For more, including regular updates and additions,
see the Zero Anthropology Project

“Anthropology will survive in a changing world by allowing itself to perish in order to be born again under a new guise.”Claude Lévi-Strauss, quoted in Lewis (1973: 586).

Anthropology “is a discipline that should strive for its own liquidation.”Johannes Fabian (1991: 262).

[there are] the general questions of anthropology, which exist irrespective of anthropology departments. In fact, I would consider that all human beings are anthropologists….It’s very possible that anthropology departments will disappear, there’s no reason why they should continue existing. – Maurice Bloch, 2008.

“It is not easy to escape mentally from a concrete situation, to refuse its ideology while continuing to live with its actual relationships.”Albert Memmi (1967: 20).

“Anthropology needs its own anthropology if it is to be more than a mere epiphenomenon of larger societal processes”Jonathan Friedman (1994: 42).

Anthropology: a room filled with white people, talking about non-white people. Maximilian C. Forte (2009).

Version 1.5 (30 September 2009)

ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY in its most basic sense is a project of decolonization, growing out of a discipline with a long history and a deep epistemological connection to colonialism. The aim is to transform anthropology into something that is neither Eurocentric nor elitist. The inspiration behind this effort was the New World Movement (click this, that, and the other). It is an attempt to redefine the craft of anthropology into one guided and inspired by decolonization movements and by the struggles of indigenous peoples, Africans in the Americas, and various elements of anarchism. The preferred medium for this effort is the Internet and a mixture of media within the Internet.

ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY arises from a dissatisfaction with the state of knowledge in contemporary and classical anthropology, and is meant to significantly restructure and move anthropology beyond its current confines, beyond the constraints of professionalization and institutionalization, transcending the very “disciplinariness” of a discipline that has often foundered on its own shoals since its inception as “anthropology.” ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY does not merely speak of the demise of the Old Anthropology (that is, the classical and contemporary, professional and institutional), nor is it another attempt to “recapture” or “rethink” anthropology. Moreover, the consistent angst of the old discipline is not something to be inherited; where there was insecurity, defensiveness, and depression, we will instead opt for excitement, passion, and enthusiasm.

ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY is about unthinking anthropology altogether, getting past it, while pursuing certain avenues of inquiry that resemble what has been developed in some quarters of the old discipline, freely combined with elements of history, philosophy, the fine arts, political economy, literature, sociology, cultural studies, media studies, communication studies, area studies, and ethnic studies. Ultimately, and in the long term, “anthropology” may no longer be a fitting label for such an endeavor, or, it could encompass and redefine all of the social sciences and humanities, in a post-disciplinary era to come.

ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY is also about opening up anthropology in two ways: by encouraging academic engagement in social transformation beyond the walls of the university while working on the transformation of university practices with respect the production of knowledge; and, by opening up the discipline to the broader, independent, non-institutional forms of anthropology that already exist in the world. The idea is neither to attempt to “go native,” nor to bring “the native” back home for inspection and familiarization, but to restructure the epistemologies and practices of institutional anthropology so that it can act as a conduit for ways of thinking, knowing, and being that have currently only been objects of study.

If anthropology claimed the world for study by Europeans and Americans, ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY is (also) about “the world” reclaiming anthropological knowledge for its own self-understanding, self-expression, and self-identification, or better yet, recognizing that it always had “anthropological” knowledge of its own.


ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY roots itself in the following principles:

  • Transdisciplinary fusions: an end to disciplinary confinement, and an openness to the other social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences, in a way that helps to erode the structures of knowledge instituted in 19th century Europe. Hence, it locates itself within the Open the Social Sciences “movement.”
  • Respecting difference: a critique of the hierarchy of knowledge expressed in the dichotomies of professional vs. lay, scientific vs. folk, emic vs. etic, and so forth. In other words, a new openness to otherness in its own terms. Most importantly, to respect difference in the face of, and in deliberate spite of Eurocentric cultural imperialism, neo-liberal cosmopolitanism, and various other Western imposed manifestations of universalism that work to heighten Westerners’ sense of self worth while diminishing that of others. This is especially critical at a time when new narratives of savagism have regained considerable ground in Western mass media and official commentary.
  • Selective Collaboration: knowledge production that is fully collaborative, integrative, that lays bare the bases of its own production, that is conscious of itself as knowledge, and that constantly incorporates thinking of its own knowledge production as part and parcel of the process of knowledge production; and engaging with partners in a consensual remixing and commentary on each other’s productions.
  • Disturbance and confrontation: actively seeking out and engaging other persons and groups, especially non-anthropologists and non-academics, to confront and challenge the contemporary reproduction of imperialism and colonialism.
  • Open source ethnographies: this is about ethnographic ways of seeing, thinking and approaching public, online cultural artefacts and interactive commentaries, that are not elicited or brought to light by a researcher. In other words, it is about working with and commenting on materials that were primarily designed for public consumption, that were not excavated by the researcher and then revealed to wider audiences. In line with the previous principle, it can also involve making use of media and government materials online, and deliberately reshaping them in acts of resistance that invert institutional goals and reveal their hidden meanings and aims.

Clearly ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY is not a project conceived by someone who wishes to be either a guardian or defender of the discipline, nor is it an attempt to demand, instruct, or admonish anthropologists into following a new agenda, or to pursue a new menu of topical inquiries. This project is also not about doing service for anthropology in innovating it, remodeling it, or redecorating it to make it more palatable to wider audiences.

ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY was developed on this site by Maximilian Forte with a wide range of partners, sometimes working together in private, and sometimes only in seemingly small and almost invisible ways on this site. At different times, and in different categories, the material presented will appear to be slim, underdeveloped, disjointed, and fragmented–which is not a problem since this blog is meant to present ideas as they are being developed, designed to elicit feedback from peers (fellow travelers and the wider public).

ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY is not here to “satisfy” diverse and competing interests. Some will be left unmoved, and some will become angry. There is room enough for all of us. This project is not one that is in search of converts and disciples.

The obvious difficulty in producing this site is that it attempts to do what it attempts to research, simultaneously. It is the non-practical research of a practice, and the practice of research that is still being conceived.


ZA Music: The chantwells infusing the spirit of this site are 3-Canal and Kobo•Town.

ZA VIDEOS: A collection of videos has been and continues to be developed to accompany, support, and deepen this site. Videos include poetry readings, music, documentaries, movies, speeches, lectures, and animations. The site of that collection is, or better yet: ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY TV.



This is not a Concordia University website, and is not intended to represent anyone or any unit of the university.

41 Responses “THE PROJECT” →
  1. I really appreciate your OPEN blog and your OPEN mind and ideas.
    And I thank you for the link to my blog. I’ll surely continue reading yours.

  2. I wold like to follow on my collegue’s aknowledge as your linking onto our blogs is concerned. Thank tou. Our somewhat perpheric portuguese anthropology is aimed to reach the international plateau and this blogging experience surely gives a hand to it. In the future we’ll try to post also in english in order to allow the dialogue.
    P.S. : please forgive my poor english

  3. Dr (Mrs) UpalaBarua

    18 June 2008

    I have found today what I was searching for since 18 years of teaching Anthropology.

  4. Thank you for visiting, Dr. Upala Barua, I would love to hear more from you.

  5. Nicky Bolland

    14 July 2008

    I have been studying anthropology in the dark for 3 years…i think you just turned on the light.

  6. Thanks very much Nicky, it will be a pleasure to hear more from you.

  7. in particular, appreciate the attunement to human terrain and matters (or the matter) of military materialism.

    look forward to more form you.


  8. Thanks very much Neil, it’s a pleasure to have you visit.

  9. Firstly I would like to thank Maximilian for this inciative (Open Anthropology) which is very intelectuall stimulating for me, and I hope we can establish dialog besides difference.

    It’s really interesting. I’m familiar with vision of anthropology which no doubt can agree with [3]OPEN ACESS and [4]OPEN SOURCES…
    but not with [1] OPEN BORDERS and [2]OPEN MIND but only WHEN this both last are formulated in the way presented in this project.

    Here, I present my arguments against [1]&[2] (as they are formulated in this blog) shortly.

    ad 1. There is no open border without awareness of border. (in no formal words – what is “noise”, is this open border?)

    ad2. There is no open mind without precision, because without precison we can’t understand, and when we can’t understand we perceive “folk”, “etic” or “native point of view” as something worse (as tradition of anthropology shows)

    What I want to say en general is that, I can imagine anthropology which is criticising itself, which is precising itself, which is comprehensible and which is part of interdisciplinary scientific reflection about human. This anthropology have awarennes about europocentric strain of modern science and this anthropology is wonderfull in this sense that is gaining knowledge according to the rules of this science but this knowledge is crticising europocentric background of this science.

    But criticising europocentric background of modern science dosn’t means at once that the methodology of science (the way of gaining konwledge which anthropology was created) is wrong! Science isn’t only the way of making war (in Foucault’s ideas sens) but firstly is a method of gaining kowledge. Science is a tool. Tools aren’t good or bad itself.

    I can imagine anthropology which is OPEN BOARD, OPEN MIND OPEN ACESS and OPEN SOURCE but at once is still humanistic sicence ofering valuable interpretation about human. Valuable for me, means that this interpretation make that we don’t perceive “folk”, “etic”, “native poin’t of view” as something worse.
    Pushing anthropology in “everything goes” way isn’t the only way of reactions on “dissatisfaction with the state of knowledge in contemporary and classical anthropology”, I believe.

    I’m going develope this ideas, Thank you Maximilian!

  10. Thank you! That was a very insightful message, and it also gave me a chance to learn about your own blog, so I benefited twice from your message. You make a number of excellent points here, and clearly I got myself stuck in between a number of contradictions that I wish to surpass. I agree with your views on science, I wish others would too, although I confess that I am not driven by any need to claim science as a defining label for my project, because “science” is usually deployed in negative relation to “folk”, “emic”, “native poin’t of view” (which I strongly agree with you, are not something worse). If everyone agreed that the opposite of science was ignorance, and not native points of view, the arts and humanities, then certainly I would feel happier about calling this a scientific project. Unfortunately, the idea of science has been imperialized, and we can either work to liberate it, which will consume fantastic energy, or just get on with what we really want to do.

    Anyway, these are just my quick initial thoughts, you have given me a lot to think about so don’t be surprised if my thinking moves on from here.

    Thanks again for that great input, much appreciated.

    PS: Paweł , you are the only Polish anthropologist I have met in any sense, and only the second one I have ever heard about after Malinowski. Your English is very strong, and my Polish is nonexistent, which is very sad.

  11. Dear Prof Maximilian!

    Thank you for yours positive perception of my comment. It make me happy because beside ostensible differences, I think that ours visions of social sciences have a lots of common (this conviction was growing up as quickly as I was acquainting with your blog, whole afternoon :-).

    My english is very WEAK (especially writing)… I know that polish anthropology doesn’t exist beyond Poland :-(…but I had pleasure run across great teachers of anthropology in my Institute. Despite that science in Poland have a lot of backlog (after communism) they give us posibility to great intellectual work!…but I need to confront all my thoughts with other ideas… that’s why I decided to overcome my afraids about my english and start to blogging…

    What about Malinowski :-) Against most of polish anthropologist I’m not big fun of his work…I think that much more interesting persons was Layard or Deacon (whom I dedicated my blog). If anthropology has been developed theirs ideas of fieldwork (not Malinowski’s) our history of anthropology could to appear different, today!

    Sorry for my english, but is very late hour in poland now :-)
    Thanks again.

  12. Thanks very much Paweł, it was a pleasure to have you visit again, and don’t apologize for your English, I can understand you very well I believe.

  13. DeHouser

    15 May 2009

    Dr. Forte,
    I consider myself priviledged to have attended your talk today at CASCA, on the UBC campus. By way of introduction, I commented on your notions of ‘useless anthropology’ and how members of my family had similar views, albeit for enitirely different reasons. Open Anthroplogy is, and will continue to be, a strong and positive influence on the discipline, its adherents, the disaffected, the afflicted, and the unequal.
    Thank you for unleashing this virtual juggernaut.

  14. Thanks very much,

    sorry that it took so long for your comment to appear, I only just got back and had no access to the blog while away. Your comments are very kind, much appreciated, and it was a pleasure to meet you.

  15. Angela Glaros

    26 May 2009

    Thanks for this wonderful blog! When I was in my masters program at UW-Milwaukee, I recall my advisor talking about “open anthropology” and was not entirely sure what he meant. But after reading your principles and reflecting on his work, I see that this was it. I am now in the midst of writing my dissertation on gender and “traditional” music on the Greek island of Skyros and I see that everything–in my own research and in the politics of the academy–turns on what counts as knowledge and who counts as a knower. I am very interested in thinking past the traditional boundaries of knowledge — academic, musical, and otherwise. Looking forward to learning more!

  16. Thanks very much Angela, your visit and message are both much appreciated. Coincidentally, there is yet another take on “open anthropology” by a Japanese anarchist/artist/anthropologist who tells me that his course title translates as “Lectures in Open Anthropology,” and that shares some of the same interests and principles as this blog. You can see more at:


    Very best wishes for your dissertation, I hope you will be in touch again.

  17. Stacie

    25 June 2009

    I was really glad to find this comment: “Moreover, the consistent angst of the old discipline is not something to be inherited; where there was insecurity, defensiveness, and depression, we will instead opt for excitement, passion, and enthusiasm.” I’d slowly been starting to think that anthropology had turned me into a more angry and cynical person (with an insurmountable angst when it came to doing field research), but I couldn’t put my finger on what the key problem was. I half-wondered if I was becoming bipolar in my “old age.”

    Today was the first day of the annual writers workshop at our museum, and it helped me see anthropology in a new light. One of the guest leaders writes creative nonfiction, and I was struck by how different a piece of writing I would be producing, as an anthropologist, if I followed the path of creative nonfiction. I’d always been taught to write field notes that captured the scene rather….dispassionately… with a huge focus on noting every detail I could write down, to the very shoes people were wearing…. as if anything else would impose too much of my own perspective. I was never able to make much that I was proud of out of these field notes (even though others seemed to like them), so for my thesis I ended up analyzing a very eye-opening memoir about domestic violence. The new kind of “data” made a world of difference, although half my points still seemed too submerged in longstanding arguments in anthropological theory that, intellectually, may have gotten us somewhere (or maybe not) but, practically, wouldn’t have been of much use in countering domestic violence…. and I could continue arguing back and forth with myself about this and on goes the interminable angst….

    I’m starting to like the fact that, when writers write, they don’t have to be in discourse with a “discipline.” Students of writing are still taught to critically analyze the works, but it’s a separate process. And the questions that we were encouraged to start with today in the creative nonfiction session were SO very different from the questions anthropologists often start with and so much more inspiring. (they were directed toward personal memoir, but I could see how they (or similar questions) might be adapted to writing about broader groups of people… and to some of the themes of anthropology).

    So, for example, one handout says: “Look at your life in terms of: 1. personal relationships: who are/were significant in your life, 2. personal passions, 3. personal difficulties”, each with sub-categories. I love this one under personal relationships: “who continues to haunt you?”

  18. Stacie

    25 June 2009

    As a direct example, I can tell you that our non-profit museum is haunted — haunted by a bank failure in the 1990s. They lost half their savings overnight. Now the organization is full of fear that the money will dry up. Not an ounce leaves for anything except basic operating fees, not even to marketing (after all, you never know if it’s going to work). They used to have a director to hold the place together but can no longer afford one. Visitor numbers decline, savings must be dipped into each year to pay the staff, and slowly the prophesy is fulfilled anyway. The #1 question is how to break out of this cycle. But, each person involved has a different opinion of what we should do and who’s to blame… and the 0riginal mission is forgotten, or put off for the future. I’m half-hopeful but also half-worried to see what happens in the next year.

  19. I like your points, but I came to this very slowly myself. When an anonymous reviewer panned the dry writing style of my Ruins of Absence book and said I should have written it like a story, maybe following the form of a novel, I was almost scornful. Now, instead, I realize that creative nonfiction might have brought out a whole set of other realities, or better yet, other truths. I have reached the stage where writing practice has become one of the most fundamental pieces of the jigsaw involved in taking anthropology in new directions, and I am still experimenting (I have been working on one poem for a few months now, I don’t know if I will ever finish it or have the courage to post it online).

  20. Stacie

    26 June 2009

    In a shift to that kind of writing, do you think there are ways to minimize ambiguity to make sure the points get conveyed? In English classes in college, 15 literature students usually had 15 different interpretations, especially w/poetry. I’m not sure I would’ve understood parts of Watchman’s calypso in your June 14th post without the commentary. But, it seems self-defeating to write your OWN poem and then explain it. . . . seems like any necessary translation should be “built-in” . . . but then you have to know what audience you’re writing for . . . which returns to the question of whether anthropologists should be writing for other anthropologists and/or broader audiences. . . after all, using disciplinary jargon and pointing to other famous anthropologists’ works only makes sense if you’re writing to anthropologists. . . or can you even gauge an audience on an online medium?

    PS – I had a huge bias of my own against creative writing! Before the workshop, I thought, “I hope they don’t make us dream up some worthless fake story. I was imagining the worst: trashy romance novels.” Nothing came close until the end. We learned “How to Tell a Tall Tale” from Bil Lepp, West Virginia’s most famous liar, and even he spoke a lot about truth: how to build from real facts to make implausible situations remotely plausible and how to reel in (and/or not offend) your audience by knowing their backgrounds. I admit, it’s not the best model for anthropology, but there’re still some lessons in there!

  21. This is an interesting thread. I write in a variety of forms for very different purposes. I have endeavored to create a nonfiction style that is at once compelling and highly readable without becoming mere pop capsulization. I also write academic articles which must conform to protocols but which need not catapult the reader into a spontaneous coma. Not everyone who gathers and produces research and then writes up their findings is a “writer.” And I think we have the democratization of the arts to blame for this error. I also write fiction, and I blog, and write lengthy letters and I find all of this together, like a thorough and robust workout on many machines on the gymnasium floor allows a flexibility as one muscle set strenghtens and adds fluidity to another. I have also found some of the workshop exercises I found most repugnant allowed, forced, me to work outside my preferred models of writing comfort. And this was an eye opening experience to say the least. To whatever degree that this is all successful in my finished works is, of course not for me to decide.

  22. Great site! Stacks of brilliant information and a fantastic idea. Check out my new site if you get a minute. Added you to my links.

    Take care, man.

  23. Great to meet you. Many thanks and I am also adding your excellent site to my links.

    Very best wishes and thanks again Daniel.

  24. J.H. Barzilai

    22 March 2010

    “ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY is about unthinking”

    I couldn’t have said it better myself! What better way to do zero anthropology than by unthinking!

  25. The hilarious thing about this name is that it can lend itself to all sorts of statements with double meanings. I am still waiting for the person to exclaim that there is zero anthropology on this blog, or that as anthropologists we are zeros. Many thanks.

  26. This is a paper I wrote for ANT theory class…

    Ethnology Against the State: Anthropological Anarchism

    By Mitchell Jones

    The man
    Of virtuous soul commands not, nor obeys:
    Power, like a desolating pestilence,
    Pollutes whate’er it touches, and obedience,
    Bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth,
    Makes slaves of men, and, of the human frame,
    A mechanized automaton.
    - Percy Bysshe Shelly (An Anarchist FAQ 2009)

    There are very few anarchist anthropologists. Marxist theory seems to dominate, not only anthropology, but other academic disciplines as well. However, there is a small tradition of anarchist anthropology, although not officially named as such. Anarchist theory offers an evolutionary model based not on competition and survival of the fittest, but on mutual cooperation and reciprocity. Anarchist anthropology looks at egalitarian, stateless societies as desirable, natural, functioning systems. Simply put, anarchy works, otherwise it wouldn’t have made up 99.5% of human history (Azat 2000). In the Oxford English Dictionary, definition b. of anarchy is, “A theoretical social state in which there is no governing person or body of persons, but each individual has absolute liberty (without implication of disorder)” (“Anarchy” 2009). This theoretical social state was once a reality and it can be again. In an article called “Anarchism and Anthropology” anarchy is defined in Anarchy: The Journal of Desire Armed:

    The term anarchy comes from the Greek, and essentially means ‘no ruler.’ Anarchists are
    people who reject all forms of government or coercive authority, all forms of hierarchy
    and domination. They are therefore opposed to what the Mexican anarchist Flores Magon
    called the ‘sombre trinity’ — state, capital and the church. Anarchists are thus opposed to
    both capitalism and to the state, as well as to all forms of religious authority. But
    anarchists also seek to establish or bring about by varying means, a condition of anarchy,
    that is, a decentralised society without coercive institutions, a society organised through a
    federation of voluntary associations (“An Anarchist FAQ” 2009).

    According to Pierre Proudhon anarchy is “the absence of a master, of a sovereign” (An Anarchist FAQ 2009). Anarchist anthropology has something to offer the academy as a new theoretical approach and as a vehicle for social criticism.
    Today the capitalist state is encroaching on the way of life of many indigenous peoples who have lived in their way for hundreds or even thousands of years. Bakunin said of the state, “Any State, under pain of perishing and seeing itself devoured by neighbouring [sic] States, must tend towards complete power, and, having become powerful, it must embark on a career of conquest, so that it shall not be itself conquered; for two powers similar and at the same time foreign to each other could not co-exist without trying to destroy each other. Whoever says conquest, says conquered peoples, enslaved and in bondage, under whatever form or name it may be” (1950). We see this process working itself out today with globalization and its destruction of indigenous cultures. Through the work of anthropologists with these peoples an alternative to the capitalist state can emerge. Throughout 99% of human history stateless, egalitarian societies existed (Azat 2000). Some theorists describe these societies as anarchist. I will now explain what is meant by anarchism.
    I will first describe what anarchism is not. It is not chaos, and it is not the state. Errico Malatesta writes, “[S]ince it was thought that government was necessary and that without government there could only be disorder and confusion, it was natural and logical that anarchy, which means absence of government, should sound like absence of order” (An Anarchist FAQ 2009). This is an essentially flawed premise steeped in “society-centrism.” “Society-centrism” is the idea that dominant interpretations of the state are essentially biased toward a pro-state point of view. This idea was purported by the sociologist Theda Skocpol (Barkey and Parikh 1991). She points to the state as a “central explanatory variable.” This theory describes the state as an actor with its own goals. This actor is completely outside society. According to Badie & Birnbaum, the state is “a unique social invention devised to solve the specific crises of the western European societies at a particular point in their development” (Barkey and Parikh 1991: 529). Clearly the state did not originate in Western Europe, but the idea that a state is formed out of crisis is a valid interpretation of the origins of the state. Robert Paul Wolff describes a Weberian notion of the state in In Defense of Anarchism. He writes, “The state is a group of persons who have and exercise supreme authority within a given territory. Strictly, we should say that a state is a group of persons who have supreme authority within a given territory or over a certain population” [italics his] (1970: 3).
    Anarchism is also not Marxism. Anarchism is concerned, not with advancing one individual to achieve political power, but with operating on anarchist principles. Anarchists define themselves by what they believe, i.e.: anarcho-syndicalists, libertarian-socialists, green-anarchists etc., and not who they follow, i.e.: Leninists, Maoists, Trotskyites etc. (Graeber 2004). Marxism also involves state level political organization, whereas anarchism takes a much smaller-scale form.
    Anarchism, according to anthropologist David Graeber consists of five principles: autonomy, voluntary association, self-organization, mutual aid and direct democracy (2004: 2). Many of what have until recently been called “primitive” societies have adhered to these principles. I will focus on reciprocity as an economic concept, or mutual aid, and non-coercive political power, or direct democracy, for this essay.
    According to the Yorkshire Anarchist Federation, “Mutual aid is a concept of human interaction that comes from Peter Kropotkin. It is based on the idea that animals, including humans, can survive better and in harmony if they work together to achieve a common purpose” (“Jargon Buster” 2009). The OED defines it as, “Support or assistance given and reciprocated (in later use esp. as a social or political mechanism)” (OED 2009). Direct democracy has been defined as, “A system in which people in a political community come together in a forum to make policy decisions themselves, with no intervening institution or officials” (“Democracy and Citizenship >>Glossary” 2009). Normally, the anarchist organizing principle for such a forum is consensus. Consensus has been defined as “agreement in the judgment or opinion reached by a group as a whole” (“Consensus” 2009). The consensus-model of direct democracy, however, does not necessitate that everyone have oneness of opinion. On the contrary, differences of opinion are welcome, but usually a compromise can be made that everyone can live with.
    The Darwinian evolutionary model purports that survival of the fittest is the order of the day for the development of species. This has been interpreted in different ways. One example is social Darwinism. T. R. Malthus’ Essays on Population influenced Darwin and established the idea that “on the whole, the best live” (Claeys 2000: 223). Darwin’s theories have been used to back up individualist as well as collectivist politics. Herbert Spencer actually coined the term “survival of the fittest” (Claeys 2000). This term has been extrapolated to “might is right” and used by capitalists and statists to justify their exploitation of socio-economically weaker, or “less fit” peoples.
    Anarchist anthropologists and biologists have denounced this theory. The anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown or “Anarchy Brown,” as he was called in his school days was one such scientist. He studied kin relationships in South Africa and found that joking was one way to diffuse potentially disruptive behavior. He wrote, “The show of hostility, the perpetual disrespect, is a continual expression of that social disjunction which is an essential part of the whole structural situation, but over which, without destroying or even weakening it, there is provided the social conjunction of friendliness and mutual aid” (Perry 1975: 63).
    He got the term mutual aid from Peter Kropotkin, an anarchist who wrote during the early half of the 20th century, around the time that Radcliffe-Brown was a student at Trinity College. Kropotkin wrote in his book Mutual Aid on the subject of human societies as well as animal social organization and found their history to be one of cooperation. This cooperation, according to Kropotkin, gave these species evolutionary advantage. Kropotkin writes:

    As soon as we study animals — not in laboratories and museums only, but in the forest
    and the prairie, in the steppe and the mountains — we at once perceive that though there is
    an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species, and
    especially amidst various classes of animals, there is, at the same time, as much, or
    perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defence [sic] amidst
    animals belonging to the same species or, at least, to the same society (1902).

    He goes on to state, “The animal species, in which individual struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits, and the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development, are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress” (1902). He cites a study done by a Russian zoologist by the name of Kessler in which Kessler concludes that “All classes of animals, especially the higher ones, practise [sic] mutual aid” using empirical evidence collected from burying beetles, birds and mammalia (Kropotkin 1902). Humans are no exception. Kropotkin states, “It is evident that it would be quite contrary to all that we know of nature if men were an exception to so general a rule: if a creature so defenceless [sic] as man was at his beginnings should have found his protection and his way to progress, not in mutual support, like other animals, but in a reckless competition for personal advantages, with no regard to the interests of the species.” (1902).
    Radcliffe-Brown applied these concepts to his ethnological and ethnographic work. He wrote, “A social relation does not result from a similarity of interests, but rests either on the mutual interest of persons in one another, or on one or more common interests, or on a combination of both of these” (Perry 1975: 63). Radcliffe-Brown also proposed that the primary factor in the maintenance of society is not governmental pressure, but social pressure. He writes, “…what is called conscience is thus in the widest sense the reflex in the individual of the sanctions of society” (Perry 1975: 63). This means that the skeptical analysis of anarchism, that people would just kill each other, is wrong. Social pressure, instead of coercive pressure would enforce the norms and values of society. The difference between coercive pressure and social pressure is akin to the difference between the two kinds of law described by Roderick Long: “Law may be subdivided into voluntary and coercive law, depending on the means whereby compliance is secured. Voluntary law, as the name implies, relies solely on voluntary means, such as social pressure, boycotts, and the like, in order to secure compliance with the results of adjudication. Coercive law, on the other hand, relies at least in part on force and threats of force” (Long 1994). Thus, the inherent violence of the state can be illustrated. Long is not an anarchist, in fact he advocates laissez-faire capitalism, but his principle still applies.
    Other anthropologists have taken the idea of reciprocity further. The French anthropologist Marcel Mauss wrote on gift-giving economy in his book The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. In it he writes, “In Scandinavian civilization, and in a good number of others, exchanges and contracts take place in the form of presents; in theory these are voluntary, in reality they are given and reciprocated obligatorily” (1950: 3). He describes the process of gift giving as potlatch, using the Chinook term. In the Maori culture all goods possess a spiritual power that is exchanged along with the gift. This spiritual power is called hau and the physical gift is called tonga. A Maori juridical expert explains it best:

    The tonga and all gods termed strictly personal possess a hau, a spiritual power. You give me one of them, and I pass it on to a third party; he gives another to me inturn, because he is impelled to do so by the hau my present possesses. I for my part, am obliged to give you that thing because I must return to you what is in reality the effect of the hau of your tonga (Mauss 1950: 11).

    This system of reciprocity is an alternative to the system of capitalist exchange. In his conclusion Mauss is very optimistic about the elevation of the social over the individual. He writes, “The brutish pursuit of individual ends is harmful to the ends and the peace of all, to the rhythm of their work and joys – and rebounds on the individual himself” (1950: 77). He then critiques capitalism saying that men have not been machines for very long, exchanging their labor for less than it is really worth. He says that the worker expects to be fairly rewarded for his efforts, and that the individualistic type of economy does not do this. He states that there is self interest in gift giving, but it is only self interest in the sense that what is good for the whole is good for the individual (Mauss 1950). This elevation of the social over the individual is an essential element of anarchist thought. The voluntary nature of gift giving maintains an economy that is not coercive.
    Another French anthropologist, Pierre Clastres, wrote about the institution of the chief and his role in mutual aid and gift giving. In his book Society Against the State he writes that the chief in so-called “Indian” societies is required to give most of what he has for the greater good of the community. There are no societies without political power, but there is a difference between coercive power and non-coercive power. He states, “The model of coercive power is adopted… only in exceptional circumstances when the group faces an external threat” (Clastres 1987: 30). Normal civil power is based on consensus and its function is pacification. The chief exists to maintain the peace and harmony of the group (Clastres 1987). The chief must also give of his belongings to help the greater good of the community. Therefore, greed and power are incompatible (Mauss 1987). In this way the chief is not so much a ruler, but a servant of the people.
    This is similar to David Graeber’s concept of counterpower. Counterpower, according to Graeber, “stands guard over what are seen as certain frightening possibilities within the society itself: notably against the emergence of systematic forms of political or economic dominance” (2004: 35). He states that all societies are to some extent at war with themselves and this war is the playing out of the relationship between power and counterpower. He gives the example of Joanna Overing’s work with the Piaroa, who have what she describes as an anarchist society. However, despite their emphasis on egalitarianism and simultaneous individual autonomy they insist that their culture was the creation of an evil god. They believe that their war is one that plays itself out in the cosmos where wizards have to fend off evil spirits who seek to gain power (Graeber 2004). Thus, counterpower is imagined as a spiritual concept. Freedom is a constant struggle between power and counterpower, or between the individual and the evil spirits.
    The argument is also influenced by Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony and counter-hegemony. Gramsci argues that there are two factors in society: 1)the state and 2) civil society. The state is a coercive apparatus represented by dictatorship + hegemony. Civil society is dominated by the hegemony of the state, or the ruling class, and thus legitimates the state (Mastroianni 2002). However, there is another force, that of counter-hegemony, that exists in the realm of the proletariat. This kind of hegemony exists to subvert the state. This view differs from the anarchist view, however. Gramsci says that a permanent proletarian hegemony must exist to oust the bourgeois, which he demonizes (Pozo 2007). In the anarchist paradigm there is a constant interplay between power and counterpower that must perpetually exist, without one winning over the other. Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, therefore, is flawed in that he believes that a hegemony of the proletariat will ultimately lead to a successful egalitarian revolution. Put another way, a “dictatorship of the proletariat” is necessary for everyone to have an equitable share. This is contradictory.
    Clastres states, “It is in the nature of primitive society to know that violence is the essence of power. Deeply rooted in that knowledge is the concern to constantly keep power apart from the institution of power, command apart from the chief” (1987: 154). In his conclusion he writes, “…what the Savages exhibit is the continual effort to prevent chiefs from being chiefs, the refusal of unification, the endeavor to exorcise the One, the State” (1987: 218)
    He also describes marriage relationships as the way of establishing kinship ties to avoid warfare in “Indian” societies. Each community has a certain level of autonomy, but they are also interconnected through the process of exogamy.
    The crux of his argument is that the assumption that primitive societies lack something is essentially wrong. He opposes the notion that primitive societies are in an embryonic state and that the state is in the adult phase (Clastres 1987). Thus, the unilinear evolutionary model is wrong. There are many things that are desirable about so-called primitive society that we can learn from.
    Finally, Marshall Sahlins writings in his book Stone Age Economics have fueled neo-primitivist critiques of society, although he never associated himself with the neo-primitivist movement. Sometimes called “green-anarchism,” neo-primitivism asserts that agriculture was the beginning of the downfall of society. In the opening chapter of Stone Age Economics Sahlins argues that capitalism is built around scarcity, but that neolithic cultures had economies based on abundance. Perhaps his most surprising claim is that the average amount of time spent in the procuring of food for the Bushmen of Africa was about four to five hours a day. The rest of their time is spent in leisure and sleep activities (Sahlins 1972). This shows how inefficient capitalism is and how much more affluent hunter-gatherers were. Anarchists believe in a system based on egalitarian principles and reject the capitalist claim of scarcity.
    As we’ve seen from the anthropologists mentioned above, anthropologists have taken as much from anarchists as anarchists have taken from anthropologists. Although anarchist-anthropology is not yet an established theoretical framework, “fragments,” as Graeber calls them, are there. After all, it can be said that 99% of human history has been anarchy, or society without inequality and a State. The origins of authority and inequality are unclear, but an anarchist-archaeology may be able to help answer this question. One hypothesis is that hierarchy develops when we see people proclaiming that there is one supreme God and that they are the only ones who can communicate with God. This gives them transcendent power, which gives an apparent legitimacy to their claim to authority (“Absolute” 1997).
    There are anarchists in the academy today. The linguist Noam Chomsky as well as David Graeber, mentioned above, are two prominent anarchist academics. However, many academics fear openly espousing anarchist rhetoric, for fear of repercussions. Yale did not renew David Graeber’s contract in 2005, possibly for political reasons (“David” 2009). For now anarchist theoretical discourse is not sanctioned by the academy, even though anarchism has a lot to offer it.

    Works Cited:
    “Absolute Power.” Fragments Zine. 1997. Web. 2 December 2009.

    An Anarchist FAQ. Web. 28 September 2009.

    “Anarchy.” OED Online. Web. 2 December 2009.

    Barkey, Karen and Sunita Parikh. “Comparative Perspectives on the State.” Annual Review of
    Sociology. 17. 1991.
    Bakunin, Mikhail. Marxism, Freedom and the State. Trans. K. J. Kenafick. Freedom Press. 1950.
    Anarchy Archives. Pitzer College, 28 October. 2001. Web. 23 September. 2009.
    Bakunin, Mikhail. “The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State.” New York: Alfred A. Knof.
    1871. Anarchy Archives. Pitzer College, 12 September 2001. Web. 23 September 2009.

    Claeys, Gregory. “The ‘Survival of the Fittest’ and the Origins of Social Darwinism.” Journal of
    the History of Ideas. 61.2 (2000).
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    Zone Books. 1987.
    “Consensus.” WordNet. Web. 2 December 2009.

    “David Graeber.” Absolute Astronomy. Web. 6 November 2009.

    “Democracy and Citizenship >> Glossary.” American Politics. Web. 2 December 2009.

    Graeber, David. Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press,
    “Jargon Buster.” Yorkshire Federation of Anarchists. Web. 2 December 2009.
    Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. 1902. Anarchy Archives. Pitzer College, 1
    June 2006. Web. 16 September 2009.
    Long, Roderick T. The Nature of Law. 1994. Libertarian Nation Foundation. Web. 2 December
    Mastroianni, Dominic. Post-colonial Studies at Emory. Fall 2002. Web. 2 December 2009.

    Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Trans. W. D.
    Halls. London: W. W. Norton. 1990.
    Oxford English Dictionary: Online. Oxford University Press. Web. 2 December 2009.

    Perry, Richard J. “Radcliffe-Brown and Kropotkin: The Heritage of Anarchism in British Social
    Anthropology.” Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers. 51-52. (1975): 61-65.
    Pozo, Luis M. “The Roots of Hegemony: The Mechanisms of Class Accommodation and the
    Emergence of the Nation-people.” Capital and Class. 91. (2007): 55-89.
    Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. The Anadman Islanders. Glencoe, IL: Free Press. 1948.
    Sahlins, Marshall David. Stone Age Economics. Chicago: Aldine-Atherton, 1972.
    Weir, David. Anarchy and Culture: The Aesthetic Politics of Modernism. Amherst : University
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    Wolff, Robert Paul. In Defense of Anarchism. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1970.

  27. Sabrina Dalla Valle

    10 November 2010

    “Within zero there is the power to shatter the framework of logic.” – Charles Seife

    Dear Maximillian,
    I like your concept. I am an adjunct professor working with zero as a philosophical and cultural concept with regard to the Polynesia. I would like to share some ideas with you if you have time. I think you will find an interesting dialogue. You may reach me through my e-mail.
    Best regards,

  28. What luck that I found this blog! Really interesting stuff, I look forward to reading and browsing more on the site. I’m in the middle of my master’s program in anthro, focusing on traditional and ‘indigenous’ agriculture. Though I”ve been lucky in professors who (particularly one) tended towards a more open kind of anthropology, I’ve felt a bit uneasy about doing a thesis on a traditional knowledge system that must be filtered through a western lens. I say must because, much as I abhor the instituational systems set up, I have to support myself and two children and a paper stating I have a master’s degree will aid in that. :)

  29. Many thanks Krysten, much appreciated.

  30. Hello and thanks for your visit and comment Sabrina. Please don’t rely on my memory to remember to get in touch with you. Please feel free to write to me at Thanks again and best wishes.

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