A varied and (almost) uncritical involvement in the war effort (review of Chapter 2)

Price, David H. (2008. Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Negect of American Anthropology in the Second World War. Durham and London: Duke University Press

At least once since you began your studies in anthropology, you probably found yourself in a Christmas party, where your uncle or some other family member you haven’t seen in a while asks you what you do for a living. When you answer that you study anthropology, he makes a confused face and grumbles something rude, implying that you should get a real job instead of doing pointless scholarly work. Well, fear no more, because the next time it happens, with the help of Price’s book, you will be able to convince your uncle that an anthropologist can be useful in many ways, especially if another large-scale war breaks out!

Throughout chapter 2, Price provides numerous examples of anthropologists’ involvement during WWII. Anthropologists familiar with a specific region used their knowledge to make sure that the army had the proper clothing, food and equipment (p. 26). They provided information about the terrain, as well as guidebooks on the habits and customs of the people, “indicating how occupying forces should behave to ensure a friendly reception” (p. 26). Some tried to influence Indians on the reservations to enlist them in the war effort. They found out that, with the necessary cultural adjustments, governmental administrators could make substantial savings by employing the Sioux workforce (p. 32). Others helped prevent labor disruptions to ensure a steady flow of natural resources, still others applied their knowledge of industrial relations to the coordination and management of war-oriented work (p. 26-27).

An anthropologist, Chapple, argued that his work on human interactions could be used to ““size up” applicants for jobs” (p. 30), while the well-known Margaret Mead suggested that anthropological knowledge could be used to refine and improve propaganda campaigns. She also studied American food preferences in the context of food rationing, and went overseas to investigate cross-cultural misunderstandings between British and American troops. Here, it ought to be remembered that, much later, in 1970, Margaret Mead chaired the committee to evaluate the controversy concerning anthropological activities in Thailand, which produced a report exonerating scholars who were involved in counterinsurgency efforts during the Cold War (Patterson, p. 126). Margaret Mead thus seems to have a long history of support for a discipline that serves the needs of those in power.

Anthropologists’ language skills were useful for the Armed Forces’ language training programs (p. 27). Closer to the heart of military efforts, some anthropologists decoded Japanese communications (p. 32), or served as spies and investigators for military intelligence (p. 38). Others again dealt with the war’s consequences, by studying efforts to rehabilitate soldiers suffering from neuro-psychiatric injuries (p.  32). Some applied their skills to prevent social unrest in the Japanese-American concentration camps, as we have seen in Patterson’s book and as mentioned in this one as well (p. 34). Several anthropologists trained soldiers for battle and expedition in foreign countries, teaching them how to survive in the jungle, for example, or how to get along with native peoples (p. 41). They were also involved in the production of pocket guides containing basic information on particular areas and cultures (p. 42-43). Forensic-anthropology skills were used to identify human remains of soldiers killed in battle and anthropometric measurements were used to improve uniforms and oxygen masks (p. 46). Anthropologists were also hired as part of the Strategic Bombing Survey, which analysed the impact of Allied bombings on enemy military and civilian populations. They were supposed to “isolate individual attitudes toward bombings in relation to socioeconomic and family positions” (p. 39). I imagine that they didn’t find many informants who had a cheerful attitude towards the bombings…

This list could go on, but it represents the wide range of actions undertaken by anthropologists during the war. Some of these actions are of course questionable, but according to Price, “few anthropologists had second thoughts about the ethics of applying anthropology to warfare; those few who did did not linger long over these concerns”. The general mood of the day seemed to have been that the Nazis were a major threat to humankind and so they needed to be stopped by any means available (p. 50). Many anthropologists felt that the Boasian critique of the concept of race was anthropology’s most significant contribution of the time. As such, they believed that the Nazis were attacking the core principles of anthropology (p. 49). Although a large proportion of anthropologists probably did feel that way, it would be interesting how many still defended the ideas of racial hierarchy which were common in the earlier days of the discipline and what were their stance towards the Nazis. Considering the controversy sparked by the publication, in 1950, of a UNESCO report stating the equality of all races (Patterson, p.  114), it seems clear that the race question was not settled during the war. Moreover, a note from chapter 3 of Price’s book mentions that “[s]ome American and Allied anthropologists held views of racial hierarchies and eugenics that were aligned with Nazi views” (p. 293). How were these anthropologists involved – or not – in the war effort? What were their relationship with their anti-Nazi colleagues?

A lot of anthropological interventions during the war were based on an optimistic faith in the possibilities of social engineering. Two founding members of the Society for Applied Anthropology, Chapple and Arensberg, especially, were confident that anthropologists could become “engineers of human relations”, advising governments on how to efficiently manage the population. In their minds, anthropological knowledge could be harnessed by leaders to alleviate social problems (p. 29). David Price rightly points out however that, in contrast with a more grassroots approach, this type of applied anthropology increases the management of people instead of increasing democracy (p. 30).

Of course, people like Arensberg and Chapple wholeheartedly supported the war effort. Yet others were a little more skeptical. Laura Thompson, for example, feared that applied anthropologists would lose their independence and become “technicians for hire to the highest bidder” (p. 35). Gregory Bateson underlined the fact that anthropologists working for the government or the military provided intelligence without having any say in what was done with their research. He and Thompson both feared that anthropological knowledge would be put in the hands of the few who are in power instead of being used to enlarge democracy. In spite of these concerns, they were both involved in the war effort. The few people who raised ethical concerns dealt mostly with anthropology’s role as a scientific discipline, but were not opposed to the war itself. Overall, there was a slight generational divide over support for the war, the older generations being more hesitant while younger anthropologists argued for active support.  Price mentions that older anthropologists had “tempered positions still guarded from the last war” (p. 20). Price doesn’t really delve more into this, but it appears paradoxical since, from what we learn in chapter 1, involvement in WWI was also supported by a number of anthropologists, although their contribution was more limited. In any case, the debate was closed when the American Anthropological Association voted a resolution stating that it placed “itself and its resources and the specialized skills of its members at the disposal of the country for the successful prosecution of the war” (p. 23). These were not empty words, for it seems that over half of American anthropologists were directly involved in war work while another quarter worked part time (p. 37).

During seminar, it was mentioned that ethical guidelines could hypothetically help prevent anthropology’s implication in questionable enterprises. However, some argued that no entity or institution has the authority and legitimacy to decide whether an activity is ethical or not. Moreover, those institutions that could be considered representative of the professorial body are often plagued by conflicts of interest. There’s also a risk that ethical guidelines could be used as tools to prevent involvement by anthropologists in movements that question the status quo.


Patterson, Thomas C. (2001). A Social History of Anthropology in the United States. Oxford: Berg.


One thought on “A varied and (almost) uncritical involvement in the war effort (review of Chapter 2)

  1. Just read this (I had not managed to read several of the posts during the seminar and had saved them up for later). I like how you introduce the piece and the last paragraph is also very good and sums up some important points.

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