The Myth of Cultural Miscommunication

In discussing the role of anthropologists in the battlefield I’ve argued that what is needed isn’t so much anthropology as common sense. I find it hard to see how the expert opinion of anthropologists will be taken seriously in an organization which fires Arab experts simply because they are gay. If an organization doesn’t take local knowledge seriously, how much help can an anthropologist provide? This short video by Guardian journalist John D McHugh makes clear what I mean.

The video shows what happens when coalition forces attempt to speak to a Pashtun elder. The elder tries to use a story about how it is impossible to stop ants from eating the wheat in order to explain why the community can’t help them, but the translator is either incapable or unwilling to translate the elder’s words. Instead he makes up something completely different which only serves to upset the soldiers and make them angry at the elder for not cooperating.

Now, it is true that an expert who had a deep understanding of Pashtun oral traditions would do a better job of translating between the old man and the forces. But so would a simple literal translation. The elder’s words are not particularly difficult to understand given the reporter’s subtitles, but the soldiers don’t hear that version. (I don’t know if the reporter told them how bad their translator is.)

I’m now reading Deborah Cameron’s The Myth of Mars and Venus, about which I will write more later, but one point she makes is that much of the literature on miscommunication between men and women lets men off the hook for their inability to understand women’s speech, even though the actual linguistic evidence implies that men use the same linguistic strategies (such as indirect requests) when it is convenient to do so. The point being that such miscommunication is treated as a cultural problem when it is really a problem of unequal power relations. The same woman who fetches her husband’s ketchup when he asks “Is there any ketchup?” will treat a similar question from her daughter as a factual query, replying: “Yes, dear, its in the cupboard.” Cameron argues that treating such communication problems as a matter of intercultural miscommunication (as Deborah Tannen does), obscures the real problems.

I feel the same way about the use of anthropology in the military. Treating the military’s lack of respect for local cultural knowledge as a cultural problem which can be solved by hiring anthropologists ignores the very real ways in which the military itself operates as a system for producing knowledge about the world, and the role of local knowledge in that system. It may be a useful PR to convey the impression that we are winning the intellectual arms race, but when I see video footage like this I find it very difficult to believe that the military is an institution capable of taking local knowledge seriously in any systematic way.

(Note that similar stories about inadequate translation have been circulating since the very beginning of the war. Also, I should make clear that Cameron takes Gumperz research on crosstalk seriously, even if she questions its applicability to gender relations. Thanks to Craig Campbell for the link!)

33 thoughts on “The Myth of Cultural Miscommunication

  1. good points & nice video. i don’t see improved translations or a human terrain nanny helping this trigger happy soldier change his ways. his mission does not allow him to understand why these people don’t “shoot the taliban in the face” and no amount of cultural codling will change this.

  2. Inside Higher Ed, with a link to The Daily Herald (Chicago), is reporting the death in Iraq of Nicole Suveges, 38, a graduate student. The Daily Herald identifies Sureges as a doctoral student in international relations at Johns Hopkins University who was employed in Iraq by BAE Systems, a Maryland firm, working with the U.S. Army’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team. BAE Systems, http://www.baesystems.com, has issued a news release identifying Suveges work with the Human Terrain System (HTS) program.

  3. You are right Kerim. These military cultural advising units aren’t about “culture,” they are about common sense. What‘s next for the Human Terrain program? Perhaps special animal terrain vet units to explain that only psychopaths derive pleasure from the recreational killing of small animals? These videos show soldiers demonstrating about as much “common sense” as The Guardian video you’ve linked: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxxJjro8LBM
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kDcbjllQN0A
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wdyN2_GJmP8&feature=related

  4. Actually, Kerim, I think you are completely missing the point. What you refer to as “common sense” may well be or seem “obvious” to those of us accustomed to thinking/representing through an anthropological lens. However, for many (even most) military people deployed in current US theaters of war, what we would call ethnographic engagement has until very recently been “off the table” in practical terms for the simple reason that other operational priorities have dominated the bureaucracy. I have had many opportunities to speak with brigade staff, NCOs, other soldiers, Iraqi and Afghan interpreters and others. They are not “blind” to the humanitarian AND military value of developing deeper empathy with peoples among whom they are deployed. But until recently, military objectives and priorities have precluded such engagements. HTS is the first step in a broader effort to redress this lacuna. Your example is not characteristic of the type of interaction that goes on in the field — far from it. There are some very impressive examples of ethnographic engagement (that I and others will be happy to share in due course) that have almost certainly saved lives on all sides. For now, I will conclude simply by pointing out to you that such endeavors will be ongoing with or without the blessing of the anthropological establishment (that’s not my call, but the army’s…they are persuaded of anthropology’s relevance to reducing violence over the course of their mission). As of now, I applaud the current AAA President’s moderate, measured language concerning HTS and other efforts to engage the military community, which, I hasten to add, will continue to exist, war in and war out. I note in closing that I have yet to speak with anyone involved with HTS who thought invading Iraq was a “great idea.”

    Best regards,
    Dee

  5. Molly Rae,

    Silly (and unsuccessful) efforts at wit are beneath the seriousness of the issue at hand. I suppose you believe that your pointless comments help to advance debate, but all they do is shut it down.

    Dee

  6. Dee-

    You seem to have misinterpreted the language of the AAA resolution. By stating that there are ‘constraints’ on ethics in Iraq, the AAA is not saying that conditions are less than ideal. It is stating that minimal standards for morally and intellectually defensible research cannot be met within HTS. I think this ought to be obvious from context.

    Anyway, you don’t make it very clear whether or not you see the AAA statement as even relevant to the continuation of HTS-on the one hand you applaud it, and on the other you state that the HTS is a fait accompli and that the brass have already decided to go ahead with it. To me this seems to imply that while they require anthropologists, they should be entitled to ignore their publicly stated opinions.

    Dee, the AAA statement also demands transparency, accountability and civilian control. What’s your position on that?

  7. Max,

    I haven’t actually commented on the AAA statement per se — merely on Setha Low’s measured response in recent AAA communications (I believe in her recent letter to Newsweek).

    Yes, HTS is a fait accompli, unless there is some serious setback in terms of how brigade commanders view their utility. To date, the reports are glowing…despite the awful and tragic loss of two HTT members (both of whom were deeply committed to the program).

    One thing to bear in mind: the army brass isn’t ignoring anthropologists’ perspectives or POV. If anything, they’ve been bending over backwards endeavoring to reach out to them. But, yes, ultimately if the best the AAA can do is a blanket condemnation (happily, it has not come to that…yet), then that would seem to preclude further conversation.

    Also, I would think this is sort of obvious: the AAA is NOT synonymous with “anthropology” or “anthropologists”. It represents many/most of us by default…and I suspect that with its many blunders over the past few years, it wouldn’t take much for many to resign their membership. I can’t speak for you, but my sense of professional ethics and commitment are guided, but not controlled by the AAA. I and many others could continue our lives and careers perfectly well in its absence. Maybe I will….remains to be seen . One thing — I wouldn’t be alone, and ad hominem attacks on dedicated anthropologists like Montgomery McFate don’t help. So please don’t conflate AAA with anthropology — that’s ludicrous.

    Now, to the issue of transparency. Many anthropologists can be forgiven for believing that the work HTTs do could not be anything other than “intelligence” gathering. Had you asked me a few years ago, I would have told you the same thing. It came as quite a surprise, therefore, to discover that the army has some pretty stringent distinctions between intelligence (used for “kinetic” or lethal operations…yes, killing and capturing people) and “information.” Silly though that word might seem to anyone of poststructural bent, this innocuous misnomer codes for a very important distinction within US army bureaucracy: HTTs may not participate in any type of “spying” or info. gathering for the needs of kinetic operations. Rather, their role is limited (or unlimited, depending on how you want to look at it)to exploring problems and needs as defined by native populations themselves. I could obviously expand on this statement, but maybe not in this post.

    This is all by way of saying that ALL the work that HTTs do…ALL of it…is “unclassified” and “open” to whomever wants to look at it. This is a LOT more than we can say for most sociocultural anthropologists, whose notes/records are deeply buried in filing cabinets. The only exceptions to this involve ongoing projects where people’s lives (both service men and women AND the peoples among whom they work) are at risk…I assume this is acceptable to the AAA, although nothing would surprise me anymore.

    Best regards,
    Dee

  8. Agro,

    Uh, yeah….seems like you have nothing to say, there, Agro…do you have a point, or are you just another sheep following the herd? PLEASE give me an answer I can respect, and not some other swill from the “We Oppose for the Sake of Opposing” trough. Come on, let’s have it. Otherwise, what’s your contribution?

    Dee

  9. Dee, you say: “This is all by way of saying that ALL the work that HTTs do…ALL of it…is “unclassified” and “open” to whomever wants to look at it. This is a LOT more than we can say for most sociocultural anthropologists, whose notes/records are deeply buried in filing cabinets.”

    That’s very interesting to hear. Can you tell me where their work is archived for anyone to look at?

    thanks
    Lisa

  10. I would also love to see the “glowing reports” about the HTS, written not by propagandists for HTS, that is not more press snippets where someone claims a dramatic drop in violence in some part of Afghanistan when overall it is at its highest level ever. For those who don’t know — Dee included here — read the reports online by HTS insiders such as Capt. Matthew Tompkins and Zenia Helbig for some of the more astounding internal failures of the project, which they have written about, in terms of “malfeasance” to various congressmen, senators, and the project on government oversight.

  11. L.L.: Though I’m not blind to the sarcasm, I’m glad, nonetheless, that you’re interested ; that material in in the process of being archived in a database that is being developed in a two-steps-forward, one-step-back fashion. Hopefully, it will all be up within a few months and available for all and sundry. I’m not involved in that process, by the way, but have heard a great deal about it.

    Maximillian: Nice to be called a propagandist by such a sterling example of measured judgment as yourself. Your attacks on McFate are asinine and juvenile. I’m sure you imagine your blog writing to be full of insight and wit. Fortunately, few people that I’ve spoken to in or out of the program have much time for your ad hominen nonsense.I read what you had to say once…can’t imagine ever visiting your blog again, though I actively encourage friends and colleagues to do so if they want an example of what to avoid in this debate.

    Press snippets, Max? This comment speaks to your basic unfamiliarity with how the program has developed. Those reports merely echo some of the feedback that has been growing about the program from people that know it intimately. I am positively CACKLING at your reference to Tomkins as an “insider” — both he and Zeldig were given the BOOT for egregiously unprofessional conduct (I will say no more than that at this point). But I wouldn’t expect you to know any of that Maxie….consummate, self-styled outsider that you are. Real pieces of work, the pair of ‘em. I’m certain that our mutual friend Gonzalez will be making much of them in his forthcoming “study” of HTS…it should make for nice, light, summertime reading.

    What’s most amusing in all this is that several of you seem to think I’m some kind of drone mouthpiece for the military. Cute. But as you doubtless know, many anthropologists study military bureaucracy and culture without being absorbed within its webs. I’m one of those, but wouldn’t expect friends like Max to get that.

    Cheerio,
    Dee

  12. Nothing like taking an ad hominem approach when complaining about ad hominem writing. Incidentally, I noted you could refer to none of the “glowing reports” you claimed existed. Then when asked where these publicly available reports are to be found, you say the cheque is in the mail. While complaining about people who serve up “swill” from a tough of opposition for opposition’s sake, all you offer in return is rubbish from a swamp of defense for defense’s sake. And I can take the heat, Dee, as should McFate, seeing how she loves to spread herself and the private details of her personal life across celebrity mags. But in your mind, only praises and pleasantries are allowed. Grow up.

  13. Sorry, Dee, by the way I needed to thank for confirming that you actually do not know or understand the case of Tompkins and Helbig, neither of whom was expelled for the reason you claimed. So much for your “measured judgment”, which added to a lack of supporting details, cannot evade the charge of propaganda. Sorry also to be juvenile and asinine, and perhaps you need to read I LUV A MAN IN UNIFORM for discourse that is better suited to your high intellectual standards of propriety and civility.

  14. Like LL, I’m also interested in seeing HTS’s work available online and open source — although obviously I think that much of the primary data should remain “buried in filing cabinets” to respect the privacy of the people from which it was gathered. One of the key objections to HTS is that its social science is badly done — this criticism could be answered (or confirmed) if we had a chance to see the work itself. And finally, Dee has a point — our work should be open access, not unavailable behind prohibitively expensive fees or secret and classified. What a black eye it would be to the AAA and opponents of HTS if they created a large open access archive of superb social science with genuine applied value.

    Of course that is a lot of what ifs. Shall we wait, say 6 months and see if there has been any move in this direction? Max, would you like to keep track of this one?

  15. Max,

    “Praise and pleasantries” have their place in balanced judgment…McFate’s blog about men in uniform may or may not be in poor taste, but it has nothing to do with her HTS work…from your testy little diatribe about it, I’d say YOU are the one with some growing up to do. Otherwise, why the hell would you care? Could it be that you’re deeply offended by such earthy discourse in general? That would just be funny. Ad hominem attacks are garbage, as you know (or should know) perfectly well. Obviously it has rankled you on some emotional level…much as (I’m delighted to see) my previous postings.

    As long as we’re in never-never land: re. your denial of the Tomkins and Helbig business…actually, that proves to me that YOU don’t know as much as you evidently think you know. But since I’m unwilling to elaborate let alone spell it all out for you, you’re welcome to the delusion.

    Yes, Rex, I think that’s a find idea. Of course, I’m not in control of the process personally…I’m not even involved peripherally. But I do know it’s in the works, even though there was some kind of staffing and/or technology setback. At any rate, it will be coming along in the near to medium future (or so I’m told…and no, I don’t believe I’m being “duped” or anything).

    Oh hey, on one last thought for you: I find myself playing Devil’s Advocate a lot only because contributors to discussions such of this one seldom make any effort to REALLY see all sides of the controversy. The truth is that I love to probe and critique those folks I know to be involved in HTS…and to a person, I’ve found that they welcome with open arms the opportunity to improve, revisit, and change how things work…of course the big picture is another story. Limited though they may be in some ways, those discussions are worth a whole lot more than posturing on a cheesy,self-indulgent blog (and if that applies to McFate’s writing, then Maxi, it surely applies to yours!).

    Anyway, I’ve said what I had to say, and will now be moving on (don’t enjoy the sound of my own rambling nearly as much as you do yours, Maxi…)

    a la prochain, tout le monde

    Dee

  16. I have the feeling that “Dee” here is Montgomery McFate, for a number of reasons. Her obvious anger against my blog seems to have distracted her from her earlier “cackling” but some of the crowing has continued. It also tells me that my blog is achieving the right effect with the right people. “Dee” (McFate? or McFate’s “mini me) was obviously very offended, and all I can say is “job well done.” I don’t know how, but somehow my blog will manage to get over the loss of her visits. In the meantime, yes, Rex, I definitely intend to keep track. However, I do not expect them to publish anything more than glittering self-appraisals, judging from the hastily written “top misconceptions about HTS” that appears on the HTS site, much of which only reconfirms what the critics have been saying.

    McFate, thank you for all your wonderful online materials, they certainly furnish ample data for anyone interested in conducting a study in the psycho-pathology of imperialism. Good luck in “the theatre,” and remember to keep your head down.

    Finally, Helbig’s story can be accessed independently of the cackling crower. Readers can visit:

    http://iraqht.blogspot.com/2008/04/hts-in-hindsight-newsweek-and-pogo.html

    and for those who have not seen it yet, one of the “glowing reports” about HTS:

    http://www.newsweek.com/id/131752/page/1

    For those who are interested, Helbig was fired because of a comment over beer, that she would switch sides if Iran were attacked. Dee McFate seems to know something else, but won’t say. In the meatime Helbig and Tompkins have gone on the record with the gross incompetence at HTS, the poor training, the absence of training in research ethics, and the fact that most HTS researchers know nothing of the countries or even the region where they are placed and usually lack knowledge of the language, and in many cases do not have the PhDs which HTS leads people to believe is a requirement.

    Oh but look, Dee McFate has run away.

  17. Getting back to the point of my post….

    Dee writes:

    “There are some very impressive examples of ethnographic engagement … that have almost certainly saved lives on all sides”

    I don’t deny this possibility. (Although Helbig and Tompkins do cast doubt on how widespread such engagements might be.) However I don’t believe that such isolated examples represent a broad change in the military’s attitude towards local knowledge as Dee claims, or as the proponents of HTS would have us believe.

    How many thousands of lives, billions of dollars, and years must it take before the military can do something as simple as provide a properly trained translator?

    My skepticism over HTS does not derive from whether or not individual HTS workers are doing their job or are considered helpful. In fact, watching this video I am sure that military are very appreciative of any support they receive. I am just casting doubt on whether “ethnographic engagement” is what is needed here – or whether it is something much more obvious and basic.

  18. I’m inclined to agree with you, Kerim, but when you talk about common sense in an anthropological setting I get confused. Common to whom, under what circumstances, according to which rituals, restrictions and agendas?

    I teach soldiers who have been or soon will be deployed. Like all of my students some of them tumble quickly to the value of taking the perspective of the other, while some are more rule or authority oriented. They seem to have different ‘common senses’ depending on how and where they were raised, where they are in their emotional-cognitive development, their sense of identity and purpose, their levels of stress, and so on.

    Conflictual situations are notoriously poor ones for optimizing reciprocity of communication, as the post on the myth of Mars and Venus also shows. Short of a desirable but currently unlikely elimination of all conflict, what sorts of practical steps would in your view improve understanding under these difficult circumstances? Is there a specific way of understanding ‘common sense’ that gets us further there?

  19. What I find most interesting about this video is not just that the translator is doing a bad job but that there appears to be a culture of indifference to nuance. I’m always wary of the idea of common sense but I’m surprised a the level of incompetence displayed by the commanding officer (sgt. Adams) in the video. Is he really so naive that he can’t understand why these village elders and farmers don’t just shoot the taliban in the ‘fucking face.’ I kind of assumed (wrongly, obviously) that gathering this kind of intelligence with a modicum of respect and/or sympathy would be common sense (ie. knowledge gained through training and vetted by the professional organization) for soldiers in the position to command. Carl’s point is taken and shows up my own ignorance of the degree to which the military must be massively incapable of ‘winning the hearts and minds.’ I wonder how Canadian the training and performance of soldiers compares.

    A conjecture here: a translator learns what to translate and how to translate situationally. If this video is any indication of the kind of people the translator works with, I suspect he has learned that they are not interested in anything other than short comprehensible statements. I suspect translating a story about ants and wheat would just piss-off sgt. Adams, who apparently isn’t smart enough or well enough trained to either realize that he’s not getting a good translation or to understand that the motivations of Pashtun farmers may not be the same as his own. I would suggest the problem is less with the translator and more with the culture of information gathering.

    This video certainly works as an excellent justification for HTS. As mainstream journalism, it falls into the dominant ideology of the righteousness of the war and offers us some basic infotainment on the challenges of ‘getting the job done.’ But it is also not hard to read it against the grain and see that the Western forces may not be able to win this one after all (or at least not in the way they’ve been going about it).

  20. Carl,

    I should clarify that I’m not talking about the common sense of individual soldiers, but of the military as an institution. Here too, however, we can see that their common sense is not that of anthropologists … which is my point. HTS isn’t going to change that, except in a few isolated cases. (I was specifically referring to the need for capable translators.)

    An interesting question is whether institutions are capable of learning in a way which is not reducible to the trajectories of individuals through that institution. It seems that a lot of soldiers in Vietnam, including Powell, did learn a lot about how to fight an insurgency. Yet, it seems the military itself had to re-learn these lessons in Iraq. I would be very surprised if the next war is very different.

    metafactory,

    An interesting reading of the video. I suppose its possible, but it seems to me that Sgt. Adams’ frustration is from the sense that there is no communication at all between him and the elder, and that he would welcome genuine dialog if he knew that’s what he was getting.

  21. Dee, I wasn’t being sarcastic. It really would be incredibly interesting if the HTS work was available in a public database — for two reasons. One, as you point out, because anthropologists rarely make their raw data available (and for good reason, as Rex points out, to protect confidentiality of our informants). And two, because we have very little direct information about what HTS does and so instead of bickering over an idea, we could bicker over something a little more substantial!

    And I’m personally interested, because an Egyptian Arabic-language weekly has asked me to write an article about the US military’s use of social scientists in Iraq and Afghanistan, so I’d like to be able to provide information on when the HTS data will be openly accessible in that article.

    Of course, I can’t just report that it’s in the works based on an anonymous blog comment, so is there anyone I can talk to for some more concrete info? If you have anyone you can suggest I can get in touch with, I’d be grateful. You can either post it here or e-mail me directly: llwynn@scmp.mq.edu.au.

    thanks
    Lisa

  22. I agree with Forte that “Dee” seems like McFate, I’ve met plenty of people who work with McFate, and none of them speak as glowingly of her as “Dee” does and only McFate really thinks she’s a victim of ad hominem attacks.

    Where is the website where I can go and read all the Human Terrain Reports? I want to see where different Iraqi villagers fit in the “kill chain.”

  23. I’m out of sorts for a week and lookee here, I missed all the fun! Couldn’t y’all check with me before you go baggin’ on HTS? I can re-shuffle all my life crises to fit.

    Although I think it’s important for HTS and other military-sponsored anthropological work to be open to examination by non-affiliated anthropologists and other experts as a corrective to what I’m going to all “theater blindness” for no good reason, I actually shudder to think of the implications of an open-access, publicly available database of HTS’ and others’ raw ethnographic data.

    First of all, I don’t think any actual ethnographic data collection is taking place in HTS. I don’t have a ton of evidence or that hunch, of course; just mainstream media reports (though given that the media seems to have been spoonfed their stories from the military, I’d imagine if there was anything positive about HTS’s work, it’d have ended up in those pieces!) and Marcus Griffin’s blog, while it was up. FOr several months I read Griffin’s posts hoping to find some evidence that he was actually doing some sort of anthropological work, and saw little to none.

    Second of all, as I’ve said repeatedly, I don’t believe that the conditions under which military anthros work is conducive to the production of adequate anthropological evidence. I’ve heard McFate talking about informed consent in HTS, and I don’t think they’re coming anywhere near the notion of consent that anthros mean when they talk about it — and consent is still far below the conditions under which valuable anthropological exchange can occur!

    Meanwhile, outside of HTS, the big push for anthropological involvement in the military has boiled down to things like “don’t show Arabs the bottoms of your feet” and “Muslims don’t like dogs”. The Marines even have wallet cards they distribute to soldiers with such useful nuggets of wisdom for easy reference. Since this push originates in the same drive (and people) that the push for HTS derives from, I have to wonder if anthropology (or “social science”, since it seems the vast majority of HTS workers are not anthros) is being used in any way other than in name only. The veiled threat — if HTS doesn’t do its job, more people will be killed — is enough to convince me that rapport is not really in the cards here.

    And since Max Forte is a’visitin’, I’ll also repeat something I said on his blog (or on one of the blogs he linked to in his “Men in Tights” post). The problem with McFate’s blogging, and her husband’s opera fetish, is that both of them are actively involved in efforts which kill people. Making light of that — or talking about music and humor as a “release” from battlefield stresses — minimizes that reality.

    I know, I know: HTS saves lives! (After all, once the military killed or imprisoned all the troublemakers and brought in HTS, kills dropped as much as 60%!) The military fights wars so we can have peace, we all know that. Still, bad taste is bad taste, and killing people is in incredibly bad taste no matter how funny your blog posts are.

  24. I, we, they, are amused that Rex could be disappointed or “depressed” by sockpuppetry. That is what public blogs are, and wethinks this concerns betrays some unshared understanding that blogs are something more than graffiti. This isn’t scholarship so much as it is blogging & tagging. Sometimes the comments ain’t signed, sometimes they are, but even when they are they are more like gangtags. Aren’t there really only 19 people on savageminds?

  25. What makes you think there are that many?

    No but seriously, it is one thing to post anonymously but quite another to pretend to be someone else to make yourself look good. I don’t think you need a fancy university degree to think that’s a little creepy.

  26. Rex, Yup. Super creepy. Amen to that.

    Getting back to the original post, I agree with Oneman that, as a tool of the military, an anthropologist will have trouble producing real anthropological evidence. In the Human Terrain System, I would say that even the name itself shows that the military project is chiefly concerned with objectifying and then stepping on humans and societies. That might have counted for anthropology a hundred years ago but not in this day and age. Further, I feel that the anthropologists are being treated like some kind of armored vehicle to keep the troops safe and clean away from the necessity of interacting or empathizing with the “Human Terrain.” The video seems to make this clear.

    Still, although I’m not an anthropologist myself, I feel that participation in these types of programs would be very useful if the anthropologist were free to study the ENTIRE “human terrain” – not just those at the sharp end of the empire, but also the soldiers, the command structure, the unequal power relations (internal and external), the unique language of war and so forth. In other words, the anthropology of war. Can anthropology in the military become an anthropology of the military? Isn’t that what we’re doing right now with this three minute video ethnography?

    The military itself wouldn’t be interested in this type of work but maybe it could be done if the anthropologists were able to maintain their identity as academics. Researchers could demand access to the military and the ability to mine it for anthropological facts as the price of service. It’s probably naive to think that but worth thinking about.

    Looking over at the press, journalists are often critical of embedding reporters but many agree that it gives them access to news that they might not otherwise have. As long as embedded journalism is not seen as the end all a be all, it has it’s place.

    Again, as an outsider, I know anthropology as being famous for explaining (without objectifying) many aspects of culture and society but I don’t know of an anthropology of how societies engage in and interact through war. I’m sure that those types of studies exist there is quite a bit of room for more. Seems like that kind of research should be about as important as studies of gift giving or kinship. I would love to see reams of data by trained anthropologists on the culture of the military itself.

  27. Am I the only one to notice? From the replies here it seems anthropologists can only be academics or researchers. Aren’t there any anthropologists applying their knowledge in jobs outside academia? It seems the HTS men and women are applying their knowledge and skills to the advantage of their employer. Research is often not part of such a job, and why would it. While a law student can become a law researcher, most become actual lawyers. Can an anthropology student become a… well, applied anthropologist? Or must he remain a researcher?

    Is doing research so much more fun than applying the found knowledge in the “real” world?

  28. This discussion is very strange. As I have mentioned in previous comments, I am not immediately adverse to the idea of social scientists working with the military. One could even say that colonial governance is what gave birth to Anthropology. If the George Bush Gang had had proper advice about the state of Iraq at the time of the Invasion and what they could realistically expect after they occupied the country, things might have gone more smoothly.

    Having said this, the person calling themselves Dee began posting on June 27 – that’s 2 months ago. In her first comment, she states that examples of how HTS had saved lives would be forthcoming – “There are some very impressive examples of ethnographic engagement (that I and others will be happy to share in due course) that have almost certainly saved lives on all sides.” The only examples of the program available here are from Newsweek links provided by Maximilian Forte and they don’t present a very attractive picture. I genuinely was interested in the promise.

    Strangely, Dee has stopped posting without producing any real evidence of the program’s efficacy. And up until the last post on June 29, she appeared increasingly agitated that statements about the program’s efficacy were immediately accepted as fact and name-calling of its detractors hadn’t seemed at all convincing to other commenters. In comments, she was dragged into a mudslinging match that was unprofessional, unconvincing, and easily avoided. Adding to the mystery, she vanished completely following the accusation by Maximilian that Dee is a pseudonym for HTS anthropologist Dr. Montgomery McFate.

    I don’t know if Dee represents HTS in any formal capacity, although her first post sure has that feeling. So it seems strange to me that someone acting in such a capacity would use a pseudonym with no links to a webpage or e-mail, promise evidence that would never appear, call others names, and then just as suddenly disappear. I personally have lots of room to be convinced this is an effective program, but unless something mores gets said about HTS, I can only conclude it’s a joke.

  29. “This discussion is very strange. As I have mentioned in previous comments, I am not immediately adverse to the idea of social scientists working with the military. One could even say that colonial governance is what gave birth to Anthropology.”

    Yup it sure did give birth to anthropology, and thats what HUNDREDS if not THOUSANDS of anthropologists have been trying to undo! That’s the WHOLE POINT actually. Early anthropology was racist, demeaning, and contributed to horrible misrepresentations of people around the world – which eventually led to its downfall and decline. Well, that might be too simple, but its part of it.

    The only saving grace of anthropology has been this reflexive turn which looked at itself and said “oh my !@#!@#! god we are some nasty ass, closed minded bastards”.

    @RML -> Research can work towards solving “real world” problems by asking “real world” questions. Another name for this is “collaborative ethnography”, where the researcher works on questions raised by others. And all research is based on “real world” findings, its just the questions they ask that come from the clouds.

  30. John, you won’t find much of an argument from me on this one. My point really is that the person using the name Dee did absolutely everything wrong. She starts out believing that through an appeal to professionally shared standards, she can bridge political differences. Within a few exchanges, she descends into replying with name calling anyone who disagrees with her and alienating anyone who might have found her position reasonable. This good intentions gone bad is part of the problem with HTS that Kerim was pointing to in his post. I think we could accurately call this, shooting oneself in the foot.

    By the way, you might be interested in this post.
    http://www.motherjones.com/mojoblog/archives/2008/08/9259_beware_of_montgomery_mcfate_sapone_flier_spotted_in_dc.html

  31. “Early anthropology was racist, demeaning, and contributed to horrible misrepresentations of people around the world – which eventually led to its downfall and decline. Well, that might be too simple, but its part of it. ”

    I don’ t buy that very common argument. Early anthropology was a product of its time, and it was also the first to counter that time. Remember Boas was the first to critically examine the race concept, and became a real power in introducing the notion of relativism in phenotypes, and social traits.
    Malinowski, helped people see the relative connections between what “savages” did on a small group of islands far off somewhere and what the British elite did there at home.

    It’s been that way ever since. Concepts in other disciplines are just now catching up to things that we were saying 20 to 30 years ago, and they are still more simplistic that 20-30 years ago.

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