I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and of the degree of the arcades' curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past...A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira's past. -Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Anthropology and Counterinsurgency

My colleague Jill Lawrence sent me this link to an article about Anthropology and Counterinsurgency. Her comment was "Long, but interesting. Kinda scathing. Somewhat true, but definately misleading. Partially informed, partially uninformed. Raises a lot of interesting issues."

Indeed it does. The starting point is the fact that anthropological knowledge could have made a great deal of difference in how the US government has handled the occupation and counterinsurgency in Iraq. It also goes through a history of 20th century anthropologists who have aided government intelligence, but notes (and chastises) the profession for being ethically opposed to helping covert operations, and being too caught up in postmodernism to see the importance and relevance of such contributions. The article briefly notes the fact that most in the US government and military have a somewhat derogatory view of the field. (Whew. Keep in mind that is my one paragraph summary of a 14 page article).

Where to begin? I was intrigued from the beginning because I have had many conversations with colleagues about the cultural missteps that have been made in Iraq. And yet, at the same time, I am not personally inclined to work for the Department of Defense. Yes, a better cultural understanding might help soldiers deal with these situations better...but in my view a better cultural understanding might avoid these messes in the first place and I have the impression that is a message the government is not yet willing to hear.

I also know (having experienced it while I was on the board of the American Anthropological Association) that post-modernism did take over a big branch of cultural anthropology in the 1990's. In fact, many mainstream anthropologists (especially archaeologists and biological anthropologists left the AAA because the journal was edited by postmodernists for a few years. And I know that the majority of American anthropologists are in academia (or desperately trying to find a job there), despite the growing number of practitioners.

I don't necessarily dispute what is presented in this article, but I guess I am not sure what to say to it either. I would rather see my government treating other cultures appropriately (by not bombing them, maybe?). But I would not want to feel like a contributor to the war or other activities I am opposed to, and, perhaps more importantly, I am not sure they would truly listen to, and act on, the anthropological point of view.

So, what is our role in influencing government? It has taken many years for us to have an accepted role in influencing business...maybe the issue is to start lobbying from the outside, becoming more mainstream in our voice so we are listened to?


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post, I agree w/you in that as you say "I would rather see my government treating other cultures appropriately..." I considr myself to be an activist anthropologist and am shocked, appalled, and dismayed, by what our current government is doing. Laura Nader writes,what we are experinceing is nothing short of "corporate fundamentalism" and blameless culpitiy" in the form of our American foreign policy. Having said that you might be interested in several posts with regards to present day academia in the work of David Price CIA Skullduggery in Academia and further comments/discussions: here.
-Uncle $cam

p.s. just an off note, you might get more comments to your blog if one didn't have to sign into blogger and create an account to comment.

Alex said...

Thanks for the links, the conversation on Savage Minds is interesting.

As for blogger...I know I set it up so anyone can comment...I'm on not sure if the signing on is a blogger requirement or if I am just lacking in the technical knowledge to change it (I admit to being a blog newbie and appreciate any help/feedback)!