Canadian Responses to the Militarization and Securitization of Anthropology: Report #2 from the CASCA-AES Conference in Vancouver

Posted on 22 May 2009 by


At the University of British Columbia in Vancouver last Saturday morning (16 May 2009) more than two dozen individuals gathered within the setting of the joint conference of the Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA) and the American Ethnological Society (AES), for an “open session” titled, “Canadian Responses to the Militarization of Anthropology,” which followed from the previous day’s panel (see Report #1). The description of the event as stated in the conference program was as follows:

In conjunction with the symposium, “The Use of Culture and Anthropology in Counter-Insurgency and Peacekeeping Operations,” this session invites free discussion for all CASCA members to consider possible Canadian responses to the spread of programs such as the Human Terrain System and the Minerva Research Initiative, especially in light of the Canadian government’s own engagements in Afghanistan, in the so-called “war on terror,” and with domestic spying. Pentagon funding is already available to Canadian anthropologists, and Canadian Forces in Afghanistan already incorporate at least one American Human Terrain Team. How prepared are we to meet the challenges of possible/further attempts to coopt the Canadian academy in (further) service of the state, and military and intelligence agencies? What can or should we do as an association, as individuals? No papers will be presented at this session, and opening remarks will be offered by the moderator.

Support from CASCA

The CASCA Executive Committee was also interested in supporting the event: a message to all conference participants was sent out shortly before the conference began, encouraging people to attend, and noting that it would take place immediately before the Annual General Meeting of CASCA.

The incoming CASCA President, Dr. Deirdre Meintel, as well as the CASCA Anglophone Member at Large, Dr. Craig Proulx, attended the session. The outgoing CASCA President, Dr. Regna Darnell, was also very supportive and raised the topic of the open discussion during the AGM. Subsequent to the conference, and arising from the AGM last Saturday, the CASCA Executive decided to revive its “resolutions committee” which was set up to bring forward issues to the membership that deal with controversial public and political questions. This committee will serve as the conduit for any resolutions/initiatives that may come out of the sub-committee that we spoke of organizing during the open discussion session. The Executive has asked me to serve on the resolutions committee, and I accepted. Finally, CASCA has also been supportive not just in hosting the open discussion session, but also in publishing an article of mine in preparation for events at this conference related to the militarization of anthropology.

The Discussion

It was very important to have had the participation of Dr. Greg Feldman, a founding and active member of the U.S. Network of Concerned Anthropologists, present at the discussion, to share his notes and insights based on his experience with the NCA. For example, I had no idea of how the NCA actually went about being established in the first place, what means were used, and so forth. Aside from those already identified, I will not identify any of the other participants. I should note that a member of the Human Terrain System, Dr. Christopher A. King, was also present for the discussion (see report #1). (Following the conference, some were concerned whether HTS undertook any recruitment, focused on AES members, at the venue as this could affect the nature of future collaborations with American anthropological bodies. Dr. King was certainly not barred from the session, and it was open to all who had registered for the conference.)

Already one might perceive a certain bifurcation in the aims of the open session. Was it meant to create a Canadian chapter of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists? Yes, originally that was our purpose, except that hardly anyone from the NCA was able or willing to actively pursue this possibility, and it was almost canceled outright, until I decided that a “Canadian response” does not require that our hand be held by our American partners. Was the session designed to mobilize CASCA into taking some action or making a formal declaration? Yes, and this was discussed. However, clearly these are two separate aims — one being the formation of a sub-group, and the other being action to be taken by the association as a whole.

While there was some limited support in the session for going through a formal CASCA declaration as the primary route (for example, a declaration in support of the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association, in its 2007 repudiation of HTS), the consensus was that we should form our own private network to work on any possible resolutions over the coming year, possibly in time for the next CASCA conference and AGM, which will coincidentally take place in Montreal. (Incidentally, for those interested in attending, you should note that the 2010 CASCA conference will take place in conjunction with the gigantic mega-conference of the Federation of the Humanities and Social Sciences — “the Learneds” — and that even hotel space might be problematic. The conference will once again take place at Concordia, although this time I will not have the pleasure of being a local organizer as I was in 2006.)

It was also made clear that CASCA could not issue any formal public pronouncements, in a top-down manner, speaking for the association as a whole, until the membership as a whole had the chance to provide feedback, and therefore the only immediately available option was to form this private network, which for the time being, until we come up with our own name, we can call the Canadian NCA as a shortened reference.

Furthermore, it was also recognized early on in the discussion that we would not be able to speak to the same issues as the U.S. NCA, which is focused on counterinsurgency and the Human Terrain System. HTS cannot hire Canadian citizens, and the American citizens it can hire have to receive security clearance. Therefore, HTS cannot be a Canadian issue, strictly speaking, although as I emphasized that regardless of the international hegemony of American anthropology (which has an impact on the public perception of all anthropologies), Canadian and American anthropology have historically been so closely intertwined — the very setting for the remarks was a joint event with the AES — that HTS should not be read as a “purely” or solely American issue. As to whether the Canadian Armed Forces might be interested in securing the collaboration of academics, that is not altogether clear (see this for more on Canada’s “white situational awareness teams“). Speaking in another context at the conference, Dr. Anne Irwin, who I had the pleasure of meeting as she is the only Canadian anthropologist to have spent time with Canadian troops in Afghanistan and is a former reservist herself, noted that it is not certain that the Canadian Armed Forces has taken any official “hands off” approach to academia, explaining to those of us assembled at the previous day’s panel that she was invited to contribute a chapter to a Canadian military publication on “cultural intelligence,” which she refused to do. The only “hope” then is that the clock will run out: Canadian Forces are supposed to be pulled from Afghanistan in 2011 — however, as we know, there are excellent chances that politicians, of whatever party, will succumb to American pressure to prolong their stay.

Thus, unlike the U.S. NCA, our concerns will be broader, and encompass discussion of the potential impact of the Pentagon’s Minerva Research Initiative on the landscape of Canadian social science funding (since Minerva encourages foreign participation), as well as examining any funding of the Canadian social sciences by the Department of National Defence.

An additional concern of our network will be to discuss the questions raised by open access publishing, self-archiving, and the production of ethnographic websites that can and likely will be read and mined for any data of possible value to military planners, that could threaten the lives of those we work with, or threaten the societies in which they have to live. We will need to discuss whether our obligations to the taxpayers who funded our research overrides our primary ethical responsibility, which is to those at the heart of our research. One thing seemed certain, open access publishing was not seen as a pure and pristine value to be pursued at all costs and without regard to the consequences, and we also realized that we need to further impress on all anthropologists to be extra cautious and vigilant concerning how even small details could acquire significance for future military actions or other forms of pernicious intervention. The same concerns were voiced concerning border crossings by anthropologists, and the possibility that sensitive data in any format could be seized and copied, and possibly put to use.

Given the nearly continuous thread of the discussion held last Saturday, which seemed to have a great deal to do with surveillance, both placing anthropology under surveillance and enlisting anthropology (voluntarily or not) as a tool of surveillance, and that the broader context has to do with the workings of national security states, one participant argued that our focus should not be so much the “militarization” of anthropology, as the “securitization” of anthropology. This appeared to meet with wide approval, and it appears to be the focal concept that will unite our upcoming discussions.

At this point, this is the most that I will share about this discussion. The private discussion to take place within the group, will remain private. However, I will reproduce on this blog any draft resolution that we may produce, especially if it is intended to generate wider discussion and get wider feedback.

Many thanks again to the CASCA Executive Committee, to Greg Feldman, and to all those who came to one of the final events of the conference, when already most conference participants had left. The next posting about this conference in Vancouver will not be a report as such, but rather a copy of the paper I presented (discussed in the last report), along with audio of the paper.