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ISEK - Institut für Sozialanthropologie und Empirische Kulturwissenschaft Ethnologie

ZANTHRO Comments Nr. 2
WorldMapper Bild Visualization of numbers of scientific papers published in 2010
Global knowledge production and its inequalities: Visualization of numbers of scientific papers published in 2010 [1]


The traditional canon of academic anthropology has been violent in its exclusion of Indigenous,
non-male, non-white, and otherwise marginalized voices.

(Buell et. al. 2019)

Academic knowledge production within social and cultural anthropology has been accompanied by critical discussions and demands for transformation for decades. In her introduction to the edited volume “Black Feminist Anthropology” (2001), Irma McClaurin, for example, criticises the discipline’s traditional canon formation in contexts of everyday institutionalised racism and the marginalisation of women’s voices.[2] In light of the recent HAU scandal[3], questions about teaching, writing, publishing and practicing anthropology have gained new momentum. These questions were raised mainly in online spaces such as Twitter and anthropology blogs[4] by brave junior scholars with the support of a few senior academics. Paige West (2019) points out that the HAU journal effectively returned to glorify an anthropological canon that was “produced, debated, performed by men to the near exclusion of women scholars.” She furthermore presses her readers to ask themselves: “What about feminist, Indigenous, Black and LGBTQI insights produced in anthropology over the decades?” Scholars such as Zoe Todd (2016) and Sarah Ahmed (2013), amongst others, offer us practical interventions to address these broader structural power issues in everyday teaching and citational practices, and Buell et. al. (2019) encourage their readers to radically rethink teaching syllabi, in particular in courses on the history of anthropological theory.

In March 2019, all lecturers at the department of social and cultural anthropology at the University of Zurich received a letter from a group of concerned students. This letter was written in the context of Women’s Day on the 8th of March and in preparation for the Swiss-wide Frauenstreik (Women’s Strike) on June 14th 2019.[5] The letter pointed out structural issues related to gender inequality at the department and suggested that the lecturers make a priority of reworking the syllabus of “History of Anthropology” (“Fachgeschichte”) to include more feminist and intersectional approaches. They also demanded the use of gender-sensitive language in our teaching and writing – an issue especially relevant in German language – and the creation of more (gender)-inclusive spaces in our institute. The department took these concerns seriously and discussed them in several meetings at different departmental levels. As the topic of this semester’s university-wide Tag der Lehre (Day of Teaching) at the University of Zurich was “kluge Köpfe”, (“clever minds”), this seemed like the perfect opportunity to debate these issues on a broader platform that included students, lecturers and researchers at the department. Was it not time to ask why we do not include all clever minds in our teaching and our writing? During one part of our Tag der Lehre program at the Völkerkunde Museum on the 30th of October, we therefore discussed whether we should de-canonize our approach to anthropology at ISEK-Ethnologie, and if so how? By ‘de-canonize’ we mean: unsettling the traditional academic canon in anthropology by including non-male, non-white, Indigenous, and otherwise marginalized voices. 

The Canon: Violence, Time Travel, or Common Ground?


When I started my studies in anthropology [at ISEK], I felt as if I had been thrown back 150 years.  I heard a lot about white men (meaning: no women) investigating societies (meaning: ignoring women). It felt like I had been put on a remote planet.

- Mirjam (student at ISEK-Ethnologie)

These were the opening words of our discussion on the 30th of October. Several students and lecturers had been asked to contribute a ‘vignette’ from their everyday experiences at ISEK. What Mirjam describes so powerfully here is what others have framed critically as “his-stories” (Buell et. Al. 2019). Certain voices have been erased while others are framed as central to the “disciplinary origin stories” that we teach (Durrani 2019). It is clear that these exclusions have been based on structural economic, social and political inequalities, which Buell et. al. (2019) refer to as the violence of the canon. Using the statement from Buell et. al. (above) as a starting point, we asked whether and how we can change the way that we teach and write, as well as the way we use language and space at our department.

Listening to vignettes presented by ISEK students and staff during "Tag der Lehre", 30th of October 2019
Listening to vignettes presented by ISEK students and staff during “Tag der Lehre”, 30th of October 2019

This sparked an active debate on knowledge production, as well as on the nature of theory itself. Some pointed out that it can be difficult to include the voices of anthropologists from the regions which we study because the relationship between empirics and theory is not approached in the same way in all academic traditions and contexts. Conversely, it can also be frustrating for anthropologists to read ‘analyses’ of their own societies by predominantly white anthropologists trained in Western academic traditions which they perceive as deeply problematic and flawed. This brought us to the question of “What is theory?” and of how to integrate different approaches to theory itself within our teaching. One solution might be to more consciously include voices from variously positioned scholars and compare texts that discuss similar topics, not to determine who is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, but rather to highlight the way in which knowledge is produced differently depending on the positionality and background of the researcher and the academic traditions in which they operate.

When it comes to considering which previously excluded voices we should endeavour to include, suggestions were made to look both outside of the Anglophone academic world as well as outside of the discipline of anthropology. In a broader sense, the question of whether canons are violent by definition was brought up, as they are always based on selection and therefore exclusion. Indeed, is a canon even necessary? While many other disciplines do not even teach a canon, anthropology has held on to its ‘founding fathers’ relentlessly, even though their works are often no longer relevant to our research today. Nevertheless, as some pointed out, the canon does give us a common ground from which to speak, and many of us would be out of our depths if we would be asked to teach something else. Of course this does not mean we should not make a commitment to do better. Many people brought up ways in which we can be creative with our canon and the way in which we teach it. Indeed, there are many ways in which we can renegotiate our canon for the 21st century.

Finding Balance, Shifting Focus, and Moving Forward

We all agreed that it is important to shift the value we place on certain scholars while continually challenging who we put at centre stage and why. Existing resources, such as the syllabus project developed by Buell et. al. (2019), constitute one example of how to go about this as a form of collaboration between lecturers and students. A further point highlighted during the discussion concerned the possibility to turn a chronologically structured course upside down – a strategy a number of lecturers already apply in their classes – or to stop working with chronology altogether and move towards a thematically structured approach (Durrani 2019). 

On a more practical note, everyone acknowledged that it is important that lecturers use gender-sensitive language at all times, and that this should become a self-evident practice for everyone in the institute. This includes – but is not limited to – initiating a pronoun round during introductory meetings and making sure that all teaching materials, such as PowerPoint slides, use gender-sensitive language. In addition, clearer instructions for students on gender-sensitive language will be integrated in the official regulations and guidelines of the institute before the start of spring term 2020. In light of thinking about more (gender)-inclusive spaces at ISEK, the creation of a gender-neutral toilet was brought up as one step in the right direction. In fact, this aligns with ongoing debates beyond the institute level at the University of Zurich. A collaboration of various LGBTQI initiatives recently launched an online petition to transform one toilet per university building into a gender-neutral space.[6] The existence of this petition shows that we are not alone at our department in thinking about these issues. Something to keep in mind while we move forward is the importance of engaging in collaboration with different platforms as well as creating spaces in which communication about different initiatives can flow freely.

Certainly, our discussion was limited in scope. Much remains to be discussed, and so much more can be done. A central takeaway from the Tag der Lehre, then, could be that de-canonizing anthropology is not a one-day event, but an ongoing and never fully finished project of conversations, reflections and practices: an attempt and a promise to stay engaged, open, critical and flexible. In order to continue on this journey, we need to keep on coming together as a department with representatives from students, administrative staff, professors, lecturers, PhDs, and postdocs to actively think about how we understand and practice anthropology at ISEK. Let’s keep on asking ourselves: “If we think of teaching as a critical intervention, what should twenty-first century students be learning from anthropology?” (Durrani 2019). 


Ahmed, Sarah. 2013. “Making Feminist Points.” Feminist Killjoy blog. 11. September. [accessed 13.11.2019].

Buell, Rebecca Renee, Burns, Samuel Raymond, Chen, Zhuo, Grabinsky, Lisa, Hurtado Moreno, Argenis, Stanton, Katherine, VanRiper, Froggi & Loren White. 2019. “Reworking the History of Social Theory for 21st Century Anthropology: A Syllabus Project.” Footnotes blog, 15. February. [accessed 13.11.2019].

Durrani, Mariam. 2019. “Upsetting the Canon.” Anthropology News website, April 8. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1134 [accessed 13.11.2019].

McClaurin, Irma. 2001. Introduction. Forging a Theory, Politics, Praxis, and Poetics of Black Feminist Anthropology. In: McClaurin, Irma (ed.). Black Feminist Anthropology. Theory, Politics, Praxis, and Poetics. New Brunswick, New Jersey, London: Rutgers University Press, pp. 1-23.

West, Paige. 2018. “Introduction: From Reciprocity to Relationality.” Hot Spots, Fieldsights, September 26. [accessed 13.11.2019].

Zoe, Todd. 2016. An Indigenous Feminist’s Take on the Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ is just Another Word for Colonialism. Journal of Historical Sociology 29(1): 4-22.


[1] Map taken from [accessed 19.11.2019].

[2] McClaurin (2001: 6-8) goes on to offer an alternative genealogy for teaching the history of anthropology. She provides a timeline of black women/feminist anthropologists from the 1930s onwards.

[3] As a starting point for exploring this complex scandal, we suggest [accessed 18.11.2019].

[4] See for example the Footnote blogs (, a curated series of articles under the hashtag #hautalk on Allegralab ( and the Hotspot series “From Reciprocity to Relationality: Anthropological Possibilities” on Cultural Anthropology edited by Paige West.

[5] For more background information on the Frauenstreik at UZH see [accessed 15.11.2019].

[6] See and for more information.