American Anthropology & the Pentagon: Let’s Professionalize “Terrorism” Research (1.6)

Despite what initially seemed to be a flurry of protests against the involvement of anthropologists in the Pentagon’s Human Terrain System, and more recent criticisms of the Pentagon taking a very large lead in funding social science research that would be of relevance to “terrorism” and “national security,” there seems to be a quiet, professional accommodation that is start to set in between all parties, even before waiting to see what kinds of directives a new administration in Washington might impose on the Pentagon itself (perhaps the Pentagon already knows there will be no changes?).

In today’s Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik reports, “Pentagon officials are talking with the National Science Foundation about the NSF playing a major role in the peer review for a new program to promote social science research on topics that relate to key issues in U.S. foreign policy.” Perhaps it is significant that a military agency would actually “submit” to civilian influence, especially when American politics have become seriously militarized, when the military uniform has become fetishized, and where the principle that in a democracy civilians command the military and not vice versa has been seriously eroded. Of course what this report does not tell us is the extent to which the scholars performing the reviews are to be independent-minded, the kinds who can see through “terrorism” research, the kinds who won’t be swayed from having been born and raised in the cultural milieu of a nation that has known permanent war for two centuries and where “fear of the Other” is arguably the single most compelling and unifying national ideology.

Given that anthropology has a lengthening history of being deeply imbricated with colonialism, then finding ways to make “terror” research professional, to institutionalize it, and to even seek military funding to carry it out will do more than to just nail shut the coffin of anthropology, for good, among the discipline’s prospective new human fodder in other parts of the world. It will heap mounds of dirt on top of it. There have been too many “compromises” for these to be seen as incidental hiccups or momentary lapses of judgment. Instead it is more likely that these continuous “episodes” reflect the deep structure of what has been colonialism’s favourite discipline. From consultancies performed for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, to counterinsurgency and terrorism research, this discipline risks losing any credibility it might have gained in the 1970s and 1980s with the rise of anti-imperialist literature from within its ranks.

The American Anthropological Association worries whether this national security research, as currently housed in the Pentagon, can live up to professional standards of peer review. Absent is any questioning of why there ought to be any “terrorism” research whatsoever — indeed a letter from AAA President Setha Low to the U.S. Office of Budget and Management states very simply: “We believe that it is of paramount importance for anthropologists to study the roots of terrorism.” In the place of critique, the AAA offers a call for, “rigorous, balanced and objective peer review” — objective, as if there is any objectivity left when discussing colour-coded mass hysteria. The AAA seems to be content with retreating to the ground of peer review, with maintaining the integrity of professional standards. The Pentagon’s “Minerva Consortia” otherwise meets with little challenge, apart from the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, which recently published its “concerns” about the Department of Defense’s “Minerva Project.”

Less concerned is the Defense Department, as in the case of the “senior official” who spoke to Scott Jaschik:

when the program is finalized, it will attract strong support from scholars, and predicted that “world class” professors would be involved. But he added that he wasn’t certain that the Pentagon would worry about satisfying disciplinary associations. “We certainly need qualified anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, historians, psychologists,” he said. “We need recognized experts in these fields. The relevant disciplines need to be involved. Whether professional associations per se should have a role, I’m less sure.”

And he or she is right to be “less concerned,” given the success of the powers that be in effectively instrumentalizing the American academy as a conduit for national security research. In fact, the AAA and the National Science Foundation promise to routinize it, to add respectability to the process, to encase it in professional standards. This is in part evidenced by other elements of the AAA website that appear at the same time as Setha Low’s letter: the announcement of the Director of National Intelligence’s “Open Source Conference,” and a rather weak statement from the Society for Applied Anthropology expressing its “concern” about the “potential” ethical “implications” of anthropologists becoming involved in the Human Terrain System. For all the funky articles one finds littering gracing the pages of the American Ethnologist and Cultural Anthropology, it turns out that American anthropologists are not so advanced where critique is concerned after all. Perhaps it is the case that they are better at “critiquing” other cultures and other societies and institutions more than themselves, just as they are better at theorizing change among target populations at the same time as they themselves actively resist changing the system in which they work.

One can expect to see the American Anthropological Association, and many of its members, continue to find ways to “adjust” to these realities, to make pragmatic compromises, and to look for avenues of influence (and not to lose out on any cash windfall, especially at a time when the economy is entering a long-term nose dive that will eventually visit major new funding cuts on universities and anthropology departments). The question that remains for the rest of us, outside of American anthropology, is how we should relate to American anthropology.

I do not maintain high hopes for any position taken by the Canadian Anthropology Society to have a major impact, as it is still a comparatively small organization and has limited public clout, from what I can gather. Its main activities today consist of producing an annual conference, and a biannual journal. It does not have its own code of ethics, for many different reasons, and only recently it has started up a newsletter. I think the onus will lie on anthropologists outside of Europe and North America, and especially the peoples studied by anthropologists, to revise or continue to revise their prospective working relationships with American anthropologists. More people need to be made aware of the kinds of compromises being worked out, and how this could affect them if they should choose to work with anthropologists.

To the extent that one continues to see the American Anthropological Association and many of its members offer continued accommodation with militarization, ranging from outright silence to the search for means of effective collaboration, the rest of us need to rethink our options. On either an individual or collective level we might consider redirecting our publications toward outlets other than American ones. We should also consider the extent, if any, to which the AAA occupies a hegemonic position in worldwide anthropology, and how its decisions could affect anthropology beyond American borders. At the end of the day however, I believe that professional associations can be expected to do very little critical political work, and some like the Canadian Anthropology Society have not been able to do much. A professional association is first of all obligated to defend a profession, and that can be done in myriad ways that cannot easily be aligned with any one political interest.

Perhaps my continued mistake is my assuming that, whatever we might do, that we can shore up the credibility and integrity of anthropology in the eyes of publics in current colonial situations — after all, many of these discussions have occurred in public and are recorded on the Internet, and I know that our discussions have not remained just among ourselves. The real question then would become not whether institutionalized anthropology will disappear, but rather how quickly some will force its exit.

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