Five Questions with Nitzan Shoshan: Decolonizing Scholarship in Anthropology

Author: The Editors

Decolonizing Scholarship with Nitzan Shoshan

Nitzan Shoshan is a cultural anthropologist and professor at the Centro de Estudios Sociológicos at El Colegio de México in Mexico City. His work has focused on nationalism, populism, and right-wing extremism in Germany and beyond, on urban politics and governance in Berlin and Mexico City, and more recently on political conflict in Latin America. His prize-winning book The Management of Hate: Nation, Affect, and the Governance of Right-Wing Extremism in Germany (Princeton University Press, 2016) is an ethnographic study of young nationalists in Berlin’s eastern peripheries. Shoshan has written on the ethics of ethnographic research, on the politics of hate and Islamophobia in Europe, on post-Fordist affect and the temporality of loss, and on urban activism and the semiotics of the cityscape, among other topics. His most recent projects have examined notions of Heimat (home, homeland) in German nationalism and political polarization in Mexico.

In advance of his visit to Notre Dame and lunchtime lecture on October 6, 2023, the EITW editors asked Shoshan to share his thoughts on the importance of decolonizing scholarship and some of the ways in which scholars can decolonize their thinking, communication, and teaching.

Europe in the World: Why do you think it is important to decolonize scholarship?

Nitzan Shoshan: At a very general level, I think many would agree that decolonization describes an effort to address structural injustice, oppression, and exclusion, both within academia and in the world at large. But, as various scholars have insisted, the objectives, strategies, and meanings of decolonization are always situated within determinate sociohistorical and political contexts, particular academic settings and institutions, and specific disciplinary fields of scholarship. The case of anthropology, it seems to me, is unique in at least two important respects. First, the discipline emerged from and within the colonial project as the science dedicated to the study of the “savage” subjects of colonialism and has historically enabled and reproduced colonial discourses and relations. Second, because of its problematic history but also owing to its intimate, ethnographic proximity with its field, anthropology has engaged critically with its colonial past and present for at least half a century now. As various anthropologists have argued, calls for decolonization that have emerged in US anthropology in the early nineties represent a moment—no doubt, of profound importance—in a broader and longer process of self-critique and confrontation with the field’s embeddedness in colonial structures, arguably more than in other disciplines.

The Management of Hate by Nitzan Shoshan is the Winner of the 2017 William A. Douglass Prize in Europeanist Anthropology, Society for the Anthropology of Europe of the American Anthropological Association.
The Management of Hate: Nation, Affect, and the Governance of Right-Wing Extremism in Germany by Nitzan Shoshan is the Winner of the 2017 William A. Douglass Prize in Europeanist Anthropology, Society for the Anthropology of Europe of the American Anthropological Association.

EITW: What methodologies do you employ to do this work? (e.g. archives or sources used, interdisciplinary approaches, etc.)

NS: I cannot say that decolonizing considerations have been key to my research design. At the same time, retrospectively, I see at least two important aspects in which my scholarship not only resonates but also questions some decolonizing frameworks. On the one hand, the anthropology of Europe as such, and the political anthropology of Europe and anthropological research on the far right in particular, represent a disciplinary shift informed by postcolonial critiques that call for provincializing the continent and challenging the discipline’s traditional “savage slot.” Such a shift is, arguably, even more accentuated in rare cases such as mine, in which scholars located in the Global South conduct research on and in Europe, subverting and reversing institutionalized colonial power relations in academia, where it is virtually always Northern scholars who study the South. The obstacles for such subversions are enormous and are well entrenched within multiple institutions, both Northern and Southern. Albeit unwittingly, my insistence in the face of these obstacles on maintaining a research agenda in Europe while working in a Mexican institution appears in line with calls to undo these asymmetries. On the other hand, my ethnographic research has often stood in tension with—if not flagrantly violated—some of the methodological tenets most sacrosanct to the decolonizing project in anthropology. These include, for example, the emphasis on participatory and collaborative research, the incorporation of interlocutors’ knowledge and worldviews into research design and theoretical frameworks, as well as the cultivation of reciprocal relations. In general, they have emerged from critical confrontations with the ethical and epistemological failures of previous research on indigenous, diasporic, and other marginalized groups. Yet their application appears difficult, if not downright unwelcome when ethnographically studying neo-Nazis.

EITW: When you are addressing different audiences (e.g. students in a classroom, the public, other scholars in your field), what do you have to bear in mind? How do you adapt your approach?

NS: This is a question about which I confess that I have not reflected in terms of a decolonizing framework, in part because such concerns appear different from my institutional location in a public university in the global South and, more specifically, in Latin America, where they have usually been linked with research on and address to indigenous and diasporic groups—in part because such discussions have been scarce within the anthropology of Europe and also because of my position in a sociology program, a discipline in which, I feel, decolonizing perspectives have had far less impact than in anthropology.

EITW: How can we incorporate decolonizing materials into our teaching? Are there any strategies you recommend?

NS: Again, I feel like responses to such questions vary greatly, depending on the particular challenges of one’s location, so my answers may or may not be relevant to academics in the U.S. context. In the graduate program in which I teach, I find that students are often taught famous, canonical authors from the global North as theory, while reading more empirical, ethnographic studies almost exclusively from and about their own countries or, at best, the Latin American region. They are certainly discouraged from conducting research on and in other countries and regions, which, to be fair, is also exceedingly difficult due to funding and time constraints. This always seemed to me to reproduce colonial relations of scholarly knowledge production, to straitjacket them into the subordinate role of peripheral scholars, and to do injustice to their intellectual curiosity and capacities. I find that they appreciate the broader comparative perspectives that I purposefully include in my seminars in order to disturb this regime of knowledge production and consumption and that they are very receptive to how theoretical and empirical insights from other regions in the South (but also, ethnographies about the North) destabilize the foundations of this colonial order.

EITW: Can you provide a short list (4-5) of writers or texts that inspired you to pursue this work?

NS: Given that my scholarship has not directly advanced a decolonizing agenda, I take the liberty to interpret this question in relation to my interest in anthropology as a possible path for reflecting critically about power, politics, and (in)justice in the world. As I mentioned above, debates about the discipline’s complicated colonial legacies had already made important advances by the time I decided to pursue it as a grad student, despite not having studied it as an undergrad. The authors that inspired me to turn to anthropology in my search for answers to the questions about which I was passionate are far too many to list here and include many who were anthropologists neither by training nor by practice. Among those who strongly impacted my young self—and in no particular chronological or other order—I might mention Talal Asad, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Veena Das, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Michael Taussig, all of whom touched on the politics of imperialism and colonialism past and present in different ways, some head on and others less so.