The Limitations and Liberatory Potential of Feminist Anthropology (Part One)

In light of their important and timely article, “Toward a Fugitive Anthropology: Gender, Race, and Violence in the Field,” published in Cultural Anthropology, AFA invited authors Maya J. Berry, Claudia Chávez Argüelles, Shanya Cordis, Sarah Ihmoud, and Elizabeth Velásquez Estrada to continue the conversation around decolonizing activist anthropology by centering the embodied experiences of black, brown, and indigenous (queer) women.

Posing questions that interrogate the legacies of white heteropatriarchy in anthropology and through discussion of their own experiences in the field, they propose “a critical feminist activist anthropology that holds us politically accountable to our interlocutors as well as our own embodied reality, as part of the same liberatory struggle, albeit differentially located along the continuum of black and indigenous liberation.”

In this two part series, we asked the authors for their reflections on both the limitations and liberatory potentials of feminist anthropology in addressing racialized-sexualized-gendered violence in anthropological (activist) research.


Shanya Cordis

Emerging somewhat predictably following the explosion of #MeToo has been a corresponding backlash surrounding the excesses of the movement. Most troubling about this logic of excess is the conflation of sexual violence with sexuality, and the ostensibly opaque and indeterminate notion of consent (and refusal). This rhetoric decries the parallel slippery slopes of legibility  and accountability for cases of sexual harassment and rape as constantly adjusting goalposts, conflating  gender violence with the presumably innocent, albeit clumsy, attempts to  navigate sexual flirtation and propositions. However, such conflation cripples our ability to have nuanced discussions around sexual autonomy and consent. Saidiya Hartman has outlined how notions of pleasure and subjection converge at the site of the black female body during slavery and its aftermath, a libidinal economy which continues to structure the present (Hartman 1997). Her work reminds us that (de)constructing consent is necessary if we are to create spaces of erotic power and healing love, which cannot occur within a colonial cisnormative paradigm that merely situates consent as the prevention of potential (and inevitable) violence. Current endeavors to make sense of/make legible cases of sexual violence within capitalist logic (redress as expulsion from capitalist participation) not only obfuscate the need to decolonize consent (Deer 2016) and transcend the binary of “male” predators and “female” victims, but also circumscribe  generative conversations about the relations of power between and among genders, and our investments in and complicity with patriarchy.

Focus on the cisheteropatriarchal and settler carceral state as both the arbitrator of gender and sexual violence and the ultimate site of redress effaces black and indigenous feminist critiques that have constantly marked how gender violence is constitutive of how the state functions. Institutions of the state, and efforts to be recognized through its logics, will not save us. Our respective experiences of sexual violence within the embedded patriarchal, gendered, and racial logics of “fieldwork,” crystallized this point, leading us to shift our attention toward carving spaces of flight, of fugitivity, grounded in an ethos of spiritual, affective, and collective care. Similarly, refusing, and refusal of, the permissible and legible parameters of the movement as framed by the current “patriarchal lash” is necessary to create reciprocal recognition and more just politics of care and redress.

Sarah Ihmoud

Sexual assault is widespread not only in the “field,” but also at “home,” including the complex “home” we have within academic institutions that continue to uphold racial and sexual logics that devalue our bodies, lives, and the oppositional knowledges we produce as feminist anthropologists. One of the most important contributions of feminist anthropology in my view, following a longer historical trajectory of woman of color and third world feminisms, has been ascribing value to the researcher’s embodied experiences in “the field” as knowledge, as a living, breathing “theory in the flesh” (Moraga and Anzaldua 1981).  The feminist intervention that the personal and autobiographical should be considered ethnographic knowledge (e.g., Visweswaran 1994) means that our bodies and our stories matter. Our truths matter, and we can be powerful agents of change when we organize around these truths, a pedagogy Bianca Williams calls “radical honesty” (2016). Addressing sexual assault as embedded within larger structures of power that continue to shape not only the field but also the discipline as a whole requires taking the embodied experiences of researchers seriously, and drawing on these experiences as the basis for a radical reimagining of our methods, training and praxis as anthropologists—the very ethos that drives who we are and the work that we do.

What would this reimagining look like? In our article, we call for a “fugitive anthropology,” a praxis that begins to think through this question with the insights of black and indigenous feminisms, our predecessors in feminist anthropology, and critically, with each other. I hope that readers will walk away from our article seeing not only the seeds of a feminist theoretical horizon for further advancing the project of decolonizing anthropology, but, perhaps more critically, the way in which we choose to walk together on this path. The pain each of us has experienced as a result of our different positionalities navigating regimes of gendered and racial violence, and within the discipline of anthropology, urged us to come together and think through these difficult questions, to nurture each other and to create loving bonds of sisterhood that continue to propel our writing and organizing against violence. This, too, is theory in the flesh—this disavowal of a violent heteropatriarchal academic culture that brutalizes us through narrow expectations of individualized performance, productivity, and “professionalism,” through racism, sexism and shame, at the expense of our health and well-being. We must choose otherwise. We must choose each other. We must shift our ideas of what is possible in imagining otherwise for the future of anthropology.

 Emily de Wet and Julia Kowalski are contributing editors for the Association for Feminist Anthropology’s news column. If you would like to contribute to this conversation or on other topics concerning Feminist Anthropology, contact us at [email protected] and/or [email protected].

Cite as: Cordis, Shanya,  and Sarah Ihmoud. 2018. “Reflections on the Limitations and Liberatory Potential of Feminist Anthropology (Part One).” Anthropology News website, May 4, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1060

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