Sharing songs: Decolonising ethnography, disrupting scientific orientalism

Vincent Lingiari
By Brendan Donegan · 15 October 2013
Vincent Lingiari

On an evening in early 2009 I sat on a hilltop not far from the Narmada river in western India. I was visiting a militant mass-membership organisation based in that area, as part of a field trip with health activists from a nongovernmental organisation (NGO) I had already spent many months with. Over dinner, in front of an audience of a dozen Indian activists, the head of the mass-membership organisation asked me questions that pointed to the bloody, neo-colonial hands of my country. “Oh, you’re from Britain? Didn’t your Prime Minister Tony Blair make the Iraq war possible? Doesn’t your country support Israel?”

I responded to these questions with a growing agitation stemming from a feeling that I was (incorrectly) being accused of supporting these policies or (probably correctly) not doing enough to prevent them. My agitation was also a retreat into defensiveness in response to a novel situation, one that was new to me. With hindsight, I think one reason I was questioned in this way was in order to provoke me into providing honest (if defensive) answers that would indicate where I stood politically. This objective was achieved – to the surprise of one of the health activists from the NGO, who said, “I didn’t know you were on the left like us, Brendan!” Her response shocked me, as I had assumed she did know.

This encounter in early 2009 powerfully drew my attention to the extent to which I had been taking information from people without reciprocating, questioning without being questioned, seeing without being seen. With many of my activist research informants/collaborators/participants, even though I spent many hours with them, I never revealed much about my political positioning. This was not something I intentionally hid from them but rather something that simply didn’t come up in conversation and that it did not occur to me to share. In the field, I only shared my political positioning with those who asked me about it, most of whom I now count as friends rather than acquaintances.

Soon after I returned to Britain I met another anthropology PhD student, who I will refer to as Greg, who explained that during fieldwork he prefaced every encounter with an informant with what he referred to as his ‘statement of me,’ something that included his political positioning. I remember initially being startled that this had never occurred to me as a possibility, and then coming to see two problems with Greg’s ‘solution’: first, any such statement is inevitably reductive, selective, motivated, and static, it is a statement of being whereas I would prefer a statement of becoming (“Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same,” as Foucault once put it); second, unless combined with other actions, such a confession does nothing to challenge the inequalities in the encounter and in fact may come to replace any real attempt to do so. (1)

In many situations I encountered in India, I have shared my political positioning with informants, friends and comrades in part through something that I think bears some resemblance to a ‘statement of me’: a song. The song, titled “From Little Things Big Things Grow <>,” is a ballad that tells the story of Vincent Lingiari, an Aboriginal rights activist and a member of the Gurindji people of Australia who defied the British pastoral company Vesteys. I have shared this song in contexts where Indian activists have shared with me Indian songs of struggle, and have asked me to share a song with them. When I share it, I mention my own Australian heritage and the song’s authorship (it was co-written by white Australian Paul Kelly and indigenous Australian Kev Carmody). (2)

This particular song fulfils a function somewhat similar to Greg’s statement of me, insofar as that by singing it I indicate where my sympathies lie. This song is able to do this because of the allegorical possibilities of its story: the story travels well, which is to say that an Indian activist audience can easily map the story of Vincent vs Vesteys onto stories of struggles with which they are more familiar. (3)

Where it differs from Greg’s statement of me is that it offers a dialogical opening rather than a supposedly definitive statement. In a similar way to the provocative questions posed to me on that hillside in 2009, this song offers an opening for a conversation in which my interlocutor might ask for elucidation of the story and my positioning in relation to it, a conversation that might lead to one or both of us changing our perspectives on the story, on in/justice and on the means and ends of social change projects. The difference between my deployment of the song and my responses to those provocative questions is that the song is me actively presenting my self for scrutiny at my own initiative, rather than only doing so in reaction to someone’s probing.

Nicholas de Genova has voiced the need to decolonise ethnography as a research method, refusing anthropology’s extractive and objectifying relation to the other and replacing it with ethnography-as-dialogue, informed by Paulo Freire’s concept of dialogue as "the encounter between human beings, educating each other, mediated by the world, in order to name the world" (4). I want to conclude with two suggestions. First, the questions posed to me on that hillside in 2009 can be read as a playful (but also serious) performance of citizenship after orientalism, a disruption of the ‘scientific orientalism’ (5) that sometimes characterised my doctoral research through a re-visioning of the relation between researcher and researched. Second, while my use of a song to attempt my own disruption might seem like a little thing, I see it as a not insignificant step towards decolonising ethnography. As the song notes, from little things big things grow.


 1.  A recent article by Andrea Smith (organiser, activist, intellectual and co-founder of Incite! Women of Color Against Violence) provides a detailed argument along similar lines. See Andrea Smith, "The Problem with 'Privilege'", online at
 2.  An upcoming conference (the "Fieldwork Playlist Conference," 25 October 2013, Goldsmiths College, University of London, London), organised by my former colleagues in Goldsmiths Anthropology Department, reflects on the roles played by songs during anthropological fieldwork. See for more details.
 3.  I take this idea of allegory from Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s discussion of the Chico Mendes story in her book Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton University Press, 2005, pp.227-238  4.  Nicholas De Genova Working the boundaries: Race, space, and “illegality” in Mexican Chicago. Duke University Press, 2005, p.23  5.  Engin F. Isin "Citizenship after orientalism: an unfinished project", Citizenship Studies, 16:5-6, 563-572, p.565

About the author

  • Dr Brendan Donegan

    Activist Consultant
    Brendan Donegan
    Goldsmiths University of London
    The focus of my professional work has been teaching and social research, with a focus on poverty and inequality in India and in the UK. I completed my PhD in Social Anthropology at SOAS, University... Read more

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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