Knowledge that Matters

We’ve had a lot of discussion here about the relationship between anthropology and the war-on-terror (mostly by Oneman: see here, here, here, and here). I think a lot of the discussion misses the mark. Aside from important issues about how such work would affect the ability of anthropologists to do their work in the first place, the issue that really concerns me is whether or not the context exists in which anthropological knowledge could matter to government agencies?

The Washington Post recently ran an article in which they quoted FBI officials to the effect that they didn’t need to have top level operatives with knowledge of Arabic in order to effectively do their job:

In a recent deposition filed in an employee lawsuit, a senior FBI official testified that the bureau’s two International Terrorism Operations Sections (ITOS) do not require any agents to know Arabic, even though the sections coordinate all foreign terrorism investigations. Only four agents in ITOS have any familiarity with Arabic, and none of them are ranked above elementary proficiency, documents show.

And just this week the New York Times ran an editorial about how few leading officials in the war-on-terror are unable to articulate the most basic differences between Sunnis and Shiites:

But so far, most American officials I’ve interviewed don’t have a clue. That includes not just intelligence and law enforcement officials, but also members of Congress who have important roles overseeing our spy agencies. How can they do their jobs without knowing the basics?

If it could be done without hurting the trust necessary between anthropologists and their informants/collaborators (an admittedly big “if”), I don’t really have anything against anthropologists working for the government; however, I’m very skeptical about the ability of government to make use of anthropological knowledge. I don’t think this is because these officials are stupid, many are quite sharp, but because they work in an administrative culture in which knowledge about the rest of the world simply doesn’t matter.

3 thoughts on “Knowledge that Matters

  1. My two cents on this:
    Most of the writing I have seen on anthropology and ‘The War on Terror’ has been pretty similar to the bulk of writing on anthropology and the Cold War. Simply put, people are asking how these kinds of government, er, programs constrain the basic conditions of doing anthropology. And this is asked in terms of direct, demonstrable institutional complicities. In other words, ‘identify collaborators.’ (I’m not going to get into the question of who uses this rhetoric, for reasons that ought to be obvious.)

    I guess I am trained to think that any project in anthropology should do the first thing, and to ask, in an anthropological kind of way, what kind of broader work the second process is doing. So the question you raise, tacitly, is much more interesting: -can- we say anything to an intelligence agency in a matter that they will understand? John Dower has that Ruth Benedict’s involvement with the OWI basically didn’t translate into any kind of concrete policies on the part the occupation: the intelligence people were completely confused by her analysis and started to consult with cognitive psychologists, who spoke a language they could understand and, er, implement. But the myth that Benedict saved Kyoto/The Emperor, whatever, is very widespread in Japan and in the US: nobody thinks much about the psychologists.

    I guess my point is that foregrounding the imaginary component of the ‘War on Terror’ isn’t any less urgent of a task.

  2. Kerim, this is pretty much one of my big points, too — it’s why I keep harping on control over anthropological information. WHile I’m not fool (nor fascist) enough to think that anthropologists could (or should) live in a world where every scrap of anthropological data was vetted by anthros before being applied to real-world situations, I don’t see the purpose (or the moral value) of purposely putting ourselves in situations in which our data may well be ignored, distorted, or used to cause direct harm to the people we study. Working for the government (and to some degree, private corporations, though few of them have direct access to military/police power, or to national/international policy, as state actors do) means *automatically* subordinating anthropological imperatives to administrative ones — and while sometimes these imperatives might align for a moment or two, the alignment of the anthropological and the administrational is outside the anthro’s sphere of control.

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