Roger Lancaster responds to “Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones”

From New York Times:

As an American on a Fulbright fellowship, I spent the last year conducting anthropological research in Mexico. Invariably, one of the first questions I was asked when I tried to begin an interview was, “Are you here to spy on us?”

Even after full disclosure of my university employment, publications and current research design, I found myself blocked out of some potentially useful interviews. Headlines like “Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones” (front page, Oct. 5) will make future research all the more difficult.

The identification of anthropology with military operations, intelligence gathering and “armed social work” augurs ill for the future of a discipline that studies populations distrustful of power — many of which have had unhappy past experiences with American invasion, occupation or support for corrupt dictatorships.

Anthropologists thus need not be antiwar or skeptical of the Bush administration to oppose the enlistment of anthropologists in counterinsurgency operations. All one needs is a clear view of the discipline’s bottom line.

Roger N. Lancaster

Elsewhere, The Boston Globe picks up the story.

12 thoughts on “Roger Lancaster responds to “Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones”

  1. This is an issue that has divided many anthropologists. The Network of Concerned Anthropologists has a petition that people can print out and take to their colleagues to sign (go to

    The history of anthropologists involved in counterinsurgency should be fully understood and discussed if the discipline is going to participate in military operations. The Primate Diaries ( has a three-part series on the history of anthropology and counterinsurgency, including the notorious Project Agile in Thailand during the 1960s.

  2. This sounds pretty simplistic and self-centered to me. If you can’t establish who you are and what you’re are doing during fieldwork I doubt the media or the US military is to blame. The embedded anthropologists maintain that they are decreasing casualties. If there is any truth in that allegation I think that trumps your inconvenience in data gathering. The issue of informed consent is more important. How does that measure up against dead civilians?

  3. Well said Lancaster! There are many anthropologists who feel the same way, and we need to take over the AAA business meeting this year and let the AAA establishment know that we won’t stand for what these military creeps are doing to our field.

    Once McFate gets an innocent anthropologists killed off doing fieldwork thousands of miles from Iraq, what will she say?

  4. Sue,

    You know, even if we succeed in transforming the AAA into a monastic sect dedicated to non-intervention and the cultivation of moral purity, people will still have cause to righteously hate our individual guts because, after all, we’ll still be the *American* AA.

    So, maybe there is a grain of wisdom in the efforts of those of us working to put our discipline into those “business meetings” where US foreign policy gets made?

  5. Todays New York Times has this letter:

    Re “Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones” (front page, Oct. 5):

    The question of whether and how anthropologists should engage in military and intelligence work is currently being addressed by a commission of the American Anthropological Association. In its forthcoming report, to be discussed at the A.A.A. meeting in Washington in November, several questions are discussed that are germane to debates about the ethics of such efforts as the Human Terrain System.

    The A.A.A. Code of Ethics prescribes that anthropologists do no harm to the sites or peoples they study; emphasizes transparency in research and intent; insists on voluntary informed consent of all research participants; and commits scholars to honest representation of their work. All research must meet these ethical requirements.

    Alan H. Goodman
    James L. Peacock
    Amherst, Mass., Oct. 6, 2007

    The writers are, respectively, president of the American Anthropological Association; and commission chairman and former president of the association.

    I’ll be damned if I know what this is supposed to mean. I read the Times story and it seems like the anthropologist in the story did not pass any of these tests, but I think the letter writers must think it did. Whatever they are thinking isn’t clear in this letter. I think the business meeting is where we will have to come up with a statement on military anthropology.

  6. We definitely all have to show up and participate at the Business Meeting and have a very open discussion of anthropology’s engagement with the military. A subtext in all of these debates and discussions is anthropology’s engagment with the Middle East, and the way anthropology can be useful in presenting the US public, voters, government, military, media, etc. with a clearer view of the Middle East. That implies a more critical discussion about US foreign policies in the Middle East, US support for Israel, one of the worst human rights abusers in the world, and the inability to talk about this in college classrooms or the pages of the mainstream press. It’s not just the use of anthro for military purposes, but the use of anthro in the Middle East that has to be addressed. Years ago, Lila Abu-Lughod wrote a wonderful overview entitled “Anthropology’s Orient,” in which she delineated three prestige zones of anthropological study of the Middle East: Segmentation Theory (now we see this as tribe-talk about Iraq), Harem Theory (women in the Islamic world) and Islam. She noted in 1989 that most anthropologists work at the margins of the field, literally and figuratively, focusing on the hinterlands of Morocco (Geertz) and Yemen and Saudi Arabia. She pointed out that no anthropologist who wants a serious and successful academic career would engage with the hot politiccal issues of Palestine and the war (then, and maybe again now) in Lebanon because of political sensitivities and controversies at home. My own doctoral research focused on political identity and participation of Arab citizens of Israel in Nazareth. I was told by a professor (not one on my committee) that if I used the word “Palestinian” in my diss title, I’d have trouble finding a job. Well, my dissertation title was “Maneuvering in Narrow Spaces: An Analysis of Emergent Identity, Subjectivity, and Political Institutions among Palestinian Citizens in Israel.” And I can attest that doing research on Palestinians, urban anthropology of the contemporary Middle East, and human rights and international humanitarian law in the Middle Eastern context is not a great way to get a job in American academe. Writing as an engaged public intellectual on these matters is also not a wise career move. At one on campus interview, I was asked if I’d continue to write for the popular press and alternative media about human rights in Israel/Palestine if I were hired. I said “yes.” There are probably other reasons why I was not hired in that case, but we have a real problem when an entire, large issue is an “elephant” in the classroom and faculty council. Will anthropology address this? Can anthropologists see that this problem of policing the boundaries of thinkable thought or teachable topics is connected to the military disaster we now see in the Middle East, and the media’s cowardice (with few exceptions, such as Bill Moyers and Steven Colbert) to ask difficult questions for fear of being called anti-American or anti-Semitic if we ask how and why our foreign policies and miilitary foot print in the Middle East, not “tribal traditions” and “Islamic mentalities” accounts for the problems the military now wants anthropologists to fix in Iraq? Anthropology needs to have a frank, open, and constructive discussion about this, but so does the American public. That’s why I’ve been saying that the militarization of anthro is a symptom, not the illness, and thus, we have to “study up” if we want to really have a positive impact and see real changes that save lives, be they Iraqi, American, Palestinian, Israeli, or (probably soon) Iranian.

  7. The issue of being thought of as a spy as a result of the actions of some anthropologists, and thus hurting the disciplinary bottom line, seems to me to be a red herring and on many levels.

    First, when I did my own first fieldwork right after the Vietnam war, when the discipline had been quite vocal about not supporting the military/intelligence/national security state, I was still challenged by those with whom I worked about my status as a CIA spy. So, I agree with Hal Levine that it is necessary for each of us to establish independently who we are and what we are doing and how this relates to those we study.

    Second, even without anthropological engagement with the military, there are questions of power and privilege assymetry that accompany any anthropologist to the field that ought to be just as troubling as those entailed by military engagement.

    Third, not all of the work, nor perhaps now even most of our work, is with populations distrustful of power. Many anthropologists are now engaged in ‘studying up.’

    Finally, I think the evidence is clear that miitrarism distorts societies, even our own, and that imperial ambitions are to be oppossed. But how in the world is it possible to affect changes in the policy community if we don’t engage it?

  8. The number of people arguing that anthros consulting on and assisting with US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are simply doing ‘applied anthropology’ really surprises and depresses me.

    Maybe what anthropologists need to do is figure out why the US is such a warmongering nation and then assist international organizations and alliances with this knowledge in an effort to arrange international policies that might help stop the US from invading/occupying foreign countries and then illegally detaining and torturing their citizens (those that aren’t killed as ‘collateral damage’ during the invasion, that is).

    Rubinstein and Jeff M are extremely naive to think that anthropologists are ever going to have an effect on the “policy community” currently running Washington, DC.

  9. I wonder what this debate is really about for most anthropologists? While I think that one should entertain the possibility that professional anthropologists in the employ of the military might have a positive effect on the lives of Iraqis I also doubt very much that the vast majority of our politicians and military leadership would ever give any consideration to what an anthropologist has to say, so I doubt any good is coming of the situation. But are these anthropologists really hurting anything? I mean, does anyone seriously think that life would be any less horrible for the people of Iraq if every anthropologist was purged from the payrolls of the military industrial complex?

    That being said, it seems to me that what this debate is about for most people is cultivating and maintaining an image of the profession of anthropology as a politically progressive, anti-imperialist discipline. That’s all to the good and in line with my own values, but I do think we need to be clear that the issue is not one of helping the Iraqi people. There are far more productive uses of your time if your primary concern is the welfare of the civilians living through the realities of that war.

    Just a suggestion, but it might be illuminating for anthropologists to think about whether a historian working for the US military in Iraq is equivalent to an anthropologist doing the same.

  10. As a moderately conservative Australian anthropologist, who does not share the visceral dislike for American actions that is apparent from some of the posts on this site, I think that MT Bradley has captured the essence of what this debate is about – cultivating and maintaining a particular image.

    Despite all their talk about diversity and inclusiveness, it seems that many anthropologists wish to impose their own political views on the profession as a whole. When they get as excited about anthropologists assisting violent insurgencies as they do about counter-insurgency, then there can be an honest debate about the ethics that should apply to all anthropologists.

  11. Some colleagues have expressed their surprise at the “take” in my letter to the editor, which was necessarily brief. I have stuck to the disciplinary “bottom line” approach, in part because it seems to me that what the AAA needs is a durable position on these matters: something that supersedes political positions (which are subject to debate or compromise) or humanitarian interests (which, although powerful, have proved subject to adjustment or calibration in actual practice).

    The durable position — which supersedes whether a war is good or bad, just or unjust — is that there must be a strong presupposition against practices that compromise the viability of the discipline itself. Most codes of ethics have a clause to this effect. (The old AAA code did, as I recall.) Spying, counter-insurgency work, “armed” research, and the like, surely meet this criterion: They conflate the anthropologist with the snoop, the cop, or the occupying army. Such conflations render all but armchair anthropology untenable.

    I have not forgotten my history. Much of the field developed as a “handmaiden of colonialism.” But at least the handmaidens of yore published openly. Whatever intelligence they provided to colonial powers, they also provided scholarly insight, thick description, and theoretical elaboration. The new mercenary fieldworkers appear to simply funnel bits of data into a military apparatus. I am not sure that what they do qualifies as anthropological research at all, if I understand what anthropology is or does.

    Of course, the conversation need not (and should not) end there. There are also ethical and human rights questions to be addressed. I was heartened by Goodman and Peacock’s subsequent online letter to the editor, which reaffirmed ethical first principles of research: non-harm, transparency, informed consent.

    And yet wider issues remain. Given what we know about war and its effects, the burden of proof for anyone advocating the use of armed force must be very high. I don’t necessarily believe that this burden can never be met, but it seems to me that the historical verdict is in: Even well intentioned wars (even wars of liberation) take unnecessary lives, compromise basic rights and values, and traumatize entire populations. There are no “clean” wars, and the results are seldom what the war-makers envisioned.

    Does what we know about US conduct in “the war on terror” suggest that it meets the burden of proof for use of force, or for providing tactical support for it?

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