The Wrong Way and the White Way

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 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:


Sphere Related Content

6 thoughts on “The Wrong Way and the White Way

  1. qualintitative

    I am not sure why you twisted what I wrote to direct it back to your pet issue. I didn’t miss the point you bring up, it just wasn’t part of that discussion. A commenter claimed that my post proved something that made no sense: “Qualintitative’s response shows how well you have provided the military with the sort of PR they like (a simple story that hides criticism).” I pointed out that my post referenced a criticism in the article, so I did not see how my post demonstrated hiding of criticism. That exchange had nothing to do with getting or not getting the perspective of people in Iraq and Afghanistan about HTT. I don’t understand why you threw in “as an ethnographer” to say that I missed something big and then pointing to something that I didn’t bring up because it wasn’t even part of the discussion. Are you saying that “as an ethnographer” I should have anticipated the tangential point that hadn’t yet become part of the discussion?

    I’d be happy to see an article about the perspective of people in Iraq and Afghanistan about HTT. I liked the Harper’s article because it had more on-the-ground information than anything else I have read about the program. I also appreciated it because I didn’t think we needed another article about how HTT might hurt academic anthropologists’ careers. More inclusion of Iraqi and Afghanistani perspectives would be great, but I’ll take what I can get.

    How would you react if they said that they were happy that the HTT was there? Have you even considered that possibility?

  2. Maximilian Forte

    Yes, I can see how you could claim that I twisted your words. What I was intending to do was to use your words as an entry point into what consistently gets passed over in all of these discussions: perspectives of the people in these occupied countries — so my point was valid, even if “out of turn.”

    I also don’t want to see articles about anthropological careers and the HTS. I think that is the least important issue of them all.

    I expect there would be a range of local opinions about HTS. What we already do know is that the majority of Iraqis have wanted the U.S. out since Day 1…as I said in a post on this blog: when you reject the dogs of war, you hardly accept the dogs’ fleas. What we also know is that in Afghanistan locals will not be repeating the absurd and preposterous claims that HTTs saved lives and lessened violence, when the U.S. has stepped up air strikes, killed many more civilians, and the war has been ramped up. No, I really doubt villagers would honestly say “we are happy that the HTT is here” — freely and of their own accord. What’s been stopping them from saying so thus far? Why didn’t Featherstone record any jubilant welcomes? Why hasn’t anyone? In fact, where in Afghanistan are any nation’s occupying forces celebrated…that is, outside of Karzai’s immediate office?

  3. qualintitative

    Thanks for agreeing that your point was unrelated to my comment. I had a feeling that’s what happened, but didn’t want to assume.

    Your argument seems to be that if they don’t like the occupation, there is no way they would like the Human Terrain Teams working with the occupying forces. You may be perfectly correct. However, this is an argument based on considering the situation logically. However, it does not address your concern about having the perspective of the Iraqis or Afghanistanis. You assume you know what they think but it is really an empirical question. When we try to imagine what others are thinking, we often get it wrong, which is why we do fieldwork and get people to tell us what they think themselves. You may think it is impossible that there would be a positive feeling about HTTs in Afghanistan and Iraq, but what do we know? I don’t agree with your analogy about the dogs of war. You can resent the dogs of war, but still appreciate a leash, especially if you’ve seen what happens without the leash.

    Now, are HTTs leashes or fleas? I don’t think we have any good evidence yet to make that decision, especially evidence from the perspective of Iraqis and Afghanistanis, who are supposed to be the main objectives of the program. I think that if the HTT wants to convince others that they are doing good things, they need to start doing some independent evaluation including getting the perspective of the locals. All I’ve heard/read are nice anecdotes. That’s not good enough.

    This point is related to the issue that was brought up in the Harper’s article that I hadn’t seen anywhere else. More and more US international aid projects are being run out of the military and not the typical agencies of State and USAID. It’s not as easy as saying that the occupation should just end and there will be no need for HTT. The military is trying to do humanitarian assistance projects without any expertise in the international aid business or even in understanding cultural differences. This leads to things like programs having no evaluation component. USAID has to include a way to define and evaluate the success or lack of success of their projects. It is a huge component of their activities. The US Army is trying to do the same kinds of projects without any evaluation. Projects without attention towards outcomes can cause more problems than they solve, especially for the people who are supposedly the beneficiaries of the projects. What’s worse is that they are trying to do these aid projects with soldiers who are trained to kill and walk around with weapons and are often absolutely clueless about understanding human beings who are not like themselves. In my opinion, the HTT is a band-aid to address a problem created by bad policy. We still don’t even know if the band-aid is even doing its job as a band-aid. So I wholeheartedly agree that there needs to be the perspectives of Iraqis and Afghanistanis added to the discussion and that is in fact the most important element. But I’m not holding my breath.

  4. Maximilian Forte

    Thanks very much for your commentary.

    You did ask if I would conceive of the possibility of people being “happy” with HTTs in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I gave reasons why I would think not. Your leash analogy does not work, because it is an American leash, or an American band-aid, for an American occupying force that is rejected. So we are back to the fleas again.

    I understand that you say my comment was unrelated to your point, but it was not irrelevant to some broader points. You did write on your blog, “I think the lack of oversight of military contracting might be the biggest reason things are so screwed up in Iraq.” The biggest reason? You mean, not the invasion or what preceded it, and followed it? I think there is a much bigger picture that is being missed here, and that is because the vast majority of North American discussions, including anthropological debates, has been satisified with positions and opinions that negate Iraqi and Afghan perspectives…even when they are offered.

    I think that too often what we see in these discussions is people taking U.S. occupation as an unquestionable starting point. You yourself say above, “It’s not as easy as saying that the occupation should just end and there will be no need for HTT.” I ask: why not? It was that easy when Russia responded to Georgia’s aggression–both the U.S. and the E.U. just told Russia, flat out, to leave. So I don’t accept their presence as permanent, but far more importantly, there is no evidence that either most Iraqis or most Afghans are prepared to accept their presence (or they wouldn’t be attacked). Journalists have been to both Iraq and Afghanistan, and have been with HTTs — Newsweek, the New York Times, and now Harper’s. They have been in the presence of Iraqis and Afghans in all of these instances. Can you remember what the latter said about HTTs?

    We agree on some key points, but where we depart is in thinking that the only way to answer questions is through ethnography. That is a prejudice of this discipline in its current state. Also, ethnography won’t do the thinking for us if we start with unquestioned assumptions, it will just degenerate into an exercise of “seek and ye shall find.” As I have said in different ways before, I am not waiting to see the Human Terrain System work, or work well, I am waiting to see it get booted. A nicely functioning “humanitarian” component of counterinsurgency and pacification is just that, an exercise in domination, and I can’t accept it.

  5. James

    Maximilian, appreciate this perspective and post.

    ‘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?’

    Good point.

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