Osama Bin Laden, Chelsea Manning, and their anthropologists

Anthropology can turn up in the strangest places. While we often hold up Margaret Mead and… uh… well, mostly Margaret Mead… as examples of public anthropology, our discipline does a lot of important work in times and places few of us would suspect. For instance, take these two recent examples from the media featuring Chelsea Manning and Osama bin Laden:

Most people remember Chelsea Manning (then Bradley) as the person who leaked hundreds of thousands of classified military documents to WikiLeaks. After being imprisoned for the leak, Manning has become an activist and intellectual in her own right, as well as the center of an ongoing struggle to make sure her rights are respected in prison. And in her free time… she reads anthropology.

This according to a New York Post article Manning recently faced the possibility of indefinite solitary confinement because of the items she had in her possession, including a tube of toothpaste and a copy of Biella Coleman’s excellent ethnography Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy — The Many Faces of Anonymous (creative commons licensed PDF here). You knew anthropology ends up in unusual places — now we know that includes the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth.

The other anthropologist to make the news recently was Flagg Miller of UC Davis. Miller holds the unique title of being the only person in the world to sit down and listen to all 1,500 cassette tapes in Osama Bin Laden’s personal cassette tape collection.  My favorite part of the BBC’s piece on Miller’s new book, Audacious Ascetic: What the Bin Laden Tapes Reveal About Al-Qa’ida comes when Miller shows the reporter the earliest known recording of Bin Laden from the late 1980s. Recording quality is poor and the reporter asks “But how can you tell it’s Bin Laden?” There’s a short pause and Miller replies “Well… I’ve listened to over a thousand hours of him speaking…” That’s anthropology for you — you work it into your bones, and it’s that lived experience that lets you make the hard calls.

Anthropologists worry constantly that there isn’t enough public anthropology. But how much public anthropology is enough public anthropology? We are reaching all kinds of audiences in all kinds of ways — and with research totally different than the usual white-on-brown village ethnography that people (including us!) imagine that we do. So let’s give ourselves some credit where credit is due and pat ourselves on the back for showing up in unexpected — but important — places.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org