Scanning the Hard Drives of the Softest “Science”? Why are the irrelevant so relevant…and interesting?

(If you can think of a better title that joins together the two bits of news below, then please let me know.)

Some anthropology news for today:


No totalitarianism here, as anthropologists get their laptops scanned at airports in the U.S. Perhaps the idea is to have the benefits of the Minerva program — surveillance data supplied by anthropologists — for free, with none of the paperwork, and none of the flack from us solipsistic, navel-gazing, reflexive, post-modern cesspool swimming, subjective, extreme leftist, child molesting anthropologists:

AAA Letter Addresses Unlawful Searches at US Customs

AAA President Setha Low, on behalf of the AAA, has issued the following letter regarding recent reports that US citizens and legal residents have been subject to electronics searches upon reentrance to the U.S. The AAA actively works to defend the right of anthropologists to conduct their work freely and ethically, and the association will be tracking the issue closely in the weeks and months to come. Questions and comments may be directed to AAA Director of Public Affairs, Damon Dozier.

Secretary Michael Chertoff
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Washington, DC 20528

July 25, 2008

Secretary Chertoff:

I write to you on behalf of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in response to recent reports that United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials have been searching the private electronic devices of Americans returning home from abroad. Founded in 1902 and headquartered in the nation’s capital, the AAA is the world’s largest organization of anthropologists, with over 11,000 members.

The AAA has recently learned that the DHS, through the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has allowed the search of private electronic devices, including laptops, of Americans reentering the United States. These searches include going over personal contents such as phone and email records. As anthropologists, we are especially concerned with this development, as confidential information, such as field notes, could potentially be reviewed.

The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution requires that federal authorities have a warrant to conduct a search and seizure of personal property and all US citizens and legal residents have these rights. Current practices have grave implications for anthropologists, social scientists and their research participants, as informants allow researchers into their lives precisely because they believe they have the ability to protect them and obscure their identities. The ability of scholars to honor their commitments to these individuals and communities could be compromised if a search were to take place.

Unlawful searches not only violate the rights of the scholar, but they unlawfully infringe upon the lives of our research participants. We urge you to revisit this policy, and allow the critical work of social scientists to continue unencumbered and uninterrupted.

Thank you for your prompt consideration of this matter. If you have any questions, comments or concerns, please feel free to contact Damon Dozier, AAA Director of Public Affairs, at (703) 528-1902 or


Setha Low


Cc: Kip Hawley, Administrator, Transportation Security Administration

W. Ralph Basham, Commissioner, Customs and Border Protection


Did you think that the above caricature of the way opponents describe qualitative, literary and leftwing anthropology was over the top? Then just wait until you read the commentary to the article below, which shows what polite statements are made in the caricature above.

Anthropology: The Softest Social Science?
John L. Jackson Jr. (see his Anthroman blog, linked in the sidebar under Anthropology Blogs)
The Chronicle Review


Why are people sometimes so dismissive of anthropology?….It is probably a combination of what people don’t like about anthropology and what they find most powerfully persuasive about the harder sciences. Anthropology often gets characterized as a “postmodern” cesspool, a discipline that wallows in pseudo-theoretical (even literary) waters, embraces the most solipsistic form of navel-gawking introspection, and has recanted most of its earlier commitments to ‘objective’ outsiderism. At the same time, economists are thought to occupy a firmer space much closer to the normative benchmark that is the natural sciences, crunching numbers in ways that purport to eschew the ideologically-driven meanderings of those softer social sciences.

One commenter, who candidly signs himself/herself as “Fossil”, writes:

One cannot ignore the multitudinous intellectual sins of cultural anthropology over the past thirty years or so [and he/she does not mean support for imperialism]. Cultural anthropologists filled the pot, turned on the heat, brought things to a boil, jumped in, and now complain that they’re in hot water. It is telling that the scientific disciplines that anthropology used to comprehend, principally physical anthropology and archaeology, have been snubbed by culturalists bedazzled by the same kind of theory that swamped literary studies, from which cultural anthropology often seems indistinguishable these days….Cultural anthropology has been fertile soil for relativism, subjectivity, and outright solipsism. At the same time it has been airily dissdainful of science and scientific objectivity, which, problematic as they may be, are vital to any serious inquiry. It has been the home territory of some of the most bizarre exercises in “science studies”, as exemplified by such characters as Latour and Traweek.