Jorgensen & Wolf: On Anthropological Counterinsurgency, Scientific Objectivity, and Imperialism

One useful online resource, germane to some aspects of current discussions on anthropology and counterinsurgency, following from the previous post, is:

Jorgensen, Joseph G., and Wolf, Eric R. (1970). Anthropology on the warpath in Thailand (a special supplement). The New York Review of Books, 15 (9), November 19.

In that article, which provoked lengthy and critical responses, the two authors reflect on the significance, back then, of what they learned of the role of anthropologists in gathering information to facilitate counterinsurgency activities. The problem, as they state, is one that has,

dogged anthropologists from the inception of the discipline. European conquest and colonialism had, after all, provided the field for anthropology’s operations and, especially in the nineteenth century, its intellectual ethic of “scientific objectivity.” But “scientific objectivity,” we believe, implies the estrangement of the anthropologist from the people among whom he works.

Here the authors place scientific objectivity within the framework of building empire. They refer to Claude Lévi-Strauss for further defining this issue:

Anthropology is not a dispassionate science like astronomy, which springs from the contemplation of things at a distance. It is the outcome of an historical process, which has made the larger part of mankind subservient to the other, and during which millions of innocent human beings have had their resources plundered, their institutions and beliefs destroyed while they themselves were ruthlessly killed, thrown into bondage, and contaminated by diseases they were unable to resist. Anthropology is the daughter to this era of violence. Its capacity to assess more objectively the facts pertaining to the human condition reflects, on the epistemological level, a state of affairs in which one part of mankind treats the other as an object. (Claude Lévi-Strauss, “Anthropology: Its Achievement and Future,” Current Anthropology, vol. 7, 1966, p. 126.)


Jorgensen and Wolf reflect on their colleagues’ engagements with counterinsurgency, in light of the history of anthropology. As they put it,

The Thailand episode is only the latest violation of the conscience of anthropology; in retrospect we see that anthropological projects calculated to interfere in the affairs of others have a long, and not entirely visible, genealogy.

The advent of World War II, in the words of the outgoing president of the American Anthropological Association, “[provided] anthropologists [with] an unprecedented opportunity to play a variety of applied roles in government.” There was, for instance, an opportunity to aid in the forcible relocation of 100,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry to places east of the Sierras. There was the opportunity to analyze Japanese culture through the analysis of secondary sources and interviews with Japanese in the United States, under the auspices of the Foreign Morale Analysis Division, Office of War Information. There was, further, the chance to write war background studies of individual countries, such as “Siam—Land of Free Men,” under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution. Finally, anthropologists shouldered the White Man’s Burden in Micronesia, serving as administrators to local populations under the auspices of the Navy.

Also worth noting is that the Human Resource Area Files (HRAF) emerged from Yale’s Cross-Cultural Survey, which had the purpose of providing the military with information on world areas that were deemed critical. The Army, Navy, Air Force, and CIA each contributed $50,000 annually to help support the development of the HRAF.


At the time at which they wrote there had already been several meetings between government officials, military representatives, and academics from the SS (the social science community). Participants were aware of several problems that would place obstacles in the way of acceptance of their research plans, including widespread opposition to war in southeast Asia. As the minutes of one conference made clear, Jorgensen and Wolf explain,

there are devices for getting around these difficulties: increased salaries, congenial companionship, “interesting problems like existence of Thai communists”; professional opportunities and prestige; support of military officials at universities; closer ties of government with universities; greater support for RAND and Army think tanks; the hiring of top professionals at high costs to enlist and serve as a model for others; the development of administrative anthropologists who, on the British and French design, would become advisers to Empire.

Like much of the rest of the article, it often reads like an exposé of the Human Terrain System and the Minerva Research Initiative, only with different actors and acronyms. With some remarkable resemblance to what is contained in the call for Minerva grant applications Jorgensen and Wolf state: “As the Thailand papers show, the government is less interested in the economic, social, or political causes of discontent than in techniques of neutralizing individual or collective protest.” Little has changed.

It’s also interesting to note how the payment of high salaries is meant as more than just “compensation,” but as a lure in attracting SS recruits. Interesting to note as well the presence of RAND, now as then. The infusion of government and military money had a definite impact, Jorgensen and Wolf note:

Nearly everywhere, anthropologists were drawn into the network of information gathering and processing; the demand was for their data, not for their values. The anthropologist was supposed to bring in the “behavioral” information; others would use that information to formulate and execute public policy. Thus the curious quid pro quo which provides current working conditions for a great many anthropologists was established. The researcher would get the chance to carry on field work with a heady sense of engagement in a global welfare operation, punctuated by occasional participation in an international meeting, followed by a dry martini at the airport bar in Bangkok or Dar es Salaam. In exchange, others received the right to play with his data. Many signed their contracts, unwittingly or otherwise, in return for fellowships, research grants, and jobs.


Throughout the article the authors are highly critical of secret research, noting how much damage it can do not just to anthropology’s credibility and future, but especially to the people studied by the anthropologist:

Obviously, such techniques and goals are anathema to the anthropologist who is dedicated to open and free inquiry, and who feels an obligation to the people among whom he performs his work, people whom he can no longer regard as objects of the goal of “scientific objectivity.” Indeed, the anthropologist’s traditional obligation to the people among whom he works is the critical issue. In order for the anthropologist to work at all, he must learn to trust them and they him. He must learn to depend upon them, and in return, he promises that he will not betray their personal confidences, or permit his findings to be used without their knowledge for political purposes. Furthermore, many anthropologists feel that they should obtain their subjects’ consent to collect and disseminate information, and that, moreover, having received such consent on one topic, the researcher is not free to collect and use information on other topics.

Jorgensen and Wolf do not stop there. They argue that a naive anthropology can serve in the role of “informer” to the powerful and aid the purposes of imperial domination:

The days of naïve anthropology are over. It is no longer adequate to collect information about little known and powerless people; one needs to know also the uses to which that knowledge can be put. Behind an appeal for pure research, a research grant, a consultant’s fee, an appeal to personal vanity or to patriotism, is a government that may well use the knowledge gained to damage the subjects among whom it was gathered. Perhaps this is the grimmest lesson of all the events of the past years: many a naïve anthropologist has become, wittingly or unwittingly, an informer.

I was similarly concerned about this in an earlier post about “exposing the network.”


Jorgensen and Wolf essentially call for the decolonization of anthropology as a means of countering the cooptation of anthropology in building empire:

Admittedly, anthropology was ambiguously conceived. Now, in our view, it must disengage itself from its connection with colonial aims or it will become intellectually trivial. The future of anthropology, its credibility, depends upon sustaining the dialectic between knowledge and experience. Anthropologists must be willing to testify in behalf of the oppressed peoples of the world, including those whom we professionally define as primitives and peasants

Now, as then, the decolonization of anthropology remains to be achieved, and it will now be harder than ever. It’s best not to set any limits to either the nature or the extent of opposition to the recolonization of anthropology that is necessary.

6 thoughts on “Jorgensen & Wolf: On Anthropological Counterinsurgency, Scientific Objectivity, and Imperialism

  1. Thank you for resurrecting Wolf’s voice, it is sorely missed in the ongoing effort to co-opt our discipline in yet another wave of obfuscated neocolonialism.

Comments are closed.