Unsettling Anthropology

The last week has seen a tumult online in the world of anthropology. A run-down can be found in this IHE article and Hilary Agro’s cliffnotes twitter thread. The conversation centers on the formerly open-access anthropology journal Hau and the abuses of its editor, Giovanni Da Col, as nodded at by David Graeber’s statement and as described in two separate open letters by current or former Hau staff. But the abuses alleged and the culture of the Hau project are about more than just a single person or journal. Several commentators have pointed out that this phenomena is part of a broader problem within anthropology as a discipline (as well as academia more broadly and society at large).

Two important contributions to this aspect of the conversation, pushing beyond Hau and to the discipline itself, are worth sitting with. First is Zoe Todd’s thoughtful post on decolonizing anthropology (again). Todd points to the way we think about theory and anthropology – a way which presumes only certain types of thinkers as theorists while others are merely interlocutors or informants. The fact that this mode of thinking remains embedded in our discipline – the way it pervades course syllabi and seminar discussions and reviewer comments and journal publications – indicates that the effort to decolonize the discipline is far from finished. Todd’s whole piece is well worth a read, as is Anand Pandian’s reflection on open access anthropology. In it, and in the context of what has happened at Hau, Pandian notes that the open access movement is not merely about taking down paywalls, but creating a more open scholarship that breaks down other barriers too. As he puts it so eloquently:

The paywall is invidious, yes. But there are other walls that have also come into focus in recent days. Walls that shield those securely employed and exalted in anthropology from the acute concerns of those in more precarious positions. Walls that credit the field’s white forefathers with its most essential lessons, while relegating others to the status of native informants, loyal wives, helpful assistants, or grateful descendants. Walls that distinguish properly deferential and manifestly scholarly writing from forms of expression deemed too intimate, too vulnerable, too personal, too conversational, too passionate to count as serious scholarship. Walls that celebrate the glories of the master’s house. Walls that extol good theories at the expense of good stories. The moment in fact is long overdue, the reckoning with all these walls built beside and on top of each other.

Tearing down all of these walls is exactly what we should be doing when we decolonize anthropology. I hope that this moment is not an ephemeral one, but one that continues forwards unrelentingly. Anthropologists should be working together to dismantle all manner of systems of oppression in their work – not only by studying such forms of oppression in “the field” but in our professional lives on campus and in journals and in presses and at conferences and in the job market and in the streets.

We should openly be working to reorganize our discipline along new axes, not to seize power but to dismantle it. Collective work – in research and writing, in teaching and learning – is central to creating a more emancipated, unsettled, and free anthropology. Some of this work is happening in unionization efforts, some of it in open access and public anthropology spaces, some of it in classrooms and conferences. But it requires everyone committed to a new future for scholarship in order to create new ways of being, together. We can’t be free while others have power over us. Anthropology can’t be decolonized while a colonial mindset still governs much of its structures. Universities can’t be liberated while trapped in old power structures. We need to imagine something better, something otherwise.

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