Why Is the Bolsonaro Government Afraid of Anthropology?

From the Series: Bolsonaro and the Unmaking of Brazil

Photo by Fernando Piva/ADUNICAMP. "Amerindian Scholars from Unicamp (State University of Campinas) against budget cuts in education." Student rally against Bolsonaro (Campinas-SP, May 2019).

And, as Cotton Mather, the famous witch hunter from Salem, Massachusetts, once said, “What’s not useful is evil.”
—Vandana Shiva, Monocultura da mente, 2002

We live in dark times in Brazil. Current government policies seek to dismantle the country’s scientific institutions. This essay addresses the attack that sectors of government have made on the human sciences, and on anthropology in particular, by asking: What threats do these fields of knowledge present to the government and its supporters?

In assuming the position of minister of education, Abraham Weintraub stated that he would give priority to “those areas that generate an immediate return to the taxpayer” and added, “I am not against the study of philosophy . . . But imagine a family of small farmers whose son enters college and four years later, comes back with a diploma in anthropology? I think he would be more useful for himself and for his community if he was a veterinarian, a dentist . . .” (Cafardo 2019).

The transformative power of the human sciences can be attributed to its critical tradition, but in the Brazilian case we can add one more aspect to this more general equation. According to figures from the National Institute for Educational Research, Brazil’s sociology and philosophy courses have 1 person of African descent for every 3 to 4 whites, while in the medical and veterinary areas the ratio is 1 to 16. The struggle of Brazil’s black movements for space and power seems to have been more successful in the humanities, which today recognizes the importance of other perspectives. Anthropology, traditionally interested in different social forms, has radically transformed itself with the contribution of indigenous and African Brazilians, who have made places for themselves in these disciplines and are making their voices heard in new critical reflections regarding our nation.

Weintraub makes certain assumptions in his speech that need to be dismantled. First of all, he employs an understanding of “utility” that is associated with a particular sort of project of economic and social development, which takes consumption as its primary orientation. Secondly, he includes in this a judgement as to who should be free to choose what they should study, and who must choose in response to the impositions of supposed pragmatic need. Third, Weintraub demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge about the contributions of the human and social sciences to the organization of society in the formulation of public policies, the fight against inequality, the support of democracy, among other things—including its aid to the new industrial revolution currently underway in the world.

Recognizing and proposing alliances that stretch beyond the division between “hard” and “soft” sciences, various analysts and others engaged in the 4th Industrial Revolution have highlighted the importance of anthropology, philosophy, and psychology to this new economic transformation. These are strategic fields of knowledge employed in improving algorithms and increasing automation. The new industrial revolution heralds the substitution of algorithmic legal, medical, and field practitioners, posing us with ethical dilemmas. In this new world, thinking about how we think and intervene in future decisions and planning is becoming increasingly critical. The forms of knowledge produced by the social sciences are in urgent demand in order to better map out what we want as a society and as humanity in general, as well as what we will tolerate and how far we will go towards complete mechanization.

But Weintraub’s specific attack on anthropology as being uneconomical may not seem unreasonable, since it is the science that most famously critiques economic reductionisms, in both their liberal and Marxist forms. Just to mention the anthropological classics, we have Marcel Mauss’s (2003) work on gift economies and Mary Douglas’s (2007) elaborations regarding the communicative function of goods, which take economic exchange beyond its strictly utilitarian and commercial character. To these classics we can add a growing list of thinkers and researchers who have sharpened anthropology’s critique of utilitarianism, alerting us to where developmentalism seems to be taking us. Among these we can highlight the indigenous Brazilian thinker Ailton Krenak (2019), whose work questions the understanding and practices that situate the forest and its beings as merely resources (or obstacles). From another perspective, Anna Tsing (2015) critiques the movement of capital, which entangles us in ideas of progress, and the spread of alienation techniques that objectifies humans and other beings. Interest in these alternative narratives is rooted in efforts to de-anthropocentralize human thought, and particularly to de-center that subject who has advocated for himself the place of generic humanity: the Euro-American white man. The task pursued by anthropological research engaged in highlighting ontological multiplicity is to make our ears sensitive to the voices of materiality, practices, animals, plants, and all other silenced (non)human beings.

If, on the one hand, we can argue for the usefulness of the humanities and anthropology, on the other, we must acknowledge their non-utility as a form of radical resistance to the utilitarian project aligned with economic reductionist values.

Recent work confronts, imagines, and reveals other possibilities for humans and the world that is increasingly in crisis in the face of neoliberalism, stressing support of what John Law (2015) calls “one-world world metaphysics,” which is catastrophic for good postcolonial encounters.

Betting on slow science, as Isabelle Stengers (2005) suggests, may set us against a simplistic and deterministic notion of progress and developmentalism, contrary to which we proffer out uselessness. We must be touched by other perspectives, such as that of indigenous thinker David Kopenawa, who summarizes the existence of the Western world in the following terrible words: “[Whites] are always impatient and fearful of not getting their jobs done in time or of being fired. . . . They live without joy and grow old busy, with empty thoughts, and always wishing to acquire new goods" (Kopenawa and Albert 2015, 436).

An attack on anthropology is underway precisely because certain groups and people fear its potential to allow for the emergence of other possible worlds, for recognizing utilities other than those committed to the market, to multinational corporations, and to certain families that concentrate capital and power. Let us then raise the flag of anthropological uselessness! In response to Minister Weintraub regarding what one can do with a degree in anthropology, let us suggest the following: to affirm the importance of the sciences, seeking to guarantee their place and legitimacy in a neoliberal world that is heading toward obscurantism through growing anti-scientificism.


Cafardo, Renata. 2019. “Bolsonaro diz que MEC estuda tirar dinheiro de áreas de humanas.” Estadão, April 26.

Douglas, Mary. 2007. “O mundo dos bens, vinte anos depois.” Horizontes antropológicos 13, no. 28: 17–32.

Kopenawa, Davi, and Bruce Albert. 2015. A queda do céu: Palavras de um xamã yanomami. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras.

Krenak, Ailton. 2019. Ideias para adiar o fim do mundo. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras.

Law, John. 2015. “What’s Wrong with a One-World World?Distinktion: Journal of Social Theory 16, no. 1: 126–39.

Mauss, Marcel. 2003. Sociologia e Antropologia. São Paulo: Cosac Naify.

Shiva, Vandana. 2002. Monocultura da mente. São Paulo: Gaia.

Stengers, Isabelle. 2005. “The Cosmo-political Proposal.” In Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, 994–1003. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. “The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.