Richard Shweder Chimes In

Today in The New York Times:

…I think it is a mistake to support a profession-wide military boycott or a public counter-counterinsurgency loyalty oath. And I think it would be unwise for the American Anthropological Association to do so at this time.

The real issue for academic anthropologists is not whether the military should know more rather than less about other ways of life — of course it should know more. The real issue is how our profession is going to begin to play a far more significant educational role in the formulation of foreign policy, in the hope that anthropologists won’t have to answer some patriotic call late in a sad day to become an armed angel riding the shoulder of a misguided American warrior.

16 thoughts on “Richard Shweder Chimes In

  1. Seems to me that he skirts the question professional ethics. Aside from supporting the war or not, its not ethical to share information about your informants with people who may want to kill or imprison them. When anthros do this it makes it hard for the rest of us out there in the field. Enforcing rules that maintain professional credibility–like don’t turn your informants in their enemies–is a core purpose of a professional association.

  2. Shweder wants us to be like Ottomans in our efforts of global conquest? This is a frightening argument. After reading his piece I listened to the radio show and decided to join the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, Shweder’s go-along conservativism is a throwback to colonialism, and I won’t have anything to do with it.

    Shweder is in effect arguing that we shouldn’t chose sides, but his side backs colonial conquests and the occupation of Iraq, and I oppose both theses ventures.

    The shallowness of his argument has gotten me off my rear end, and I’m joining the other side.

  3. “it was revealed that Tracy, the mystery anthropologist, wears a military uniform and carries a gun during her cultural sensitivity missions.

    Excuse me but what anthropologist wears fatigues and carries a gun? Not one i’d like to be…

  4. Rick Schweder makes an important point. If anthropology simply snubs its nose at the US military, anthropologists will likely continue to have no significant voice in US foreign policy. And it’s a voice that’s desperately needed; it’s one that could help to prevent further US foreign policy disasters.

    Anthropologists should help build a better US foreign policy — not just as angry critics — but from the inside. That makes a certain amount of sense to me. Bush and Co. will be out of the picture in just over a year anyway. “Let’s be smart about this; let’s think ahead here,” is Schweder’s message to anthropology.

    More on my blog:

  5. “Shweder wants us to be like Ottomans in our efforts of global conquest”? This is clearly not what he says in his NYT op-ed. Actually looking at the text shows him saying this:

    “the military voices on the [Diane Rehm] show had their winning moments, sounding like old-fashioned relativists, whose basic mission in life was to counter ethnocentrism and disarm those possessed by a strident sense of group superiority. Ms. McFate stressed her success at getting American soldiers to stop making moral judgments about a local Afghan cultural practice in which older men go off with younger boys on “love Thursdays” and do some “hanky-panky.” “Stop imposing your values on others,” was the message for the American soldiers. She was way beyond “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and I found it heartwarming.

    I began to imagine an occupying army of moral relativists, enforcing the peace by drawing a lesson from the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans lasted a much longer time than the British Empire in part because they had a brilliant counterinsurgency strategy. They did not try to impose their values on others. Instead, they made room — their famous “millet system” — for cultural pluralism, leaving each ethnic and religious group to control its own territory and at liberty to carry forward its distinctive way of life.

    When the American Anthropological Association holds its annual convention in November in Washington, I expect it to become a forum for heated expression of political and moral opposition to the war, to the Bush administration, to capitalism, to neo-colonialism, and to the corrupting influence of the Pentagon and the C.I.A. on professional ethics.

    Nevertheless I think it is a mistake to support a profession-wide military boycott or a public counter-counterinsurgency loyalty oath. And I think it would be unwise for the American Anthropological Association to do so at this time.

    The real issue for academic anthropologists is not whether the military should know more rather than less about other ways of life — of course it should know more. The real issue is how our profession is going to begin to play a far more significant educational role in the formulation of foreign policy, in the hope that anthropologists won’t have to answer some patriotic call late in a sad day to become an armed angel riding the shoulder of a misguided American warrior.”

    It was his imagination–warmed by the thought of McFate’s seeming approval of pedophilia, of course–that took him to Ottoman times, using their “counterinsurgency strategy” as a way to think about the nature of cultural difference, of force, and of the military as “relativists” only concerned about the good of pluralism in the human community. It’s all too easy to mistake satire and irony for something more serious–viz. the respondent who wanted Jon Marks to say more about American soldiers eating Iraqis. Joining “the other side” is a fine and noble thing to do, as long as it’s done for reasons other than having mistaken subtle parody for earnest exhortation. Not every conversation can be conducted continually in the full blaze of moral commitment and soul searching. That’s why “L’Annee Sociologique: the Movie” is such a nice leavening ingredient. I’m thinking Ridley Scott or Sam Raimi for director.

  6. Shweder is fighting a straw man. In no way does the Network of Concerned Anthropologists say that anthropologists can’t or shouldn’t work for or with the military. The Network does not urge a “military boycott.” Shweder didn’t even bother to get his facts right. They say that anthropologists should not do counterinsurgency, obviously Shweder approves of anthropological counterinsurgency.

    Shweder’s Ottoman comment is scary, and seems more fitting from Chicago’s economics department, than anthropology.

    I can’t tell if it is Shweder or McFate who seems to be approving of military sanctioned pedophilia, but it isn’t funny it is disturbing.

  7. Next week on University of Chicago Celebrity Cage Match: Marshall Sahlins v. Wichard Shweder.

    We can expect to see Sahlins crush Shweder as he hides behind fake irony while advancing the cause of Bush’s war on terror. After delivering a flying body blow to Shweder, Sahlins will twist Shweder’s ankle in increasingly painful positions for his cowardly suggestion in the Times that those who do not support anthropological counterinsurgency “do not support the troops.”

    As Sahlin’s takes off Shweder’s mask, he will declare that the penalty for using such cowardly Bushian logic, Shweder must be mocked and taunted at AAA meetings for the rest of his life.

  8. Shweder thinks the government wants anthropologists to play a role in the “formulation of foreign policy?” McFate makes clear that the military wants to learn just a little bit more about the lands Bush conquers. Policy is for Dick Cheney’s henchmen, anthropology is only used to teach the troops a few local customs so that they know which are the right people to shoot. What the hell is the point of his Ottoman argument? Does Shweder think that more efficient forms of colonialism are the answer? This is Ivory Tower escapism at its very worst, but it does fit with the New York Times program of selling us the Iraq War, and now finding spokesmen like Shweder to get us to help keep the war going.

  9. Laurie, great link. David Price made some interesting points.

    There is an update — appended the end of my most recent post(for link see above) — which refers to the Price article.

  10. I have no doubt that my colleague Rick Shweder–whom I have supported in many fights for academic freedom and intellectual integrity against the University of Chicago administration–is opposed to the US war in Iraq, that he is at least concerned by the enlistment of anthropologists in military operations there and in Afghanistan, and that he would prefer that anthropologists “play a far more significant educational role in the formulation of foreign policy.” Regrettably, however, in style and substance his recent NYT op-ed piece undermines each and all of these good positions.

    First, a matter of style that understandably convinces readers Rick is actually in favor of a beneficent American empire, culturally sensitive to its diverse conquered subjects, on the model of the Ottoman empire. One Savageminds commentator interprets Shweder’s apparent encomium of Ottoman hegemony as irony, satire and parody at once: a tropic gymnastics that would be something like performing three different acrobatic tricks at the same time. Any one of the three, however, would require a paradoxical relation between the literal phrasing of the argument and a connoted unstated meaning. Yet not only is no such opposing connotation suggested, it is effectively ruled out by the positioning of the Ottoman encomium in the larger context of argument. The praise of the Ottoman imperium follows, as sequitur, the “heartwarming” effect of the cultural relativity being promoted by embedded anthros in Afghanistan; and it is followed, again as sequitur, by Shweder’s stand against public censoring of such anthropological collaboration by the A.A.A. Whatever Rick’s tropic intent, then, the actual effect is simile: we should practice a culturally considerate mode of domination like the Ottomens did. This helps explain why anthropologists in the English-reading world from northern Europe to Australia are filling the ether with emails of disbelief and criticism of Rick’s politics.

    Secondly, Rick adopts a frivolity of tone that both minimizes and obscures the role of anthropologists embedded as “Human Terrain Systems Teams” (HHST) in pacification operations by the US military. He passes off this collaboration as if the anthro-warriors were tour guides helping the counterinsurgency units to avoid offending the natives by violating local custom; or else–in a moment of true parody stimulated by a report of a uniformed and armed anthropologist on HTS missions–as an image of an “angelic”anthropologist using the occasion of a house intrusion by a counterinsurgency unit to undertake ethnography on the inhabitants. While welcomed by some as providing US imperialism with a much-needed dose of levity, these descriptions of the anthro-warriors have been displeasing to most because they trivialize and mask the truly questionable engagement of anthropologists in American imperial projects. The original NYT piece on the notorious “Tracy” documented the HTST interventions in local politics on pain of suffering greater violence from American forces. It is clear both from practice and mission statements of the anthropological and military parties concerned that the military view the anthropologists instrumentally, as a weapon of pacification. In this relation the anthropologist functions as a tactical object subservient to control and manipulation by the acting military subject in the interest of his own objectives. So while the anthro-warriors justify their role by saying it reduces the lethality of the American presence, their instrumental function is more comprehensively described as making lethal force more effective. A recent article by David Price in the online journal Counterpunch testifies to the Pentagon’s view of the utility of HTS teams in mapping human components along the “kill chain.” The anthros help counterinsurgency units avoid inflicting casualties that will turn the local population against them. As for identifying the useful targets, a Boston Globe report has it that a Pentagon official likened HTS anthropologists “to the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support project during the Vietnam War. That effort helped identify Vietnamese suspected as communists and Viet Cong collaborators; some were later assassinated by the United States.” This is at least a very dangerous game at the local level. Yet then again, in a larger global context, how can anthropologists so lend themselves to American projects of political and cultural hegemony, involving attacks on the autonomy, traditions and persons of other peoples? Have we learned nothing from the 1960s, from academic participation in Project Camelot in South America and anti-guerilla intelligence activities in Southeast Asia? The true irony here is that while Rick Shweder asks his colleagues to play a significant educational role in the formulation of foreign policy, his burlesque description of what anthro-warriors are actually doing rather undermines the credibility of anthropological educators.

    Finally, exactly where and how are we supposed to influence foreign policy–and why isn’t a well argued, critical statement on anthro-warriors from the A.A.A., worked out in debate at the annual meeting, precisely a way of doing so? Clearly the back pages of the NYT first section will not do. (I admit to a churlish conflict of interest here: I have a growing file of rejected letters to the editor of the Times, the latest being a response to Rick Shweder’s op-ed piece–proof enough for me that this is no place for anthropological input in policy.) You would have to be pretty naive to think anthropologists as individuals could have significant influence in the private counsels of the DOD or State Department, except as their expert advice were in line with existing policies. On the other hand, did not the teach-ins and mass rallies during the Vietnam War have a salutary effect on American war policy? Weren’t these notable venues for amplifying academic voices to the level of the nation and realizing them as political forces? These events were effective interventions in the public sphere, with classic Habermassian qualities of critically opposing the state authorities with a humanitarian ethos. Same for an AAA statement today. The way to change the course of the democratic political process is by generating mass disaffection with the existing policy and thus creating the potential for losing elections. This will still be necessary when and if the democrats are elected, especially if it’s Hillary.

  11. Prof. Sahlins has, in my humble estimation, nailed the key problems on their heads.

    How can anthropologists have a shaping impact on foreign policy (which nowadays is dominated by Middle East related decisions and challenges)? We can start by having a shaping impact on university policy. If you are teaching a course about the Middle East in a university or college, you have to self-censor if you want to criticize US foreign policys and military intervention, as the thought police of CampusWatch and the Horowitz gang can indeed make life very tough for you if you are not yet tenured. Even people who are tenured veer away from lively debate on these issues. Same goes for the newspaper and cable networks editorial suites. If scholars and media personnel are too afraid to be tagged as “un-American” or against Israeli policies and US (virtually) unconditional support for these, then we can’t have much of a public debate and in a democracy, public pressure and debate is ideally supposed to be an engine of change, decision-making and legislation.

    Dr. Sahlins says:

    “did not the teach-ins and mass rallies during the Vietnam War have a salutary effect on American war policy? Weren’t these notable venues for amplifying academic voices to the level of the nation and realizing them as political forces? These events were effective interventions in the public sphere, with classic Habermassian qualities of critically opposing the state authorities with a humanitarian ethos.”

    Yes, and in that day and age, there was a draft, so those being sent into the maw of that generations stupid and evil war were not just members of the underclass, but middle and upper middle class college students. Now we have people who are not even US citizens, from Mexico and Guatemala and El Salvador joining up and going to Iraq. When they are killed, they are given post-humous US citizenship. This honor does not extend to their surviving family members, though. Given the class-structure of who is fighting in this war, the sorts of teach-ins of yesteryear are probably not going to happen on campus, and if they do, who do they impact? Labor unions are practially defunct. The structures of mass political participation in the US are quite anemic. The GOP and the Democratic parties are rich people-only clubs. Third parties are viewed as jokes or spoilers. We DO have a lot more alternative press and web-based modes of communication, but these, though vital for disseminating ideas, opinions, critiques and information, are thus far not effective when it comes to building solidarity, probably because that requires real people meeting in real places in real time, not in the virtual worlds of blogs such as this one. The cyber-theorists call such places “meat space,” as opposed to cyberspace. We need to meet in meat space, and maybe the upcoming AAA meeting is a place to begin.

  12. On our way to the barricades, perhaps someone could explain to those of us who weren’t around in the 1960s some of the details of this political strategy. For example, just how much ideological solidarity does it require to be effective? i.e:

    Can Joe Shmoe still call himself an anthropologist when he disagrees with the party line?

    Can Jane Shmoe make a career out of following her conscience (within legal bounds) when the party finds her activities contrary to its political objectives?

  13. And here is the first commentary I’ve seen in the Muslim press, from Islam on Line, an interview with Prof. Donald Cole, and anthropologist at the American U. of Cairo:

    Militarizing Anthropology

    By Dina Rabie, Tamer El-Maghraby, IOL Staff

    Anthropologists are already embedded with six US military teams in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    CAIRO — A US military program recruiting anthropologists to be embedded with units in Iraq and Afghanistan is meeting stiff opposition from anthropologists as an attempt to militarize the discipline and weaponize scientists in the service of Washington’s so-called war on terror.

    “We are deeply concerned that the ‘war on terror’ threatens to militarize anthropology in a way that undermines the integrity of the discipline and returns anthropology to its sad roots as a tool of colonial occupation, oppression, and violence,” Roberto J. Gonzalez, an anthropology professor at San Jose State University and a campaigner, told in an email interview.

    The US Department of Defense (DoD) is recruiting anthropologists under the Human Terrain System (HTS) program to study social groups in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    The program first started on a small scale in 2006 and now has six teams, each including at least one anthropologist, embedded in combat brigade units in both Muslim countries.

    Each team member, who wears the uniform and receives mandatory weapons training, costs the Pentagon $400,000 a year, including the cost of kidnapping insurance.

    Defense Secretary Robert Gates has allocated $40 million dollars to expand the program, challenged by veteran anthropologists, to increase the number of teams to 28.

    A group of 11 professors, including Gonzalez, launched the Network of Concerned Anthropologists last month to protest the exploitation of Anthropology, the science that studies peoples’ origin, history and culture, in the war on terror.

    “The US DoD has in recent months been particularly interested in linguistic and cultural anthropology for use in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other theaters in the ‘war on terror,'” Gonzalez told IOL.

    “Because anthropologists gain intimate knowledge of and familiarity with the people and culture of a particular place, the Pentagon is interested in recruiting them for counter-insurgency operations.”

    The campaigners are currently circulating a petition among colleagues from universities, government agencies, and other institutions to pledge “non-participation in the Pentagon’s counter-insurgency efforts.”

    “Over the past several weeks, we have been involved in educating our colleagues and the general public about the issues at stake,” said Gonzalez.

    They plan to send the signed petition to all government, military and academic bodies concerned.


    The academics believe that the controversial Pentagon program is unethically “weaponizing” anthropology for political and military gains.

    “We felt compelled to draft the Pledge to say that there are certain kinds of work—for example, covert work, work contributing to the harm and death of other human beings, work that breaches trust with our research participants, and work that calls other anthropologists into suspicion—that anthropologists should not undertake,” Gonzalez said.

    “Many anthropologists are concerned about the potential ethical dilemma posed by such work,” he elaborated.

    The campaigners fear that anthropologists on the HTS teams might “unwittingly” harm the Afghans and Iraqis with whom they are speaking by sharing their intelligence information with combat brigade commanders.

    “If anthropologists on HTS teams interview Afghans or Iraqis about the intimate details of their lives, what is to prevent combat teams from using the same data to one day ‘neutralize’ (assassinate) suspected insurgents?” Gonzalez asked.

    “What safeguards exist to impede the transfer of data collected by anthropologists to commanders planning offensive military campaigns?”

    Another concern is that the HTS anthropologists wear military uniforms and some of them are armed.

    “How are the anthropologists able to obtaining the voluntary informed consent of those Afghans and Iraqis with whom they are speaking if the anthropologist is carrying a weapon?”

    The American professor is unaware of other countries recruiting anthropologists to serve in the war on terror, launched by the US following the 9/11 attacks and later joined by most of Washington’s allies.

    Anthropology has a fraught history of aiding the US military during conflicts, stretching back past Vietnam and the cold war to World War II.

    The CIA and other intelligence agencies have long recruited anthropologists and social scientists to their agencies.


    Dr. AbdAllah Talib Donald Cole, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the American University in Cairo (AUC), believes the campaign reflects a deepening public dissatisfaction with the Iraq war in particular.

    “My educated guess is that a wide majority of American anthropologists do not support the war in and on Iraq,” he told IOL.

    “Several American anthropologists have also been making critical field-based research on the US military (including research among American soldiers in Iraq).”

    Last year, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) set up a national commission to call for an end to the Iraq war.

    The latest USA TODAY/Gallup Poll found that opposition to the war reached a record high, with 60 percent of Americans in favor of setting a pullout timetable.

    Without UN authorization, the US invaded Iraq on claims of stockpiling weapons of mass destruction, a claim that later turned out to be false.

    Four years since the invasion, the country is gripped by a bloody cycle of violence that claims the lives of both Iraqis and Americans.

    Dr. Cole believes Arabs and Muslims should be wary of western anthropologists.

    “But we should be wary of everything that is written about us, whether by local people or by foreigners. To be wary does not mean to reject. We need to read what anthropologists say about people in the developing world and what they say about Islam and Muslims,” he explained.

    “We can expect to trust the reliability of professional academic anthropologists who are subject to peer review and evaluation. But for others who are not fully professional, we need to be more careful.”

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