Questioning Anthropology in WWI to Set the Stage for WWII and Beyond

Price, David H. (2008). Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War. Durham, NC:Duke University Press. [Chapter 1, American Anthropology and the War to End All Wars, p. 1-17]

On the question of Anthropology in WWI the figure of Franz Boas takes center stage. Analysis of Anthropology in the WWI is important to understanding the contributions in WWII, and furthermore to understanding the nature of the problems faced by contemporary Anthropology in the face of increasing deployment in wars and more routine intelligence gathering. In this chapter Price sets out to contextualize the involvement of social scientists in WWI to set the stage for the rest of the book that focuses on Anthropology in WWII. I will further synthesize the context of these WWI contributions and move on to examine the problem presented by the case of Boas in this context. I will conclude by bringing the contradiction arising from this situation to bear on the problem of contemporary Anthropology.

The US population was divided on entry to what was considered a ‘foreign war’. In 1917 the US did enter the war, and the government set out a campaign to mold public opinion (p. 1). This broadly coincided with the first ‘Red Scare’, and the stated need to inform and limit the ideology of the US citizenry. This environment of restricted political dissent posed a problem to notions of academic freedom in their first forms of institutionalization in the US. The underlying contradiction was that this ‘freedom’ was indeed limited and was not to be used to oppose the war
(p. 2).

The contributions of social scientists to the war took a wide variety, with some institutions being more explicitly involved than others. Work undertaken was quite similar among the various nations involved, and was as follows:
i) The gathering of anthropometric data, and the creation & administration of intelligence tests in service of state requirements to order people for institutional purposes. ii) Various forms of topographical analysis for geostrategic concerns. iii) The production and dissemination of propaganda. iv) Spying under the cover of archeologists/anthropologists; British, German, and US involvement. In the US these spies were funded by their institutions and returned proudly to their academic positions after war (p. 10).

It is clear that all forms of analysis or belief were not equally welcomed as in the case of the firing of Veblen, Cattell, and Frachtenberg for various statements that were seen to undermine the government. In general the war limited speech and silenced many critics while giving opportunity for those who were ready to use their positions to work in support of the war. ‘These new interactions between anthropologists and military and intelligence agencies established some new social-science applications’ (p. 4) in effect providing templates to be expanded upon in the contributions to WWII. Anthropologists’ reactions and contributions to WWI influenced the generation of anthropologists in WWII. Perhaps the most significant outcome of US Anthropology in WWI came after the war with the silencing of Boas. His criticisms were remembered by anthropologists in WWII, however any hesitance was short lived (p. 15).

Firstly Boas openly opposed the war and was critical of the use of excessive patriotism in shaping the public’s attitude to align with the government’s war interests, with special critique of the US education system for its involvement in supporting the militarization of the society (p. 2). He further used and exposed President Wilsons’ contradiction with the conclusion that democracy in the US is a fiction as indeed ‘only autocracies maintain spies’ (p. 11). The second major concern Boas took up was the mal-use of science in the support of government’s wartime activities. He was angered at the abuse of his scientific reputation in the deceitful use of his recommendations to support ‘archeologist spies’. He labeled those actions as the ‘prostitution’ of science, and felt they were unpardonable as they disrupted the ‘truthfulness of science’ (p. 12). This deceit of the people and of science itself undermined the academic obligations to ‘humanity as a whole’ (p. 12) had grave consequences for future honest research efforts (p. 13) and any cohesiveness in the international order.

It was his second public denunciation that brought the consequence of censorship through vote in the AAA in 1919 (p. 13). This intersection has reverberations in Anthropology today as it clearly highlights the underlying contradiction between efforts to institutionalize moral-ethical codes of conduct as the responsibility of the individual, while there is explicit absence of any means of political accountability for anthropologists’ actions in research. To provoke a contradiction within the contradiction I do note that Boas’ analysis relied on moral and emotional (six mentions in the section on p.2-3) functions and did not have any explicit analysis of political-economic (zero mentions) hegemony, or any underlying contextualization of the origin and involvement of science itself in various projects of colonialism and imperialism. Also, his critique of patriotism utilized nationalistic language (citizen, nation) in his call for the service of the ‘common interests of humanity’ (p. 3). Besides the problem of using nationalist references to critique patriotism, I really do not have a tangible conception what the assumed common interests of humanity are, and what ‘equal rights’ he appeals to. His belief in a pure science, and scientists as separate from the rest of society to be upheld by unique moral considerations, is not sufficient for me to rest my concerns.

Nonetheless, in the relative context of the day one would have to consider Boas’ position in the public sphere as radical. From this juncture of Boas in the institutionalized academic setting, I conclude that not only until social-scientists thoroughly engage in critical reflection and analysis of the contributions to the world wars (p. 16), but furthermore until an ideological critique is made of the history of science and social-science itself and its relation to the systems of world domination engendered in the spread of European colonialism can the inherent contradictions between the individual’s ‘morals’ and any inherent political position taken be resolved. Price has set us on the way in the context of US anthropology with reference to its history, but there is a vast amount of work to be done to bring that to bear on an ontological shift that would enforce a fundamentally different understanding of the dynamic between morals and political accountability in the practices of knowledge production going forth.


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