[Marxism] Anthropology and imperialism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Nov 6 10:08:46 MST 2009

Counterpunch Weekend Edition
November 6-8, 2009
 From Malinowski to Human Terrain Systems
Empires and the Sullying of Anthropology


In the September 30, 2009, online edition of CounterPunch in an 
article titled “Country of Constant Sorrow:  McChrystal's Afghan 
Desolation,” Vijay Prashad wrote,

     “Enter a war zone with the expectation that the heavy armor 
will coerce the population into electing a favorable head of 
state; if this fails, then take refuge in your anthropologists, 
who will find a quick way to ‘nativize’ the war and help you 
clamber onto the helicopters.  The country you have left behind is 
now more of a humanitarian disaster than when you self-righteously 
flew in on the wings of humanitarian interventionism.”

The notion of anthropologists being helpmates in the First World 
conquest of the Third World seems now to have become embedded in 
the day-to-day understanding of the Bush-initiated 
Iraq-Afghanistan cultural-military fiasco.  Whether political 
scientists, philosophers, area specialists, or whoever actually 
fills the “societal” expert position on the Human Terrain Systems 
(HTS) teams, anthropologists apparently are to take the blame. 
And anthropologists themselves are not exempt from furthering this 

Perhaps the most notorious anthropologist associated with the U.S. 
military’s HTS is Montgomery McFate, who writes primarily for 
military publications and whose pivotal article “Anthropology and 
Counterinsurgency” appeared in the April 2005 issue of Military 
Review.  A hapless mix of shoddy history and misdirected 
anthropology, her article was, nevertheless, reprinted in the 2007 
edition of Annual Editions Anthropology -- along with articles by 
Conrad Kottak, Richard Lee, and Ralph Linton, and in the 2009 
second edition of Classic Readings in Cultural Anthropology, 
edited by Gary Ferraro -- along with brand-name anthropologists 
such as Horace Miner, Clyde Kluckhohn, Edward T. Hall, Richard 
Lee, and E. E. Evans-Pritchard.  Why McFate deserves to be in this 
company is unclear; there are many other articles by respectable 
anthropologists that clearly explained the HTS affair. [Among them 
have been  David Price’s path-breaking contributions on this site 
and in our CounterPunch newsletter. Editors.]  Making McFate’s 
piece widely available only further sullies anthropology.

Anthropology hardly needs a renewed association with First World 
empires; it has obviously had difficulty living down its close 
association with colonialism in its formative recent past.  The 
great British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, one of the most 
important founders of modern anthropology who provided a model for 
nonjudgmental, systematic, long-term fieldwork -- the hallmark of 
anthropology -- was director of the International African 
Institute in London for a few years, and in that position he was 
concerned primarily with helping British colonial officials with 
their problems.  One specific problem for Britain centered on 
getting the indigenes to work hard on the cash-crop plantations 
owned by the Europeans.  In a 1929 article Malinowski wrote:

     “The simplest experience teaches that to everybody work is . 
. . unpleasant, but a study of primitive conditions shows that 
very efficient work can be obtained, and the Natives can be made 
to work with some degree of real satisfaction if propitious 
conditions are created for them. . . . In Melanesia I have seen 
this applied on some plantations.  Use was made of such stimuli as 
competitive displays of the results, or special marks of 
distinction for industry, or again of rhythm and working songs. . 
. . Such things must never be improvised -- an artificial 
arrangement will never get hold of native imagination.  In every 
community I maintain there are such indigenous means of achieving 
more intensive labour and greater output.”

And in further advising about the duties of the anthropologist 
Malinowski wrote, "He should formulate his conclusions in a manner 
so that they can be understood by those who carry out policies. 
He also has the duty to speak as the natives' advocate, without, 
however, succumbing to an outburst of pro-native ranting.  Through 
comparative study he can discover and define the common factor of 
European intentions and of African response. . . . Knowledge gives 
foresight, and foresight is indispensable to the statesman and to 
the local administrator, to the educationalist, welfare worker, 
and missionary alike."  Notice that it is European intentions and 
African response.  Notice that "knowledge" and "foresight" is for 
the European colonialists, not for the “natives.”

No anthropologist in these early years suggested that anthropology 
should be used to help the indigenes throw off the yoke of 
colonial oppression or that anthropologists should study the 
contradictions and weaknesses of colonial imperialism so that the 
indigenes could strike at the heart of the oppressors.

Malinowski was, of course, a product of his time.  And before 
World War II it was widely assumed in the colonial metropoles, 
that colonialism was beneficial in the long run to everyone; 
backward peoples were, after all, being civilized so that they 
could enjoy the benefits of modernization and civilization in the 
future.  And these early anthropologists strove to enlighten the 
rulers and protect the ruled from the more brutal aspects of 
colonialism, such as forced labor.  Today, however, most 
anthropologists have moved beyond this 1920s colonial version of 
the discipline.

Some anthropologists even at the time escaped this ethnocentric 
perspective.  Franz Boas, the founder of U.S. anthropology, 
famously critiqued anthropologists involved with the U.S. military 
in World War I in his 1919 letter to the Nation titled “Scientists 
as Spies.”  His student, and my first anthropology instructor, the 
great Melville J. Herskovits, refused government financial 
assistance for Northwestern University’s African Studies program 
and he also refused to accept government officials into the Ph.D. 
program.  These towering figures certainly would not allow 
anthropology to be sullied.  The discipline did, however, suffer 
some sullying during World War II and the subsequent Cold War. 
Anthropologists’ activities in World War II are examined in David 
Price’s 2008 Anthropological Intelligence, and the Thailand part 
of Project Agile is examined in Eric Wakin’s 1992 Anthropology 
Goes to War.  One would hope, however, that modern-day 
anthropologists have learned the lesson and that such sullying and 
empire-helpmate activities would no longer occur.

As Price wrote on October 1-15, 2009, however, in an article in 
CounterPunch newsletter titled “Anthropology, Human Terrain’s 
Prehistory, and the Role of Culture in Wars Waged by Robots,” 
“Human Terrain Systems is not some neutral humanitarian project, 
it is an arm of the U.S. military and is part of the military’s 
mission to occupy and destroy opposition to U.S. goals and 
objectives.  HTS cannot claim the sort of neutrality claimed by 
groups like Doctors Without Borders, or the International 
Committee of the Red Cross.”  In October 2007 much to its credit 
the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association 
denounced HTS for its failure to follow the fundamental principles 
of anthropological ethics.  Out of the 261 comments from members 
of the American Anthropological Association in the blog 
accompanying the statement of the executive board the vast 
majority overwhelmingly condemn the participation of 
anthropologists in HTS.

The few anthropologists engaged in these neocolonial enterprises 
cannot be said to represent the discipline, but they have received 
considerable publicity thereby sullying anthropology’s reputation. 
  Exactly what they expect to accomplish anthropologically is not 
entirely clear.  They are a fairly motley bunch.  The ones that we 
have information on seem to have little if any expertise in the 
Middle East.  And most of them are not exactly forthcoming about 
their activities -- nor is the U.S. military.

One who has written rather openly is Marcus Griffin, who has a 
Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Illinois and who, 
until recently, was an assistant professor at Christopher Newport 
University in Newport News, Virginia, a rapidly growing public 
university with an enrollment of about 5,000.

Griffin has been the subject of several articles, has written 
about his experiences in his own blog, and has briefly replied to 
criticism in the anthropological blog Savage Minds.  In an article 
in the April 21, 2008, issue of Newsweek titled “A Gun in One 
Hand, A Pen in the Other” written by Dan Ephron and Silvia Spring 
it is pointed out that Griffin “had never been to the Middle East 
before he arrived in Iraq last fall,” though he had spent much of 
his life in the Philippines with his anthropologist father who 
does research on the Agta of Northern Luzon.  Ephron and Spring 
noted that although he is a civilian Griffin wore army clothing 
and carried a rifle.  The reporters stated, “For their services, 
the anthropologists get up to $300,000 annually while posted 
abroad -- a salary that is six times higher than the national 
average for their field.”

The rest of the Newsweek article is largely critical of the HTS 
program, which, it reported, “was handed to BAE without a bidding 
process.”  BAE Systems is a company that apparently lives off U.S. 
Department of Defense contracts.  According to their website, BAE 
Systems currently has positions open for HTS Reachback Research 
Center Analyst, Human Terrain Systems Analyst, Human Terrain 
Systems Research Manager, and HTS Team Leader.

A more critical article by Dahr Jamail in the May 1, 2009, edition 
of Truthout titled “An Anthropologist and Army Medics Work at a 
Medical Clinic in the Shabak Valley in Afghanistan” pointed out 
that HTS developed “into a $40 million program that embedded four 
or five person groups of scholars in the aforementioned fields in 
all 26 US combat brigades that were busily occupying Iraq and 
Afghanistan.”  Jamail reported that Griffin, “while preparing to 
deploy to Iraq at part of an HTS team, boasted on his blog, ‘I cut 
my hair in a high and tight style and look like a drill sergeant . 
. . I shot very well with the M9 and M4 last week at the range . . 
. Shooting well is important if you are a soldier regardless of 
whether or not your job requires you to carry a weapon.’”

An article meant to be favorable toward HTS and toward Griffin was 
datelined Baghdad and released by the American Forces Press 
Service on January 25, 2008.  Titled “Anthropologist Helps 
Soldiers Understand Iraqis’ Needs” and written by Sgt. James P. 
Hunter, U.S. Army, it characterized Griffin as “an anthropologist 
working for the 101st Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team” 
who is bringing “his knowledge and experience to the fight” and 
“is helping soldiers better understand the needs of the Iraqi 
people.”  The article focuses on Griffin’s study of Iraqi local 
markets, which he toured accompanied by an armed escort.

In responding to questions of ethics posed by anthropologists on 
the popular blog Savage Minds in August 2007, Griffin wrote:

     “I am deploying in a few days and time is very short.  I work 
sixteen hour days and can expect to do so from now on seven days a 
week until I’m given R&R in six months.  That is not an 
exaggeration.  I am not evading questions about ethics, I simply 
cannot devote the time to my blog because my blog is not my job, 
just a way to show my students how I am doing my job away from the 
classroom.  I write in it when I can.

     “As for going native, how can I possibly help the Army use 
fewer bombs and bullets to achieve the operational goal of 
securing neighborhoods from sectarian, criminal, and political 
violence if I don’t know anything about Army culture and don’t 
seem to care about living as they do?  Living with the Iraqi 
population is simply not an option -- the last time I checked 
people get their heads cut off or are shot by a sniper for 
lingering around.  Personally, I think going to Iraq tests the 
current relevance of anthropology.  We’ll see how relevant the 
discipline is and how well or poorly I perform as an 
anthropologist.  My blog will contain posts about it all.  My next 
entry will be from downrange.  Ciao.”

Griffin’s blog is currently unavailable.  Griffin is no longer 
with Christopher Newport University and is, in fact, now employed 
by BAE Systems.  In response to questions I recently posed to 
Griffin, he wrote on October 7, 2009, “I am currently getting 
ready for a trip to Afghanistan and not able to give answering 
these questions priority.  Perhaps when I return next month I will 
have more time.”

In a similar fashion to the problems faced by psychologists 
dealing with the role of a few of their cohorts’ compliance with 
torture, anthropologists will need to cleanse the standing of  the 
profession not only by careful discussion of the issues but also 
by taking action that clearly separates the discipline of 
anthropology from war, spying, empire building, and military 

Robert Lawless teaches anthropology at Wichita State University . 
He has done fieldwork in the Philipinnes, Haiti , Florida and New 
York (studying urban hippie communes in the early 1970s).  He can 
be reached at robert.lawless at wichita.edu

More information about the Marxism mailing list