholars, but remains unacknowledged labor not captured in CVs, contract reviews, or tenure dossiers. Some colleagues are unencumbered by expectations for care work, community work, and service work that are part of the reality for racialized minority and indigenous scholars. In addition to this care and service work, the legitimacy of minority and indigenous scholars’ research is often questioned because it does not fit neatly within canonized frameworks, or is suspect because it does not sustain the fiction of objectivity. All of these are serious structural problems in academia. This is not to say that we should be unencumbered, but rather all researchers in our communities should feel encumbered and act accordingly.

Although debates about reflexivity and epistemology have raised the question of decolonial practice, there is resistance maintained within the structure of the discipline itself, including in and through professional organizations. In the one I have been closely involved with for about a decade now, the most exciting conversations are ones in which the question of decolonizing anthropology/academia serves as an implicit or explicit framework. There are a number of scholars whose work reflects this, but there are also issues that emerge in part from the difficulty of this challenge. In particular, conversations about shoring up ethnographic authority are troublesome. When those arise, for example, in the guise of fending off questions about “who studies whom” in the Pacific, they seem not to be part of a genuine desire to grapple with the question of power dynamics in existing patterns of who is able to study others, why, and to what effect, but rather to deflect a question that at its heart is about privilege and power relations in the production of knowledge, and the maintenance of ethnographic authority. The unwillingness to prepare to engage questions of decolonial practice, including about who studies whom in a thoughtful manner strikes at the central dividing issue I see in the subfield of Pacific anthropology, and that unwillingness at this moment must be named as white academic privilege.

These examples are exemplary of what I have observed and experienced as a racialized native Pacific scholar, trained in anthropology and working in the Pacific.

While the structure and fabric of the discipline is mired in a history of whiteness and coloniality, the presence of racialized minority and indigenous scholars has had the potential to transform the discipline in the direction of decolonization, but this transformation has not yet materialized because they are still seen as marginal guests. This strikes me as part of the continuing disconnect in anthropology, and particularly in our subfield where the challenge of indigenous knowledge, and control over knowledge production is strong – anthropology not only was built on studying the native, and in that study claiming expert status that requires the subject to remain subjected, it is part of the wider world of academia that remains a site of systemic white privilege and advantage (board of regents, donors, administrators, faculty, curriculum, norms, values, etc.).

Part of the task of decolonizing academia and anthropology is recognizing that it is not just incumbent on the scholars who bring “difference” to campus to adjust and assimilate to the current campus culture and climate; rather there has to be a deep recognition that as institutions universities and professional organizations have been built in ways that favor white, middle class and elite scholarship, often to the detriment of the communities that make that scholarship possible. Only then can we reckon with how that shapes our preoccupations, research questions, epistemological approaches, and analysis.

Responding from the Margins

When I was applying to graduate programs, I found myself agonizing about the pull to anthropology because of Margaret Mead’s deep, lasting, and problematic legacy in Samoa. Her specter continues to haunt the discipline nearly a century after her most famous published text (1928), and it haunts the anthropological enterprise in Samoa. Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s work was a major intervention for me, describing in explicit detail the problematic legacy I struggled with instinctively while reclaiming the research enterprise for and by Pacific peoples. With distance from my initial shocking introduction to Mead’s text as a first year undergraduate, one of the more curious things to me has been the longevity and durability of Mead-Freeman debate. The debate interests me for what it reveals about the reach for ethnographic authority and Truth, each scholar staking out their position on the turf of Samoan sociality. As writer Albert Wendt has said, there are three sides to the debate – Mead’s, Freeman’s, and the Samoan side. The anthropological interest in the Samoan side is primarily whether it confirms Mead’s or Freeman’s view, but what if it doesn’t concede to those terms of the debate? What if the Samoan side wasn’t a side in the debate at all, but examined a different problematic altogether? One that emerges from and is centered in local concerns about Samoan society and history, the architecture of our present, and possibilities for our future?

The most satisfying contribution to this discussion has not come from anthropology, but rather through fiction.

Sia Figiel

The new novel Free Love by acclaimed Samoan author Sia Figiel responds brilliantly to the anthropological debates, but does so on its own terms. In Free Love, the character Mr. Viliamu teaches about science and inquiry in a way that makes it clear that Samoans were always more than “native informants.” The development of his relationship with Inosia takes us on a journey that weaves through the cosmos, Samoan epistemologies and histories, Christian dignity and guilt, and family honor in an unflinching examination of the legacy of the anthropological and colonial gaze on Samoan society. In a particularly powerful scene with Mr. Viliamu in New Zealand, we see clearly the violence of the debate enacted on and through his character, highlighting how the traffic in those anthropological ideas have shaped views of Samoan people in a settler society. But author Sia Figiel moves beyond that tragic moment and takes us to a different setting where love is freely given, without social trappings or approbation, without the double consciousness that Mead and Christianity gave us. The book is an opening to engaging our culture and history on its own terms, and not through the debate about sexuality, adolescence, and violence filtered through lenses of civilization, primitivity, and religion. It enacts a different kind of refusal of recognition, denying the enduring anthropological framing and the rewards that come with engaging the debate on its own terms.

So, what would a decolonial anthropology look like? I’m not sure yet, but it would start with the basic questions of what the potential work contributes to the communities on which it is based, and would proceed assuming people from those communities are part of the conversation in a meaningful way. It would refuse the hierarchy in which those communities are always empirical “native informants” in service to theory and analysis that comes from and takes place elsewhere. It would provincialize academic traditions and engage indigenous epistemologies seriously, on par and in conversation with ways of knowing that come from elsewhere. Many trained anthropologists have fled the discipline for ethnic studies, because it provides space to take grounded, ethical stances and to grapple seriously with critical issues like racial and ethnic inequality in a way that produces both stellar scholarship and community activism. While there is great variation within ethnic studies as a discipline, at University of Hawai῾i, the rearticulation of the department’s vision and focus on Oceanic ethnic studies reflects the faculty’s work with local communities as well as scholarship that links issues in the continental U.S. with local, regional, and global ones (many are trained anthropologists). I don’t know that anthropology necessarily has to look more like ethnic studies (or Pacific studies) to decolonize in this part of the world, but it can’t afford to continue to concede the critical work of engaging and addressing power relations in intellectual production, institutional structure, how research agendas are shaped, and most importantly, in issues that directly impact the communities with whom its scholars work. If it does it will be worse than antiquated, it will be irrelevant.


Lisa Uperesa is Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies and Sociology at University of Hawai῾i-Mānoa, where she teaches classes on race and ethnicity, immigration, sport, and social issues in Polynesia.   She holds a PhD in anthropology and will be joining the faculty of Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland later this year. Her publications include a co-edited special issue of The Contemporary Pacific featuring new work on global sport in the Pacific and book chapters on U.S. empire, migration, and the rise of American football in Samoa. She is completing a book manuscript tentatively titled Fabled Futures and Gridiron Dreams: Migration, Mobilities, and Football in American Samoa.

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Decolonizing Anthropology

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: /2016/04/19/decolonizing-anthropology/

2 thoughts on “A Decolonial Turn in Anthropology? A View from the Pacific

  1. As Georg Simmel observed, both positive (cooperative, supporting) and negative (conflict, hostility) are social relations. Indifference is not. The silence surrounding this series is deafening. What does it imply?

  2. I wish I had been able to see my research endeavor through this lens 30+ years ago when I was struggling with my ethical concerns. I was aware of the community burden the writer says only indigenous anthropologists bear–aware but unconnected and unable to bear it. I was aware that my white gaze objectified my informants, and struggled to see myself as a legitimate inquirer. I was aware that the anthropological discipline’s orientation toward an illiterate, interchangeable member of the culture didn’t fit my subjects, but paralyzed about how to balance confidentiality with the meaning of reputation. I was alone and saw my own paralysis in the face of my concerns as a personal failing, evidence that I was weaker than all my peers. I never wrote it up, I left anthropology, but my sense of obligation to my informants never allowed me to dispose of the work. Now I’m retired from a different career, tackling the question of how best to make my materials available to members of that culture for their own research.

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