Prefigurative Politics & Anthropological Methodologies Niki Thorne

PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology, York University, Toronto, ON

Abstract In this paper, I draw from my involvement and research with a small, grassroots project in liberatory education, Hamilton FreeSkool, in order to discuss anthropological practice and anarchist values. Building on indigenous and feminist critiques of research, as well as the works of anarchist scholars with regards to militant research, I touch on themes of anti-oppression, cultural critique, anti-capitalism as they relate to anthropological research. I suggest that anarchism and sociocultural anthropology have an already existing resonance and that combining facets of each has much to offer activists and scholars alike in terms of envisioning possibilities for social movements as well as for decolonizing research.


narchism, Power, Hierarchy, Oppression

In this paper, I explore possibilities for anthropological research by incorporating the values of my field site and research community (Hamilton anarchist community/Hamilton Freeskool) into methodological considerations, in response to concerns raised by feminist and indigenous critiques of research. Before describing how the anarchist ethics of my field site can contribute to anthropology, I draw from anarchist scholars and the words of friends (collected through fieldwork interviews) to demystify anarchism. Part of the beauty of anarchism is the multiplicity of possibilities for definition and actions—there is no one way to define anarchist theory or practice. As George Woodcock has written: Anarchism, indeed, is both various and mutable, and in the historical perspective it presents the appearance, not of a swelling stream flowing on to its sea of destiny...but rather of water percolating through porous grounds—here forming for a time a strong underground current, there gathering into a swirling pool, trickling through crevices, disappearing from sight, and then re-emerging where the cracks in the social structure may offer it a course to run. As a doctrine it changes constantly; as a movement it grows and disintegrates, in constant fluctuation, but it never vanishes (Woodcock 2004:18). Thatbeingsaid,thereareseveralthemesthatunite allanarchisms. As Greg noted during an interview a couple of summers ago on the patio of the Bread and Roses cafe of the Skydragon Centre, There are two basic ideas that unite all anarchisms: struggle against authority and struggle against hierarchy. The basis of united struggle against hierarchy, which translates most often to struggle against any kind of inequality, injustice, prejudice, violence, and struggle against authority...makes anarchism a hard thing to define but allows for so much creativity and alliance building. Every resistance against hierarchy that does not aim to establish a new hierarchy can be viewed as anarchist…Anarchism doesn’t belong to

Keywords Militant research, anarchism, decolonizing methodologies, anti-oppression, cultural critique, power, hierarchy

47 | Niki Thorne

‘Playing the Field’ Conference Proceedings | Social Anthropology | York University 2009 any elitist group of intellectuals– it belongs to anyone refusing authority, anyone who is reclaiming land, fighting against racism, ableism, or sexism. (Thorne 2011). Another theme that unites many anarchisms, and of particular importance to anthropological methods, is the belief that the ends do not justify the means–that we should be living our daily lives and acting in ways that are consistent with the way we want the world to be. Anarchist anthropologist David Graeber writes about the importance of prefigurative politics, “...making one’s form of organization in the present at least a rough approximation of how a free society would actually operate....above all, the rejection of any idea that the end justifies the means ” (Graeber 2004a:1). As an anonymous interviewee stated, “To me, anarchism is a process, not an end goal– one of dismantling hierarchy and asserting selfautonomy in organizing in constructive ways. This includes elements of how we lead our lives, our lifestyles, as well as the broader pictures of struggles we identify with and choose to engage in” (Thorne 2011). How we live our lives, how we interact with other humans in the present, and how we engage in research should be done in a way that is consistent with our aims for a more egalitarian future premised on less oppressive and exploitative systems and relationships. Hamilton Freeskool, a project involving much of the Hamilton radical community, and founded with explicitly anarchist principles, cites anti-oppression and radical inclusivity within its main values: More than being merely tolerant, Freeskool aims to actively make our spaces diverse and safe for the expression of all identities. We believe this is essential to the learning process. Exposing and challenging unjust race, class, gender, age, ability, sexual orientation, experience, and other dynamics helps us to work towards a culture that values a wider range of truths. Radical inclusivity is a major challenge. There are social and structural barriers to many people’s involvement in education that must be overcome for the liberation and learning of us all. An anti-oppression analysis is a powerful tool that helps to include diverse populations and educate around issues of exclusion and privilege. It is a work always in progress. We must embrace discomfort and challenge our assumptions. It is the responsibility of each participant to self-facilitate our power, privileges, and oppressions (Hamilton Freeskool Manifesto1). By incorporating the values of my field site into anthropological considerations, I aim to contribute towards possibilities for anti-oppressive anthropology. Power and Hierarchy in Research How might these values and concerns relate to academic research, methods, and writing? Contemporary anarchisms draw much of their theory today from feminism, indigenous studies, peace studies, environmentalism, and other antioppressive theory and actions. In this section, I draw from feminist and indigenous critiques to think about power and hierarchy in research. In Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (1999), indigenous writer and scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith situates and critically examines research in a historical, political and cultural context. She identifies research as “a significant site of struggle between the interests and ways of knowing of the West and the interests and ways of resisting of the Other” (1999:2). Smith criticizes research for treating methodologies and indigenous peoples “together, in the same breath, without understanding the complex ways in which the pursuit of knowledge is deeply embedded in the multiple layers of imperial and colonial practices” (1999:2). She describes researchers as “inquisitive and acquistive strangers” (1999:3). Smith writes, “At a common sense level research was talked about both in terms of its absolute
1Retrieved from on May 5

48 | Niki Thorne

‘Playing the Field’ Conference Proceedings | Social Anthropology | York University 2009 worthlessness to us, the indigenous world, and its absolute usefulness to those who wielded it as an instrument” (1999:3). Undermining objective claims to truth, she writes, “Research is not an innocent or distant academic exercise but an activity that has something at stake and that occurs in a set of political and social conditions” (1999:5). Smith’s critique of research as objectifying finds echoes in all sorts of research with all sorts of human beings. Diane Wolf , in Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork, describes these dilemmas as revolving around power, “often displaying contradictory, difficult and irreconcilable positions for the researcher” (1996:2). She writes: The most central dilemma for contemporary feminists in fieldwork, from which other contradictions are derived, is power and the unequal hierarchies or levels of control that are often maintained, perpetuated, created, and re-created during and after field research. Power is discernible in three interrelated dimensions: (1) power differences stemming from different positionalities of the researcher and the researched (race, class, nationality, life chances, urban-rural backgrounds); (2) power exerted during the research process, such as defining the research relationship, unequal exchange, and exploitation; and (3) power exerted during the post fieldwork period— writing and representing (1996:2). Anthropologists, in particular, have inherited linkages between early field work and colonialism (Asad 1973). Fieldwork in anthropology is often seen as a right of passage, though with recent critiques, and with the politicization of fieldwork, it is perhaps becoming more acceptable for anthropologists to engage in different models of fieldwork, including fieldwork “at home”. Though as Wolf notes, “…it is important to understand that the politicization of fieldwork’s history in anthropology has forced contemporary critical anthropologists to engage in it with more deliberate political considerations; anthropologists, particularly feminist anthropologists, have been at the forefront of experimenting with more ethical and less exploitative methods” (1996:8). It is important to consider the observations of indigenous and feminist scholars regarding power and hierarchy in research for research of all kinds. Smith writes: ...the methodologies and methods of research, the theories that inform them, the questions which they generate and the writing styles they employ, all become significant acts which need to be considered carefully and critically before being applied. In other words, they need to be ‘decolonized’ (1999:39). Additionally, as activist Peter Gelderloos notes about oppression, “...we have a responsibility to challenge oppression, because oppressive systems enlist us, willingly or unwillingly, as accomplices in their perpetuation, and we can not absolve ourselves of our participation simply by improving our attitude, or becoming “colorblind,” or blind in any other way. Oppression is a way that society is organized, and you cannot avoid it while remaining a member of society” (Gelderloos 2005). Following this, and arguments like those made by Smith and Wolf, researchers have a responsibility to recognize and challenge privilege and oppression in research and writing. This should be considered not just in terms of research that works to adhere to anarchist principles of egalitarianism and challenging and dismantling hierarchy, but in the design, implementation and writing of all research. Possibilities for Anti-Oppressive, Radically Inclusive Research How have less oppressive research methodologies been envisioned to date? In Practising Anarchist Theory: Towards a Participatory Political Philosophy, anarchist theorist Uri Gordon calls for an activist grounded approach to theory and outlines possible roles for an anarchist philosopher. Gordon emphasizes the necessity of active participation in the movement being theorized,

49 | Niki Thorne

‘Playing the Field’ Conference Proceedings | Social Anthropology | York University 2009 which he terms embeddedness. He writes, “... both the people whose ideas and practices are examined and the people who are formulating theory on their basis must be involved in the process of theorizing” (Gordon 2007:280). Rather than from above, the voice of the intellectual should come from within (Gordon 2007; Gullestad 1999). The production of knowledge should be intimately tied to social movement activity, and ideally results in knowledge that is useful to the social movement. In Gordon’s conception, an anarchist philosopher either begins from within the anarchist movement, or undergoes a process of absorption and integration, “ any case, the result is that s/he is situated seamlessly within its networks” (2007:281). Gordon writes, “The role of the activist/philosopher is not simply that of an expert observer but primarily one of an enabler or facilitator, and the role of the participants is that of co-philosophers and co-activists” (2007:282). Complementary to Gordon’s notion of the anarchist philosopher is the notion of militant research. There have been calls for a more militant or engaged anthropology that strives for social transformation. For example, in The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology, Nancy Scheper-Hughes critiques the role of anthropologist as observer distant from political engagement and in justifying moral and cultural relativism (1995). She calls rather for a more politically committed and morally engaged anthropology. Scheper-Hughes states with regards to her research in South Africa, “...a radical self-critique is a necessary precondition for recasting anthropology as a tool for human liberation...” (1995:415). Militant research has somewhat differing and more specific connotations within anarchist theory. Militant Research is described in Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations// Collective Theorization as follows: “Militant Research is not a specialized task, a process that only involves those who are traditionally thought of as researchers. It is an intensification and deepening of the political. Militant research starts from the understandings, experiences, and relations generated through organizing, as both a method of political action and as a form of knowledge”. (Shukaitis & Graeber 2007:9). Stevphen Shukaitis and David Graeber write that revolutionary knowledge must be “...a pragmatic form of knowledge that lays bare all such pretensions; a form of knowledge deeply embedded in the logic of transformational practice” (2007:12). As Tammy, a FreeSkool participant, facilitator, and organizer describes militant research in our Freeskool Zine, The Liberation of Knowledge: An Activist Approach to University, Research and Beyond, At the very least militant research implies a desire to witness change in the world, if not explicit involvement in actions aimed at bringing about said change. It involves the production of knowledge that is both relevant for militant ends, and done in a manner consistent with the aims of political militants. Practically speaking it is research for the revolution...the research militant is engaging with questions around concrete forms of social intervention (Kovich 2009:16). The purpose of militant research is to develop tools, frameworks, concepts, techniques and strategies that resonate with campaigns, initiatives and organizations (Van Meter 2008:2). Tammy also notes that militant research “... is explicitly political, and conducted with the intent of critically engaging with issues, ideas and concerns that are of relevance to ongoing social justice projects” (Kovich 2009:20). Militant research has the following characteristics: To whatever extent is possible, militant research is done without objectification. Rather than a dichotomy between an active researcher and a passive subject, militant research aims for “... productive cooperation that transforms both into active participants in producing knowledge and in transforming themselves” (Van Meter 2008:1). Militant research is motivated towards progressive social change, and is practical, applicable, and valuable to those engaged in struggles for social transformation (Colectivo Situationes 2007a:190). Additionally, militant research, like postmodern

50 | Niki Thorne

‘Playing the Field’ Conference Proceedings | Social Anthropology | York University 2009 and grounded theory trends in social science, is based on a rejection of certainties and goes beyond established boundaries, rather than framing issues within pre-existing categories and understandings, and in this way responds to other critiques of knowledge production. Colectivo Situationes writes, “ is not so much a question of reacting when faced with already codified options as it is about producing the terms of the situation ourselves” (2007a:195). Militant research produces knowledge beyond the logic of confrontation, seeking to construct alternative sociabilities and new values: “If struggle does not alter the ‘structure of meaning and values’; we are only in the presence of a change of roles, which is a guarantee of survival for the structure itself” (Colectivo Situationes 2007a:195). Also, mirroring current trends in anthropology towards reflexivity and engagement, militant research is grounded in radical criticism of existing values of both the self and the world. Lastly, militant research is prefigurative: it is carried out in a manner that is consistent with the values of the social movement. The manner in which knowledge is produced is as important as the content of the research. In terms of the possibilities for integrating anarchist ethic into anthropology more explicitly, we can begin by thinking about what anthropology already has in common with anarchism. Anarchism is concerned with questioning taken-for-granted assumptions about our cultures and envisioning and bringing into being alternatives. As Marcus and Fischer write with regards to cultural critique, “The other promise of anthropology... has been to serve as a form of cultural critique for ourselves. In using portraits of other cultural patterns to reflect self-critically on our own ways, anthropology disrupts common sense and makes us reexamine our taken-for-granted assumptions” (Marcus and Fischer 1986:1). Anarchist anthropologist David Graeber writes that there is “...something about anthropological thought in particular—its keen awareness of the very range of human possibilities—that gave it an affinity to anarchism from the very beginning” (2004b:13). As Graeber notes, anthropology is deeply embedded in the project of trying to understand the full range of what has been, and what is possible politically, economically, and socially. He states, “In a way there has always been an affinity between anthropology and anarchism simply because anthropologists know that a society without a state is possible–there have been many of them, and they work fine” (Graeber 2006). In terms of possibilities and utopian imaginings he states, “When you see anarchism in action and it works, it just changes your perception of what’s possible in society and in life” (Graeber 2006). In terms of the more concrete question–what is an anarchist anthropologist to do—Graeber calls for “low theory,” versus a single high theory, which would be inimical to the spirit of anarchism. “Low theory”, rather, is a way to grapple with the immediate questions that emerge from transformative projects. In Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropologist, he describes ethnography as a rough, incipient model “of how non-vanguardist revolutionary intellectual practice might work” (2004b:11). Graeber describes two aspects or moments to this project: “one ethnographic, one utopian, suspended in constant dialogue” (2004b:12). In terms of the importance of utopianism and imagination: “There would appear to be a direct link between the experience of first imagining things and then bringing them into being (individually or collectively)–that is, the experience of certain forms of unalienated production–and the ability to imagine social alternatives, particularly if that alternative is the possibility of a society which is itself premised on less alienated forms of creativity” (2005:199). In terms of utopian possibilities, Hamilton FreeSkool is an example of alternate forms of social relations and organizing, showing by example that something else is possible, and that we can create it. As Holly, a FreeSkool participant stated: I hope that the people who didn’t think something like this [Hamilton FreeSkool] could exist will also hear about it and that there’s people out there that are doing this, and…it’s really utopian and kind of wonderful…I hope that’s the way the world will be

51 | Niki Thorne

‘Playing the Field’ Conference Proceedings | Social Anthropology | York University 2009 someday. And I’m not saying that it’s perfect by any means but that there’s something that’s happening within all this other craziness that’s sustainable and enriching and nourishing and that that’s possible. And that’s really beautiful and encouraging (Thorne 2011). Mirroring Uri Gordon’s emphasis on embeddedness, Graeber describes “the activist’s ethnography that might be” as “examining movements to which one has, in fact, made some kind of commitment, in which one feels oneself a part. It would also have to be combined with a certain degree of utopian extrapolation: a matter of teasing out the tacit logic or principles underlying certain forms of radical practice and then not only offering the analysis back to those communities, but using them to formulate new visions” (Graeber 2005:200). I drew from ideas about activist ethnography, militant research, and decolonizing methodologies in formulating my research with Hamilton Freeskool. My research centred around a project and which I am already actively engaged as a participant, facilitator, and organizer. My interviewees are friends and allies, and my methods have involved multiple steps for seeking ongoing consent. These checks provides opportunitie to mediate unequal power, hierarchy, as well as misrepresentations throughout all stages of research, including the process of interviews, analysis, and the final writing stages. After each interview, I passed my notes back to the interviewee as the first step in having ownership and control over his/her words. This gave each participant an opportunity to delete any words s/he had second thoughts about, or to clarify anything that was not expressed as clearly as s/he would have liked. It also provided an opportunity to double check about the framing of sensitive information, in terms of security culture. With regards to collaboration and consent during analysis, I checked in with each interviewee before using their words. I asked questions like, “Is it okay if I quote you in this way? Does this fit with what you meant to say? Do you think this is a fair representation or analysis of this topic?” Lastly, during the writing stages, I posted each section and chapter to a blog, and made changes throughout writing based on feedback and desires of those involved in Hamilton FreeSkool and the Hamilton anarchist community. Participants had final say in what was written and how, with regards to their words and our project. In contemplating feminist and indigenous critiques of research and the academy, anthropology, fieldwork and writing, and then delving deeper into anarchist possibilities for research, I’ve fallen into thinking about how anarchism can challenge and transform activist anthropology. Using anthropological imaginings to make sense of and expand the possibilities of anarchism, and using anarchist imaginings to make sense of and expand the possibilities of anthropology has become this continuous interplay, a dual project that loops back on itself–anarchism and anthropology dovetail and continuously enrich each other in more ways than previously imagined. David Graeber writes, “It means nothing to say you are an anarchist unless you are doing something…one’s means must be consonant with one’s ends…as much as possible one must embody the society one wishes to create” (Graeber 2005:194). I continue to explore possibilities in terms of resonances between anarchism and anthropology throughout my Masters research, inspired by a number of questions. What about embodying anarchist ideals in anthropological actions? Anthropologists have a start on reflexivity and positionality, but what about really integrating a decolonizing and anti-oppressive framework into reflexivity? What if in addition to questioning the ‘deeply embedded assumptions’, power, and hierarchy, and fighting for a better world, we did this in a way that was consistent with the desired ends? What if we embodied anti-oppressive values within our research methodologies, incorporating prefigurative politics into every conceivable aspect of research and writing? What if we could imagine and create an anti-oppressive, decolonizing anthropology dedicated to social transformation?

52 | Niki Thorne

‘Playing the Field’ Conference Proceedings | Social Anthropology | York University 2009
September 5, 2009. References Asad, Talal, ed. 1973 Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter. London: Ithica Press. Colectivo Situationes 2007a On the Researcher-Militant. In Utopian Pedagogy: Radical Experiments against Neoliberal Globalization. Mark Cote, Richard J.F. Day & Greig De Peuter. Toronto: Toronto University Press. Colectivo Situationes 2007b Something More on Research Militancy: Footnotes on Procedures and (In)Decisions. In Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations, Collective Theorization. Stevphen Shukaitis and David Graeber, eds. Oakland: AK Press. Gelderloos, Peter 2005 What We Mean by Oppression. http://tribes., accessed October 5, 2009. Gordon, Uri 2007 Practicing Anarchist Theory: Towards a Participatory Political Philosophy. In Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations, Collective Theorization. Stevphen Shukaitis and David Graeber, eds. Oakland: AK Press. Graeber, David 2004a Anarchism, Or The Revolutionary Movement of the Twenty-first Century., accessed May 20, 2009. Graeber, David 2004b Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press. 2005 The Auto-Ethnography that Can Never Be and the Activist’s Ethnography that Might Be. In Auto-Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practice. Anne Meleley and Donna J. Young, eds. Peterborough: Broadview Press. 2006 A Conversation with Anarchist David Graeber about Anthropology. http://www., accessed Hamilton Freeskool 2009 FreeSkool Hamilton Manifesto. http://www., accessed April 11, 2009. Kovich, Tammy 2009 The Liberation of Knowledge: An Activist Approach to University, Research and Beyond. Hamilton: Hamilton Freeskool DIY Zine Press. Routledge, Paul 2009 Toward a Relational Ethics of Struggle: Embodiment, Affinity and Affect. In Contemporary Anarchist Studies: An Introductory Reader of Anthropology and the Academy. Randall Amster, Abraham DeLeon, Luis A. Fernandez, Anthony J. Nocella II & Deric Shannon, eds. Pp. 82-92. London: Routledge. Scheper-Hughes, Nancy 1995 The Primacy of the Ethical: Propositions for a Militant Anthropology. In Current Anthropology 36(3):409-420 Shukaitis, Stevphen, and David Graeber, eds. 2007 Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations, Collective Theorization. Oakland: AK Press. Thorne, Catherine 2011 “An Experiment in Liberation Fuelled by Love…” Hamilton FreeSkool, Prefigurative Politics & Anthropological Practice Tuhiwai Smith, Linda 1999 Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous People. London: Zed Books. Van Meter, Keven 2008 What is Militant & Co-Research? Portland: Grassroots Media Camp. Wolf, Diane 1996 Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork. Boulder: Westview Press.

the Department of Social Anthropology at York University, Toronto, ON.

53 | Niki Thorne

Niki Thorne is a 1st year PhD Candidate in

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful