Anthropology?: A Review of David H. Price’s Weaponizing Anthropology

Price, David. (2011). Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

In Weaponizing Anthropology, David H. Price informed and cautioned his readers against the U.S.A.’s incorporation of anthropology and anthropologists into its military. Through the incorporation of selective, and often misconceived anthropological theories, the military has exposed and utilized the fractures in the discipline’s core. Price suggests that anthropology’s failures to adequately define itself, has left it vulnerable and malleable to whatever a user may choose to use it for.

Price’s book explored both the U.S.A.’s public explanations of anthropological incorporation, as well as its more latent and sinister reasonings. Publicly, the presence of anthropologists in Human Terrain Systems was said to provide some much needed cultural knowledge. However, Price revealed that in actuality, cultural knowledge gained value because US military’s occupation in the Middle East was becoming more and more hopeless.

During our seminar this hopelessness was elaborated upon. We reasoned that once it became evident that the United States wasn’t going to win the war through technological warfare, rather than build more destructive weapons, the US military turned its attention to its enemy’s bomb-makers. The military began to strategically seek effective ways to turn its enemy against itself. In order to accomplish this goal, extensive knowledge of the inner-workings of the given culture needed to be obtained. Not for the first time, the military pronounced anthropologists as the best suited for the task. Imbedded anthropologists, as well as academics from other disciplines, were to “function as nerves, feeling and reporting the cultural-emotional responses of occupied peoples so that the machines of war [could] more exactly manipulate and dominate them” (2011:198). Through the help of academics, the sharpest minds were employed ensuring this to be a ‘smart war.’

Price dedicated many pages to the discussion of the military’s disregard for anthropological ethics and loyalties owed to studied populations. However, I do not believe examples of what little regard the military holds for occupied peoples to be particularly shocking. What I believe to be far more telling is Price’s unearthing, through the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, of the military’s selective adoption of anthropological theories. Price suggested that the military has treated anthropology as a buffet, from which it has cherry-pick the parts of the discipline agreeable to its palate. The result is a customized version of anthropology, which “offers an engineering-friendly, false promise of “managing” the complexities of culture as if increased sensitivities, greater knowledge, panoptical legibility could be used in a linear fashion to engineer domination” (2011:190). This ‘version of anthropology’ begs the question if in fact it constitutes as anthropology at all. Price admitted his uncertainty whether the body of knowledge emerging through this newly welded mould, will be recognized as anthropology in the future. However, I believe by questioning if something is truly ‘anthropology,’ Price has exposed a pressure point within our discipline, which requires immediate tending.

During a number of our seminars, the majority of our class, if not the entirety, agreed that the military isn’t performing nor producing anthropology. We agreed with Price that the military’s lack of ethical consideration, and a resistance to be criticized by other academics, would continue to produce over-simplified stereotypes, which deceive the true complexities of cultures. However, the military’s applied scholarship wasn’t the only instance in which we debated whether a body of literature was truly anthropological. Price’s book fell under scrutiny during one of our seminars. We asked ourselves if Price’s Weaponizing Anthropology was justifiably anthropology. Price certainly broke tradition through the ease through which one could read his book. This contrasted against the customary scholarly style of convoluted and dense texts. His heavy reliance on data and historic collections also differed from conventional fieldwork. While we struggled to decide if his work merited the stamp of anthropology, many of us agree that this was not an ethnography. The conversation became directed around the limitations of ethnography. It was argued that Price situated himself in the field, rather than passively observing. His unconventionally positioning allowed him to solicit information from powerful secretive elites, which would have otherwise been much more difficult, or even impossible to obtain.

While Price’s and the military’s methods might not ultimately be credited as anthropology, the point worth considering is that neither is automatically accepted nor rejected as anthropology. Arguments can, and were made for both. Admittedly, our class was fairly quick to reject the military’s use of our discipline as true anthropology. An overwhelming majority agreed with Price, or at least admitted to an agreement, in that the military’s pseudo anthropology was credited to their misuse of the discipline. This then begs the question what the correct uses of our discipline are. Price quoted Alexander Leighton, who compared the administrator’s uses of social science during wartime to that of a drunk using a lamppost for support, rather than illumination (2011:130). Due to anthropologists’ failures to unite the discipline in a common working definition, we have failed to instruct ourselves, as well as the public, of what anthropology is and what it should be used for. We shame the military’s misuse of this metaphorical lamppost, and provide no enlightened explanation of what the lamppost is and its acceptable uses. Rather, we observe, debate, and judge the engagements of others with the lamppost we have constructed. Only when these engagements with the anthropology-lamppost raise ethical, moral, and political issues, we are forced to confront ethical questions about what our discipline is. Even when forced, our definitions are often broad and center around what anthropology is not. Anthropologists have nestled themselves in a limiting position where it is easier to provide examples of anthropology gone wrong, or what the discipline will not stand for.

I believe a better defined discipline will not only save many of us from blank stares and archeological assumptions, it will also establish a more effective security system and free us from the policing jobs many have made their responsibilities. A well-known definition of what a lamppost is, and how it should be used, would likely deter many from misusing it. Thus liberating many anthropologists from their constant supervision of the uses of the anthropology-lamppost.

Of course it is very easy to talk about how wonderful it would be for anthropology to be more precisely defined, it is far more daunting to take action. However, we have reached a point in time where the anthropologically-induced harm of the past, often referred to as the discipline’s ‘skeletons,’ threatens to continue into our future. Even if the military’s plans to weaponize anthropology fail, which Price assures us will happen due to their limited understanding of culture, perhaps what is even more potentially damaging is their limited understandings and narrow stereotypings taking root in the American public’s imagination, if it hasn’t already. Through this logic, a militarized anthropology has the strong potential to backfire. I strongly believe a more accessible and well-defined discipline is the most effective defence.

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2 thoughts on “Anthropology?: A Review of David H. Price’s Weaponizing Anthropology

  1. I know there is a common tendency to refer to all books as novels, but it is usually used to refer only to works of fiction. However, perhaps this was a post-modern turn of phrase, in line with the idea that anthropologists write fictions?

    The review is relatively brief, which is deceptive (in a positive sense): you really managed to very effectively condense a wide range of issues, questions, debating points all into this short span. Thanks very much for the thoughtful reflections here.

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