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The Anthropology Wars

Eliza Jane Darling is an anthropologist from the Adirondacks in upstate New York. She specializes in political ecology and critical white studies.

David Price, Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in the Service of the Militarized State (AK Press, 2011), 208 pages, $15.95, paperback.

In 1929 Bronislaw Malinowski, the primogenitor of twentieth-century anthropology, published an article extolling the merits of his science in the process of colonial administration. “My own opinion, as that of all competent anthropologists, is that indirect or dependent rule is infinitely preferable,” he held. “In fact, if we define dependent rule as the control of Natives through the medium of their own organization, it is clear that only dependent rule can succeed. For the government of any race consists rather in implanting in them ideas of right, of law and order, and making them obey such ideas.”1 Malinowski’s piece, entitled “Practical Anthropology,” appeared in the journal of the International African Institute. It was essentially a fundraising pitch for the Institute, which was seeking a subsidy from the Rockefeller Foundation by demonstrating the workaday virtues of what was until then an obscure discipline with little apparent importance to the vast powers stretching outward from the heart of capitalism to envelope the world.

Eight decades later anthropology’s quest for investment perseveres, its mission still bound up with the imperative to posit the discipline as a science with practical applications beyond the gates of the academy. Yet the tables have strangely turned: it is now imperial powers, cash in hand, which turn to a reluctant anthropology, seeking scientific means of domination through a form of cultural warfare. In Weaponizing Anthropology, David Price documents the latest form of blood alimony proffered by the custodians of empire to the discipline which was once styled the “child of western imperialism.”2

The neocolonial power at stake in this volume is the U.S. military, and the key to understanding its interest in anthropologists begins with method: the ways in which we collect data and the forms of knowledge such methods produce. Anthropology is not, of course, the only social science patronized by the architects of war, much less the only science—psychology, geography, and area studies are also favorite sons, exhibiting singular proficiencies for military appropriation.3 With anthropologists, the proficiency on offer is ethnography. This might be simply described as an amalgam of aphorisms, laying somewhere between “walking a mile in someone’s shoes” and “going straight to the horse’s mouth.” In reality it is a house with many mansions, a contested, nonstandard and customizable toolkit comprising both qualitative and quantitative methods of obtaining information. Ethnography’s cornerstone is broadly agreed to be “participant observation”: the process of living with, and to the greatest extent possible like, some group of people for an extended period of time, to better understand how they think, what they care about, and why they live as they do. Participant observation does what it says on the tin. When anthropologists want to know something about people, they spend time with them, treading the fine line between participating in their lives as a local and observing them as a stranger.

As the discipline of anthropology gathered steam as a totalizing effort to theorize the development of humankind from its primordial origins—of which indigenous peoples were once mistakenly perceived as living examples, a sort of vestigial organ on the body of the species—ethnography became a methodological inevitability. Many such peoples inhabited lands far distant from the western European and U.S. homes of the white, male, comfortably well-heeled and Occidental anthropological cohort who sought to know them, accessible otherwise only through travel logs, missionary accounts, colonial records, or fanciful imagination, and often speaking languages with no written form. It was empire indeed which paved our path to the remote corners of the world, though considerable dispute persists over the extent to which anthropologists facilitated conquest, or conquest facilitated anthropologists, alternatively conceived with varying degrees of historical guilt as birds of prey or carrion fowl.4 Either way, anthropology’s method was deeply bound up with its subject matter, and it has endured as a way of exposing the hidden histories of the world despite the increasing integration of the world’s peoples through globalization, the burgeoning interest of anthropology in subject matter closer to home, and the shifting “home” of anthropology itself, no longer an endeavour confined to its formal academic birthplace in the West.

Malinowski himself is widely revered as a founding father of the field for pioneering such methods, perfecting his technique in the Trobriand Islands. His tactical depiction of ethnography as an instrument of indigenous control is the same one refracted back upon it by the U.S. military today: in order to dominate effectively, it is a good idea to know something about the people you seek to rule—their language, their customs, their social organization, their political structures, their beliefs. Today, anthropologists no longer study geographical and cultural “others” exclusively, yet ethnography remains a foundational research tool. And since many anthropologists study those same “others” who are being targeted for subjugation by the United States in its alleged “war on terror,” it should come as no surprise that the U.S. military is seeking collaboration with a discipline with long experience in the business of knowing others from the inside-out.

Price’s book opens with a brief history of the relationship between anthropology and U.S. wars both hot and cold, drawing upon rich knowledge of the subject gleaned through extensive archival research published in his previous monographs, Threatening Anthropology: McCarthysim and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists (2004) and Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War (2008). Building upon this foundation, Price documents the concrete manifestation of anthropology’s remilitarization as the ebbing enemies of communism and fascism recede before the rising tide of terrorism: funding programs which bring military money to the university with the aim of shaping research agendas in the academy; methodological courses which bring anthropology to the military with the aim of training soldiers as ethnographers; military manuals which explore anthropological thought with the aim of rendering anthropological theory useful to military strategy; and military strategies which put anthropological boots on the ground in the theatres of the war on terror, most notably Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of the latter, “Human Terrain Systems” (HTS) has thus far proven the most publicly visible of a set of techniques which constitute the new face of an old military-anthropological collusion: counterinsurgency. HTS, according to the Pentagon, is the carrot which mitigates the need for the stick, an ostensible effort to reduce what it calls “kinetic engagements,” or violent clashes with local communities in occupied territories, though it declines consistently to provide empirical evidence in support of its effectiveness in reducing casualties on either side. The U.S. military’s culture war is therefore glossed in a patina of humanitarian beneficence: the folksy, hands-on, earthy partner to shock-and-awe aerial bombardment and the drone warfare waged by remote pilots operating in air-conditioned offices in Langley and Las Vegas.

The military’s entreaties come at a vulnerable moment for anthropology; cuts in social science research funding send academics scurrying for new financial opportunities while the militarization of U.S. life acclimates many to a constant state of war. Yet despite this, anthropologists have proven reticent to take the bait. Price notes that the very process of ethnography the military seeks to appropriate tends to produce a mitigating empathy with the people studied, decreasing the likelihood of collaboration in their oppression. But there are deeper reasons for anthropological reluctance than political opposition to the war, or ethical opposition to collusion in same. As Price shows in his analysis of military culture guides, the Pentagon works for the most part with a ragbag of antiquated anthropological theories which Eric Wolf once aptly abridged as the “billiard ball” concept of culture.5 This metaphor describes the way in which early-to-mid-twentieth-century theorists, including the “structure-functionalists” and their psychoanalytic successors in the “cultural and personality” school, perceived the peoples of the world as geographically bounded, internally homogeneous groups who occupy the globe like orbs on a table, existing (and occasionally bumping into each other) in a static state of timeless essence that can be readily characterized by a laundry list of stereotypical cultural traits. Such notions have long been abandoned by anthropologists for whom culture is as much a dynamic process of conflict, struggle, power, dissidence, and invention as one of cooperation, collectivity, agreement, consistency, and consent.

But the older conceptions serve the ideological needs of the U.S. military itself. Such tropes fit neatly with widely promulgated metanarratives positing the war on terror as a “clash of civilizations” in which the barbarians at the gates of freedom are vilified as primeval, violently inclined terrorists while Americans are lionized as modern, liberty-loving democrats. They also prove useful in a world in which culture maps unevenly onto the topography of nation, the wars of our time shrewdly essentialized as “tribal” or “ethnic” whatever their political motivations. They further serve as a ready-made manual for the messy business of occupying hearts and minds, expediting a psychological offensive of divide-and-conquer in which the enemy is not so much vanquished as purchased through the promise of development, advancement, and liberation (particularly, or so the story goes, for women), the white man’s burden reinvented for the age of identity politics. Outmoded anthropological models in which “cultures” simply are what they are by virtue of deep structural predilection hold functionality for a militarized state seeking to convince its citizens that they are existentially threatened and must sacrifice accordingly to defend themselves.

As few anthropologists operate under any such theoretical illusions in the present day, the military’s endeavour to leave no anthropologist behind in the war on terror has encountered serious recruitment barriers. Even those few among our colleagues who swallow the line that ethnographic intelligence can (or was ever intended) to mitigate the brutalities of war can hardly keep a straight face when confronted with the witless inanity promulgated by the military’s culture manuals. For example, the Special Forces Advisor Guide (a Lonely Planet for ground troops) characterizes “human nature” in North America, Western Europe, and Australia as basically good; describes South America’s as a mixture of good and evil; and relegates all of sub-Saharan Africa to more evil than good.6 As Price succinctly puts it, engaging with such fatuous primers is like “reading a contemporary physics text relying on theories of aether to explain radio broadcasts, a chemistry text basing its analysis on the inherent qualities of earth, wind and fire, or a geology manual with a chapter on Adam and Eve.”7

Anthropology is not simply a discipline which spurns badly needed resources in order to take a principled stand; the rejection of the imperial bribe is as much intellectual as ethical or political. Price duly documents the refusal of U.S. military overtures by individuals, departments, professional organizations, and activist groups.

This is also the story, however, of why such piecemeal efforts have failed to coalesce into a more coherent resistance movement. Price rightly argues that war has shaped the contours of anthropology beyond the trail of colonial conquest in whose wake we followed in pursuit of distant ethnographic laboratories. The do-no-harm esprit of anthropology’s ethical codes in fact derives from disciplinary struggles over military collusion, particularly in the late 1960s, when the scandal of anthropological counterinsurgency work in Latin America and Southeast Asia brought bitter division to the American Anthropological Association, prompting it to construct a set of guidelines for professional conduct. These are predictably evolving again as dissident voices interrogate how these toothless strictures have allowed history to repeat itself, and how they might be changed to prevent it. The impasse, as Price notes, lies in the anthropological reticence to consider ethics within the broader context of politics, but it also bespeaks the conservatism of the discipline and academia in general, a commitment to studied intellectual neutrality cloaked in the noble guise of an “academic freedom” that perversely frees scholars to pursue research which grossly infringes upon the right of the studied to live free of research that subjugates them.

Such appeals to the moral rather than the structural are indeed a weakness of Price’s book, despite his effort to shift us beyond the realm of the ethical and into the political. There is another form of anthropological collaboration at stake here, and one that goes largely unexplored in Price’s work: the acquiescence to highly exploitative labor practices which produce far more PhDs than can be absorbed by the market, leaving many qualified scholars underemployed, which in the U.S. context means not just financial impoverishment, but instability in terms of health care, child care, pension security, and the general warp and weft of the social safety net that comes with a shrinking pool of secure employment. Anthropologists must confront the possibility that the exigencies of the two-tiered labour market leave us vulnerable to military predation, alongside our responsibility to mount a concerted political opposition to wars of dubious legality and undeniable brutality beyond the act of individualistic ethical abstention. An anthropological house divided is one all too easily invaded, for the ethical choices of individuals take place upon a vastly uneven field in the battle to survive as intellectual workers.

For the reader utterly unfamiliar with the vagaries of anthropology, Price’s book may at first glance seem too specialized to penetrate, for he views the discipline in both historical and contemporary terms through the lens of its relationship with imperial warfare. Yet Price’s text is a tragically apt introduction to a discipline indelibly bound up with the expansionary tendencies of capitalism through conquest. It is not a densely theoretical text, and Price provides sufficient background for the layperson to grasp why the conflicts of the war on terror have been described as the “anthropologists’ wars.” Indeed, most Western readers will already be familiar with the arguments at stake. The cultural ideologies for which the U.S. military seeks theoretical justification in anthropology are the same ones sold by pundits, politicians, and much of the media to a public billed as the keepers of right, law and order, whose obligation to defend their values, we are told, simultaneously brings liberation to the benighted places of the world through the emancipatory propensities of the daisy cutter and the drone. The book tells a tale both cautionary and hopeful. While Price’s work is a sober reminder of the brutal ends toward which social scientific theory might be bent, it is also a testament to the resistance power may meet from a science that is no more static or essential than the enemy the militarized state so strategically misunderstands. However enduring Malinowksi’s legacy is in methodological terms, the Pentagon has learned that what goes on in universities today isn’t your father’s anthropology.


  1. Bronislaw Malinowski, “Practical Anthropology,” In Africa 2, no. 1 (1929): 22–38.
  2. Kathleen Gough, “Anthropology and Imperialism,” Monthly Review 19, no. 11 (April 1968): 12–27.
  3. Henry A. Giroux, The University in Chains (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2007).
  4. Talal Assad, “From the History of Colonial Anthropology to the Anthropology of Western Hegemony,” in G.W. Stocking, ed., Colonial Situations (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991).
  5. Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).
  6. David Price, Weaponizing Anthropology (Oakland: AK Press, 2011), 145–48.
  7. Ibid, 141.
2012, Volume 64, Issue 07 (December)
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