Anthropological Angst

In the latest round of conflict over anthropologists' cooperation with the U.S. military, members of the American Anthropological Association voted on Friday to ban certain kinds of secrecy in ethnographic work. In a motion passed by a voice vote during the organization's annual business meeting here, members decreed that "no reports should be provided to sponsors [of research] that are not also available to the general public and, where practicable, to the population studied."

Anthropologists are so full of shit.

This quote from a CHE news blog is the tip of an iceberg that has been caroming around academia for several months now, broken off a much larger ice field that has been a perennial problem in anthropology.

Personally, I think that nobody should be involved in operations that involve torture, causing mayhem, killing young children or skinning puppies alive. But I also know that if I don't tow the party line of anthropology, that I will be black listed by my colleagues. In other words, I'm not actually allowed to have a considered, detailed, and nuanced opinion on the topic of anthropologists working for the army (or any corporation, for that matter) without paying for having that opinion, unless it happens to agree with certain key members of the field.

So I'm shaking in my boots. I won't express such an opinion. Instead, I'll just tell you a few stories that demonstrate the nuances that do exist out there in the real world.

The one about the soldiers who just didn't get it. I heard this one on NPR. There was a group of soldiers trying to get a bunch of men to agree to this deal: The army gives each man a couple of plastic garbage bags. The men go around and clean up the trash littering the neighborhood. Each man gets a pretty hefty payment per bag (I think it was fifty bucks!). A make work project, a way of distributing some money, and getting something done. The NPR report had two streams of information: The conversation among the US soldiers, and the conversation translated after the fact among the men. The men were reluctant to do this, and the soldiers interpreted it as laziness, lethargy, and entered into a series of nasty ethnic remarks about the Iraqis. The men, in the meantime, were concerned that they were in an organized group with a particular leader who was supposed to tell them what to do and not do in this politically charged, socially complex, difficult relatinship with the occupying forces, but they guy in charge was not around. They wanted to do the right thing but needed to go through their own chain of command.

Army guys have their chain of command thing to, and I've seen (even very recently) soldiers unable to make an obvious decision because their chain of command was not at the moment intact. An anthropologist present on the scene, especially one with the proper language skills, could have smoothed this over easily. Or, anthropological training would have made this whole situation unlikely to happen.

The one about the hypocritical anthropologists. Some of you may know about the Darkness in El Dorado fiasco. Darkness... was a book that accused several anthropologists of having carried out inappropriate activities while dealing with the locals in the Amazonian rain forest. I'll spare you the details. The American Anthropological association investigated the activities of a biological anthropologist, a geneticist, and a cultural anthropologist. During the investigation, a prominent cultural anthropologist who I personally know, and know to be a generally good person, used his position as head of a major non-profit to editorialize about the evils of the biological anthropologist. There was a professional rivalry at work here, and a general distrust by "culturals" of the "bios". Eventually, the AAA cleared the biological anthropologist and the geneticist, but not the cultural anthropologist. The prominent individual who did the very public editorializing refused to back down on what were to become clearly incorrect statement. It didn't matter if those statements were true or not. It only mattered that they were well written, apparently.

The one about the anthropologist who became a CIA agent. This is about a good friend of mine who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons. I'll call him James. James and I got to know each other quite well by working together on a major project for a year or so. He left anthropology to go into political science, and while a PhD student at a major university, was offered a position with the CIA. He took the position. Now, by the rules of anthropology, what we need to do now is wait until we get James in a dark alley, and then set the dogs on him, rending his flesh and gouging out his eyes. But none of the anthropologists are going to be able to find him, and I'm not talkin'. It turns out, however, that having this individual, a trained anthropologist, in the CIA has been a great benefit in a number of ways that I can't discuss. Trust me. I'd rather have more people trained in anthropology in the CIA, as well as in the position of officers in the military, and other places, than fewer.

There are other stories, but you get the point.

I'll leave you with a couple of more paragraphs from the CHE report:

The new anti-secrecy motion would affect not only military anthropologists. It would also cast a shadow over the burgeoning field of private-sector anthropologists who conduct ethnographic research about consumer behavior for corporate clients. Such researchers are often contractually required to keep their findings confidential. During the business meeting, the motion's primary author, Terence Turner, a professor emeritus at Cornell University, explicitly said that the motion applies to proprietary corporate research.

At a panel on private-sector anthropology late Friday afternoon, Ken T. Anderson, a senior researcher and anthropologist at the Intel Corporation, said: "I had a bad lunch. And I'm not talking about food. I'm talking about what went on at the business meeting." Mr. Anderson and his peers offered several reasons why they believe their work can contribute to the public fund of scholarly knowledge, even if many of their specific findings must be kept secret.

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I recall Terence Turner's role in the 'Darkness in El Dorado' mess.

We all know about anthropology and the OSS in WWII. Some of the objections being aired now are not so much about anthropology in the military per se as they about the current wars. If more AAA members approved of a particular war (e.g. enemies like Hitler or Milosevic), they would be more comfortable with the situation.

At least this issue is about the practice of anthropology. Some AAA statements are not about anthropological ethics, theory, or methods but are just current events opinion pieces.

"There was a professional rivalry at work here, and a general distrust by "culturals" of the "bios"."

I have been witness to plenty of that nonsense. Cultural anthropologists' (the "real" anthropology, in their view) contempt for biological anthropology as if it were weird science masquerading as anthropology. Usually the archaeologists would be allied with the bios and the linguists with the culturals. To be fair, I also saw inter-subfield respect and collaboration.

I could write a thinly fictionalized novel about academic anthropology. Perhaps I will.

Let's face it, the various subfields of anthropology will continue to be absorbed into their cognate disciplines and the various "studies" programs. And that does not bode well for the future of the AAA and anthro departments.

If it is private sector military research,with 'security concerns' it should bear a warning label, like a pack of cigarettes. How can one maintain objectivity when the research is subjective, and blatantly heirarchical?

re:"Mr. Greer said that the program would not discourage its employees from publishing their findings in scholarly journals. There are certainly some restrictions from the security side, The CIA essentilly said the same thing about project MK Ultra--the training of child prostitutes and spies around the globe; as well as the syphillis studies done on African American soldiers, etc.

By the real Napol… (not verified) on 03 Dec 2007 #permalink


I am not convinced by your three examples. In the first, I think it is pretty obvious that it doesn't take an anthropologist to smooth over the situation. It takes anyone with a brain and a clue. My 2 years in the peace corps don't make me an anthropologist, and it would have been obvious to me that the neighborhood muslims aren't necessarily going to behave like you expect, and you might have to ask some side-ways questions and read between the lines to figure out what is going on.

In the second, I don't see what that has to do with secrecy or working for the military or a corporation. Its just politics and infighting, which every field has.

In the third, I think it is fine, great even, that people with anthropology training work in the CIA. This makes them a former anthropologist. Or, if you prefer, an anthropologist with an agenda. And I don't see anything wrong with a professional organization trying to draw a distinction between someone using their anthropology training to serves the public and scientific good, and a person using their anthropology training for the good of the CIA or a corporate sponsor or whatever else.

There are other stories, but you get the point.

i'm starting to get a point about anthropology being a profoundly eff'd up field that's devolved into being too much politics for the good of its science. am i wrong? because i kindof hope i am...

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 04 Dec 2007 #permalink


On your first point, you are absolutely correct from the point of view of the army and the Iraquis. But, the anthropologists exclude themselves from being useful where they could help. In my view, actually, the army may not be the best agency to be doing this kind of work anyway.

The second point was not intended to have anything to do with secrecy, etc. My point here is that even where there is an internal mechanism for ethical control it is utterly useless. Anthropologist have a lot to say, but little to do with, ethics. I don't think it is like other professions. Far worse than average, possibly among the worse.

I don't think I get your third point about my third point, but that is probably because I did not make my point clear. My point is that my friend, "James" would never be allowed back into, or anywhere near, the anthropological community, and all anthropologists that I know who know him denounce him as a horrible person, unethical, immoral, and so on.