Jihadi Videos and the Anthropology of Inaccessibility

Anthropologist Roxanne Varzi came to our UCLA working group Culture, Power, and Social Change last week and spoke and showed a courageous and wise reflexive ethnographic film “Plastic Flowers Never Die” on the religio-statist support of martyrdom in Iran. I asked a question about how to theorize the role of digital ‘texts’ in the present era of ubiquitous self-publishing and social broadcasting. I was thinking about jihadi videos that are shot and distributed on online video portals as advertisement, recruitment tools, or celebrations of religio-military success. According to the IntelCenter, jihadi videos can be categorized as operational, hostage, statement, tribute, training, and instructional videos.

Essentially antagonistic with technoprogressive modernity while exploiting the simplicity, freedom, and access that comes with new media, these videos can be described as vanguard, counter, resistant, or subversive to capitalistic modernity while using the forefront of the sociotechnical tools of that capitalist technocracy. Our models of user-generated labor, from Shirkey and Benkler’s celebrations of social production to Terranova’s Marxist perspective on exploitative and ‘free’ labor, might not fit this un-capitalist media production practice. It is going to take a mix of something new to get it. But what?

I asked Varzi about jihadi videos: “These strike me as a rich source of information about a culture that is otherwise inaccessible to anthropologists: jihadi martyrs. How would you go about developing a critical anthropological methodology to reading these video texts?” Correctly but dangerously she stated she wouldn’t do it without an ethnographic component. I thought to myself: Let me get this right. I gotta hang out, like, deeply, with jihadi terrorists? As an anthropologist I cannot make a statement about jihadi video production practices without having first squeezed my way into their schedule and shared a few meetings over tea with my local jihadist? I’d love to, frankly, but I doubt I can network into their cliques. Are we going to let these remarkably reflexive, vocal “weapons of the weak” go unnoticed? If we can’t talk about these videos we are losing our disciplinary focus on subcultural expression and resistance and an opportunity to expand our methodological repertoire.

Jihadi video producers and new media firms, my focus, share little but extreme privacy. The similarities end there, but the problems for the ethnographer of either are identical: gaining access. My subjects are powerful. They have ideas that are worth millions in venture capital. Their lawyers are all about intellectual property. They live comfortable lives. They don’t need my cultural capital. They don’t need me around. Infrequently and for whatever reason, they invite me into their world. The Frontline documentary Behind Taliban Lines is a rare example that follows a single video journalist into the operations of the Taliban attempting to blow up a US convoy. This rarely happens in every context where a researcher wants access. Our own Rex thinks our focus should be on the subtle and not the savage, he’ll be happy to know that anthropologists usually are aren’t gutsy enough to pursue such inaccessible subjects.

What if I couldn’t meet these wealthy entrepreneurs in person? What if they were so private that participant observation was impossible? I would be forced to construct something anthropological through their public representations. Thankfully, my subjects produce a lot of media. They socially broadcast on Facebook and Twitter and have scheduled relations with the public at conferences. (Except for TED, which at $6000 a weekend excludes most.) But with or without ethnography, this project, like a hypothetical investigation of jihadi video producers, needs to happen. If we have to begin-and probably end-with texts, what will we do? We’ll need to first develop an anthropologically specific way of reading these video texts and other public media artifacts.

The time is now to revisit our present anthropological theories about the role of textual studies. Finding its most useful expression in reconstructive indigenous and postcolonial historiographies, texts have long been an essential part of our field. But have we fully fleshed out a spectrum of specific theories for each type of text? I am not interested in adjudicating the validity or truthfulness of this text versus that. Colonial documents, biographies, and census records need to be differentially theorized not as statements of fact or fiction but as culturally situated texts. What I am fishing for is a debate on whether the new digital documents can find a home in contemporary anthropological theory. What differentiates paper-based from Web 2.0 personal documents and text from video? Most importantly, how can we take a culturally distinct but necessarily distant visual text of war and conflict, consider its technical and productive online existence, not defer to speculation on auteur intentionality, be mindful of the artifacts that appear on screen, and extrapolate back to the producer’s culture?

More broadly, we need to ask ourselves how to do an anthropological study of ethnographically inaccessible objects: leadership of corporations, governments, terrorist cells, elite institutions. Anthropologist Jane Weddell’s recent book, The Shadow Elite: How the World’s New Power Brokers Undermine Democracy, Government and the Free Market” is a fine example. Ethical problems abound in all these projects. Just as Nancy Scheper-Hughes prospered, so will the anthropologist of video culture of martyrdom and other inaccessible objects.

Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

28 thoughts on “Jihadi Videos and the Anthropology of Inaccessibility

  1. Adam, you raise an interesting question. Allow me to sharpen it a bit. We have known since the publication of Malinowski’s diaries that there can be a huge gap between what anthropologists experience in the field and what they write in their ethnographies. And, as Marcus and Fischer reminded us in Anthropology as Cultural Critique, we rarely these days have the privilege of studying the lives of people wholly unknown to the outside world. Instead, “We step into a stream of already existing representations produced by journalists, prior anthropologists, historians, creative writers, and of course the subjects of study themselves.” Now that ethnography is more and more short-term, intermittent, multi-sited, or departs in other ways from the class model, is the purported value of ethnographic experience anything more than a now obsolete fetish?

  2. Archaeologists and Historical Anthropologists are all about the ethnographically inaccessible objects. Lots of work there on using various lines of secondary, tertiary etc evidence. Down with the tyranny of interviews!

    Hey! You could always interview Anthropologists who relay and support Jihadi videos…

  3. It just occurred to me, but by “ethnographic component” did Varzi necessarily mean hanging out with jihadi terrorists (note: if you call them terrorists they most certainly will not let you hang out with them!) or did she mean that she thought you should have first hand knowledge of their general social environment? Because that does seem fairly reasonable.

  4. Agreed. That does seem pretty reasonable. Don’t know about the Middle East, but it suggests interesting opportunities both for native anthropologists and old hands, of whom there may be growing numbers as anthropologists find careers in the places where they have done research. Here in Japan, for example, there is a small but growing number of non-Japanese anthropologists who have found employment in Japanese universities. Several have lived and done research in Japan for decades. Ditto for Taiwan. Perhaps for China as well.

  5. I’ve got a buddy who does this work. All of his research is on Islamists on the internet, either on chatrooms or videos. He’s done both virtual ethnography, and gone to places like (I think) Jordan, to talk with some of these people. His name is Chris Gieseke, and I’ve ask him to post here, hopefully he will.

    I think a great source of data is what has been done through the DOD and State Dept. At the U.S. Joint Special Operations University in Florida’s, Dynamics of International Terror Course, they use a social network model. They’ve also shown how the internet has changed the organizational structure of terror groups.

    That is, they have flipped the Weberian hierarchy of bureaucracies pyramid on its head. Many of the people now are acting as leaders of these groups are European born, and have usually never been in any kind of physical combat. They do everything on-line creating propaganda, and basically guide things that happen in other countries.

    Then using a social network model, they analyze the fact that most of the people that actually carry out major attacks cannot be profiled. That is, they grew up in secular homes, were not highly religious, had no criminal background, were married with kids, highly educated (no social science though), middle-class, etc…
    For example, all of the 9/11 conspirators came from 1 of 3 radical mosques in the world. Those 3 mosques account for a large percentage of the worlds Jihadists.

    They’ve been able to show that it was just dumb luck that when a Muslim moves to a new place, especially Europe, and didn’t know anyone, and they go to the closest mosque to meet locals, and that mosque just happens to be one of these radical mosques, then bad things happen. It has much less to do with religion, than the creation in a social network of in-group love, and out-group hate. The European other becomes a source of alienation, that can be blamed for their current situation in a new place.
    Milgram taught us that anyone can become a killer, and this shows exactly how anyone can become a terrorist. These videos are a big part of that.

    One of the reasons that modern anthropology might have a hard time theorizing what’s going on, is because of the almost total emphasis on self-reflection. That is, if something horrible is going on in the world, then the source is both “Western” and Caucasian in origin. I idea that there are others in this world that are ethnocentric and want to impose their values and worldview on everyone is generally invisible in the discipline.

  6. the ‘ethnography’ she suggested required face-to-face interactions, interviews, observation. they could be post-martyrs/jihadists but they had to be proponents of the ideals and practices. that was my impression.

  7. “Look at this other research that “Rick’s” friends have been doing too”

    I don’t know any of those people, or anything about things stated in that article. Chris is a grad. student doing research for his degree. If I say that somebody is my “buddy” then I actually know them. BTW, any US citizen can go to any class at the Spec. Ops. University.

    “the ‘ethnography’ she suggested required face-to-face interactions, interviews, observation. they could be post-martyrs/jihadists but they had to be proponents of the ideals and practices. that was my impression.”

    Yeah, I get that, but virtual ethnography would probably be more fruitful, especially if you could get people alone online, or find a sample of key people to see in person. I think the point that I was making is that it has become a little too popular in the discipline to impose our etic, meta-political economic narrative upon people in order to explain away the processes that lead them to certain behavior.
    A lot of the “true believers” aren’t the ones blowing themselves up, or committing mass-murder. It takes more than belief for someone to kill another person, and a hell of a lot more to get them to kill themselves. Like I said, in an analysis of the 9/11 conspirators, (you can look it up in Marc Sageman’s, “Understanding Terror Networks”) they were not thinking in terms that we would place in their minds. They didn’t see horrible things done in their homeland, or have a family member killed, etc… It was much more akin to a new fundamentalist. I think a good comparison, would be like an alcoholic seeking treatment and becoming a fundamentalist Christian.

    I think that, as you said (Adam), we need to think about how we theorize interpersonal processes in domains that we can rarely access. I think the political economic model is very useful, but we have to be careful in attributing processual insight to it. (I’m not saying that you said that, just that it is very common). I think too often we work with sub-alterns, and see things around them, or happening to them, and we take on their assumptions about what’s going on, rather than checking up on it. These anthros. make a case for how to do just that:

    Drury, John, and Clifford Stott
    2001 Bias as a Research Strategy in Participant Observation: The Case of Intergroup Conflict. Field Methods 13(1):47-67.

    Anyway, here’s a blurb from a review of Sageman:

    “Sageman tells us that the motivation to join a militant organization does not necessarily stem from extreme poverty or extreme religious devotion but mostly from the need to escape a sense of alienation. He also disproves conventional wisdom that terrorist groups employ a “top-down” approach to recruiting, showing instead that many cells evolve from friendships and kinships and that the seeds of sedition grow as certain members of a cell influence the thinking of the others.”

    Unfortunately, he got that kind of intimate access to people while working for the CIA, which is not something we can do. However, a former British officer, Rory Steward, recently walked across Afghanistan as a civilian, alone; so, it can be done. He wrote a book and basically criticizes NATO involvement there.

    The same, I think, can be said about simple explanations for the Wall Street collapse. Tsings theory of Frontier Capitalism may be a more nuanced way to go.

  8. @ Jesus Jonez, So I read the article that you linked to, and I have to say that I don’t appreciate you associating my name with what appear to be rouge, criminal, civilian contractors.

    If there is any justice in the world they will be prosecuted, and forced to pay back all that money. That being said, I think the article contained a lot of hyperbole, as most do, to make the whole thing sound more sinister than it probably was. It sounds like a man who was playing out some childish fantasy of covert intrigue like something out of a movie. Especially, with his reference to Jason Bourne.

  9. I agree entirely with Rick. Rick is actually vastly more knowledgeable on theory then I am as I tend to approach my research from a rather unorthodox approach with my primary theory being never to adhere religiously to any one theory as it blinds you to alternative narratives and practical solutions. I also approach my virtual ethnographic research much more from a spiritual perspective (I am a Theist meaning that I believe in One God, but not in organized religion). By this I mean that I study Islamic theology from not simply an academic perspective, but from a spiritual perspective. As Rick said, most of these Jihadists are not religious. Many of them drink, gamble, are clean shaven, etc.. They generally blame the “kufr” (non-believers) from the West and in their country for their sinful ways. This is to be cured by Islam and there is no better way then Jihad according to many hadiths (40,000+ verses on the sayings and practices of the Muslim prophet Muhammed (PBUH)). Largely I’ve found academia to be rather cynical and arrogant towards understanding the emotions and romance involved in religious belief. It is not easily categorized or quantified. It is more the domain of poets rather then social science. Yet, poetry IS understanding if the writing triggers the right emotions. Those emotions can potentially trigger thoughts followed by action when coupled with ideology. With a poetic understanding, adding in cultural understanding, historical understanding, linguistic understanding, and the understanding of current regional politics and events and you have a vastly more holistic way of getting very close to seeing the world as an Islamic radical sees them. This does not mean discarding traditional anthropological methodology. It means enriching them.

    My own goal is to work with moderate Islamic groups to seek individuals who are prone to these radical Islamic ideologies and guide them towards non-violent Islamic methods of addressing grievances and needs whether real or perceived. When these extremists are talked to respectfully as human beings and within the context of Islam, more often then not, they reciprocate the gesture especially if you ask them to teach you about Islam. The lowering of psychological barriers is paramount to developing a key informant who can offer deep knowledge on the mindset of a Jihadist. It is also very much possible via the internet. However with that said, there are significant problems with conducting virtual ethnographic studies of Islamic extremists. Here are some of the problems:

    1. Language barriers if you are not fluent in the language of your research population.

    2. Ethical issues regarding doing such research on public forums (confidentiality, danger to participant, etc…).

    3. Developing accurate demographics. (Although there are methods I’ve developed to estimate some of this).

    4. Government abuse of your data and legal complications involved in speaking directly to extremists ( such as being put on a non-fly list, being denied government jobs, etc…).

    5. Determining whether the individual you are speaking with is a true Muslim extremist or whether they are intelligence agents fishing for “wannabe” extremists.

    6. Determining whether an Islamic internet forum is a legitimate Islamic forum or again one setup to entrap and gather data on radical Islamists.

    7. Dealing with the moderators on Islamic forums who ban anyone who discusses any form of Islam other then radical teachings (no theological debate allowed on issues of Jihad) and who do not allow in anyone who is not Muslim.

    8. Purposeful disinformation and deceit by your informant. This is known in Islam as “Taqqiyah”. There are ways to test for this using similar techniques as used in the development of quality surveys by psychologists and sociologists. Simply put, you ask the same question but in different ways and at different times. Also you will note inconsistencies in their explanations of related Islamic concepts that do not match up.

    Now there are ways around these issues and ways to supplement your virtual ethnography. One way is to attend public classes on Islam and Islamic events hosted by local Muslims who tend to advocate the austere form of Islam taught by the Salafi sect of Islam (commonly taught and enforced by the more radical Muslim extremists even if they don’t always practice it). These are public places so depending on your university and department policies, informed consent forms and all of that may or may not be an issue. Generally interest in Islam leads to being invited to private dinners where intimate conversations on personal beliefs and political opinions are often voiced. You will not generally get any terrorist type of comments, however you will get an earful about American foreign policy, opinions on Shariat, opinions on Western culture, and more importantly a diverse range of Muslims and demographics that can then be compared to your virtual data on extremists to some extent.
    The problem here that arises is that of informed consent as it is at a private residence and a private gathering. For an academic this is problematic, while for a free-lance applied anthropologist, it is up to their own individual ethics. To me the important thing is to be honest about who you are and your beliefs (respectfully explained). I’ve never found Muslims to object to my research as long as I am honest with them about what I am doing and most importantly, very respectful towards Islam and Islamic values. I also should note that I never seek out extremists in my local communities so as to avoid legal complications. At all times such research should be done under the assumption that your computer is hacked and that your research is monitored. So my advice is to be as open as possible about your research and to stay away from local extremists. If you do encounter anyone who advocates terrorist attacks and seems serious, personally I would report them to authorities. I would do the same with anyone of any religion who advocated terrorism. I don’t ask for any such information and if they are stupid enough to say such things when they know who I am, then that is not my problem. So far I’ve been fortunate for that not to have happened.

    Now with all of that said…this VERY IMPORTANT. Before any of this research is done, I am a firm believer that an anthropologist engaged in such research MUST seriously study Islamic theology with focus on critical issues (such as Jihad) as well as learn basic Islamic terms, practices, beliefs, and Islamic history. Without this knowledge, there is absolutely no point in conducting such research as you will entirely miss what your participants are talking about or you will be forced to just take their word for it when they explain a concept. Without a broader knowledge of what those concepts mean (according to a range of Islamic scholars), you will end up with a horrifically distorted ethnography.
    So as difficult it is to stomach for some anthropologists, I truly believe that they do the discipline a disservice by creating ethnographies lacking a strong theological understanding and a very intimate and detailed understanding of the rich and diverse tapestry of Islamic thought.
    I should also point out that I am not ripping on all social scientists. Some like John Esposito have done an excellent job of sorting through all the assumptions about Muslims. He does intensive studies on Islamic theology as well as many other religions.
    My main point is that there is much lacking in our knowledge of Islamic extremism and currently as a whole Anthropology has not developed a strong sense of unity or agreement to properly address this issue. I believe that this is in large part due to the unease over the history of the relationships between Anthropology and Governments. I think it is the right of individual anthropologists to have the opinion that they should not be forced to help the American government or law enforcement on such issues due to the nature of American foreign policy. However, I feel strongly that they do not have the right to tell other anthropologists that they can not work to prevent further terrorist attacks and that they should not work for peace and the end of conflict in the Middle East.

    Below is a link to an article that just came out today that is an example of why I believe what I believe.


    These are the types of people I hope to influence against making such decisions that ruin lives and kill innocent people. They were good people according to those that knew them very well. But they made some very terrible changes in their belief systems that led them towards their radicalized beliefs. If we can better understand this process of change through their eyes, I strongly believe that we can better prevent such things from happening.

    Yes it is social engineering. Yes it does mean manipulating religion. But folks face it, politicians, religious leaders, the media, corporate advertising, etc.. do this to us every single day for both positive and negative outcomes in our lives and in our world.
    I believe it is an act of moral cowardice to sit on the sidelines and simply do nothing but write about new theoretical frameworks about terrorism written in arcane academic language that has little relevance to the day to day reality on the ground.
    All the while such people rant against the evils of imperialism and capitalism feeling very self-righteous rather then looking at the vast complexity of conflict from all sides and actually GETTING INVOLVED TO END IT.

  10. You know Chris I’ve never asked you, but would you say that you are a Muslim?

    Not to hijack (pun intended) the purpose of this thread, I think that a similar point can be made by those anthros. currently studying the financial markets. I think that is the nature of our discipline, we have to learn both anthropology and whatever it is that we are studying. I’ve had to do a lot of research on sustainable urban development, community organizing, organizational studies, etc… for what I do.
    I’m sure that everyone here has had to do the same.

    BTW, that link is kind of funny to me, because it reminds me of a seminar I went to a couple of years ago on the subject of domestic terrorism. The speaker was the head of domestic terrorism for Homeland Security, and he stated that we would be attacked again for sure, because everyone was too obsessed with S.A.M; what he called, “Suspicious Arab Male.”
    He predicted 2 years ago that this would happen, and that our greatest treat currently comes from the radical right wing, like neo-nazis. He talked about how they are starting to get tattoos with ink that only shows up under ultraviolet light to avoid suspicion by law enforcement, and the reason we don’t think about them anymore is because they are getting better at covert actions.

    You should also contact Dr. Ann Jordan over at North Texas. She’s currently writing a book on Saudi Arabia, and I think much of it is about gender relationships under Islam there. She’s been there many times.

  11. Rick is quickly killing this blog, he is so boring and his political defense of old Bush policies supported by Obama is tiring.

  12. Boring? Never. I’m more exciting than a Tokyo nightclub.

    Anyway, where did I ever defend Bush policies here?

  13. Nah, I’m not Muslim although I’m often confused for one even by Muslims. My Sufi friends consider me to be Muslim. 🙂 Even if I wanted to take the Shahada I still would not call myself Muslim because it would limit my ability to talk to Muslims if they thought I was Shi’a or Sufi (or vice-vera a Salafi/Wahhabi). I must confess though that it is a good warrior’s religion. It’s not pacifist by any means and I can see its appeal to young men (and some women) with its call to the most noble struggle against evil and for life in eternity in the presence of our creator. The problem is that it’s taken to extremes well beyond what is permitted in warfare according to Islamic rules of Jihad (clearly written in Sahih Muslim Book 19 The Book of Jihad and Expedition (Kitab Al-Jihad wa’l-Siyar)). Any hadiths that are considered “Sahih” means that they are generally very strong hadiths with few if any breaks in the chain of transmission and usually have multiple narrators.

    The other problem is that the tradition of serious “itijihad” (the process of re-interpretation of Islam to answer contemporary issues) ended in medival times for the most part and has stagnated every since. Hence the reason why how people do things in Islamic cultures often resembles how things were done hundreds of years ago. With that said, there is a strong movement that is beginning to do this seriously such as the Zaytuna Foundation, an American organization that has alot of respect even amongst many Arab Muslim scholars. Sadly these movements get very little attention in the media. Most Americans have probably never heard of Hamza Yussuf (one of Zaytuna’s founders and a top American Islamic scholar).

    I do agree with you Rick, that most anthropologists do immerse themselves in their subject matter due to the nature of anthropology. However I have not seen alot of this when it comes to the issue of Islam. They might live with a Muslim family or in a Muslim community, but will they pray with them? Will they fast during Ramadan with them? Will they go and attend Jumah prayer with them and spend hours listening to lectures on Islam by Muslim scholars? If they do, then they must be embarassed to write about Islam’s spirituality and emotions I guess out of fear of not being taken seriously by fellow academics. Yet it’s those emotions that are core to the understanding of Muslims and all the differences between an average Muslim and a radicalized extremist Muslim.

    That was basically my main point.

    OH regarding the new breed of American terrorists. Yeah I remember reading about that lecture and totally agreed with that back then. I remember years ago meeting a white blonde haired USAF Muslim Chaplain who was arguing about Islamic theology with one of my Sufi friends and I could help but thinking, “wow, I could totally imagine that dude being a terrorist” as he was just really angry and demanding absolute respect and absolute adherence to his version of Islam (Salafism). Do you also remember after 9/11 that one militia group they found here in Texas with enough sodium cyanide to take out a small town? (And enough ammo and weapons for a small army).
    This is a great website about that incident that was basically ignored by the mainstream American media:


  14. Wow, that’s crazy, I didn’t know anything about that plot. I was actually in Tokyo on 9-11, and didn’t make my back state side for a couple of years after that. I saw first hand what the Iraq invasion did to our popularity overseas.

    About your point on anthro. Islamic studies, don’t you think the same thing could be said about any study of the culture of religion. I mean, I’m a Buddhist, which means I’m kind of an atheist, and it’s all just ritual and metaphor to me. That’s a good post-modernist argument though, kind of like what Renato Rosaldo talked about with the feeling of the morning of a loved one. Very similar actually.
    Something to think about.

  15. To get back to the post…

    I asked Varzi about jihadi videos: These strike me as a rich source of information about a culture that is otherwise inaccessible to anthropologists: jihadi martyrs.

    What strikes me here is what sounds like a slip: the idea that these videos would show you the culture of jihadi martyrs.

    I say it sounds like a slip, because the ideas that a) there is such a bounded thing as a ‘culture of jihadi martyrs’ and b) you could extract it from videos (produced under particular conditions for particular purposes and intended publics) seem incompatible with the idea that

    Colonial documents, biographies, and census records need to be differentially theorized not as statements of fact or fiction but as culturally situated texts.

    That is to say (with due respect to Gertzian metaphors), “a culture” is not the same thing as “culturally situated texts”.

    I find that in these discussions it’s helpful to remember the keen observation of a very canny anthropologist friend: We always study our objects indirectly.

    This is both because of the nature of our objects (they are theoretical objects, not material objects, even though they have material residues…think about ritual, for example) and the nature of our study (we speak from the spesific and address the general and ponder the relation between them… think about Marilyn Strathern, for example).

    When I think about this, it makes me wonder if the relevant distinction isn’t one between classical and ‘PoMo’ (or whatever) models of ethnographic method, but rather between work that acknowledges this indirectness and work that obfuscates it?

  16. Ahhh, Mr McCeery…I guess I second your call for grace! Or maybe a preview pain so we can see that we left out a !

  17. Zoe, would it not be better to ask, what those theories are for? I believe that too often anthropologists lose sight of the fact that our theories are about better understanding humanity and not mere “objects”, a term I object to using (bad pun intended). 🙂
    Whether you can or can’t extract cultural knowledge from a propaganda video depends largely on how you measure the accuracy of your observations. The issue of indirect observation is more of a methodological problem that I partly address a few replies above.

    There are also other checks to accuracy in theory such as simply asking samples from your research population as to whether or not your theoretical model for them is accurate (assuming they can understand it). Another option is to test the theory if it is testable in a real world environment. If neither can be done, then you remain with the possibility that the theoretical model placed upon the Jihadist cultures (and yes they do exist and have been well documented outside of academia) does nothing but confuse and muddle an accurate framework for understanding their cultures. That was the primary reason why I heavily emphasized the importance of studying Islamic theology as it is the primary framework though which Jihadists see the world.

    I’m not sure if you ignored my first post because of my lack of anthropological vernacular or theoretical rigor but I hope that you will read that post carefully as it may answer what you are asking only from a very different approach then what is routinely taught within anthropology.

    As far as getting good data from the videos alone, that is only viable if you have other non-propaganda data on Jihadist cultures to compare it to. Otherwise it is propaganda (which can, in and of itself, tell you something) that will be filled with both accuracies and inaccuracies or that can be studied purely on it’s level of (or type of) effect on its target audience/s as propaganda. That would actually be a very meaningful way of studying such videos.

  18. Chris: I didn’t directly address your first post because I didn’t have anything productive to say about it.

    As to the (directly) above, I would agree that studying these videos as what they are (what Adam called “culturally situated texts”) would be very meaningful. I would go further and say it might be the only ethical way to study them.

    I would also agree that theories are for understanding (though it kind of seems like you want your theories to be for “social engineering”).

    BUT (and it is a big one) they also and inevitably have effects (yes, I’m talking about Foucault), one of which is to objectify the things they seek to understand, since before you can understand something you have to carve it off from the rest of the world (yes, I’m talking about Said). Some of us may be concerned to make these cuts at the joint (that’s Strathern again), making the objectified bits seem more ‘natural’. Others of us may seek to make more explicit the fact of this carving up (that’s basically everyone who’s written anything since about 1986 from Marcus and Fisher to Fassin and Rechtman).

    If you want to say we study humanity instead of our particularly carved objects of inquiry, be my guest. That doesn’t address the fact that what counts as a legitimate focus for a study of ‘humanity’ (and even what counts human) is a function of our work on it, our particular carving.

    Carving can create a thing of beauty, and that thing is always an object radically altered from its previous state as a tree or a stone or an unblemished piece of flesh. Carving can also be careless butchery, which is the result of hacking away at the world with our various cutting edges without paying careful attention to what happens when they meet the meat of the world.

    This approach to knowledge and practices of knowing (yup, that’s epistemology) is incompatible with the idea of testable (if by that you mean verifiable and falsifiable) theories; it doesn’t allow for a neat separation of the theory, from its production, from its object, from its use. This is also incompatible with the idea that just because something has been well documented (within or outside academia) it exists as an empirical object in the world (which will bring us back to doh, as Julie Andrews J. Simpson might say).

  19. Obviously how theory is produced is important and subject to biases no matter who does it. When it comes to humanity, there are all sorts of “knowing” or “carving” as you might say. The question becomes, “who is the rightful butcher of cultural understanding”?
    Who judges who is the most skillful butcher? Who are the true experts in a field? Ultimately it is a matter of opinion and personal beliefs bound (although not shackled) by our own particular social constructs and belief systems.

    The philosophers of science have every right to ponder these important issues and they are indeed important as we all have to take a step back and seriously examine what we are doing and why along with the repercussions of what we are doing. However here lays the distinction between academic and applied anthropology. In the study of peace and conflict as an applied anthropologist, for myself it is enough if samples of my research population tell me that my description of their point of view is accurate. If I have done that, then I feel that I have done half of my job and that my methodology is sound. The other half of the job is to effect a particular outcome.

    I also might add, that I don’t agree that you should always carve something away from the rest of the world in order to understand it. Sometimes this works (and is necessary) but sometimes it doesn’t because you then miss other factors that influence what you are seeking to understand. In the case of Islamic Jihadists, isolating them does not work very well unless someone is looking at an extremely defined area of their cultures that is highly limited in scope. Offhand however I can’t think of any such thing when it comes to the culture of martyrdom found amongst Jihadists unless you were to only do a psychological profile of an average individual within such a culture. That, as I’m sure you agree, would result in grossly incomplete data and potentially misleading conclusions. Getting such information is also extremely difficult as it would require a long term case-study.

    I also disagree that our focus of study determines what counts as a “legitimate” study of humanity or even for what counts as “human”. Perhaps to some academics this is true, but it is all worthless if they are concepts divorced from the day to day reality of people who may think our ideas to be insane and useless. For that reason I have always had a profound distaste for social theory that has no practical application in today’s world. They become more like articles of faith within a religion ironically. In other words they become other ways of “knowing” just as religion is another way of “knowing” about the universe just as the Western constructs of scientific theory and methods are another way of knowing.
    With that said, IF the social theory way of “knowing” can be applied in a practical manner to solving issues of humanity, then to an applied anthropologist, those theories suddenly gain a lot of interest and usefulness.
    How ethically such theories and methods are used (as in this case of studying terrorists) is a vastly different argument and an extremely complex one that I don’t think there will ever be agreement on.

    What I tend to see most often from the academic side of anthropology is a more detached sympathy for resistance to power (and passionate criticism towards power) while ignoring the horrific brutality of that resistance and the middle ground people caught between resistance and occupation (an area of research that has not been well explored by social science).
    Finally before even all of that, comes the argument over whether war is right or wrong. You could write volumes (and many have) on that topic alone along with whether this particular “war on terror” is right or wrong (or what distinct aspects of it are right or wrong). Those are issues that military theorists currently struggle with. We now are slowly seeing the fruits of those intellectual struggles (informed by social science) in the manner in which the conduct of war has changed in Afghanistan towards much more cultural sensitivity (although far from perfect) and towards conflict resolution.

  20. Rick, it just occurred to me that there is an article by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney that you might be interested in (also available from her webpage). If you read it or have already I would be interested in anything you and Chris and anyone else would care to say about it.

  21. Thank you MTBradley, I’ll keep it in mind to read after a couple of deadlines have passed. I was also sent a link to this article by an friend: http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/123271458/abstract

    I really want to read that one, because it’s got the latest about the HTS with AFRICOM. I really haven’t been liking the latest news about the HTS, and I’m been looking for non-biased sources.

    Anyway, back to the subject, I have to say that I haven’t read the latest back-and-forth, but I wanted to add that there are pretty solid methods for analyzing propaganda, like Jihadi videos. The science of human pursuance and motivation is probably where much of my interest are. I think that we have to understand how it’s done to counter various damaging interests that seek to subvert some for their own benefit. That encompasses people to get others to blow themselves up, or the Tea Party movement, Wall Street interests, or whatever. There’s a deconstruction technique that the US army developed decades ago that I find helpful in reverse engineering propaganda; again, whether its online or on FOX news.

    The method is called SCAME, which stands for: Source, Content, Author, Media, and Effect.

    So, what is the source of the propaganda. This tells you a lot, even when you don’t know the source. Sometimes the source will be hidden, or attempt to make it looks like another source that it isn’t. For example, an add from the American’s for Rainbows and Puppys might really just be a front group for the Oil Industry. The font, the jargon, everything in it can be used as a clue to who it’s from if that it hidden. Also, follow the money.

    Then Content. What’s actually in it? What are the themes? Are there claims that can’t be referenced? If the content truthful, misleading, a lie, or honest?

    These first two things lead us to looking for who the Audience is. This is very important. A good example is advertising for children. The final audience for that is not the child, it is the parent. The target audience for propaganda is always a segmented group that can actually carry out what it is that the creator wants. The kids can’t buy shit, but they can nag their parents to buy it. In Vietnam the Russians created propaganda for G.I.s that asked them to call home and tell their friends and family to protest the war, and call congress, etc… the soldier wasn’t the target audience, their social networks were. The people that get Tea Party people to protest aren’t so interested in what the far right feels, they are after the minds of politicians.

    Media: how is it produced, and sent out. What are the technical abilities, etc… This tells you a lot. Jihadis, for example, are probably the worlds most sophisticated propagandists for a non-business group. Their audience is almost always Muslims as well. They really suck at trying to persuade non-Muslims, and don’t often try. If the media uses pictures and not words, then perhaps it is for illiterate people.

    Then Effect. What is the effect of the media campaign? This helps you to reverse engineer the SCAME method and check it. What are both the intended, unintended, expected, and observed effects?

    I think we should all keep this method in mind whenever we watch the news, read a paper, whatever. This not only gives you insight into the cultural assumptions of the creator, but also insight into their assumptions about the assumptions of the audience.

  22. Correction that that last post:

    “The science of human pursuance and motivation is probably where much of my interest are.” Should read:

    The science of human persuasion and motivation is probably where much of my interest are.

  23. I just saw a news story today that made me want to bring this thread back.

    [60 Minutes]

    One of the things that pervades the majority of these videos is a particular narrative of resistance. It is a resistance of Islam against the “West” which hates and is trying to destroy Islam.

    This meta-narrative, which is no different or less obvious to a cultural anthropologist than the narratives of development, or neoliberalism, and can be analyzed through the videos. I’ve already talked in this thread about how to do that, and about the narrative itself.

    You can also see that many of the non-Muslims who parrot this narrative, are the same people that parrot various radical left propaganda. Within the narrative terrorists are defended and the fact that they kill more Muslims than anyone is glossed over completely. You’ll notice that, as many other reliable sources state, most of the people that buy into the narrative are affluent and educated. While this is so, the narrative leaves one with the belief that those who carry out terrorist attacks are simply resisting, are freedom fighters, have been attacked directly, etc…

    You’ll hear this narrative parroted verbatim at places like Zero Anthropology, and there will be Zero self reflection of the fact that they’ve simply been manipulated by propagandists.

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