Richard A. Shweder: A True Culture War

In an Op-Ed titled, “A True Culture War,” in The New York Times, for Saturday, October 27, 2007, Richard A. Shweder made the following arguments:

1. That the pledge of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, calling for an anthropological boycott of counterinsurgency support is understandable since, “these concerned scholars don’t want to make it easier for the American military to conquer or pacify people who once trusted anthropologists.” Nevertheless, he says, “I believe the pledge campaign is a way of shooting oneself in the foot.”

2. He is not too concerned by what anthropologists such as Montgomery McFate are doing in places such as Iraq since, “it turns out that the anthropologists are not really doing anthropology at all, but are basically hired as military tour guides to help counterinsurgency forces accomplish various nonlethal missions.” What they do is, “offer global positioning advice as soldiers move through poorly understood human terrain – telling them when not to cross their legs at meetings, how to show respect to leaders, how to arrange a party. They use their degrees in cultural anthropology to play the part of Emily Post.”

3. Shweder argues that, “the real issue for academic anthropologists is not whether the military should know more rather than less about other ways of life – of course it should know more. The real issue is how our profession is going to begin to play a far more significant educational role in the formulation of foreign policy, in the hope that anthropologists won’t have to answer some patriotic call late in a sad day to become an armed angel riding the shoulder of a misguided American warrior.”

These are my initial responses:

A. Shweder’s response is defensive and predictable, in the context of the history of this discipline since its inception. The political position of the author, at least on this issue, is moderately right wing. I will elaborate further on each of these points.

B. Shweder is worried that a political statement, such as the pledge, could alienate the military and foreign policy establishment. What he wants, instead, is another way in, through “educational” input. The structure of American imperialism needs to be better informed, not protested, let alone dismantled–these are the only plausible conclusions to be drawn from his piece. His recipe, based on the discipline’s historical craving for recognition from the powers that be, is for an alternative collaboration: “Here is what you people need to know about the world, as you go about conquering it.” Hence my comment that his position is politically right wing.

C. His position is also a defensive one: McFate and fellows are not really doing anthropology after all. Since these anthropologists are not really doing anthropology…the discipline is safe. “Phew!” The problem here is that anthropologists all do a great many very diverse things, and Shweder is clearly trying to draw some hard lines of demarcation (without specifying what they are, which is part of the reason his intervention will fail to achieve his desired results). McFate has been right about one thing, when she snapped that “nobody owns anthropology.” Well, almost right: those who fund it effectively own it, and if the work of anthropologists comes to be increasingly funded by the military and intelligence establishments, must I really spell out who would then own at least part of the discipline?

D. Shweder’s response is also predictable: anthropology, by aligning itself with institutions and structures of power, preserves its inherent inability and unwillingness to examine its fundamental bases as a colonial knowledge system.

The paradox then is that it is precisely because Shweder’s reaction is predictable (and thus, some might say, uninteresting), it becomes interesting.