Weaponizing Anthropology: A Review

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

Anthropology and Sociology Graduate Student Cohort 2014: Initial Impressions Report on Anthropology’s involvement in American Military Affairs and the Military’s involvement in Anthropology.

David Price’s work, Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State (2011), is a social science critique on American military culture, the Military Industrial Complex, America’s past military occupations and the current occupation in the middle east, and the coercion and appropriation of anthropology, anthropologists, and anthropological knowledge and technique to wage these wars. To capture the relationship between the military, anthropology, and the (battle)field, Price discusses the presence of the intelligence organization in the academy to recruit, surveil, and gather data; the use of anthropological scholarship to understand and target insurgents; the role anthropologists play in constituting and animating Human Terrain Systems; and the political and ethical dilemmas faced by anthropologists and the discipline at large.

The ‘weaponizing’ of anthropology, its involvement in and infiltration by the military and intelligence agencies, mutates the practice to an unrecognisable (ethically cleansed) form. However, perhaps it is frighteningly recognizable and shocking for its striking semblance of the discipline in a not-so-distant past; a form from half-buried memories of colonialist encounters and methods of operation supposedly dissolved since all things reflexive and post-modern.

The cultural engineering involved in ‘soft power’ tactics rely on and reproduce reductive, oversimplified methods and “anthropological-ish” (174, 144) data which forgoes the academic rigour of ideal forms of theoretic and applied anthropology. The misinformation strategically fed to the state, the media, and the people in consideration (not necessarily by the battle/field anthropologists, but by those for whom they work), in consort with the underlying motivation for and blatant dismissal of the harms to ‘vulnerable’ populations is the type complicit negligence characteristic of anthropology’s incipient era and pre-anthropological times. Anthropology’s conceptual and actual military engagements,  Human Terrain Systems and Teams (according to the AAA council, a “mistaken form of anthropology” (70) ) , cannot align with the mandates, missions, and ethical commitment of the AAA and their associated world-anthropology organizations (Committee on World Anthropologies and the international, inter-organizational project The World Council of Anthropological Associations).

The Human Terrain System program’s methodology and motivation behind ‘real-world experiences’, (what the military realized their national training centres cannot replicate, though they continue to try), contrast anthropology’s ethical standards The blatantly exploitative intentions of intelligence operations and its wielding of an apparent anthropology directly negate objectives of the AAA which, in brief, hold intentions and engagements to:

The absence of these grounding standards cultivates a breed of anthropologist and anthropology with impoverished critical analysis skills, moral and ethical position, and (humane, compassionate) interpersonal abilities. Neither the military’s use of anthropologists, anthropological methods, nor anthropologists’ role as liaison between military institutions and vulnerable populations meet the critera for a letigamate anthropology, one that would tie its name to the type of work involved. It is the objective of occupying armies to “subjugate and occupy nations (legally, or illegally) with as little trouble as can be arranged”

Though pressure from Network of Concerned Anthropologists’s 2007 “political and ethical opposition to counterinsurgency and the militarization of anthropology” and research secrecy moved the AAA to revise the Code of Ethics in 2008, it remains that research methods are manipulative, the use of data highly instrumental and its utility is not shared with the participants, those who are likely unaware of their objectification and vulnerability at the hand of the armed anthropologist.

Following from Price’s point that anthropology’s involvement with Military initiatives of intelligence gathering, in academic institutions and in the (battle)field “reveals something of the lesser demons of the field’s nature”, perhaps doing away with the ethical missions established by the governing anthropology organizations, and their collective in the WCAA, signals a not only the corrosive infiltration, penetration of the Military into disciplines striving for and identified with ethical, political, and theoretical standards, but a more threatening possibility of the movement of Anthropology away from its sobering, grounding principles; that anthropology as a whole may, on a large scale, “become what it is [being] used for” (137). The “military norm” (71) threatens to inscribe anthropology through the growth of Human Terrain Systems or other forms of intelligence collection and compilation. A worse threat is that the military-version of anthropology will become a pillar of the military industrial machine and a permanent, public, and advertised option for the post-academic practice of anthropology.

What Price may consider the most frightening aspect of this mutant branch of anthropology is the wilful choice to “ignore the ethical alarms being sounded by their peers as they voluntarily surrender their disciplinary skills to better ‘leveraging’ of cultural ‘assets’ for whatever ends the military dictates” (136). This signals the threat of a move back to atavistic anthropological mentalities, pre-(academic) discipline, and state and institutionally supported appropriation, disfiguring, hollowing our ‘reformed’ discipline.

The single quotes around ‘reformed’ indicate a point of reflection and reflexivity. Comparing methods between the academy and the military (data collection for instrumental purposes, cultural engineering) it appears they might have more in common with one another than first thought suggests, whether the actions or results of each party are intended or consequential. Though the following words have a heavier connotation than what we’d like to associate with today’s anthropology, the definitions of ‘occupation’, ‘cooptation’, and ‘conquest’ certainly resound with some current academically funded anthropological projects. As McFate states, ‘enemies are good to think with (in Price 2011:195). In as much as Price’s work is a critical look at the interaction between anthropology and the military, it has forced us to consider how different our position is.

An excerpt from Sanjoy Roy’s essay on cultural noise, dirt, and its crossing (moving through and contesting) of cognitive and geographic mapping and associated power structures is apt point of conclusion. It reflects our perceptions of the ‘Other’,the military, the hybrid anthropology clad in olive drab, the usefulness of these perceptions for seeing ourselves:

 “On Medieval maps, the areas of uncharted terrain beyond the edges of the known world were imagined to be populated by strange creatures that could only be conceived as monstrous hybrids composed of elements that were already known – mermaids (half-woman, half-fish), griffons (half-lion, half-eagle), dragons (half-bat, half lizard). In the modern age, that uncharted terrain is cultural [and institutional], and those hybrids now appear not at the edges of the map, but at its very centre…Here [in the academy] be drago ns. These noisome products of colonial and post-colonial traffic have come home to roost; must they-we, I – too be imagined as monstrous creates, impossible compounds that can only speak with forked tongues?” (Roy 1997:84).

 Insights/Lessons Learned

  • Based on historical evidence, counterinsurgency operations rest on the false promise of managing complexities of culture efforts to engineer domination are doomed to fail (Price 2011)
  • This does not reverse or prevent the harms done in the process, nor the marring of anthropology and other social science disciplines (less severe but no less grave for their potential contribution to the rectification ills and suffering)

Additional References

American Anthropological Association. (2012). Ethics Blog. http://ethics.aaanet.org/ethics-statement-0-preamble/, accessed April 12, 2014.

Roy, Sanjoy. (1997). Dirt, Noise, Traffic: Contemporary Indian Dance in the Western City; Modernity, Ethnicity and Hybridityin Dance in the City. Helen Thomas, ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press.




One thought on “Weaponizing Anthropology: A Review

  1. Yet another strong essay. My impression is that, in the end, Price’s book provoked the greatest number and the most penetrating reflections on the nature of this discipline and its positioning in the world system. We may all disagree with this or that point, as we often did, but that was at least in part due to this very productive “little” text. I will need to re-read your essay a few times for sure.

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