With ‘Cold War Anthropology’ David Price brings his trilogy on anthropology and American power to a powerful conclusion

Price, David H. 2016. Cold War Anthropology: The CIA, the Pentagon, and the Growth of Dual Use Anthropology. Duke University Press. 

A few years ago, I had a chance to have lunch with David Price and some other people at the AAA meetings. Back then, he struck me as exactly like the kind of person you’d expect to be a professor at a small liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest. Which is exactly what he is. Graying beard, laid back manner. I couldn’t see his feet but if he was wearing Birkenstocks, I wouldn’t be surprised. But beneath this amiable exterior is one of America’s most impressive historians of anthropology, a radical thinker and untiring author whose relentlessly probes the dark corners of our discipline’s history. In the course of twelve years Price has written three books which have helped redefine anthropology’s understanding of itself. And now, with Cold War Anthropology, Price brings his massive, precedent-make (and -busting) history of anthropology and American power to a close. It’s a defining moment in the history of anthropology, and deserves wide attention.

Price uses many methods to write his books, but he’s best known for his FOIA requests: extracting classified material from the US Government using the Freedom Of Information Act. In essence, he has written a history of American anthropology out of the files of the FBI, CIA, and other three letter agencies which run our intelligence services. His first book, Threatening Anthropology demonstrated the how widespread FBI surveillance shaped anthropology and anthropologists in the 1950s. Anthropological Intelligence described how anthropologists took part in World War Two, ‘weaponizing’ the discipline with various degrees of success. Now, in Cold War Anthropology, Price shows us how anthropology’s war-time involvement  rolled over into support for America’s Cold War Empire, even as more radical parts of the discipline organized against American Power.

Price’s volumes are not light reads which carefully walk the reader through a big-picture account of anthropology and it’s relationship with American intelligence agencies. In them, Price never skimps on details, and brings you right into the weeds. His books tend to focus on particular individuals or institutions — indeed, they often feel like a guided tour of Price’s notebooks, or even the raw sources themselves. In fact, a good portion of Price’s trilogy just is reproductions of the documents he’s found. It’s a very effective method of writing. Seeing censored portions of documents, with whole lines (or more) blacked out gives you a sense of what research on this topic is like. At the same time, Price never loses the big picture. In fact, he struggles with it. In Cold War Anthropology in particular, we watch Price try to corral a massive archive of files order to extract from it a big picture  account of how the intelligence community, scholarly societies, and the academy collaborated to create area studies… among other things! It’s a remarkable achievement.

Price began his FOIA work around twenty years ago, and roughly a dozen years have passed between the appearance of the first book in the trilogy, Threatening Anthropology, and Cold War Anthropology. There’s a reason, then, that his books occasionally feel cramped, or overstuffed: Price has accomplished the work of a lifetime in just two decades. I’m sure that some reviewers will call it a phone book. But you know what? Sometimes you need curation! He’s created volumes so detailed and documented that are valuable contributions in and of themselves, but also point the way to future research. We should hope that  many scholars in the future to latch on to Price’s project and produce more work in the same vein drawing on the leads he’s unearthed.

If Price’s work was merely a history of the political economy of our discipline, then that would be enough. But more importantly, Price demonstrates that our discipline’s theories of power, economics, and ethnicity were shaped by its interaction with American intelligence agencies. That is to say, the intellectual content of our discipline itself, he argues, was shaped by the history he describes in ways that are essential, not tangential, to our central theoretical concerns. It’s a sobering insight, and one that is especially welcome today, when top-shelf anthropology sometimes seems less interested in explaining the world than in pointing out how incoherent, contradictory, recursive, incomplete, and partial it is. Yes, I imagine Price saying, looking up from a desk overflowing with stacks of censored, fragmentary, overwhelmingly large amounts of paper, but isn’t the goal is to describe complexity clearly? It’s not surprising that Price traces describes his own intellectual influences as scholars like Laura Nader and Marvin Harris.

Price has a well-earned reputation for a politics that is not just progressive, but radical. For instance, in addition to writing his trilogy he also managed to produce enough columns in Counterpunch to turn them into the book Weaponing Anthropology. I suppose that this might make some suspicious of Price’s impartiality and prudence as a scholar — especially when his subject is the American intelligence community. But Price’s radicalism is the best kind of radicalism. It springs not from ideological commitment or personal grievance, but from clear eyed view of just how profoundly borked the world is. Cold War Anthropology, like his other books, is driven by a social scientific agenda where truth, accuracy, and transparency are paramount. In this regard, he has more in common with Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitress than Bob Avian.

These volumes could have been sensationalistic tell-alls of the many human weaknesses the FBI salaciously documented as it surveilled anthropology, or it could have been rabid denunciations of the wrong committed by anthropologists in the name of American empire. But instead Price takes the high road, noting the empirical and moral complexity of the history he uncovers. When he does — as he does — take his own moral stance on these issues, his credibility comes from the care with which he does his history.

Historians of anthropology will welcome this volume, but it is relevant for every anthropologist working today. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, anthropologists took Cold War money because there was so much of it. Today, when there is so little of it, anthropologists usually can only chose between funding with more strings attached, or less. In Cold War Anthropology Price paints pictures of anthropologists who struggled with the ethics of  funding, a picture which is not just a vision of our past, but a cautionary tale for our future. We will be making these same hard decisions more and more in the future. We have much to learn from our discipline’s recent past, and thanks to David Price we have the opportunity to see our field as it really was, warts and all. The stories in this book, and the issues that it raises, need to be discussed by the discipline as a whole.


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

One thought on “With ‘Cold War Anthropology’ David Price brings his trilogy on anthropology and American power to a powerful conclusion

  1. Rex, thank you for adding another body of work to my ever-growing must read list. I don’t know if David Price’s work covers this angle, but useful comparative material may be found in the work of business anthropologist Marietta Baba (see, for example, http://ej.lib.cbs.dk/index.php/jba/issue/view/441). I am thinking of the role that institutions like the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations played, both in funding scholarship and establishing power-elite links between the government and private sector. In my case, my field research on Chinese popular religion in Taiwan was funded by the National Science Foundation with supplementary funding provided by the Ford Foundation via the Cornell China Program. Why was ample funding for what might seem an esoteric topic readily available to me? It clearly had something to do with the fact that the Vietnam War was still underway and and a lot of money was being poured into Asian studies. But Chinese popular religion? If you know Chinese history, you know how often popular religion was the context in which revolutionary millenarian movements emerged. . . . I do not know for a fact that this consideration helped to win my grants, but . . . . Thanks to Baba, I now know that Ford, Rockefeller, etc., which major sources of support for scholars, including anthropologists, who went on to play major roles in the HR consulting and marketing research industries. Some ambitious young scholar following in David’s footsteps might want to have a look at these extra-governmental connections as well.

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