Suffering Ch. 5: reading military through colonial anthropology

I spent the weekend trying to figure out how to tie together Donald Moore’s book with the recent spate of talk here about sports and the military. No go on the former so far, but I think the book is a good case for thinking about the history of anthropological knowledge and its contribution to geo-political affairs. Comparison with Iraq is obviously apposite– why is Mugabe’s Zimbabwe not the same kind of threat as Saddam’s Iraq, barring the obvious issue of oil? Why is the region considered (relatively, and by the US and EU) stable despite the ravages of AIDS, the super out-of-control inflation or the century-long (and now tit-for-tat) history of racialized dispossession at the center of Moore’s book? But more relevant is the question of how anthropological knowledge has been used in both governance and wartime in the history of Africa. The “colonial” card is one often played in anthropology (and frequently here on SM), but rarely, I think, carefully examined. For my money, Chapter 5 of Moore’s book is one of the few places I’ve seen an anthropologist take really seriously the complicated uses of anthropological knowledge in a colonial and post-colonial setting, and I think it merits a comparison with the question of what, for instance, people like Montgomery McFate, Laura McNamara, or Marcus Griffin are involved in with respect to Iraq are involved in with respect to the use of anthropological knowledge within the government today (NOTE: I didn’t mean to lump all three of these folks together as people working in or on Iraq… only as three different kinds of anthropologists working with or on the miltary or defense. Laura McNamara works for th DOE and has studied defense analysts, but has nothing whatsoever to do with HTS or the DoD.) .

One of the nicest encapsulations of the complexity of anthropological knowledge (or any kind of knwledge for that matter) is when Moore meets with a friend and accountant for the Ministry of Local Government, who hands him a copy of J.F. Holleman’s 1952 Shona Customary Law, exclaiming it’s relevance even in the 1990s (p. 169-170). I’ve heard this same kind of story tens of times by now, in person and in text. A graduate student working on the Garifuna of Honduras experienced more or less the same scenario, and indeed, the moment has almost started to constitute the kind of standard mise-en-scene of anthropology as the arrival narrative once-did. Nonetheless, it does not fail to shock Moore, for whom it provides the occasion to reflect in detail, in Chapter 5, on the complicated circuits of knowledge and governmental policy that structure the Zimbabwe of the 1990s.

For instance, the issue of how “communal land tenure” became the basis for racialized dispossession. Moore does a nice job of giving a potted history of the classic debates about African political systems initiated by Radcliffe-Brown and carried out as part of the structure-functional program of Evans-Pritchard and Fortes, among others. The disputes over the nature of evolutionary versus structure-function accounts are obviously complicated and for any student of the history of the discipline, fascinating in that they seem so much more sophisticated that the current mode of denunciation that greets evolutionary psychology by anthropologists (not that I don’t agree that it needs to be denounced, but only that the sophistication of argument is absent because it has become a war for ears and eyes, instead of an actual argument).

Regardless of the sophistication, however, the key question was not “should anthropologists study Africa” — it was “which version of anthropological knowledge is going to be used by colonial administrators, and how?” As in the case of anthropology in Iraq or the war on terror, the question of ‘whether or not’ is a red herring if one has no political guide to understanding ‘which and how.’ As the ruckus over the supposed use of Patai’s book on The Arab Mind shows, there is always plenty of anthropological knowledge out there to fit the schemes and plans of military and political exploiters — but why Patai? Can anyone actually say how this book instead of some other came up in discussion with Seymour Hersh (a point McNamara made in her short piece in AT (23(2) APRIL 2007, p. 20). Likewise, in the case of Zimbabwe, it was not the most sophisticated ideas of Radcliffe-Brown or Evans-Pritchard that guided colonial administrators, but evolutionary accounts like L.H. Morgan’s:

By placing African subjects in an earlier evolutionary moment, administrators could subject them to collective rather than individual regimes of rights. Communal tenure offered an effective instrument used to dispossess Africans of individual rights that government could then claim to grant in Native Reserves.”

Commitment to theory plays a central role here: if Morgan and evolutionary explanation are your bag (as an administrator) there is plenty of warrant and lots of useful books available for treating the native Africans as racially and evolutionarily separate from the colonizers–despite the vigourous critique of this position by some of the most famous anthropologists of the 20th century. (As an aside, it is also a remarkable echo of the claims Strong posted recently by Andrew Sullivan (give that man a rifle and a pith helmet!). The commitment to theory is not simply wrong, however– it creates new problems that need to be dealt with, such as the competing forms of sovereignty that are necessary if one places the natives in a separate evolutionary role. If Africans cannot simply be equal subjects of the crown, then they must be both subjects of crown and tribe, resulting in exactly the kinds of complex allegiances and “triads-in-motion” of sovereignty and discipline and government that Moore reveals.

What this reveals for anthropology is that it is not simply the question of doing research for, with or against the military, or trying to somehow keep planners and torturers away from our research while still making it available so we can have tenure– no, the key problem is making the key questions under debate highly visible so that disputed theory cannot be treated as incontrovertible evidence. What Moore’s book is good at showing, furthermore, is not that knowledge simply resulted in colonial immiseration, but that planning guided by knowledge creates new conditions and new problems, and that as such the task of anthropological knowledge is renewed. What I haven’t yet managed to figure out is whether Moore’s book would be (or wants to be) of use to anyone in Zimbabwe today.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.