Gerald Sider: “Can Anthropology Ever Be Innocent?”

My thanks to the new magazine, AnthroNow, for placing the article by Gerald M. Sider online in its current issue (vol. 1, no. 1, April 2009), titled: “Can Anthropology Ever Be Innocent“. This turned out to be quite a valuable and relevant article for me, in helping me to reconfigure what ethnography can mean, and what it might look like, in the shadow of the national security state and the so-called “long war against extremism” (which, of course, exculpates American state extremism). My sole function below is to produce a list of the sections I extracted that strike me in particular as most important to my own work, with occasional commentary. Sider’s words are in block quotes, and all bolding is mine unless otherwise noted.

Who is looking in? Who is using you?

My concerns about the “imperialization of open access” are validated by what has apparently long been the practice of U.S. military employment of ethnographic knowledge for violent repression — this is of course not at all specific to open access, it’s just that open access will render the process of appropriation and application far faster and more efficient, especially for “distance drilling”. Sider relates a story of an event that happened at the annual meetings of the then Canadian Ethnological Society, held jointly with the American Ethnological Society, at Laval University in Quebec City in the early 1970s in the context of the Vietnam War:

A French anthropologist and ethnomusicologist, Georges Condominus, was invited to give the plenary address to the meeting. He stood at the podium, tears rolling down his face, saying that the doctoral dissertation he wrote in France, on the music of the Vietnamese Montaignards, had been acquired by the U.S. CIA, translated, and used in Operation Phoenix to identify and kill the village leaders of the villages he had studied. The point he was making is still brutally direct: at this moment in history there is no such thing as an innocent anthropology. (p. 43)

Design against cooptation

We have to consider if there can be a more and a less innocent anthropology, in the context of this perceptive judgment. The judgment does not reference our intent, or our hopes and dreams; rather, it refers to how our studies of mostly vulnerable peoples can be used, whatever our intent. There is a related question in the context of this issue, about how a partisan anthropology, done to help the victims of currently intensifying inequalities, might begin. Such anthropologies do not begin in sympathy, or any good-hearted attempt to be helpful. They begin in the design of fieldwork and in the context of understanding struggle and its potential. (p. 44)

On the “Human Terrain System”

Sider, I am glad to say, has some especially sharp criticisms to make of the Human Terrain System in particular, which I reproduce here since they are so directly relevant to much of what has been written on this blog:

Currently, by widespread, but far from universal consensus, the most morally corrupt, discipline-degrading, and destructive to the people we study form that anthropology takes is a practice that the U.S. military has named the Human Terrain System….The military’s defense of this use of anthropology is that it enables them to substitute knowledge for bullets, to talk to people instead of shooting them. But so far shooting is the primary mode of attempted domination, and it is clear that the threat of being shot permeates this call to dialogue. (p. 44)

Against interrogation

One of the most thought provoking and much needed contributions that Sider makes concerns perhaps the most fundamental method of ethnographic research: asking questions. This appeals to me given my own current, very deep disquiet about the fetishism of ethnography in anthropology which, like others (see Tim Ingold’s “Anthropology is not ethnography”) I believe is being wrongly equated with anthropology itself, that is, the latter is being reduced to ethnography. Not only have issues of translation and narration cast doubt on the old realist pretenses of ethnography, but there is also the basic question as to what “truths” are made available through ethnography, and, how (in)adequate ethnography is to understanding social change and large-scale social structures. Sider tackles something very basic by raising the unusual issue about the purpose and role of asking questions:

I want to suggest that the fundamental mistake that anthropologists who work for the military’s Human Terrain project is the same mistake almost all anthropologists make, and that is to ask the people that we study questions. This seemingly simple act opens our work to use by those who seek to dominate and control the people we study. There are other ways we can work, less open, but not impervious, to subsequent manipulation. Asking questions seems so fundamental to our fieldwork that we only worry about what questions to ask, and not about the questioning itself. But it is a very problematic aspect of our discipline, and one that leads us down alleys that we might not want to traverse. (pp. 44-45)

Sider poses a question that, framed in the negative as he writes it, is the central impetus of what I call the Open Anthropology Project:

The major issue is: can there be an anthropology which does not lend itself to being bent to the ends of state or capital domination and exploitation of the people we study, whether we want it to be or not? (p. 45)

This is the major issue since, as Sider reminds, us:

Anthropology has served the state

Anthropology has longed served the interests of the state, as it has been practiced throughout the late 19th century and the whole 20th century, in the United States, Great Britain, and Western Europe. Sometimes it served the state in causes where the alliance made a bit of moral sense, such as in World War II. The anthropology done in this context was usually arrant nonsense, but that is a different issue. More often, as in Vietnam or in the British and French colonies of Africa and the East, the anthropology done in service to the state is far less excusable. But as the United States turns increasingly ugly and desperate in its processes of domination, openly flaunting basic human-rights guarantees, the alliance of anthropology with the state becomes even more problematic, even more corrupt, than usual. (p. 47)

Ways out of power

Sider provides a number of hints — not elaborated sufficiently, in my view — about how to evade and resist the appropriation of one’s work, especially one’s “data”. One way is to not ask any questions about from perfectly ordinary, everyday, kinds such as “Can I give you a lift to the store?” as opposed to something that requires a collaborator to reveal something much more intimate. As he argues,

to ask a more probing question is to assume that you know what is important, and this is either an intrusion of your fantasies onto their situation, or a probing for something that is useful to you, and perhaps the CIA or the military, rather than an exploration of their situation in terms they care to reveal. (pp. 47-48)

In this light, I am now grateful for the many times that interviewees simply ignored my questions, or feigned a lack of understanding, because they had their own lengthy scripts to articulate. Generally, my questions got in the way.

Secondly, Sider never records interviews — what a relief! I personally found note taking (on the very rare occasions I took notes — the “fieldnotes” fetish never struck me as anything more than a mere fetish) and audio and video recording not only oppressive to the people I interviewed, but to myself as well. Sider advises that one listen for silences, and I must confess that I likely did not grasp what he intended by this, or how his method would not be revealing what was intended to be kept silent. On the other hand, if it is kept silent, then he cannot really know what “it” is, and in this sense he is arriving at his own interpretation. Philosophically, ethically, and I must say “artistically,” I think this is potentially a far richer and more challenging approach than what is regularly taught to students under the rubric of “ethnographic research methods”.

Toxic to power

Making ourselves “toxic to power” is one of my own lines, which I recently began writing on my video site and which I used in a recent conference paper. It reveals much of what I write, and how I write on this blog, and some complaints of my toxic discourse are — not as intended — received as compliments.  (I still recall with especial pride the Human Terrain System’s sockpuppet who repeatedly claimed that my blog represented what was to be avoided in the debates about HTS — in fact, as it turned out, that person wished to avoid any and all kind of debate, period.) This is about much more than being simply an offensive and snarky smart ass, which is how it would be understood by most. It is about rendering oneself utterly useless to “the wrong people”, which is how it should be understood. It also shows that HTS employees and their supporters are rarely able to understand conflict and opposition, except on terms of their choosing, and this is when dealing with colleagues at home. Imagine them in Afghanistan.

Sider’s formulation goes even further, in more elegant terms as well:

…put aside all our Weberian fantasies about social order and realize that power and domination do not make anything remotely resembling some kind of social order. Rather, power routinely brings chaos and rupture to peoples’ lives. Power is utterly incoherent in some of its central effects: that’s about one half of how it works. Power may organize the regular and for a while routine extraction of a “surplus” from peasants and workers, and simultaneously it seeks to mobilize and discipline labor as its other half, but in doing so it routinely brings chaos to peasant and worker lives. Power is, in a word, incoherent: it does not cohere at its center, and what it does is, for many, unspeakable in any clear or direct form. To listen for the silences is to grasp in our minds and our hands the incoherence of power and domination, and this grasp is the beginning, only the beginning, of our service to those we study. This is so because turning the specific forms and processes of incoherence back on the perpetrators is often a very effective strategy of struggle against domination and exploitation: make them deal with the chaos they create, or try to. (p. 49)


Readers might be interested to follow some related discussions surfacing from the recent conference of the American Anthropological Association. See Elizabeth Redden’s very interesting conference report at Inside Higher Ed titled “Anthropological engagement, for good and for bad?” (Nov. 24, 2008). I especially liked David Price’s remark that “good intentions” serve as a gateway drug on the way to committing all sorts of other abuses.

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