“Decanonization” as a Spiral: Collectively Constructing a “History of Anthropological Thought” Syllabus

Peter Buck studying Paratene Ngata making a hinaki (Maori wicker work baited pot for trapping eels and other fish) circa 1922. Photographer unidentified. Reference number: 1/2-037930-F. Photo made available thanks to the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22495223

The authors of this piece together compose the Brandeis “History of Anthropological Thought” Syllabus Collective.

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“We say the Earth has a circular orbit around the sun, but of course it doesn’t. The sun moves too. You never come back to the same place, you just come back to the same point on the spiral."

– Ursula K. Le Guin, 2018 (quoted in DeFreitas 2021)


Given anthropology’s conflicted past, how do you teach its history to new anthropologists? This question provoked a 2023 collective syllabus project in the Brandeis University Anthropology Department.

Elizabeth Ferry, faculty member, was tasked with leading the graduate History of Anthropological Thought course in Fall 2023. As in many anthropology departments worldwide, this is a required course for all doctoral students, with Master's Degree (MA) and advanced undergraduate students also welcome. Renewed emphasis on decolonizing anthropology as a discipline has pushed some to leave the discipline (Todd 2018) or to “let it burn” (Jobson 2018), and perhaps foundational courses like this one may be the first logs on the bonfire.

However, rather than abandoning our ambiguous history, we aimed to recast it through a lens that includes authors, concepts, and debates from the past that directly engage that ambiguity. Rather than moving directly back or forward, we imagined decolonizing (or more modestly, perhaps, “decanonizing”) as a spiral.

Our syllabus collective began in June 2023, with a group of eleven incoming and current graduate students (nine PhD, two MA) and the professor. Students were paid by a grant from the department for research and meeting times in July and August, and the course was taught in Fall 2023. In what follows, we outline the steps we took, and then present reflections from members of our group on the process, what we can learn from it, and how it might continue in future iterations, in our department or elsewhere.

Background Research

We began our collaborations by reviewing other syllabus projects as discussed in journals, blogs, and on other platforms (see, e.g., “Teaching Tools” posts on teaching and learning theory and the syllabus archive for Black anthropology) and reviewing discussions of the discipline and its discontents (in addition to those cited above, Harrison 1997; Allen and Jobson 2016; Gupta and Stoolman 2022).

In an effort to contextualize our syllabus with other contemporary efforts to teach the history of anthropological thought, we also collected fifteen syllabi across twelve universities, concentrating on courses that focused on the history of the discipline or that featured pre-1950s anthropological literature. While recognizing that our sample was not representative, we analyzed their contents using Atlas.ti (a software for qualitative analysis) to identify frequently used authors and the contexts within which those authors were most often evoked.

Most of the syllabi included, as a central course aim, acknowledgment of anthropology’s role in the development and perpetuation of colonialism. Though the syllabi varied according to professors’ expertise, efforts to decanonize followed two identifiable trends. The first was the inclusion of works published prior to the 1950s by a select few anthropologists of color or women anthropologists, such as Zora Neale Hurston, Ella Cara Deloria, and Margaret Mead. The second was the inclusion of relatively recent commentaries or critical overviews of developments in anthropology, such as those by Talal Asad, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, and Edward Said. These two strategies work together to create what might be called a “meta-canon” of a limited expansion of texts combined with critical contextualization.

Through this process, we learned that critical interrogations of the sanctity of the anthropological canon—and the inclusion of authors who are not White, European men—are, fortunately, becoming more common. Indeed, we were pleased to see that attempts to modify course content to these ends seem to be becoming part of normal practice.

In our syllabus collective, we tried to push these efforts in two directions. First, rather than being passively fed a “meta-canon,” we decided to crowdsource our own. By creating a collectively researched and shared resource of texts, we reconfigured the dynamics of a traditional syllabus (in which the student has limited say in the content and works not included vanish from sight). This process allowed us to observe one another’s grappling with what should be included in the endeavor of telling the “history of anthropological thought” and with what implications.

Second, we eschewed as much as possible a stance of critical evaluation that framed texts as laudably disruptive or “problematic” from the standpoint of our own position as faculty and students, from a range of backgrounds, in a New England private university in 2023. We felt that this stance tends both to assume a model of progress that brings with it its own blindnesses and also to obscure the ways in which the very debates now described as “decolonization” have constituted the discipline since its inception.

Instead, we sought out the work of contemporary scholars at the margins (who may or may not have been fully recognized at the time) in conversation with those now deemed canonical, or grappling with the same questions of authority, inclusion, and politics that projects for retrospective critique seek to resolve. We approached these questions as they recurred, cyclically, yet also engaging with particular moments (the eugenics movement, Panafricanism, World War I, feminism, the Harlem Renaissance, the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, etc.). Thus, like the earth’s orbit around the sun in Le Guin’s description opening this piece, questions about inclusion, marginalization, and authority within the discipline trace neither a circle nor a line, but a spiral. 

The Search for Texts

Our first meeting in June 2023 centered on our stated aim of broadening the authorial voices represented within anthropology and unpacking what “decanonizing” means for our project. We also engaged with questions such as who gets to speak for whom, who makes theory and what it constitutes within anthropology, and engaging with multimodal forms such as oral traditions and performance as theory.

We set a somewhat arbitrary but mind-focusing constraint of works produced between 1800–1950, published or translated into English (we regretted this, given the global hegemony of English as a language of scholarship and instruction, but we recognized its necessity for a course taught in English). Each person chose to pursue a particular direction or directions along which they hoped to find texts by authors not usually represented.

Some collective members chose a geographic focus, seeking to explore anthropological scholarship from China, Latin America, Soviet Union, and South Asia during this time period. This undertaking entailed exploring sources such as archives, cartographic maps, memoirs, and films as well as more formally designated “scholarship” published in anthropological journals and similar venues.

Other members sought out accounts written by anthropological interlocutors such as Maggie Wilson who corresponded with Ruth Landes, collectors for British museums such as Winifred Susan Blackman, and politicians and other public figures influenced by anthropology, such as B.R. Ambedkar.

In August 2023, two months later, our group reconvened and shared their respective findings and challenges they faced in the process. We noted the complex and nonlinear process of excavating voices and sources that have been both systematically or randomly excluded from mainstream anthropological consideration. We also remarked that since some sub-disciplines (such as medical anthropology) are of recent origin and since concepts and categories (such as neurodiversity or disability) evolve over time, identifying unrecognized sources on these topics in the past is difficult and results are patchy. Furthermore, for some members, the lack of English translations for relevant material they found acted as a limitation.

These materials were collected in a shared drive where they could be viewed and discussed by others, as a resource for the final syllabus, the course, the department and, potentially, beyond. Works that did not make it into the syllabus remained accessible to all, along with all recordings and notes as the tidemarks of our thought processes, questions, and frustrations.

The Syllabus and the Course

Elizabeth, as the person recognized—and remunerated—as professor of record, took over at this point and created a syllabus. She attempted to capture the messiness of the process by which the drive was created, while also crafting a document to guide those who took the course, who had differing degrees of experience with anthropology and who might or might not have participated in the summer work.

The resulting syllabus (History of Anthropological Thought) in its Fall 2023 iteration included some marvelous things found through the summer research, such as a 1938 undergraduate thesis on tap dance’s Black origins (Marion Jr. 1938), B.R. Ambedkar’s Columbia University courses in 1916, an MA thesis about Godfrey Wilson, Zacharia Mawere, and their Bemba informants in Broken Hill, (then) Northern Rhodesia (Mbewe 2015), and Frederick Douglass’s 1854 address “The Claims of the Negro Ethnologically Considered.” It also included so-called “canonical” texts from E.B. Tylor, Bronislaw Malinowski, and Franz Boas, now read in a broader and messier context, where the questions we posed at the start (who gets to speak? what is theory?) were already being discussed, if not always in the way we expected. See syllabus here:

We also aimed to attend to world anthropologies, reading José Carlos Mariátegui, the Peruvian Marxist philosopher; S. M. Shirokogoroff, the Russian anthropologist who lived in China for more than a decade; and Fei Xiaotong (alternative spelling: Fei Hsiao-tung), who studied with Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown.

As we engaged with classic anthropological theory, folklore, oral stories, speeches, dance, and film, each emerged as a key site for theory-making. Expanding the corpus of texts allowed us to recognize the knowledge of those who have traditionally occupied “interlocutor” status within anthropology. Through discussing Jean Price Mars’ discussion of the African roots of vodou in So Spoke the Uncle ([1990 [1928]) alongside Maggie Wilson’s stories in Rainy River Lives (Cole 2009), folklore and storytelling emerged as pivotal forms of knowledge production and theorization. In watching excerpts of Katherine Dunham’s ethnographic films from Haiti and the Caribbean in tandem with her choreographed, stage performances, we learned how a theoretical and political stance can be made through performance.

We did not treat historic works as static or complete, but as places for further elaboration and conversation. Encountering the works of Miguel Covarrubias (Lutkehaus 2020), we examined the methodological and social implications of drawing and caricature as ethnographic method. To what extent do these illustrations “other” their subject? To what extent would it unsettle disciplinary biases towards the “neutrality” of the written word, and the perceived impartiality of the ethnographer, if we considered these works as canonical?

And, we discovered we were better able to appreciate classic texts, such as Malinowski’s Coral Gardens and their Magic (2013 [1935]), and the disciplinary shifts they enacted. Malinowski’s work, while previously, sometimes, feeling quite removed from our own, (and bearing in mind the author’s prejudices as an irascible Polish aristocrat, not much older at the time of his 1910s fieldwork than are many members of our collective) began to feel more approachable, even reflexive, particularly in his Appendix to Volume I, “Confessions of Ignorance and Failure.” We could then more easily apprehend the remarkable detail, sympathy, and political import of his analysis of Trobriand gardening expertise, cosmology, and social life.

The syllabus was messy and incomplete, and we suffered from a chronic sense of not having enough time. However, we read and viewed many, many things we wouldn’t have otherwise seen and combined them in productive if not always comfortable ways. Each of us saw pathways for further inquiry and conversation in the future.

The course opened the door for acknowledging forms of theorization that have traditionally been devalued within our discipline. The course and collective also expanded our understanding of the possibilities of theory on a deeper level and encouraged us to think creatively about how to connect these historical works to our own research.


A syllabus, and the course of which it is an iteration, is a kind of archive. As such, to invoke Michel-Rolph Trouillot, it is a staging-ground for a dialectic of silences and mentions at four distinct moments: “The moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making of history) in the final instance” (1997, 26).

Our summer collective and fall course allowed us to examine each of these moments and sift through our own partialities, complicities, and capacities in relation to them. This was, arguably, more than any finished product, the most successful aspect of the project. Our contribution to the discipline-wide project of decanonizing anthropology is, then, a collective process that aims, with curiosity and determination, to begin to uncover silences in the archive at multiple points in the process of constructing, teaching, and taking a course.

We might productively come to consider our own pedagogical and educational moves through time as “spirals” in their own right. With every iteration of a course, we return not to a static place, but to a dynamic position. For this reason, we end with an invitation to further exploration. Our syllabus collective was one possible iteration of such a “decanonizing” experiment, and we welcome the possibility of many more.


The authors would like to thank Medha Asthana, Laurel Carpenter, Victoria Khagani, Sarah Lamb, Kimberly Pate, Ellen Schattschneider, Barbara Strauss, and Sebastian Wood for their ideas, participation, editing, and other support.


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DeFreitas, Susan. 2021. “Not a Circle, Not a Line: Le Guin’s Long View of the West.” Oregon Humanities, December 15.

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