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Anthropological Theory
2016, Vol. 16(2–3) 160–176
Theorizing in ex-centric ! The Author(s) 2016
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DOI: 10.1177/1463499616652516
Faye V. Harrison
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA

This essay explores ways that theory is being engaged in recent trends in sociocultural
anthropology. It addresses how some anthropologists are rethinking and working with
theory in their social and cultural analyses. The current theoretical moment is condi-
tioned by an expansion of the space and a multiplication of the sites where various
forms of theorizing take place and are being acknowledged as such. The interrelated
questions of what theory is and who produces it are being raised in the writings of a
number of intellectuals around the world. Their theoretical and meta-theoretical claims
have both disciplinary and transdisciplinary significance, warranting their being more
seriously engaged, especially within the context of critical projects seeking to decolon-
ize the making of anthropological knowledge.

social theory, epistemological apartheid, epistemic diversity, knowledge decolonization,
postcolonial discourse, ethnographic fiction, indigenous knowledge, situated knowl-
edges, counter-storytelling

This essay explores some of the ways that theory is being engaged in recent trends
within sociocultural anthropology. It addresses how anthropologists, at least a subset
of them, work with theory, appropriate or formulate it in their social and cultural
analysis. At the present ‘theoretical moment’ (Escobar, 2008: 284), there appears to
be an expansion of the space and a multiplication of the sites where various modes
and forms of theorizing take place and are being claimed and acknowledged as such.
The diversity of sites for theorizing is not itself a new phenomenon. This has prob-
ably long been the case if we subscribe to broadly conceived, non-elitist understand-
ings of what constitutes theory and the theoretical, how they are expressed, and by
whom. The interrelated questions of what theory is and who produces it are being
raised in the writings of a number of intellectuals around the world. Their theoretical

Corresponding author:
Faye V. Harrison, Department of African American Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1201
W. Nevada Street, MC 143, Urbana, IL 61801, USA.
Harrison 161

and meta-theoretical claims have both disciplinary and transdisciplinary significance,

warranting their being more seriously engaged (e.g., Harrison, in press).
The exploration this essay presents was inspired, in some part, by recent inter-
ventions from the ‘Global South’ and transnational landscapes closely connected to
it. For instance, Kenyan writer and cultural critic Ngũgı̃ wa Thiong’o (2012) has
offered provocative insights into what he refers to as ‘poor theory’. By this coinage,
he does not mean impoverished theory. To the contrary, he points to modes of
interpretation and explanation that exemplify critically creative demonstrations
that density of words is not equivalent to profundity of thought and understanding.
In an examination of different histories and trajectories of ‘southern theory’, or
traditions and projects from the southern hemisphere, Australian sociologist
Raewyn Connell (2007: 207) argues for what she calls ‘dirty’ theory to clarify
and elucidate situations in their grounded concreteness. In the Caribbean, the
late Cuban narrative writer and theater critic Inés Marı́a Martiatu Terry
(1942–2013), whose earlier work on theater and ritual was informed by the ethno-
logical tradition of Fernando Ortiz’s Afro-Cuban studies, was among the provoca-
tive thinkers calling for the democratization and decolonization of epistemic space
(Rubiera and Martiatu Terry, 2011; Martiatu Terry, 2012a). This is necessary so
that historically-peripheralized voices can also participate in conversations that
shape the directions of theoretical formulations. In her specific case, she was par-
ticularly concerned that Afro-Cuban women along with other Caribbean and
African diaspora thinkers play a meaningful part in building and advancing fem-
inist theory. Without Afrofeminismo, she argued, feminist theory would be less
potent as an emancipatory tool (Martiatu Terry, 2012a, 2012b).
This essay is deeply inspired by the spirit of Martiatu Terry’s creative writing (e.g.,
Martiatu Terry, 2008) and theoretical essays, which have a symbiotic relationship
with each other. As I have pointed out elsewhere, fiction can ‘[encode] truth claims –
and alternative modes of theorizing – in a rhetoric of imagination’ and counter-
storytelling (Harrison, 2008: 121). As we shall see in the ensuing discussion, the
relationship between fiction and ethnography can be a significant site for sociocul-
tural analysis, especially that written against the grain of established intellectual
authority. This is particularly the case in some parts of the world (Nyamnjoh, 2011).

Setting the stage for the present moment

In terms of mainstream academic conventions, the theory-formulating landscape
has been restricted, consistent with the logic of what scholars such as the South
African social anthropologist Archie Mafeje have characterized as epistemological
apartheid (Mafeje, 1998; Harrison, 2012a: 90). The disparity and inequality that he
observed is not only based on the structure of racial and national distinctions.
Catherine Lutz (1995) and Donna Haraway (1988) are among the feminist anthro-
pologists and philosophers of science who have explained how theorizing and its
outcomes are often gendered, ascribed with masculinist meanings, and – in much of
our intellectual history – claims of disembodiment and omniscience, performed
162 Anthropological Theory 16(2–3)

through the sleight of hand of a ‘god-trick’ (Haraway, 1988). From Mafeje, Lutz,
Haraway, and others, we can extrapolate that theory-making practices are integral
to the formation and workings of situated knowledges (Haraway, 1988), which are
grounded in matrices of interlocking hierarchies of inequality and power, and
materialized through historically-specific divisions of intellectual labor.
At this moment in anthropology’s history, there is greater awareness that a
wider spectrum of voices and writings matter in making and remaking theory as
an integral dimension of knowledge. More than in the past, anthropologists’ the-
orizing practices involve more diverse conversations. Some of those participating in
these conversations would not traditionally be expected to make theory. Rather,
they would more likely be viewed as sources of raw data that more privileged
northerners mine and cook into refined forms of explanation. The shift away
from the conventional ethnographer/informant dichotomy, along with the inter-
related subject/object and self/other asymmetries, enables anthropologists to per-
form an ethic of inquiry that induces less hierarchical relations of knowledge
production with the building of theory integral to it.
There is more recognition now that subjects of ethnographic research are inter-
locutors that can talk back to anthropology and, in some instances, contribute to it
by offering perspectives on the theory-making practices that formally-trained
anthropologists are expected to undertake. In light of the long history of for-
mally-credentialed southern intellectuals being treated as glorified informants
rather than as respected colleagues (Jones, 1970; Mafeje, 1998; Obbo, 1990;
Harrison, 2008, 2012), there is now greater appreciation for what they bring to
the discipline. At this juncture, some efforts are being undertaken to redress dis-
ciplinary coloniality, level the ‘landscape of knowledge production’ and ‘[unsettle]
the megastructre of the academy’ (Escobar, 2008: 306). The ultimate goal is to
produce what Arturo Escobar calls ‘other knowledges and knowledge otherwise
(p. 306). This vision of anthropology’s future is driven by the conviction that
‘another knowledge is possible beyond northern epistemologies’ (Santos, 2007).
This approach attempts to operate against the grain of the current neoliberalization
of the academy.
Dominant trajectories of theorizing, including the most mainstreamed critical
approaches, are being called on to decenter so that a broader range of thinkers can
also occupy spaces on a more democratized landscape that can be reconfigured as
‘ex-centric’ (Bhabha, 1994: 6). In such a context, multivocal and intercultural prac-
tices of theorizing and thinking about theory may encourage cross-hemispheric
dialogues that lead to new questions and hybrid perspectives. Cross-fertilizations
of this sort set the stage for extending and building upon the promising trend
reflected in the ways that more diverse theoretical interlocutors are being engaged
in anthropological analyses and in the metaphoric conversations imagined in the
different genres of anthropological writing – ethnographies, essays, creative non-
fiction, fiction, and memoirs (Waterston and Vesperi, 2011; Harrison, 2012b).
Over the past decade and more, anthropological texts have brought, for instance,
Wittgenstein into conversation with Das (1998, 2006), Foucault and Agamben with
Harrison 163

Mbembe (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2011), Mbembe with Caribbean and

Caribbeanist theorists (Thomas, 2011), and Foucault and other prestigious aca-
demic scholars with vernacular philosophers on the frontlines of war and shadow
economies in the Global South (Nordstrom, 2011 [2009]). Conversations like these
are among the trends contributing to the current theoretical moment and discursive
This is a favorable time to think in more critical ways about the ‘theory-work’
(Comaroff and Comaroff, 2011: 48) that anthropologists perform in diverse sites,
situated as they are within domestic and international divisions of intellectual labor
(Harrison, 2012a). Over the past few decades, anthropologists have witnessed some
important shifts that have cleared the ground for the present moment. Feminist
scholarship, including that associated with multiracial feminisms, has had a major
impact on the humanities, social sciences, and sciences (e.g. Harding, 2006).
Cultural studies, critical race theory, ethnic studies and related minoritized and
diasporic perspectives have also figured prominently. Postcolonial discourse, global
studies, and the turn toward postmodernism and poststructuralism (with their
rejection of totalizing grand narratives and emphasis on difference) have also
had important disciplinary and transdisciplinary impacts.
Confluences among these streams of thought set the stage for a number of
interventions that have reconfigured the field. These include projects that strive
to remake, recapture, and decolonize anthropology and its pursuit of social ana-
lysis (Rosaldo, 1993 [1989]; Fox, 1991; Harrison, 2010) and also projects that
affirm the validity of indigenous anthropology (Medicine, 2001), black feminist
anthropology (McClaurin, 2001), and world anthropologies (Ribeiro and Escobar,
2006). In these overlapping trends, the ‘coloniality’ (Ribeiro and Escobar, 2006:
15), Eurocentrism, and phallocentrism of much of hegemonic anthropology are
problematized, and epistemic diversity, in its varied domestic and international
permutations, is embraced as a matter of both principle and intellectual
The disciplinary outcomes of ‘mov[ing] the project of theory-making to an
‘‘ex-centric site’’’ (Comaroff and Comaroff, 2011: 3, quoting the postcolonial
literary critic Homi Bhabha, 1994: 6) is being considered in a number of intel-
lectual communities. Among them are feminist and minoritized scholars
often working as ‘outsiders within’ dominant North Atlantic traditions of
anthropology, as well as proponents of world anthropologies perspectives
(Collins, 1990; Harrison, 2008). The consolidation of this latter approach over
the past decade (Ribeiro and Escobar, 2006) has challenged much of the con-
ventional wisdom ultimately grounded in the dominance of northern metropol-
itan anthropologies, particularly US anthropology, which is embedded in a
global context marked by deep epistemological and structural ‘knowledge div-
ides’ (ISSC/UNESCO, 2010; Harrison, 2012a). The divides and unequal
development of knowledges documented in the International Social Science
Council’s 2010 world report are also manifest in the production, validation,
and mobility or circulation of theory.
164 Anthropological Theory 16(2–3)

What is theory and who produces it?

Theory is often associated with dense, jargon-laden writing above the heads of
most readers. Sherry Ortner (2006: 90) defines theory as the array of ‘thought-
frames’ – including concepts, metaphors, and narratives that provide interpretive
frameworks for making sense of evidence. She also writes that theory ‘map[s] the
world in a way that [we] can understand the relationship’ among different kinds of
knowledge claims and ways of knowing (Ortner, 1998: 436). Focusing on the use-
fulness of one specific kind of thought-frame, Ann Kingsolver sees theory as ‘the
stories we tell ourselves to make sense of life and to determine where we are as we
navigate social space’ (2001: 4, emphasis added). The stories anthropologists tell
have spanned across the nomothetic and ideographic continuum, provoking dia-
lectical dialogues between these competing poles. According to Jean and John
Comaroff, as they write in their Theory from the South, there is interest now in
grounding theory in:

the historically contextualized, problem-driven effort to account for the production of

social and cultural ‘facts’ in the world by recourse to an imaginative methodological
counterpoint between the inductive and the deductive, the concrete and the concept;
also in a different register, between the epic and the everyday, the meaningful and the
material . . . our predilection is for theory that neither is an all-embracing meta-
narrative nor is microcosmically, myopically local, but tacks on the awkward scale
between the two, seeking to explain phenomena with reference both to their larger
determinations and their contingent, proximate conditions. (2011: 48)

Storytelling and counter-storytelling as lived, embodied theory

Anthropologists tell theoretically-nuanced stories about the stories told to them in
their ethnographic fieldwork. Carolyn Nordstrom, Mary Weismantel, and others
have claimed that the latter can potentially be useful sources of theoretical insight.
Nordstrom (2009: 37) draws on the embodied theory of people she studies on the
shadowy frontlines of life and death in Africa and Asia. She approaches her social
analysis of war, war profiteering, and the illegal smuggling of drugs, diamonds, and
arms through the prism of ethnographically-elicited theory. The war orphans,
displaced farmers, and women in refugee camps whom she studies tell profound
philosophical stories that translate the life-threatening experiences of war zones
into terms that are even more vibrant than the texts of established academic the-
orists. The latter accounts, she claims, often lack life force, which makes them like
dead bodies. The war zone stories Nordstrom recounts show that their narrators
live theory ‘in resistance to abusive violence’. After translating Foucault, Agamben,
and other widely acclaimed theorists into accessible terms, Nordstrom (2009: 40)
listens to her research participants talk back to these theorists’ perspectives on
power, bare life, and sovereignty, pointing out what ‘western epistemologies lack’.
Harrison 165

Resisting established academic rituals of ‘genuflection by citation’ (Brodkin,

2011), Nordstrom (2009: 44) acknowledges that her scholarship troubles the gate-
keepers of ‘academic apartheid’ who do not recognize the vernacular storytelling
that she translates as valid theory. Nonetheless, there is a growing number of
scholars who embrace more dialogic, collaborative modes of theory production,
whether interfacing with schooled or unschooled thinkers, who express their ideas
in orature and/or written texts. The ethnographic subjects with whom anthropolo-
gists engage and co-produce theory are diverse in terms of their knowledge, regis-
ters, and positionality. Another ethnographically-elicited approach is found in
Mark P. Whitaker’s Learning Politics from Sivaram (2007). In this book
Whitaker recounts the political life of the late Tamil revolutionary freedom fighter,
Sivaram Dharmeratnam, who was assassinated in Sri Lanka’s civil war between
Tamils and the Sinhalese majority. Whitaker demonstrates how this erudite,
cosmopolitan journalist lived and practiced his revolutionary theory, eventually
giving his life to the struggle in that politically and militarily fraught context.
In these contexts, theory is not produced for the sake of theory and academic
celebrity. Rather it is a tool for making a difference in people’s lives. The late
literary/cultural critic Barbara Christian perhaps expressed this point of view
most effectively when she wrote that many feminists and intellectuals of color,
particularly those doing an engaged form of scholarship, ‘seek knowledge, write,
teach and theorize to save their own lives’ – both as individuals and as members of
oppressed communities structurally and existentially vulnerable to varying forms of
state-sanctioned violence (Harrison, 2008: 79, paraphrasing Christian, 1987). The
life and death stakes of theory, whether the counter-stories of orphan kids or
revolutionary journalists, are most poignantly instantiated in the war zones that
Nordstrom and Whitaker elucidate in their writings.

Indigenous theory situated beyond the boundaries of local knowledge

A third ethnographer who recognizes the explanatory power of lived, embodied
theory is Latin Americanist Mary Weismantel (1995), who, among other things,
has studied the indigenous Zumbagua in the highlands of Ecuador. She reveals that
the Zumbagua have produced a materialist theory of kinship that enhanced her
ability to explain the dynamics of family formation, not only in Zumbagua com-
munities but also in the family-making processes and dilemmas in US society.
Her elaboration of this indigenous theory demonstrates that it is more than what
is typically described as emic or native data, whose interpretive scope is assumed to
be restricted to local contexts. In some respects, Weismantel’s argument is consist-
ent with Jean and John Comaroff’s (2011) claim (which will be explored in greater
detail later) that Africa, Latin America, and other settings within the Global South
provide useful heuristic windows on the world. This perspective departs from
the purportedly radical alterity of indigenous peoples and the distinct, incommen-
surate ontologies that a recent anthropological trend, namely the ontological turn,
166 Anthropological Theory 16(2–3)

Indigenous theory is not limited to the orature reflected in ethnographic sources,

including those around which Weismantel builds her analysis. There are formally-
trained and credentialed indigenous scholars who engage and construct theory,
which is embedded in their published social analyses. For example, the late
Lakota Sioux anthropologist Beatrice Medicine (2001, 2006) was devoted to
developing indigenous models for both explaining and preventing alcohol abuse
among Native Americans. Her thought-frame and model building were grounded
in the applied research she undertook to improve the quality of indigenous peoples’
lives. Another indigenous scholar, Jack D. Forbes (1993), who was trained in both
anthropology and history, made important contributions to theorizing the con-
struction and deployment of racial categories and boundaries in the Americas,
where centuries of contact, interaction, and intermixing between indigenous and
African descendant peoples have occurred.
Beyond anthropology but certainly influencing thinking within the discipline,
the Maori/Pacific scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2006 [1999]; Denzin et al., 2008)
has had a major impact on rethinking the contours of the relationship between
theory and method in critical discourses on methodology. Her decolonizing
approach to social research, particularly within indigenous communities, is partici-
patory and grounded in the epistemology, social ontology, and public policy prio-
rities of indigenous peoples and other subjugated communities around the world.

The ‘South’ as a locus for theory making

Beyond indigenous contexts, another significant space for theory-making now is
the Global South. The setting for theorizing in the ensuing discussion is not war
zones or indigenous villages. The focus instead is on universities and other settings
usually associated with the production of official knowledge.
Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell’s Southern Theory (2007) is a major
intervention in conventional approaches to social theory. She exposes her readers
to streams of thought and key thinkers and writers in Western and South Asia, sub-
Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Australia where histories of social theory have
been silenced vis-à-vis the Northern canon. After setting the colonial and neoco-
lonial context for the international division of intellectual labor and the ascendance
of North Atlantic metropolitan epistemologies, she examines some of the key issues
and problems social theorists have engaged in their respective milieus. She closes
the book with a discussion on world social sciences, raising questions about the
relations among knowledges and their relevance for the democratic movements
confronting assaults on truth under regimes of neoliberal power (2007: 230).
Connell takes her readers on a tour of an expansive intellectual terrain occupied
by sociologists, economists, philosophers, and theologians. In her chapter on South
Asia, there is a social anthropologist who figures prominently. Veena Das’s theor-
ization of gender and violence in two books, Critical Events: An Anthropological
Perspective on Contemporary India (1995) and Life and Words: Violence and the
Descent into the Ordinary (2006), demonstrates the power of theory ‘generated
Harrison 167

from the Indian experience’ (Connell, 2007: 177). Das makes a major contribution
to postcolonial theory and challenges the ‘monopoly [on] intellectual framing’ that
metropolitan social scientists have traditionally held in Indian studies. She inter-
rogates violence against women – abduction, mass rape, and honor killings – in
several episodes of social suffering over the course of modern Indian history. Those
moments included the 1947 Partition, death by sati, divorced Muslim women’s
legal claims for alimony, and the devastating 1984 industrial chemical disaster at
Bhopal. Within these contexts, women also suffered structural and discursive vio-
lence that the state and medical profession perpetrated against them. Das eluci-
dates how the state mobilized a discourse of suffering that promoted institutional
power rather than the interests of the citizens who were harmed.
Das’s ethnographic analysis draws on theoretical insights from both Western
and Indian philosophies. In her more recent book she uses philosopher Stanley
Cavell’s (1989) reading of Ludwig Wittgenstein (1953) as a guide, enabling her to
connect insights from the latter with ‘the interpellation of ancient and contempor-
ary Sanskrit, Hindi, Gujerati, Bengali and Urdu philosophies’ (DiFruscia, 2010:
136). Consequently, she builds a unique intercultural framework to examine the
relationship between ordinary life and extraordinary violence, illuminating the role
of panic rumors and other public discourses.

Other formulations of theory from the South

In their Theory from the South or How Euro-America is Evolving toward Africa
(2011), Jean and John Comaroff argue that modernity can be theorized from loca-
tions other than Western Europe and Euro-America, which appear to be experien-
cing a counter-evolution in which the expected outcomes of modernity – that is,
Euro-modernity – that traditional grand narratives predicted have been reversed.
The trends in predatory governance, official and illicit patterns of economic devel-
opment, crime, public health crises, and xenophobia seem to be shifting northward,
a situation of ‘the north going south’ (p. 17). They argue that social theorists
should ‘recognize in Africa, Asia, and Latin America the traces of things about
to happen’ in the North. Since the Global South offers an invaluable heuristic
window on the workings of the world and potential futures of global capitalism,
theory should be formulated from that terrain. In his comments on the Comaroffs’
provocative intervention, Mbembe (2012) points out that in their approach
‘‘‘Africa’’ perform[s] a radically new kind of work in theory – a work radically
different in its nature and scope from the one ‘‘Africa’’ has always been historically
assigned to perform’.
Theory from the South demonstrates remarkable intellectual breadth and
surpasses conventional engagements with theory. It is refreshing to witness the
invocation of Du Bois, Fanon, Mandami, and Nietzsche in the same book.
However, the theoretical ideas that the authors engage recurrently throughout
the text are from the writings of Northern scholars such as Giorgio Agamben
(on bare life and the sovereign state of exception), Hannah Arendt (on the
168 Anthropological Theory 16(2–3)

condition of human life), Walter Benjamin (on memory’s subversion of dominant

narrative authority), David Harvey (on neoliberalism), Friedrich Nietzsche (on
historical memory), Carl Schmitt (on the political in the modern world), and, of
course, Michel Foucault on a number of matters related to his far-ranging oeuvre.
While the significance of these theorists is unquestionable, the question should
be asked whether there are any scholars from the South, specifically from Africa,
who merit being more intensely engaged. Even Mbembe (2001), who is widely read
and characterized as Africa’s most brilliant postcolonial theorist, is mentioned only
a few times in the book. He has had his say, however, in the critical discussion the
book has stimulated (e.g. Mbembe 2012). Also in that forum, postcolonial literary
scholar Srinivas Aravamudan (2012) asks whether the Comaroffs speak from the
South or for it. He suggests that their ‘grandstanding claim’ of doing theory-work
from the South is ‘more window dressing than it is a new version of epistemological

African voices and gazes

It is a mistake to assume that black Africans have no voice or only operate from a
‘muted situation’ (Aravamudan, 2012). Archie Mafeje (1998) critically interrogated
the tendency of Western Africanists to assign black African anthropologists and
other intellectuals to the role of key informants. His experience in the profession
was so demeaning that he argued for a post-anthropological mode of inquiry.
Despite African anthropologists’ dissatisfaction with their peripheral status, there
are those who are playing an important part in remaking anthropology. They are
forging a path for Africans on the continent and in diaspora to participate more
audibly in developing theory from the South.
Kwesi Kwaa Prah (2008), a Ghanaian anthropologist working in South Africa,
optimistically envisions an anthropological ‘universalism of all voices . . . not a
universalism under restrictive hegemony’ (Prah, 2008: 96). He agrees, in principle,
with the Comaroffs concerning the significance of Africa becoming a center of
gravity in the production of knowledge. He writes that ‘we must all, North and
South, learn to look at ourselves, hear others about ourselves and themselves, and
above all allow others to speak for themselves’ (p. 96, emphasis added).
Claiming space within anthropology to speak for themselves is a growing trend.
Nigerian anthropologist Ifi Amadiume (1987) talks back to feminist anthropolo-
gists in her ethnographic analysis of Igbo male daughters and female husbands.
South African-based Cameroonian anthropologist Francis B. Nyamnjoh (2011)
writes about African anthropology and its relationship to other genres for writing
about culture and power, particularly fiction inspired by ethnographic research. He
himself is both an ethnographer and a creative writer (2009), who ‘consciously
[navigates] between fiction and anthropology’ (2011: 702). He explains his

need to discuss [his] research in a much more complex and nuanced manner than is
usually possible in disciplinary writing. More importantly, [he has] been driven by a
Harrison 169

desire to take the discussion of research beyond the ivory tower, to the very people
whose daily predicaments are at the heart of scholarly work. (2011: 702)

In order to reach the broader audience with which these authors wish to commu-
nicate, they bring ethnography and fiction into productive conversation. This is
especially true where anthropology – even its liberal expressions – is perceived to
talk at, on, and about Africans rather than talking with them, hearing what African
voices have to say (2011: 702). To distance themselves from anthropology’s pre-
occupation with radical alterity, Nyamnjoh explains how

[e]thnographic research by Africans has been channeled through the outlets of other,
purportedly less tainted disciplines. Fiction is one of the most common vehicles used
by African intellectuals to document and share ‘insider’ accounts of their societies.

A way to encounter theory in the anthropology that Africans create is to examine

the interaction between ethnography and fiction. Ethnography is the conventional
vehicle anthropologists employ to ‘represent and transform theory’ (Vincent, 1991:
41). Ethnographic and historical fiction can also encode truth claims and an alter-
native mode of theorizing (Harrison, 2008: 121). In this light, the creative writing of
Nyamnjoh deserves being read with an anthropological lens. This is also the case
for other anthropologists/writers such as the prolific writer of epic novels Amitav
Ghosh (2002) and, earlier during the 1930s and 1940s, Zora Neale Hurston (2006
[1937]) and Ella Deloria (2009 [1988]) (whose novel was published posthumously)
in the minoritized peripheries of US anthropology. Anthropologists who are also
poets (e.g. Ulysse, 2005; Rosaldo, 2014) and dancers/choreographers (Chinn, 2014)
may also embody and enact elements or dimensions of theory, as is reflected in
recent writing.
A final example of African anthropologists developing innovative approaches to
knowledge production is the scholarship of Kenyan anthropologist Mwenda
Ntarangwi. His provocative Reversed Gaze: An African Ethnography of American
Anthropology (2010) resists the exploitative regime of intellectual labor that Archie
Mafeje (1998) and Christine Obbo (1990) describe. Whereas Obbo (1990) was
strongly discouraged from studying middle-class whites in the United States,
Ntarangwi found a way to reverse the ethnographic gaze from Africans to US
anthropologists. Informed by several recent critical trends (reflexive, situated
knowledges, and critical race studies), he places his analysis of differential
‘anthropological citizenship’ (2010: 16) in the context of world anthropologies.

Final reflections: Does theory have life beyond the

ivory tower?
This exploration is a partial perspective on only some recent trends in the discipline
– a number of theory-making practices, the multivocal and dialogic character of
some of them, and efforts being made to converse across salient differences, divides,
170 Anthropological Theory 16(2–3)

and disparities of power and knowledge. Indeed, the aim of these theorizing prac-
tices is to eventually dismantle the entrenched disparities of power that have been
integral to hierarchies of intellectual labor as they operate within local, national,
and global contexts. This unequal structure of knowledge production, exchange,
and circulation – critically interrogated in the 2010 World Social Science Report:
Knowledge Divides (ISSR/UNESCO, 2010) – ultimately implicates the growing
structural inequities, dislocations, and dispossessions within global capitalism
(Carbonella and Kasmir, 2015; Glick Schiller, 2016: 140–1).
While attention has been largely given to ‘ex-centric’ and ‘Southern’ locations,
the significance of more or less conventional sites for theory construction in the
North is certainly not denied. It is important, however, to recognize North Atlantic
metropolitan anthropology’s centric and ex-centric sites, particularly the peripheral
zones where critical intellectual trajectories have been sustained despite trends
toward erasure (Harrison, 2008, 2012). Intensified attempts over the past few dec-
ades to democratize and decolonize Northern landscapes of knowledge production
have resulted in more diverse categories of thinkers being recognized for theoreti-
cally-significant work, some of which represents a major shift in the academic
Jamaican anthropologist Don Robotham asserts that theory should have material
effects in the world. Rather than reproduce the status quo, which often occurs by
default, theory ‘should propose an alternative to established politico-economic con-
figurations, and that alternative should inspire people to mobilize (Robotham, 2000,
paraphrased in Harrison, 2000). To have such an outcome, theory would have to be
embedded in relationships that permit its translation into sustained social action. The
sustained practice of social movements and civil society organizations (e.g. NGOs) is
a modality of knowledge and practical theory that can also potentially feed into
academically produced knowledge (Hale, 2014). Conversations between different
ways of knowing can potentially yield fertile outcomes, as demonstrated in
Charles R. Hale and Lynn Stephen’s Otros Saberes [Other Knowledges] (2013),
which is based on the result of six collaborative research projects sponsored by the
Latin American Studies Association. In all the cases, academics and representatives
of civil society and social movement organizations worked together, adhering to the
priorities defined within indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. The projects,
based on the interaction between routine academic research and sustained practice
based knowledge, ‘brought forth novel research questions, forms of data and know-
ledge, and analyses and interpretations’ (Hale, 2014: 4). Collaborations like this,
which depart from the academic routine, have the potential to enrich scholarship
and the terms for formulating theory.
Another anthropologist who advocates such collaborations is Arturo Escobar
(2007), whose Territories of Difference (2008) came out of the alliance he cultivated
with Afro-descendant social movement organizations in the Pacific-coast region of
Colombia. In their struggle for viable forms of community life, economic develop-
ment, and sustainable biodiversity in their environment, Afro-Colombians distilled
theory through cooperative meshworks, which are nonhierarchical networks
Harrison 171

(2008: 274) organized around the priorities of social movement actors, both men
and women.
Escobar argues that this new theory on the ‘territories of difference’ that Afro-
Colombians must carefully navigate for their very survival is informed not only by
their epistemological orientation. According to him, it is also shaped by ‘different
ontological commitments’ (2008: 285). He argues that his Afro-Colombian inter-
locutors’ discourses and debates concerning social reality and the nature of being
differ considerably from the dominant theories associated with Western academia
and Northern development regimes (2008: 285). The current ‘theoretical moment’
he describes is influenced by an ‘ontological turn’ (Kohn, 2015). Black commu-
nities, particularly those along Colombia’s embattled Pacific coast, he argues, are a
significant inspiration for his concern with alternative ontologies – or ontologies
otherwise, with both ‘other’ and ‘wise’ being operative terms. He claims that these
ontologies can serve as a basis for alternative strategies for development, biodiver-
sity, and sociality.
Escobar’s position is not without some controversy. There are critics of the
ontological turn (e.g. Graeber, 2015). Not uncommonly, they point to the risks
and dangers of essentializing cultural differences and recreating the much-critiqued
problem of viewing culture in bounded terms. There is also the problem with the
failure of ‘radical ontology . . . to provide an analytic framework with which to
access the continuing centrality of race to ‘‘power relations inherent in structures
of domination’’’ (Glick Schiller, 2016: 141, quoting Pierre, 2004). It seems that
Escobar attempts to reconcile an understanding of ‘ontologies otherwise’ with an
analysis of imperial globality, which he clearly understands to be grounded in the
modernity, development practices, and white supremacy that are integral to the
logics and workings of capital accumulation. (See Allen and Robson, 2016, for an
attempt to establish a rapprochement between analyses of multiple ontologies and
decolonial theory.)
Escobar understands that the processes related to contemporary forms of what
Marx (2011 [1867]) characterized as ‘primitive accumulation’ and David Harvey
(2005) refers to as ‘accumulation by dispossession’ results in a dehumanizing ‘race
to the bottom’. This process buttresses the practice of profits being valued more
than the lives, well-being, and rights of ordinary people. The social movement or
network of organizations, Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN), that Escobar
features in his ethnography does not retreat from the wider world of national and
imperial challenges into a bounded cosmology. There are, however, organizations
in Colombia and elsewhere whose political edge has been blunted by myopic ‘ideal-
izations of culture’ promoted by neoliberalism (Rappaport, 2016). In light of how
movements ebb and flow over time, it is worthwhile to ask whether neoliberaliza-
tion has led to state tactics and also to self-disciplining practices on the part of
movement activists that foster the strategic practice and performance of essentia-
lized difference. To what extent, one might wonder, are Pacific Coast Afro-descen-
dants’ grievances and claims to full citizenship and human rights more likely to be
accepted as legitimate and authentic when they comply with hegemonic
172 Anthropological Theory 16(2–3)

expectations of radical alterity? Have the ontological commitments Escobar docu-

mented in his research been influenced by a sociopolitical milieu configured by the
workings and effects of neoliberal multiculturalism (Hale, 2005, 2006)? These are
only some of the questions that arise when we navigate and work to make sense of
such challenging crossroads of experience, knowledge, and power.
The examples of ex-centric theory that this essay has presented to make its case
demonstrate that, contrary to traditional thinking, theory has a symbiotic and
dialectical rather than a dichotomous relationship to practice. Theory and practice
are inextricably interrelated and mutually reinforcing modes of social practice.
This approach propels a shift from a focus on a valorization of theory as textua-
lized product to ‘theorizing’ as a form of creative work performed in diverse dia-
logic contexts. A corollary is the concept of praxis, which represents the synthesis
of theory and practice, emphasizing that they each inform and co-create the other.
Praxis represents an important tenet, especially in publicly-engaged trends in
anthropology and kindred social sciences. To those for whom theory/theorizing
is a tool for struggle against imperial forms of globalization, white supremacy,
poverty, gender and sexual oppressions, environmental injustices, militarism, and
the merciless negation of human rights and dignity, the crafting of convincing
conceptual frames and useful theoretical tools emanates from the interlocking
imperatives of intellectual efficacy and social responsibility.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, author-
ship, and/or publication of this article.

The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication
of this article.

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Faye V. Harrison is Professor of African American Studies and Anthropology at

the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her scholarly interests include the
history and politics of anthropology, the African diaspora, human rights, and
intersections of race, gender, and other axes of inequality and power. She is cur-
rently President of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological
Sciences (2013–18).