Introduction: From Reciprocity to Relationality

From the Series: From Reciprocity to Relationality: Anthropological Possibilities

Photo by Mattias Givell.

On June 11, 2018, I was—as I always am during the North American academic summer—in Papua New Guinea, where I do anthropological work that includes research, teaching, and collaboration around community-led conservation projects. Late that night, amid some travel-related insomnia, I turned to Facebook and was surprised by a post on a friend’s profile that referenced an open letter of apology by one of the founders of the journal HAU. The letter made vague references to the mistreatment of, and even physical violence toward, people connected to the journal. The letter infuriated me, because I saw it as the kind of equivocation in which scholars tend to engage when they don’t want to admit their own role in ongoing forms of oppression and dispossession. So, as one does today in our hot-take, social media–saturated world, I took to Twitter to vent.

Over the course of the next days and weeks, as more information about the journal and its practices came to light, multiple conversations about the journal emerged on various social media platforms. In my reading of things, older and more established scholars (for example, people with tenure or stable tenure-track positions) took to Facebook where they had long debates about who knew what when and who at HAU was to blame. They also debated the credibility of the claims against the journal and its editor. On Twitter, younger and more precariously positioned scholars (for example, graduate students, faculty in unstable, term, and adjunct positions, and scholars of color) used the events at HAU to ask much more expansive questions about the future of anthropology and the ongoing conditions of racism, sexism, elitism, and violence in the field. In other words, the scholars on Twitter used this series of events to ask about power: who wields it in anthropology, and how that has and has not changed since the discipline’s inception.1

During the next few months, this latter group of scholars issued a series of calls for a rethinking of the field of anthropology writ large, much of it gathered around the Twitter hashtags #HAUtalk and #RefuseHAU. These calls asked for senior scholars to weigh in on the HAU situation and to think through the intersection of the following issues: decolonization; the #MeToo movement; labor precarity in the academy; academic racism; academic sexism; scholarly elitism; bias against LGBTQI scholars; open-access publishing; and the role of anthropology in our current global social, ecological, and political turmoil. These scholars openly challenged those of us who are older, tenured, and more often than not, white, to engage in a substantive conversation about the past, present, and future of the field. Their calls for engagement and dialogue were not, I am afraid, met warmly by many of the more senior members of our discipline.

For me, the most powerful statement about HAU as a project came from the Mahi Tahi collective, a group of scholars in Aotearoa/New Zealand who work to examine the relationship between Māori and anthropology. These scholars asked HAU’s editorial board about the initial appropriation, without consultation with Māori communities and scholars, of the Māori concept of hau; its current misappropriation as a kind of marking tool for the journal; and how members of HAU’s staff and editorial board had and had not engaged with the actual Indigenous meaning and understanding of the concept. They also asked how the journal might, “in the spirit of genuine reciprocity,” foster relations with Māori moving forward.

This was the moment when I stepped back and began to think, based on the Mahi Tahi collective’s use of the term reciprocity and my own understanding—as a white woman scholar of the Pacific who is not from the Pacific—about my own sense of anthropology and its reciprocities. It was also at about this time that the editors of Cultural Anthropology reached out to me to ask if I would edit a series of short essays about the HAU situation. I agreed to do so if the journal’s editors would allow me to broaden the call for contributions to focus less on HAU and more on the substantive questions about power and anthropology raised by scholars like Hilary Agro, Savannah Martin, Dick Powis, and Zoe Todd, as well as many, many, others.

I see anthropology as enmeshed in reciprocity and nonreciprocity in at least four ways, and thinking about the field in this way has allowed me to come to some answers to the questions about power brought to the fore by these scholars. First, anthropology is a set of reciprocal and nonreciprocal conversations, debates, and practices with specific genealogies. Second, the field is a set of reciprocal and nonreciprocal epistemic practices. Third, it is a set of reciprocal and nonreciprocal social relations that span various contextual situations, from research to teaching and mentoring to being members of anthropology departments to being members of professional organizations (see West 2016). And finally, anthropology is a form of labor or work (see West 2005) that should be ethically grounded in an understanding of the political economy of academic institutions.

The anthropological conversations from which I learn most and in which I seek to take part in are ones that take it as axiomatic that the discipline’s history—and more often than anthropologists like to admit, many of its current practices—have worked to constitute the conditions of possibility for colonialism, settler colonialism, conquest, and both past and present dispossessions. These conversations also begin from the recognition that many of the foundational concepts in anthropology, concepts like reciprocity, were taken from Indigenous peoples and used by European scholars to lay the groundwork of the field with little or no return to Indigenous communities. For example, the Māori concept of hau, taken and used by Marcel Mauss in The Gift, became the foundation for the entire field of economic anthropology and for a generation of Euro-American anthropologists who wrote about reciprocity without, for the most part, working in reciprocal ways with living Māori scholars to distinguish Mauss’s limited understanding of the term from the term’s complex Māori meanings (Stewart 2017). In the face of these decidedly nonreciprocal anthropological foundations, the scholars whose work I value, teach, and draw upon are moving forward by learning from the scholarship and work of Black, Indigenous, and non–Euro-American scholars to try and foster new conversations, which both work to redress previous dispossessions and to create and strengthen new forms of reciprocal collaboration.

One of the issues that the HAU scandal brought to the fore for me was the journal’s role in a kind of re-entrenchment of an anthropological canon (and its corresponding forms of knowledge production) that the scholars with whom I engage have been working against for decades. Early on, HAU’s editors argued that they were attempting to return to a kind of anthropology that centered theory derived from ethnography, and yet what they actually did was to privilege certain genealogies of knowledge that predated the groundbreaking, field-changing feminist, Indigenous, Black, and LGBTQI inroads into the academic establishment from the mid-1970s to the present. Like Marty McFly, the journal went back in time before the now-in-the-process-of-decolonizing field of anthropology as I, most of my colleagues, and all of my graduate students know and practice it, was born. In the process, it made anthropological theory from the 1950s, 60s, and early 1970s seem cool and important again. This re-entrenchment also took us back in time in terms of whose work is seen as canonical. At a time when, in the United States at least (and, I suspect, elsewhere too), about 63 percent of all new PhDs in anthropology are earned by women, HAU returned to a time when the anthropological canon was produced, debated, and performed by men to the near exclusion of women scholars.

This re-entrenchment of that older canon also, in seeming contradiction of the stated desire to foster ethnographically based theory as an alternative to the tendency to use European philosophical arguments to contextualize and explain ethnographic materials, coincided with a fixation on a very narrow subset of contemporary European philosophy to the almost total exclusion of references to philosophical work being done by the former subjects of anthropological research. That fixation shone through the pages of HAU like a blinding beacon of academic elitism and privilege. HAU helped direct the field of anthropology toward a narrower and narrower set of acceptable conceptual and theoretical frames, all of which are genealogically linked to the history of nonreciprocity that I reference above.

But the re-entrenchment and fixation I am describing did more than that. It also worked (and continues to work) to limit the possibilities for anthropology as a mode of understanding the world and producing knowledge about the world. If we as a field continue to seek to understand and explain the multifaceted global present with reference only to the past (that old canon) or the work of, for example, French philosophers of emergence, we run the risk of not only producing knowledge that has little or no connection to how people living those global presents experience the world, but also—again—producing an anthropology that is inaccessible to the people with whom we work. In its inaccessibility, this version of anthropology is utterly nonreciprocal.

Why is it that we tend, when faced with critiques of structural power in our field, to start by privileging our own experiences and not by asking ourselves: what have I done to produce structural changes in anthropology such that others won’t have to face the abuses of the past?

The events surrounding HAU’s moment in the social media spotlight also raised questions about how we treat others as humans within the various social relationships that are possible in anthropology. Initially, they made me think about the multiple times I have been verbally or psychologically abused by senior scholars including, when I was a graduate student at Rutgers, by scholars from more prestigious anthropology departments. They made me think about the various abuses of my labor that took place when I was a junior, untenured woman. They made me think about the sexual harassment to which I was subject as an undergraduate, a graduate student, and at professional meetings. But then, thanks to the work of those smart scholars on Twitter, I stopped centering myself and thought about why it is that we tend, when faced with critiques of structural power in our field, to start by privileging our own experiences and not by asking ourselves: what have I done to produce structural changes in anthropology such that others won’t have to face the abuses of the past? I believe that the editors of Cultural Anthropology had this very question in mind when they asked me to edit this series.

After the editors contacted me, I reached out to twenty-three anthropologists to invite them to respond to the following question:

In the wake of #HAUtalk and in the face of conversations and debates about decolonization; the #MeToo movement; academic precarity; academic racism, sexism, and elitism; the horrifying state of the planet today; and open-access publishing, what kind of anthropology do you see as important and relevant for the future of the field and the future of training students?

I invited contributions from anthropologists whom I respect as scholars, teachers, mentors, and most importantly, as human beings: people whose work I read and engage in my own work, who I teach in my classes, who I work with in the context of professional organizations, and some of whom I consider friends. They represent some of the range of scholars who call themselves anthropologists, although the group is not fully representative in any way. Some of the scholars that I invited to contribute who could not take part represent constituencies that are not otherwise represented in the series, and I wish we could have heard their perspectives as well.

All of the scholars I asked to contribute are what we might call mid-career: people who are in the center of their working lives, with some perspective on both what it means to be a student and what it means to train students; who have had sustained experience of the field of anthropology as a profession and a form of labor; and who have another twenty or so years of working as anthropologists in front of them. The contributors represent a range of perspectives and opinions, and not all of them agree with me or with each other. Each of them, however, works in their essay to think about how we move forward. And each of the essays are meant to reply with love to those scholars who, on Twitter and in blog posts, challenged people like me—people in positions of power with privilege—to work harder to make anthropology a better field.


1. For a rundown of these exchanges that is easily accessible to those who are not on Twitter, see this document.


Stewart, Georgina. 2017. “The ‘Hau’ of Research: Mauss Meets Kaupapa Māori.” Journal of World Philosophies 2, no. 1.

West, Paige. 2005. “Holding the Story Forever: The Aesthetics of Ethnographic Labor.” Anthropological Forum 15, no. 3: 267–75.

_____. 2016. Dispossession and the Environment: Rhetoric and Inequality in Papua New Guinea. New York: Columbia University Press.