Given the post, “Stuff White People Like: Anthropology, apparently,” and Teaching Anthropology‘s “MTV’s ‘Exiled’ Debate: Seems we are riding a wave of sensibility,” this passage in a recent Newseek article (“The Real, Real World“) rang loudly with me, with an import that might exceed the specific context in which the comments were made. With reference to comments posted online about the MTV series, “Exiled”, the writer states:
Several posters noted that the host families on the show seem like props. “The show falls into the theme of using other countries and cultures as teaching tools for people in the U.S.” says feministing.com blogger Miriam Peres. “These people are being used as a teaching tool for mostly white, privileged girls….”
Using other countries and cultures as teaching tools? That sounds a lot like anthropology. It sounds a lot like introductory anthropology lessons that claim that the reason for studying others is to better understand ourselves, a statement that I initially took to be naive propaganda, and later saw as questionable since there is so little written by anthropologists “about ourselves” (note the deafening silences in allegedly free and independent blogworld around issues of race and anthropology, or the nature of the political system in which anthropologists are captured). Now I see the statement as more troubling than either of these two earlier impressions: other cultures are tools in our Western voyage of self-understanding. We teach about family life, sexuality, etc., by featuring other cultures, National Geographic-like with big colourful pictures…as teaching props in fact. We give “job talks” (more of an American phenomenon) that use other cultures as props for theories fashionable among Western elites. And when you consider the composition of our student body and faculty, as discussed earlier, then the second part of the quote above has a loud, familiar ring to it as well.
A prominent Canadian anthropologist, speaking in Montreal in May, 2006, began his talk at the conference of the Canadian Anthropology Society by saying: “we should just stop doing ethnography and sending students into the field” — the reason: the harm done by anthropologists in the arena of indigenous self-representations.
“We’re anthropologizing the military” — the subject of an upcoming post. And what evidence is there of that? And what is meant by that? Seeing that in all of the discussions outside of this blog there is no concern for presenting Iraqi or Afghan perspectives on the nature, purpose, or import of the Human Terrain System being operated on their societies, we are faced with talk about an other, without an other. Instead we get brazen self-labeling about “conflict ethnography” (not, mind you, the ethnography of conflict, but a shallow rendition of ethnography as a tool of conflict) and “adversarial culture” (the other as enemy). So that’s your anthropology? Iraqis and Afghans are mere background, objects, at most they respond to questions when faced by armed and uniformed “social scientists” in the company of soldiers — otherwise, they have no presence.
Posting about Steve Featherstone’s long article in Harper’s about the Human Terrain System, one commenter wrote:
Instead of hiding criticism, as you suggest, this article brings up this very important criticism and I have not seen this brought up in any of the other articles about the program. Perhaps I am missing something.
Yes, “qualintitative,” as an ethnographer you are in fact missing something quite big. I added:
Sorry, but the article about HTS that has really not been written yet, and that for a change really would be unique, is the one written from the perspectives of Iraqis and Afghans used and/or targeted by the program. Everything else is advertising, is one way to put it, and a blunter way to put it is that everything else is propaganda (with American heroes at the centre of the story, as usual).
Go back and try again Steve, this time without the armed escort.
Anyway, it’s not as if Steve is alone here: all of the other calls for “studying” the Human Terrain System to “better understand it” have all been calls to study HTS from its inside, not from inside Iraqi or Afghan society. It’s interesting how quickly “ethnography” can degenerate into self-serving propaganda, varied only by the occasional “startling” moment experienced by a naive anthropologist who glimpses the reality of imperial intervention. Surprised to learn that “your people” can do bad things?
Ethnography as a right, not just a rite?
Some behaviour is so vulgar that you just cannot make it up. The white anthropology PhD candidate from an elite U.S. college, “doing fieldwork” in Trinidad, cannot get permission to do research in this one community. So what does she do, in the absence of informed consent? She contacts her Embassy, and complains. The U.S. cultural attaché then calls the head of the community, and says how important a favour this would be, that they would look kindly on the community if they granted interviews to the researcher, and you know, many in the community rely on U.S. visas to get to see family in the U.S. The head of the community agrees to be interviewed.
The ethnographer bore other gifts as well. It turned out she had herpes, and left some of the married men with an itch they can’t scratch.
Then she played the confidential tape recordings of interviews with one community member, for another member, in which the person being interviewed was lambasting the person who was offered the recordings.
This is just one lurid tale, one that would never have seen the light of day. One wonders about the million-and-one other lurid tales, gestures, statements, or actions involving thousands of other “fieldworkers” over the decades that are also never told, except locally.
Alternative title for this post:
THE WHITENESS OF BEING (AN ANTHROPOLOGIST)