Activist Anthropology: The Movers and Shakers

In this part of the blog, we learn about activist anthropology; what anthropologists are doing to influence change and shake things up a bit. We look at…

Anthropology Making A Difference

A Chat with an Anthropologist: Dr Erin Fitz-Henry

Anthropology as Development

A Space for Feminism in Anthropology

Anthropology and Climate Change

Ethics of Engagement in the Context of Indigenous Australia



Anthropology Making a Difference

If you are passionate about a certain issue, then you may not be so supportive of the idea of engaging in anthropological research for the sake of improving anthropological knowledge and contributing to the institution of the academy. After all, isn’t anthropology supposed to be all about people? You may be interested in helping people in difficult socioeconomic situations, critiquing some of the dominant cultural paradigms which you observe, preventing environmental catastrophes, overthrowing capitalism, supporting indigenous people, creating equality for women… There are a variety of things you may care about and want to change out there, and you’re not going to forget about them when you decide you want to become an anthropologist. Well, don’t worry, you don’t have to!

Now you might not be able to do all of these things, but studying anthropology can be seriously helpful to understand some of the issues you care about and you might even discover that you begin to care about more things in the process.

We asked some of our team what they care about and what anthropology can do to help.

Here is what they had to say…

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Now that you have heard from some of us and what we care about, now we are going to go and do some fieldwork in India to explore some of the issues that we might encounter when conducting research and deciding whether to act or not.

Hypothetical Situation:

Find out more about Ganges River and pollution

You are an anthropologist, going to a small village on the side of the Ganges River to study the people who live there. You are particularly interested to see how their religious beliefs impact their views about climate change and the changing river landscape. The river is threatened by glacial melt upstream, threatening their livelihoods and homes.

You discover that whilst their religious beliefs communicate deep spiritual respect for the river, this does not necessarily translate to their actions and they lead lifestyles which pollute the river and are unaware of climate change. You are not sure if you should teach them about what you know of climate change and share with them your findings, as you don’t think it would be easily understood through their belief system.

Have a look at the interactive journey below, to explore some the ways that this could pan out…

Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 12.58.18 pm

Context and research focus inspired by: Drew, G 2012, ‘A Retreating Goddess? Conflicting Perceptions of Ecological Change near the Gangotri-Gaumukh Glacier’, Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature & Culture, vol.6, no.3, pp.344-362.

Here’s an opinion on why the world needs anthropologists – and one on the many problems that anthropologists can help solve.

How Can Anthropologists Help?

There are many ways that anthropologists contribute positively to the world and make a difference! Here are just some of them, drawn from ‘Engaged Anthropology: Diversity and Dilemmas’ (Low & Merry 2010).

1) Sharing and Support

Caterina from Joao Biehl’s Vita: Life in the Zone of Social Abandonment (2005)

This can be anything from anthropologists sharing commitments to visions of social justice and social change with their informants to sharing the everyday things such as homes, meals and company. These simple forms of sharing can lead to other forms of engagement. For example, when anthropologist Joao Biehl (2005) documented the life of Caterina, a poor women in Brazil who was becoming increasingly paralysed and was dealing with a mental illness, he was communicating to others through his research that women like Caterina should not be forgotten. Through sharing space with her he ended up trying to help her and find out what her illness is.

2)  Social Critique

To an extent anthropologists have always provided social critique which has led to further understanding of the ways in which societies work and contributing to changing society. To make a difference one does not necessarily need to go to the streets and protest – providing social critique can be very powerful, and anthropologists are in an excellent position to do so.

As far back as the 1930’s, Franz Boas, the forefather of American anthropology was providing critiques of racism, arguing against notions of Western cultural superiority. His student, Margaret Mead (1942), conducted research that provided cultural critiques about patriarchal relations and, in doing so contributed to the feminist movement in America. She also provided critiques of human-environment relations which contributed to the environmental movement and is known for saying ‘we won’t have a society if we destroy the environment’ (St Peter cited in Baer & Singer 2014, p. 23).


3) Teaching and Public Education:

Teaching in classrooms, training programs and individual advising and mentoring are also ways that anthropologists engage with people and create change. For instance an anthropologist can run training programs on certain issues, from AIDS to environmental awareness. Teaching can also occur through media, popular writing, in many institutions and at all levels of education. The lecturers and tutors you encounter in the anthropology department at your university are likely to teach you things which will change you, broaden the way you think and inspire you to do some seriously cool things both within and outside of academia.

4) Collaboration

Collaborative research could mean that the researcher participates in an activity at the research site, for example an anthropologist could intern at human rights organisation at the same time as they are studying it. Or collaboration could involve shared leadership on a research project, that is when management and direction of the research are shared between the anthropologist and the subjects of research (Low and Merry 2010, p. 209). Shared leadership on a project can go towards combatting some of the colonialist structures that are still present in many forms of research (Grady-Lovelace et al. 2004, p. 459). For instance, collaborative research could mean that Indigenous people are more than merely ‘allowed’ to participate in research; they may instead be able to take lead of the research. This could go towards acknowledging that indigenous ways of knowledge are as valid as any forms of knowledge which have emerged within the anthropological discipline.

5) Advocacy and Activism

This could include working to assist local communities in their community by organising campaign efforts, giving testimony for them, acting as an expert witness in court to assist local communities, witnessing human rights violations and acting as an intermediary between the community and governments or corporations.

Prioritising the ethical, and making a positive impact on the world has become a primary concern for many anthropologists. Many align themselves with various groups or political causes and let their passion to create change determine what and whom they research. Some have said this means embarking on a form of anthropology that is committed to human liberation (Speed 2006, p. 67). David Graeber (2004) is an example of an activist anthropologist or even ‘anarchist anthropologist’. His academic work is focused on challenging social divisions and capitalism. He also participates directly in political activism and was a figurehead of the Occupy Wall Street movement, coining the term which spread throughout the movement ‘we are the 99%’.

The 2007 Occupy Wall Street marches.

For the Sake of the Discipline or for the Sake of the People we Study?

Some anthropologists say it’s amoral not to take an activist stance as we live in a world where there is so much inequality. These anthropologists say that taking the ‘apolitical’ stance actually causes harm (see Scheper-Hughes 1995; Lockyer & Veteto 2015). On the other hand, there are many anthropologists who think that the activities of an activist should be kept separate from anthropology. For instance, Kirsten Hastrup and Peter Elass (1990, p. 307) have said that ‘we should never forget that a commitment to improving the world is no substitute for understanding it’. Yet it seems a bit self-serving to deny the people who are being studied, the use and benefit of the research, using it for anthropological careers and the discipline itself, when the people whom anthropologists study hand over their time, resources and knowledge (Rylko-Bauer et al. 2006, p. 184). As Nancy Scheper-Hughes‘ (1995, p. 411) informants say, when she declines supporting their political cause for the sake the anthropological discipline, “what is this anthropology to us, anyway?”

mali alienAnthropologists are Humans Too

A snap shot from an interview with Erin Fitz-Henry

“All of my research has been driven to some degree by anger about social, political, and/or economic injustice and a desire to contribute to a better world. But that doesn’t mean that I am blinded to the complexities of the situations I explore or that I do not work constantly to ensure that my findings accurately reflect the world-views, interests, and desires of my participants”.

One of the reasons that not all anthropologists view activism or intervention as compatible with their research is due to conceptions of anthropology as a rigorous and objective science (click here to read more about the debate around anthropology as art vs. science). This is rooted deep in the discipline’s history, where ideas have emerged that the anthropology which depicts true knowledge about an objective reality is incompatible with a more moral based approach which is concerned with what is good and bad and finding solutions to issues (De Andre cited in Rylko-Bauer 2006, p. 184). The problem with this, as some philosophers and anthropologists interested in science and technology studies have pointed out (see Haraway 1988 and Latour 2009), is that the researcher is also embedded in the world like the people they study. And to separate the moral approach -where the anthropologist helps the people whom they study- from the objective scientific approach -where the anthropologist focuses on the discipline- leads to the misconception that the researcher can transcend the human condition through a scientific approach. Doesn’t that sound like a bit of a contradictory position for a human focused discipline to be in?

Whilst engaging in fieldwork and conducting research, anthropologists must deal with the expectations of the anthropological discipline, whilst simultaneously meeting the needs and desires of their informants (see interview with Erin for more on this). This can be a challenging balancing act. However, we are sure that as anthropologists there is no point whatsoever at which we transcend the human realm, and that a good anthropologist is only likely to become more entangled within it. An applied anthropology which does not shy away from the messiness of shared human experience and attains its ‘truths’ through honest inter-human connections is likely to result in rich experiences for all involved. Knowledge attained through an emphasis on human connectivity is far more likely to come close to any form of ‘reality’ than knowledge attained through an aloof scientific gaze.

Of course, political and ethical issues may emerge when anthropologists entangle themselves in some of the complexities which their fellow humans face, but if anthropologists can maintain flexibility and use the knowledge and awareness they hold of different communities, endeavour to maintain a high ethical standard and treat people as they would wish to be treated themselves; then they may be in the perfect position to help.



A Chat with an Anthropologist:

Dr Erin Fitz-Henry

What was it that first made you want to be an anthropologist?


I had the good fortune to take a class with a renowned medical anthropologist at Harvard University in the early 2000s. The class was called “Anthropological Interviewing,” and it was unforgettable. Although I later got excited about all the things that anthropology has to offer conceptually –  a deep appreciation of cultural difference and why it matters, economically, politically, and otherwise – it was really through the practice of learning how to interview that I came to realize that I wanted to be an anthropologist. Something about the practice of learning to listen carefully to another person was a profoundly life-changing event.

Tell us a bit about some of the research you have done and your career in anthropology. Where have you done the majority of your research? What kinds of things have you discovered?

I’ve done most of my research in Ecuador, where I’ve been interested in questions around why and how social movements organize and the kinds of resistances that they increasingly meet from both states and corporations. My first big research project was about local responses to a U.S. Air Force base in Ecuador. And one of the big surprises in that project was the extent to which local community members supported the American presence in the city, even when that support went against the grain of national opinion. Since then, I’ve remained interested in why, how, and under what conditions people mobilise in defence of sub-national units (municipalities, townships, etc.) in ways that increasingly challenge national monopolies on decision-making in key arenas, including defence and environmental protection. Most recently, this interest has taken me back to the United States, where I am again interested in the efforts of municipalities to challenge the decision-making authority of states, this time in relation to environmental permitting processes.IMG_0500

How has your research engaged with the political? This could be engaging with governments or political groups in Ecuador, or it could be less formal political processes which you have observed occurring.

I come from the school that understands all of social life to be deeply embedded in the political. So in a sense all of my work is political, even when it is not explicitly about politics. That said, I have spent a lot of time working with NGOs and other social movements, both in Ecuador and in the U.S. While I see myself writing for a number of different audiences – academic, artistic, policy-oriented, and activist –, much of my writing to date has been explicitly formulated in conversation with activists and it is toward the (critical) advancement of key aspects of their struggles that I most aim to contribute.  


In your experience have you ever felt there was a tension between approaching or depicting your research in a way which would help people you studied against making it for the anthropological discipline?

Yes, certainly. A few of the activists with whom I have worked have disagreed with some of the ways in which I have presented their struggles. Some of them have wanted different sorts of interventions. And others have simply asked for things that I have been unable to provide. This kind of tension seems to me inevitable when working in a field like this. That said, I have tried to find some ways around this by experimenting with different kinds of publication outlets, some geared more explicitly toward activists and others toward anthropologists. While this is certainly a real conflict, it seems to me that increasingly many of us are finding ways to experiment with new kinds of writing, new kinds of publications, new online fora, etc. It’s a very exciting time to be an anthropologist!

Do you think that an ethically driven desire to create change in the world can enhance academic rigour and validity of research?

Absolutely. One of my favorite anthropologists is a legal anthropologist by the name of Laura Nader, who worked at UC Berkeley for many years. She said once that deep thinking often involves “the hot glow of anger” about the many injustices with which we are surrounded and in which we are always implicated. I think that’s right. All of my research has been driven to some degree by anger about social, political, and/or economic injustice and a desire to contribute to a better world. But that doesn’t mean that I am blinded to the complexities of the situations I explore or that I do not work constantly to ensure that my findings accurately reflect the worldviews, interests, and desires of my participants. It seems to me particularly important to both acknowledge the politics that implicitly drive your work and to remain always open to the possibility that your findings will challenge and unsettle those politics in fundamental ways. Indeed, it’s that kind of self-reflexivity that is so central to the anthropological project more generally.    


What do you think are some of the most important ways which anthropologists currently contribute to creating positive social and environmental changes?

This is happening in many different ways, but I would say that I am particularly excited both by work that continues to challenge the often narrow and insufficiently historical ways in which policy makers think about addressing global crises (people like Sian Sullivan or Paul Farmer) and increasingly, by work that aims to draw together different bodies of research in ways that allow us to think more creatively about crises formerly conceived as distinct. Ghassan Hage is doing particularly important work in this regard in relation to racism and the environmental crisis. That said, there are many, many others who are also experimenting with more engaged forms of anthropology and/or doing innovative pedagogical work in classrooms to get students involved with issues of institutional racism, socio-economic injustice, etc.    

Do you have any examples of anthropologists making a difference in the world which you have found particularly inspiring or powerful? (Up to you, but probably just pick one or two again).

Too many to name! From Franz Boas, who vigorously fought against the scientific racism of the eugenics movement at the turn of the 20th century to Kim Fortun who has more recently contributed to the intensifying conversation about the legal responsibilities of transnational corporations operating in the Global South, anthropologists have always been engaged with the most pressing political problems of their times. That said, even those of us who are not explicitly engaged with politics contribute to positive social and/or environmental change in all sorts of ways, and that needs to be celebrated as well. Carefully recording other worlds and world-views is an incredibly radical act in and of itself that has reverberations far beyond the academy!



Anthropology as Development

international development

As the interdisciplinary field of development expands, organizations like the World Bank and various other NGOs are increasingly employing anthropologists to simultaneously critique and contribute to development projects.

Using anthropological knowledge in a development context has drawn criticism from more ‘academic’ anthropologists who argue that while being well intentioned, development projects often have “neo-colonialist” overtones in that they are, in a sense, patronizing and perpetuate a subordinate relationship between western and non-western states that are ‘in need of development’ (Mumtaz 1994, p. 1183). Other critics argue that development projects are ethnocentric in that they envisage development as the adoption of western moral standards and capitalist economies, and do not adequately acknowledge indigenous and other non-western ways of life (Gow 2002, p. 303).

Advocates of development anthropology acknowledge these criticisms, but contend that the risks associated with not engaging in development projects are far greater than the risks outlined above (JB 1978, p. 6). Such advocates contend that while academic anthropology rests in its ivory tower, tending towards a ‘detached’, ‘spectator-like’ stance (Scheper-Hughes 1995, p. 429), and is preoccupied with postmodern questions of reflexivity, agency and relativism, development anthropology is “getting on with it” – giving primacy to the ethical by practicing an anthropology that is ‘witnesses’ injustice and is ‘engaged’ (Scheper-Hughes 1995, p. 429), despite the aforementioned complications (Gow 2002, p. 302-304).

Development anthropology is most certainly fraught with complications, however it is essential that for academic and development anthropologists alike, as people who “make a living observing and recording the misery of the world have a particular obligation to reflect critically on how we choose to represent the human suffering that engages us.” (Scheper-Hughes 1995, p. 416).

Click here if you’d like to know more about the difference between anthropology and development as areas of study.

Here is an anthropologist’s critique of the Sustainable Development Goals – he writes that while they recognise the complexity of poverty and emphasise environmental stewardship, they fail to fundamentally challenge the accumulationist logic that underpins global capitalism.


A Space for Feminism in Anthropology?



Before I delve into what can at times be quite a dense and twisty topic, I must admit, this article is biased. It has to be. It has to be because I can’t write this without considering my own context. My experience as a feminist and a student of anthropology makes it so. You see, in order for me to be both, I have to think that yes, there is space for feminism in Anthropology. There is no way that I’d be able to exist as I do without believing this.

Another caveat: my other major in my undergrad degree was political studies. A warning: whilst I was drawn into theory dense subjects with little to no practical implications, I still remain activist in my endeavours. Within the first couple of weeks of starting anthropology I was challenged on my very core beliefs; that is, the question of whether it is appropriate for researchers to speak out or act as they see fit to help others. I remember being confronted by a photo of a child dying of malnutrition in a desert in Africa and thinking ‘If the photographer had enough time to capture the photo, why didn’t they do something to help?’ I distinctly remember my tutor at the time challenging me, asking whether it was the photographer’s place or even their duty to help this child?

I take a fairly Nancy Scheper-Hughes perspective when it comes to anthropology, though I understand the demerits of operating this way. You see, Scheper-Hughes advocates for almost a ‘global consensus on defending the rights of women, children, sexual minorities against tradition and customary law’ (1995, p. 409). She argues that cultural relativism, that thing that anthropologists tend to wave the white flag against, has been increasingly read as moral relativism. Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not, nor do I believe that Scheper-Hughes would advocate for a universalist perspective on all things, but I do agree to a certain extent that anthropologists cite cultural relativism without first identifying the core bases behind such acts, rituals, rites of passage etc.

I do not pretend to downgrade the importance of observation in our search for meaning within and about culture, but I refuse to believe that merely observing is even a possible let alone practical research method. Scheper-Hughes, and I think this is important, acknowledges her own subjectivity, citing the importance of self-critique as ‘a necessary condition for recasting anthropology as a tool for human liberation’ (1995, p. 420). It is here where I believe that I, as a feminist, still have a place in anthropology, particularly in engaging with my context and how my experiences influence my perspective about different events.

But I think it goes further than just the impossibility of shutting out the parts of you that make up your identity for the sake of research and a pointless quest for objectivity. To be perfectly honest, my feminism is deeply rooted in anthropological enquiry. The research conducted into rituals, rites and praxis around the world, particularly for women, have affected the way I understand my experience as a female. Indeed, the formation of feminist anthropology or the social anthropology of women as a whole was a result of women readers realising that their experiences were relevant and important to study as well. So perhaps it isn’t feminism’s place in anthropology, but anthropology’s place in feminism as well.

At the end of the day, I don’t presume to know whether participating in a women’s march or rallying against the gender pay gap or seeking to provide access to abortion clinics is necessarily anthropological. What I will say is this: feminism, as a movement, as an identity, as an ideology is inherently cultural, and thus, in my opinion, occupies an important space in anthropological enquiry.



Anthropology and Climate Change


As our planet heats up and humans globally face the impending threat of climate change, anthropologists have used their skills and knowledge in a variety of creative ways in order to deal with this pressing issue.

Climate change reaches across borders, and requires people to act together despite their differences. This is a huge thing to expect. Through just one glance at a newspaper these days you can see how various political, economic and cultural forces come into disagreement over many things. Climate change is no exception.

Climate change provides us with the ultimate dilemma: how can the global community, so different and with so many diverse interests, collaborate on an issue which requires such immediate attention?

Anthropologists, with their awareness of cultural diversity and their in-depth understanding of human-environment relations, can play an important role in this.

Working with Communities

Anthropologists can work with and seek to understand communities and their relationship to climate change. They can look at questions of vulnerability, resilience and sustainability at a local level and give voice to these local communities in the bigger debates. Anthropologists can help to create an inclusive discussion on climate change. A discussion which does not rule out the voices of those who might be impacted, but are in low socio-economic positions.


Heather Lazrus (2016) has spent time on the small low lying island in the Pacific, called Tuvalu. The people who live here are often depicted by other nations and in media as highly vulnerable and soon to be refugees, due to sea level rise from climate change. But Lazrus found that they had a very proud conception of their own culture and national identity tied to that island, and that they view migration as a last resort. These international discourses around climate change migration do not represent the perceptions of these people. Lazrus was able to give voice to a community, which might otherwise be drowned out.

Cultural Diversity and Sustainability

Anthropologists work with communities of people who interact with the land in various ways, some of which may be sustainable and less exploitative than some of the ways which are encouraged by dominant capitalist trends in our society. Of course we must be careful not to romanticise or essentialise the ‘other‘, but anthropologists are able to show how there is diversity within and between various cultures and that there are alternative paths to look towards regarding human-environment interactions. Some anthropologists look at indigenous methods of sustenance and support people to continue with their traditional ways of engaging with the land, whilst others help to spread knowledge and viable sustainable alternatives to others so that they can leave less of a carbon footprint and have increased food security. For some, cultural diversity is viewed as important as biological diversity when it comes to dealing with environmental issues (Reuter 2015) and anthropologists may play a key role to play in supporting this.


Engaging with Policy

Anthropologists may also engage with climate policy initiatives at various levels of government as well as with NGOs and think tanks. Anthropologists can participate in discussions with policy makers and scientists, contributing to the creation of a policycentric response to climate change (Ostrom 2009). That is, a policy approach which overcomes the shortcomings of a ‘one size fits all’ agenda and one which listens to many different voices, not just the voices of people who come from developed countries and have lots of money.

Providing Cultural Critique

Anthropology has been able to provide cultural critique, pointing towards some of the fundamental issues with modern culture which have led to climate change. For instance, discussions surrounding how nature and culture are conceived as divided in contexts where consumerism and economic growth are reaching scary levels has helped us to understand the way that society interacts with the environment. Political ecology, an off stream of anthropology, has combined with other disciplines including geography to look at the nexus between power, the environment and culture. This emerging discipline continues to provide strong cultural critiques of the relationships between neoliberalism and the environment and point towards ways in which such issues can be negotiated.

Check out this really cool political ecology blog, to see some of the interesting things people are doing and saying in this area:

Understanding Climate Change Denial

Not everyone believes in climate change and this is becoming a bit of an issue. Climate change sceptics are people who seek evidence aside to label climate change as a hoax. Anthropologists have found that climate change can be resisted on a number of levels; through ideological paradigms of faith in capitalism, but also through a process of dilution which results in a gap between the public and the  knowledge which is being communicated by climate scientists (see Fiske 2016; Baer & Singer 2015, p. 121-135). This kind of research is important to what it really is that is preventing us from mitigating climate change and some of the ways they could be addressed. 

Why do members of the public as well as influential politicians still believe that climate change is a hoax?

We need anthropologists to help us figure out this bizarre phenomenon:

Too Hot for Anthropology to Handle?

There have also been many reasons to doubt anthropology’s ability to tackle this issue:

  • Anthropology has traditionally focused on small isolated societies and climate change is a global problem.
  • There has been a strong postmodern influence within anthropology which has resulted in the questioning and deconstructing of narratives, including those of climate change scientists, IMG_0508leaving the discipline scrambling to keep up with something as political as climate change.
  • There has been a distinction between theoretical and applied anthropology, where applied anthropology has been viewed as the ‘un-official’ version.
  • The colonial history of  anthropology has resulted in an aversion to ‘development‘, meaning many anthropologists would rather avoid meddling in the ‘other’s’ affairs and politics.

Because of some of these reasons, the uptake of the anthropology of climate change has been slow, but it has eventually happened! Avoiding ecological issues or not engaging with them in a practical manner has become increasingly condemned. As one student anthropologist comments:

“Could doing fieldwork today while ignoring ecological issues be seen as equivalent to doing fieldwork in the 1930s while ignoring the colonial presence? IMG_0509Both situations are political, placing anthropologists between the countries that fund them and those that provide the data for their work – countries that are themselves caught up in global power relationships. In the colonial instance, the anthropologist was often from the country colonising their area of study. Today issues of power relations are far more complex, but this is all the more reason not to ignore them.” (Jerstad cited in Baer and Singer 2014, p. 33)

Baer and Singer’s (2014) critical anthropology of climate change and many political ecology approaches are very engaged with creating change and also tend to show, in a somewhat more politically engaged way, how our current economic system is incompatible with climate change mitigation efforts. This is reflective of a broader move in anthropology where anthropology is not only becoming more involved with politics, but is starting to become more political itself (Shoreman-Ouimet & Kopnina 2011).

In my opinion, climate change is more than an issue of us sourcing energy from fossil fuels. Climate change is an issue which is born from the flaws of an exploitative economic system and culture which underlines it. It shows how rife our world is with inequality, our greed and lack of compassion, an inability for humans to work together cross culturally, the disjuncture between scientific knowledge and public awareness, and the extent to which we live beyond our means. (Not trying to get you down or anything!). It could be thought of as big fat lesson to humanity; a chance for us to begin to look at what we are really doing and then act on it. Anthropology can play a key role in this process. An anthropological approach helps us to take a long, deep and reflexive look at the current ways we interact with the environment and other people, something which is much needed for addressing climate change.


Ethics of engagement in the context of Indigenous Australia


Throughout your schooling you would have received lessons about indigeneity in Australia, and most likely about Australia’s settler/colonial history. The body that decides what is included in the curriculum is the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), and whilst there has been a consultation process regarding the inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s culture and history in this school curriculum, there appears to be a ‘lack of intention’ and genuine interest (Lowe & Yukaporta 2013, p. 1, 3). It seems that whilst the curriculum mentions Indigenous experience, there does not seem to be great depth of Indigenous cultural education offered, or a lack of information regarding the disastrous collision between Australian colonial settler society and Indigenous Australia. The lack of understanding of these issues has serious implications for the Australian state as well as for Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Unfortunately, school didn’t offer me much of this information, and this meant I had to seek it out myself. Taking Indigenous studies classes at university was one of the best things I did. It made sense to me, as I felt a sense of obligation to understand more about Indigenous people, because I feel that their experience and existence has been, and continues to be undermined.

What was your experience at school with these topics?

Even though you may visit this blog at any point throughout the year, I’m writing this in the last week of May, which happens to be Reconciliation week. It’s also the 50th anniversary of the 1967 referendum to amend the Australian constitution to include Indigenous Australians in the Census (90% voted ‘yes’!). Interestingly, much of the discussion I have come across is attempting to dispel some of the confusion surrounding what this referendum meant, and what the outcome was for Indigenous Australians. You can read some of these posts here: Whilst some may place these events in the ‘history’ basket, it is generally recognised what happened all these years ago still impacts Indigenous peoples lives and rights today.

In this section of the blog, I won’t be discussing history as such (arguably, it is always hanging there in the shadows), we be will talking about engagement with Indigenous Australian’s through the means and influence of anthropology. Even though we will focus on the Indigenous Australian experience, interaction with this material, and the ideas that it privileges can help in the development of skills that you will be able to apply when you engage with other marginalised peoples. Primarily, I’m going to look at ‘ethical engagement’ with Indigenous Australians. You can also read a little more on ethics in these other sections. 

Why do we need ethics?

Anthropology has a contentious history with non-Western people, as it has been applied in a Eurocentric, Orientalist and a non self-reflexive manner (Scheper-Hughes 1995, p. 409). Accordingly, anthropology and its proponents have been criticised. And whilst the trajectory of the discipline has evolved, there still exists a need to reflect and understand how the involvement and research of people, especially those from disenfranchised, vulnerable minority groups may have a lasting negative impact. Thus, anthropologists have developed and implemented a code of ethics to guide interactions and professional practice. They are briefly outlined as: ‘respect the rights of others, fulfil obligations, avoid harm, and augment benefits to those we interact with’ (Cassells & Jacobs 1987). This code of ethics acts as a guide, and whilst it has the best intentions, it is derived from a system of Western knowledge appropriate for a discipline that shares the same roots, and therefore may not be the most relevant system to follow when working with Indigenous people (Wiynorroc in Smith & Hobst eds. 2005, p. 316). To allow for this, anthropologists tolerate a level of flexibility when applying their code of ethics. This is why when doing research on, and working with Indigenous Australians, there is an additional ethics ambit that must be applied and adhered to. The Guidelines for Ethical Research in Australian Indigenous Studies (GERAIS) has 14 principles, and 6 categories that frame ethical research methods appropriate for Indigenous people (AIATSIS 2012).

You may not fully understand the reason for a separate set of ethical guidelines to follow if doing research with Indigenous communities. The first part of the answer to this is: respect for the community of people you want to work with. By following the GERAIS guide, you acknowledge there is an attempt to balance unequal power relations, as it allows Indigenous knowledge and traditions to be seen as culturally equal and important. It confronts issues of cultural relativism and essentialism. But most of all, it offers Indigenous peoples the possibility of increased agency over their culture, and the ways in which their culture and people can be discussed and interacted with.

Here is a video that explains why…


Ethics is not restricted to research, or institutions…

Upon reflecting on these ethical guidelines relating to research with Indigenous communities, I feel specifically uncomfortable that these may only remain in the realm of research, or within institutions. I do know that what we study inevitably shapes who we are, and once we begin to consider ideas of ethics, it isn’t easy to unlearn …. Therefore it will influence the ways we interact with the world. I am aware some of the points in the GERAIS are more applicable in research settings, but I’ve been thinking more about how it can play into real life, every day sort of stuff. Below I have added a table of suggestions based on text titled Decolonizing solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles authored by Clare Land. It suggests appropriate ways to engage if you are interested in connecting to, and want to know more about Indigenous peoples’ experiences, history, knowledge and culture. This table is not meant to be exhaustive, but offers a place to start.

 What can I do?

Screen Shot 2017-06-03 at 11.52.32 pm 2.pngLand (2017). What can I do?



References from ‘Anthropology Making a Difference’

Biehl, J 2005, Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Boas, F 1940, Race, Language, and Culture, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Graddy-Lovelace, G, Harnish, A & Hazlewood, JAI 2006, ‘The World is Burning, Sky is Falling: All Hands on Deck!’, in N Haen and R Wilk (eds), The Environment in Anthropology: A Reader in Ecology, Culture, and Sustainable Living, NYU Press, New York, pp. 445-481.

Graeber, D 2004, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, vol. 5, Prickly Paradigm Press, Chicago, IL.

Haraway, D 1988, ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, Feminist Studies, vol.14, no. 3, pp. 575-599.

Hastrup, K, & Elass, P 1990, ‘Anthropological Advocacy: A Contradiction in Terms’, Current Anthropology, vol. 31, no. 3, pp. 301–311.

Latour, B 2009, Politics of Nature: How To Bring The Sciences Into Democracy, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Lockyer, J & Veteto, JR (eds) 2013, Environmental Anthropology Engaging Ecotopia: Bioregionalism, Permaculture, and Ecovillages, vol. 17, Berghahn Books, New York.

Mead, M 1942 , And Keep your Power Dry: An Anthropologist Looks at America, Morrow, New York.

Rylko‐Bauer, B, Singer, M & Willigen, JV 2006, ‘Reclaiming Applied Anthropology: Its Past, Present, and Future’, American Anthropologist, vol. 108, no. 1, pp.178-190.

Scheper-Hughes, N 1995, ‘The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology’, Current Anthropology, vol. 36, no. 3, pp. 409-440.

Speed, S 2006, ‘At the Crossroads of Human Rights and Anthropology: Toward a Critically Engaged Activist Research’, American Anthropologist, vol. 108, no.1, pp. 66–76.


References from ‘Anthropology as Development’

Gow, D 2002, ‘Anthropology and Development: Evil Twin or Moral Narrative?’, Human Organization, vol. 61, no. 4, pp. 299-313.

JB, 1978, ‘Development Anthropology’, RAIN, vol. 24, no. 1, pp. 5-6.

Mumtaz, S 1994, ‘The Rationale of Development Anthropology’, The Pakistan Development Review, vol. 33, no. 4, pp. 1181 – 1187.

Scheper-Hughes, N 1995, ‘The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology’, Current Anthropology, vol. 36, no. 3, pp. 409-440.


Reference from ‘A Place for Feminism in Anthropology?’

Scheper-Hughes, N 1995, ‘The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology’, Current Anthropology, vol. 36, no. 3, pp. 409-440.


References from ‘Anthropology and Climate Change’.

Baer, H & Singer, M 2014, The Anthropology of Climate Change: A Critical Anthropological Perspective, Routledge, New York.

Friske, SJ 2016, ‘Climate Scepticism, Inside the Beltway and Across the Bay’ in SA Crate & M Nuttall (eds) , Anthropology and Climate Change: From Encounters to Actions, Routledge, New York, pp. 319-336.

Luzrus, H 2016, ‘Shifting Tides: Climate Change Migration and Shifting Agency in Tuvalu’, in SA Crate & M Nuttall (eds) , Anthropology and Climate Change: From Encounters to Actions, Routledge, New York, pp. 220-227.

Ostrom, E 2009, ‘A Polycentric Approach for Coping with Climate Change’, Policy Research Working Paper 5095, Washington DC: World Bank Development Economics, Office of the Senior Vice President and Chief Economist, October.

Reuter, T 2015, Averting Global Environmental Collapse: The Role of Anthropology and Local Knowledge, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Cambridge, UK.

Shoreman-Ouimet, E & Kopnina, H 2011 (eds), ‘Environmental Anthropology of Yesterday and Today’, in Environmental Anthropology Today, Routledge, London, pp. 1-33.


References from ‘Ethics of Engagement in the Context of Indigenous Australia’.

Aiatis, 2012, Guidelines for Ethical Research in Australian Indigenous Studies, rev. edn, Canberra, viewed 28 May 2017, <>.

Cassell, J, Jacobs, SE 1987, ‘Handbook on Ethical Issues in Anthropology’, Special Publication of The American Anthropological Association, vol. 23.

Davis, K 2015, ‘Why do we need Indigenous ethics?’ [Online Video]. 10 February 2015. Available from: (Accessed: 1 June 2017).

Land, C 2017, What Can I Do?, Decolonzing Solidarity, viewed 31 May 2017, .

Lowe, K, Yukaporta, T 2013, ‘The Inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Content in the Australian National Curriculum: A Cultural, Cognitive and Socio-political Evaluation’, Curriculum Perspectives, vol. 33, no. 1, pp. 1-14.

Scheper-Hughes, N 1995, ‘The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology’, Current Anthropology. Vol. 36, no. 3, pp. 409-440.

Smith, C & Wobst, HM 2005, Indigenous Archaeologies: Decolonising Theory and Practice, Routledge, New York.


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