Guest Post: Anthropology’s front-lines: Notes on crisis, coloniality, and violence

[The following is a guest post by Proshant Chakraborty. Proshant is an applied anthropologist and research consultant based in Mumbai, India. He obtained his master’s in Social and Cultural Anthropology at KU Leuven, Belgium. His current research focuses on front-line workers and violence prevention interventions in urban poor communities.]


This essay is an attempt to make sense of the controversy at Hau, an open access journal of ethnographic theory, which was launched in 2011 through the efforts of academics in anthropology and graduate students.

Recently, a total of 11 former and current staffers at Hau have published two separate letters (first, second) detailing allegations of physical and emotional abuse, and unethical financial conduct by Giovanni Da Col, the editor-in-chief at Hau.

David Graeber, who was involved with Hau for several years, issued an apology just prior to the first letter’s publication on Footnotes, for his role in not being able to do enough to tackle these serious allegations.

The Hau board of trustees released a statement addressing these allegations, but offered no concrete solutions so far; in an earlier announcement, where they said that Hau was now being incorporated by the University of Chicago Press, they termed these allegations as “destabilizing efforts.” On 16 June, a series of statements were leaked, which detail the steps that the board of trustees had supposedly taken to address these problems, and conclude that Giovanni Da Col was “difficult,” but they did not find any evidence of abuse and harassment.[1]

Several scholars, academics, and graduate students have expanded this conversation on social media, particularly on Twitter (or, #AnthroTwitter), and have included systemic critiques of precarity, sexism, racism, and the continuing coloniality in many anthropology faculties (and indeed, in how the discipline is practiced).

In this essay, I do not wish to write specifically about the allegations; I admit I was blindsided by this, given that I am not overly involved in a lot of discussions in academic circles (I am a practicing anthropologist based in Mumbai). Hau was always on my horizon, however; it was a rich source of anthropological/ethnographic theory, one to which I wished to contribute someday. That has changed now.

Instead, I want my intervention in this essay to add to the polyvocality of discussions surrounding #HauTalk: precarity, exploitation, and violence in academia and workspaces, and their relationship with the nature of anthropological practice and knowledge.

To this effect, I introduce and use the term front-line.

Unlike the highly militarized definition of the term, I use it very specifically from my ethnographic research with women front-line workers who’re engaged in preventing gendered violence in Mumbai’s urban poor communities.

I offer five (tentative) inter-related aspects of front-line as possible ways to think about the present moment, and imagine the near-future of anthropological practice: as a spatial metaphor, an infrastructure, labor practices, and an ethnographic orientation, which can lead to the practice of a more “principled” form of anthropology.

Openness, decoloniality—two lenses

In an essay on Cultural Anthropology’s blog, Anand S. Pandian (2018) offers a thoughtful mediation on the idea of “openness”—as one crucial half of the “open access” movement. He writes about important aspects in open access movements—from the finances, labor, to accessibility, collaboration, and openness of knowledge.

Pandian rightly, and emphatically, critiques the “walls” around anthropology: not just paywalls, but walls which uphold privilege, whiteness, coloniality, and power. As a counter to this, implores the vitality of openness as an ethical endeavor—not simply as a model of making anthropological knowledge accessible, but fundamentally about what such knowledge should be about:

Open access needs open minds, minds open to being remade by the unexpected, minds open to the worldly relationships that can convey its force and significance. Our professional lives and publishing infrastructures, however, are organized in ways that dampen and inhibit such openness, that force harsh choices between the stated demands of an anthropological career and the values that motivate its pursuit.

If “openness” is the primary register which Pandian employs to engage and imagine an ethical anthropological endeavor, in an Anthro{dendum} post, Zoe Todd reimagines decoloniality as the “Decolonial Turn 2.0” or “Decolonial (re)turn for Anthropology” as a way of extending this critique.

By the term “decolonial,” she’s not concerned with the textbook or indexical notion we see in most anthropological texts, which do not center (non)established decolonial thinkers and writers of color, and indigenous writers and thinkers—indeed, the practice and organization of disciplinary anthropology has in a sense colonized these decolonial thinkers (or neglected them altogether in anthropological canon; for instance, I only read and engaged with Fanon in a “Race and Ethnicity” class, not “Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology”).

Using her own experience as an Indigenous scholar/anthropologist (who was also in the very heart of the colonial empire: the UK), Todd provides a sobering, but also humorous, problematization of anthropology and its deep-seated colonial logics. She center Indigenous thinkers, scholars, activists, and peoples, to deconstruct and test the limits of the discipline.

She writes:

It is clear to me that anthropology of the 21st century must be reciprocal, open (Pandian 2018), and engage in ‘epistemic diversity’ (Mbembe 2015). It must open itself up to engagement beyond the narrow canon it jealously guards, Smaug-like, from universities built on white supremacy (and quite literally, through slavery) and enriched by wealth and knowledge pilfered through Imperialism. Anthropology of the 21st century can and must be something altogether different if it wishes to survive.

Using Ragnarok, the Norse myth of the destruction and rebirth of the world, as a metaphor, Todd thus suggests, “We are tasked with making anthropology what it needs to be. Or, maybe, abandoning it all together. And starting something else anew.”

Interlude: Crisis and continuity—or the continuity of crises?

I think it is safe to assume that among its sister disciplines, anthropology is perhaps one of the few (or only?) to have undergone several epistemological “crises”—from the early 20th century reorganization and formalization of the discipline, to the 1980s’ “crisis of representation,” to continued debates about “reinventing anthropology,” or making it “relevant,” or “engaging with publics.”

What both Pandian and Todd address, I feel, is how these “crises” are built into anthropology because of its colonial roots; not simply, or only, because of the discipline’s complicity in the history of economic and political colonialism, but more akin to the Fanonian colonization of the mind.

Some, like Ghassan Hage (2017), aren’t convinced by colonial-this-and-that, though.

Hage wrote a post after Marshall Sahlins’ (in)famous “rant” on Hau’s Facebook page last year—where Sahlins bemoans that younger scholars are forgetting the classical anthropological concepts, like kinship and exchange—where he lays down some points about why claiming anthropology “is a white colonialist project can’t be the end of the conversation.”

In it, Hage uses Bourdieu’s notion of illusio—pursuits we think to be worthwhile—to suggest that it’s incumbent upon anthropologists to remember that the discipline is reflexive and critical, that knowledge and culture aren’t the same, and basically to get on with the anthropological illusio (or tribe, as he calls it seemingly without a sense of irony).

I find this slightly unconvincing—as would anyone, given the recent turn of events (read Adia Benton’s [2017] incisive take on this).

Instead, I would offer another one of Bourdieu’s concepts to better illustrate the vexing relationship anthropology, and anthropologists, have with colonialism: symbolic violence.

Symbolic violence is the “violence which is exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity” (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 2004: 272, emphasis in original)

I have found symbolic violence to be particularly relevant in my work on gendered violence, and domestic abuse in particular; it succinctly explains how violence is exercised not simply in the domain of consciousness, but embodied practices (“objective structures,” in Bourdieu’s terms). Symbolic violence “is exerted not in the pure logic of knowing consciousness but through the schemes of perception, appreciation and action that are constitutive of habitus” (Bourdieu 2004, 340).

Coloniality, I believe, operates in a similar, insidious way for anthropology and anthropologists.

My reference to coloniality—rather than colonialism, or colonial—is indebted to Walter Mignolo’s (2000) highly influential work on the “coloniality of power.” Mignolo writes that, historically, colonialism’s encounter with difference led to the coloniality of power which classifies populations along a hierarchical scale based on “culture,” and institutes epistemological perspectives which define (and spatialize) such differences. The West, thus, is universalized/globalized, whereas the colonized world is reduced to the local. In his view, coloniality is complicit with project of modernity; they are inseparable.

Such forms of coloniality surely structure disciplines like anthropology; how they are taught; which authors or concepts are canonized and universalized, and which merely exist to add context (which is an accurate diagnosis of why Sahlins’ Facebook rant was so tone deaf, and actually colonial—note, it was rant that was, not him).

But, more importantly, the overarching manner in which we [white and non-white folks] respond to this coloniality being called out is indicative of symbolic violence—denial, complacency, justification, anger, but always misrecognition. It is perhaps plausible to argue that, contrary to the primacy we give to intellectual or discursive arguments, these are actually embodied and affectual responses, shaped by the symbolic violence of coloniality (cf. Fanon 1963).[2]

The very presence of such crises—or persistence, I daresay?—is partly because, as Hage suggest, the “critical and reflexive” nature of anthropology is able to respond to these and make corrections, but without really breaking with the social conditions which produce these dispositions (coming to think of it, this is a very interesting critique of the Writing Culture moment, but more on that later).

Breaking the habit—anthropology’s front-lines

To the polyvocality of the discussions around—and speaking out against!—Hau, coloniality, violence, abuse, and sexism, I add another concept: front-lines.

My usage of “front-lines” draws on my ongoing ethnographic work, much of which is conducted outside academia. As a practicing anthropologist, I am associated with an NGO’s program to prevent violence against women and girls (VAWG) in urban poor neighborhoods in Mumbai.

I use ethnographic and qualitative methods to do participatory research with women front-line workers, community workers, and survivors of VAWG, as well as provide training on research methods to NGO workers. I also work with other researchers as a part of interdisciplinary teams.

While being associated with a long-established NGO lends credibility to my presence in these communities, the larger context of slums, poverty, marginalization, and vulnerability (and my privileged position as an upper-class/caste male) still shape the need for accountability and responsibility my anthropological engagements (indeed, I believe that anthropology is well-suited to offer both methods and concepts to engender these in social research, more so than sociology, economics, or demography).

I have written and engaged with the term “front-lines” for several years now (including a post on the blog formerly known as Savage Minds); it refers primarily to “front-line workers” who are important social actors in the wider field preventing VAWG, and domestic violence in particular (Wies & Haldane 2011).

This has a genealogy in the historic labor of women activists and care givers, who were also largely women of color, that supported survivors of abuse and violence when no formal structures existed (it is, thus, a crucial antidote to the highly militaristic/masculinist origin of the term in WWI).

As such, I use the term front-lines as a device; a polyvalent concept, “a way of formulating questions, concepts and practices of engagement, and methods of investigation” (Simone 2010, 285). There are five inter-related aspects to this use of front-lines:

  1. A spatial metaphor: In the context of gendered violences, it blurs the divide between public and private forms of violences, frames violence as a public interest issue, and establishes the care worker’s proximity to situations and contexts of violence and abuse in everyday life (Chakraborty 2016a, 37-38);
  2. An infrastructure: Extending the spatial metaphor, front-line also refers to the “embodied infrastructure” of supportive practices, like mentorship, informal networks, which women have established over the last several decades (Clisby & Holdsworth 2014, 7);
  3. A labor practice: The creation of infrastructures and spaces necessitate engendering specific forms of actions or labor. Front-line laboror work is specific form of emotional and care work that is practiced by front-line workers, and is attentive to the experiences of survivors, which further “map the scope and scale of violence” (Wies & Haldane 2011, 2);
  4. An ethnographic orientation: Doing ethnographic work with front-line workers requires a form of participation that centers ethics and empathy; it requires, not objective distance, but intimate, open laboring. In other words, it is a way of recalibrating ethnographic methods and knowledges to align with, support, and produce knowledge alongside, the work of front-line workers and care givers (Chakraborty 2016b);
  5. A form of “principled anthropology”: This sort of work, then, traverses the planes of academia and professional work, to the extent that it is almost unhelpful to think in terms of these binaries. If partaking in front-line labor changes the very practice of ethnography, then surely we must reflect on how anthropology, too, is remade. The late Gerald Berreman ([1991] 2007) offers a helpful way out, through what he calls “principled anthropology.” It is a way of combining academic and professional practice under a unified ethical framework that is accountable to the people we work with, but also produced rigorous scientific knowledge.

How do we extend, and apply, front-line as a device to the everyday work of anthropology in conditions of such precarity, abuse, and erasure?

Like Pandian’s openness, and Todd’s decolonial (re)turn, front-lines can be a device to link our scholarship in accountable, ethical, and responsible relationships with the people we work with, and include in these relations our peers, colleagues, students, and mentors.

In other words, it isn’t enough that we foster empathy and ethical conduct with our participants (which we are obligated to do, professionally), but that we extend these relationships with others in our disciplinary spaces. And that we speak out against this should they be violated.

Doing so, I am convinced, is a way of continually pushing the discipline to the front-lines of engaged and rigorous science, which is also uniquely humanistic and empathetic. A front-line way of doing anthropology is somewhat akin to what Scheper-Hughes (1995, 420) calls “barefoot anthropology,” one that “disrupts the expected academic roles and statuses.”

It contains within it, a profound sense of ethical engagement with people which is, at the same time, concerned with the production and practice of scientific knowledge in anthropology.

Works cited

Benton, A. (2017). Reading the Classics: Ideology, Tautology, and Memory. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 7(3).

Berreman, G.D. ([1991] 2007). Ethics versus ‘Realism’ in Anthropology. In Robben, A. & Sluka, J. (Eds.), Ethnographic Fieldwork: An Anthropological Reader. Blackwell Publishing.

Bourdieu, P. (2004). Gender and Symbolic Violence. In Scheper-Hughes, N., & Bourgois, P. (Eds.),Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology. Blackwell Publishing.

Bourdieu, P., & Wacquant, L. (2004). Symbolic Violence. In Scheper-Hughes, N., & Bourgois, P. (Eds.), Violence in War and Peace: An Anthology. Blackwell Publishing.

Burawoy, M., & von Holdt, K. (2012). Conversations with Bourdieu: The Johannesburg Moment. Johannesburg: Wits University Press.

Chakraborty, P. 2016a. Negotiating Violence, Engendering Change: Women Front-line Workers and the Everyday Negotiations of Gendered Violence in Dharavi, India. MSc Dissertation. Leuven: KU Leuven, Belgium.

Chakraborty, P. 2016b. Front-line Ethnography: Provisional Notes, Partial Practices. Conference Paper. European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) Biennial Conference(20-23 July). Milan, Italy.

Clisby, S., & Holdsworth, J. (2014). Gendering Women: Identity and Mental Wellbeing Throughout the Life-Course. Bristol: Policy Press.

Fanon, F. (1963). The Wretched of the Earth. (Trans. Constance Farrington). New York: Grove Weidenfeld.

Mignolo, W. (2000). Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.  

Pandian, A.S. (2018). Open Access, Open Minds. Dispatches, Cultural Anthropology(June 15).

Scheper-Hughes, N. (1995). The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology. Current Anthropology, 36(3).

Simone, A. (2010). City Life from Jakarta to Dakar: Movements at the Crossroads. New York: Routledge.

Todd, Z.S. (2018). The Decolonial Turn 2.0: The Reckoning. Anthro{dendum}(June 15).

Wies, J.R., & Haldane, H.J. (2011). Ethnographic Notes from the Front Lines of Gender-Based Violence. In Wies, J.R., & Haldane, H.J. (Eds.), Anthropology at the Front Lines of Gender-Based Violence. Nashville: Vanderbilt Univers

[1] Carole McGranahan, who appears to have authored two of the leaked letters, hasn’t publicly commented on the issue yet. Even so, as we know from experiences of abuse in workspaces, structures to ameliorate abuse often aren’t sensitive enough to address the complexities of trauma, or pay careful, empathetic attention to survivor narratives. While we wait for more details and clarifications, I emphasize that my work and writings are deeply inspired by the feminist commitment to believe survivors—which is more than exemplified in the #MeToo movement, recently.

[2] Ironically, my invocation of Bourdieu to attest to colonialism’s lasting impact on the dispositions of the colonized (in this case, white and non-white anthropologists) is perhaps a damning critique of Bourdieu himself; as well as a reproduction of what Burawoy and von Holdt (2012) fault Bourdieu for: the distinction between physical violence and symbolic violence as it corresponds, respectively, to the colony and the metropole. As Michael Burawoy and Karl von Holdt (2012) further write, while Bourdieu and Fanon’s analysis of colonialism converged in many aspects due to their work in Algeria, Bourdieu’s contempt for Fanon, and his inability to situate symbolic violence and physical violence in the same colonial field in Algeria, and his extrapolation of only symbolic violence into France, shows serious limitations in his work.

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