Torture and Social Scientists

Inside Higher Ed ran a long piece this morning entitled “Torture and Social Science”: that covers the goings-on at the AAAs general business meeting we “recently blogged about”:/2006/11/20/aaa-democracy/. What I find most interesting about the article are the comments that people have made on it, which include lines like:

This condemnation by the American Anthropological Association carries about as much conviction as a condemnation of human rights violations by the United Nations’ General Assembly i.e. none at all.


My worry is that anthropology may have become too self-marginalized as a discipline, increasingly irrelevant to the big questions of the day in our world, content to snipe from the sidelines as soon as it seems safe.

I have to admit that my sympathies are more with this line of argument. As many of you can probably imagine, I am anti-torture. But the enormous amount of energy and acrimony that goes into adopting some sort of measure like this is enormous, and I often wonder what sort of practical effect it will have other than salving the conscience whose super egos need some form of topical treatment. I mean: think of the concrete, substantive effect the Yanomami debacle had on Chagnon’s career! Don’t get me wrong — I am sympathetic by those who oppose the weaponizing of anthropology. And I recognize that for some people passing resolutions and measures etc. is an end in itself. But… aren’t we danger of generating rather more heat than light?


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

40 thoughts on “Torture and Social Scientists

  1. Rex — I’m consistently puzzled by your take on these issues (I felt similarly nonplussed by your ennui vis-a-vis the Yanomami referendum). You make the very odd assumption — odd, that is, for an anthropologist — that we social scientists get to pick our fights. Of course we don’t.

    Obviously, in re: the question of how much anthropology the Americans involved have read, the disaster in Iraq is more properly laid at the feet of “too little” rather than “too much”. And obviously, the AAA can’t make a handbook called “proper uses of anthropological knowledge, always and everywhere: the definitive catalogue” (nor, harking back to the Yanomami/Chagnon referendum, can it make a handbook entitled: “proper methods for generating anthropological knowledge, always and everywhere”). And, obviously, the AAA has zero enforcement power with respect to any rulings it collectively decides upon.

    check, check, check. So what? Horrible, hair-raising, notorious methods and applications of anthropology will come to light from time to time. There is no institutional way to preven this — that is, we don’t get to *choose* those fights — but once those fights have chosen us I don’t see the logic of not picking a side in them.

    Now, I would agree with anyone who argues it is naive to think that passing these resolutions is somehow “preventative”: almost certainly there’s another proto-Chagnon bullying informants somewhere on the planet, and another perverse application of cultural knowledge, along the lines of “Arab-specific modes of torture” of which we will learn some time in the future. But just because post-hoc condemnation isn’t effective in a future-oriented way doesn’t mean it isn’t important for clarifying things in the here and now.

    To go back to the Chagnon thing: I don’t think anything we did, or did not do, about Chagnon will change the future course of anthropology. But I do think I learned something about the moral investments of my present-day colleagues from the referendum (something very bad, as I said in this space at the time).

    And I think we learn something about the present moral investments of the AAA’s membership from the “torture vote” (something good, in this case). We wouldn’t have chosen such a mode of assessment, just like we wouldn’t have chosen the particular conjuncture of historical events that brought it about. But that’s kind of not the point.

  2. Having never been the AAA’s, much less attended a referendum at them, I may be ill-qualified to comment on this, but I get the feeling that there are two issues at stake here which, for now, need to be dealt with separately. The first being whether or not it is possible to get support for a referendum against torture, the second being the uses of anthropological knowledge in the specific context of the Cold War.

    Take Raymond Patai’s book. This was something produced not only in the context of anthropology but in the specific context of Area Studies in the United States. I can’t imagine any interpretive practice which would allow us to know specifically what parts of this book would be used for counterinsurgency, and the notion of revising ethical guidelines in anthropology to specifically preempt that kind of misuse strikes me as hopeless. In that sense, no, we don’t get to pick our fights.

    But we do get to choose our fights to a much higher degree than our informants do. Being ‘social scientists’ means we also take on responsibility as intellectuals: that is, as people who ought not separate their abuses from the historical, cultural and social reasons for those abuses. In the case of Patai’s book, that means figuring out what affinities existed between what is in Patai’s work and what counter-insurgents want to know, and confronting the complex of interests and institutions that made it possible to instrumentalize that work in such an odious way.

    Personally, I don’t think this is a matter of clarifying our moral investments. I think it is a matter of the critiques of the 1980’s and beyond not getting routinized into a set framework for thought. We know a great deal about how 19th century colonial anthropology functioned. We come full circle on the basis of that knowledge: the discipline that begins with the critique of colonial race theory (Boas) ends with…historical engagement with colonialism via ‘theory.’ We don’t know as much about how mid-twentieth century anthropology might have functioned in the same way. I mean, think about how 101 classes are typically structured: Boas is seen as having defined a consensus against a race anthropology nobody reads any more, and then the problems with, say, culture and personality, are defined as internal to canonical disciplinary history. That’s an oddly narrow vision of anthropology’s political engagements which seems to police politics out of the discipline entirely. Any form of state power after decolonization becomes terra incognita-ever wonder why working on colonial administrators sounds like anthropology and working on George Kennan or Henry Kissinger doesn’t?

    I mean, this is an agenda-setting issue, potentially. But it’s not going to be if the format of disciplinary engagement is easy moral condemnations of stuff that er sort of kind of has to do with us.

  3. As a relatively new member of the AAA, I am not familiar with the precedents for this motion, but I have to say it makes me uncomfortable. It seems a significant indication that the War on Terror is going to get worse before it gets better if American anthropologists are compelled to turn their scholarly professional association into a political party. Declaring a public position on matters of contemporary US policy may feel like “standing up” to people with nothing to lose from such partisanship, but much of the work of anthropology is done by people living in field sites where American foreign policy and local structures of interest are combined in a multitude of complicated and conflicted configurations. The efficacy (even safety) of individual fieldworkers in such sites often depends on their ability to maintain a neutral political profile within this complex field. The interests of these fieldworkers in doing good work is, therefore, directly contrary to the use of the AAA as a platform for political posturing. Even if we grant all the fine-grained impossibility of defining a precise boundary between knowledge and power, the current vote seems to present a relatively clear choice between *either* scholarship *or* politics as a vocation.

  4. I’ve always hated it when Nader and Price bash on postmodernism as distracting anthropologists from engaging in political action, but these posts make me think they really are on to something. Gee, I’m sorry you all feel “uncomfortable” that anthropology might get involved in opposing torture, but not all of us can shove our heads in the sand and pretend to be uninvolved with what is done with anthropology.

    I oppose the use of anthropology in torture and I want the AAA to represent my views.

  5. Beth, I agree with what you’re saying here, but I don’t get the point about Nader and Price at all. Are you saying that Jeff’s post reflects ‘postmodernism’? If postmodernism is just something that Nader and Price ‘bash’, doesn’t that imply it’s not a very well-formed idea and therefore a prejudicial way to characterize people’s opinions? Should we condemn things without worrying about consequences because torture is just that bad?

    OK, personally, I think Nader’s points about anthropology’s misdeeds are useful but not nuanced. And I think we are paying for that lack of nuance now. In other words, what I see on this thread is an unnerving attempt to talk about a resolution on the relationship between anthropology and torture, without saying anything about what that relationship actually is. If you want a political mandate for reflexivity, well, I think this issue gives you one.

    For, against, or bored by the resolution, it seems like people really don’t want to talk about the real issue here, which is the messy stuff that made it possible for this book to be misused in the first place. Don’t get me wrong, I support the resolution: I just think the illusion that the resolution settles the question of how Patai’s book was used at Abu Ghraib is very dangerous.

    I also agree with Jeff’s post about the either/or choice posed by the AAA resolution. I just think the resolution risks unintentionally forcing the choice between scholarship and politics. After all, we’ve been over the issue of scholarly neutrality and politics in social theory before (c.f. Erik Mannheim, etc etc.) And now there’s a movement to force it down people’s throats, one being lead by people with very different political views from the AAA.

  6. Maybe we could adjust the heat-light ratio a little bit by considering a hypothetical example. Say, infanticide. Suppose people were calling anthropologists who bore witness to infanticide “scum with PHDs who stand with baby killers”; challenging the validity of research funded by agencies with histories of advocacy for cultures known to practice baby killing; proposing resolutions calling for the US government to withdraw from countries where reports show US intervention has allowed baby killing cultures to operate with impunity; proposing resolutions calling for the AAA to publicly state its opposition to the participation by its members in baby killing; etc.

    Now suppose that while all this was going on, there was an individual anthropologist working under the assumption that an accurate understanding of the social and cultural causes of infanticide was a valid piece of anthropological research, even one with potential to make a practical contribution to the goal of a world where infanticide is less prevalent than it is today. How do you think the kind of activities mentioned above would affect that anthropologist’s attempts to use ethnography to advance our understanding of what infanticide is and why it exists? How easy would it be to cultivate and maintain ethnographic relationships across the nice fat lines in the public sand that the righteously indignant want to draw between “anthropologists” and “baby killers”?

  7. Another Grad Student: I wouldn’t say that postmodernism is just something that Nader and Price bash, but they do add some brilliant light to our understanding of how postmodernism has led anthropologists away from action (you should look at Price’s essay on postmodernists use of the term “nuanced” and “un-nuanced” as code words for dismissive discourse). My remarks were not directed at Jeff so much as at Rex, who seems to argue against taking action because of the inevitable marginalization of the discipline. Here we are arguing about torture and what is to be done, and here we find just the exact sort of inaction that Nader and Price have been describing.

  8. As for the argument that such resolutions are necessary to make clear to the public that anthropologists as a discipline do not “stand beside” torturers, does the public really have such a perception in the first place?

    I know about Hersh’s article. But did anyone make that connection other than, you know, anthropologists?

  9. I passed over Beth’s previous comments in the spirit of charitability, but I think I’ll respond to this one: The source of the disagreement between Beth and I is due to the fact that she has little or no idea of who I am or what position I take on this subject.

    Can she seriously think that she can make the label ‘postmodern’ stick to me? Pathetic. I’m the person whose public persona is centered on a reactionary advocacy of Boas and The Minor Works of Rodney Needham against trendy modes of theorizing. She similarly demonstrates a total lack understanding if she believes that I want anthropology to be politically quietistic because action will lead to the marginalization of our discipline. In fact just the opposite.

    Perhaps the fault is mine because I was not sufficiently clear. I’ll do this again, slowly:

    I am not opposed to action against torture. My argument is that 1) passing an AAA resolution against torture _does not count as action_ or at least 2) the ratio of energy/action that comes from involving one’s self in AAA politics makes such involvement an incredibly inefficient sort of action.

    Now, some people value getting AAA resolutions passed because they consider such activity an end in itself. Others value it for other reason. My argument is NOT that we should avoid AAA politics because it is TOO activist. My argument is that we should avoid AAA politics because it is NOT ACTIVIST ENOUGH.

    Jeff’s example of infanticide is an excellent illustration. Let us imagine some group out there is killing babies. Lots of them. Constantly. Everyday more babies are being killed. How, exactly, would an AAA resolution against killing babies stop the infanticide? Surely, it would be part of some broad cultural shift of American mores against babykilling, could have repurcussions at a numbner of levels, may in future years have a knock-on effect, etc. etc. True. But does that extremely diffused effect really satisfy the ethical obligation we as humans feel (modulo complex relativist arguments) to _stop the killing_? No.

    Passing an AAA resolution against infanticide would probably have no immediate or even mid-range effect on the baby-killing rate. That is the point, and the problem. The discipline is marginalized politically, I think, when we content ourselves with the belief that mucking ab out with our internal politics is the same as activism in the world outside the AAA.

    So in fact I support Price for writing freely-available Counterpunch columns. _That_ reaches people. I support Lin and others who pressed for adoption of the resolution — although I am more supportive of their efforts in other arenas outside the AAA, because I feel they will be more effective.

  10. Having managed to convince myself that I will get a somewhat sympathetic hearing here, I would like to indulge in a description my personal situation, as an example of how this proposed resolution may affect one member of the AAA.

    I work on police reform. I work in Taiwan, an example of a country which in the 1990s successfully eliminated the government’s national-security-legitimated extra-constitutional police power. A happy corollary of this democratization was a significant reduction in the prevalence of coercive interrogation. Some of the people in Taiwan’s police-policy-scholarly community who were involved in engineering this achievement are now active regionally, trying to bring lessons learned into dialogue with the variety of other governments in Asia that may, or may not, be interested in bringing police powers within a rule of law. Within this regional movement, I have an ongoing ethnographic project looking at various modes of interaction between the police of Taiwan (with their relative respect for human rights) and the police of Mainland China (with their much less transparent agenda). Most of this project is embedded within a scholarly association called the Association of Asian Police Studies, which has been active as a “guardian angel for police reform in Asia” since about 1999. The possibility of the AAPS as a regional actor amidst the tensions of regional politics rests on its absolutely political neutral dedication to the singular focus on bringing standards of police practice in line with “universally accepted” standards of human rights. (If you want a model for how scholarship can be used as an effective tool for the eradication of torture, I invite you to join the AAPS.) In the course of this research, I cross paths with lot of people clearly involved in projects with political agendas, American and otherwise. And let me tell you, scholarly neutrality can be a very tangible thing when that friend of the friend of the liaison officer starts casually sounding out a few of the details in your file in the back of a Mercedes driving to … where was that we were going again? I am not so committed to this research that I am willing to take silly risks with my personal security. And as I experience the tensions across the straits amplifying in direct proportion to the erosion of America’s international prestige (and if you think its bad now, just wait until we start trying to pretend that the mess in Iraq isn’t our responsibility), I am thinking more and more seriously about giving this project up. And now it appears that a faction within the AAA has arranged to decide whether or not I should go on record as a member of an organization with a specific stance on contemporary American policy. How should I take this into account in preparing for my next trip in the back of the Mercedes? Admittedly, I am being a little dramatically paranoid here to make a point. Realistically speaking, I don’t think that these two specific resolutions will push me over the edge of thinking my current project is no longer safe. However, if we have already reached the state where the AAA is becoming politically reactionary now, I shudder to think what the situation is going to be like in five or ten years, when the full magnitude of what is going on in the world becomes more obvious. Seriously folks, we are in all likelihood headed for some of the toughest times humanity has ever seen. Shouldn’t we be trying to deal with our problems using every last ounce of intelligence and wisdom and tolerance available to us? If scholars have any practical role to play in this world, isn’t it to make sure we understand our problems effectively *before* we go about trying to attack them?

  11. I am commenting from Australia, so I am an outsider in comparison to others who have commented here. But I have been following this story from afar, courtesy of a lot of emails sent to me by the Australian Anthropological Society mailing list.

    I agree that passing the resolution reflects something good about the membership of the AAA, but does not do much to stop torture. So what can be done to stop torture? Anthropology has always been problematic, in that it has been and is a discourse located within metropolitan, hegemonic power structures. While anthropology can try to shed its colonial wolfskin, the very existence or sharing of knowledge always poses a threat. So perhaps you should all get new jobs and stop writing.

    But seriously, perhaps the passing of the resolution does actually do something. According to the information i have been sent, the intelligence community, perhaps the White House and other conservative bodies have a lot of control over funding and scholarships. So now there is a choice for anthropologists seeking work: join the hawks and become a collaborator, or remain within the moral community of the AAA at risk of not getting a job. But this is more a state by anthropologists about themselves to themselves. It basically says, don’t go there, girlfriend. Which I think is fair enough.

  12. Rex-

    In a less charitable mood, I might suggest that this sort of resolution being passed by a basically politically powerless body within a politically marginalized academic discipline was *not intended* to actually combat torture. Instead it was intended to *use* torture as a bludgeon in an ongoing debate about activism versus academics within anthropology.

    In which case, the fact that Beth has no idea who you are or what you believe is completely beside the point. The intention was to draw a line in the sand, and to declare, “You are either with us, or for torture!” The fact that you aren’t for torture doesn’t matter, the point was to use the accusation to force your compliance with a particular agenda within the anthropological community, the one community where this resolution will even be noticed.

    When the goal is to create a “you are either with us or against us” atmosphere, the fact that someone will make generalizations about their foes is predictable.

    The real victims, of course, being young academics who don’t yet realize what’s going on, and who think they’re sincerely doing something to stop evil in the world…

    But that’s probably just some crazy conspiracy theory. Academics engaging in brutal turf wars? Pshaw!

  13. I don’t think that Rex’s point is a bad one, but it misses the mark. Personally, I don’t really care much about the Anti-Iraq Occupation measure. It carries no weight and says little about matters anthropological.

    The measure condemning the use of anthropology in torture is a different matter. After attened the three sessions on anthropology and national security at the AAA (in the morning critics Nader, Gusterson, Gill, Shyrock, Price, Fleuhr-Lobban etc., in the afternoon pro-military & intel anthros like Nuti, McFate, MacNamara etc.) it sounds like anthros are advising those conduting torture right now. Because of this mess it is meaningful that we condemn those using anthropoloy in this way. Given that the AAA is now investigating these matters with a presidential commission, it is vital that the out of touch staff and executive board know that the membership are not going to accept anything less than a full fact finding report on these issues and the members do NOT support the use of anthropology for torture and similar activities.

  14. Rex, you must realize that your argument — “I’m dubious about the anti-torture resolution [for lack of a better moniker] *not* because I’m pro-torture but because I consider that resolution not! anti! torture! enough!” — begs the question, okay, *then what*? I mean, if you are out there handcuffing yourself to the gates of Guantanamo in a lone-wolf protest, a thousand pardons. But if not, then your argument is something like: “passing anti-torture resolutions makes anthropologists lazy, b/c it gives them a comforting sense they’ve done their part, and as a consequence they don’t do other (more effective) things so that anti-torture resolutions are in fact the unwitting handmaidens of reactionary piffle!”. Which — I dunno –– it’s like the Marxist journalist in _Scoop_ who always heaped abuse on the waitstaff in his fave fancy restaurant b/c to treat them politely was a mere sham that could only forestall the inevitable class conflict which would bring about the socialist paradise. Which, of course, as a committed leftist he devoutly desired above all things.

  15. “In a less charitable mood, I might suggest that this sort of resolution being passed by a basically politically powerless body within a politically marginalized academic discipline was not intended to actually combat torture. Instead it was intended to use torture as a bludgeon in an ongoing debate about activism versus academics within anthropology.”

    With all due respect, no, this isn’t charitable, but more to the point, it’s not even hypothetically plausible. Who are these people, who would go into a profession with a heavy workload, a very hierarchical employment structure, and little access to any institution more powerful than a grant or hiring commitee, for the purpose of trashing the explicit academic purpose of the field for the hope of social change? Like it or not, the AAA resolution really is what it claims to be about: the responsibilities of anthropologists.

    Furthermore, isn’t this opposition between ‘academic’ and ‘activist’ false, anyway? If ‘activist’ is some kind of secondary identity grafted on to what a person really does and is, obviously, activists will be be prima facie otiose and useless, above all to themselves, and should just go face facts and go back to whatever it is that they were doing before. They’ll be happier that way anyway.

    Unless, of course you accept that the resolution passed was actually proposed in good faith. Or it might not even be about good and bad faith-perhaps seeing the juxtaposition of the words anthropology and torture together, enough, got under some people’s skin to the point where they couldn’t be happy anymore and had to say something. Then again, maybe social action is all established by separate, autonomous individuals plotting out their actions in a reasoned calculus. But I have a hard time believing that as an anthropologist ’cause they didn’t raise me that way.

    This is why I would adamantly support both Jeff M’s ability to work with his informants (after all here is someone with a great deal to say about the words anthropology and torture), the validity of the resolution, and the fact that this resolution ought to be the start of a conversation and not a bureaucratic outcome of a lackluster representative demcrocacy installed in the beating heart of our professional core competencies.

    That said, though, aren’t we making a lot of mistakes of political calculation on this thread? Rex, I understand what you say about AAA being an uninspiring place to try to do politics. There’s a history to that, which everyone knows/ought to know. But the appeal of alternative media/politics/whatever aside, sometimes when an entrenched institution is dysfunctional in some way, one has to take what is given and work with it on principle, particularly when the institution already impinges on you. And if that goes for the institution of AAA, it goes double for the institution of anthropology-which is my point. We are already in politics.

  16. If I understand it correctly, part of the motivation here was to rebuke and shame the psychologists? If so, it isn’t just about politics internal to the AAA, but also about the politics of professional societies as a whole.

    The other question is the one I raised in my previous post- regarding democratic decision making at the AAA. This is important. Part of the problem with the FRPAA debacle was the AAA’s top-down handling of an important issue without input from those people who had some insight into the issues. There needs to be a forum other than Savage Minds where people like Jeff M (or the AnthroSource steering commitee) can discuss their concerns with other AAA members before such resolutions are passed.

    What would a more democratic AAA look like?

  17. At one level I sympathize intensely with what Rex has to say. I think of other, more overtly political organizations to which I belong, where hours are spent on debating the language of resolutions, leaving vital organizational issues (weak leadership, anemic fundraising, structures strained to the breaking point by recent growth) are pushed to the side–and the delegates empowered to address such issues meet only once or twice a year for a single weekend. The paradoxical result of these debates is that people who believe that they are paragons of democracy are, in fact, contributing to the conditions in which a handful of leaders are left to sort out the nitty-gritty, which is, in fact, where the real power, if any, resides. Too many times I have seen important but (in my view) mistaken decisions authorized because they were cunningly left to the last minutes of the last day and voted on under time pressure while everyone was eager to get away. (Cunning tacticians can get a lot, for good or for evil, done in this way.)

    On the other, when the issue is one like torture that touches basic human rights, I am happy to see even one more association to which I belong taking a strong, if possibly Quixotic stand. Any individual resolution may have little effect. But if lots of associations pass similar resolutions, the news spreads….you get the picture…that’s the way serious movements evolve and and may, if all goes well, eventually become effective.

    In this case, I wasn’t there at the meeting, and being an independent scholar am immune from job-hunting or other career implications. But these, at any rate, are the issues I’d have in mind were I more deeply involved.

  18. I agree with the past two comments. From what I have read, the resolution was also about shaming the APA, and about activism within the AAA. Apparently it is difficult to get quorums because people are not interested or too busy, quorum being 300 out of approx. 4500 members at the AGM. So two problems exist – there are hawkish interests within the AAA, at the top, who may pass some important business unopposed e.g. the CIA advertising in AAA publications. But also a lack of ‘paragons of democracy’ at the grassroots level.

    Until this resolution. Apparently a lot of effort went into getting bums on seats in the meeting to vote. So that is activism. Perhaps a more democratic AAA could be broken up into regional and local branches, working groups etc., especially since there are so many members. I have experience with grassroots political involvement, and there are always people trying to push their own agendas, which is easier for them when less people turn up to meetings. Also, meetings are less inspiring when there are less people. You marginalise yourselves if you don’t work together.

    In some ways, anthropology is a marginal discipline, just as it is a discourse about marginality. But 4500 professionals working together is big enough to do something!

  19. “Furthermore, isn’t this opposition between ‘academic’ and ‘activist’ false, anyway?”

    Well, that would be the question, wouldn’t it.

    I feel that I am on safe ground stating that an ongoing debate exists within academia regarding whether academics and activist should, or even can, mix. Resolutions such as this certainly factor in to that debate.

    There are people who hold positions at both ends of the spectrum regarding the politicization of the academic world. Someone who believes that an academic organization is an inappropriate place to create a political orthodoxy, or who feels that an academic organization should be as politically neutral as possible so as to foster inclusiveness, is put in a bind by this sort of resolution. A principled stand for their views against political orthodoxy would suggest a “no” vote on any resolution seeking to establish a political orthodoxy, no matter how much you agree with the orthodoxy in question.

    It’s like a loyalty oath.

    “Sign, or you must hate America.”
    “But I love America, I just hate loyalty oaths.”
    “Sign, you America-Hater!”

    Sign, or you must like torture. No good option exists for someone who agrees with the principle *in* the oath, but not the politics *behind* it.

    The professor who loves America but who feels that mandatory loyalty oaths infringe on a separate value, academic freedom, is in the same bind as a professor who hates torture but who feels that politicizing the AAA is wrong.

    But as I said, it would certainly be uncharitable to suggest that a fair amount of people expected this outcome with anticipation.

  20. I am not up to contributing to this thread, but I want to thank all who have done so for the difficult work that doing so has entailed. In a word, someone (probably quite a few someones) other than the active participants has benefited from the discussion as it has unfolded up to this point.

  21. Academic or activist? Logically speaking, one could be both. One could even add a third role, as I do when describing myself as Anthropologist, Adman, and Activist (as a publishing anthropologist, operator of a small business related to advertising, and Democratic party political activist, I can justly claim all three). Logic, however, isn’t the problem. Time is. For the last five years, time not spent on my business or family affairs has been spent mainly on activism, with the academics reduced to a hobby too often pushed off to another day. Now I find myself swinging the other way. New academic projects are taking a growing amount of the time released by activist burnout. It is becoming increasingly clear to me as I age that doing it all and doing anything well is not a feasible option.

    I don’t know how my academic friends survive, let alone pursue other interests, in an increasingly junkyard dog, publish-or-perish academic world. I see the fetishization of research one element in the production orientation that erodes the quality of education as well as the proximate cause of too many dead trees spent on rushed-to-publication findings that, predictably, are mostly unreadable crap.

    And, yes, I do recognize that these remarks are likely overwraught and largely curmudgeonly venting. I just wish that someone could persuade me that I’m totally off the mark.

  22. (Re: Kerim on democracy and discussion – I am glad for the opportunity to discuss these things in the virtual equivalent of a coffee klatch rather than a congressional hearing. Savage Minds Wan Wan Sui!)

    Some thoughts:
    It is a single historical process that is (a) filling up AAA panels with discussions of graduated sovereignty, neoliberal security, network society border zones etc. and (b) generating an interest in anthropology on the part of people working in the institutions that operationalize neoliberal sovereignty at the graduated borderlands of the network society etc. This is the historical direction of the world, the beginning of “our times” as a generation of scholars. Anthropology is not marginal to this era. Entirely the contrary, it is the world’s premier method for understanding the margins, and the margins are where the action is. And the action is getting ugly. Debates over the ethics of doing scholarship in the ugly zone of an uglifying world are not going to go away. They are going to get more urgent, more complicated.

    Passing resolutions declaring our sincere desire for the problems to go away is obviously not an adequate response to the situation. An adequate response to the situation is a serious discussion of anthropology’s legitimate role in the current realities, as seems to be emerging. I would like to toss into this discussion a question that is slightly distinct from the torture resolution, because I think it might help bring some related issues into useful focus:

    When and how should the AAA provide political and legal assistance to anthropologists whose professional activities have pulled them into harms way?

    I think this is a useful question for discussion in the present context for at least two reasons:

    (1) If the question itself seems unacceptable, that is, if it is not legitimate to expect the AAA to act as an agent protecting the professional practice of its members, then the AAA is not a true professional association. And if it is not a professional association it has no basis on which to impose standards of practice (ethical or otherwise) on its practitioners (this seems to be the position taken by the existing statement of ethics).

    (2) If we do accept that anthropology is a “profession” with its corollary sphere of collective self-regulation, the question focuses us on thinking about how to practically define the “professional activities” of anthropologists in such a way as to distinguish and protect them from the multitude of other political and economic forces that are also interested in our fieldwork.

  23. When and how should the AAA provide political and legal assistance to anthropologists whose professional activities have pulled them into harms way?

    I think this is a useful question for discussion in the present context for at least two reasons:

    (1) If the question itself seems unacceptable, that is, if it is not legitimate to expect the AAA to act as an agent protecting the professional practice of its members, then the AAA is not a true professional association. And if it is not a professional association it has no basis on which to impose standards of practice (ethical or otherwise) on its practitioners (this seems to be the position taken by the existing statement of ethics).

    (2) If we do accept that anthropology is a “profession” with its corollary sphere of collective self-regulation, the question focuses us on thinking about how to practically define the “professional activities” of anthropologists in such a way as to distinguish and protect them from the multitude of other political and economic forces that are also interested in our fieldwork.


    You raise important issues here. Please take the following remarks as a search for clarification. Rejection is not intended.

    0. “When and how should the AAA….” Does the AAA have either the legal standing or the resources to protect its members? On the resource side of the question, I suspect that, even if the AAA had the money to hire lawyers, it wouldn’t take more than one or two cases to bankrupt the organization. On the legal standing issue see more below.

    1. In the sociological literature on the professions it is, I believe, observed that both law and medicine had to fight long and hard to achieve a legal status comparable to that of the clergy, i.e., a position in which their profressional organizations define professional status and are legally empowered to (a) disbar members who violate their obligations or (b) seek legal redress against quacks who claim the status without actually having it. Even now, state medical boards and bar associations rarely (if ever?) take action on behalf of individual members who have gotten themselves into trouble. Protecting the profession and protecting its individual members are seen as separate issues. Which are we talking about here?

    2. The literature to which I refer asserts that, strictly speaking, professional status requires more than collective self-regulation. The “real” professions are those with collective self-regulation backed up by the state-powered force of law. In this view, while the term “professional” has been loosely extended to all sorts of folks, e.g. journalists, art directors….anthropologists…., their “rules” amount to nothing more than a loose and unenforcable set of ideals, since the worst that can happen to anyone who violates them is professional ostracism. But even this is only negative action intended to protect the profession. What, if anything, can the AAA do to protect individual members?

    Journalism represents a particularly telling case in relation to all these issues. In the U.S.A. journalists claim legal privileges based constitutional rights to freedom of speech, coupled with the claim that, as professionals, journalists can are able to invoke professional confidentiality and refuse to name their sources. All of us should be aware that this particular “right” is now under severe attack, from the right as part of “the War on Terrorism,” from the left as part of attacks on “Corruption and Malfeasance” (e.g., the case of the NY Times’ Judith Miller going to jail when she refused to identify her sources in the Plame Gate matter).

    As I said in the beginning, don’t take this as an attack on your concerns. On the contrary, it represents questions raised by a sympathetic supporter who sees a quagmire here and wonders how best to get through it.

  24. If anthropology is about thing happening at the margins, and is a marginal discipline, and is activist and political, the question of professionalism becomes problematic. Of course, the discipline should seek to produce high quality practitioners, and there should be an acceptable level of practice which should be met. But, it is obviously one of the most dissenting disciplines of the lot, and there is always scope for internal dissent.Anthropology is anarchical, as is obvious by this discussion page, and it is important that it remains this way.

    Achieving ‘legal status’ should not be an aim of anthropology, because surely it does not wnt to be held in the same stiff light as law and medicine. These are extremely powerful disciplines, perhaps the two most powerful, which may have solved a few of humanity’s problems and guarantee our liberal democratic existence, but they have cause a lot of problems along the way too. Professionalism invokes ‘power over’ which is not, I think, a principle of anthropology.

    Which brings me to another point. There has been discussion about political neutrality and academic freedom (i.e. academic thinking and writing free from politics). Without being a postmodern fascist, it should be pretty easy for everyone to accept that they are always taking a political position. You can still aim for a general heuristic goal of ‘scientific soundness’, while still accepting that your work has social and political implications. As both an integrative and decentralising political force, the work of anthropology at the margins should be seen seen as Positive Politics rather than pure academia or politically neutral. To invoke ‘activism’, its principles include empowerment and dialogue, which go a long way towards bringing meaningful peace and harmony to the world. By speaking to power and speaking to the margins, anthropologists can bring people together as (for want of a better term) inter-cultural negotiators.

    Your right to academic freedom is shadowed by a responsibility to all the people that you write for and to. That could be the binding principle. That is also why a moral and political community exists within the discipline, and is kind of embodied in institutions like the AAA. But, the profession should never become powerful enough to start muzzling people. Anthropolgists should be taught to muzzle themselves, if it is necessary. I guess this means that there will always be rogues at all ends of spectrums, including those who will stand next to torturers. But it is important, morally, professionally and politically, that the collective voice of anthropology (like other famous voices for freedom) stand up against things like torture.

    Anthropology is not marginal, it is perpetually liminal. Please keep it this way.

  25. John, the thing I would like to see in this discussion is more concern with what is going on institutionally in the attempt to invoke the authority of a (putative) occupational ethos as the basis for establishing restrictions on individual conduct. The concept of professionalization provides one way to think about these issues. I don’t know which “literature to which you refer” you mean to invoke here, but if you have a way to clarify things you have my enthusiastic support and sincere gratitude. My own feeling is that it is helpful to distinguish claims to legal authority from claims to professional authority. That way, we can see how situations of convergence between the two different kinds of claims emerge as the outcome of social processes. I have done some study of these kinds of processes in the context of police professionalization movements, which often coalesce around disputes over the site of the authority to define the legitimate use of force. In such cases, the emergence of the profession qua profession (which by my understanding is a self-regulating occupational group capable of bargaining with states and of exerting control over markets for their expert labor) is often anchored to the mobilization of a corporate entity which acts on behalf of individual members (e.g. a proto-professional club or union backing a member accused of transgression by some other authority-claimant). Explicit standards of professional conduct emerge through a historical series of such negotiations, and something approaching professional authority is eventually born. (And, just to clarify my personal position, I should probably add that I really don’t think this is either viable or appropriate as a model for what the AAA should try to become.)

  26. Jeff,

    It has been a long time, but thanks to Google I have, I believe, found the book which inspired my comments, Elliot Friedson (1970) Profession of Medicine: A Study of the Sociology of Applied Knowledge, which appears to have been republished in 1988. (As I recall, I cited it in an article titled “The Parting of the Ways” published in 1976 in the Bulletin of the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica. I it because, sociologically speaking, Daoism seemed to me to resemble medicine prior to the establishment of the modern apparatus of medical schools, licensing boards, etc., by which doctors became professionals on a par with clergymen and lawyers.) Google searches have also led to numerous more recent works by Friedson, whose Professional Dominance: The Social Structure of Medical Care (Paperback) was reissued in a new edition by Aldine in 2006. He is now, by all appearances, one of the founders and chief exponents of the sociology of medicine as a branch of the sociology of science, itself construed as a branch of the sociology of knowledge, a field to which I was introduced by reading Karl Mannheim and has captured my imagination ever since.

    The wiki entry on sociology of knowledge currently reads as follows:

    The term first came into widespread use in the 1920s, when a number of German-speaking sociologists wrote extensively on it, notably Max Scheler, and Karl Mannheim with Ideology and Utopia. With the dominance of functionalism through the middle years of the 20th century, the sociology of knowledge tended to remain on the periphery of mainstream sociological thought. It was largely reinvented and applied much more closely to everyday life in the 1960s, particularly by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in The Social Construction of Reality (1966) and is still central for methods dealing with qualitative understanding of human society (compare socially constructed reality).
    Although very influential within modern sociology, the sociology of knowledge can claim its most significant impact on science more generally through its contribution to debate and understanding of the nature of science itself, most notably through the work of Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (see also: paradigm).

    I also checked the wiki entry for Profession (, which seems consistent with the views I was sketching. Hope this is helpful.

    P.S. My wife and I will be in Taipei, 12/13-12/17 for a conference at Academia Sinica. Any chance we might bump into each other?

    P.P.S. If you don’t know them already, you will I believe find the Sociology of Medicine material very relevant, indeed, to your studies of police professionalization.

    P.P.P.S. I am also somewhat confused about how professionalization as described in these sources applies (or fails to apply) to the AAA. I am fairly sure from what I do know about the organization that the notion that the AAA is in any position to apply serious sanctions to anyone whom some of us see as behaving in a professionally inappropriate manner is a pretty long stretch.

  27. Rowan, the difficulty in trying to establish an ethical foundation for moral and political community within anthropological practice on a “responsibility to the all people we write for and to” is that sometimes we have to write for and to people who are themselves ethically problematic. For example, how would you effectively articulate this kind of standpoint on your first day’s lecture to an “Introduction to the Anthropology of Ireland” course you have been invited to teach at the University of Ulster, in 1972, in which half your class is wearing orange and the other half green? Do you really want to “empower” a group of people who are getting ready to kill each other? If we take a resolution not to “stand next to torturers” seriously in this kind of situation, we have to establish our voice as issuing from a space equidistant from everyone else in the room, i.e. adopt the conventional posture of scholarly neutrality as something qualitatively different from any sort of political partiality.

    (Note to anyone interested in reading the classic statement of this position: Weber’s essays on the difference between “Science and a Vocation” and “Politics as a Vocation” are both available at

    John, thanks for the info and the heads up on the conference. I am living in the south and pretty busy this term, so I am afraid we will have to wait to bump into each other.

  28. Yes I agree Jeff, it is problematic to give knowledge to people who are ethically problematic, whether they be students or governments. This is what I meant before when i said any communication is ambivalent and problematic, and the disclosure of specialist knowledge like anthropological knowledge perhaps even more so. But, just like witchcraft and sorcery, the ‘magic’ of anthropology is the arcane nature of the knowledge being held. So withholding knowledge is also problematic.

    To run with your hypothetical example, I would not consider arming the opposite sides with knowledge to harm each other ’empowerment.’ Supplying with knowledge to help settle their differences peacefully, that would be empowerment. And it would be a difficult task to not inadvertently supply potentially harmful knowledge.

    This asks the question of how far anthropology has really come from the musings of travellers’ writings through its colonial institution to the present. Postmodernism and postcolonialism may have shaken the foundations of any implicit moral position, and the reaction to that for many has been a turn to Human Rights as solid ethical ground to stand on. I feel ambivalent about this, because I think that perhaps the liberal democratic project has shaped supposedly ‘universal’ human rights which are in fact reinforcing a neo-colonial world economy.

    So what standpoint can you take? I find your use of the term ‘neutrality’ interesting. Is neutrality a different thing to objectivity? I guess you could say it is, if you are trying to distance yourself politically but still recognise your own subjectivity. But if you want to locate your standpoint in spatial terms, (even metaphorically) I think it would be impossible to “establish our voice as issuing from a space equidistant from everyone else in the room.” In a globalised world, and in fractal social realities where there potentially infinite actors, alliances and interests at work, how could you position yourself equidistant from all actors? Some if not most of the people you come into closest contact with will most likely be closer to you politically (unless you are very machiavellian). This probably means your informants, other anthropologists and the rest of the state and non-state structures which support your work, including actors who supply physical protection and actors who supply value for your work. These institutions might include universities and governments.

    The only way to become equidistant would be to become objective (taking the view and being the voice from nowhere). Perhaps this suggests a spatial metaphor incorporating higher dimensions – communication as a hyperspace, influencing distant processes. But I feel that it is impossible to discard your own personal interests and the interests of groups of which you are a member from your ‘professional’ positioning. I have not found an adequate definition of politics, but I feel this is political.

    I have just been reading Roger Keesing’s ‘Custom and Confrontation’ and I think he sums it up well. He says there is always a danger that local actions can be intepreted and generalised through the metareflection of historiography, and construed as being part of a larger process that we as Western theorists imagine as a larger process i.e. politics. For the local actor, the action has only local meanings of personal interest etc.

    Therefore, we must ‘situate events and motives in the historical contexts of their unfolding, and situate representations of them in the historical contexts of their telling.’ There are some contradictions in what I have just said, but i think the point is you have to reflect on your own conception of what is ‘political’ and where your political alliances lie. And anthropologists whose self-interests and group interests are being served by the professionalization and scientific status of the discipline will vote with the State, because that is the polity in which they feel they can have the most power.

  29. FYI (just got these)

    American Anthropological Association Statement on Torture

    WHEREAS over the past 32 months, documentary and photographic evidence of widespread physical and psychological torture and abuse of prisoners in the Middle East, Central Asia, and Guantanamo Bay at the hands of U.S. Military and U.S. Intelligence personnel and subcontractors has appeared; and

    WHEREAS at least 98 prisoners have died while in custody of U.S. Military and U.S. Intelligence personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, including 45 suspected or confirmed homicides; and

    WHEREAS Moazzam Begg, Asef Iqbal, Shafik Rasul, Ruhal Ahmed, and others have alleged that they were tortured and abused by U.S. Military or U.S. Intelligence personnel while imprisoned in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and detention centers in the U.S.; and

    WHEREAS the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has assembled an overseas network of secret prisons not accessible by the International Committee of the Red Cross or by other international bodies charged with monitoring compliance with the U.N. Convention Against Torture; and

    WHEREAS U.S. Central Intelligence Agency personnel and subcontractors have used “waterboarding” (in which the prisoner is made to believe he is drowning) and other techniques violating the U.N. Convention Against Torture; and

    WHEREAS the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has, since the early 1990s, been abducting foreign nationals for detention and interrogation as part of an “extraordinary rendition” program which violates the U.N. Convention Against Torture; and

    WHEREAS the U.S. Government has, since 1988, attempted to substitute its own legal definition of torture excluding sensory deprivation, self-inflicted pain, disorientation, and other forms of severe psychological abuse; and

    WHEREAS in September 2006 the U.S. Congress passed into law the Military Commissions Act, which includes provisions that would in many cases grant retroactive immunity for government officials who authorized or ordered illegal acts of torture or abuse;

    Be it moved that the American Anthropological Association unequivocally condemns the use of anthropological knowledge as an element of physical and psychological torture; condemns the use of physical and psychological torture by U.S. Military and Intelligence personnel, subcontractors, and proxies; and urges the U.S. Congress and President George W. Bush to:

    Comply fully with national and international anti-torture laws, including the Geneva Conventions, the U.N. Convention Against Torture, the 1996 U.S. War Crimes Act, and U.S. Criminal Code, Sections 2340-2340A; and

    Ban all interrogation techniques—including physical and psychological torture—that violate the broad universal humanitarian standard outlined in the U.N. Convention Against Torture; and

    Repudiate any attempts by any U.S. Government official to substitute any definition of torture for that broad universal humanitarian standard; and

    Comply fully with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hamdan v. Rumsfeld decision of 2006, in which the majority opinion states that even during times of war, “the Executive is bound to comply with the Rule of Law”; and

    Repeal the 2006 U.S. Military Commissions Act; and

    Terminate the “extraordinary rendition” program and halt the transfer of detainees to countries with a history of prisoner abuse and torture; and

    Close all U.S. overseas prisons and release all prisoners being held without charge in U.S. prisons (including overseas prisons); and

    Release the names of all prisoners being held in U.S. prisons (including all overseas prisons); and

    Pay reparations to all victims who have suffered physical or psychological torture at the hands of U.S. Military and Intelligence personnel, subcontractors, and proxies; and

    Grant the International Committee of the Red Cross and other international monitoring agencies full access to all U.S. overseas prisons; and

    Prosecute all individuals—including current and former Bush administration officials—who have authorized or committed war crimes or who have violated laws prohibiting torture.

    Prepared by:
    Roberto J. González Kanhong Lin
    Associate Professor Graduate Student
    Department of Anthropology Department of Anthropology
    San Jose State University American University
    San Jose, CA 95192-0113 Washington, DC

    American Anthropological Association Statement on the U.S. Occupation of Iraq

    WHEREAS the U.S. Government led an invasion of Iraq in violation of Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter in March 2003; and

    WHEREAS over the past 32 months more than 2700 U.S. troops and an estimated 655,000 Iraqis (the vast majority civilians) have been killed in the subsequent violence; and

    WHEREAS the U.S. military is holding in detention approximately 15,000 Iraqis without charge; and

    WHEREAS U.S. military and intelligence personnel and U.S. Government subcontractors have tortured and abused detainees at Abu Ghraib and other Iraqi prisons in violation of the Geneva Conventions; and

    WHEREAS much of Iraq’s historical, cultural, and archaological heritage was looted or destroyed following the U.S.-led invasion while occupying forces made no effort to protect it; and

    WHEREAS the U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority, under the leadership of Paul Bremer, created a set of edicts (codified into the Iraqi constitution in violation of international law) that has facilitated the plunder of Iraq’s national industries and natural resources by multinational corporations; and

    WHEREAS the U.S. military presence in Iraq has undermined the political stability of that country and the Middle East region;

    Be it moved that the American Anthropological Association condemns the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq and urges the U.S. Congress and President George W. Bush to:

    Immediately withdraw all U.S. military personnel, intelligence agents, and subcontrators from Iraq; and

    Cease all U.S. military operations and vacate all U.S. military bases in Iraq; and

    Make payments for the removal and cleanup of depleted uranium, unexploded cluster bombs, and other residual waste left from munitions; and

    Prosecute all individuals who have committed war crimes against Iraqis; and

    Fund the creation of a United Nations peacekeeping force to assume peacekeeping duties in Iraq.

    Prepared by:
    Roberto J. González Kanhong Lin
    Associate Professor Graduate Student
    Department of Anthropology Department of Anthropology
    San Jose State University American University
    San Jose, CA 95192-0113 Washington, DC

  30. Personally, I would happily vote for these resolutions. I would first, however, move to delete the words “the use of anthropological knowledge as an element of” from the resolution against torture, on the grounds that it is what my Japanese colleagues call a yabu hebi (lit. “poisonous snake”), i.e., an item that spoils a proposition by distracting those who must accept the proposition for it to become effective.

    These words are, in other words, a red herring. They dillute the force of “the American Anthropological Association unequivocally condemns the use physical and psychological torture” by introducing the dubious notion of specifically “anthropological” knowledge.

  31. John, I wholeheartedly agree that the (single) reference to “anthropological knowledge” in these resolutions detracts from their elegance and force. Much in the same way the mission of the AAA as an organization dedicated to the “dissemination of anthropological knowledge and its use to solve human problems” detracts from its efficacy as an instrument for converting popular opinion into US policy.

    Now if only I could figure out what “unequivocally” is supposed to mean …

  32. John M & Jeff M: I hold the opposite view concerning the importance of the reference to the use of anthropological knowledge in these resolutions.

    For me an others, the statement that anthropology must not be used for ends such as torture is exactly why the AAA membership should vote on resolutions like this. We need to separate ourselves from organizations like the APA that will not condemn the use of their professional knowledge in torture. The reference to anthropological knowledge in the resolution shows why we as an organiation have a real professional interest in these matters.

  33. Dear Julie,

    The problem is, you see, that I know of no compelling definition of anthropological knowledge except to say that it is knowledge that anthropologists claim to possess. What quality it is that separates this knowledge from the observations of sociologists, political scientists, historians, even journalists is remarkably hard to specify—and pondering this question diverts my attention from the heart of the matter, that the AAA as a body condemns torture, period.

    Personally, I would be horrified to discover that my knowledge of special weaknesses on the part of people who shared their lives with me had been used against them. But that is, to me, simple human decency.

    When I hear the words “anthropological knowledge,” I begin to think of things like anthropological explanations of, say, torture as a customary part of Iroqois warfare or classical Chinese jurisprudence or the role of pain in initiation ceremonies or spirit possession or the incidental effects of Dayak headhunting or Indian suttee. I may wonder what anthropologists, who routinely rationalize such facts when they can be attributed to “other” cultures are doing becoming so upset when they turn out to be part of our own.

    Conversely, If I am told that, for example, Arab men are peculiarly embarassed by being stripped naked in public, a proposition acted upon in places like Abu Ghraib, I wonder what is particularly anthropological about that proposition—it being the sort of thing one hears in casual conversations where old hands gather all over the East.

    As you can see, my mind begins to wander in all sorts of unfruitful directions. Perhaps you can straighten me out.

    I must say, however, that the notion that we will now be one-up on psychologists because we say that we are more particular about the knowledge to which we (largely falsely I think) claim some exclusive ownership sounds more self-righteous than anything else. That, too, to me, weakens the force of the resolution.

  34. The problem is, you see, that applied anthropologist do not like having ethical limits placed on the selling of anthropological knowledge to those who use such knowledge against those from whom it was harvested.

  35. Julie,

    Sorry to be so out of it. Could you name some names please, and provide some examples of the knowledge being sold? Please tell me why I shouldn’t suspect that “applied anthropologist [sic] do not like having ethical limits placed on the selling of anthropological knowledge” is the same sort of gross stereotyping involved in, for example, “Blacks got rhythm” or “Catholics practice ritual cannibalism” (that body and blood business).

    And there you go again, invoking “anthropological knowledge” in an argument with someone who says that he doesn’t know what you are talking about. It would help your case immensely if you could be more explicit here.


  36. Perhaps a definition of anthropological knowledge would be information gathered from publications by anthropologists, or direct consultation with anthropologists. As I said before, i think this statement is more directed internally at anthropologists (to control them or whatever, but I think it is a good moral control) and as a snipe at psychologists (also valid) rather than a statement which the CIA will take notice of. I agree, John, the knowledge could be gathered through other means, but it is almost an invocation of intellectual property rights against the intelligence community, but sort of in a sense that the community of anthropology owns it, not a single anthropologist…

  37. I have nothing whatsoever to add to this long-dead conversation, but I will say that this was a debate of extremely high caliber. I’m a college freshman taking ANTH 101, and I stumbled on this article while researching exactly what it was that Chagnon did that people seem so upset about (I just learned of his existence today, so cut me some slack). It’s fascinating to think about this political power struggle within an organization I’ve never even heard of. Hmmm… I hope no one reads this, I sound like an idiot…

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