Back to Liberation Anthropology

Émir Mahieddin

Centre d’études en sciences sociales du religieux (CéSor)

École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris

February 2020

The decade that has just ended has been marked by profound political upheavals as well as by a renewed interest in ethnographic theory in anthropology. Does this represent a mere temporal coincidence or is there a link between the developments on political and scientific fronts? What if we thought of these two movements as analogous, namely as manifestations of a political and epistemological desire for liberation? Thinking of their analogical relationship and their elective affinities might allow to underline the political spirit of ethnographic theory. The production of theory from situated ethnographies, I argue, could be understood as drawing and expanding on an activist strand of research that goes back to the middle of the 20th century: “liberation anthropology”, a tradition that seems to travel through time, space and languages, without always leaving tracks of connections and continuities between its different expressions.

In January 1968, 400 intellectuals from 70 countries gathered in Cuba, a symbolic place for the international left at the time. There, they co-signed the famous “Appeal of Havana” in which they declared: “Talents and skills which could and should contribute to the task of progress and liberation become, instead, instruments for the commercialization of values, the degradation of culture, and the maintenance of the capitalist economic and social order. It is the fundamental interest and imperative duty of intellectuals to resist this aggression and take up, without delay, the challenge thus posed to them. What is required of them is support for the struggles for national liberation, social emancipation and cultural decolonization.” The call resonated within the discipline. The same year, Kathleen Gough (1968) accused: “Anthropology, child of imperialism!” Of course, the idea is not fully original at the time, and one could find premises in earlier anthropological works. As early as 1949, Ernesto De Martino (1949), inspired by his reading of Antonio Gramsci, had already denounced the discipline’s collusion with colonial rule and expressed the idea that anthropology should be a science engaged for the liberation of subaltern groups in the “hegemonic nations” and for colonized peoples.

But it was following the Appeal of Havana that dependency theorist André Gunder Frank proposed to forge what he called a “liberation anthropology”. He called on European and American anthropologists to stop working on colonized peoples, as this kind of research would in no way be beneficial for their emancipation. Instead, he suggested that they assume their responsibility by putting their science at the service of political movements working for the “destruction of imperialism” in their own societies – even though that may put their own academic careers at risk. Anthropologists from colonized countries, in turn, should also practice anthropology “at home”, for as long as imperialism persisted, the social sciences from the West would never support the development of perspectives that would enhance the emancipation of their societies. In sum, the anthropologist, just like the guerrilla physician Che Guevara, should submit his science to the Revolution by becoming “an intellectual revolutionary rather than a revolutionary intellectual” (Gunder Frank, 1969: 143). He was to contribute to the construction of a society liberated from the violence of capitalism, which would finally be truly “free and humane” (idem: 145).

In the immediate aftermath of hard-won independence, some anthropologists from formerly colonized countries followed Gunder Frank’s idea of a liberation anthropology. They had been actors of liberation movements, or showed solidarity with their causes. They offered to place their knowledge at the service of contestation and social progress rather than oppression, while at the same time producing a radical critique of the discipline itself (Lucas, 1969).

Although it is unclear whether or not he knew of these works, the Algerian Mouloud Mammeri, for example, conceived of anthropology as “an enterprise for the liberation of man”, a “counterweight” to the “weight of servitude” that is increasing in the contemporary world (Mammeri, 2008 [1989]: 168). Mouloud Mammeri (1917-1989) was an anthropologist, linguist, poet and novelist. After his engagement in the Algerian war of liberation, all his work, both scientific and literary, which consisted notably in promoting Berber cultures, was turned towards the criticism of the Algerian regime’s project of Arab nationalist homogeneity. He also fought against the regime’s procedures of falsification of history, which led him to be censured on several occasions. The cancellation by the regime of one of his public lectures in 1980 was the trigger for the “Berber Spring” in Algeria, an exceptional episode of popular protests, which was fiercely repressed.  

The influence of this tradition in activist anthropology lasted beyond the 1960’s. Twenty years later, without referring directly to De Martino, Gunder Frank’s or Mammeri’s formula, but undoubtedly sharing their political sensitivity, Faye Harrison and a collective of activist scholars called for a commitment to an “anthropology for liberation”. “Designed to promote equality and justice-inducing social transformation”, this kind of knowledge production would respond, they hoped, to the challenges of the 21st century (2010 [1991]: 2). Similar to Gunder Frank’s work, the authors also drew their impetus from the experiences of struggle in what was then called the Third World. Inspired by critical intellectual traditions such as postmodernism, radical feminism, as well as non-Western intellectual streams (emanating from the Third World and from racial minorities in the West), their research combined Marxist theory and reflexive approaches to ethnography to investigate the intersection of forms of oppression based on gender, race and class differences. This kind of approach has meanwhile become widespread. However, current studies lack reference to the earlier strands of activist “liberation anthropology” or “anthropology for liberation”. Yet, as their approaches coincide in conceiving of ethnography as an intellectual and activist practice, I argue that public anthropology, postcolonial and decolonial anthropology, and anarchist anthropology, which has known a recent revival (Accolas, Durieux & Planex, 2018), carry onward the ideas of “liberation anthropology”. All of these strands engage with ethnographic theory. Could the popularity of these approaches be understood within the current historical context and its relation to the political aspects of the renewed interest in ethnographic theory?

On the level of politics, the 2010s marked a new era of revolutions and insurrections. From the so-called Arab Spring that began in 2010 to the various protest movements in 2019 (Algeria, the Sudan, Honk Kong, Haiti, Ecuador, Bolivia, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Chile, Catalonia, Iran, etc.), the political proliferation of this decade reminds us of the anti-imperialist movements of the 1960s, as a time marked by the irruption of subaltern masses in history. Beyond their important differences, the 2010s protests all represent expressions of anger against the local effects of global policies, remnants of a colonial order whose ashes are still warm. The current density of political unrest points to a crisis of representation. Echoing the period that gave rise to the idea of liberation anthropology, it prompts us back to the critical duty to which liberation anthropologists had assigned the discipline. Can we see similar insurrectionary/critical/counter-hegemonic dynamics in anthropological research that relates to the dynamic return of ethnographic theory?

On the level of anthropological knowledge production, the 2010s have seen the emergence and success of the journal HAU. The “return of ethnographic theory” David Graeber and Giovanni Da Col (2011) called for at the beginning of the decade was presented as an attempt to popularize ethnographic theory. According to its founders themselves, HAU was conceived out of the feeling that the discipline was suffering from a crisis: firstly, they felt that “the pursuit of human knowledge” was severely damaged by the economic model prevailing in academia, that is to say commercial publishing (2011: ix). Secondly, they shared “a sense of frustration” with the conceptual limits of contemporary anthropology which largely borrowed its concepts from European philosophy. Finally, to them, “in a world where North Atlantic powers” were “growing less dominant” and “even in the old imperial centers, society” grew “increasingly diverse, maintaining the old, purely Euro-American centric forms of knowledge” seemed “increasingly untenable” (2011: xi). Ethnographic theory appeared as an intellectual solution to move out of a crisis of anthropological representation in a postcolonial polycentric world increasingly aware of its diversity.

In this sense, ethnographic theory thus appears as an “anti-imperialistic” move. It is an approach that has elective affinities with what our predecessors called “liberation anthropology”. It could even constitute an intensification of it in that it can decenter its emancipatory potential from the narrow representations of “progress” that emanated from the Western world, including Marxism – secularization, development, extractivism, productivism, the nation-state, etc. It allows us to explore other paths to happiness, endorse decolonial feminisms, explore other possible ontologies of nature and of the supernatural leading to other readings of ecology and religion. It considers alternative mathematical logics, and even questions the universality of the subject that Western modernity had put at the center of its preoccupations and that it is still struggling to get rid of nowadays: the individual. The idea of liberation that emanates from ethnographic theory is thus more pluralistic and not fixed once and for all for all human beings. It is notably the conception the “anthropology of liberation” recently advocated by anthropologist Michael Singleton (2011): it aims at liberating people in their own terms without imposing any external logics, even the logics of anthropology.

This period thus signals a crisis of representation: political as well as ethnographic. Just like contemporary political uprisings around the world, ethnographic theory, as a counter-hegemonic approach, is driven by a desire to get out, even a desire to escape from our time of globalized governance in which the desires instilled by the capitalist Western model still occupy a hegemonic position. Ethnographic theory and the crowds without leaders in the political arena both point to a crisis of homogenization and centralization projects. They coincide with a growing questioning of the monologue of Europe in the narration of history and in the philosophical thoughts that have accompanied and intellectually supported the illusion of a single model of “progress” that would follow the developmental path taken by European societies (quest for ever increasing material wealth, secularization, nationhood, etc.), a view that historian Dipesh Chakrabarty called “historicist” (2000).

David Graeber had already stressed the affinity between ethnographic practice and political anarchism (2004). Ethnographic theory and the insurgent multitudes of the 2010s also seem to share libertarian affinities, perhaps a sign of times. They both correspond to what Viveiros de Castro calls, in his commentary on Pierre Clastres’ work, the “politics of multiplicity” (2019: 70). The anthropologist defines the politics of multiplicity as “a mode of becoming” rather than a “mode of being”. In so doing, it maintains a fugitive character. It is a “regime of intensity” that persists in its molecular state and resists the transition to its instituted form in the name of the preservation of singularities. Although it may be instituted or institutionalized in certain historical situations, its functioning does not depend on it.

In an atmosphere of psychological and intellectual exhaustion, marked by the dissemination of the power of representation allowed by contemporary digital technologies, today’s insurgent crowds are keen to preserve the Multiple without seeking to incarnate themselves into the One of a single structure. They do not blindly follow the path traced out by others of a simulacrum of “progress”. In the same way, by building theory from situated ethnographies, anthropologists seek to flee from overhanging universalisms and thoughts of totality derived from established philosophies. As the insurgents of the 2010s are searching for ways out of the violence of totalizations that seek to apply the same economic and political schema to an infinite multiplicity, ethnographers are wary of wide-ranging Universalist theorizations that tend to impoverish the multiplicity of perspectives on reality by reducing them to a single totalizing thought (Graeber & Da Col 2011).

The recent political mobilizations and the return of ethnographic theory thus seem to play on a common score: they are multitudes exploring the multiplicity of possibilities without fixing – for the moment at least – on a predetermined future. These multitudes invite us to an alternative intellectual and political journey which destination is unknown. They look suspiciously at the “big names” of intellectual or political leaders. Immediate fragmented subjectivities and situated perspectives seem to characterize these subaltern political resistances, opening breaches in the imagination of possible futures (Henry, forthcoming).

The mistrust of the advocates of ethnographic theory towards instituted theories and their willingness to produce theory from situated ethnographies thus echoes the resistance to traditional forms of political struggle in parties or unions. They mark the search for more horizontal and reticular forms of collective (self-)representation. While ethnographic theory inquiries into the epistemological and philosophical potential of all singular knowledge scattered across the globe without giving ascendancy to one over the other, the predominant political organization within the recent anti-austerity insurrections and revolutions of the 2010s is that of the “multitude of decentralized singularities” that “communicate horizontally” (Hardt & Negri, 2013: 53).

Everywhere, the time is ripe for this political form: that of multitudes. In making this argument, I do not aim at affirming the success of this quest or at suggesting that this is a prevailing epistemological and political tendency. Firstly, many intellectual and political endeavors, including the HAU journal, seem to have failed to maintain their founding intensity. Secondly, this violent desire for liberation is met by a brutal desire for borders, as noted by Achille Mbembe (2020). My purpose here is simply to highlight the frequency of this epistemo-political desire for liberation and to draw attention to its rootedness at the heart of anthropology in order to point out, by analogy, the political spirit of ethnographic theory.

By suspending epistemic and ontological convictions, ethnographic theory is indeed the form of knowledge that anthropology needs to accompany intellectually – and not guide – the contemporary political world in its quest for a liberation that is fiercely respectful of singularities. The latter still seems indeterminate only because it is, contrary to the modernist capitalist and state logic that had made totalization and homogeneity its projects, a quest for the preservation of multiplicity. Suspicious of institutionalized forms of knowledge, ethnographic theory could thus be seen as an intensification of the process of cultural decolonization. As such it constitutes an intellectual emancipation from the narrow historicist and Universalist definitions of liberation that had permeated the 20th century, encouraging the subaltern masses to institutionalize their counter-hegemonic policies around Western philosophies.


I express my intellectual debt to historian Melanie Henry, whose work on the political experience of insurgency constantly stimulates my views. Many ideas in this text are reflections of our conversations.


Accolas S., Durieux J. & Planeix A., 2018, “Anthropology and anarchism”, Journal des anthropologues, 152-153: 25-34.

Chakrabarty D., 2000, Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Da Col G. & Graeber D., 2011, “Foreword. The Return of Ethnographic Theory”, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 1 (1): vi-xxxv.

De Martino E., 1949,Intorno a una storia del mondo popolare subalterni”, Società, 3, 411-435.

Harrison F. (ed.), 2010 [1991], Decolonizing Anthropology. Moving Further towards an Anthropology for Liberation, Arlington American Anthropological Association. 

Henry M., Forthcoming, “IMF Riots or Nasserist Revolt? Thinking Fluid Memory – Egypt 1977”, International Review of Social History.

Gough K., 1968, “Anthropology and Imperialism”, Monthly Review. An Independent Socialist Magazine, pp. 12-27.

Graeber D., 2004, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, Chicago, Prickly Paradgim Press.

Gunder Frank A., 1969, Latin America: Underdevelopment or Revolution, New York, Modern Reader. 

Hardt M. & Negri A., 2013, Déclaration. Ceci n’est pas un manifeste, Paris, Raison d’agir.

Lucas P., 1969, Sociologie de Frantz Fanon. Contribution à une anthropologie de la libération, Alger, SNED.

Mammeri M., 2008 [1989], « Entretien : Mouloud Mammeri ou le courage lucide d’un intellectuel marginalisé » in Écrits et paroles. Tome II, Alger, CNRPAH, pp. 165-190.  

Mbembe A., 2020, Brutalisme, Paris, La Découverte.

Singleton M., 2011, « Pour une anthropologie de libération », Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques, vol. 42 (I), pp. 45-61.

Viveiros De Castro E., 2019, Politique des multiplicités. Pierre Clastres face à l’État, Paris, Éditions Dehors.