Epistemologies of Equilibrium Must Fall: Thinking beyond the many turns in Anthropology

This entry is part 13 of 20 in the Decolonizing Anthropology series.

By Nokuthula Hlabangane

“Modernity will never again, up to the present, ask existentially or philosophically for the right to dominate the periphery. Rather, the right to domination will be imposed as the nature of things and will underpin all modern philosophy.” (emphasis in original; Dussel, 2014: 32-33)

To divorce anthropology from the overall project of modernity would be disingenuous. Anthropology is an integral part of the arsenal that effected the us/them hierarchical dichotomy, the negative repercussions of which continue to haunt the geo-politics of our time. There is thus no question as to the need to decolonise the discipline. The question remains whether it is at all possible to decolonise the discipline, which some argue is more mired in coloniality than not. Exceptionalising anthropology as the unique colonising force in the human sciences misses the point. The sight of the colonising project of the human sciences, and the sciences in general, should not be lost even as we count the tally of the destruction that anthropology singularly wrought.  To be sure, we, in Africa who purport an Africanist, decolonial outlook, are viscerally aware of this destruction. We, who were trained in the discipline learnt, along the way, to come to it with gaping wounds, understanding fully well our untenable position as participants in a discipline that continues to cause so much pain, mainly because of its inability to engage in deep introspection. Our perhaps unrealistic hope is that we are awakened from the complicit role that we inevitably play by standing by its prescripts.

The many turns that the discipline boasts of in a quest to rid itself of its unpalatable legacy further deepen the damage. While the godfathers of the discipline strain to sell yet another turn to account for the existence of the discipline, they (thankfully) remain outside the fold of those we regard as our ancestors! For, “[h]enceforth, the colonized know that they have an advantage over [the colonizers]. They know that their temporary, [sic] “masters” are lying. Therefore, that their masters are weak.” (Cesaire, 1955[1972]). Calls led by students that started in South Africa to decolonise the University are a resounding signal that the colonial matrix of power in which the University apparatus is an integral part can no longer afford to exist as the nature of things (Dussel, 2014: 32-33). Instead, moving away from the reformist, incrementalist, dumbing down principles which are the mainstay of the neo-liberal regime, they are calling for the very fundamentals of the university to fall, in effect declaring that modernity has to account for its right to dominate. “…from the depths of slavery, [they] set themselves up as judges” (of a dying civilisation) (Cesaire 1955 [1972]. They are no longer satisfied with settling for the question: what is colonialism. They ask: what fundamentally is colonialism? (ibid) and show the liberating potency of asking the right questions.

In my decoloinal sojourns I was introduced to the concept; “to anthropologise” which, as you might agree, sounds ominous. I thought hard about what it actually meant for the work that I do, bearing in mind all the time the truism that the colonising potential of anthropology is always in spite of the best intentions of the individual. While personally, we could be of either good or bad faith, this is entirely irrelevant to the objective social implications of the work we do as watchdogs of colonialism (Cesaire: 1955[1972]: 12). I make a distinction between colonialism and coloniality (Grosfoguel, 2007, Maldonado-Torres, 2007, Mignolo, 2007). I argue that the “scientific mill” is the conduit that keeps coloniality alive. It is a strategic lever of power that needs to be unmasked.

Imperial designs: Anthropology is highly embroiled in evolutionary thinking. It is the only science whose explicit and original raison d’tre is to study the Other: “…it is now glaringly evident that contempt for (and perhaps fear of) people of colour is implicit in the 19th century anthropology’s interpretation and even construction of anthropological facts” (Jaggar, 1989: 156). This is done through tools, concepts and theories that systematically distance the self from the Other, which together constitute “anthropologising” anthropological subjects-made-objects.  Anthropology, is not only involved in responding to the questions: who are you (you being Europe’s Other) and who are you in relation to me (me being a European), it has been instrumental in producing the savage and proving his inferiority. For instance, the notion of fieldwork which while having evolved from its crude historical characterisation of “the farther, the more objective” remains hard to redeem; a) “doing fieldwork” inevitably naturalises the field; it paints it as “out there” waiting to be apprehended and thus presented as ethnography, b) reifies community and cements the idea of the local as independent from the global, c) lends itself to in situ understandings that preclude meaningful historical conversations. The muting process is evident in taking those studied at face value as if the ethnographic encounter is not mediated by events and histories not captured in conversation with them. What do these conversations disallow and thus distort? The ethnographic episode cannot be an encounter between strangers, it must, by force of history, be a meeting of people who know each other well. The detail is inextricably linked to the entanglements of history. Taking my cue from Pierre (2006), I argue that the use of culture in anthropology is an easy substitute for race; the purported cultural differences are easily racial differences.

Polittricking: Reflexivity, however much it is exercised, is yet another obfuscating mechanism; an easy option that hides more than it reveals. It issues from the mechanism of hiding the locus of enunciation, while highlighting the enunciated. It does not reveal the situatedness of anthropology in the geo-politics of knowledge. By emphasizing the body-politics of the individual ethnographer while totally underplaying the complicity of the human sciences as a scientific mill that wields and underpins colonial power, reflexivity is a political tool. Declaring one’s own positionality does not address the historical fundamentals of the discipline. Decolonial thinking uncovers this politricking; playing political tricks while purporting an apolitical stance. Fundamentally, the humanities are a machinery deployed to muster the belief in white superiority. Their radical re-configuration, or better yet, their demise will have the effect: “…When a superior race ceases to believe itself a chosen race, it actually ceases to be a chosen race.” Anthropology underpins the abyssal line (de Sousa Santos, 2007) that bolsters the modern divide as the nature of things. By filtering other ways of knowing and being through Western prisms, one is inevitably engaged in the politics of facilitating life and causing death all at the same time.

Studied ignorance: The foremost, celebrated thinkers in the discipline, to date, underplay these politics. Instead, they teach disciplinarity and according to this logic, politics should not permeate anthropological thinking. I cannot believe that they actually believe this! I rather believe that they are engaging in studied ignorance: yet another of the ploys of preserving the status quo. The sinister role of disciplinarity is to keep us mastering parts of “the thing”, while the thing itself remains elusive (see Nyamjoh’s Blinded by Sight thesis, 2012). Whose interests are served by owning the vicissitudes that come with ‘epistemologies of equilibrium’ (Ndovu- Gatsheni, 2013)? What happens when boundaries of discipline are transcended? This is an important step in decolonisng knowledge. There is really no glory in discipline. “…Such people are treated by dominant organisations of knowledge especially those falling under the human and social sciences, as problems instead of people who face problems. Their problem status is a function of the pre-supposedly legitimacy of the systems.” (Gordon, 2014: 83)

Engaging in epistemic disobedience (Mignolo, 2011: 122) against disciplined thinking helps us piece together that “problem people” and their problem status are a function of the system. So, when W.E. Du Bois asked; “What does it mean to be a problem?”, he was not engaging in disciplined thinking. He was not engaged with an aspect of the thing but was calling out the thing itself. That was a decolonial way of knowing against a colonial way of being. It was combative epistemology against what Maldonado-Torres (2008) characterises as a paradigm of war intent on misrecognition and misrepresentation. It transcended the confines of speaking without making speech (Gordon, 2014), it was an act of calling out all the mechanisms, ploys and trickery that rendered the majority of the world’s people damned, an attempt to speak authentically (Mafeje, 1996) against a system that systematically purports that “there can be no others” (Mignolo (2012, p. 59).

Strategic blindness: I argue that African Aids is the most contemporary othering exercise at a large scale. It almost single-handedly achieved the following feats: it facilitated a strategic blindness to the human suffering that is a direct result of a disembowelment and devouring of a people by another – almost succeeding in convincing us of the existence of African sexuality whose distance from “modern sexualities” is deep, infinite and natural. African AIDS almost convinced the West of its own superiority while obscuring its complicity in bringing about this scourge. It resurrected fantastical ideas about the savage, exotic, debased. It naturalised the distance between object and subject; was fodder for the “obscurers, all the inventors of subterfuges, the charlatans and tricksters, the dealers in gobbledygook.” (Cesaire 1955[1972] ibid: 12).

Maldonado-Torres (2008) argues that to be modern is to essentially question the humanity of an Other. African Aids is the rule rather than the exception. The rational, omniscient and omnipresent imperial man against the non-thinking and therefore non-existent African (body). Fassin (2007) asks what is a just society? It is one that remembers. Perhaps then the work that we do will cease to be “deeply embedded in the multiple layers of imperial and colonial practices’” – sounding like swear words to those about whom we speak and write (Smith, 1992: 2-3). The many turns in anthropology ignore their own decadence by always producing the same narrative, proffering hateful solutions to problems that it is complicit in creating (Ceasaire, 1955[1972]). Malkki (cited in Fassin 2007) asserts that ‘anthropological culturalism’, which by essentialising difference, produces “subtly dehistoricizing, dehumanizing effects.” In this vein, Fassin (2007: XII) argues that “objectification increases the social capacity to inflict pain upon the other and to render the other’s pain inadmissible to public discourse.”

Today, more than ever, humanity needs more unbelievers than believers. If we agree that the idea of the Western university is fundamentally and fatally problematic, what more of disciplines? What more of the discipline of anthropology?


Nokuthula Hlabangane was raised in the dusty streets of Soweto by spirited women whose never-die spirit haunts her work. She is an unbeliever on note who eschews easy positioning and easy victories. Her greatest strength is not believing and her greatest weakness is that, through her many forays in search of truth, she has come to know too much. She happens to teach at the University of South Africa.



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Dussel, E. 2014. ‘Anti-Cartesian meditations: On the origin of the philosophical anti-discourse of modernity’. In JCRT 13(1): 1-53

Fassin, D. 2007 When bodies remember: Experiences and politics of AIDS in South Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gordon, R.G (2014). ‘Disciplinary decadence and the decolonisation of knowledge’. In Africa Development 39(1): 81-92.

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Nyamjoh, F.B. 2012. ‘Blinded by sight: Divining the future of Anthropology in Africa’. In Africa Spectrum 47(2-3): 63-92.

Pierre, J. 2006. ‘Anthropology and the Race of/for Afric. In The Study of Africa Vol 1: Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Encounters, Paul. T. Zeleza (ed.). Dakar. CODESRIA.

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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 “Epistemologies of Equilibrium Must Fall: Thinking beyond the many turns in Anthropology

  1. Dear Nokuthula,

    This is such a scathing, provocative critique. And I could not agree more with it, and with the need for decolonisation in disciplinary thought and universities. We (at least I), as anthropologists, are complicit in producing hierarchies through our practices, pedagogies and knowledges. However, I am also wary of what Eric Wolf once described as intellectual deforestation of the disciplines history. I do think we need to be in touch with our foremothers/fathers, but they certainly aren’t immune to critique; perhaps this is what an epistemic de-linking might seem like (or least a part of it).

    The other, the move outside the academe and into the veritable fray of everyday struggles and politics, I think is crucial. For me, this is reminiscent of Schper-Hughes’ call for a ‘militant anthropology’ with its feet-on-the-ground (I am curious what you think about the interventions in anthropology since the 1980s and 1990s, esp. those that argue about the implicit coloniality in anthropology’s basic assumptions about the field and culture – like Fabian’s denial of coevalness, Appadurai’s native-as-incarceration, and Gupta and Ferguson’s critique of the field as a culturally bound space, to name a few).

    I think your critique of “turns” is to the point; these turns, to quote Mignolo, merely change the contents of the conversation and not the terms. I thus see them, esp. the most recent ontological one, with healthy scepticism (whilst agreeing with the basic general principle – once again, I am curious about your take on that).

    Thanks again, for this post and for taking us a step closer to change the terms of engagement of anthropology. I look forward to reading more of your work!

  2. Why has this powerful, passionate statement received no response? What, from the author’s perspective, would be the most appropriate response?

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