Anthropology and Global Counter-Insurgency Conference in Chicago, April 25-27

I’ve been invited to speak at a conference hosted by the University of Chicago later this month on the topic of “Anthropology and Global Counter-Insurgency”. Other speakers will include David Price and Hugh Gusterson, who are doing yeoman’s work on the issue. Despite the fact that my introduction to Anthropology at the Dawn of the Cold War discusses issues related to counter-insurgency at some length, it is because of my work here at Savage Minds that I’ve been invited to speak. Take that, traditional publishing models!

Here’s the skinny on the conference, from the organizers:

Recent events have put new stress on the relationship between anthropology, governance and war. In the context of continuing violence in occupied Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military and its planners have taken a new interest in culture and ethnography. Hoping to revitalize counterinsurgency theory and practice, the post-Rumsfeld Department of Defense has called for the production of “knowledge of the cultural ‘terrain,’” in David Petraeus’ words. Simultaneously, global war and governance have emerged as significant objects of ethnographic and theoretical interrogation. This conference explores anthropology’s relationship to the United States’ global projection of its power, while simultaneously mounting an anthropological inquiry into the nature of that power and of the changing world in which it operates.

During World War II, Anthropology was second only to Economics as the social science discipline with the most PhDs in US government service. But at the war’s end, which is to say, after the United States deployed nuclear weapons against civilian populations in two Japanese cities, Anthropologists left government service at an astonishing rate. As Margaret Mead famously put it, “the social scientists…took their marbles and went home.” Since then, and until very recently, only a small minority of anthropologists have worked for US institutions of war and governance—institutions that are increasingly objects of anthropological study.

In quest of a professional and scholarly response to all this, this conference calls upon ethnography to widen our understanding of contemporary war, American power, and the structures and logics of security at domestic and international levels. We seek ethnographic understanding of global responses to recent deployments of the US military, and of US military actions in comparison to other forms of coercion, compellance, and intervention. Reading US military theorists, we seek to understand the emerging interest in study of culture in the broad context of military responses to US military failures (and opportunities). We pursue the full implications of the connection now being sought by the US military between culture and insurgency and turn an anthropological lens on the nature of violence and order in the current era.

Participants Include:
Hugh Gusterson, John Kelly, Beatrice Jauregui, Greg Beckett, Paola Castaño, James Hevia, Mihir Pandya, Brian Selmeski, Rochelle Davis, Dustin Wax, Amahl Bishara, Chris Nelson, Jeff Bennett, Kevin Caffrey, Sean T. Mitchell, Jeremy Walton, Kerry Fosher, Roberto Gonzalez, with a keynote talk by Joseph Masco and a plenary by David Price.

I was only invited a couple of weeks ago, and have been frantically trying to pull together my thoughts on a subject I haven’t written about much in the last year. My plan is to survey some of the ways anthropology has been involved with counter-insurgency since its inception, and why that involvement has been problematic, paying special attention to the anthropologists who worked in the Japanese internment camps during World War II. This is an historical moment I’ve brought up here a few times, and one which, for me, sums up everything that’s wrong about the military’s attempts at appropriation of anthropological legitimacy.

The proceedings will be collected and published, and I will also try to capture some sense of the conference and of my own contribution for Savage Minds.

Update: I forgot to mention — there is supposed to be a website coming with abstracts of the planned presentations. I will post the link as soon as I know it.

6 thoughts on “Anthropology and Global Counter-Insurgency Conference in Chicago, April 25-27

  1. Pingback: Dustin M. Wax
  2. I thought (maybe I was wrong) that anthropology was supposed to be about understanding the perspective of the people you study — so if you’re going have a conference on counterinsurgency, shouldn’t you at least invite some military people who actually do this professionally? Why don’t you invite somebody who actually knows something about the subject, such as Dave Kilcullen, John Nagl, Montgomery McFate, COL Joe Celeski, William McCallister, Erin Simpson, etc.? That would make the conference much more informative and worthwhile — otherwise, it’s really just a bunch of anthropologists rehashing their own political agendas.

  3. I’m so glad to hear that McFate, Kilcullen, Nagle, Celeski etc. don’t rehash their own political agendas. Do we know that none of these people (are any of them besides McFate are even anthropologists?) were’nt invited? I thought McFate won’t attend meetings with open discussions with anthropologists.

  4. jane:
    You might reexamine the list of participants for this conference. Though no editor of Small Wars Journal is listed, nor is McFate (would she come?) I doubt that all the viewpoints represented match those you expect…the debate around HTS at Chicago appears to be a lively and polyvocal one (though I can only see it from a great transatlantic distance).

  5. I’ll have a link to the conference website up tomorrow — they’re just cleaning up a few things before the site goes live. Then you can examine the list of presenters and their abstracts for yourself.

    In the meantime, let me say, I think anthropologists certainly have a right to discuss amongst themselves the nature of our discipline and it’s relation to military prerogatives. Somehow it’s been decided that anthropology is “all about” other people’s perspectives, and that anthropologist’s own perspectives have no weight on their own. It’s the same kind of thinking that clogs anthropology listservs and, indeed, SM’s comments with irrelevancies from people who have no experience or knowledge of anthropology and its literature — anthropology stands with memoir writing and blogging as a field that is, apparently, so easy that anyone can do it.

    The reality is, the military’s involvement with anthropology *changes* anthropology, and I don’t think we have to be too generous in asking their opinion about all that. Counter-insurgency kills people, and I don’t think we have to be too generous about that, either. I think this is entirely a different subject than whether anthropologists should formally study the military, or the insurgency situation — but I don’t see anyone offering that opportunity, in any case.

    For myself, it’s enough to know that history doesn’t have much good to offer by way of successful counter-insurgency anthropology. Anthropologists in counter-insurgency situations have pretty universally failed to apply any critical perspective to their employers’ principles, accepting as a given the reality that counter-insurgency attempts to impose. I’m sure a Nagl or even a McFate could put a sweet, perfumey smell on that track record, but in the end, it’s still crappy.

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