Hidden Anthropology Gems III: Brazilian ethnography and the global dominance of English

By Katerina Chatzikidi
Welcome to the third post of the series. On this occasion, the social social anthropologist Katerina Chatzikidi has joined us to share her fieldwork experience in Brazil. In her piece, rather than being focused on a single work, she takes us on a tour to introduce a wide variety of issues related to English as the dominant language of scholarly publishing ~ Ricardo R. Ontillera Sánchez, curator of Hidden Anthropology Gems.


When invited to contribute to this blog series on ‘Anglocentrism’, I was particularly happy to accept the invitation, taking this opportunity to write about an issue that has troubled me throughout my graduate studies in the UK.

As a non-native English speaker, I was first met with English as the main (and only) language in which academic subjects were taught when I came to Oxford to pursue an MSc in social anthropology. Although fluent in English, I remember experiencing difficulty in keeping pace with most of my classmates who were native English speakers. Not only was I new to anthropology, and therefore needed to familiarize myself with a whole universe of uncharted literature, but I also had to acquire the habit of reading academic texts exclusively in English. And fast. It was a fascinating, yet nerve-wracking, learning journey. Looking back at my MSc year, I realise I have probably never worked as hard in my life.

This experience was certainly not unique to me, but shared amongst thousands of students who study abroad every year.

Continuing with my studies in anthropology, I pursued a PhD. All the hard work of the year before was paying off. English was no longer an obstacle to reading the literature I wanted, at the pace I wanted. But once this barrier was out of the way, another issue became more salient than ever: By reading nearly exclusively in English, was I really reading all the literature I needed?

With a research project on Black rural quilombo communities in Brazil (self-identified as maroon descendants), I urgently felt the need to explore the historical and anthropological scholarship written by Brazilians in Portuguese.

Of course, when it comes to anthropology, there are some things that are particular to the Brazilian case. To begin with, Brazil is a country with a strong history of anthropology and boasts a large number of anthropology departments. Every year an impressive number of graduate theses, ethnographies, and collective editions in anthropology are written, making it a challenge for anyone to keep up with new publications even in their sub-fields. The wealth of Brazilian anthropological scholarship (mostly in Portuguese) draws on a fascinating engagement with the debates around the rights of the people studied by anthropologists, most emblematically in the case of indigenous peoples and, later, quilombolas.

A steadily growing number of, primarily, Brazilian anthropologists have contributed to what is now a vast literature on quilombos in Brazil.

Conducting research in Brazil, on a topic so diversely explored by Brazilian scholars, it would be irrational, biased, or altogether absurd, so it seemed to me, not to pay enough attention to local scholarship, let alone omit it from my reading list. I threw myself enthusiastically into exploring this dynamic and prolific academic universe. Of course, it was not an easy task, given that I had to go through the process of immersing myself in a different language, exactly as I did with English. From the first year of my doctoral studies, Portuguese became not only the language I used in the field, but the primary language in which my academic reading was conducted. The way I saw it, this task was necessary. And very often an enjoyable one.

For me it was not only a question of paying respect to locally produced historical and anthropological scholarship, but also of improving my own ethnography. By learning from, and incorporating, the wealth of knowledge already out there, my work could only benefit.

My decision to read, process, and make extensive use of local scholarship (mostly) in Portuguese, was also positively valued in my viva voce examination (the final examination for the award of doctoral degrees). My examiners could not help noticing that this was sadly an all too rare phenomenon amongst anthropologists writing in English, even when their main ethnographic research has been conducted in non-English speaking countries.

Needless to say, this discussion goes beyond anthropology. It is also intimately connected with Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford, the Decolonising Our Minds Society at SOAS, and similar movements seeking to challenge existing knowledge production structures –both institutional and at the university’s physical space- that uncritically reproduce legacies of colonialism and racism. One of the main problems such movements attempt to tackle is the Euro-centric curriculum that still dominates traditional academia, even outside the Global North. As English Professor at Cambridge University, Priyamvada Gopal, wrote in an Opinion piece in the Guardian, ‘[t]o decolonize and not just diversify curriculums is to recognize that knowledge is inevitably marked by power relations’.

Are there any lessons anthropologists can take from this discussion? Or, put in a less didactic way, how do anthropologists engage (or fail to engage) with efforts to decolonise and diversify formal education? With English dominating global scholarly publications in all disciplines (as also discussed by Ricardo Ontillera Sánchez in the inaugural piece of this blog series) there is an increasingly high pressure – at least for scholars in English-speaking countries and for those aiming at international careers – to publish in English. However, this is not an all-or-nothing decision. As anthropologists, we are especially privileged to belong to the profession par excellence that sets out to study and learn from ‘the Other’, whoever and wherever that may be. This often, although not necessarily, involves learning another language as part of our fieldwork.

For those of us who went through this learning curve, engaging with the scholarship of the countries where we conducted field research is only a small step further. We already speak the language. What we could also be doing is read and write in that language; try to publish in local journals, cite authors who write in that language as well as works by local authors written in English. By starting a dialogue with local scholarship in our respective disciplines and sub-fields we participate in the production of fruitful, multi-linguistic, debates. This in turn fosters a broader circulation of knowledge in academia.

Non-native English speakers who did not need to learn a third language for their field research can also be contributing to the ‘decolonisation’ of academia by publishing in their native languages and/or journals in their respective countries of origin. It will still be an invaluable dissemination of bottom-up knowledge production in areas and/or languages with little translated literature available and often limited access to foreign publications.

To conclude, and to compensate for the fact that this blog post was also written in English, I include a small but indicative reading list, relevant to my field of studies. Most texts are in Portuguese, although I’ve included some in English, published either by lower impact factor journals or by non-native English speakers.

Almeida, A. W. Berno de.  1989. ‘Terras de preto, terras de santo, terras de índio: Uso comum e conflito’, Novos Cadernos NAEA, 10: 163-196.

Arruti, J. M. 2006. Mocambo: Antropologia e história do processo de formação quilombola. Bauru: EDUSC.

Gomes, F. de Santos. 2015. Mocambos e quilombos: uma história do campesinato negro no Brasil. São Paulo: Claro Enigma.

Kenny, M. Lorena. 2013. ‘The contours of quilombola identity in the Sertão’, Luso-Brazilian Review, 50(1): 140-164.

Leite, I. Boaventura . 2008. ‘O projeto politico quilombola: desafios, conquistas e impasses atuais’, Estudos Feministas, 16(3): 965-977.

Müller, C. 2005. ‘Ser camponês, ser “remanescente de quilombos”’, Ilha: Revista de Antropologia, 29: 30-43.

Nascimento, A. do. 1980. ‘Quilombismo: An Afro-Brazilian political alternative’, Journal of Black Studies, 11(2): 141-178.

O’ Dwyer, E. Cantarino. 2016. ‘Uma nova forma de fazer história: os direitos às terras de quilombo diante do projeto modernizador de construção da Nação’, In O. Martins de Oliveira (Ed.) Direitos quilombolas & dever de Estado em 25 anos da Constituição Federal de 1988 (257-274). Rio de Janeiro: ABA.

Oliveira, J. Pacheco de. 1998. ‘Uma etnologia dos “índios misturados”? Situação colonial, territorialização e fluxos culturais’, Mana: Estudos de Antropologia Social, 4(1): 47-77.

Quintans, M. Trotta Dallalana. 2015. ‘Classe, raça e gênero na luta por direitos do movimento negro’, Revista InSURgência, Brasília, 1(1): 72-100.

, L. 2007. O pão da terra: Propriedade communal e campesinato livre na Baixada Ocidental Maranhense. São Luís: EDUFMA.

Viegas, S. de Matos. 2007. Terra calada: Os Tupinambá na Mata Atlántica do Sul da Bahia. Rio de Janeiro: 7Letras.

Zárate, M. 2012. ‘Tracing resistance: Community and ethnicity in a peasant organisation.’ In J. Gledhill and P. Schell (Eds.), New approaches to resistance in Brazil and Mexico (211-229). Durham and London: Duke University Press.

See also this ‘decolonised syllabus’: a collective list of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) authors that could interest students.

Katerina Chatzikidi is a social anthropologist and a Postdoctoral Associate at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Oxford. From September 2018, she will be 2018/19 Stipendiary Fellow at the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS), School of Advanced Study, University of London.






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