Canadian Anthropology, the Human Terrain System, and the Minerva Research Initiative: Canadian Responses


One Canadian Response

As part of a broader framework of Canadian responses to the militarization of anthropology, and in particular the potential for American influence in this respect on Canadian anthropology, I am pleased to announce that the subject occupies several pages of the current issue of Culture, the newsletter of the Canadian Anthropology Society (see below). The article can be retrieved below as well as at:

and in the document box for this blog at


“Militarizing Anthropology, Researching for Empire, and the Implications for Canada”

For the past two years, American anthropology has been the site of heated debates concerning the recruitment of anthropologists for the counterinsurgency program known as the Human Terrain System (HTS). Both imperial anthropology, and anthropologists as spies, are making a comeback. In addition to HTS, there is the National Security Education Program (NSEP) (also see here), the Intelligence Community Scholars Program (ICSP), and the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program (PRISP), the latter set up with the avid support of Dr. Felix Moos (anthropologist at U. Kansas). Meanwhile new campus intelligence consortia are also being formed. However with the recent implementation of the Pentagon’s new Minerva program, the import and impact of the militarization of the social sciences has now widened considerably even beyond these areas of concern, and beyond the social sciences in the U.S.

As of the end of July, the U.S. Department of Defense formally instituted what it calls the Minerva Research Initiative, and is now accepting grant proposals. The Pentagon outlined the following five areas of investigation that it supports: (1) Chinese Military and Technology Research and Archive Programs; (2) Studies of the Strategic Impact of Religious and Cultural Changes within the Islamic World; (3) Iraqi Perspectives Project; (4) Studies of Terrorist Organization and Ideologies; and, (5) New Approaches to Understanding Dimensions of National Security, Conflict, and Cooperation. The DoD awards will be paid out to universities, and will range from $500,000 to $3 million (US) per annum, with the average award estimated at $1.5 million per annum.

What is important to note, besides the size of the awards and the nature of national security research that is being promoted, is that foreign universities and foreign researchers are also encouraged to participate: “This MRI competition is open to institutions of higher education (universities) including DoD institutions of higher education and foreign universities, with degree-granting programs in social sciences. Participation by foreign universities either as project lead or in a supporting role is encouraged” (p. 4).

Military reviewers and government employees are looking specifically for proposals that are relevant to Pentagon goals. The focus of areas (2) and (4) is to “elucidate the relationships amongst social, cultural, political, religious and economic factors that interact to foster political violence, terrorism or insurgent behavior” (p. 17). The Pentagon notes the following disciplines as “relevant”: “anthropology, economics, political science, sociology, social and cognitive psychology, and computational science.”

This project also calls on academics to themselves identify an organization or an ideology as “terrorist” without providing any guidelines or list of suggested organizations and ideologies. Surveillance is intended, over the long term, and anthropologists are specifically called upon, as “the relevance of context and situation may require field research” (p. 20). The effort is aimed at studying “behaviour networks, groups, and communities over time” with an “urgent need” to locate terrorist organizations and populations sympathetic to them. “Especially helpful to the Department of Defense,” the document states, is,

understanding where organized violence is likely to erupt, what factors might explain its contagion, and how to circumvent its spread. Research on belief formation and emotional contagion will provide cultural advisors with better tools to understand the impact of operations on the local population. This research should also contribute to countermeasures to help revise or influence belief structures to reduce the likelihood of militant cells forming. (p. 21)

Recently, the National Science Foundation has partnered with the Pentagon in vetting applications for Minerva funds, submitted through the NSF for its $8 million share of Minerva’s overall budget of $50 million. The funding is still from the Pentagon and the award carries the seal of the Department of Defense.

As mentioned, the Pentagon is inviting foreign researchers and their universities to participate in the Minerva program. Conditions in Canada seem ripe for its spread here, given Canada’s own intervention in Afghanistan and the government’s collaboration with the U.S.’ “global war on terror,” and the relative paucity of social science research funding. A minority can hope to win a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), and even fewer will ever get a grant close to the maximum of $250,000 spread over three years. Canada Research Chairs, fewer in number but with more funding, still cannot compete with the massive amount offered by Minerva, whose maximum grant is 12 times higher than the maximum offered by SSHRC to a researcher. With greater pressure from university administrations to secure more and more research funds, from all possible sources, it is just a matter of time before we find Minerva advertised by our own campus research offices, and taken up by researchers here.

Canadian anthropology is not insulated from its American partner. Many Canadian anthropologists, if not most, also belong to the AAA, and travel to the U.S. for annual meetings of the AAA and/or its member associations. We share the same space on editorial boards of journals. We often jointly organize conferences between CASCA and the American Ethnological Society (AES). Some Canadian departments are modeled on the American four-field system. Prominent faculty in anthropology have served both in Canada and the U.S. We have undergraduates from the U.S., and a good number of our graduates earning degrees in anthropology in the U.S. We use the AAA’s code of ethics and its case studies as part of our teaching materials. We read and adopt texts by our American colleagues, published in the U.S. Though the list could continue, one could add that given the dominance of American anthropology worldwide, even if none of the preceding were true this fact alone would ensure an eventual impact on how our discipline is reproduced, presented to the wider world, and received by it. Whether or not anthropologists will continue to be received and trusted by local hosts remains to be seen.

Related posts and sites:

Planned Actions for More Canadian Responses: CASCA-AES, Vancouver, May 13-16, 2009

With that background in mind, it was important to begin a Canadian initiative that in some ways paralleled the work of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, with the aim of developing specifically Canadian individual and/or institutional responses to the militarization of anthropology. There is the added problem of unknowing collaboration with American research partners who may themselves be funded in part under one of the programs mentioned above. The same applies to Canadian collaboration in reviewing articles, participating in conferences, advising on research proposals, etc., in situations where some funding from a U.S. military or intelligence agency may be present in the background, and that might find Canadian input useful. In addition, as the open access movement gains ground, and some speak of blogging as a research tool, we should not proceed naively as the case has been so far, where discussions of application of open access knowledge to nefarious ends has not yet been discussed outside of this blog.

Both Greg Feldman (Geography, University of British Columbia) and I are planning two events for the upcoming joint conference of the Canadian Anthropology Society and the American Ethnological Society, “Transnational Anthropologies,” to be held in Vancouver, May 13-16, this year. Greg Feldman is organizing a symposium, and I will be organizing an open discussion for CASCA members on the following day.

In addition, these issues have been raised directly with the executive committee of the Canadian Anthropology Society, and we expect to see some direct and active participation by it in these discussions.

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