Underwater Anthropology

When I was nine years old, I visited my mother in France, where she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Sorbonne. While in Paris, we went to the cinema to see a film that greatly disturbed me—the 1988 film Le Grand Bleu. It was about a group of divers who were in love with the sea. Having grown up in Puerto Rico surrounded by beautiful, warm beaches where I loved to swim among schools of brightly-colored tropical fish, I knew the feeling well. At the end of the film, the protagonist chooses to stay underwater with the sea creatures he loves so much. In one of the final scenes, he removes the breathing apparatus and safety lines that connect him to the boat and the world above water. He decides to shift his episteme: to experience life freely with his porpoise friends in the deep ocean, even if only for a few minutes and even if it costs him his life. His choice stunned and terrified me to the point that I had nightmares. The tone of the film stayed with me for weeks, but not because I found this choice to be so strange; rather, it scared me because I could so readily identify with the desire to be at home in the ocean without needing to come up for air.

Diving through layers of artifice, class privilege, and convention, one can sometimes arrive at a deeply creative space within anthropology. Yet disconnecting from the canonical force of white privilege and patriarchal power in the academy can feel like cutting off your own air supply—as if you’re drifting, unmoored not only from the material resources attached to storied institutions but from the familiar touchstones of leftist anthropological critique. Whom will we cite? Whose work will act as the intellectual foundation of the deepest and most serious layer of our socio-theoretical inquiries if not Marx, Hegel, Kant, Foucault, Nietzsche, Freud, and sometimes Arendt (the only woman ever deemed profound enough to include among these)?

I learned to think with and through these philosophers, whose work anthropologists engage with reverence as well as critique for their historicism, Eurocentrism, and sexism. I’ve sought to undo the assumption (within myself and among my students) that only European (white) men (and philosophers at that) are capable of true thought. I figured out that the trick was to highlight the ways in which each of these great men had gotten their anthropology wrong and then proceed to show how this or that cultural grouping or event did, or did not, conform to their theorizations of history, truth, power, ethics, culture, or consciousness. In this, one seemed condemned, to paraphrase the late V. S. Naipaul, to always only use the Internet and never to invent it.

In recent years, however, we have seen an increase in the numbers of anthropologists who are descended from the cultures and places that earlier anthropologists set out to study, catalog, and describe (see Allen and Jobson 2016). For many contemporary anthropologists, our people were, until recently, mostly seen either as primitives or as half-savages on their way to modernization. I’m using we here because the latter framing was emblematic of how Puerto Rico became a favorite site for mid-twentieth-century anthropology through such watershed texts as Julian Steward’s The People of Puerto Rico and Sidney Mintz’s Worker in the Cane. Far from disappearing, or becoming extinct, or indistinguishable from our colonizers, we so-called natives have now invaded the very discipline that produced us as objects of study. We are not the native ethnographers of yore, content to serve as primary informants and second authors. These natives have fully gone anthropologist.

In this becoming we have also changed anthropology: transforming methodologies and field ethics (see Gomberg-Muñoz 2018), forcing uncomfortable conversations, holding space for our communities to witness or testify about the historical wrongs committed against them/us, demanding accountability from institutions that profit from the commodification of indigenous and other cultures, and insisting on the decolonization of the discipline itself—even when the meaning of such a project remains in doubt. After all, is it truly possible to decolonize (or take apart the master’s house) with the very tools devised by the imperial master to know and thereby manage the colonies?

However timely it may seem, the reality is that our discipline has been confronting this question since at least the 1970s. Almost thirty years later, we still don’t have an answer to Edward Said’s (1989, 214) oft-cited question of “how, and I really mean how­—and when” anthropology and empire were separated. His answer, of course (by way of Fanon), is that they never were. As Lisa Uperesa notes, anthropology as a discipline continues to marginalize indigenous and other nonwhite scholars “through the claiming of scholarship and scholarly organizations, and anthropology itself as white public space.”

For example, the politics of English dominance limit which scholarship is widely published and read, as well as continuing to privilege the knowledge and experiences of those who can write in English in ways that reinforce the imperial divide (by assuming a white or Northern authorial voice or audience). This has material effects for securing research funding and the review of tenure cases, but it also begs a deeper question.

Who is anthropology for? Who are we writing to when we write anthropologically? Does it matter how slowly or quickly a text is available, or if reading it is free? Does scholarship uploaded and made freely available automatically lose its value? The absurdity of the latter is more acutely felt when one considers that doing peer review is an unpaid, secret process for which scholars are rewarded with things like free copies of journals or a month of free access to the journal archives. Worse still when the discipline’s pretensions to social relevance are premised on open-access journals staffed by underpaid, harassed, and maligned graduate students.

As Deborah Thomas (2018, 393, 394) has recently noted, despite the argument made by “members of the Association of Black Anthropologists that a decolonized anthropology could emerge from the critical intellectual traditions and counter-hegemonic struggles of Third World peoples,” our discipline’s decolonization is “woefully incomplete.”

For anthropology to really matter it has to become unmoored from the old episteme; it must let go of the line. This is not simply a matter of iconoclasm, nor a question of citational or publishing industry politics, nor just an institutional matter. The future of anthropology will require the willingness to grow gills and to learn to breathe underwater.


Allen, Jafari Sinclaire, and Ryan Cecil Jobson. 2016. “The Decolonizing Generation: (Race and) Theory in Anthropology since the Eighties.” Current Anthropology 57, no. 2: 129–48.

Gomberg-Muñoz, Ruth. 2018. “The Complicit Anthropologist.” Journal for the Anthropology of North America 21, no. 1: 36–37.

Said, Edward W. 1989. “Representing the Colonized: Anthropology’s Interlocutors.” Critical Inquiry 15, no. 2: 205–225.

Thomas, Deborah A. 2018. “Decolonizing Disciplines.” American Anthropologist 120, no. 3: 393–97.