By Samar Al-Bulushi (UC Irvine), Sahana Ghosh (Harvard University), and Madiha Tahir (Columbia University)

What if the 2018 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association had taken place, not amid the wildfires of San Jose, but in the hotels of Djibouti City? In November of that year, US Senator Bernie Sanders was pushing legislation in Congress calling upon the United States to withdraw from its war on Yemen. Had we convened in Djibouti, our movement around the capital city would have been shaped by a confrontation with the growing presence of Yemenis forced out of their homes due to two decades of Saudi and American incursions, assaults, drone attacks, and bombardments.

We pose this hypothetical scenario to foreground the politics of location implicit in the recent discussion in the pages of American Anthropologist about the direction of sociocultural anthropology today. In the year-in-review essay, Ryan Jobson uses the annual meeting in San Jose as a point of departure for his call to “let anthropology burn,” arguing that the smoke from the California wildfires “collapsed an artificial distance between the oppressive conditions that preoccupy anthropologists and the seemingly climate-controlled venues where anthropology convenes as an elite professional fraternity” (260).  We appreciate Jobson’s refusal of anthropology’s fictive separation (as a space of bourgeois academic work) from material histories, as well as his insistence that we cannot let “business as usual continue.” New imaginaries of the discipline are indeed necessary, even if we, like Jobson, are “skeptical of straightforward fixes” (263).

Yet, the radical transformations articulated in Jobson’s article seem to outline a universalizing politics that is at odds with the ethics of relationality that he calls for. In this essay, we highlight the American of American Anthropologist in order to contend with the ways the politics of location shape Jobson’s call for anthropology to adopt a radical humanism as its political horizon.[1] That this review is shaped primarily by discussions and debates specific to the US academy recalls Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s (2003, 136) observation that anthropology is “primarily a discourse to the West, for the West, and ultimately, about the West as a project.” With this in mind, we argue that it is imperative that Jobson foreground the question of what it means to imagine a radical humanism from the geohistorical location of the United States.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Our concern with the geopolitics of location is compounded by the observation that the rise of domestic US fascism and anthropogenic climate change has pushed the United States’ multiple wars abroad out of view for many US-based anthropologists. This coupling of spatial myopia and spatial enclosure foregrounds the North American experience just when a far more plural account of anthropology and its imperial conditions of possibility is called for.

What would it mean to connect empire and endless wars to the ongoing wreckage of climate change and racial violence? How can we situate bourgeois North American academia within a landscape of dispossession that is still imperial in scale? Earlier conceptions of decolonizing anthropology were emphatic in drawing connections between and across multiple locations as the essential work of countering hegemonic Euro-American imaginaries foundational to American anthropology. Our goal here is twofold: to broaden the ambit of frameworks raised and to provincialize the position from which many US-based anthropologists think and write.


In calling for an “abolitionist anthropology,” Jobson draws inspiration from Savannah Shange’s exceptional ethnography on anti-Blackness and schooling in San Francisco to implore us to acknowledge our own “complicity in the structures of dispossession taken up as topics of research” (261). Jobson writes, “An abolitionist anthropology insists that all anthropological work emerges in the wake of chattel slavery and therefore must be guided by the necessity of abolition articulated by enslaved people themselves” (261). In so doing, Jobson wants us to move away from what he terms “the decolonial fix.”

While we agree that abolition is a critical project, the universalizing imperative of Jobson’s conceptualization of abolitionist anthropology gives us pause. Abolitionist thinking and movements are alive in multiple places with varying stakes. As Angela Davis (2017) reminds us, an internationalist approach to abolition enables us to attend not simply to multiple sites of struggle but to render more capacious our political consciousness. In this spirit of thinking expansively and transnationally, we argue that prior decolonial work—which has engaged the relationality of an uneven and interconnected world—remains vital.

Wherever in the world we may work, to be based in the North American academy demands that we grapple more concretely with transnational entanglements and the question of empire. In harkening back to a politics of location, a longstanding and varied debate for Black, postcolonial, and transnational feminists (Grewal and Kaplan 1994; Lorde 1984; Mohanty 1984), we insist on an anthropological practice in which we are “equally accountable to unequal places” (John 1996, 4).

The need to imagine connected struggles more broadly is evident in the United States itself. Margo Okazawa-Rey, a founding member of the Combahee River Collective, has observed that the history of the United States is often told “from the East Coast.” Shifting to the West Coast, California emerges not only as the site of the current wildfires but as the historical site of multiple internment camps for Japanese Americans. In fact, the gymnasium at San Jose State University was used as a registration center for Japanese internees. How might these histories of immigration, incarceration, and imperialism reshape our notion of what counts as transformative anthropological work? Jobson’s own analytical move that links the wildfires to the notion of abolition rests on another unspoken history. It is Indigenous practices that have been critical to understanding wildfires as potentially productive and life-sustaining. In other words, Indigenous knowledges are part of the unacknowledged grounds through which the analogy between wildfires and abolition makes sense.

We note these intersections to highlight the politics of location, including the relations and conjunctures across and between disparate sites. As we know, the plantation form is neither limited to the Americas nor to chattel slavery. From Assam to Indonesia to Brazil, thriving in many parts of the world today, it continues to serve discrete arrangements of racial capitalism. Alongside and in relation to the plantation, there is the colony, the reservation, the borderland, and the garrison, among others, each with its own specific mechanics, logics, and forms of overwhelming colonial and imperial violence and linked by systems of racial capitalism, imperialism, and white supremacy. Jobson’s call for a “patchy” anthropology has the potential to attend to these variegated spaces. However, a genuinely counter-hegemonic project must “move beyond the spatial and geopolitical dynamic of the Atlantic cartography to consider other circulations as equally critical in the unveiling of counterhistories” (Clarke and Thomas 2006, 14).

We are mindful of what the Kenyan scholar Grace Musila (2019) aptly refers to as the Global North academy’s “deeply embedded mode of erasure mediated by the fetish of the new.” We recall and re-center what “decolonization” meant for Faye Harrison and her cohort of activist-scholars, who were thinking through similar questions in the late 1980s and early 1990s—and who were shaped by Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s then recently published Decolonizing the Mind (1986). We note the work of scholars who explicitly reckoned with the politics of location for knowledge production in anthropology, asking whether a decolonial anthropology “could emerge from the critical intellectual traditions and counter-hegemonic struggles of Third World peoples” (Harrison 1997, 1). For Harrison, making space for peoples, struggles, and scholars of the Third World is central, not simply by devising new ways of including them into “our” monographs but in the interest of a mode of dialogue that acknowledges and wrestles with tensions between Western and Third World intellectual commitments. It remains our responsibility to ensure that these concerns are neither of the past nor merely institutional rhetorical exercises. “Decolonization of anthropology is not a done deal, not a fact, nor a data point,” Métis scholar Zoe Todd (2018) reminds us. “It is a process, one that must be engaged and re-engaged for as long as it takes to build something that reflects the ethics of the worlds we want to build, tend to, breathe life into.”

The insights of decolonial anthropological work are ever-more critical today in a context where empire has become “more a ‘way of life’ than a discrete aspect of foreign policy” (McGranahan and Collins 2018, 4). Though they have been largely scuttled offstage by the US media, the United States is waging at least six wars (Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Syria), a figure that does not account for the dozens of smaller incursions and special missions in multiple countries. The lack of substantive attention to empire and endless war in the call for an abolitionist anthropology is therefore striking. US empire and its militarism are a critical nexus that also reproduces domestic white-supremacist militarism directed towards poor and racialized communities.

Finally, while the United States is a hegemonic imperial formation, it is augmented, sustained, and sometimes in conflict with other hegemons (e.g., China) and regional strongmen (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Israel, India), each with their own universalizing imaginaries. Communities in large swaths of the world therefore survive a multiscalar pluriverse of power and politics. These gritty relations have histories and imaginaries that intersect with but are not reducible to the imaginative and historical landscapes of the United States. That policing, surveillance, and intelligence gathering are increasingly transnational and entangled in imperial designs demands that an abolitionist anthropology avoids the trap of a singular frame and attends to relations in their multiplicity.


Perhaps, we should be humbler in our aims for American anthropology. Even as we debate questions of liberation, decolonization, and revolutionary justice, the discipline is currently in the midst of a more mundane, everyday labor crisis brought on by the neoliberal turn of the American university coupled with years of neglect and lack of solid organizing by the discipline’s tenured class to ward off what was a foreseeable situation. We agree with Jobson that the hierarchies and incentives within American anthropology necessitate an abolitionist stance.

Indeed, the “we” of American anthropology is not a monolith, nor are all of us the beneficiaries of American power in any straightforward way. Our position (as the authors of this piece) in elite institutions enabled us to have the time and resources necessary to pursue our research at multiple international sites. At the same time, Berry et al.’s (2017) interrogation of the intersections of gender, race, and citizenship with regards to fieldwork also illuminates the racialized and masculinist assumptions and unequal burdens borne by disciplinary practitioners. Similarly, we write as women of color positioned and accountable in/to multiple places and structures of power.

If the appeal to “let anthropology burn” aims to strike at the heart of the highly stratified system of knowledge production in the discipline, then the “epistemological imperialism” of the US academy would be a good place to start the fire.

The ability of Global North and US anthropologists to speak and circulate is predicated on imperial power. Due to asymmetrical knowledge flows and the hegemony of the Western academy, scholars in the Global South may find themselves compelled to “perform North American anthropology” to access resources and academic capital (Harrison, quoted in McGranahan, Roland, and Williams 2016). This epistemological imperialism makes it difficult to know when convergences arise between the United States and other sites and when “expressions and framings congeal in good part from the impact of US hegemony” (Harrison, quoted in McGranahan, Roland, and Williams 2016).

Moreover, the US government’s active and ongoing training and support of repressive policing apparatuses across the Global South ensures that it is not simply a lack of resources that contributes to the silencing of scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals elsewhere. As we debate, scholars, journalists, and intellectuals in India, Pakistan, Turkey, China, Kashmir, Egypt, South Sudan, Rwanda, Kenya, and Palestine—to name but a few—are actively rendered, detained, tortured, forcibly disappeared, and killed for producing dissident knowledge. This is integrally connected to the ability of US-based scholars to pronounce upon, declare, analyze, and authoritatively write about the nodal sites of US empire. For anthropologists working in and with communities affected by such conditions, this demands a form of witnessing that “probes and acknowledges the extent to which we are complicit” (Thomas 2019, 220) in the reproduction of imperial power. Witnessing, in this context, is not merely seeing but a co-relationality that calls forth an obligation to what we have witnessed (Tait 2011; Thomas 2019). At the very least, it is incumbent upon us to broaden our understanding of accountability so that we can acknowledge the differential price paid by many.

After all, we, as US-based scholars, write in the wake of a wreckage.


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[1]  We note that American Anthropologist has a World Anthropologies section in each issue that publishes in multiple languages and presents anthropological work produced around the world. Here, we are referring specifically to the review essay.