The decolonisation of anthropology

Chris Simoens
08 April 2019
In January 2019, anthropologists from the South carried out fieldwork in the Brussels Canal Zone, which includes Molenbeek. Are traditional roles being reversed, or have we lost sight of the fact that anthropology has evolved considerably?

When we think of anthropologists, we tend to think of western researchers who study a 'tribe' somewhere in a forest or the mountains, often spending some time there to try to understand how an isolated community functions.

'That is definitely not accurate', argues Prof. Ann Cassiman, who has been the face of the one-year master's programme in Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies (CADES) at the KULeuven for the past 16 years and organised the fieldwork in the Brussels Canal Zone. The programme is geared toward students from developing countries, but Belgians also take it. Since 2017, it receives funding from the Flemish University Development Cooperation (VLIR-UOS).

'That old image no longer corresponds to reality at all. All over the world, people are studying anthropology to gain a mainly social and cultural, but also political or economic insight into the complexity of societies. In the past, anthropologists used to study the society of others, but now they also focus on their own society. Or more generally, they study humans in their environment. Nowadays, we also prefer talking about a 'people' or 'ethnic group', instead of using the term 'tribe', which carries a connotation of 'backward' and 'primitive'.'

All over the world, people are studying anthropology to gain insight into the complexity of societies. In the past, anthropologists used to study the society of others, but now they also focus on their own society. Or more generally, they study humans in their environment.

Ann Cassiman

Ethnographic field work

Anthropology has its own unique methodology, called 'ethnographic fieldwork'. One aspect of this methodology is 'participatory observation', which means that anthropologists live with the group they are studying for a short or long period of time.

'This can be any group', Cassiman explains. 'From the inhabitants of the Canal Zone to a marginalised neighbourhood in Accra in Ghana. Places, such as a museum, a hospital or a bus stop where many people come, can also be studied. The groups are not isolated, for the simple reason that these almost do not exist anymore nowadays.'

'For instance I do research in poor neighbourhoods in the capital of Ghana. However difficult their life may be, people there follow closely what is happening in the world. Most young people do not have formal work, but many programme and code computers and develop apps that are useful for their own living environment.'

 

Channel zone

The research carried out by anthropologists can cover a wide range of topics. The theme of the fieldwork in the Brussels Canal Zone, for example, was 'gentrification', a process that sees a disadvantaged neighbourhood gain more prestige and generate an influx of more affluent residents, making life gradually more expensive and causing poor local inhabitants to move. Gentrification is something that also occurs in cities in the South.

The main purpose of the fieldwork in the Canal Zone was to teach the students how to apply the methodology of 'ethnographic fieldwork' and 'participatory observation'. In other words, the students had to interact with locals, observe them and their environment, ask them questions, etc. Some twenty students, from countries such as Palestine, Mozambique, Ethiopia, the Philippines, South Africa and Belgium, explored the Brussels Canal Zone.

Cassiman: 'On the first day, we went for a walk with a guide who spoke at length about the neighbourhood, its inhabitants, its history and its problems. We also attended lectures by several influential figures in the neighbourhood: a government representative who helped draw up the canal plan, a member of the local organisation Cultureghem in Cureghem who wants to reconnect people, … Only then did the actual fieldwork begin: meeting people, both young and old, in shops, restaurants, snack bars, cafés, on the streets, … and talking to them in order to piece together a picture of what is going on.'

Ultimately, anthropologists try to gauge how satisfied residents are, whether they feel at home and what tensions there are, in order to formulate an answer to questions such as 'how do you develop a neighbourhood without tensions', 'how do you build bridges between locals and wealthy newcomers', or 'how do you build liveable and safe cities'. Questions that are definitely also relevant in the South, where cities are expanding rapidly.

The students tried to formulate an answer to questions such as 'how do you develop a neighbourhood without tensions', 'how do you build bridges between locals and wealthy newcomers', or 'how do you build liveable and safe cities'.

Development

Anthropology, however, studies much more than urbanisation. Just look at all the different topics students in the CADES master’s programme address in their dissertations. Cassiman: 'An agricultural engineer wanted to work on irrigation, more specifically on how to better use local knowledge in this field. A Zimbabwean studies LGBTI rights in his country. A Ghanaian student wants to understand why so many of her compatriots migrate to Belgium. An Ethiopian studies a large nature park in the south of his country and the role of park rangers there, while a fellow countryman of his focuses on social classes in Ethiopia. The variety of themes is enormous.'

The CADES programme also includes an important component on development and development cooperation. All participants are asked to write an essay on what development exactly means to them, from their point of view (country, specialisation). From an anthropological perspective, students also consider questions such as: 'what is a partnership?', 'what does development cooperation mean in different parts of the world?', 'how can we reflect critically on the Sustainable Development Goals?', …

'We always have very diverse groups of students, not only in terms of nationality, but also when it comes to their background', explains Cassiman. 'Agricultural engineers, psychologists and economists also take the master's programme, which leads to very interesting discussions. In general, I cannot say that after a year the students return with a well-defined package of 'factual' knowledge, but they do acquire a good view on how complex the world is. They become aware of how captivating anthropology can be and how it can help them to understand this complexity.'

 

Many of my students show strong commitment and a real willingness to work towards a better world. They want to apply the knowledge they have acquired to help improve society in their homeland.

Ann Cassiman

Strong commitment

'It strikes me that many of my students show strong commitment and a real willingness to work towards a better world. They want to apply the knowledge they have acquired to help improve society in their homeland.’

Very specific to such international programmes is that the group becomes very close, with friendships being forged for life. Cassiman: ‘They keep in regular touch, visit each other and exchange job offers. Some return to their old jobs, but now have a more critical attitude. Others take a radically different professional career path. What they all share, is an open, culturally sensitive and critical view on important global issues.'

In short, anthropology can contribute to a better understanding of societies around the world and is far from being reserved solely for Western scientists. Any group of people can be an object of study. The decolonisation of anthropology has been underway for a long time.

In his book 'How forests think', Eduardo Kohn questions whether we should not pay just as much attention to other living beings such as trees and animals.

Ann Cassiman

How forests think

Recently, anthropology - literally 'the study of humanity' - has moved in yet another direction. 'Nowadays, we are questioning whether it is necessary to always put humans first,' Cassiman explains. 'This is definitely important given the era we currently live in, the 'Anthropocene', in which humans have a huge impact on the planet, resulting in climate change, among other things. In his book 'How forests think', Eduardo Kohn questions whether we should not pay just as much attention to other living beings such as trees and animals. We then no longer speak of a universe, but of a pluriverse.'

After all, trees or jaguars also react to their environment and to human beings. How do they perceive the human race? This reasoning implies that trees or jaguars can be thinking selves too. Thus, anthropology is not only decolonising, it also studies the place humans occupy among all forms of life that inhabit the planet. The concept that one species should not necessarily be superior to another is fascinating, especially in times like these when we have to do everything possible to save humanity and our planet.

University programmes for developing countries

 

The master Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies is only one of the university programmes organised with the support of the Belgian Development Cooperation. The topics are very diverse: food technology, road safety, aquaculture, microfinance, environmental sciences, etc. Scholarships are provided for each programme. In total, 1600 students from developing countries every year receive a scholarship to undertake a master’s or doctoral programme, or for a research stay.

 

More information can be found on the website of the umbrella organisations of the Flemish and Walloon universities.

Culture Anthropology University Cooperation
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