Decolonizing anthropology challenges the false distinction between “pure” and “applied” anthropology, as well as the supposedly “neutral” and “detached” production of knowledge. The goal is to “free the study of humankind from the prevailing forces of global inequality and dehumanization and to locate it firmly in the complex struggle for genuine transformation.”
There are several strands of organizing praxis, each with distinct approaches to issues, and the relationship among the group, the “constituency.” But all activist organizing has at its core the goal to identify then transform structures of power. All groups to varying degrees involve establishing and tending to relationships. In its best moments, anthropology has affinity with organizing. For example, key methods in sociocultural anthropology identify structures of power, offer tools for mobilization, frame issues and identify connections between them, and build connections between various communities.
Collaborations by their nature tend to be fragile, requiring shared commitment and upkeep between all the parties involved. And collaborators must always check their privilege and “saviorism” at the door. This is often hard for scholars, particularly white male scholars, whose privilege is often an unexamined part of our background and opportunities, lining up along several different types of inequality. To face the extreme challenges of this moment in history, people need to move beyond being allies, where privilege remains intact, to becoming accomplices, putting one’s own body on the line, disrupting and dismantling privilege.
Accountability to marginalized individuals and communities is key to dismantling the ivory tower. It requires changes to professorial reward structures, and having a transformative, radical reciprocity behind a true spirit of community collaboration.
Universities, particularly public universities that depend on public money to operate, are under siege. Funding is drying up, and academic freedom is eroding, particularly for those whose identity and/or research finds itself in the crosshairs of current U.S. administration policies. To counter this, we should be reviving Du Bois’s vision: universities can be sites for encounter, for coming together, for debating and identifying coalitional solutions, and then for educating and mobilizing the public. However, in its current neoliberal, imperial form, higher education is far from ideal. Universities, and particularly underfunded public universities, reinforce the inequalities and injustices within society at large. In order to fulfill universities’ promise and potential, we need to dismantle the ivory tower, reimagining and rearticulating an alternative university in defense of the public, in the service of humanity. Anthropology in particular needs to continue “cleaning house from within.” As Faye Harrison implored twenty-five years before Trump’s election, anthropology needs to be decolonized and continue its self-critique. Anthropologists who believe in liberation need to change the rules of the game and support engagement with the public. They need to build synergies with organizers and get involved. In addition to actually practicing reciprocity, anthropologists need to build collaborative relationships and structures of accountability.
Dismantling the Ivory Tower
- Today’s urgent world problems require intentional collaborations between scholar/activists in the university and those in the community.
- Resources of the university need to be defended as public goods, and shared equitably among students and communities, particularly marginalized groups.
- Public universities should fulfill their role as spaces of encounter and discussion, so people can deliberate there on the urgent issues facing communities, identify solutions, and then train and mobilize the community.
- Organizing offers potential synergy with an anthropology dedicated to human liberation and developing our anthropological imaginations.
- Before any of this is possible, individuals within the university need to divest from internalized capitalist, colonialist, racist logics of inequality. Particularly those most privileged within the system need to do the necessary work to acknowledge—and then dismantle—our privilege.
- Decolonization must always be accompanied by action, to change the institutional structures and rules of the game. It should be accompanied by real, concrete action to redress dispossession.
- Activist and community partners need to be coproducers of knowledge, having a say in crafting the research agenda, empowered to call professors out, keeping us accountable.
An authentic anthropology can emerge from the critical intellectual traditions and counter-hegemonic struggles of Third World peoples? Can a genuine study of humankind arise from dialogues, debates, and reconciliation amongst various non-Western and Western intellectuals — both those with formal credentials and those with other socially meaningful and appreciated qualifications?Faye Harrison, Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving further toward an Anthropology for Liberation (1991, 1)