• Laura Hughes

Does Anthropological Theory Scare You? Don't Let it.

I’ll never forget my first day of graduate school. They really had us hit the ground running, with my cohort’s first ever graduate level course being Anthropological Theory at 8 AM. I sat in a room with my cohort members whom I would eventually come to know and love but had barely just met over small bites and carefully monitored drinks a few days before at our welcome party. Our professor went around the room and asked us how we felt about anthropological theory, and what-if any-our knowledge of it was. I had only ever taken a sociological theory course a full five years prior to starting graduate school and was scrambling to recall anything I could remember about Marx, Du Bois, Weber, Durkheim, or Spencer. My anxiety about answering that question to a room full of strangers I was convinced I was intellectually inferior to has lent to my inability to recall my answer, but I do remember someone saying how much they loved theory. I internally scoffed, and likely did not do as good a job at hiding my eye roll as I thought I did. I just could not believe that anyone could love theory and brushed the response off as an attempt to peacock to the rest of us on our first day.


Ten weeks later I proved myself wrong: not only is it possible to love theory, I love theory. The journey to get there, however, was not always pleasant. I remember sleeping in my office one night trying to finish a paper on Bourdieu, only to be woken up by my theory professor arriving to his office next door for said 8 AM class. It took me four hours to read a grand total of 13 pages of Bourdieu’s theory of habitus for that paper, and if I remember correctly I formatted the entire paper in a reference to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. So that is where we come in: to pay it forward to all future and current Anthropology students, as well as any other theory nerd who has found themselves here, so that you can avoid sleeping in your office with your backpack as your pillow someday (and yes, I promise to delve into Bourdieu at some point on our journey). So let’s get into what you can expect, and what you shouldn’t, as we unpack what anthropological theory is and how we apply it.


Anthropological theory can be, in a word, intimidating. It is complicated, nuanced, heady, and slightly problematic. The problematic nature of theory can be traced to the very beginnings of the field of anthropology, which is rooted in studies of alterity and racial hierarchies. The four field discipline of American Anthropology within the settler colonial society of the United States has long been concerned with research that otherizes Indigenous peoples.

Otherizing worked as a means for settlers to claim their “rights” to Indigenous lands by centering archaeological and anthropological discourse around the idea that Native American peoples represented “earlier stages of cultural evolutionary development” (Yanagisako 2005, 85). Anthropologists like Henry Lewis Morgan and Edward Burnett Tylor were proponents of the idea of cultural evolution, establishing the presumed stages of “primitive”, “barbarism”, and “civilization” that would work to classify Indigenous material culture found in archaeological endeavors as less evolved than Western material culture. These Westernized and Eurocentric notions of what constituted civility would become a significant part of colonialism’s project of “othering” Indigenous and Aboriginal populations all over the world and would in turn impact how early anthropologists were conducting, writing, and presenting their research. Westernized concepts of civility would be a key component in the continued disposition of Indigenous peoples from their homes by the United States government who would illegally steal their lands and break every single treaty they ever entered into with Native American peoples (for more information on how this continues to affect Native American sovereignty, see Barker 2005).


However, as my theory professor would often tell us, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water (if you’re reading this, hi Dean!). Anthropological theory may be problematic, but it has also led to some important ideas that remain as significant as the day they were conceptualized. Did Franz Boas rob the graves of Native American peoples to study, and later sell, their remains? Yes. Did he also negate the idea of cultural evolution and father the notion of cultural relativity that is so crucial to anthropology today? Also yes. It is important to contextualize theorists and their work in order to fully understand the how, what, when, and why of their intellectual processes. Even where it is problematic, it is important to give space to the early roots of anthropological theory to understand where the field comes from and to understand where it is going. However, while a bunch of old white theorists and their works may come up from time to time as we explore a variety of theories in this section, we will not be delving too deep into their perspectives. Why? There’s two reasons. The first being that you can find information about early anthropological theory everywhere. There are countless books, articles, and websites that devote their space to picking apart the early theories of anthropology. The University of Alabama has an incredible blog that does just that, one that was critical to my own understanding of theory as I went through school.


The second being that the field of anthropology continues to grow with new thoughts and ideas every day. Ideas that are intersectional and interdisciplinary. Ideas that respond to the problematic roots of anthropology and generate new ways of thinking about the world around us. Ideas that are birthed from a variety of backgrounds, perspectives, and lived experiences. That is what we want to give space to here. It is impossible to continue to move forward if we are always looking backward, and it is impossible to understand how to use anthropology to respond to modern day issues if one does not understand how progressive and important the field is. Like I mentioned above, that doesn't mean that traditional anthropological theory won't come up from time to time, as those theories can sometimes be key to contextualizing today's theoretical movements. We don’t pretend to be experts in any of these theories, and we will be learning about them just as much as you will be as we go along. Is there a theory you want to see dissected? Do you have an idea to add on to what we present? Tell us! Our emails and comment boxes are always open to promote a communal and responsive approach to anthropological theory.


For our first theory, we want to explore our former POTUS’s favorite idea: Critical Race Theory (CRT) and its many variations. We’ll present the key ideas presented within CRT and how it has been shifted and adapted to address the needs of various marginalized groups. We will also discuss how crucial CRT theories are to understanding how systemic racism affects BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ peoples on a daily basis, and how these theories can guide meaningful action in supporting and uplifting their work and communities. So come along with us and be thankful this isn’t an 8 AM class in your first year of graduate school.




References Cited and Recommended Reading:


Ames, Michael. 1992. “How Anthropologists Stereotype Other People.” In Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes: The Anthropology of Museums. University of British Columbia Press: Vancouver, pp. 49-58.


Barker, Joanne. 2005. “For Whom Sovereignty Matters.” In Sovereignty Matters: Locations of Contestation and Possibility in Indigenous Struggles for Self- Determination. Joanne Barker, ed. University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln, pp. 1-31.


Clifford, James. 1988. The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art. Harvard University Press: Cambridge.


Simpson, Audra. 2014. “Ethnographic Refusal: Anthropological Need.” In Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Duke University Press: Durham, pp. 95-114.


Yanagisako, Sylvia J. 2005. “Flexible Disciplinarity: Beyond the Americanist Tradition.” In Unwrapping the Sacred Bundle: Reflections on the Disciplining of Anthropology. D. Segal and S. Yanagisako, eds. Duke University Press: Durham, pp. 79-98.



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