Indigenous cosmopolitans

Indigenous cosmopolitans

Ryan Schram
ANTH 2700: Key debates in anthropology
Social Sciences Building 410 (A02)
Week of May 23, 2022 (Week 13)

Slides available at

Main reading: de la Cadena (2010)

Other reading: Bessire and Bond (2014)

In the shadows

Is there a “shadow biosphere” populated by living things that appear to be nonliving things, like the spreading (or, self-replicating, growing) varnish on desert rocks (Conover 2015; Scoles 2015)?

Anthropology, the study of cultural diversity in humanity, is today asking the same thing.

Should we be looking for otherness, or should we continue to search for sameness?

A single humanity

The concept of culture in anthropology originates in the development of a single, universal concept of human.

Universal humanity and the colonization of consciousness

A singular, universal definition of human also displaces other ways of knowing oneself as human.

A universal humanity is a basis for human equality: All people are equal because they are fundamentally the same.

Yet this universalism also creates inequality of another kind: Alternative conceptions of oneself as a person don’t have the same credibility and authority as the dominant conception of the human subject as an individual. As Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o says in a recent profile in The Atlantic (Gibson 2022):

“The problem with language is hierarchy,” Ngũgĩ said. “It must have come with the conception of the modern state: ‘One language, one language!’ But it is hierarchy. It’s the oppression of many languages in favor of the one. In order for one language to be, others must die. It’s so backward and unproductive.”

Should anthropology instead be based on multiple humanities?

Universalism and particularism

This can be seen as a longstanding tension within anthropology between universalism and particularism.

Just like in Las Casas’s time, there have always been people who argued for multiple, distinct kinds of human.

Cultural anthropology has always been a response to this.

Yet if every person is the same because they can be molded by their particular social environment, then it will be hard to make universal, general claims about human life.

Ethnography would seem to resist the idea that there is a universal theory of human society.

Us and them

Ethnography is what makes anthropology different from other studies of social life, and not just because it is very descriptive

A lot of anthropology may indeed imply that there is a dichotomy of West and Rest (or West and East).

Many anthropologists are drawn to the idea of the Other because they want to undermine the idea that the Western self-conception is objectively universal.

Historical anthropology and a new universalism

Historical anthropology as advocated by Wolf (1982) and to a lesser extent Comaroff and Comaroff (1992) turns away from ethnographic particularism toward universalism

In a more general way, many anthropologists are skeptical of ethnography itself, and believe it should be subordinated to theory.

Roots and branches

Without sensitivity to particularism, we become blind to alternatives.

Evolutionary biology assumes that all life can be traced back along branches of descent to a common root. There is a hierarchy of types:

Life > Domain > Kingdom > Phylum > Class > Order > Family > Genus > Species

Historical anthropology is not interested in origins. It does assume the same kind of hierarchy of causes.

Humans as homo faber > Material struggles > Social hierarchies > Cultural ideas

Secret agents

The so-called “ontological turn” in anthropology is a response to the universalisms in anthropology, including historical anthropology (Kohn 2015).

Consider what universal assumptions are involved in even the most basic concept of agency, that is, the capacity to act.

Actual people act as individuals, but the effect of these actions depends on the reactions of others.

Groups also act, but in individualist cultures, the actions of groups are usually only recognized because the groups are seen as big individuals

An individualist conception of agency assumes that nature cannot have agency, and yet natural forces can channel human agency.

Multiple worlds?

If agency is always relational, then many more things besides individuals can be agents. They act as agents because they have relationships to other agents who react to them.

Each society is not an instance of a general type of purely human phenomenon.

This is a kind of anthropology that puts a lot of value in the encounter with an Other, especially an “indigenous” Other.

Yet it is also an effort to help people see beyond nature–culture dualism, and thus to see their own relational existence rather than differences in thought or representations.

References and further reading

Bashkow, Ira. 2006. The Meaning of Whitemen: Race and Modernity in the Orokaiva Cultural World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bessire, Lucas, and David Bond. 2014. “Ontological Anthropology and the Deferral of Critique.” American Ethnologist 41 (3): 440–56.

Cadena, Marisol de la. 2010. “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections Beyond ‘Politics’.” Cultural Anthropology 25 (2): 334–70.

Comaroff, John L., and Jean Comaroff. 1992. Ethnography and the Historical Imagination. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Conover, Emily. 2015. “‘Shadow Biosphere’ Might Be Hiding Strange Life Right Under Our Noses.” Science, February.

Dumont, Louis. (1970) 1980. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 1986. Essays on Individualism: Modern Ideology in Anthropological Perspective. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gibson, D. W. 2022. “Ngũgĩ in America.” The Atlantic, May 20, 2022.

Keel, Terence D. 2013. “Religion, Polygenism and the Early Science of Human Origins.” History of the Human Sciences 26 (2): 3–32.

Knapman, Gareth. 2016. “Race, Polygenesis and Equality: John Crawfurd and Nineteenth-Century Resistance to Evolution.” History of European Ideas 42 (7): 909–23.

Kohn, Eduardo. 2015. “Anthropology of Ontologies.” Annual Review of Anthropology 44 (1): 311–27.

Losada, Ángel. 1971. “The controversy between Sepúlveda and Las Casas in the junta of Valladolid.” In Bartolomé de las Casas in history: Toward an understanding of the man and his work, edited by Juan Friede and Benjamin Keen, 279–307. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press.

Scoles, Sarah. 2015. “Does Earth Have a Shadow Biosphere?” Aeon, July 9, 2015.

Sussman, Robert Wald. 2014. The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Wolf, Eric R. 1982. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.