Anthropology's Problematic Past

In that Anthropology is concerned with the unity and diversity of humanity (and related primates) and of human culture and society from a comparative and global perspective, the question of human diversity, and the responsibility of humans to one another, is at the very core of the discipline. Yet anthropologists today recognize the long history of the ways in which our research practices, past and present, are complicit in – and at times active perpetrators of – the domination, exploitation, and colonization of fellow humans. In light of this legacy we have a pronounced responsibility to address the ways that anthropology, as a social science and humanistic scholarly practice contributes to, re-inscribes, or enacts discriminatory and colonial violence. It is for this reason that the Department of Anthropology chartered, at the behest of the graduate student body, a Diversity and Decolonization Committee, in order to determine and take a course of action.  

Any attempt to address the reproduction of inequality in contemporary anthropology must engage the discipline’s history of entanglement with colonialism and the fabrication of categories of race, sex, gender, and ability that we live with today. The growth of anthropology as a discipline was long marked by ambivalence towards reigning power structures, and very often defined more by collaboration with the projects of empire. While we celebrate forebearers such as Zora Neale Hurston, whose literary ethnographic work and its attention to themes of justice, equity, and inclusion are celebrated across disciplines, there have been many who built careers in anthropology through colonial administration, advancing the trope of the “disappearing native” in public discourse, theory-making in the service of cold-war geopolitics, or through other weaponizations of anthropological knowledge. 

But this is not simply a question of recognizing abuses of an otherwise innocent discipline.  Much more is at stake. Proliferating demands for repatriation of ancestors and sacred objects demonstrate the sheer scale of material appropriation that has occurred in the name of sciences and aesthetics shaped by mainstream anthropological knowledge. It is for this reason that our department has prepared a transparent process for collaborative and ongoing work of repatriation of cultural objects and human remains in the department’s archival collections. Claims to represent the voice of the Other have often constituted appropriation in the domain of discourse. The very structure of thinking that long “incarcerated the ‘native’ in place,” to borrow from Arjun Appadurai, has also served to universalize canons of theory in which engagement with non-European traditions of thought has been minimal. Theory, itself, remains a category shaped by an unmarked masculinity, as Catherine Lutz noted long ago. And yet, despite the forms of introspection on these facts and narratives prompted by the work of Vine Deloria Jr., Talal Asad, Michelle Rosaldo, Edward Said, Gayle Rubin, W.E.B. Du Bois, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Barry Chevannes, Katherine Dunham, Delmos Jones, St. Clair Drake, John Langston Gwaltney and so many others, the discipline of anthropology is still wrestling with what decolonization and serious engagement with diversity and equity within its own ranks might mean.

Specifically for the subfield of biological/evolutionary (“physical”) anthropology, this is manifest in the present effort to reflect on the field’s early complicity in the proliferation of scientific racism, and the effect that this complicity has had on the lack of diversity in the discipline (Anton et al. 2018). Physical anthropology was built on the false concept of the biological authenticity of race and its apparent typological essentialist reality. At its inception in the early 1900’s, the field was defined as “the study of human races and their subdivisions,” which was dominated at the time by the study of skulls of the “other”, particularly the objectification of the skulls of Indigenous people of the Americas, commonly obtained by plundering burial sites. This focus was largely driven by the belief that biological determinism and essentialism was at the core of the race concept, and by studying the skulls of certain populations, one could characterize people into natural groups that were based on both behaviour and physical attributes, providing “evidence” for the inferiority of some on the basis of skin colour, indigeneity, gender etc. This in turn was used politically to support atrocities such as the eugenics movement, segregation, a justification of slavery, and most commonly in Canada, the discrimination and oppression of Indigenous peoples. This grim history of the field, however, stands in contrast to the power of current discourse that has been at the forefront of debunking these invalid standpoints. Specifically, the most influential and potentially powerful tool that biological/evolutionary anthropologists can provide today is informed knowledge about human variation and diversity.

The Importance of Diversity

To embrace diversity is not only a matter of equity and justice, it is also a matter of taking the role as an educator or scholar seriously. By increasing diversity we necessarily better our discipline by producing better research. Unfortunately, the value of diversity has not been fully recognized, in part due to the flawed view that an increase of diversity leads to a decrease in research excellence. Further, too often initiatives under the banner of diversity devote insufficient attention to institutional, disciplinary, and structural change. Numerous peer-reviewed studies indicate that diverse research teams, departments, and student cohorts foster the development of more creative and novel questions, contributions, and approaches (Apfelbaum et al. 2014; Freeman & Haung 2014; Hong & Page 2004). With a diverse representation of people we are creating an intellectually dynamic environment with a diversity of perspectives and ideas needed in our efforts to decolonize our discipline. To embrace diversity is to strive for excellence.


Apfelbaum, E. P., Phillips, K. W., & Richeson, J. A. (2014). Rethinking the baseline in diversity research: Should we be explaining the effects of homogeneity? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9(3), 235-244.

Antón, S. C., Malhi, R. S., & Fuentes, A. (2018). Race and diversity in US Biological Anthropology: A decade of AAPA initiatives. American journal of physical anthropology, 165, 158-180.

Freeman, R. B., & Huang, W. (2014). Collaboration: Strength in diversity. Nature News, 513(7518), 305.

Hong, L., & Page, S. (2004). Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high‐ability problem solvers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101, 16385–16389.