I presented the paper below, “(Re)Imperializing Anthropology and Decolonizing Knowledge Production,” at the 8th Annual Critical Race and Anti-colonial Studies Conference of Researchers and Academics of Colour for Equality (R.A.C.E.), held at Ryerson University in Toronto, 14-16 November, 2008. Almost a year has passed since I promised to post it here, and I suspect that I have since lost some of my references.
This is the only presentation I have made at a conference where those attending and participating found it to be “shocking,” “chilling,” and “extremely depressing,” in the words of three different participants. The vast majority of those participating and attending the conference were not anthropologists.
The second of only two conference papers I have presented thus far that involve the Human Terrain System was presented this past May in Vancouver: “Useless Anthropology”: Strategies for Dealing with the Militarization of the Academy.
Smart, Soft and Long: Propaganda Abroad and at Home
In promoting a “long war” against so-called “extremism,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has spearheaded initiatives to assimilate social scientists into the so-called “global war on terror,” with culture and ethnography being the two most salient areas of interest that drive the renewed military creep into universities, coupled with the expansion of military activity into areas previously dominated by civilian efforts, such as relief work (also see this, this, this). The result is a realignment of academic research with the imperatives of the national security state. Canada is by no means immune to this, it is merely a latecomer, as I will discuss later.
For the past two years the Pentagon has actively sought to recruit anthropologists, and now other social scientists, in its twin wars of occupation and counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, taking the form of the Human Terrain System and now the much broader Minerva Research Initiative. The Human Terrain System, or HTS, embeds academics with military units, with the purported aim of mapping local cultural formations so that U.S. military can better understand who the local power brokers are, the prevailing customs, and material needs that can be satisfied to win local loyalty and collaboration with U.S. forces. HTS claims that its aim is to save the lives of U.S. troops first and foremost, and to lessen the need for directing firepower at local populations. Critics have argued, among many points, that social scientists are being used to better refine targeting, given that the Assistant Undersecretary of Defense, John Wilcox, noted: “the human terrain enables the global kill chain.” The embedded academics wear American military uniforms and carry weapons if and when they conduct interviews.
My belief is that it was created above all for domestic consumption, as part of a domestic propaganda effort and a public relations war conducted through the mainstream media. The aims include, in my view, quelling the homegrown intellectual insurgency of critical academics, by luring academics with salaries up to $300,000 when they are in the field, while at the same time promoting a new image for increasingly unpopular wars by emphasizing that smart people [and smart power] are replacing smart bombs, that a new intellectual elite is at the helm as personified by General David Petraeus, and that wars are now winnable because they are being fought within the cultures of the occupied. Ethnography is the shiny new tool in the armory of intellectual counterinsurgency. While the Pentagon takes over civilian developmental efforts elsewhere, it is bringing in more outsourced civilians into the war zone, contracted by British Aerospace in the case of HTS, and celebrating their counterinsurgency effort as an increasingly civilian affair.
Moreover, the principles and mechanisms behind the Human Terrain System have been incorporated in newly expanded designs for the U.S. military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM), which came into being on October 1st, and its Latin American and Caribbean Command (SOUTHCOM), to better penetrate local cultures and expand the nature of U.S. military presence in those regions, in part with the aid of social science research. The aim is to get U.S. troops used to the climates, cultures, and so-called human terrain of these various zones, through so-called humanitarian, development, and relief work, so as to maintain a regular presence and a higher sense of familiarity should more forceful action be required. Here too Canada is directly involved once more – at this very moment, Canadian military personnel are part of the crew of the USS Kearsarge, a US Marine aircraft carrier and amphibious assault vessel, currently docked in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The Kearsarge has been touring Central America and the Caribbean since August, as part of this expanded Pentagon mission and the reconstitution of the 4th Fleet that has alarmed both Brazil and Venezuela.
(See Operation Continuing Promise 2008; the blog for the mission; its extensive photo gallery; note from the U.S. Embassy in Trinidad, the operation as a form of “soft power;” more on Kearsarge as soft power; the main operation page from SOUTHCOM, and a short overview/summary of the mission; and, concerning the Canadian presence, a note from the Dept. of National Defence, a photo gallery of the Canadian military personnel on the Kearsarge mission, and “Ahoy, eh! From the Canadian Medical Contingent in KEARSARGE!“)
Anthropology: Sucker for Power
Where the employment of anthropologists in HTS is concerned, this is a repeat or continuation of the long history of anthropological service to expansionist states, colonial management, and imperial domination, a history with which institutional anthropology has yet to come to terms, if the relative paucity of literature on anthropology and colonialism, or the rarity of courses on decolonizing anthropology attest. This is not say that anthropology does not contain within it a significant critical and even activist tradition, especially since the 1960s, as much as it is to suggest that anthropology has no real core, as David Price argues, with which to either align or collide with state power. Primary motivations and compulsions within anthropology, that pre-date its institutional birth and continue into the present, include:
- the constant perceived need to promote the relevance and usefulness of anthropology;
- policing its proprietary claims over ethnography;
- bemoaning the lack of attention from other disciplines and the wider society;
- the drive to develop applied anthropology;
- self-promotion as a science that should be valued by those in power;
- the desire for a higher public profile and engagement with the world;
- the goal of helping to do good; and,
- selling knowledge of the other.
All of these varying emotional, intellectual and political strains within the discipline contribute, individually or collectively, to propel some into the folds of the Pentagon, to keep many others silent, and to provoke the visceral critiques of a few, such as myself.
Research in the National Security State
Both HTS and the Minerva Research Initiative (Minerva or MRI from now on) are additions to an already existing array of programs that meld the national security state with academia in the U.S. These programs include the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program (PRISP), formed with the guidance and active support of an anthropology professor (Felix Moos) at the University of Kansas, as well as the National Security Education Program (NSEP), the Intelligence Community Scholars Program (ICSP), and the National Academic Consortium for Homeland Security (NACHOS), and an array of private think tanks that link social science research to the so-called “global war on terror” with some of these, like the Hoover Institution at Stanford, housed on campuses. One could also mention the presence of ROTC on many campuses, and the fact that as far back as 1988 a CIA spokeswoman publicly proclaimed that the CIA had enough professors on its payroll to staff a large university. Clearly, in addition to casting a critical and vigilant eye on anthropologists, we also need to be realistic of the many intertwining connections meshing American academia more broadly with the American national security state, and build a plan of action accordingly.
This past summer the National Science Foundation, with the support of the American Anthropological Association, successfully lobbied to administer $8 million of the Pentagon’s $75 million for Minerva, offering its seal of approval to projects by offering semi-independent peer review. The NSF boasted of its long service to the state: “To secure the national defense was one of the original missions we were given when we were chartered in 1950,” said David Lightfoot, assistant director of NSF’s Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences Directorate, “We’ve always believed that sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists and other social scientists, through basic social and behavioral science research, could benefit our national security. In fact, we’ve always done so through various research projects.” Craig Calhoun, president of the Social Science Research Council, at a recent Minerva workshop organized and hosted by the Pentagon, went on the record cheerfully praising Minerva and calling for more ways of expanding the nature and range of academic collaboration with the military and intelligence communities.
The MRI has been accepting grant proposals, with the deadline passing on October 30 , the results to be announced before the end of this year. Proposals are being accepted for projects that address any of the following areas: (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; (5) New Approaches to Understanding Dimensions of National Security, Conflict, and Cooperation. The Pentagon will pay out awards to universities, and awards will range from $500,000 to $3 million (US) per annum, with the average award estimated at $1.5 million per annum.
One way in which this program can directly engage Canadian academics and universities is apparent from the fact that foreign universities are also encouraged to participate, as the Pentagon announced with the call for applications,
“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”.
The Pentagon’s MRI calls on academics to themselves identify an organization or an ideology as “terrorist” without providing any guidelines or list of suggested organizations and ideologies, or even how it defines terrorist. The Pentagon announced in its call for research proposals that, “This effort will involve the development of models and approaches to study behavior networks, groups, and communities over time” — so surveillance is intended, over the long term, and anthropologists are specifically called upon, as “the relevance of context and situation may require field research”.
The Pentagon continues:
“there is an urgent need to be able to locate the points of influence and characterize the processes necessary to influence populations that harbor terrorist organizations in diverse cultures as well as individuals who identify with terrorist group figures”.
The Pentagon announcement states,
“Especially helpful…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”.
In addition, Minerva’s “Iraqi Perspectives Project” involves the study of documents looted from Iraq by U.S. forces and private individuals and illegally relocated to the U.S., at such places as the Hoover Institution at Stanford. This is despite the repeated protests and calls for their return from the Director of the Iraqi National Library and Archives, and despite the fact that capturing and holding these documents clearly violates the 1954 Hague Convention. Academics are therefore being invited to violate international law and Iraqi sovereignty, in writing Iraqi history for the Iraqis, another classic act of colonial domination. In the meantime, no one can know which documents have been made to disappear or have been altered in the years that they have been in the hands of the Pentagon.
Hugh Gusterson, an anthropologist of military industries and national security, recently wrote a compelling overview of the many dangers of Minerva and other programs for the social role of academia. He writes:
“When research that could be funded by neutral civilian agencies is instead funded by the military, knowledge is subtly militarized and bent in the way a tree is bent by a prevailing wind. The public comes to accept that basic academic research on religion and violence ‘belongs’ to the military; scholars who never saw themselves as doing military research now do; maybe they wonder if their access to future funding is best secured by not criticizing U.S. foreign policy; a discipline whose independence from military and corporate funding fueled the kind of critical thinking a democracy needs is now compromised; and the priorities of the military further define the basic terms of public and academic debate”.
Given the ambivalent and unsteady reactions of academic anthropologists, these developments are undoing the past thirty years of effort of some in decolonizing anthropology, thereby threatening to return the discipline to an adjunct in the service of imperial power. As I said, reactions have been varied, with the American Anthropological Association (or AAA) going as far as issuing an executive condemnation of HTS as unethical, to proposing to revise its entire code of ethics by 2010 in order to preclude such involvement from the military from claiming adherence to professional, ethical standards. At the same time, the current president of the AAA worries primarily about whether Minerva research can live up to professional standards of peer review. Absent is any questioning of why there ought to be any “terrorism” research whatsoever — indeed a letter this summer from AAA President Setha Low to the U.S. Office of Budget and Management states very simply: “We believe that it is of paramount importance for anthropologists to study the roots of terrorism.” In the name of pragmatism, there seems to be a lack of a consistent critical discourse for dealing with state power and imperialism, and perhaps one should not expect this from a professional association as such.
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 as a standard research grant, and perhaps three times higher than that offered to Canada Research Chairs. 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. As for the Human Terrain System, it too has already made an appearance in Canada, for now relying on the service of civilian employees of the government. Some of you may have read recently that Canadian forces operating in Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province have employed so-called “white situational awareness teams” to reportedly help troops navigate the complex tribal landscape of southern Afghanistan. As Tom Blackwell of CanWest News reported earlier this week:
“Drawing on information from Canadian civilians and troops operating in Kandahar, local cultural advisers and NATO allies, the team is trying to map out the movers and shakers of the province and how they relate to each other”.
That is exactly the same as HTS, indeed human terrain mapping has also been referred to as “white situational awareness” by its proponents in the U.S. Also, an American infantry unit operating under Canadian command has its own “human terrain” team, Blackwell reports. Elissa Goldberg, who is in charge of Canada’s civilian officials in Afghanistan, says that the deployment of the team is “a recognition that you really have to understand the human terrain of the environment, so you do no harm.” Refined targeting, focusing on enemy Afghans, is also a stated purpose of gaining a sense of local dynamics. When results of this first month’s trial mandate it, we should not be surprised when the Canadian military comes knocking on the doors of universities, and you already know that university presidents hungry for cash will warmly welcome them, while firmly prodding us to get more money, always more.
Towards the End of the White Discipline
I have mentioned that Canadian forces work with the US’s SOUTHCOM, we know they participate in Afghanistan, that a Canadian HTS is being developed, and that Minerva is open to Canadians. Canadian anthropology is not insulated from its American partner either. 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 the Canadian Anthropology Society and the American Ethnological Society. 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 written by our American colleagues. Even if none of the preceding were true the fact of the worldwide dominance of American anthropology alone would ensure an eventual impact on how our discipline is reproduced, presented to the wider world, and received (if at all).
The military’s cultural turn has focused attention on ethnography, in what Derek Gregory calls the rush to the intimate. Anthropology has been a victim of its lust for influence as Satia put it, and of its own success, having sold itself as the owner and master of ethnography, often wrongly equating anthropology with ethnography. Having claimed it had much to offer, now the national security state wants it. I believe we need to consider the ways we can make ourselves toxic to power overall, while rethinking, or even unthinking many things, such as the value and role of “fieldwork” (a despicably colonial and scientistic term), open access publishing, the funding of research, and the meaning of academic freedom. Without any response, the fatal uses of anthropology will likely marginalize and perhaps terminate what is arguably academia’s whitest discipline.
More Photos from the U.S.S. Kearsarge and “Operation Continuing Promise 2008”:
The Canadian Presence with the U.S.S. Kearsarge during “Operation Continuing Promise 2008”:
28 thoughts on “(Re)Imperializing Anthropology and Decolonizing Knowledge Production”
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My reaction here is not to be depressed, but rather to be angry.
Max, I don’t want to colonize your comments section, but I think I have an interesting proposition here.
If, by any chance, there is a sucker-for-power-anthropologist looking at this blog, while engaged in a research that “should contribute to countermeasures to help revise or influence belief structures to reduce the likelihood of militant cells forming”, then, I would like to kindly give him an occasion to put to test
his ethnographic skills and attention to details.
That is, he should look precisely at my right arm, then look at the end of it, where he should find an upright hand, palm turned inside. The interesting and mysterious ethnographic detail that should be noticed and interpreted concerning that hand is this :
***an extended finger that springs up right in the middle of it***
I can also provide the situationnal awareness if the meaning is not clear.
Then he would photograph the gesture and quickly rush to publish an article on the hand gestures of hostile natives. A general would praise his genius insights in testimony to Congress, while at least seven major newspapers and magazines would write happy and upbeat stories about the important cultural knowledge obtained by this amazing ethnographer.
Don’t worry about colonizing the comments section as you say, I am very interested in taking note of the fact that articles that used to get a flurry of heated and engaged comments, about a year ago, now generally meet with silence. I may be the pessimistic sort, but I sense that we have lost the war, and we always were little more than a very vocal minority.
“SOUTHCOM”… the last I read of southcom was in released CIA papers on the Guatemalan civil war. They were discussing giving counterinsurgency (CI) and psyops training. The Guatemalan vice defense minister’s had sent a request for training in kidnapping operations. Sounds like a great place to have anthropologists working!
Maybe anthropologists are studying the wrong people.
Also, are these anthropologists/social scientists really smarter than the average Joe? Using humanitarian aid to have a better idea of the “terrain,” should need arise, is more troubling to me than the fact that some call themselves “anthropologists/social scientists.”
On open access questions, is it reasonable to assume that anyone can control the spread of knowledge? Anthropology students (or history, or foreign language, etc.) can do whatever they want with the knowledge they’ve gained, after they graduate. To avoid undertaking research that’s going to be of interest to the military sounds more feasible. Some might go for the money. . . . It’s also hard to predict where the next great “conflict” is going to show up. . . . Using historical texts and/or already-published materials to study culture might also prove a good alternative.
You and I agree on one thing: As you seem to be emphasizing- the US should withdrawal all forms of humanitarian aid outside of our borders. Nothing: no medical aid, no education, and should not be getting involved in other nations issues. It costs the US taxpayer TRILLIONS for all of this nonsense. In fact, in order to avoid being a total hypocrite I think you should abandon everything invented or provided by the US. I totally agree with you. Soft power of humanitarian aid is imperialism!!! It must be stopped at all costs! So you have finally sold me…
Interesting coincidence, having added a new video featuring an interview with Immanuel Wallerstein where he quotes Madeleine Albright’s famous statement that the U.S. is the “indispensable nation,” which seems to be echoed in your own comment, “should abandon everything invented or provided by the US.” That is no longer as hard to do, for dependent nations, as you might think. With the rise of the European Union, China, India, Brazil, and various south east Asian industrial powers, along with oil exporting nations awash in capital…the U.S. really is dispensable. When the U.S. lost a city, New Orleans, it was the U.S. that was receiving humanitarian aid, and Canada that built trailer parks for the displaced. I am leaving aside the fact that the U.S. is so deeply indebted to China and oil producers that your economy is largely foreign-owned, and that even mainstream “pundits” like Fareed Zakaria publish best sellers like “The Post-American World.”
The point of the article consists of two converging changes that place the Pentagon at the centre of U.S. relationships with the wider world: (a) the military taking over civilian activities, in part for the same reasons advanced that made HTS attractive to policy makers: it would be a way for soldiers to learn about the cultures in their zone of operation, and a way for the military to win hearts and minds; and, (b) civilians being employed by the military to support military goals.
Obviously you were being sarcastic, which is fine (always enjoyable), but the question to you remains: Why is it that your main interface with the world has to be the military one? In addition you wrote, “the US should withdraw all forms of humanitarian aid outside of our borders” — why just humanitarian aid? Why not military aid? In fact, given that the U.S. is the largest global dealer in arms, and sends military aid to prop up dictatorial regimes and aggressive nations like Israel, why don’t you start there? And if you really wanted to be “humanitarian,” did you need the military to do it for you, and did you have to place conditions and wrap the whole thing in U.S. geopolitical propaganda in such a way that it was obviously anything but humanitarian aid?
Of course, the U.S. will pursue its own interests, according to its own decisions. Nor is a case such as that of Operation Continuing Promise an all-American venture either, as we saw teams of Canadian and other military personnel take part. The point is to in fact recognize that the U.S. (and its allies) are not just being nice and altruistic, but that they are pursuing their interests, and to be awake to that fact and to the nature of those interests. That’s all really.
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I’m totally lost here. Do you object to the use of the term ‘fieldwork’ to describe field research or/and do you object to field research?
Thanks for the question. With reference to the term itself, yes, I think it makes us sound either like a bunch of lab coats out on a zoological field trip, or CIA agents who also refer to work in other countries as being “in the field.” I have serious difficulty with referring to societies and people I know as “the field,” turning a human population into an object on which I will work. I worried that it was a pet peeve, the same way it grates on me to see how frequently academics write about “interrogating” this or that, while “exploding” concepts — I cannot tell sometimes if I am reading theory, or reading news extracts about Abu Ghraib or the bombing of Baghdad. There is something telling about the aggressive, imperious language. However, rather than a mere pet peeve, I think it magnifies the serious differences in power, respect, and esteem between researchers from certain “sending” societies and people in “receiving” societies.
In this paper, the comment I made was entirely about the terminology. However, I have to admit that I do have increasingly serious problems with most of the received notions of “field research.” Particularly I think of the imposed nature of research projects; the projects framed by the researcher’s questions; the inequality in terms of who makes the decision about what is important to study (and the who, where, and why of the study); the either intentional or unforeseen mapping-like quality of descriptive ethnographies that serves to turn the work of the ethnographer into an act of surveillance; and, the basic idea that people are out there incapable of representing themselves with authority, unable to articulate their truths, and that what is needed is for an anthropologist to intervene, to mediate, to reinterpret them, to manage the messages about them, and even to explain them to themselves. If necessary, the anthropologist may even testify against them, explaining how they really are just fake Indians who recently invented their culture and identity — I use this as a metaphor, but it also reminds me of the many good reasons why anthropologists are so hated today in many indigenous communities, especially here in North America.
I would like to hear if you think that was all essentially a load of BS.
(P.S. Sorry for the delay with comment moderation on — the first two days of the week usually see a heavy inflow of more clever porno-spam.)
Would I be off base in suggesting that while some of the things you bring up are issues of real concern for military-sponsored ethnography the same issues don’t really hold outside of that situation? For example, how many descriptive ethnographies are produced nowadays? I would assume that they are a/the goal of the Human Terrain program, but my impression of most contemporary ethnographically collected data is that it ends up buried in hyper-specialized writing.
A lot of communities in Native North America do have a real resentment of the discipline of anthropology and, as you say, for good reasons. That’s not a universal, though. And I am absolutely sure that one would be much, much more likely to find an ethnographic monograph in a randomly selected Native American household than pretty much anywhere else except libraries and anthropologists’ homes.
There is a lot to bring up in regards to the contemporary relationship between American Indian communities, ethnographers, and ethnographies. One important issue is the fact that in the United States it is next to impossible to collect data on territory held in federal trust without consent from the relevant tribal government. I think that’s good insomuch as an ethnographer can’t just drop in and do as he or she will. But permission from a government body doesn’t necessarily equate with community consultation…
I think there’s something to be said about time and ethnographic (and cartographic and lexicographic and demographic, etc.) research. Doing village censuses with the US Army in the Hindu Kush in 2009 is ethically problematic at best, but I don’t think that makes the collection of detailed information about human social life bad by definition nor do I think it makes the ethnographic monograph a morally bankrupt genre.
Hi MT Bradley,
I will send you a short email when I am ready to post a reply here, so you know where to find it. Just in the last 24 hours I have developed a worsening flu, and my ideas are scattered (that is, more than usual). This is an important discussion and I am hoping we can resume it soon.
Very best wishes,
No hurry – I set my reply to receive e-mails with new replies, and I had what was probably an ancestor of the same bug a couple of weeks ago so I sympathize and empathize.
Given the self-managed and widespread use of social networking sites, (ala MySpace, Facebook, et cetera) data collection poses far less difficulty than “fieldwork” (the problem of objectification and dehumanization apparently begins when people become “terrain” and assassination becomes a link on a “kill chain” – euphemisms for the paradigm inversion of culture as an exploitable weakness may be what one would expect of the military, though it is sad to think that scores of research scientists would play along) and there appears to be a growing interest (outside of targeted advertising) in data mining these networks.
Any thoughts on social networking sites serving as source data for domestic human terrain mapping activities?
Hello and thanks for this comment. I was looking at your blog and found this post was also relevant to what you discuss above:
In bits and pieces at different times on this blog, and more in my cyberspace ethnography course, do I speak of the surveillance opportunities, mostly here:
although it also came up in the discussion of the so-called Iranian “Twitter Revolution,” that Iranian authorities were successfully using Twitter and FB for surveillance and eventual capture of some protesters. They also resorted to “crowd sourcing,” posting photos of protesters and asking Iranian to identify them.
I agree that the digital human terrain is one fraught with dangers to users. The so-called dystopic visions of cyberspace from the early 1990s are gaining greater credibility than ever. It no longer looks like abstract, conspiratorial, paranoid fear-mongering that was more appropriate for sci-fi novels.
That is another reason why we not only need to be extra careful with what we put online, but that we should also think of “unhelpful” material to put online to frustrate the authorities. Few anthropologists would consider open misinformation, and completely invented data, and this takes us back to the need to get past anthropology as we know it.
not really feeling better (the fever actually went down for a few hours, and only now is it starting to climb back up), but I need to start by at least getting some notes down since this seems to be a can of many worms.
Some of the discussion will revolve around whether we think ethnography is just a tool, without any values embedded in it, or a medium that is built on certain assumptions and tends to reproduce certain patterns. Some might say, “innocent until proven guilty,” and my answer is that we have piled up enough “convictions” to begin from the other end: “Guilty until proven innocent.”
I tend to see ethnography as a medium and as a mode of knowledge production. I recognize that there are a great many studies done by people who claim to have adopted an ethnographic approach, and that in some cases it is barely different from telephone survey research, travel writing, or journalism. What I find to be especially problematic is the following model of ethnography:
* a researcher decides on his/her own where (s)he will do the research;
* the researcher is trained in certain theories, trained to ask certain questions in a particular way, and trained to locate his/her work within a wider anthropological tradition;
* the researcher writes a research proposal, in combination with the guidance of supervisors (if the researcher is a student), later defended in-house in front of teachers and sometimes other students;
* the researcher was not invited to enter a particular body of people, but seeks to “negotiate entry,” “gain access,” and “establish rapport” — sometimes it is painfully transparent that what they are talking about is pretending to be friendly for the purposes of data extraction, a routine duplicity as Fabian spoke of it;
* if it is a MA or PhD ethnography, it will contain a considerable amount of descriptive material;
* often the research project is utterly meaningless to a given body of people, it is clearly meant to advance the career of the researcher, and the people in question are cajoled into thinking that their contribution of knowledge is for the greater good of humanity (hard to believe that if one skims the articles published in journals such as the American Ethnologist);
* then some of us say, “we don’t pay for information” (as if everything else we did was honest), thereby denying people whose knowledge we borrow even minor crumbs from our table;
* we then become the speakers for a given body of people in the “academic literature” (which itself is the product of arbitrary exclusion and fortification), as if their knowledge, that they gave to us, is somehow of less value or credibility than our rewriting and reinterpretation of that knowledge.
To the extent that “ethnography” follows that model, I think that its internal epistemological and methodological axes are fundamentally colonialist ones.
I am not even addressing the many flaws of ethnography as a way of gathering knowledge, its microscopic view of the world, its truth claims, or its tight association with anthropology so that the latter reduces to the former.
I can also think of the many pluses of ethnography; it’s just that I cannot get past the fact for each one I can find several minuses.
This may or may not be useful, but I have two experiences with “ethnography” that resonate with the above points. Sorry for length:
(1) Summer field school, Guatemala. For funding, I had to specify the agenda beforehand: landslide relief following hurricane Stan. For the first couple of weeks, all went well. Then, a comment from an older man at the docks, who was otherwise very friendly and a person I respected, changed my attitude. I was with two other students at the time:
“… On finding that we were students, he proceeded to tell us what he thought was most important to study in the town. He told us of Maximón, and pointed out where some Mayan ruins were located across the lake. . . . I asked him, after a little while, if he knew anything about the aid after Hurricane Stan. I wasn’t expecting too extensive of a response, just that he might have known someone of interest. In fact, his whole demeanor changed. He said that help is bad, very bad, because the people in Guatemala, they see Americans and think how much money they have and business they bring. They ask for money, ask for help, and this is not good because then they become accustomed to not working. Panabaj has become a place of many ladrónes, many thieves, because they’re used to not working, and only getting aid. He said that he knows that all Americans aren’t rich, that there are problems in the U.S. too, that we should focus on those problems rather than on other countries.”
That wasn’t the end, but it gets to the point. Whether his analysis was right or wrong didn’t really matter to me at the time. More important was the sense: I may not be welcome. Would I want to live in a town where, every summer, students come and sit in public places and take detailed notes on what everyone is doing? Then, the students ask questions but don’t have the experience in Spanish to understand complex answers. I’m not doing anyone any good. Maybe I shouldn’t be here at all. Maybe he’s right. Maybe I should be doing something in the U.S. One day, I finally decided to quit the field school, and left. I told myself I shouldn’t be doing anthropology after that, but I also had the lingering feeling that I was just going about it wrong.
2) One year later, I was working at the Natural Bridge, VA, Monacan Indian Village, giving informal tours and taking notes for an ethnographic methods class. The other historical interpreters, two women of the Monacan Nation, insisted many times that anthropology was too political. One, analogous to a tribal historian, as far as I could tell would have been happiest if I had I simply helped organize the information she gave me and laid it out in a report. Eventually she was planning on writing a book and had amassed all sorts of research that she hadn’t had time to put on paper. Instead, my professor wanted me to stick more closely to anthropological themes: representation, identity, a lot from studies on Colonial Williamsburg. I wrote the report, turned it in to both, but felt that I’d wasted the other interpreters’ time because what I’d written wouldn’t be useful to them.
3) Now, in West Virginia, I’m having a very positive experience working with a community, but with no ties to anthropology. I’m paid by the government, as part of the “war on poverty,” but with a highly flexible job description, making locals my “bosses.” In the beginning I did quasi-ethnographic work, talking to community members about the museum and town and the directions they’d like to see the place take. Suggestions in mind, I then worked with the museum governing board, who are also local representatives, to form a common vision/strategic plan. Now, it’s my job to help them implement it, occasionally bringing in outside experts and other community members to give them new ideas. Instead of feeling unwelcome, I have board members suggesting I should stay as director or at least extend the job 7 or 8 more months and neighbors trying to find me a suitable boyfriend. I can say fairly certainly that I’ve contributed work that they value. What for me now is more elusive is how ethnography and anthropology fit into all of this, if at all – definitely not in the traditional sense. . . .
Very interesting to read Stacie, much appreciated. I was thinking that we have so many reports, such as yours, some of mine, many others, but they seem to be scattered across a thousand journal articles and book chapters (and some of those chapters are in edited volumes that are not classed as “anthropology” by the publishers). If they had been concentrated in fewer locations, it would have been easier to recognize patterns and to possibly figure out solutions or alternatives.
Incidentally, about the “war on poverty” in West Virgina — isn’t that a very old war now? Isn’t the program called that, and taking place there, something from the 1960s or earlier?
I don’t know about other programs, but AmeriCorps VISTA (http://www.americorps.gov/for_individuals/choose/vista.asp) was started by Kennedy in the 1960s. It has been a relatively low-key program in past years but still exists and has attracted new interest under the Obama administration. As they told us at orientation, our job is not simply to alleviate but rather to “eradicate” poverty. The rhetoric, in my opinion, is objectionable. But, there are many good aspects to the program as well.
Here’s the full answer. It just showed up in a book I’m reading. First, from the essay “America Needs Hillbillies” in Back Talk from Appalachia. It sounds like the NY Times was a big catalyst:
“In the fall of 1963, Homer Bigart, a reporter from the New York Times, visited eastern Kentucky, and by late October a series of front-page articles appeared about the poverty of coal mining communities. These articles caught the attention of John F. Kennedy, who revived the dormant President’s Appalachian Regional Commission and promised to set aside $45 million for immediate relief efforts – thus began the famous War on Poverty of the middle sixties. In response to the spirit of the times, Life magazine devoted its January 1964 issue to poverty in Appalachia. Soon food and clothing from the rest of the country began pouring in. Harry Caudill describes several contributions as follows: “An overwhelmed wholesaler sent 12,000 pairs of shoes to Letcher County – ‘Two pairs for every child,’ he specified – and the town of Harlan was blessed with an entire cartload of cabbages for several days on a side track while the cargo rotted, and the Louisville and Nashville – which touts itself as ‘Old Reliable’ – promptly discarded it on a riverbank. The ten tons of decaying vegetables sent an odoriferous pall to plague the county seat and raise serious doubts about the whole idea of Christian charity” (284-5).
The book Why America Lost the War on Poverty and How to Win It, by Frank Stricker, says it the program was initially proposed as a limited set of experimental field studies and president Johnson broadened it. They also took into consideration how the program would sound politically, which is why it’s not called the “war on inequality,” “redistributing wealth,” etc.:
Sometime in October or November 1963 Kennedy approved a full-blown program against poverty. He was assassinated on November 22. One day later, Heller got President Johnson’s agreement to “move full speed ahead.” Anti-poverty planners floundered until David Hackett presented a thirty-nine-page plan on December 1. Hackett assumed that they did not know how to solve poverty; they could discover how to do it by listening to the poor. Hackett proposed that a limited number of task forces conduct field studies in urban and rural areas . . . .Once sold on the idea, Johnson ran with it. . . . he wanted something big. In his first budget message to Congress (January 21, 1964), Johnson announced that any community that wanted a program could have one. The hope of scholars and funders that antipoverty efforts would be part of a controlled social science experiment was doomed. . . . Nor would the War on Poverty include direct efforts to equalize incomes. People who had other ideas suppressed them. Economist Lapmann decided that a politically acceptable program must avoid terms like “inequality” and “redistribution of income and wealth.” The same went for cash handouts. . . . ” (source, 48-9).
Thanks very much Stacie, this is very illuminating, especially the final sentences. For a moment I was going to suggest that perhaps the West Virginia experience might be useful as a lesson to apply to other poverty stricken zones of America in the wake of this “recession”…but not with the sorts of prohibitions we see there. Indeed, the very idea of limiting bonuses for financial executives has been tossed aside, one of the factors that led some to speculate with the vast sums they had accumulated. Otherwise, a war on poverty and inequality certainly sounds far more attractive than a war on “terror” or even the war on drugs.
Right, poverty is a symptom of the recession, but as far as I can tell, it’s not the cause. The VISTA focus on capacity building implicitly defines poverty as a lack of capacity at the local level. It tends to rehash in new form the idea of bringing “civilization,” or the “21st century,” to supposedly “backward” places so they can better take advantage of their resources, and in doing so it’s able to overlook other possible causes.
“I believe we need to consider the ways we can make ourselves toxic to power overall, while rethinking, or even unthinking many things, such as the value and role of “fieldwork” (a despicably colonial and scientistic term), open access publishing, the funding of research, and the meaning of academic freedom.”
i agree with you about “the field,” which is a strangely accepted term. interesting how the rest of the world is seen as a field site, and books are written about what can and cannot be located or defined as the field.
meanwhile, these very places are not populated with subjects, but with real people who have real lives and concerns.
this discussion about ethnography and anthropology is an important one to me. i have some similar field experiences as stacie (field schools in mexico) and came away from them with a serious mass of doubts and questions. i am sure that i never want to “run a field school,” in which i drop a whole bunch of students on some people as a practicum for learning ethnographic methods.
a lot of these questions have been going through my mind lately, about the basic patterns of anthropology, about the assumptions, and about the possibilities. i have remained ambivalent and skeptical from day one, but also think there is great possible value in ethnography (especially when compared with the ways that economists and policy makers go about making their decisions). at the same time, there is incredible room for abuse and misuse of people and data.
i think about this stuff all the time though. what am i doing with this? why am i in anthropology? what am i trying to accomplish? what right do I have to do the things that i am doing?
I wonder if financial executives ask themselves the same questions….
Maybe it’d do them good to develop a little more angst.
It’s been a while since I’ve had the time available to get caught up on your site, and when I finally do, you have a vast amount for me to digest all at once, which slowed me.
Anyway, a few points for you to consider.
– “Soft Power” is merely the most current term for something that the US military has been used for over at least the past 60 years. It’s been in the quiver for that long, but the degree to which it has been deployed has gone up and down over the decades. So what you were seeing with, for example, the Kearsarge is really not that different from similar efforts in, say, South Korea in 1947, or Central American nations in the ’70s. The difference was often in the “who” (was doing it). So, for example, a lot of people our age, serving in the US Army’s National Guard (of various states) would find themselves in, for example, Guatamala, building small bridges or running a dental/health clinic in a remote area for their “one month in the summer” training. In the past 8 years the greater weight has been picked up by the Navy, in no small part because they’re not fully committed elsewhere (as the Army and the Marines are), and also because more people in uniform have come to see it as viable.
– “Why use the military”: That one is simple, at the top level, but more complex the deeper you get. The bottom line, for some situations today, is “because the military is the easiest, fastest, and most potent answer to fast-breaking situations” (think: tsunami or hurricane or earthquake). We have a budget, capabilities, and the resources to deploy 20,000 people halfway around the planet on a day or three of notice, and when a ship like the Kearsage arrives it comes with helicopters (useful when the coast is destroyed), hundreds of tons of food, the ability to make tons of pure clean water per day, and advanced medical facilities. (A ship like the Kearsage has a full-up operating suite, a 17 bed ICU, and space for up to 250 or 300 in recovery.) That’s not inconsiderable, and in all of the rest of the world, no nation anywhere has created a civilian ship that can do anything like that for use in disaster relief situations.
But at a deeper level (putting my historian’s hat on for the moment), I subscribe to Andrew Bacevich’s thesis from his book The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (Oxford University Press Inc, USA, 2005) ISBN 0-19-517338-4, which I stongly recommend. Over the past 40 years at least, and probably since 1939, this nation became increasingly militarized at the domestic level, and then that became exacerbated due to domestic US politics. The byproduct is circular. It became impossible, politically, here to criticize my profession. (That is also why so few generals have been fired the past 50 years as well.) That, in turn, tied to the Cold War as well, meant that we had ever more capabilities…many of which, as I pointed out above, have dual uses.
– Finally, I also think you’re underestimating how long and how deeply the military and academia have been intertwined. I’d place that startpoint somewhere back in the 50s at the latest. HTS and Minerva, as programs, are merely the most recent incarnations of an interaction which stretches at least back to 1941. (Prior to that, at least for the “soft sciences” the armed forces of the US in general, and the Army in particular, were much more insular.)
Thanks very much Bob, and thanks also for that Bacevich reference because for as much as I like his work (not all of his conclusions in terms of policy), that happens to be one of his books that I did not know about and whose subject is of great interest to me.
Thanks also for the historical notes above. Clearly there is little that is new, especially when we come to counterinsurgency and “winning hearts and minds”, what we have is policy reruns. Even the defense of HTS as an innovation is made by way of references to past programs and the activities of a very old generation of anthropologists.
If we are witnessing a type of cyclical pattern, then it seems that we are around the apex of the newest boom in soft power, public diplomacy, WHAM, COIN, etc. I did not mean to convey the impression that what is happening now is all new, but rather that this is what is all happening right now. Indeed the very first part of the title is (Re), which again makes reference to the rerun aspect.
I can also understand that the civilian side of government and foreign policy has been undernourished, while the military side has been beefed up. There are, of course, plenty of consequences to that, as you can see in the near universal African rejection of AFRICOM, which is a giant Kearsarge of sorts, but with greater lethality perhaps.
Yes, I agree, anthropologists have had long standing relationships with states, with their foreign policy agendas, and their broader imperial ambitions. Anthropology has been the mode of knowledge gathering for white Westerners to consume the outside world, and reproduce it for the authorities that fund them. In this regard, people like McFate are guilty of no original sin, except to be brutally frank about the history of this discipline and its uses, something she has not invented.
Interestingly enough, by the by, as a part of some research projects I’ve been doing of late, earlier this month I spent a week at sea aboard one of Kearsage’s sister-ship, the USS Nassau. In interviewing the naval officers aboard I came to understand that there really has been a pretty significant psychological shift among them with regard to what is known in Navy parlance as “HADR” (I think I got that right.) That’s Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief, in my acronym crazy culture.
Ten years ago you could not get a naval officer to so much as cede the slightest point that there might be other, non-warlike, uses to which we might put their massive capabilities (especially the so-called “gators”, which is Navy slang for ships with an amphibious capability, such as the Kearsage). Now they regularly talk about it, think about how they might do it better, imagine different ways that they might group resources to be even more efficient, and a host of other things I never imagined I’d see.
It’s good to get back to discussions of greater interest and relevance, compared with what has transpired the past few weeks.
The question I had is how much of this transformation is well received within the military itself? It seems to be “normal” to read in interviews with the media that U.S. officers in Afghanistan are saying they were trained to fight, and not to do all this other stuff, like HADR or even COIN and “protecting civilians” — I am not sure if they are complaining, or simply stating a fact, or both. On the other hand, there are those who enlisted to further their educational goals, and not to go to war (some posted on this blog in that vein a while back) — and getting to practice dentistry in the Caribbean would seem a lot happier than dealing with IEDs in Afghanistan (and I am not implying anything about their courage). In other words, there is no clear picture of what the dominant tendencies are within the military itself (at least not in the mainstream media).
Just a small digression: they had excellent photographers on the Kearsarge, and the development of military media seems to be growing and improving at what some would say is an “impressive” rate.
Well, each of the services very clearly has its own culture. Partially derived from the environment in which it operates, and partially from its history. So, as I’ve said before, to understand “the military” means (as any social scientist would likely agree) getting to know those different cultures. I like to tell my students a joke which illustrates the point.
If you tell a Marine officer, an Army officer, a Naval officer, and an Air Force officer to “secure that building”, this is what you will see…
The Marine will take his entire command, they will coordinate for an airstrike and artillery support which will crash into the building, then while half of his force suppresses with rifle and machinegun fire, the other half will burst into the building, clearing each room with grenades and bursts of fire, until they get to the top of the building, where they will plant a flag and then radio back to you that the smoldering wreckage is now “secured.”
On the other hand…the Army officer will take his command into the building. They will set up a base inside and immediately start knocking out the windows and replacing them with sandbagged revetments. They will encircle the building with barbed wire and defensive command-detonated mines, and they will plan for a ring of artillery to come down around the building if the enemy attacks. After 24 hours the building will be a fortress that it would take a force at least five times larger to take away. That officer will then call you and tell you the building is “secured.”
Tell a Navy officer to “secure the building” and he’ll walk inside, spin the dials on the safes, make sure the lights are turned off, and then lock the front door on his way out to report “building secure.”
And an Air Force officer? Well, his first act would be to go to the local ReMax real estate agent and take out a 10 year lease with an option to buy.
So you see, we can’t even “hear” the same thing the same way among ourselves.
I am, in my comment, talking about an evolution over time just within the Naval culture. Though you see similar changes in other services. The Army has come the furthest, the Air Force the least.
Does this help? Gotta go prep for class now.
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