The ‘chilling effect’ argument

Just to try to consolidate some of the arguments going on on the blog:

The ‘chilling effect’ argument is the claim that anthropologists ought not participate in the war in Iraq “on the grounds of their own disciplinary self-interest [because] now they will not be able to do fieldwork because the local people will suspect them of being spies.”

It seems that we are saying that there are empirical and moral objections to this claim.

On the one hand, there are the empirical objections: that this argument is incorrect because participation in the war in Iraq is not connected to local people’s suspicions of anthropologists. Interestingly, we see two flavors of this argument: first, that all anthropologists are already universally suspected of being spies; and second, that it is sufficiently easy for anthropologists to prove that they are not spies that participation in Iraq is not an issue. These are questions that it seems additional research could answer — and of course the answer will vary depending on which particular local people you are talking about. I personally think that it is in our disciplinary self-interest not to participate in Iraq because it will, on the whole, increase people’s fears that we are spies.

On the other hand, there are the moral objections. Sahlins, for instance, has argued that anthropologists ought not entertain the chilling effect argument because it obscures what is, for, him, the overwhelmingly and inescapable problem with participation: its moral repugnance. He seems to be saying that appealing to disciplinary self-interest trivializes the main objections to the war. One could make the opposite claim as well: that it is a moral necessity to participate, regardless of the costs to our disciplinary self-interest.

Advocates of the chilling effect argument see its advantage in the way that it avoids addressing the morality of participation in Iraq by appealing to disciplinary self-interest rather than the shared moral commitments of anthropologists. Critics dislike it for exactly this reason. I am personally opposed to participation, but I differ from Sahlins in that I believe we should hit the snake with any stick that is at hand, including arguments based on a chilling effect — provided, of course, that they are empirically supportable (which I think is not too much of a stretch).


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

6 thoughts on “The ‘chilling effect’ argument

  1. I do not agree with it, but my impression is that most USAians will take this as a sign of cowardice. One can now object to participation in the war on moral grounds, but to object to participation out of fear for repercussions in the future will inevitably draw USAians to compare you with the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. If they do that, you will lose. And that might not be good for the discipline either.

  2. WWBD? (What would Boas do?)… David Price’s November 2, 2000 article “Anthropologists as Spies” in The Nation can be gotten online and remains relevant to our current discussions. Certainly Boas, in his own Scientists as Spies/AAA Censure moment, was concerned with multiple factors laminated together, of which the chilling effect, was only one. For Price, see:

  3. There seem to be two main ethical arguments: The first is that we shouldn’t support this specific war. This seems to be the position that Sahlins adopts. According to such an argument it would be OK to support a “just war” if we could define what that is. The argument I understand David Price to be making is different. This is an argument that military involvement necessarily compromises our ethical obligations towards our informants (i.e. informed consent). Price indicates that he thinks it could be possible to work with the military under situations of greater transparency, but it seems to me that this may be very difficult to pull off in practice.

    As I wrote in my last post, the current military leadership was disdainful of local knowledge and the current efforts to embrace anthropology smacks of a PR campaign to make a loosing war seem winnable if we just change policies. In this case the real question of disciplinary self-interest is not that anthropologists will be thought of as spies, but that we are being used as stooges to prolong a failed policy. I think that’s much worse than being thought of as spies …

  4. bq. the current military leadership was disdainful of local knowledge and the current efforts to embrace anthropology smacks of a PR campaign to make a loosing war seem winnable if we just change policies. In this case the real question of disciplinary self-interest is not that anthropologists will be thought of as spies, but that we are being used as stooges to prolong a failed policy.

    This claim is supported by interviews that McFate has been giving, see below in SM, in which she offers ‘culture’ as a kind ‘magic bullet’ for counterinsurgency efforts, as someone else in comments earlier suggested, and where she apparently conceives ‘culture’ as a set of odd behavioral traits that are hard for US soldiers to understand.

  5. The point Kerim and Strong make is one of the best arguments for taking a stand against involvement. The use of the term Anthropology is definitely PR oriented. Although it is being sold as such, what McFate is doing, and what the HT teams are doing, is not Anthropology. And not only because it cannot meet the ethical obligations of our discipline (as we have heard they don’t even recognise a need there. The compromised status of the embedded anthropologists involved is reflected in their anonymity and the vagueness/secrecy of their duties in contrast to the objectification/reification of their ‘informants’. It is closely equivalent to the compromised status of embedded photojournalists who now (since 2006) must obtain release forms from US soldiers before photographing them wounded or dead, but are free to photograph dead enemy – a part of the wider PR management of the war). The examples of outcomes of the HT teams that I have heard/read so far are identical to the kinds of things capitalists, f’rinstance, do when trying to set up factories in China – take your shoes off at the right time, figure out loyalties and village level conflicts. I wouldn’t call that Anthropology, even if they hired an Anthropologist to tell them what to do. It reminds me of the kinds of things the British Army was supposed to be good at at the start of the war – walking around Basra without helmets, talking first shooting later – an approach allegedly learned in Northern Ireland, and a contrast the media made much of at the time. The insularity of the US (govt and military) and its inability to comprehend difference has been a huge theme of the whole war, and the fact that they are at this late stage trying to demonstrate they have changed with the injection of fatigue wearing social scientists is kind of laughable. Pledges against non-involvement are fine, but at least combat this crap with some publicity about what it is Anthropologists really do.

    But, as for spies – in many countries lacking a ‘fourth amendment’ if you have government funding, or work at a university, of course you are a spy….but mostly only if you are also an American.

  6. I don’t think we can argue against the HTTs purely on the basis of “just war,” though I’m not entirely unsympathetic to that argument. However, it devolves
    quickly into political polemics, which in turn leave us open to the “anthropologists are a bunch of left wing fruit loops” – in other words, our critique of this program can then be dismissed on the basis of politics, and not ethics.

    The stronger argument, and the one that transcends politics, concerns human studies protocols and whether or not HTTs constitute any kind of “research.” If they do, then an IRB-like-process (yes, I’ve read the IRB discussions and posts and this is definitely a loaded topic) should to be invoked. If the program developers argue that an IRB process isn’t necessary, then by definition, this doesn’t constitute research. I can tell you this: I sit on an IRB and this stuff wouldn’t make it through the first round of review.

    Now, all that said, I think we need to remember Laurie King-Irani’s points in a previous discussion: that this war is a meat grinder for soldiers and civilians alike, and that the fault lies with the people who instigated, planned and botched it. Read Ricardo Sanchez’ blistering critique of the Bush administration in today’s “New York Times”:

    Anthropology simply isn’t going to save this fiasco, and even if anthropology had been invoked 3 years ago, it wouldn’t have prevented this fiasco. You can’t pin the problems in Afghanistan and Iraq on cultural faux-pas. That’s beside the point. The fact is that we’ve INVADED TWO COUNTRIES – and done it badly to boot.

    Ironically, anthropology’s more recent focus on the dynamics of power, race, and oppression are what’s relevant here, not the Edward T. Hall-style cross-cultural communication stuff. HTTs strike me as a late attempt to put lipstick on an out-of-control and very destructive pig.

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