The Celestial Ethnographers: Imagining the Future of Anthropology in Star Trek Discovery

By Logan A. Kirkland & Joshua W. Rivers

“Culture,” so-called, is implanted in nature; the environment, or Umwelt, is a model generated by the organism. Semiosis links them.” -Thomas A. Sebeok (2001, vii)

Xenoanthropology.  From Ancient Greek xenos; meaning outsider, other, foreigner, stranger, strange—and then anthropos, man, and logos, word. Xeno-anthropology is the eclipse of anthropology’s original subject and object, humanity— transmuted at its apogee into what? The study of sentient species? A historical curiosity within the cultural matrix of human scholarship, a holistic and humanistic mutation of the greater aims of sociology? What can be said of an anthropology not of the contemporary, but of the world to come? We imagine possible worlds, but what do we imagine of possible anthropologies? What of an anthropology far beyond the stars?

Star Trek: Discovery (2017) is an interesting contribution to the Star Trek canon for a variety of reasons, not least among them being its remarkably diverse cast and culturally critical themes. But this is, of course, nothing new for Star Trek. The vast body of Star Trek media originally helmed by Gene Roddenberry has always been an assemblage of literature known for what Thomas Malaby (2009) terms a technoliberal ideology, a certain vaguely optimistic Californianesque progressive Weltanschauung that sees technology as the savior of humanity. What is of particular interest to those in the social sciences regarding the latest Star Trek installment is the narratological decision to have the main character of the series, Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), be an (xeno)anthropologist.

Not only does the framework of Discovery include a main cast member with a professional background in anthropology, but the show also centers the entire narrative on it and, in so doing, explicitly places the discipline of anthropology center stage. In contrast to Margaret Huber’s (2009) claims that Star Trek has shifted its focus from the anthropological, to the psychological, and ultimately to the political, we see instead the series as having always been, after a fashion, a show fundamentally about anthropology—the heroes of the narrative go out, as ambassadors of cultural relativism and friendly humanistic exploration, they meet new people and learn about unknown cultures throughout the galaxy. Said heroes engage in this expeditionary task for its own sake and, despite its numerous risks, opt to explore the unknown because of the value they find in meeting new sentients, learning about novel worlds, and building relationships with species that are different from them. The most recent addendum to this universe, Discovery, explores these themes in its own narrative ecosystem whilst simultaneously standing as both testament and inquiry into the past, present, and future of Star Trek and anthropology.

Anthropologists have always had a strong relationship with liminality and with other-ness (see Edith & Victor Turner, Mary Douglas, Clifford Geertz, and quite literally any ethnography ever written). Ruth Benedict once mused on how anthropologists tend to be outsiders in their own cultures, and indeed, this perspective is perhaps part of what gives us the eye and the tongue to walk the labyrinthian roads of grasping at anthropos. In Discovery, Michael Burnham embodies this liminality in a manner with which anthropologists across the ages can relate.

Burnham’s parents were humans, but they died when she was young and she was adopted and raised by the Federation diplomat from Vulcan, Sarek, and his human partner Amanda Grayson—the parents of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock from the original Star Trek (1966). She was immersed in Vulcan culture and the first human to receive a fully Vulcan education and live on Vulcan, in Vulcan society, from such an early age. After completing her education at the Vulcan Science Academy, she joins Starfleet under the command of Captain Philippa Georgiou (U.S.S. Shenzhou) and, in doing so, rejoins the sphere of human culture, now an outsider, quickly rising to become Georgieu’s executive officer.

Burnham’s background is as a science officer, but under Georgiou’s tutelage she is turned to command. Like most characters in Star Trek, she is an absurd polymath, although her disciplinary specialty as a scientist is xenoanthropology in particular. Discursively, she immediately starts spinning anthropological themes and going to bat for anthropological ideals. In her very first scene alongside the Captain, deep in the desert of a distant cosmic shore the following transpires:

PG: “What will you do if you were stuck here for eighty-nine years?”

MB: “A likely scenario, unless we die here in the desert…”

PG: “But say you live?”

MB: “As a xenoanthropologist, I could reveal myself to the natives, learn their culture, try to fit in– if possible. And you, Captain? What will you do if we are trapped here for eighty nine years?”

PG “That’s easyI’d escape!”

The remainder of the two-part pilot is a rush of anthropological themes that stand in concord with the very action-oriented narrative, a dynamic rhythm relentless pushing forward from ever-shifting vectors. The ship comes to investigate an object on the edge of Federation space emitting a sensor scattering field. There, technological instruments prove useless, so Captain Georgiou sends Burnham on ‘field-work’ to investigate the object personally. The anomalous artifact turns out to be some sort of Klingon ritual site, something she identifies through anthropological semiotic analysis of the emblems on the object. Mid-analysis, Burnham is attacked by a Klingon in ornate ritual armor and she kills him, setting in motion the grandiose plot for the first season, whose centerpiece is the Federation-Klingon War.

We hear echoes of anthropology at several octaves—Burnham’s swift semiotic analysis of the Klingon emblems is typical of the anthropological specificity Starfleet officers are often imbued with; but what is truly interesting is the dialectic between anthropology and war we see enacted through Burnham’s character. Discovery is not here to float mere anthropological platitudes, nor shower us in surface dressing, but to grapple with the challenging reality of fieldwork, and the intense ethical topography of a modern world where even the slightest misunderstanding can ignite a massive conflict. Indeed, just as her role in beginning the war devastates Burnham throughout the series—until her anthropological training helps her engineer peace—so too must the anthropologist of the contemporary consider the manner in which they irrevocably impact and alter their fieldsites.

This moment of combat and the massive conflict Discovery prefigures can be juxtaposed against Star Trek‘s past, one in which the topical mishap would ultimately be resolved within the span of a few episodes at most, with its future, one marred by realism and starved of utopia. We must contrast this relationship between the past and present installments of Star Trek with anthropology, for anthropology’s past was often one of analysis for the sake of analysis, anemic of critical ethical considerations, while one can easily imagine the future of anthropology as an endless corridor of ethical considerations and fear of causing some catastrophe for the people with whom we work. Like Burnham, the xenoanthropologist, we anthropologists are surrounded by the potential consequences of our actions and left to navigate—we must consider both the capacities of our discipline and the ethical ramifications of those capacities as praxis.

Returning to the emergence of the Federation-Klingon war, Burnham constantly provides us with anthropological reasoning. She insists that the only way to avert war with the Klingons is to actually grasp Klingon cultural logic– because Federation diplomatic tactics are precisely the inverse of what is needed. The classic Federation rhetoric, “We come in peace,” is read by the Klingon as a coded message, a promise of human hegemony and Federation domination—a growling, dishonest slap in the face. Indeed, the Klingon auto-messianic figure, T’Kuvma, seeks precisely to take advantage of the cultural proclivities of the Federation which are repugnant to Klingon cultural norms in order to unite the shattered 24 great houses of the Klingon Empire into a single unified social architecture once again. Burnham suggests instead that a preemptive first strike is exactly what is needed to end T’Kuvma—to make of him a weak and dishonored fool in front of the leaders of the great houses. But this of course is not possible within the cultural logic of Federation Starfleet itself, because Starfleet always “comes in peace.”

When Admiral Brett Anderson, whose flagship is the U. S. S. Europa, holo-conferences with the Captain near the beginning of the crisis, he admonishes Burnham for suggesting that they take cultural analysis into account in their tactical response. Calling her racist, Burnham even responds with an ageless anthropological truism, “It would be unwise to confuse race with culture.”

Burnham, of course, takes matters into her own hands and becomes a mutineer—using the Vulcan nerve pinch to knock her Captain out, she takes command of the U.S.S. Shenzhou and attempts to prevent the ignition of war. The Captain, however, returns to consciousness with extraordinary quickness and stops Burnham, throwing her in the brig. From the brig, Burnham watches the federation flotilla burn as war begins, her social analysis goes ignored and the grave reality she feared comes into fruition.

Burnham is tried and sentenced to life in military prison for the crime of mutiny, apparently a singular achievement in the totality of Starfleet history. But only six months into the war, her prisoner transport vessel is waylaid by a vicious storm and mysteriously rescued by the U. S.S. Discovery and Captain Gabriel Lorca. Lorca puts her to work, later telling her he has seen the potential in her and conscripts her back into service with the rank of “Specialist.” It is in this role as “Specialist” that we see Burnham move into another critical dimension of xeno-anthropology—that of ascertaining the consciousness, the agency, and the communicative modalities of alien beings even further removed from anthropocentric conceptions of sentience.

Lorca is leading the war effort on the front lines. The Discovery is a super-science vessel, a glittering ark of experimentality that can support simultaneous research on a myriad of variable projects across hundreds of laboratories.  But what makes Discovery truly remarkable is its experimental propulsion system, the Displacement Activated Spore-Hub (DASH) Drive. This engine has allowed Lorca to turn the flying skunkworks that is Discovery into the spearhead of the Federation’s strategic architecture.

You might ask: what is going on with the word “spore” in a propulsion system? The Discovery was designed around the research of her Chief Engineer, Lt. Paul Stamets, astromycologist. His research surrounds a rare kind of space-dwelling prototaxis species which exists partially as exotic matter in an interdimensional mycelial network which links together the clonal orgasm across spacetime. By exploiting this phenomena, Starfleet has gained the ability to travel along this transdimensional mycorrhiza, jumping instantly to the far shores of the galaxy. At the genesis of Discovery, however, the engineering crew’s ability to manipulate this technology is still in its infancy, and they are only able to make successful jumps short distances.

In episode four, Discovery and her crew encounter a hippo-sized creature that resembles a tardigrade, that famously resilient microanimal. Through Burnham’s anthropological (and zoosemiotic) efforts, she eventually grasps that the creature is sentient, thereby establishing the creature’s symbiotic relationship with the mycelial network, which allows it to travel the network via horizontal gene transfer with the fungus itself. The crew then uses the creature’s neurological architecture to navigate the network like never before, but soon Burnham realizes they are hurting the creature and, faced with a dilemma of species colonization, eventually lobbies to set it free. Choosing to forego subjugation, Stamets is instead engineered into a cyborg and he begins to act as navigator. This storyline also echoes a contemporary anthropological problem—as the field grapples with its colonialist past, we are faced with our technological future. Discovery, aptly, brings into question the ethics of harnessing an “Other” versus the utilization of a technological and cyborgian self. Neither option is without consequence, though there is in the series, as in the actual world, an apparently more ethical option.

The two central antagonistic forces in season one of Discovery are the Klingon Empire, primarily for the first half of the season, and later, after a malfunction in the experimental propulsion system sends them to the mirror universe, the Terran Empire– a dark and fascist shadow of Earth, humanity’s history inverted. Aside from politically relevant messages about the resurgence of fascism globally, we must see these deeper adventures into particular fictional cultures as attempts at anthropological vignette.

In the series, we witness a fully fleshed out Klingon language with several Klingon characters, subplots, and cultural elements. When we arrive in the mirror universe and discover the Terran Empire in the second half of the season, we see another style of anthropological theme at play—this time imagining the Earth’s history (and future) with a decidedly different turn of events, leading to a fascist interstellar empire ruled by humans. This world of darkness is of course, meant to be a sharp contrast to the pseudoutopia of Star Trek‘s prime universe. The Emperor’s flagship is the I.S.S. Charon, named for the psychopomp who carried the dead across the river Styx in Hellenic mythology—by this sign we know we have entered Hades. In this other reality, we are treated to a version of human culture that is monstrous, paranoid, vicious, cannibalistic– the very worst of humankind, dialectic to the Roddenberry-esque dream of humanity at its very best and brightest.

Within this underworld of technoliberalism gone awry, Burnham and the crew face yet another ethical dilemma familiar to anthropologists: navigating the boundary between participant observation and “going native.” Following a miraculously expedient transformation of their ship and uniforms to match that of this new universe’s Terran overlords, the crew chooses to adopt and embrace a Terran façade, while committing to remain true to Federation ideals. Discovery, and Burnham in particular, face a number of hurdles in the attempt to escape this dark universe unscathed, most notably Terran high command’s order to destroy the burgeoning “alien” rebellion’s primary base from with an orbital strike. This order would ensure the total annihilation of any possible inkling of a reality, and thereby culture, similar to their own—but also doing so in a manner inconceivable by Federation war standards. Ultimately, however, they embrace a simulation of the cultural norms of the Terrans just enough to understand them, and thereby defeat them, utilizing Terran technology in service of the Discovery’s escape back to the war-torn Federation universe.

This re-centering of anthropology—the discourse, the discipline, the profession—at the heart of the Star Trek: Discovery narrative is a unique choice, apart from the rather meta schema of having an anthropologist be the central character for a series that has always been centrally about anthropological themes. Because in science fiction—and indeed fiction at large, we always have heroes who are chemists, or physicists, grizzled veterans, or policemen, physicians, or psychologists—encountering an anthropologist not only as a main character, but as the hero of the series, proves exhilarating.

Given the rarity of an anthropologist as the protagonist, this narrative choice not only gives its audience a unique mouthpiece for anthropological ideas in a show that is already about culture, technology, and philosophy; it also gives us an exciting opportunity to imagine futures in which anthropological specialization is valued and central to the conduct of human science and exploration. Part of what makes Michael Burnham an excellent Starfleet officer is her background as an anthropologist—she pays attention to patterns of culture and the ethical dilemmas of the Federation’s allegedly utopic project. Her virtue and character as an anthropologist lets us imagine optimistically a possible world where the unique contributions of anthropology play a pivotal role in contributing to the mission of eudamionia (human flourishing) on the stellar stage and in a world with uniquely utopian philosophical and scientific values.

Discovery? What does it mean for the historical discipline and cultural system that forms anthropology to survive, prosper and contribute to galactic politics? That is a question Star Trek: Discovery asks. The show makes those themes, and the social science and philosophical that naturally follow from them, central to its narrative ecology. To have an anthropologist represented in a critical way is a fascinating media experiment, and if conducted with continued verisimilitude could be quite compelling. Michael Burnham is a character with excellent potential, a fascinating representation of anthropology in Starfleet form. Furthermore, imagining an operational place for anthropologists in the panoply of technocratic experts which rule the future is certainly significant for anthropology within the cultural imagination—and the lovely public relations gift is just icing on the proverbial cake.

As for imagining contemporary xeno-anthropology, we can already see the seeds of it scattered across the discourse. Look to the work of the primatologists; the biosemioticians and zoosemioticans; those in animal studies; Donna Haraway, Amber Case, and those theorizing under the sign of the cyborg; and those exploring what Gregory Bateson called the “ecology of mind.” These streams of discourse pool together to give one hope that we might push the imagination of our anthropological epistemologies beyond the ontological constraints of the singularly human.

Each of these conceptual fields are attempts to grapple with what we might call xeno-anthropology—an anthropology, as Eduardo Kohn says, that is beyond the human (2013). As the primatologist Dian Fossey wrote, in the final diary entry before the night of her murder, “When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.” We can only hope anthropology, in theory as well as in praxis, can fashion a new exo-humanism and continue to work towards that goal which Ruth Benedict once imagined for us: “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.” Can we strike “human” from that declaration and still march forward into that future–calling ourselves anthropologists, practicing ethnography out beyond the firmament, boldly going where no one has gone before?

“We must begin by exploring the question of whether the different components of a scientific field can be improved over time; can domains increase in complexity and order? Can instruments and techniques get better at producing information about the domain? Can the personal practices of members of the community be extended…” -Manuel DeLanda (2015, 1)

Joshua W. Rivers is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who studies the intersection of queer community, institutions and video games with a particular focus on massively-multiplayer online games. Growing up queer in the Deep South, Josh was drawn to anthropology because of its celebration of diversity and exploration. His work seeks to synthesize anthropological theory and methodologies with practical questions of ethics and institutions in order to better address the struggles societies face in our increasingly digital realities. You can reach him at or via Twitter @Josh_Rivers.


Logan A. Kirkland is an independent scholar and queer activist who studied Anthropology at Georgia State University, and Digital Media and Cinematography at the West Georgia Technical College. They are currently interested in the anthropology and semiotics of virtual social spaces enabled by emerging technologies in relation to certain marginalized identities (LGBTQ, autistic), and the structuring of communities and affective ecologies of communitas along those webs of organization. They also run the “I Fucking Love Theory!” blog on twitter @IFLTheory, and enjoy social theory and media criticism. Contact them at or on twitter @LericDax.


Works Cited

The header image is taken from the opening title sequence of CBS’ Star Trek: Discovery.

Bateson, Gregory. 1972. Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology. University of Chicago Press.

——–. 1979. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Hampton Press.

Benedict, Ruth. 1934. Patterns of Culture. Hougton Mifflin Company.

Case, Amber. 2014. An Illustrated Dictionary of Cyborg Anthropology. CreateSpace Independent Publishing.

DeLanda, Manuel. 2015. Philosophical Chemistry: Genealogy of a Scientific Field. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Douglas, Mary. 1970. Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. Cresset Press.

Fossey, Dian. 1983. Gorillas in the Mist. Mariner Books.

Fuller, Bryan and Alex Kurtzman. 2017-18. Star Trek Discovery. Toronto: CBS Television Studios.

Geertz, Clifford. 1977. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Book

——–. 2001. Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics. Princeton University Press.

Haraway, Donna. 1990. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge.

Huber, Margaret Williamson. 2009. “Teaching Star Trek As Anthropology.” Southern Anthropologist 34: 32-53.

Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Malaby, Thomas. 2009. Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Roddenberry, Gene. 1966-69. Star Trek. Los Angeles: Desilu Productions.

Sebeok, Thomas. 2001. Global Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Turner, Edith. 2012. Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy. Palgrave Macmillan US.

Turner, Victor. 1957. Schism and Continuity in an African Society. Berg Publishing.

——–. 1967. The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Cornell University Press.

——–. 1974. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Cornell University Press.

Von Uexkull, Jakob. 2010. A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans: with A Theory of Meaning. Minnesota University Press.

About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

There are 5 comments

    1. Josh Rivers & Logan Kirkland

      Hi Wendy,
      Thanks for your comment. We refer to Bateson in our piece, but I’m not entirely sure how the Bateson projects fit into this narrative. On that note, we chose not to speak to the CONTACT conference due to it falling outside of the scope of our argument. From our understanding, the CONTACT conferences are closely aligned with emboldening humanist efforts in scientific engagements with space, etc … and we wanted to address the “non-human” and its significance for the field moving forward. That being said, xenoanthropology is in its nascence and there’s certainly room for more voices at the table that is this continuing effort to envision the future of anthropology.
      -Josh & Logan

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Josh Rivers

    Thank you for your comment! It’s much appreciated. I think we would both generally agree that Star Trek has been (historically) anthropocentric, but we find that this new iteration is embracing the trend we see in broader social scientific discourses, to consider what (social) science looks like beyond the human and beyond our “normal” realities. Accordingly, the piece is aiming to understand what an anthropology that has done so looks like, using Discovery as an example. Our conclusion was one that embraces trans/posthumanism in the sense that we think that the mission and application of anthropological theory and ideas should be extended beyond the merely human, but that doesn’t mean that the discipline loses its history of being predominantly anthropocentric and colonialist. At its core, Anthropology is about culture, something that exists beyond the human and something we firmly believe alien species will exhibit. As for using a term such as xenomorphology (other + shape + study), we’re not hugely into semantics, but would point out that such a combination would be rather broad and lacking the historical foundation of a more established scientific discipline. Ultimately, we hoped to push researchers and Trekkies alike to consider the shift in semiotic and anthropological discourses and how such trends are increasingly productive in helping us move past reified notions of what it means to have culture and “be human.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. lullaby922

    That was a very interesting article! I just wondered about the naming of the discipline, xeno-anthropology, and thought wouldn’t it be better calling xenomorphology? Eduardo’s anthropology beyond human sounds closer, too. Cause, as far as I know, anthropology studies human communities and human behavior; thus aliens should have the main features and behavior like us if we want to describe them as a human-like creature or their culture as a human-like culture. Yeah, Benedict said, that anthropologists should be kind of outsiders in their culture, but she talked about cultures of humanity. But, what if those outer-space fellows are not a bit like humans? Could zoosemiotics really help in this case? Although we use zoology and ethology on earth for describing other creature’s behavior. How would you call it on a whole other planet? I think only if we contact with them or have body contact with them would be a case of anthropology. From this perspective, Star Trek is a bit anthropomorphic.
    P.S. I’m not an anthropologist, I just thought about that.

    Liked by 1 person

Join the conversation! Share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s