The Anthropology Wars

By Darling, Eliza Jane | Monthly Review, December 2012 | Go to article overview

The Anthropology Wars


Darling, Eliza Jane, Monthly Review


The Anthropology Wars David Price, Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in the Service of the Militarized State (AK Press, 2011), 208 pages, $15.95, paperback.

In 1929 Bronislaw Malinowski, the primogenitor of twentiethcentury anthropology, published an article extolling the merits of his science in the process of colonial administration. "My own opinion, as that of all competent anthropologists, is that indirect or dependent rule is infinitely preferable," he held. "In fact, if we define dependent rule as the control of Natives through the medium of their own organization, it is clear that only dependent rule can succeed. For the government of any race consists rather in implanting in them ideas of right, of law and order, and making them obey such ideas."1 Malinowski's piece, entitled "Practical Anthropology," appeared in the journal of the International African Institute. It was essentially a fundraising pitch for the Institute, which was seeking a subsidy from the Rockefeller Foundation by demonstrating the workaday virtues of what was until then an obscure discipline with little apparent importance to the vast powers stretching outward from the heart of capitalism to envelope the world.

Eight decades later anthropology's quest for investment perseveres, its mission still bound up with the imperative to posit the discipline as a science with practical applications beyond the gates of the academy. Yet the tables have strangely turned: it is now imperial powers, cash in hand, which turn to a reluctant anthropology, seeking scientific means of domination through a form of cultural warfare. In Weaponizing Anthropology, David Price documents the latest form of blood alimony proffered by the custodians of empire to the discipline which was once styled the "child of western imperialism."2

The neocolonial power at stake in this volume is the U.S. military, and the key to understanding its interest in anthropologists begins with method: the ways in which we collect data and the forms of knowledge such methods produce. Anthropology is not, of course, the only social science patronized by the architects of war, much less the only science - psychology, geography, and area studies are also favorite sons, exhibiting singular proficiencies for military appropriation.3 With anthropologists, the proficiency on offer is ethnography. This might be simply described as an amalgam of aphorisms, laying somewhere between "walking a mile in someone's shoes" and "going straight to the horse's mouth." In reality it is a house with many mansions, a contested, nonstandard and customizable toolkit comprising both qualitative and quantitative methods of obtaining information. Ethnography's cornerstone is broadly agreed to be "participant observation": the process of living with, and to the greatest extent possible like, some group of people for an extended period of time, to better understand how they think, what they care about, and why they live as they do. Participant observation does what it says on the tin. When anthropologists want to know something about people, they spend time with them, treading the fine line between participating in their Uves as a local and observing them as a stranger.

As the discipline of anthropology gathered steam as a totalizing effort to theorize the development of humankind from its primordial origins - of which indigenous peoples were once mistakenly perceived as living examples, a sort of vestigial organ on the body of the species - ethnography became a methodological inevitability. Many such peoples inhabited lands far distant from the western European and U.S. homes of the white, male, comfortably well-heeled and Occidental anthropological cohort who sought to know them, accessible otherwise only through travel logs, missionary accounts, colonial records, or fanciful imagination, and often speaking languages with no written form. It was empire indeed which paved our path to the remote corners of the world, though considerable dispute persists over the extent to which anthropologists facilitated conquest, or conquest facilitated anthropologists, alternatively conceived with varying degrees of historical guilt as birds of prey or carrion fowl. …

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