The ritual cleansing of anthropology using the Freedom of Information Act.

Discussion based on: Price, David H. (2008). Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War. Durham: Duke University Press. (Ch.10, p.220-261)

In Anthropological Intelligence, David Price covers many aspects of American anthropologists’ implication in the Second World War. He devotes chapters to the legacy of the first world war and to the role of professional associations. He considers the situation on campus during the war and he surveys the use of anthropologists by the USA’s adversaries. But the bulk of the book (six whole chapters) is devoted to cataloguing the roles played by American Anthropologists within the various agencies through which the USA implemented its plans during the war. Having covered the War Relocation Authority, the Office of War Information and the Special Intelligence Service , amongst others, Price concludes this cataloguing effort in chapter 10, with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). In many ways, the pattern seen throughout the preceding chapters is seen once more within the context of the OSS.

There is, of course, a judgement involved in my use of the term “cataloguing”. I mean to suggest that there is a great deal of presentation but rather little discussion. Because the content he is dealing with is heavy in ethical and moral implications, this issue is constantly in mind. But Price is coy with respect to his intent. His introduction refers to the difficulties inherent in judging other historical and cultural contexts and hints that he will try to avoid making value judgements. In many instances, he appears to do exactly that. A plethora of wartime activities is catalogued, ranging from banal administrative work to daring missions in the field, without any discussion of potentially meaningful differences between these different kinds of involvement. He likewise introduces without comment the practice of “moral outsourcing”, where plans that are clearly ethically and morally debatable are made by individuals instructed to think amorally on the grounds that unidentified others will be making these ethical and moral determinations. Yet Price is quick to suggest that the fight against “fascism” (or “totalitarianism” or a few other slogans) is a “good” one. He regularly implies its necessity. He is also, at times, explicit in his condemnation, such as when discussing internment camps or biological warfare. This oscillation between bland cataloguing and condemnation makes the instances in which Price is unclear all the more disturbing. So: what is Price up to?

In practice, Price is merely paying lip service to the idea that one should not judge. It seems clear that the point of cataloguing the activities he has documented is to enable judgement. The topics he covers are transparently considered sensitive (he had to pry this information from the government’s hands using FOIA). As such, Price is presenting an effective moral spectrum, one which goes from “things we can mention with a modicum of neutrality” all the way to “things even the narrator gets to be judgemental about”. This spectrum is in fact made of anthropologists and their ideas. At one end there are anthropologists like Carleton Coon who thought kidnapping was a reasonable means of acquiring information and who boasted of having made plans to maintain clandestine operations in allied nations following the war. Somewhere in the middle there are people like Gregory Bateson, who was guilt-ridden in the years following the war. At the other end of the spectrum, there are unknown recalcitrants, who refused or resisted involvement in practices they could not support, but whose decisions left few traces.

What questions is Price seeking to raise and answer with this text? A neutral reader might wonder if Anthropology attracts a certain type? Whether adventurers with amoral worldviews are somehow more common in this field than in others. But Price is not concerned with this issue; he does not actively seek to compare anthropologists’ involvement to that of other academic fields. One might wonder if anthropologists needed to be bribed and cajoled into service. But Price does not try to compare volunteers to dissidents amongst anthropologists.  The judgements Price seems most intent to enable are those which concern anthropologists themselves, as people. It is the questions raised by Steward, in the article from which the quote which opens chapter 10 was taken, which Price is most directly addressing. In the face of questions such as these, where Steward seems to consider it impossible for American anthropology to be both scientific and moral, Price is standing up for the image of the “fair” and “good” anthropologist. In effect he is saying: ” you cannot harm anthropology, ye vile and amoral practitioners, because anthropology will record you, and thus heal itself of you.”. Perhaps he is right.



Steward, Julian H. (1948). Comments on the Statement on Human Rights. American Anthropologist 50: 351-352.


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