Anthropology, Secrecy, and Wikileaks

[This is the third and final article in a series of three about Wikileaks. The first was “The Wikileaks Revolution” that led to a parallel article published in CounterPunch. The second one was “Wikileaks and the Moral Dualism of the U.S. State Department.”]

“I,______, in the Presence of the Mighty Ones, do of my own free will and accord most solemnly swear that I will ever keep secret and never reveal the secrets of the Art…. And may my weapons turn against me if I break this my solemn oath.” –Initiation oath in modern witchcraft, from The Witches’ Way, by Farrar and Farrar (quoted in Luhrmann, 1989, p. 131)

“The man who talks too much or who does not know how to keep a secret is for the African a being without value” (Zahan, 1979, p. 112, as quoted in Piot, 1993, p. 353).

One of the first things that I learned in Trinidad was that a good secret is one worth sharing with everyone. In fact, one only knew what an important secret was only once it had been shared, and it had to be shared because the key thing about secrets is that they are resources for interaction, not data meant to be permanently occluded from everyone except the secret-keeper. Some anthropologists have a lot of insights and stories to tell about the social and political functions of “secrecy” (in quotes, because we are not really sure what that covers), derived from experiences in small-scale settings, with small groups of people, usually outside of the cultural West, almost never dealing with states. Primarily, anthropological work on secrecy involved secret societies, cults of initiation, shamanic practice, worship, the installation of priests, the socio-linguistics of secrecy, etc. Does that mean that their insights are useless? That is an open question. (One should also be open to the fact that it may be Wikileaks and what its actions have opened up that have a lot to teach to anthropologists, rather than this being made into another moment that serves institutional anthropologists’ never-ending self-justification and self-validation.)

Some of the things we learn about secrecy from past anthropological research are that secrets can help to build communal affect, and to reproduce the local in the face of the onslaught of globalization (De Jong, 2007; Kasfir, 2010)—not particularly useful, however, for analyzing something like the Pentagon, the State Department, or Bank of America. Secrets also create boundaries and alliances (Gable, 1997). What seems true despite the institution or scale of the social unit in question is that secrets include some, and exclude others from their knowing, and that creates a boundary and allegiance among those party to the secret—now this may be useful to analyzing the Pentagon, the State Department, or Bank of America, as their internal social mechanisms are ruptured by the public release of their secrets. In some cases, not like mine in Trinidad, a secret is something everybody knows, but agrees not to talk about (Piot, 1993)—think of an extramarital affair, known to everyone in the village. Again, this may not be useful to understanding the cases of the Pentagon, the State Department, or Bank of America: we do not all know their secrets, and when we do know them, yes, we talk about them. Others (Weiner, 1984; Rosaldo, 1984) examine secrecy as rhetorical play, as “indirect speech,” as “slow” and “curvy” speech – precisely because secrets are meant to be told (now more like my Trinidadian case, but again less useful to examining the Pentagon, the State Department, or Bank of America), but there is also a way of telling them. Secrecy can be a matter of initiation into a select community—certainly, even for a state, divulging the secret gets you expelled (or court-martialed). In other cases, anthropologists have spoken of secrecy as social control, which we could tie to ideas about tactical power in shaping and controlling settings (Eric Wolf, Richard Adams)—here a Marxist anthropological analysis can become useful for analyzing the likes of the Pentagon, the State Department, or Bank of America. Secrets are tied up with the power to make certain meanings stick, to create and uphold official versions of truth (Conrad Arensberg). Keeping secrets keeps knowledge on the level of the magical–keeping a secret creates the secret’s power, without it ever being put to the test (Luhrmann, 1989; Rappaport, 1979).

But what is a secret? What makes a secret a secret is not its content, but who gets to tell it (Don Brenneis, Fred Myers, Michelle Rosaldo, Beryl Bellman). The demise of the secret is the rise of public awareness: visibility and transparency arise from crisis (Wolf, 1990). In this case, what happens to the Pentagon, State Department, etc., is not that they are damaged so much by the contents of the secrets (and they have admitted as much, repeatedly), rather it is their power to determine “who will know what” that is damaged, and of course that they are being “betrayed” from the inside (which makes their attacks against Wikileaks even more preposterous, subjecting them to condemnation from the human rights rapporteurs of both the UN and the OAS, and Amnesty International).

Wikileaks also has its own distinctive research methodology, that is not readily comparable to anything we know of in the social sciences. It’s not fieldwork immersion and conversational interaction with informants (their informants are unknown to them)—but they learn a lot about actors through documents, and through the actors’ actions in reaction to the release of the documents (in a way that no anthropologist could achieve, given the restrictions of their chosen methods). It is not covert research—which is approved in the code of ethics of the Canadian Sociological Association (Art. 19 “Incomplete disclosure or deception may be necessary for certain kinds of research in order to penetrate ‘official,’ ‘on-stage,’ or ‘on-the-record’ presentations of reality. Deception should not be used where another methodology would accomplish the research objectives”)—Wikileaks does not send operatives into the institutions whose behaviours it unmasks. It is not scientific lab research: Wikileaks does not engage in experimentation, with controlled variables. It is neither a naturalistic nor an experimental methodology. That alone is something new for us, and it’s something quite monumental. Wikileaks does, however, share some of the methodological limitations of the classical social sciences for being largely state-centric: it does not present us with world-systemic data, but data obtained from states and banks (which of course have transnational implications). It is up to the researcher to analytically add value and take the data beyond itself.

Thus where some might speak of Wikileaks’ political practice as “Wikivism,” we can speak of its methodology as “Wikileakism.” The philosophy behind Wikileaks precedes the creation of Wikileaks, so it might not be useful to reserve the “-ism” for anything other than its methodology.

This does not mean that anthropologists are strangers to the experience of either doing research with classified state documents that they themselves obtain—most notably David Price—or with the act of controversial leaking about the activities of colleagues that are damaging to the reputation of the profession. In 1970 Eric Wolf and Joseph Jorgensen worked with files that had been deliberately leaked from a student research assistant to Michael Moerman, and passed on to the Student Mobilization Committee to Stop the War in Vietnam (SMC) [For more on this, read this page from Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban’s Ethics and the profession of anthropology]. For their work, Wolf, Jorgensen, and others were reprimanded by Margaret Mead in her whitewash of the involvement of anthropologists in counterinsurgency. More recently, at least some anthropologists have been especially keen to use the Human Terrain System Handbook that was leaked to Wikileaks itself (and which has been archived by ZA). Anthropologists are no strangers to secrecy, obtaining secret documents, working with secret documents, respecting local secrets, and debating the unethical practice of doing secret research.

Where Wikileaks differs from anthropology—what it has to teach us—is about a qualitatively different order of secrecy. This is not the secrecy of communitas, but that of civitas (and even that, barely, because it pertains to an exclusive class of ultra or supra-citizenship). This is not secrecy for the maintenance of community, for communal affect, for maintaining a harmonious order; instead, this is secrecy against the community, against civil society, as a betrayal of any real or imagined social contract between rulers and ruled (especially when it comes to the overclassification of everything pertaining to the state, at the same time as the citizen is denuded in the eyes of the state). Where notions of asymmetry, social control, and power come into play, then there is some correspondence between what Wikileaks reveals and what some anthropologists have analyzed, predominantly Marxist anthropologists.

For those interested in more detail, what follows are some select quotes from works cited, or further notes, and a bibliography.

The secret as instrumental, situational, in community-maintenance

Kasfir (2010) writing about De Jong (2007), with reference to a Senegalese community (no page numbers, only the HTML version of the article was available):

“despite the fact that secrecy is by definition exclusionary, it also produces a strong communal affect among those who share the secret” (Kasfir, 2010)

“in the face of ‘large-scale social formations’ (such as nation-states), small-scale societies must struggle to ‘produce context’ to matter, to be seen and heard and taken account of by the wider world, to enable action. If you have ever been in a Jola sacred forest during initiation, ‘the secret’ will serve you well when you leave to work in Dakar or Paris. It creates a diaspora of shared experience which allows you to hold onto, and subsequently act upon, that aspect of the local which is commonly expressed in your self-perceived social identity” (Kasfir, 2010)

“ritual practices of secrecy have been able to survive colonial domination and postcolonial nationalism because they produce a sense of locality ‘from below’, as opposed to the calls for national citizenship coming from the government” (Kasfir, 2010)

[Kasfir cites Bayart (1993)—“politics at large” – and Appadurai (1996)—the “production of locality” –as useful analytical frameworks, for this case.]

“In a close-knit society, secrecy depends for the most part on convention. One should never look too hard. If one’s neighbors keep their thoughts to themselves, then a transparent sack or a roof of straw is as impenetrable as the thickest wall” (Gable, 1997, p. 227)

Secrecy as everyday linguistic practice

“quotidian occurrences of secrecy are part of a larger style of communication, a ‘language of secrecy,’ which encompasses Kpelle ritual and nonritual contexts. It is the largely neglected role of secrecy in the everyday that I address here, through an analysis of a particular West African society, the Kabre (Kabiye) of northern Togo. I argue not only that Kabre everyday life and discourse are permeated by hidden messages…” (Piot, 1993, p. 353)

“the previous analyses of secrecy in African societies….are of four general types. The first, structural-functionalist, has regarded secrecy as enhancing the educational role of initiation societies or as helping to set up cross-cutting ties among political units (Fulton 1972; Little 1949, 1966; Watkins 1943). The second, Marxist, has seen secrecy as a means of social control in a system of power relations, as a way in which elders maintain their privileged position by withholding esoteric knowledge from juniors (La Fontaine 1977; Murphy 1980). The third, Freudian, has suggested that secrecy is a metaphor for sexuality and that secrecy cults facilitate a child’s ability to deal with the anxieties and mysteries of infantile sexuality and maturation (Ottenberg 1989). The fourth, semiotic, has sought to analyze the role played by secrecy in systems of communication, describing its formal, narrative character and its use of figurative speech (Bellman 1984). While all four approaches identify important aspects of the role of secrecy in the societies they analyze, none of them adequately comes to terms with the indigenous motivations for secrecy (Bellman 1984:143)” (Piot, 1993, p. 353)

What is a secret?

“According to Bellman (1984), there is a paradox that surrounds the phenomenon of secrecy in virtually every society where it is practiced: Secrets are meant to be told. Further, the content of secrets is often known by those who are not supposed to know” (Piot, 1993, p. 357)

“Bellman concludes, therefore, that Poro secrecy has more to do with form-with excluding nonmembers-than with content. He also argues that when Kpelle secrets are told, they are often discussed indirectly, through the use of language that metaphorically alludes to, but never directly reveals, the concealed information. Thus, Bellman (1984, p. 76, 140) suggests that Kpelle culture consists of two realities–a ‘real’ one that many people know but collaborate in concealing, and another, the realm of discourse about the real, that indirectly refers, through what Bellman calls ‘deep talk’ (allusive, metaphoric speech), to the real. The existence of this second reality creates a field of varying, ambiguous, and often conflicting interpretations of the real. One never knows for sure whether one ‘got’ the message or not” (Piot, 1993, p. 357)

“the content of a secret is less sociologically significant than the way it is shared or not shared in a society. It is the formal power of secrets to create boundaries and alliances that is the source of secrecy’s social power” (Gable, 1997, fn. 7, p. 230)

The public and the private

Would “society” cease to exist without secrecy? This is an idea discussed by both Horowitz (1982) and Singer (1982), in two journals for legal studies. The assumption, unwieldy as it has become even in the post-Enlightenment West, is that the “public” (the state, its courts, the police) needs to constrain “private” choice (of individual citizens), to maintain social order.

Secrecy as power and social control

Eric Wolf (1990) presents various conceptualizations of “power,” one of which he favours being the power to shape the arena in which interactions take place, what he describes as the “power that controls the settings in which people may show forth their potentialities and interact with others” (Wolf, 1990, p. 586). He credits Richard Adams (1966, 1975) for this insight, dealing with tactical and organizational power, that is, how one unit can constrain the actions of another (Wolf, 1990, p. 586).

“How do we get from viewing organization as product or outcome to understanding organization as process? For a start, we could do worse than heed Conrad Arensberg’s advice (1972:10-11) to look at ‘the flow of action,’ to ask what is going on, why it is going on, who engages in it, with whom, when, and how often. Yet we would now add to this behavior-centered approach a new question: For what and for whom is all this going on, and–indeed–against whom? This question should not be posed merely in interactionist terms” (Wolf, 1990, p. 591)

“Power is implicated in meaning through its role in upholding one version of significance as true, fruitful, or beautiful, against other possibilities that may threaten truth, fruitfulness, or beauty. All cultures, however conceived, carve out significance and try to stabilize it against possible alternatives. In human affairs, things might be different, and often are. Roy Rappaport, in writing on sanctity and ritual (Rappaport 1979), has emphasized the basic arbitrariness of all cultural orders. He argues that they are anchored in postulates that can neither be verified nor falsified, but that must be treated as unquestionable: to make them unquestionable, they are surrounded with sacredness. I would add that there is always the possibility that they might come unstuck. Hence, symbolic work is never done, achieves no final solution. The cultural assertion that the world is shaped in this way and not in some other has to be repeated and enacted, lest it be questioned and denied” (Wolf, 1990, p. 593)

“We owe to social anthropology the insight that the arrangements of a society become most visible when they are challenged by crisis” (Wolf, 1990, p. 593)

“Secrecy is about control. It is about the individual possession of knowledge that others do not have, and from the psychological consequences of this privileged possession follow its effects in magical practice. Secrecy elevates the value of the thing concealed. That which is hidden grows desirable and seems powerful, and magicians exploit this tendency to give their magic significance. They can use secrecy to conceal their magic from scepticism and to give themselves a context in which their own scepticism may be muted. In other words, secrecy alters the attitudes of both insider and outsider toward the thing concealed, and in magic insiders seem to use this mechanism to bolster their ill-supported faith in magic’s value” (Luhrmann, 1989,p. 161)

Secrecy as magic

“Secrecy also fosters a deferential attitude toward the contents of its secret knowledge. The concealment of magical names, words, images and gestures heightens the value of what has been hidden by implying that its power is too great to be lightly shared. Magicians make much of their moral responsibility in controlling access to magical knowledge” (Luhrmann, 1989, p. 142)

“These secrets are too powerful to share, claim the morally righteous. Maybe so: but by keeping them secret one need never test their strength. To keep a secret creates the sense of the secret’s power without the need for its demonstration” (Luhrmann, 1989, pp. 142-143)

“Secrecy fills an essential function in diverting disconfirmation, but the appeal of magic lies in the way it makes its members feel, and its positive psychological help can be considerable. Insofar as magic fails, secrecy masks the failure and perpetuates the illusion. Insofar as magic seems effective, therapeutic secrecy initiates its potency” (Luhrmann, 1989,p. 162)


Adams, Richard N. (1966). “Power and Power Domains.” America Latina, 9: 3-5, 8-11.

Adams, Richard N. (1975). Energy and Structure: A Theory of Social Power. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Arensberg, Conrad M. (1972). “Culture as Behavior: Structure and Emergence.” Annual Review of Anthropology, 1: 1-26.

Bellman, Beryl. (1984). The Language of Secrecy. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Brenneis, Donald, and Fred Myers, eds. (1984). Dangerous Words: Language and Politics in the Pacific. New York: New York University Press.

Gable, Eric. (1997). “A Secret Shared: Fieldwork and the Sinister in a West African Village.” Cultural Anthropology, 12 (2) May: 213-233

Horowitz, Morton. (1982). “The History of the Public/Private Distinction.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review, 130: 1423-1428.

Kasfir, Sidney L. (2010). “Review of Masquerades of Modernity: Power and Secrecy in Casamance, Senegal by Ferdinand De Jong. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007.” African Arts, 43 (2).

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Piot, Charles D. (1993). “Secrecy, Ambiguity, and the Everyday in Kabre Culture.” American Anthropologist, 95 (2) June: 353-370.

Rappaport, Roy A. (1979). Ecology, Meaning, and Religion. Richmond, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Rosaldo, Michelle. (1984). “Words that Are Moving: The Social Meanings of Ilongot Verbal Art.” In Dangerous Words: Language and Politics in the Pacific, D. Brenneis and F. Myers, eds., pp. 131-160. New York: New York University Press.

Singer, Joseph. (1982). “The Legal Rights Debate in Analytical Jurisprudence from Bentham to Hohfeld.” University of Wisconsin Law Review: 975-1059.

Weiner, Annette. (1984). “From Words to Objects to Magic: ‘Hard Words’ and the Boundaries of Social Interaction.” In Dangerous Words: Language and Politics in the Pacific, D. Brenneis and F. Myers, eds., pp. 161-191. New York: New York University Press.

Wolf, Eric R. (1990). “Distinguished Lecture: Facing Power – Old Insights, New Questions.” American Anthropologist, 92 (3) Sep: 586-596

Zahan, Dominique. (1979). The Religion, Spirituality, and Thought of Traditional Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.