Decentering “the human” at the interfaces of anthropology and science studies?

This entry is part 19 of 20 in the Decolonizing Anthropology series.

By: Kristina Lyons

In what ways do seeds, soils, bees, microbes, and rivers matter when Native, Black, brown, queer, and trans human bodies are systematically under assault? Can a decolonizing approach successfully decenter “the human” in this political moment? For whom, when, and how is human exceptionalism a problem that needs to be overcome in the first place?

In my first year teaching feminist science studies courses at UC Santa Cruz, certain literature at the interfaces between anthropology and science studies that might be said to deal with “naturescultures” and “human-nonhuman” relations was received with discomfort by a number of the undergraduate students I encountered in my classes. Some of these students were in tension with being asked to care about what they perceived as beings or things outside their political identities and collectives in a commitment to foreground the violence(s) experienced by Native, Black, brown, queer, and trans human bodies. Others were predisposed against the masculine whiteness and Euro-Atlantic based analytical focus of much science studies, which has been a recurrent critique of dominant science and technology studies (STS) genealogies and scholarship. Still others were suspicious of anything that smelt of the Anthropocene, and its current framings that often uncritically assume a blanket concept of humanity, history, and geologic record. Despite their roles in shaping and being shaped by racist legacies and ongoing coloniality, I found myself at times in the extremely uncomfortable and impossible position of defending the disciplines of anthropology and science studies. One Native American student wrote me to share that her father had taught her never to trust an anthropologist. What if anything had “environmental” anthropology learned from the critical contributions of Indigenous, queer, feminist, and critical race and ethnic studies? Why does much STS continue to be focused on such a limited portion of the world narrated by white voices and perspectives? How might we go about “decolonizing” science studies and its interfaces? Where, when, how, by, and for whom is this a possibility or even desired?

We did not grapple with easy questions. Nor should they be easy.

It is precisely because I share in many aspects of my students’ disconcertment, that I designed undergraduate and graduate courses that place decolonizing perspectives and methodologies, feminist science studies, and anthropology in conversation. I did this not because the presence of decoloniality on the syllabus would remedy the disciplinary limits of either anthropology or STS. Nor was decolonization, as Eve Tuck and Wayne Yang (2012) warn against, meant to be a metaphor for possibly incommensurable social justice struggles that must be understood on their own terms as well as in relation. Decolonizing conceptualizations and practices are always spatially situated and temporally specific. In other words, decolonization as process and goal does not occur at the level of the general or the abstract. My reasons for locating myself at the interfaces of anthropology and science studies also have to do with tensions and ambiguities, and the location and concepts of my ethnographic research in Colombia where discourses of postcoloniality do not have the same kinds of historical and political import.

I am in no way arguing against the fact that postcolonial scholarship and subaltern studies have been influential among political activists and scholars in and of Latin America. However, my research is informed by a genealogy of Latin American critical theory that includes dependency theory, liberation theology, participatory action research, and what Santiago Castro Gómez (2005) has called the “triad modernity/coloniality/decoloniality.” When indigenous, peasant, Afro-descendent, feminist, and popular sectors chant “500 años de colonialismo” [500 years of colonialism] during mobilizations across the region, they are engaged in struggles against specific forms of ongoing coloniality that are conceptualized in ways other than “postcolonial.” This does not necessarily mean that a decolonial paradigm should become a singular explanatory tool to discuss the commitments of diverse popular struggles and radical groups throughout Latin America. As my feminist STS colleague in Colombia, Tania Pérez-Bustos, pointed out this past August at a 4S roundtable organized by Juno Parreñas, Noah Tomarkin, and I on “Decoloniality and Decolonization in and at the interfaces of STS” (publication forthcoming), discourses of decoloniality are trendily appropriated by North American scholars. This occurs at the expense of ignoring, on the one hand, Latin American-based thinkers who do not have the privilege of whiteness, and who do not enunciate from the geopolitical centers of knowledge production. On the other hand, these discourses may be detached from what communities, regional networks, and radical practitioners deem important and/or are abstracted from the processes they have long been up to, but may or may not articulate as such.

While anthropology has classically been concerned with “local” concepts, attitudes, and values, the heterogeneous field of STS has only more recently begun to decenter its Euro-Atlantic-based analytical grammars in limited efforts to “provincialize” itself. I remember attending a science studies retreat when I was a Ph.D. student and being told by a colleague that my work on human-soil relations with rural communities and scientists resembled one of his advisor’s “old” 1980s projects on rocks or dirt. He could not remember exactly which earthy element. His commentary implied that small farmers’ relations with soils in the global South were a thing of the past and not a very charismatic topic. My experience at that retreat and certain ensuing encounters left me deeply troubled about the plurality of STS produced in the United States, and the inadvertent replication of Western modernizing and evolutionary narratives by STS scholars in training. It felt as if science studies projects were being classified according to the same hierarchical logics separating and prioritizing “hard” sciences over their so-called “applied” or “soft” counterparts. I was also left with lingering questions about the consumptive tendencies in academia to function around demands that may or may not be relevant outside these privileged spaces.

Currently in the United States, we are witnessing the dismantling of knowledge production, critical regulatory institutions, and healthcare and environmental infrastructures even before president-elect Trump assumes office. In my opinion, it is vital for more science studies scholars to engage head on with the ways in which science, technology, data, and objectivity are imbricated in state-sanctioned violence, racism, global inequality, and neocolonial orders. Long-standing critiques of the lack of analysis of power relations and geopolitics in STS have to take on a whole new meaning, and more importantly, require transformative research proposals and collective modes of response.

The post election frenzy after a blatantly white supremacist, misogynist, climate change denying, multibillionaire was elected the next president of the United States has rightfully left millions of us frightened, disoriented, and with renewed commitments to mobilization, alliance-building, and resistance. However, intensifying national warnings that state-sanctioned violence and repressive policies will only worsen after January 20th, seldom acknowledge the death, environmental destruction, and economic devastation wrought by ongoing U.S. imperialism, global militarization, and racist belief of civilizational superiority. Over the last month I have frequently remembered my reaction after watching the collapsing Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 on a television screen. I had been on my way to the International Labor Organization (ILO) office where I was volunteering in Guatemala City. A mail bomb that killed an administrative assistant a week before I began my volunteer position had blown off our office rooftop. The bomb was intended to shut down ILO solidarity for maquiladoras unionizing against the exploitative working conditions in U.S. multinational factories after national unions had been repressed for decades following a 1954 coup covertly carried out by the CIA that deposed a democratically elected progressive government. As I shockingly watched victims perilously trapped and leaping from the burning towers, I naively hoped: This particular violence on domestic soil…this day will compel a broad U.S. civil society movement that demands truth, takes responsibility, and builds international solidarity against our country’s nefarious global imperial presence and military-economic-humanitarian-development empire building. The Bush administration’s war machine, overwhelming public expressions of vengeful patriotism, and heightened Islamophobia devastatingly engaged in the exact opposite.

The beautiful healing act that recently occurred when hundreds of U.S. veterans asked for forgiveness from Native elders at Standing Rock for historical war crimes and ongoing military complicity in settler colonialism was an exceptional moment for domestic processes of restorative justice. There is still so much more to do in and beyond the domestic sphere. Rural North Dakota is itself a global site of action and intervention in the transnational energy business. As I see it, the work of restorative justice must include the violence(s) of the military-industrial-prison complex that perpetuate U.S imperialism, violate sovereignties, and globally extinguish worlds. Anthropology is committed to troubling Western assumptions that enact, to borrow from John Law (2011), a “one-world world.” The plurality of worlds as they emerge in differentially power-saturated practices was no more apparent than when U.S. Veteran Wes Clark asked for forgiveness for taking Native land. Lakota Chief Leonard Dog Crow’s gracious response clarified, “We do not own the land. The land owns us.” Chief Crow repeated the word land while also explaining that land is not only land for Native worlds as Clark may have understood it. This is not unlike the way certain farmers I work with in the Colombian Amazon employ the term soil. Elsewhere I have written about the encounters between these farmers and state and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) agricultural extensionists. When farmers refer to what technicians call “soils”, they are never referring to a stable object that can be managed by humans, but rather an entanglement of life-propagating relations that include microbes, insects, sunlight, selva, decaying leaves, animal feces and urine, human labor, and mística.

 Don Nelso Enriquez shows me how he and his wife, Doña Elva, clean each seed before storing them in their family seed bank to avoid using commercial chemical insecticides. Climatic and agroecological conditions in the Amazon generate particular seed storing and distribution practices among small farmers and indigenous communities. (Mocoa, Putumayo) Foto by author.

I engaged in ethnographic research with soil scientists and bureaucrats across laboratories, state institutions, and environmental campaigns in the capital city of Bogotá, and with small farmers and rural social movements on farms, among selvas, and during popular mobilizations in the Andean-Amazonian foothills of Colombia. The latter is an epicenter of the country’s over fifty year war and its conflation with the U.S.-Colombia “War on Drugs”, including the indiscriminate aerial fumigation of entire ecologies with a concentrated formula of Monsanto’s herbicide, glyphosate. Approximately 75 percent of the over 9 billion dollars of U.S. foreign aid provided since 2000 has been invested in provisioning weapons, equipment, technical assistance, and training for Colombian military and police through contracts with U.S.-based multinationals, such as Monsanto, Sikorsky Aircraft, and Dyncorp International.  It was important to me to study the foreign policy implications of the U.S. military industrial complex in its relations to Colombia in terms of war, trade, development, human rights, science and technology, and agro-ecological impacts.

Farmers in the southwestern frontier department of Putumayo led me to seek out soil scientists in the country’s capital when they shared with me specific soil science, microbiology, and ecology articles. These texts had become partial allies in their efforts to transform extractive-based agricultural practices, and to, what they call, “decolonize their farms.”  Learning with and from both soil scientists and small farmers quickly complicated any conventional anthropological division between “studying up,” in Laura Nader’s now classic sense, to understand the workings of power among experts and institutions, and “studying down” to analyze everyday people’s ability to transform and resist these structures. It was impossible to simply oppose “science” and “nonscience,” or to assume hierarchical dynamics and fixed locations of subjugation and subversive potential. A nice example of this is my colleague Juno Parreñas’s discussion of methods in terms of multispecies ethnography. However, placing scientists’ and farmers’ relations with “soils” in conversation does not lead me to render their divergent and convergent practices equivalent through a conceptual move towards analytical symmetry. Scientific practices, even when they responsibly address Amazonian problems, are considered to be categorically different from the kinds of practices and practitioners that emerge when one lives, dies, and defends a territory under military duress.

For the farmers I met, modern agricultural sciences tend to be deeply embedded in capitalist structures that dispossess rural communities, turning them into consumers rather than producers of food and agrobiodiversity and seed guardians. These sciences run the risk of rearing their colonial heads when they are deemed “knowledge” that parasitically absorbs non-scientifically derived practices and/or renders them obsolete. This occurs when the latter do not or cannot aspire to become standardized models dictated by singularizing market values and competitiveness. Of course, certain modern agricultural technologies have and continue to be incorporated into small farmers’ labor if they exhibit liberatory potential within the relational conditions of Amazonian ecologies. However, asymmetrical engagements that retain the tension between practices remain ethically and strategically important. This is an asymmetry that subverts the universal authority granted to scientific knowledges and their nexus with capitalist accumulation. Science must first demonstrate its alliance-building capacity with relational, more-than-capitalist worlds rather than the inverse, where “local” practices are obliged to demonstrate their equivalence with the modern sciences.

Amazonian farmers taught me that in order to “decolonize their farms” they first had to decolonize dominant techno-scientific, chemically conceived, and market-oriented concepts of and relations with “soils.” They also taught me about working with and in tension across complex practices rather than assuming an either/or or neither/nor political position.

How does all this relate to questions and tensions surrounding decentering “the human” that came up in feminist science studies classrooms in California? The political and intellectual expectations that undergraduate students brought to my courses are informed by their experiences of systematic racial violence and the injustices of settler colonialism; the rigidities of cis-sexist binarism; and the kinds of precarity produced by a neoliberal corporatizing public university in the United States. Feminist, postcolonial, and Indigenous science studies scholars have done important work to reveal how racialized, gendered, and classed forms of global and state power travel through the multidirectional circulations of technoscience, which have always been more intricate than a unidirectional movement from North to South. However, my first year with the privilege of teaching as full-time faculty obliged deep reflection about the glaring absence of women of color – especially non English speaking women – from much STS syllabi. The recent Catalyst volume on the intersections of Black studies and feminist technoscience makes important interventions in this sense. Anthropology has done a better job of taking serious the concepts of our ethnographic interlocutors, co-thinkers, and allies than most science studies scholarship. However, the practice of directly citing and not only using these concepts to produce empirically informed theory continues to be less prevalent.

Students were keyed into the ways even critical conversations at the interfaces of “environmental” anthropology and science studies often fail to ask for whom, when, and how human exceptionalism is a problem that needs to be overcome in the first place. Numerous scholars, journalists, and activists have emphasized that blaming a universal category of humanity for climate change and planetary environmental degradation not only lets capitalism off the hook. It also renders invisible the unevenly experienced burdens and geographically specific planet-changing events produced by colonial occupation, massive dispossession, Trans-Atlantic slavery, and its racist aftermaths. Indigenous and critical race and ethnic scholars, and a range of historically marginalized communities have emphatically emphasized that worlds have been genocidally smothered out and “benevolently” displaced for hundreds if not thousands of years. Furthermore, as Métis scholar Zoe Todd (2015) argues in her chapter “Indigenizing the Anthropocene,” “not all humans are equally invited into the conceptual spaces where these disasters are theorized or response to disaster formulated.”

A parallel argument can be made about the blanket category of “nonhumans” when it comes to stand in for and homogenize diverse secular and non-secular beings, things, matter, and forces that may also share long histories of hierarchical divisions. Drawing upon the interventions of Kim Tallbear (2011), Marisol de la Cadena and Margaret Wiener (2015), among others, worlds are not necessarily (or not only as de la Cadena insists) populated by humans, species, and things. These categories have dominated Latourian inspired versions of Actor Network Theory and multi/interspecies ethnographies at the interfaces between STS and anthropology. Todd (2016) and others point out that a decolonial approach explicitly acknowledges that the nature/culture divide was not a universal phenomena, but rather a specific knowledge tradition and ideological project that never succeeded in eliminating relational world-making practices and modes of existence. Indigenous thinkers/practitioners have been at the forefront of conceptualizing this relationality while only sometimes or minimally being cited by post-humanist, onto-epistemic, and new feminist materialist scholars. Such a reflection does not deny that the latter have made important contributions to rendering relational world-making practices accessible to diverse publics. The same Native American student I mentioned in the opening of the post made this point. At the end of the quarter, she told me that our collective conversations on the political stakes of ontological differences between worlds composed by a relational continuum of life and worlds made through practices that produce a modern divide between “nature” and “culture” provided helpful vocabulary to explain her community’s practices and ethics to Non-Native folks.

In my humble experience, placing situated decolonial approaches in conversation with the interfaces of anthropology and STS has less to do with convincing students that they should think with water; care about the soils upon which they plant their feet; feel anguish over the impending extinction of pollinator bees; or become cognizant that “Nature is the 99%, too.” It has more to do with learning how to teach in tension, responding to and maintaining the generative and challenging tensions, that decentering a historically specific notion and experience of “the human” – one that continues to negate the full humanity of specific peoples and communities – may produce. More than a manifesto, I join the efforts of other scholars and community organizers committed to understanding the ways ecological violence(s), structures producing human oppression, and situated life-making capacities are necessarily entwined rather than mutually exclusive domains of political struggle and intellectual work. Grateful to learn alongside critically engaged students and rural communities cultivating life in the midst of glyphosate-poisoned worlds, I am convinced of the domestic and international alliances that can be drawn upon and woven between “environmental”, anti-racist, and anti-colonial struggles in this political moment.


Kristina Lyons is an assistant professor of Feminist Science Studies and Anthropology, and a faculty affiliate of the Science & Justice Research Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz.  Her work engages with feminist and decolonial science studies, environmental humanities in the global South, socio-ecological justice, and poetic ethnography. She directed a popular education film series, Cultivating un Bien Vivir [Living Well] in the Amazon, which supports the proliferation of farmer-to-farmer agro-life alternatives among rural communities in the Andean-Amazonian foothills of Colombia.



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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/