Disagreeing as people and as anthropologists

Much of the recent discussion on this blog has focused on the role that anthropologists play in the military, and particularly the war in Iraq. On the whole the comments share two features: first, they consider anthropological work in Iraq to be wrong and, second, they consider it to be a violation of anthropological ethics. What I am wondering about here is the connection between these two claims.

Anthropologists are, after all, not only anthropologists. Many (if not most of us on this blog) are also citizens of the United States and all of us (I hope) are also human beings attempting to live moral lives. Each of these three roles — anthropologist, citizen, person — require related but different kinds of moral deliberation. As a Christian I may be disgusted by the decadent life-style of my neighbors. As a citizen, I may consider it a civic virture to support their freedom to act barbarically. As an archaeologist I am indifferent.

This is a difficult — and probably hopelessly problematic — distinction to maintain, but I do want to prop it up long enough to use it to make a few points about opposition to anthropology in Iraq. Namely, it seems to me that many of the arguments that we have heard here touch not on the morality of anthropological practice, but on much broader moral issues, what I have called the “human” level of morality. Many of the people on this blog seem opposed to anthropology at war because they feel it is a ‘bad’ war (as opposed to WWII, which was a ‘good’ one), because it is deeply unjust, and perpetuates human suffering. I am sure there are other reasons we could give that fall more in the ‘citizen’ category: that it is against our national interest to persecute the war as we have, and that it is part of a wider upswelling of anglo-protestant nativism that is corrosive of our civic culture and against the enlightened ideals of our founders.

You may or may not agree with these charges, but the important thing to note is that there is nothing particularly anthropological about them. This is not to trivialize these sorts of arguments — if anything I think the spheres of the human and the citizen are vastly more important than our often narrow professional ethics. I, for instance, would oppose the war in Iraq and the anthropologists aiding and abetting it whether I was an anthropologist, a sociologist, or a salsa instructor. But it is to say that if argument about anthropology at war is to proceed in forums like this blog, the AAA meetings, and so forth, we should try to focus on what sort of specific anthropological issues are raised.

Political philosophy often makes a distinction between ‘thick’ and ‘thin’ agreements. Liberal democracies tend to favor extremely ‘thin’ theories of the good, so as to be tolerant of many different viewpoints. Other communities — fundamentalist Christian ones, for instance — may be relatively ‘thicker’ and embrace a detailed notion of the good life which is nonoptional for community members. We might ask, then, how ‘thick’ our discipline’s ethics are.

The answer is, ‘not very.’ Although we all share a common commitment to human rights that has, as it were, been fed into our discipline from the wider background agreements that we share as people, anthropology has typically taken pride in its ‘thin’ ethics. The discipline’s generalized leftist populism is one reason, of course, but there are sociological ones as well. Accommodating all four fields has required a big-tent approach, and our associations precarious financial and organization state has meant that we mostly try to work on sticking together. Even those rare moments when there does seem to be a generalized agreement among members — insert Yanomami joke here — often fail to achieve consensus. Most of the time we pass off our fractious nature as an inconvenient side-effect of our admirably open-minded tolerance. For those opposed to anthropology at war, however, this broadmindedness seems a liability.

I believe that if we as anthropologists are going to take issue with anthropologists as war we will need to think ethnographically about the specifics of anthropological practice in these cases. This requires an idiographic impulse which many of us think ought to be central to anthropology but which is in short supply these days. We should realize that one conclusion we may reach is that there are bad people doing superb work, good people doing bad work, and that ultimately our disagreements are human, not anthropological, ones.


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 rex@savageminds.org

3 thoughts on “Disagreeing as people and as anthropologists

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  2. While I’m not sure our roles as citizens, humans, and anthropologists are so easily teased apart (after all, they’re all *me*), I’d like to point out that there are many sound anthropological reasons for opposing the enlistment of anthropologists under he military umbrella. As I’ve said before (ad nauseum, I’m sure) there’s a problem of priorities which historically have almost inevitably skewed anthropologists’ work in ways that render the work useless or nearly so (folks like David Price have made a pretty good job of using that material to tell us a lot about US militarism and US society in general, so I can’t say it’s *entirely* useless). Meanwhile, work produced outside the control of the military has proven much more useful, *even to the military* (to wit: Eric Wolf’s work on peasants). As others have suggested, the current military use of anthropology smacks more of PR than of applied science, and while you might argue whether this is an objection from a citizen, human, or anthropologist, I don’t think that providing PR cover is a valid use of anthropology; certainly it doesn’t add anything to the field.

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