Welcome to the publication, “Representations.” This is a project designed to bring the perspectives of a wider variety of groups to the forefront of the anthropology classroom. To celebrate Black History Month, we are covering the accomplishments of 28 Black anthropologists across 28 days. Learn more about our project; read on for the amazing accomplishments of Delmos Jones.
Anthropologists consider two perspectives in research and publications: The emic perspective (the perspective of the insider of a cultural group) and the etic perspective (the perspective of the outsider of a cultural group).
Anthropologist Delmos Jones researched both perspectives throughout his career and he outlined his findings in his publication, “Towards A Native Anthropology.” In this influential work, Jones makes the case that anthropologists must increasingly focus on studying their own communities. Jones rightly argued that anthropology’s exclusive focus on being the “outsider looking in” was steeped in ideas of cultural supremacy (the exact racist and colonial worldviews that anthropology now strives to overcome). By working as both outsider and insider throughout his career, Jones exemplified a new, modern style of anthropological research that is now widely embraced by our field.
Jones conducted research in three separate areas: among the Papago Indians of Southern Arizona, among the Lahu of Northern Thailand, and within the Black community of Denver, Colorado. Each of these areas of research led Jones to profound conclusions that shaped the future of anthropology, and his work within Black communities in Denver offered a particularly powerful insight toward the power of “native anthropology”. Jones writes, “I am an intrinsic part of the social situation that I am attempting to study. As part of the situation, I must also be part of the attempt to forge a solution (Jones 255).”
Jones lived from 1936–1999. Jones grew up partially in the South and partially in Oakland, California. Each circumstance influenced how he viewed the world: the former offered him an intimate knowledge of the Jim Crow South and how people struggled in oppressive cultural systems; the latter introduced Jones to the diversity of cultural views and political engagement (Klugh 2018). Later in life, in San Francisco, Jones earned his degree in anthropology in an era when student and faculty activism was on the rise alongside the increased popularity of anti-racism and feminism.
After moving to Arizona, Jones’ initial position was as a field researcher among the Papago of Arizona. In this position, Jones developed his new anthropological consciousness: studying “the other” was also an opportunity to study one’s own cultural understanding of the self. Jones found that anthropological research should not create a false binary of “West versus other” but that, rather, anthropologists should utilize the unique perspectives of our own cultural knowledge to offer insights about our communities and the other groups that we work among. He writes:
“As a graduate student, whenever I read descriptions of other people’s way of life, I could never quite escape the notion that the writer could just as well be talking about me, and the way I lived as a Black youth in the rural south in the 1940’s…I saw the Papago more as a poor people than as “Indians”…What I saw were people, who lived very similarly to the rural Black and White people of my childhood in rural Alabama (Jones cited in Klugh 2018.)”
Delmos Jones was particularly concerned with ethics within anthropology. While working in Thailand, the local government became interested in seeking out identifying information about socialist groups and demanded that Jones’ research be handed over (Klugh 2018). Jones recognized that he could no longer conduct ethical fieldwork as his work was being used to target political groups; as a result, he suspended his research and subsequently published guidance for future anthropologists to protect the identities and lives of informants in the field.
When we look at Delmos Jones’ work, we see that we owe him a great deal. Jones developed a methodology to protect the safety and identity of informants and referred to his own field experiences to press the importance of informant protection. Additionally, Jones pushed for a new direction in the field known as “native anthropology.” While cultural anthropologists were aware of the colonial legacy the marred the legitimacy of our field for generations, Jones identified and implemented a path to research that tangibly addressed these problems.
Jones, Delmos. “Epilogue.” Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further toward an Anthropology for Liberation, by Faye Venetia Harrison, Association of Black Anthropologists, American Anthropological Association, 2010.
Jones, Delmos. “Towards a Native Anthropology.” Human Organization, vol. 29, no. 4, 1970, pp. 251–259., doi:10.17730/humo.29.4.717764244331m4qv.
Klugh, Elgin. “Delmos Jones and the End of Neutrality.” The Second Generation of African American Pioneers in Anthropology, University of Illinois Press, 2018.
Photo credit: ABA