The evils of anthropology

Prior to reading First in their Field: Women and Australian Anthropology (edited by Julie Marcus) I had almost no understanding of what anthropology actually was.  I understood that it was a study of people, but since there was also sociology, which I took to be the understanding of people in modern society, so therefore anthropology was the study of people now gone.

And then I read First in their Field, and learnt about Australian women breaking major ground (mostly unrecognised) in anthropology, creating fieldwork and what anthropology, at least at the turn of the 1900s was.  I was disgusted to find out what anthropology actually was and the harm that it has caused.

This was brought back to my mind when I started reading Feminism FOR REAL: Deconstructing the academic industrial complex of feminism (edited by Jessica Yee).  The second essay by Krysta Williams and Erin Konsmo has the following (pg 26 – 27):

First off, as has been well stated by many Indigenous Feminist before us, the idea of gender equality did not come from the suffragettes or other so-called “foremothers” of feminist theory.  It should also be recognized that although we are still struggling for this thing called “gender equality”, it is not actually a framed issue within the feminist realm, but a continuation of the larger tackling of colonialism.  So this idea in mainstream feminism that women of colour all of a sudden realized “we are women”, and magically joined the feminist fight actually re-colonizes people for who gender equality and other “feminist” notions is a remembered history and current reality since before Columbus.  THe mainstream feminist movement is supposed to have started in the early 1900s with women fighting for the right to vote.  However, these white women deliberately excluded the struggles of working class women of colour and participated in the policy of forced sterilization for Aboriginal women and women with disabilities.  Furthermore, the idea that we all need to subscribe to the same theoretical understandings of history is marginalizing.  We all have our own truths and histories to live.

and (pg 28)

All that the mainstream feminist movement is trying to claim today is merely a reflection of what an Indigenous person (including women, men, Two-Spirit, trans or different gender identifying people) sees when they look in the mirror.  There is this feeling amongst “innovative thinkers” that we need to reach forward to build and/or discover a “new society” that includes gender equality.  But we know that for us, as a community, this simply means a return to our Indigenous ways of life, a decolonization of our communities which will bring back gender equality.  This is something that we have been fighting for and resisting since contact.  However, being pushed forward by progressives while trying to hold onto and remember the past, honour our Elders and teachings – which being present – is a painful experience!

When reading First in their Field, the essayists wrote about the early female anthropologists living with various Indigenous tribes in remote Australia (well most of Australia at that time was remote).  The essayists discussed how those female anthrpologists, with the exception of Daisy Bates who pretended to be a male spirit, accessed the spiritual realm of Indigenous women, learning about their ceremonies, their laws and how they fit into tribal society.

Prior to these female anthropologists living with the Indigenous inhabitants of Australia, white male anthropologists had determined that much like many white women at the time, Indigenous women occupied the domestic sphere, had no spiritual life and were much less than men, as they had been unable to access (and were not overly interested in) Indigenous women’s experience.  The cut and paste of white society’s gender roles onto the gender roles of Indigenous Australians has no doubt caused the same level of harm as recounted by Williams and Konsmo.

The study of other societies as something less than white, European culture, as something you’d study as if looking at a collection of spores in a petri dish, thinking that you can study another society or culture without bringing in your own biases, issues and prejudices is just laughable and really wrong.  There is no objectivity when studying another group of people, and no way to study another group of people without your presence making an impact on them (unless of course that society/culture doesn’t exist any more and you’re studying it from afar (such as Incan civilisations pre-Spanish invasion)).

The arrogance of my “ancestors” and the damage that they have caused Indigenous Australians makes me deeply ashamed and sorry that so much damage was done.


(Update: now with References)

One bit I left out of my blog post last night, or perhaps didn’t explain in the way I intended, is the direct harm that anthropology caused to Australia’s Indigenous inhabitants.  Anthropologists were seen to be experts on Indigenous people and therefore were asked to provide advice to Governments and to fill roles such as “Protectors of Aboriginies” (First in their Field).  If they did not come up with the idea of forcible removal of children from Indigenous communities, they certainly supported it.  In Isobel White’s essay on Daisy Bates she states (pg 63 – 64):

By today’s standards many of Daisy Bate’s suggestions for the welfare of Aborigines seem impossible, absurd and an infringement of human rights.  She believed that the Aborigines were on their way to extinction and her idea applied only to the declining number of those of full descent.  She cared not at all what happened to the part-descent population, whose very existence she deplored.  Consequently her suggestion for the full-descent population was to segregate them from all but minimum contact with Europeans so that there should be no more mixed unions. … Since she regarded them as incapable of governing themselves, they should be governed by a High Commissioner who, she insisted, must be a British, Anglican gentleman.

To no anthropologist would endorse a policy of taking children from their mothers and sending them to institutions where ‘civilised’ values and habits would be taught.  But this was the policy in both Western Australia and South Australia where Mrs Bates was Honorary Protector of Aboriginies successively.  The duties of these posts included reporting to the local police the birth or existence of so-called ‘half-caste’ children so that they might be seized, by force if necessary, and sent to an appropriate institution.  Presumable Daisy Bates accepted this part of her duties and there is evidence that in at least one case she acted on it.




Feminism FOR REAL: Deconstructing the academic industrial complex of feminism, edited by Jessica Yee, 2001, DLR International Printing, Canada

First in the Field: Women and Australian Anthropology, edited by Julie Marcus, 1993, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Australia

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8 Replies to “The evils of anthropology”

  1. I’m sorry to tell you this, but you still don’t understand anthropology. Basing your knowledge on the subject on studies done near the birth of the discipline is unfair to those of us who work hard and dedicate our lives to understanding others. You also fail to understand the difference between sociology and anthropology, but I won’t get in to that as there are numerous resources available online that will explain that to you.

    One of the very first things anthropologists are taught in school is to judge each culture on it’s own merits, not compared to your own. We are taught not to be ethnocentric ( and to look at the world around us from a culturally relative perspective (

    The reason many of the accounts of women are later found to be incorrect is the same reason anything in anthropology is later found to be incorrect; limited access means limited knowledge. If I do fieldwork and show up and express interest in learning about the women, as a male that would not only probably look suspicious to the people I’m studying but also they probably wouldn’t understand why I’m interested and just brush it off. My knowledge of the women of the tribe is second-hand or based solely off of observation. If I don’t see the women participating in the same spiritual rituals as the men and the men tell me that these are the only rituals the only thing I can know is that, as far as the men of a society are concerned, women aren’t a part of the sacred world. This is why female anthropologists are so important to our field and why feminist anthropology is growing so rapidly. While the goal is often to make the differences between the sexes smaller it is far more advantageous to the anthropologist to take advantage of the differences and gain access where others can not. This gives us a more complete understanding of a culture.

    An anthropologist may, and probably will, spend their entire life studying one culture or even one aspect of one culture but will never, no matter how hard they try, actually fully understand without the help of their colleagues. Even then, it is very likely that their work will turn out to be at least partially incorrect and need to be updated.

  2. If I don’t see the women participating in the same spiritual rituals as the men and the men tell me that these are the only rituals the only thing I can know is that, as far as the men of a society are concerned, women aren’t a part of THEIR sacred world.

    Fixed that for you.

  3. I’ve finally given up on anthropology after eighteen months of frustrating study. Ethnocentricism is definitely not over. I studied under a number of white professors at an institution that has in the past conducted many a notorious study of various Aboriginal groups. (To their credit, my first essay was on the damage white anthropologists, many of whom were associated with my university, had done to these groups.)

    I found it so frustrating because, for all the efforts to turn the discipline around, the department was still incredibly white. As long as it’s mostly white Westerners studying the Other, anthropology’s problems are not going to be solved. I had an uphill battle trying to lessen the grip of white Western perspectives on our class time. The high marks I got really were not worth the effort and horror of sitting through some of those classes.

    This is part of why I want to write my thesis about whiteness, because I want to turn the lens back rather than remain something in a petri dish myself.

  4. Is anthropology by nature backward and racist and in need of a shift in perception?

    Consider this: An academic who studies brown people is an anthropologist, but an academic who studies white people is a sociologist.

    Looks like a yes to me.

  5. DexX, no. That statement is around 50 years out of date.
    There are any number of anthropologists who study white people, because surprisingly; white people have culture too!
    See Urban Anthropology for details.

    Yes, anthropology as a discipline used to be racist and misogynistic and full of privileged white men. Just like, oh – every other academic discipline.

  6. I think characterizing an entire discipline based on limited reading of its origins and from outside that discipline is a bit of a stretch. I’m sure anthropology suffers from the same baggage most disciplines that have anything to do with the study of humans does, but I’m also sure that those actually in the discipline today know better. The problem is that before you can contribute to the field, you have to learn its history and that includes learning about how racist and misogynistic and biased it used to be, and how those problems still affect the way studies are framed today.

    And as for it being an exclusively white area of study, I think the departments of anthropology in the non-western world may have a thing or two to say about that.

  7. Here in the US the indigenous efforts to get out “from under” the anthropologists thrall was notably enhanced in the sixties–whatever the utility or “good intentions” of their studies, their historical meddling had reached a point where they literally governed in place of indigenous tribal or other councils or bodies. That “perhaps they hadn’t learned enough”, or that their studies had been “interrupted” is hogwash. Clearly they worked away unconscious of the insidious racist and colonialist ethic in their own minds, and as externalised in their deeds. Another example of “pure science”? Rather than anthro or white-origined sociology texts they should have availed themselves of historical works on native works on their struggles against racism and oppression.

  8. You’re right about everything, OP. The first comment, posted by ‘an anthropologist’, definitely sounds as if it was written by a freshman undergrad. I hope they either learn a great deal more as they matriculate to grad school, or never become a professor.