Avatar: anthropology

Anthropology: Imperialist abuse of science

Simon Wells reviews: David H Price, 'Weaponizing anthropology: social science in service of the militarized state', AK Press (Counterpunch series), 2011, £12, pp208

 James Cameron’s 2009 film Avatar was, unusually for a blockbuster, about anthropology. Its plot turned on concerns that many anthropologists today have about the uses of their discipline for military gain. David Price’s book scrutinises those concerns.

Price’s academic home page tells you that his new book continues a history of the linkages between anthropology and military intelligence agencies. It brings that debate up to the current period from an American perspective. This book should also be read by all who are concerned about the fate of our academic institutions. Along with Roberto Gonzalez, Price is the leading researcher in this area. He is a contributor to Counterpunch, a radical journal covering American foreign policy, and a member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists.

Price demonstrates the linkage between the military establishment, anthropologists and the university campus. The Human Terrain System (HTS) is the practical outcome of these linkages: a system providing frontline army personnel with knowledge of the areas they are occupying and the ‘enemy’ populations they are combating. This system was the tool used by US imperialism post-9/11 when George Bush announced, “You are either with us or with the terrorists”. But this new war on terror, unlike the terrorism of the US war machine in Central and South America during the 1980s, required a softer approach on indigenous and minority peoples struggling for human rights and political recognition. These struggles include non-violent action, such as taking part in banned religious ceremonies, where the asymmetric balance of power is weighted towards interests favoured by the hegemonic states. Price details the flawed approach of HTS, and the use of anthropological research to further the aims of the ‘war on terror’.

American anthropologist Franz Boas was censured by the American Anthropological Association (AAA) when he wrote that the actions of anthropologists in World War I had “prostituted science by using it as a cover for their activities as spies”.1 The AAA was worried that Boas’s comments would hinder the ability of other anthropologists to do fieldwork. And this has been a problem for anthropology, where political and economic priorities come first. Although the activities of Ruth Benedict, Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead contributed to the World War II war effort, this was a less cynical use of anthropology.

Price describes the AAA’s symbiotic relationship with the establishment. Not until quite recently did the AAA revise its code of ethics to restore the prohibition against secrecy, that “anthropologists should not withhold research results from research participants when those results are shared with others”.2 This is one theme that Price shows has most damaged anthropology as a discipline.

The war on terror and the use of HTS bring to the foreground debates that have been ongoing since the beginning of the 20th century. Historically, anthropology has been concerned with indigenous people; the information provided by indigenous cultures through a process of informed consent is framed by ethical considerations as to its uses. British anthropology originated from a fuzzy haze of funding for colonial administrators trained in ethnographic methods and for anthropologists who secured funding to address colonial aims. Bronislaw Malinowski, AR Radcliffe-Brown and Raymond Firth emerged during the period leading up to World War II. British anthropology secured itself as a scientific discipline fulfilling the practical needs of an empire that was being challenged during the inter-imperialist conflict. Whereas 20th century anthropology involved quite overt uses of the knowledge it produced, Price shows that 21st century anthropology has become the victim of a much more systematised and covert war machine. In prosecution of the war on terror, with HTS as a frontline weapon, ethical concerns have all but disappeared.

Colonial administrators and willing anthropologists of the last century did the job to consolidate the empire. However, inquisitive anthropologists in the field could not be relied upon to provide anthropological service to their paymasters once they had been supplied with funding. Price shows nowadays that the CIA, FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency and Homeland Security deliberately recruit and place students in universities that tie them to those intelligence agencies. Schemes such as the National Security Education Program (NSEP) and the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program (PRISP) provide students with funds to study in areas of national security interest. In a period of austerity and reduced funding to universities from government, programmes such as NSEP and PRISP determine and direct the areas of study which bring in funding. Always the case to some extent, this has accelerated during the ‘war on terror’, bringing with it tensions in the academic establishment. And what of the students? They receive a wealth of funds, but with harsh payback penalties if they do not make themselves available for posts the military establishment needs to fulfil its imperial ambitions.

This new turn to a smarter war is encapsulated in the US Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, published in 2006. In the foreword to the manual, US army commander David Petraeus - now director of the CIA - notes: “You cannot fight former Saddamists and Islamic extremists the same way you have fought the Viet Cong ... all insurgencies, even today’s highly adaptable strains, remain wars amongst the people.” Furthermore, he adds that soldiers and marines “must be prepared to help re-establish institutions and local security forces and assist in rebuilding infrastructure and basic services. They must be able to facilitate establishing local governance and the rule of law.” This raised the fears of anthropologists for the struggles of indigenous peoples, when the manual was being sold, to use Price’s words, as a “dream of cultural engineering”. Price reveals the manual to be nothing more than plagiarism of the first order, lifting texts without attribution from brilliant anthropologists such as Victor Turner. This reflects scant regard for anthropological ethics and academic integrity.

Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan opened the gates for many anthropologists to enter the ‘smarter war’, viewing ethics as a luxury. Price is withering about anthropologist Montgomery McFate, whom he sees as the architect of militarising anthropology and HTS. Her fieldwork on British counterinsurgency operations against the Irish Republican Army provided the model for military conquest. It is McFate, Price contends, who has betrayed basic interests of the studied populations. There was an excuse in World War I and II when there were no professional ethical standards - the AAA only formalised a code of ethics in 1971. Although the use of anthropology may signal a new softer turn in wars abroad that appeals to the liberal-minded, Price calls this an anthropological abomination.

To return to the ‘war on terror’, the answer to George Bush’s question, is not yes or no. There is another answer. Anthropologists, students and concerned others - like the ethnographers in Avatar - should side with the struggles of indigenous populations and demand the recall of occupying forces.


(This review is republished with the kind permission of Radical Anthropology. It appears in No6 (November 2012), which has just come out: www.radicalanthropologygroup.org/old/journal_06.pdf.)



1. F Boas, ‘Scientists as spies’ in Anthropology Today 21 (3): 27 2005: www.blackwell-synergy.com/toc/anth/24/v1; originally published in The Nation December 20 1919.

2. See, for example, proposed changes outlined on http://blog.aaanet.org/2008/09/24/proposedchanges-to-the-aaa-code-of-ethics.