The Zero Anthropology Project

Webfolio for Maximilian C. ForteZERO ANTHROPOLOGY PROJECT






This is an edited version of what was previously just a collection of notes and abstracts. All of the items referenced in the previous version are listed in the bibliography below.

The Structures of Knowledge and the Future of the Social Sciences: Where does Zero Anthropology Stand?

Writing in the Journal of World-Systems Research in 2000, Richard E. Lee advanced two major claims. The first was that the (re)production of the structures of knowledge is a process that was constituted by the modern world-system, and that helped to constitute that same system in return. Put in the language of the Zero Anthropology Project, this means that Western imperial domination generated its own knowledge system (housed in universities), and that such knowledge as was developed in modern universities often tended to support, validate, enable, or otherwise made use of imperial domination for its own ends. Lee’s second claim was the social sciences emerged in the 19th-century (which is correct), as “a medium-term solution to the tensions internal to the structures of knowledge”. What we can say is that may be one reason; another reason was that ruling classes required a system for managing change—the famous problem of order was central here. Lee then offered two propositions: one was that “the structures of knowledge have entered into systemic crisis,” and the second was that, “the uncertainty of the future opens up the character of knowledge production and the definition and role of the knowledge producer”. Placing this again in the language of the Zero Anthropology Project: Western knowledge production in universities has entered a prolonged period of disarray, self-doubt, self-criticism, with struggles over the definition of disciplines and their reason for being, and numerous debates about their methods. In such a period of instability and volatility, knowledge production itself is being opened to serious change (in both positive and troubling directions), and the role of knowledge producers is itself being opened to change.

As Immanuel Wallerstein long argued, “the division of social analysis into three arenas, three logics, three levels—the economic, the political, and the sociocultural,” a division which is a legacy of 19th-century Western social science, is one of the biggest impediments to the development of new structures of knowledge. What was bequeathed to us from 19th-century Western knowledge production was a division between the humanities and their idiographic epistemology (emphasizing the particularity of social phenomena, the limited utility of generalizations, and the need for empathetic understanding), versus the natural sciences and their nomothetic epistemology (emphasizing the search for universal laws, for generalizations, and for explanation). Social science, having no epistemology that was uniquely its own, was caught between the two—and we see the exact same struggle occurring within anthropology. For Wallerstein, this is a productive tension, as discussed below. Put simply, Wallerstein advocates for the fusion of the two poles, rather than continuing a struggle to no good end. Similarly, the Zero Anthropology Project directly challenges conventional, doctrinaire formulations of anthropology as limited to a particular method, focused on particular places and social units, and limited to only certain questions. If anyone thus asks, “but how is it anthropology?”—they are in fact asking a good question, one that is good for indexing the degree to which Zero Anthropology is challenging and moving beyond the limitations of 19th-century knowledge structures.

“Zero Anthropology is not limited to one method,
to studying certain places, asking only certain questions”

Those in the world-systems camp argue for analysis of the large-scale and the long-term—in other words, Space and Time—as the main avenue for transcending the arbitrary divisions of the past. In the case of the Zero Anthropology Project, this translates into the study of empire in a holistic fashion, that does not emphasize any one place of study, or any one domain: everything, from everyday life, entertainment, material consumption, rituals, media, political discourse, diplomacy, the military, and learning, are all part of the study of imperialism as a social system, because that is precisely how imperialism operates in the real world.

In a separate article Lee defined the structures of knowledge of the modern world as, “those patterns of what can and cannot be thought that determine what actions can and cannot be deemed feasible in the material world”. It is these patterns that are undergoing a transformation.

At the time he wrote, Lee (and Wallerstein) believed that two knowledge movements—cultural studies with roots in the humanities, and complexity studies in the sciences—challenged the separation of the sciences, social sciences, and the humanities. These two knowledge movements disrupted the basic assumptions that allowed for these mutually exclusive epistemologies to develop. In yet another article, Lee was hopeful that “direct advocacy,” and the erosion of “professional neutrality,” would open possibilities not just for new forms of collaboration between agents that were previously separated in hierarchies (such as professors and students), but also new ways of interpreting the world and envisioning alternative actions. Since values and interests have always been invested in knowledge production, then any changes to knowledge production are bound to become the centre of real struggles and conflict. Authority and legitimacy will themselves become subject to exposure and criticism.

Indigenous Knowledge and Decolonization: Where does Zero Anthropology Stand?

Before proceeding, and in the interest of absolute clarity, Zero Anthropology does not presume to decolonize Indigenous minds, primarily because the main thrust of Zero Anthropology and most of its authorship, is itself Western. For Zero Anthropology to claim that it is in any way advancing decolonization, would be an act of obvious exploitation of the right to speak on others’ behalf, which is precisely one of the problems of received/colonial anthropology. Instead, the position of Zero Anthropology is a sympathetic one—it is based on acknowledging parallel transformations in the structures of knowledge that can complement each other. Where some emphasize decolonization and post-colonialism, we instead emphasize anti-colonialism and anti-imperialism. The latter can be fully Western, without trampling on the self-representations of others or trying to taken them over, and is open to uniting with others based on the objective observation that empire is deleterious for majorities on both sides of the imperial divide. Imperialism does real damage to all societies and their political and economic systems, not to mention the distortion of their cultures, which is the case whenever aggression is married to exploitative accumulation. Pain and rewards may not be distributed equally on both sides of the imperial divide (the divide between centre and periphery), but that does not mean that the human damage done by empire is ever limited to just one place or people. And why does Zero Anthropology even care? Because it emerged from within a public university system, that was intended to be at the service of the public—and that it would be a major disservice to the public to deceive it into believing that imperialism can produce a good, sustainable way of life, that promotes peace and justice.

What complicates the stance of Zero Anthropology, as just described, is that the author’s intellectual biography includes a significant degree of input from Caribbean and Latin American influences. Having lived and studied in the Caribbean, and having been exposed to the teachings of the New World Group, which is an independent tradition in Caribbean political economy, plus friendships and collaborations with Trinidadian friends and mentors over the years, means that there is no clear-cut division between Zero Anthropology as located in the imperial semi-periphery (Canada), and its development shaped by both the imperial periphery and the imperial centre (given that the author was also trained in the US). Perhaps this is why the author has gravitated towards Atlantic Canada, which is like a bridge between two imperial peripheries linking Canada and the Caribbean.

So what is happening with Indigenous Knowledge and decolonization that should interest us? One theme is that the recovery of Indigenous Knowledge is an act of decolonization in rejecting Western guardianship over all knowledge. It is an attempt to deny the West the power to speak for the whole world. In that spirit, Indigenous scholars are trying to bring diverse ways of knowing to the forefront, as valid epistemologies in their own right.

“The limits of Western knowledge are also limits on
the authority and credibility of ‘experts’”

A second theme in the restoration of Indigenous Knowledge is also a means of reminding all of us of the limits of Western knowledge, and therefore of the limited ability and authority of the so-called “experts”.

A third theme is one that recognizes how values and interests have always been invested in knowledge production as a means of acquiring or projecting power—except that in this case Indigenous Knowledge is about confronting the colonizing control of states and governments. Scholars writing on the third theme focus on treaties as part of Indigenous Knowledge, and emphasize the need for peaceful and just coexistence. This third theme of the revival of Indigenous Knowledge focuses on the production of knowledge as a part of an anti-colonial effort.

A fourth theme focuses on the development of Indigenous Knowledge as a discipline, that has its own theoretical and methodological tools. Whether “discipline” is the right word or not in this case is a significant issue, since the concerns of Indigenous Knowledge span a wide range of issues that have been historically apportioned to different and even competing disciplines. These issues include everything from spiritual, emotional, and physical health, to stewardship of the land, to autonomous self-government. The result of such an effort would be the creation of an internationalized field of study known as Indigenous Studies.

* For more on Zero Anthropology and decolonization, see the Articles tab in the menu, and navigate to the Decolonization list.


Champagne, Duane. (2007). “In Search of Theory and Method in American Indian Studies”. American Indian Quarterly, 31(3), 353–372.

Doxtater, Michael G. (2004). “Indigenous Knowledge in the Decolonial Era”. American Indian Quarterly, 28(3/4), 618–633.

Lee, Richard E. (1999). “The Crisis of the Structures of Knowledge: Where Do We Go from Here?” Presentation delivered at the Centre for Developing-Area Studies Workshop: “Social Sciences and Interdisciplinarity: Latin American and Canadian Experiences,” McGill University, Montréal, Canada, September 23–26, 1999.

—————. (2000). “The Structures of Knowledge and the Future of the Social Sciences: Two Postulates, Two Propositions and a Closing Remark”. Journal of World-Systems Research, 3, 786–796.

————— . (2008). “Cultural Studies, Complexity Studies and the Transformation of the Structures of Knowledge”. Cultural Science, 1–17.

Simpson, Leanne R. (2004). “Anticolonial Strategies for the Recovery and Maintenance of Indigenous Knowledge”. American Indian Quarterly, 28(3/4), 373–384.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. (1997). “The Structures of Knowledge, or How Many Ways May We Know?” Presentation at “Which Sciences for Tomorrow? Dialogue on the Gulbenkian Report: Open the Social Sciences,” Stanford University, June 2–3, 1996.

Wilson, Waziyatawin Angela. (2004). “Indigenous Knowledge Recovery is Indigenous Empowerment”. American Indian Quarterly, 28(3/4), 359–372.


Image: Photo of the interior of Duke Humphrey's Library, the oldest reading room of the Bodleian Library in the University of Oxford, by David Iliff, 2015. From Wikimedia Commons.



© 2011-2020, Maximilian C. Forte.