Are you ready to lead the revolution? A final review of David Price’s Weaponizing Anthropology

Price, David H. Weaponizing Anthropology (2011) CounterPunch and AK Press.

Weaponizing Anthropology (2011) by David Price is a highly informative and deeply provocative text that argues against the (mis)use of social sciences –particularly anthropology –by intelligence and military agencies in the theatre of war and counter insurgency operations. Drawing on documentary and historical research, Price raises serious moral and ethical concerns regarding the role of anthropology in the development and implementation of counter insurgency programs such as Human Terrain Systems (HTS) and how funding agencies (corporate and state) have infiltrated onto university campuses across North America. Importantly, Price’s work is a sobering reminder of the importance of upholding the discipline’s duty to ‘do no harm’ and acquire informed consent from those we collaborate with and share research experiences with in the field.

Price argues that the present danger facing  the discipline is that anthropologists have been aware of anthropology’s involvement in these affairs since WWII and Vietnam (the AAA’s code of ethics was made as a result of Vietnam) yet seemingly have not learned from past experiences as evidenced by their continued involvement in war time operations. Anthropology cannot and will not be the hand maidens AGAIN to this infernal machine, regardless of propaganda or media spun and twisted to garner affectual sensibilities. Importantly, anthropologists need to be diligent in their work to expose these imperialist operations at home and abroad, and, above all, they need to support each other in this critical project. This text provokes the reader to think about the changing context of war and how cultural data and ethnographic work is increasing being used by intelligence and military agencies to better understand and control occupied populations, even target and kill those considered to be a threat to these operations. Price’s text is also a reminder that as much as anthropology does not belong in war, it cannot ignore it or those who find themselves caught in the line of fire. Although anthropology has an ethical duty to ‘do no harm’ it also has the moral duty to ensure that no harm comes to innocent lives as a result of state sponsored violence through war or occupation.

If we did take Price’s suggestions or criticisms to heart what would it change? Bombs are still going to be dropped on houses, drones are still going to electronically identify, engage, and remove enemy assets and targets (home or abroad), and soldiers are still going to kill. Civilians will still die. That is war. Big corporations will continue to make weapons (BAE, Northrop Grumman, etc) and they will continue to profit from war –as we all do even if indirectly. How then how are we to remedy this paradox? Is this an irreconcilable truth of our being citizens of the North American superpower (or its neighbor)? If not from within anthropology or the social sciences or outside of them, then from where do we make a stand? I’m not one to subscribe to impoverished cynicism or abject nihilism –I believe that we can make a difference in the world and that the opinions and criticisms of anthropology and social sciences (even from the classroom) can be that voice of challenge and change. But when corporate, military, and intelligence agencies are funding programs in Montreal and across Canada, what are we to do? What can we do? Are you ready to lead the revolution?

Ultimately, I think that we need to take the title of this book seriously –we need to weaponize anthropology. We cannot let state agencies, the military, or corporations weaponize our bodies or knowledge. We need to do it ourselves. I was reminded in class by a colleague that knowledge and reflexivity are the weapons of anthropology and that this kind of radical position is easy to take when one is not invested in life, with a career and a family to think of first. And she was right. However, radical politics demands action as much as it demands sacrifice. Radical politics and action must be transformative if they are to be successful and meaningful. Anthropologists need to see themselves as the instruments of change and not be instrumental to projects or campaigns that seek to further state imperialism, but rather to effect positive change in the world. We are the instruments –we are the weapons –knowledge and reflexivity is our ammunition. ‘Anthropology needs you’ –not Uncle Sam or the Great Canadian North –to fight the good fight, to lay down your life for the greater good. People die every day –civilians and soldiers –fighting for what they believe to be honorable causes for justice, and to preserve a way of life. Is this what anthropologists need to do? Is this going too far? Are we too far removed and insulated in our ivory towers that this sort of commitment is behind us? Maybe we are. I am not advocating that anthropologists need to go to war; indeed Price is arguing that anthropologists do not belong in the theatre of war at all, certainly not in the context of helping to identify the enemy or produce cultural data frameworks to assist military occupations. We do, however need to give this line of inquiry some serious thought and ask ourselves whether we as anthropologists are willing to put our lives –that is, our careers and livelihoods at the very least –on the line to critique, protest, and expose these imperialistic designs. I think that these are the kinds of questions that need to be asked and debated if we are to approach a philosophy –and anthropology –capable of dealing with these issues. Price’s text is certainly a good point of departure for anyone –anthropologist or not –to begin to do just that.

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One thought on “Are you ready to lead the revolution? A final review of David Price’s Weaponizing Anthropology

  1. Great questions. One that has had me thinking for a while, is this one:

    “If not from within anthropology or the social sciences or outside of them, then from where do we make a stand?”

    This is something which I have grappled with and I continue to not have any sort of decisive reply.

    Worse yet is when I come to a question such as this:

    “Are you ready to lead the revolution?”

    My inner Woody Allen says that I will not join any party that would have me as a member.

    Seriously however, I did appreciate this call for an insurgent or revolutionary anthropology.

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