“Useless Anthropology”: Strategies for Dealing with the Militarization of the Academy

The following is a copy of the paper I delivered at the CASCA-AES conference in Vancouver on Friday, 15 May, 2009, for a panel organized and chaired by Dr. Greg Feldman titled, “The Use of Culture and Anthropology in Counter-insurgency and Peacekeeping Operations.” The audio copy of this paper may contain minor discrepancies compared with the written versions and it was not specially produced in technical terms (apologies if it sounds a little like “Live from Death Row”), but rather for the purposes of timing the presentation and rehearsing without reading.

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One does not need to seek employment with the Pentagon, take part in counterinsurgency, or work for the Human Terrain System in order to provide useful, even if involuntary, support for the national security, intelligence and military goals of the U.S., or any NATO state for that matter. In fact, one does not even need to be an American anthropologist in order to provide the U.S. military and intelligence with the information they seek. One needs to simply produce useful anthropology and not be mindful of the consequences of how it can be used by unintended audiences, now or in the future, to support agendas of which one may have limited awareness and even less desire to support. With this and much more in mind, my ambition is to seek the creation of a useless anthropology, and while some would say I was always on the right track for achieving that, I think more of us need to share a goal of producing useless research, to make worthless contributions, and by useless I mean useless to power, to empire, to domination, to regimes of scrutiny and inspection of the periphery. And not just useless, but even toxic and repulsive to the scientists of conquest – an anthropology of both withdrawal and resistance, free of false dilemmas that work to support business as usual, willing to set fire to the crops we planted if it stops them from being harvested by the tyrant, liberating ourselves from being our own best hostages. The idea is to refuse further engagement with the international traffic in information and knowledge that supports the workings of empire, capital, and the state.

In this presentation I seek to make three main points. First, to indicate some of the ways that all of us can be even unwillingly useful in supporting U.S. military and intelligence interests. Second, to reflect on the meaning of useful anthropology. Third, to point the way to possible alternatives, that could entail unthinking anthropology as we know it.

With reference to the first point, Gerald Sider made the point that at this moment in history “there is no such thing as an innocent anthropology” (p. 43). We know now that the U.S. military and intelligence are looking for ways of incorporating scholars in producing a global surveillance net. One way is to bring social scientists on counterinsurgency and pacification missions. Another is to have them conduct analysis of stolen Iraqi documents (see here and here), or to conduct fieldwork in areas of emerging or potential threat and describe the radicalization process and ways of counteracting it, as part of the Pentagon’s Minerva Research Initiative, managed in partnership with the National Science Foundation. Another is to comb through open access electronic resources. And yet another is just to get everything for free, by scanning, copying, seizing any or all electronic devices or written records from researchers as they enter the United States whether returning home to the U.S., or just traveling through, U.S. Border Patrol and Customs agents can: scan and hold laptops indefinitely; they can make electronic copies of hard drives, flash drives, cellphones, iPods, pagers, beepers, video and audio tapes; and, they can seize papers, documents, books, pamphlets, or even litter. This is also true of Canada and the UK.

Open access publishing, and publishing in electronic formats that are thus amenable to automated harvesting, is a critically important way that ethnographic data can be used by the national security state without the willing participation of researchers. “Intelligence does not have to be secret to be valuable!” says the website of the University of Military Intelligence, regarding open access resources, which takes us to Intelink-U, part of the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office, emerging from the Open Source Information System which serves the US intelligence community with open source intelligence. Among Intelink-U’s subscriptions is the University of New Mexico’s Latin America Database, as well as EbscoHost Databases. The Foreign Military Studies office is also in the process of creating the World Basic Information Library (WBIL), which promotes the concept of “distance drilling” telling us that: “About 85% of requirements in the intelligence business can be met with open source, unclassified sources, and can be exploited by qualified military reservists working by telecommuting. The WBIL has remotely located reservists from all four branches of the service doing ‘virtual’ collection and production utilizing their home Personal Computers.” Also, the Information Operations Advisory Task Force states that it has a “requirement to provide US Forces [in] Afghanistan…with the capability to collect, analyze, and disseminate open source (i.e. sociological or anthropological) information.”

With reference to the second point of this presentation, the bases for a useful anthropology, let us note that useful, objective, neutral, and scientific, are once again the buzzwords for an anthropology aligned with power, in the service of the national security state, while rhetorically attempting to move the militarization of the academy beyond the sphere of “politics”. Criticism is political; support is scientific. If you oppose military objectives, you are biased; if you provide practical knowledge, you are objective, and objective is good, just like machines are good. On the other hand, military interest in anthropology is to a significant extent the perhaps unintended outcome of anthropology’s success in marketing itself. The compulsion in this discipline, from the time before its institutionalization in universities, has been to market itself to power as a useful science, with valuable contributions to make, later boasting of the vital importance of ethnography as anthropology’s unique contribution, so much so that anthropology and ethnography are wrongly equated. We wanted the attention of elites, and now we’ve got it. The military is interested in both culture and ethnography. In an article in National Defense Magazine, we are told that “A deeper understanding of culture has become an official part of Marine Corps strategy.” Meanwhile, General William “KIP” Ward, Commander, United States Africa Command, said this about the Pentagon’s work in Africa:

“A lot of activity goes on in the continent through our non-government organizations. Academia is involved. When I was in previous assignments, someone came to me and would talk about, well, ‘Ward, you need to get a cultural anthropologist on your team.’ I said, what! A cultural what? Anthropologist? To do what? Get out of here. Or, ‘Ward, you need to have someone to help you understand the human dimension. You need some human terrain analysis.’ I said, ‘what? Get out of here.’ But it’s important, and where do those skills, talents reside — academia.”

But for more academics to be more useful, they need to get over certain twinges of moral compunction. In the minds of the state and military some of us have already reverted to being a tool of imperialism, assuming we were ever anything else. Not serving imperialism is routinely called “retreating from the world” by some. Montgomery McFate, the anthropology PhD who has been the most prominent spokesperson for the Human Terrain System, wrote in a military journal that,

“Over the past 30 years, as a result of anthropologists’ individual career choices and the tendency toward reflexive self-criticism contained within the discipline itself, the discipline has become hermetically sealed within its Ivory Tower….anthropologists still prefer to study the ‘exotic and useless,’ in the words of A.L. Kroeber….The retreat to the Ivory Tower is also a product of the deep isolationist tendencies within the discipline.” (p. 28)

She doesn’t stop there, unfortunately, she notes that,

“frequently backed up by self-reflexive neo-Marxism, anthropology began a brutal process of self-flagellation, to a degree almost unimaginable to anyone outside the discipline….The turn toward postmodernism within anthropology exacerbated the tendency toward self-flagellation….(also) This movement away from descriptive ethnography has produced some of the worst writing imaginable.” (p. 28)

In this regard, she merely echoes some of the conservative and often overwrought backlash within the discipline over this trend that it imagined to be postmodern, whatever that is, apparently being self-critical is evil.

With reference to the third and final point of this presentation, looking for alternatives and options to cooptation, for less useful anthropologies, I was inspired by Sider’s ideas about how a partisan anthropology, done “to help the victims of currently intensifying inequalities,” might begin, and it would begin in “the design of fieldwork and in the context of understanding struggle” (p. 44). He advocates against interviews, against asking questions of so-called informants, and against any form of recording data. Asking questions, he notes, is a seemingly simple act that opens our work to use by those who seek to dominate and control the people we study (p. 45). There are other ways we can work, he says, less open, but not impervious, to subsequent manipulation. Other options include choosing research projects that, in the eyes of the national security state, are entirely useless, and to write up the results in very esoteric language, with ample self-criticism. Another option is do to more “research at home” either collaborating with persons who are not the subject of either a moral panic or some hyperbolic national security hysteria, or, producing critiques of the way elites exercise power and enforce inequalities and injustices. Another option is open source ethnography done online, to collaborate with the producers of online information of ethnographic value, remixing it so that it becomes problematic to military examination. Not publishing in open access formats is another option, especially once the work is not funded by a public agency, the argument that “the public has a right to the research it funded” vanishes into irrelevance. We can also imagine experimenting with forms of research communication that defy easy understanding and conventional requirements of the military planner’s database, such as fictionalized ethnographies; ethnographic poetry; open source cinema (see here also); theatrical coproductions, and so forth.

What we cannot do, however, and pretend to be innocent about it, is simply to leave here today and continue to conduct business as usual.


For more examples of open source cinema that I have tried, see some of my recent productions, such as: Sour Chutney, West India, and Deep Obeah.

11 thoughts on ““Useless Anthropology”: Strategies for Dealing with the Militarization of the Academy

  1. Marc Tyrrell

    Hi Max,

    Interesting presentation, and thanks for bringing out the logic of open-source access. As a note, I doubt that using “esoteric language” would work, mainly as a result of the improvement in automated translations (see http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/21/AR2009052104697.html ). We already have the post-modern essay generator (http://www.elsewhere.org/pomo/ ), so it would not take much work to produce an esoteric language translator.

    On the research at home options, I think you may have a point, but would question whether or not the work would still be accessed as part of a broad, general forecasting exercise. If the move towards a “useless anthropology” is taken to the extreme (e.g. something like “Power dialectics in the establishment of Rose Breeding Hegemony – the case of Bangor Maine”), I have a suspicion that we may see more and more departments loose their funding as being “irrelevant”.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      You raise some good points concerning what I was sketching out (I realize that most of my blog posts are longer than the average conference paper, now that I finally have a conference paper up as a post). First, I think Hugh Gusterson used that universal translator as something to provoke more amusement than fear from his audience, it is still in the realm of science fiction and some of these translators may do more harm to their users in some contexts. The postmodern essay generator is really meant as a joke, I don’t think it can be used to translate serious papers.

      The idea of using research at home as part of a broad forecasting exercise is, I think, a very good point, and there will be some aspects of anthropology that the military, for example, will always find useful, even at the general level of “culture” and “community” for example. In fact, some of the HTS training that is done, is done at home, in neighbourhoods in the proximity of Ft. Leavenworth, if I understood correctly. The only thing research at home might not do is to provide detailed data on foreign settings where the military is deployed — and when I say might, it is with the awareness that many immigrants from target nations are available here at home. I am a bit surprised that we do not hear more about immigrants being approached for sensitive cultural or other knowledge that could be used by their newly adopted state, with a little arm twisting in the form of putting their citizenship to the test — so far I know only of the FBI using Arab-American collaborators within the community for domestic surveillance (no secret here, it is in the major dailies). Perhaps mining immigrant knowledge is the next stage, but it requires trust: trust that the immigrants being interviewed do not have ties to those targeted back in their homeland.

      (The only “useful” immigrant from Afghanistan that most of us would have heard about it in Canada is the current Governor of Kandahar, who returned to Afghanistan after, I think, working as a prof. at the University of British Columbia.)

      Useless anthropology should not be read too literally either. At the risk of causing unnecessary offense, I think that much of the work being produced by David Price, Roberto Gonzalez, David Vine, Hugh Gusterson, etc., is also useless anthropology — I do not think there is much in it that can be used by the military or intelligence communities for the purposes of targeting or dominating. Yet, it is extremely relevant.

      The point about departments losing funding for being irrelevant, that depends. If we are all, or mostly, “useless” then we set a new benchmark for funding. Relevant anthropology becomes that which is useless to the exercise of power over other nations. If, on the other hand, useful/relevant anthropology is that which works to support counterinsurgency, for example, I would bet that right now in Canada one would have a very hard time selling that research to SSHRC, or getting positive appraisals from peers, not to mention getting clearance from a university ethics committee.

      Richard Lee raised the point at the conference of whether I was also protesting against the kind of collaborative anthropology where a First Nations community calls upon an anthropologist to do research to support a legal case that the community might wish to bring forward. Of course I don’t object to that, and I suggested that he may have misunderstood me: this is anthropology that is useful to First Nations, and possibly “useless” to the state and developers, in terms of running counter to their goals.

      Also, it depends on the kind of institution. Here in Canada as you know there are still many universities that are not formally classed as research universities — they are primarily oriented toward teaching undergraduates. I worked in one, and now I am working in one that is struggling to move into the “research university” category. In the case of primarily undergraduate teaching institutions, they don’t risk losing funding — indeed, anthropology is one of the great dumping grounds for students who actually wanted to do psychology or business but did not have the grades to get into those programs.

      Ultimately, I have to agree with you: looking for simple solutions, trying to take things to the extreme, and so forth, will do little good. Thanks for the questions and comments, very much appreciated, even if it provoked me to write so much that I must have bored to death a few people by this point.

  2. Michael

    Crazy idea, but would you ever consider redacting ethnographic work? I’m referring to the practice of taking a black marker to certain elements of the text, exactly in the same way that government agencies redact pieces of information requested through the Freedom of Information Act. I suppose it might just be an irony or satire more than anything, and it wouldn’t necessarily change the form of what’s written.

    Another thought I had would be to explore the ways that dissident groups have and continue to communicate in spite of state censorship, such as Stanislaw Lem in communist Poland, or a long tradition of Iranian novelists. Or again, is this taking you idea too literally perhaps?

      1. Michael

        Kimberly’s work is really fascinating, thanks for turning me on to that. I don’t think I’ve seen ethnography presented in such a way before.

        One idea that this post got me thinking about could be a reiteration of the kind of writing experiments that happened in the Writing Culture era. A lot of those experiments were trying to play with representation because the form of ethnography was seen as problematic. I think it could be really fascinating to explore the potential (and actually very functional) use of purposeful redaction and obstruction of knowledge within ethnographic writing itself. This would certainly be different.

        Full disclosure, my own dissertation examined freedom of information law and the emergence of anti-corruption policy in Poland, with extensive fieldwork in the United States, as well. So I’m acutely aware of how redaction functions. I’ve been struggling to figure out ways to write about this work with a presence of mind concerning the form and structure of writing simultaneously. Particularly when anthropologists study policy and other powerful sources of representation, I think that writing could be a means of further interpretation. The drawback, perhaps, could be that, like many of the Writing Culture-era experiments, who would read such texts?

      2. Maximilian Forte

        This is just anecdotal of course, but I have found a very strong interest among undergraduate students for greater experimentation in writing ethnography, and when given the chance to experiment freely they have produced some stunning creations. Perhaps this is a reaction against the mountains of “dry” expository, theoretical literature they have been forced to read. What I have seen are ethnographies consisting of poems and dream sequences mixed in with flash backs to one’s childhood, to various forms of collage that try to show the multiple steps of redaction that go into the production of an ethnography. I am not sure that this is all I would want to read, just like I don’t always read poetry. On the other hand, some must be reading, since we even have a journal devoted to different forms of writing ethnography, Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly (http://www.wiley.com/bw/journal.asp?ref=1559-9167), which I must confess is a journal that I do not spend anywhere near the amount of time that I would like. Perhaps I should start begging to be allowed to teach our undergraduate Ethnographic Writing course so that I can spend more time with this.

  3. Marc Tyrrell

    Michael, I can’t speak for Max, but most Anthropologists I know already redact both our fieldnotes and our writings as part of the research/writing process. I believe that the main concern here is not so much about the personal safety of individual informants (since everyone should be anonymizing them already unless they request otherwise), but more at a structural level (i.e. providing structural blueprints that can be exploited).

  4. Michael Fischer

    Maximilian is correct in noting that we can’t control the manner in which our work is used, other than that work we keep to ourselves. The sensitivity of basic ethnographic information is great and much of this we do keep to ourselves. I worked with Paul Stirling for 12 years identifying how we could ethically make the majority of his fieldnotes and photographs of the people in Turkish Village publicly available online. These issues loomed large in discussing Anthropological Digital archives at a NSF sponsored workshop in May. I have been recommending to my students for 20 years to strongly encrypt their field material during fieldwork and decide in advance just how far they will go to protect their informants before going to jail for withholding the key.

    I have a great deal of personal synchrony with Maximilian’s concerns, but I lack sympathy for his ‘solution’ of being ‘useless’ by working within the cracks of the system as a kind of knowledge scavenger or by writing in mirrors – this is not consistent with being Open, a position I have promoted for the past 25 years, even if apparently my own students don’t always seem to recognise this. You cannot promote being ‘open’ and ‘closed’ at the same time without recourse to Orwell’s fictive logic. This is acquiescing to, not confronting, those consequences you disagree with. And, perhaps most important, if you cannot be honest in your writing you should not have wasted the time of your collaborators and your audience in the first place.

    In the case of anthropology we have a particularly sensitive role because if we are successful it becomes possible to use the results of our efforts to influence groups of people. Professional anthropologists have outnumbered academic anthropologists for at least 30 years, today vastly so. Anthropologists are people with a broad array of reference points, and they use anthropology for a broad range of purposes, some of which are not to our personal favour.

    Professionally I have been a musician, a technologist and an anthropologist at various stages of my life, and I found that any of these can be either well used or badly used by others, and that poor work is more likely to be badly used than good work because it is less likely to be undermined by any discourse that is sustainable.

    But an Open Anthropology is engaging these applications, not avoiding them. You can’t engage while hiding out. You can’t overturn the existing restriction of knowledge dissemination by keeping yours to yourself. One of the problems with an engaged and open anthropology is that you have to be willing to accept the consequences and work towards the good overcoming the bad.

    However, just because anyone can use our work for any purpose does not mean that we have to be passive. In addition to personal and organisational political lobbying, our best weapon is to make sure as full a case is available as possible in conjunction with a knowledge of how institutional decision making is done. Anthropologists are typically good at working the system, indeed this is the main reason that Anthropology exists at UK universities at all. We might look to a day when the system we work ceases to exist, and can work towards that goal. But in the meantime the system can be destabilised though participation much better than withdrawal. I think we call that subversion.

    If you look at the ethnography of institutional decision making more ‘facts’ and opinions available complicates the process. If we did our own, public, ‘Human Terrain’ analyses (perhaps under a different label!) these would have to be considered because they are on the record. They will have an impact on the process. If you send in a ‘Friend of the Court’ opinion, it will enter the process. If you give a newspaper or magazine interview, it will enter the process. If you would rather the process not exist, then lobby to make the process a ‘war crime’, or to create liability laws that enable affected people to sue. Or if they have used your work, sue them yourself.

    1. Maximilian Forte

      Thanks for visiting.

      I think you will understand my propositions a little better as time passes and as I expand on some of my theses. When you wrote, “You cannot promote being ‘open’ and ‘closed’ at the same time without recourse to Orwell’s fictive logic. This is acquiescing to, not confronting, those consequences you disagree with. And, perhaps most important, if you cannot be honest in your writing you should not have wasted the time of your collaborators and your audience in the first place,” that tells me that you did not understand the core of the piece, and it is not necessarily your fault as it was a very short piece and a great deal had to be left unsaid. In all honesty, neither my collaborators have complained, nor did the audience members give even a remote indication that I had wasted their time, so we can put that concern to rest.

      What is more important is the way you use open and closed. There is nothing Orwellian about the way I use “open,” which is very distinct from totally selling out and giving anybody whatever they want for whatever purpose, who cares, just let me publish and build my CV. My primary concern is with reworking, reinterpreting and remixing materials — any that may be of interest to anthropologists — that are already being put out in the open and produced by non-anthropologists, i.e., our potential collaborators. Open anthropology also means an engaged anthropology that transcends the boundaries of the professional, institutionalized discipline…and that includes its distinctive publishing regime which has been so useful to the national security state. Open anthropology also means that whatever we do make available, is made available for free, without continuing to shore up the copyright system. There are other meanings as well, and while I do not always restate these principles in everything I write, I have not been altogether inconsistent. The first thing people want to know when they hear “open” is “what do you mean by open?” I have my way of approaching this, you can have yours, but let’s not abuse and misappropriate Orwell in the process, please.

      On the note of what you call subversion. The ready-made, standard ideological fix of all the old movements has been this constant refrain that you change the system by participating in it. Well, guess what? That strategy has been a monumental failure. The automatic dismissal of the deep impacts of withdrawal is one of the reasons.

      Just because anyone can use our work does not mean that we have to be passive, you say. I agree. But then, where was I arguing for being passive, in my active call for new ways of working?

      While I think we may agree on most other points, you seem to be fashioning a contradiction that simply does not exist. I am not advocating hiding out. Let’s put it this way: what you are doing here is the equivalent of telling people to continue participating in the slave trade if they want to end slavery, because just withdrawing, running away, fighting, or committing suicide will not end slavery. Yet, these are some of the forms of resistance that forced official slavery into an unprofitable and unmanageable corner. You don’t even need to hide out — what I am saying is that you also do not need to produce the information required for oppressive power to work best. I don’t need to hide in a basement, but I also don’t need to sell my children to human traffickers just to pride myself with the knowledge that I am out in the open and participating. Discretion, please.

      As I said, part of our disagreement is likely due to the nature of this medium, the brevity of the piece that you read, and different preferred expressions. I am glad for your visit and you should feel welcome to post your comments whenever you wish.

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