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.





Mathers, K. (2010). “Introduction.” In Travel, humanitarianism, and becoming American in Africa. Palgrave Macmillon, 1-9.

From the collaborate volume of Auto-Ethnographies (Meneley and Young 2005) to the singularly authored “Reversed Gaze” (Ntarangwi 2010), the works explored thus far in our seminar are each  characterised by a gaze on and critique of Western academic lives and practices. In the next book central to our discussion, Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa (Mathers 2010) we continue gazing close to home at the conceptual and lived ideals of Americans, specifically those formed by United States national(ist) discourse. However, the context of this work is outside the domain of academic institutions. Katheryn Mathers tracks the movements of tourists to and from South Africa to explore her questions of American identity and its connection to and contingency on an idea of ‘Africa’. This anthropological work explores the ideas of ‘Africa’ and ‘African’ imagined by America, and how the particular idea of Africa  sought after and acted upon by media and tourists are formed by and contingent on the shared ethos of Americaness. Mathers’ interest is in the meeting places of these ideologies and images; the meeting of the ‘real’ and the ‘imaged’ and the effect of the collision. The ideas and ideals of ‘Americans’ confront ideas and realities of Africa, and by this intersection personal and national perceptions are revealed.

This book is based on Mathers’ PhD fieldwork which was conducted in Cape Town, South Africa between 1999 and 2002 and affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley. Originally from Cape Town, she completed her masters degree at University of Cape Town. She then moved to the United States for graduate studies only to return home to study America.

The introduction to this work begins and ends with reference to Barack Obama, aptly so as he captures, physically and in oration, the American ethos of interest to and complicating Mathers’ research. Obama embodies intersection, which is central to the author’s research question and its direction. He also represents the intersection of America and Africa which characterises the history of colonialism and present neo-colonial socio-political relationship. Obama also vocalised the US’s motivated national ideals of “democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope” (9); abstract values which are hard to conceptualize and materialize, though are encouraged to life through capitalism.

In a nation that combines insidious remnants of a protestant work ethic with a capitalist spirit it is not surprising its ideals promote creation or industriousness; action oriented ideals with value only realisable through productivity. Individuals must seek out channels through which to enact these values, and in the process of performing them feel to discover (or create) a collective American definition. However, a discourse of consensual difference challenges notions of national collectivity and unity, but the intersection of these differences coheres in ‘doing’. The search for identity within the framework of national values took on a new tone post 9/11. This political environment amplified the need to fulfil the expectations of productivity through goodwill, which stirs memories of missionary projects. The mass produced and circulated image of a despondent ‘Africa’ was useful and opportune The continent offered Americans the chance, economically or physically, to enact (not exclusively) secularized redemption (see here for a provocative political commentary on this topic). Though not all the subjects in Mathers’ study missioned to the continent, she states there was always an element of caring involved in their choice of travel, a choice informed by the above mentioned images of ‘Africa which were normalized in American media.

Mathers engages the tourist’s journey in order to explore Americans’ confrontation with their identity as it collides with Africa the continent and ‘Africa’ the reality beyond imaginings. Through their reception by South Africans the tourists came to understand the collective sense of Americanness indiscernible from a subjective, individualistic point of view, but which is a concrete and potent idea held by non-Americans. The study of synchronic experiences in bound, dissociated contexts was not useful to Mathers’ research. Rather, her fieldwork focused on the full range of tourist experience, including the course of travel from home to away and the banal quotidian of the journeys. She followed closely in her informants’ tracks, through the familiar, the uncomfortable, across borders and the “spaces of awkward engagement that caught friction between the idea of Africa and the idea of America” (Tsing 2005 in Mathers 2010).

The tourists, and tourist culture, she studied appears to extend the historical legacy of self-exploration through ‘Africa’ and ‘Africans’. This reflects the discussion in our previous reading, “Reversed Gaze”(Ntarangwi 2010), of the centrality of Africa in the history of Anthropology, the discipline which formalized the search for the individual and collective “I”, and the discipline which has maintained a steady, but productive, degree of identity crisis (maybe best resolvable by an appeal to the words of Jean Rouch, “je est un autre”).  Mathers reflexively maintains this tradition and probes simultaneously two dimensions of two national identities; the subjective and objective ‘African’ and ‘America’.

In the pages that follow we will read how Mathers’ anthropology sought after Americans’ perception of their own Americanness, as well as their perceptions of Africa. She seeks to understand what constitutes that perception and how it comes to be confirmed and reified by engagement with ‘Africa’, the idea and the lived experience. Further, she wants to explore how it is that “even after visiting southern Africa, the continent remained, was cemented even, as a homogeneous space of helpless people who just needed a little push from a well-meaning American” (7).

In our discussion of the book we argued that the perceptions of America Mathers sought were as essentialised and reductive as those of ‘Africa’, but perhaps this was an intended and implicit point of commentary in her work.  We understand Mathers’ informants were from a particular American region and this may inform the basis of her generalizations of American identity. But we cannot discount individual life trajectories and are certain Mathers was cognisant of these diverse variables. However, our comments must be contextualized in a preliminary and partial reading of the book and an understanding that further reading will clarify these ideas. I believe, though, there is reason to her framing and seeking (the idea of) collective Americanness. It is such an identity, formed by politically and socially mediated and circulated national values, which promote ties to places like ‘Africa’.

By consuming the African landscape, Mathers argues, it amalgamates with part of a wider American one. Our consumption also continues to create the African, according to Achille Mbembe (5) and in so doing we create (and enact) the equally absurd and reductive idea of the American. These are a sampling of the political and social problematics of the tourist journey we hope, along with the idea of ‘America’, will be taken seriously by Mathers in the pages to follow.

Reversed Gaze, Chapter 6: A New Paradigm for Twenty-First Century Anthropology?

Ntarangwi, Mwenda. (2010). “A New Paradigm for Twenty-First Century Anthropology?” In Mwenda Ntarangwi, Reversed Gaze: An African Ethnography of American Anthropology (p.126-151). Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

By the end of Mwenda Ntarangwi’s book, Reversed Gaze: An African Ethnography of American Anthropology (2010), the journey towards American anthropology has gone full circle. An investigation into the history, theory, and practice of anthropology and ethnography in America led him back to his home continent, tracking a thread of connection left by imperial histories and contemporary globalization.  He comes to understand how, and why, American anthropology has never been (far) removed from Africa, in objectives and theories of alterity. In this chapter, A New Paradigm for Twenty-First-Century Anthropology?, Ntarangwi explores the geographic, national, political, and epistemological chasms that characterise dynamics between institutions of knowledge production generally, and between anthropologies in particular. He draws from his intimate and rich experience in Kenya and Kenyan educational institutions to problematise the projects of world anthropologies and their lack of pragmatism. This chapter shows that Ntarangwi’s critique on Western Anthropology leads him to a critique of the world, aptly so for the dominating and dictating role of Euro-American culture in the domain of knowledge production. He encourages the development of new forms of collaboration which account for varying realities of anthropologists and their institution, and believes the continuation of the discipline is contingent  on these rearticulated transnational, trans-epistemological, and trans-social ties (151).

Ntarangwi’s ethnography ends with much inconclusiveness, an expected point of arrival for an ethnography which thoroughly complicates a context and wades through the mess. The title of the chapter is in question form and foreshadows the many points he raises for further consideration, those questioning the objectives behind historical and contemporary anthropological action which provoke reflexivity of our ethnographic thoughts and movements and the objectives of the anthropological discipline (American and otherwise . To address these questions Ntarangwi turns to the history of imperialism and anthropology. This helps him, and the reader, make sense of the present circumstances and current disciplinary trajectory which hopes to reorient.

His questions are influenced by Faye Harrison’s (2008) objective for the “’reworking of anthropology in the global age” (Harrison in Ntarangwi 2010:126). He agrees with but problematises the objective of “developing a commitment for decentering Western epistemologies and promoting genuine multicultural dialogue in the study of humanity” (Ibid) which in anthropology, most recently and tangibly, has culminated in world anthropologies projects. The WCAA, IUAES, CWA, and WAN are dominant world anthropology organizations with the objective of creating dialogue between anthropologies, applied and “pure” (sic) (145). It may be argued that they hope to dissolve the status associated with these labels and cultivate equivalent legitimacy across varying forms and contexts of anthropological education and practice. The world anthropology groups have admirable theoretical and ideological goals, but those which hit concrete realities of socio-economic disparities unpreparedly, making the projects as yet wholly unrealisable.

To historically and (geo)politically situate the anthropology and its problematics, Ntarangwi gives a comprehensive survey of the development of African American studies and the Africanist school, and this history illuminates the long and insidious colonial, and post-colonial imperialist relationship between anthropology and Africans in and out of the continent.  The legacy of these dynamics lingers in epistemological and socio-economic divides, and the difference of anthropological practice between West and the rest.

Since the beginning of Anthropology’s institutionalization the discipline has been relegated to the realm of alterity and otherness, but the expertise of the practice outside Euro-American domains has not been made equally legitimate. Ntarangwi explores the disciplinary divides that developed over the decades between anthropology and other disciplines, American and ‘alternative’ anthropology, and particularly the tension between anthropology and Africa, and African studies and Africanist pursuits. In shadow of this discussion is the notion and reality of the subaltern and dominant, center and periphery, and the apparent panacea of decentralization which Ntarangwi problematises. The well-meaning, seemingly innocuous initiatives of anthropology and world anthropology projects, those towards disciplinary inclusivity, are not pan-globally favoured. For one reason, anthropology is a tender subject and complicated presence in Africa, one that is suspect, criticized, and not warmly embraced by all African academies and scholars. This is apparent in, for instance, the structure of Kenyan university departments.

This discordant relationship may be amplified by particular training in and use of anthropology. Ntarangwi critiques the cooptation of anthropological tools by other disciplines. He argues that the reputation of ethnography is degraded by its adoption and uncritical use by non-anthropologists where it cause many of the harms anthropologists have been trained to circumvent and have crafted their methodology to avoid. When adopted by other disciplines ethnography is not always undertaken with the same rigorous reflexivity and critical consciousness as anthropology (not to say all anthropologists are the quintessence of the discipline’s ethical canon). Related to the issue of ethnography’s misuse is the scarcity of anthropology education in many African institutions. Departments supporting anthropology do so to a minimum, and as annex to training in other disciplines. Where anthropological education is offered, Ntarangwi argues it is not an appropriate form of training. The applied component being most suitable for addressing the social realities of Kenya, and African continent in general, and is not prioritized.

Addressing contextual suitability leads us to Ntarangwi’s broader critique of world anthropology projects. Applied anthropology as he has experienced in Kenya addresses the problems associated with local socio-economic conditions, those which also effect the banal but foundational mechanisms of the university institution.  There is very limited access to resources such as as computers and internet connection, journal subscriptions, printing paper, and textbooks. This effects the quality of educational instruction, research pursuits, and engagement in global academic conversations. At once these are quotidian challenges of practising anthropologists and anthropologically concerned social scientists (individuals and departments), and also reflect socio-economic focal point of much local research in African regions. World anthropologies must take these realisms into consideration in the pragmatic component of their collaborate initiatives. The problems being addressed by scholars in Africa, for instance, must be considered by world anthropology projects in order to create (read: enable access to) a realistically inclusive global disciplinary conversation.

Critical and pragmatic consideration of context, that to which anthropology should be attendant beyond the abstractions of discourse, subjectivity, and all things meta, are often absent from educational development plans and intervention into Africa and other non-Euro-American spaces. Education reflects the preoccupations of Western academia (privileging and valuing theory over application), which alone is ineffective. Interventions themselves, when contextually uncritical, can impact the reciprocal relationship characteristic of anthropology. An unbalanced and harmful dynamic which takes more than gives further disreputes anthropology and it’s international presence. These problems are foreseeable, however, given that most world anthropology projects are ironically centralized in Euro-American domains.

Having read Escobar and Restrepo’s “Other Anthropologies and Anthropology Otherwise” (2005) and the online mission statements of the main world anthropology organizations, it would seem that the projects are still bound by the same “abstrusive” (147) language which Ntarangwi and Tejumola Oliniyan critique as the main limitations of Western post-modern anthropology (Ntarangwi 2010:147). Ntarangwi underscores that the Western fixation on discourse and narrative does not translate, or transfer, to all ‘African’ (and non-Euro-American) anthropology. It seems to be the absence of clear, pragmatic objectives that has since 2009 stalled the movement and realization of world anthropologies beyond the conceptual, theoretic, and virtual.

The above examples are not exhaustive of the barriers to the successful collaboration of contrapuntal anthropologies. At the closing of this chapter Ntarangwi serves a final, and surprising critical point: the problematic chasm in African anthropology between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ anthropology. He argues that a joint dialogue, the bridging of theory and practice, in anthropology education in African institutions can better prepare social sciences to meet and address the local, but globally implicated, social, cultural, and political realities of many African regions. Though there is no room for preoccupation with theory and abstraction, they are critical tools to strengthen praxis. He encourages his African anthropology colleagues to begin, when resources allow, to prioritize “the life of the mind” (151). His suggestions are admirable, much like the objectives of world anthropologies. However after the strong discussion of material and economic limitations, they read as aspirations for a distant future and leave our seminar  group questioning how they might ever be realized

From his ‘native’ perspectives of both continental and transnational Other, and his continued experience with the institution of American anthropology, Ntarangwi sees the need for integrated anthropological conversations, inclusive projects, and objectives which can realistically transcend and work above problematic disciplinary and socio-economic divides. He sees this dependent on “individual connections and relations among anthropological networks across racial, geographic, and class boundaries”, and which will “lead to more sustainable collaborations” (136). Ntarangwi might argue that it is in communicatory media such as this blog, and our seminar classroom, where we should begin dialectically determining the pragmatics to realize these collaborations. As budding Canadian anthropologists we are gaining the lived experience of ‘otherness’ within academia, albeit not the same degree as our non-Euro-American colleagues. What we do have in common with them, though, is the pivotal choice between marginalization or assimilation into the American corpus of anthropology. However, for many of the reasons argued by Ntarangwi throughout his ethnography, most of us in the graduate program at Concordia are in the position to forge a third way, to give momentum to the changes long overdue in the global anthropology discipline and in academia more broadly. We have a fair degree of economic, epistemological, and material liberty to reorient our practice and disseminate rearticulated theory; the capacity to make our anthropology happen otherwise, as Restrepo and Escobar would say (2005). These alternative courses of action are “intricately tied” to the collective fate of anthropologies (151). Our “individual connections and relations”, as graduate students and immanent professionals, are privileged to help develop the network of critical and collaborative exchange for which Ntarangwi hopes and to reinvent anthropology’s future should we choose to do so (151).

Other Sources

Escobar, Arturo, and Eduardo Restrepo

          2005  “Other Anthropologies and Anthropology Otherwise: Steps to a World Anthropologies Framework.” Critique of
Anthropology. 25(2):99-129.

“An Anthropologist Undone” by Camilla Gibb

Gibb, Camilla (2005). “An Anthropologist Undone”. Anne Meneley and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto-Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (216-228). Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press.

The concluding chapter of Auto-Ethnographies: the Anthropology of Academic Practices (2005) is a charged critique on the discipline and institution of anthropology. It is given through a raw reflexive narrative of an anthropologist’s unsettling and transformative field experience and the equally disorienting, disruptive departures back into and, finally, out from the academy. Camilla Gibb highlights her challenging experience negotiating self in the academic and ethnographic field. She works through her departures from one identity to another, the complications at their spaces of intersection, transformation, and tension in their simultaneous existence. Her work in the academy and field cultivated multiple identities which, on account of the expectations of the academy, thought together but acted apart. Gibb shows that fieldwork and the fieldworker back in the academy are cleansed of the human experience in favour of detached objectivity. The life of ethnography is tucked behind the academic identity, and this colour exists only between the lines of dry discourse. Gibb struggled with this fragmentation which destabilised her professional position, personal life, and belief in the academy. The voices of her ethnographic shadow-selves, the friend, lover, sister, mother, Ethiopian, abstinent Muslim, drew her from the academy into the inclusive world of fiction writing. There, she found, the humanness of her identities, and those of others, could find the expression denied in and by the process of anthropological discipline.

Gibb’s story begins in Oxford where she reflects on her departure from Harare, Ethiopia, with a longing gaze into the world of her vivid memory. She describes herself as emotionally fragile with past psychological instability amplified by the heartache of detachment from the field and the relationships she formed with people and practice. Her positions and relationships in the ethnographic processes were as complex and complicated as the henna designs on her hands. And after some time, much like the henna stains, it was impossible to distinguish where each wandering stain started and ended (216).  The experiences she longed for were the stories that found no place in the academic writing (222), those which defied ethical protocol and the ‘laws’ of minimal intervention in the anthropologists’ version of the Hippocratic oath. The completion of her “dry dispassionate” PhD thesis on the religious practices of the Harare in Ethiopia prompted her departure from the U.K., and symbolically from the life of the academic (225).

Gibb graduated and returned Canada, entering the field of the academic professional. But the departure was accompanied by her shadow-selves and their fantasies of fiction which did not fit in the “construct of the professional anthropologist” (223-224). She deliberated over the implications of beginning a Post-doctoral position and the freedom of leaving the academy. Ultimately she decided to take break in Ontario’s rural north to give life to the untold voices of her fieldwork.

After the completion of an unexpected book she re-enters the academic field, and the form of ‘academic identity’ is quickly brought into her perspective. The respectability and legitimacy of the academic is contingent on certain performance which, she was told critically by a  conservative superior, does not include moonlighting in short fiction. This gave voice to the values which expunge humanness and its counterpoint of alienation, things “critical to [anthropology’s] business”, from the ethnographic text (Gibb referencing Ato Quayson, 225). Shocked and angered by the potency of this reality, the negation of the reality of humanness, of the human behind the academic work and the human reality that creates anthropology, she departs the academy to pursue her fiction writing full time. Gibb found a domain where stories were not half told and where words did not tread tentatively under the scrutiny of politics of representation.

Through her many departures and re-entries Gibb, as Anthropologist and anthropologist, experienced the disorientation and longing that so characteristically accompanies culture shock. Her movements were both geographic, professional, and personal, and cultivating and transforming many voices which the academy could not accept or accommodate. Her ethnographic experience was not unlike others: confusing, unsettling, non-linear, and grounded in real human relationships; not a straightforward moralistic journey (Watson, in conversation). What differs with Gibb’s account is the frankness with which she shares this shadow-side of the discipline, the unspoken truths of anthropological work. Her raw reflection shows the anthropology only alluded to in the academy, the peripheral discussions in undergraduate methodology courses and years which are a superficial component of formal graduate education. The truth is, the realities of fieldwork are best understood through ‘initiation’ into the field (at home and away), and the academy does not have the language or framework to incorporate these experiences in full. They are also of partial interest, serving the ends of the production of scientific knowledge.

Gibb’s piece shows that the full phenomena of humanness to which anthropology claims expert knowledge is arguable beyond the expertise of the discipline. This phenomenon is theorized over, encounters with it are problematized  in discourse on ethics and methodology, but only murmurs of its felt texture, volatility, fragility, and potency exist in exchanges between field ‘initiates’. The uninitiated fantasize about the sense of their movements while rendering them to mechanics in proposals and ethics forms. The call to writing the fieldworker into the field came from a reflexivity of the anthropologist’s imprint on their places of work, but one which did not account for the field in the anthropologist. Neither does the academy accommodate this truth and conversations about them. Gibb’s work, as with the other chapters in this book, prompts us to problematize the limitations and deficits of Anthropology (institutional), and anthropology (of the field), which leaves us complicit, hopeless, or inspired to forge change. By walking through the story of Gibb’s professional academic career we also understand (dare I say feel) the reasons for her final departure into fiction, the realm of “truth telling” (225).

Gibb wanted to share vivid truths, an aspiration achieved only limitedly in academic Anthropology (224). The meticulous documentation of fieldworkers is truncated for the sake of unbiased objectivism. Yet it is shaped by the subjectivity of Western academic traditions, circling in red ink the adverbs and adjectives in our writing and encouraging a voice of implicit exclusion. Gibb wanted to “speak plainly of and speak of hearts” (225), a valid language that could easily speak beside classic theory. Though Quayson warns this may be dismissed as “dead-end self-indulgence and narcissism” (225), Stuart Hall instead argues for its place in anthropology. In “Culture, Identity, and Diaspora (1994) he addresses the humanness and subjective perspective of ethnography:

“[of] course, the ‘I’ who writes here must also be thought of as, itself, ‘enunciated’. We all write and speak from a particular place and time, from a history and a culture which is specific. What we say is always ‘in context’, positioned… I have lived all my adult life in England, in the        shadow of the black diaspora – ‘in the belly of the beast’…I write against the background of a lifetime’s work in cultural studies…[It] is worth remembering that all discourse is ‘placed’, and the heart has its reasons” (392).

The ‘I’ Hall speaks of is the ‘I’ of every human in ethnographic experience and writing. Gibb was drawn to include a particular take on human ‘reasons’, the positions that anthropology seeks to know in totality yet cannot accommodate as a whole. The reasons of the heart that Gibb found of herself and others in the field are in the shadow of the letters of her academic prose, and this chapter speaks them in front of the anthropology’s capital A.

Though these perspectives neither  make their way into traditional anthropological discourse, nor is the institution formally prepared to discuss or accommodate their reality and impacts on the fieldworker, this book (Meneley and Young 2005) shows they have asserted a space in the academy’s text and conversation. Auto-ethnographic publications like these circulate critical truths and critique through the academic domain and carve a space for the multiple identities of the anthropologist to candidly speak, think, and act together.

Additional References:

Hall, Stuart
1994    Culture, Identity, and Diaspora. In Colonial Discourse & Postcolonial Theory: A Reader. Williams, Patrick & Laura Chrisman, eds. Pp. 392-420. Columbia University.

“White Devil as Expert Witness” By T. Swedenburg.

Swedenburg, Ted. (2005). “Chapter 9: White Devil as Expert Witness.” In Anne Meneley and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto- Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (143-157). Toronto, Ontario: Broadview Press.

Anthropology’s life outside academia and apart from academic objectives often forms and moves in ways unlike its traditional counterpart. Ted Swedenburg shows in “White Devil as Expert Witness” (2005) that the process of alternative anthropological work challenges academically legitimized practice. Anthropology and ethnography in alternative domains protrudes from and destabilizes orthodox frameworks. His piece highlights anthropology’s awkward translation into extra-academic domains, ironic for a discipline which prides itself on the ability to translate, and transfer across, differences. Swedenburg’s critically reflexive piece is a strong example of the problematics of ethnographic intervention, where discipline finds effective application only by disrupting or departing from its characteristic tenets. The work also prompts us to reflect on the success of anthropology’s efforts and the limitations and deficits of its traditional academic template.

Swedenburg’s alternative anthropology began when we was called to serve as an expert witness in a court case pertaining to prisoner’s rights. The suit against the New York State Department of Correctional Service was filed by the inmate Intelligent Allah Tarref who sought to have his religious rights legally recognized (143). This required first that the plaintiff’s community, the Nation of Gods and Earths, be recognized and instituted as a religion. It was Swedenburg’s role to draw on his anthropological expertise, perspective and practice, to convince the judge and jury that the Nation of Gods and Earths was not a gang, not a “security threat”, but rather a religious group “according to conventional understandings of the term” (146).

One blaring irony of this intervention speaks through the title of Swedenburg’s essay and its discussion should be premised by an introduction to the Nation of Gods and Earths (NGE). The NGE is a community, ideology, and way of life emerging from the syncretism of “Afro-centrism, pan-Africanism, and Islamic cultural and religious influences” (144). Clarence 13x, a former Nation of Islam member expelled for his heretical teachings, was its founder (145). After leaving the NOI he changed his name to Allah and took to the streets of Harlem to a preach and proselytize his philosophies. In brief they held Black Men collectively as God and Black Woman is Earths (145). Those who recognize their divinity constitute 5 percent of the population and are the members of the NGE, hence the community’s alias Five Percent. Caucasian “white devils”, created by a malevolent scientist Yaqob, constitute 10 percent of the population who, among other evils, were spreading the teachings of Christianity and Orthodox Islam (145). The remaining 85 percent is the poor ignorant population who are exploited by the devilish 10 percent. Swedenburg, according to a fundamentalist Five Percent perspective, is a “white devil” connected to devilish academic and state institutions which confront and criminalize the NGE (145). Yet it is these institutions which supported Swedenburg in challenging the state on behalf of the Five Percent and legally legitimizing their community.

NGE membership is not easily identified, though can been seen in their rap music by a critical observer. Some of their lyrical messages are overt but most resemble apocrypha (Swedenburg 1997). Noting the signifiers of NGE membership requires familiarly with Islam and the Qur’an (Ibid).  Aside from commentary on socio-political climate, NGE music is full of prayer. However, this actually sets them apart from orthodox Islamic faith which forbids sacred messages to be sung (Ibid).  This illustrates one of many ways in which the NGE reflects familiar religious institutions yet differs from them radically. These unique variations complicated the state’s definition and incorporation of the NGE into legal frameworks. As NGE messages were also a challenge to identify, their textual and sonic messages could not be easily controlled, censored, or persecuted. Likely this illusiveness, along with racialisation and post-9/11 moral panic, prompted the classification of the NGE as a threatening group.

Swedenburg’s work contested the hegemonic classifications such as “gang”,  which denied the recognition and rights of unorthodox collectives (143). However, this merely asserted other classifications which kept the NGE bound by hegemonic persepetives. Despite anthropology’s critique and re-articulation of the outdated classificatory system and its evaluative criteria, Swedenburg, as any other ethnographer might have, had to appeal to old discourse to communicate effectively outside the academic domain.

The intervention of the term “religion” into NGE’s identity is another point of irony.  NGE is self-proclaimed a “way of life” and association with the category ‘religion’ is often protested (153). Though many of the members are Muslim they set themselves apart from the orthodox Islamic faith and the structures of religious institutions.  However, they must lean on this legally recognized categorisation in order to gain recognition and (supposed) rights and protection by the state.

Swedenburg was one of many resources the judge used for adjudication. His anthropological expertise was put to the analysis of written documents rather than traditional fieldwork. However, previous research on Franco-Algerian Rai music, ‘Islamic’ African-American rap, and Isreal’s Mizrahi dance music, “’border’ musics of the middle east as well as middle eastern-inflected musics of the west” (Swedenburg N.D.) gave him authority over NGE’s evaluation. His data was selectively incorporated into the expert report, omitting some of the data which complicated the NGE’s position and was not translatable into an objective, legal vernacular.

In the end Intelligent won the law suit. But this was not primarily on account of the objective evidence produced by Swedenburg and the other witnesses. Rather, the verdict was drawn based on precedent and the judge’s subjective evaluation of sincerity of belief (152).  While Swedenburg strived to translate anthropology into the criminal justice domain, the judge drew on what is a crucial but under-acknowledged part of anthropology’s practice: listening seriously to an(other); meeting them human to human.

Though this case would set a precedent for the legal status of NGE communities, individuals, and their sonic and textual communications, it did not necessarily alter public perception.  No longer an “unauthorized group”, the NGE’s members on the street and in prison could practice and preach their way of life without persecution (143).  But this did not disrupt the “dominant…discourses which treat young male blacks as dangerous, pathological, and violent” (150).  It did, however, give to street-rapping NGE members, their Allah School, or circulated publications legal recognition and rights which would serve them in confrontations with the criminal justice system.  

During the trial Swedenburg faced the question ‘have you been there?’ (149). This prompts the anthropologist to consider the criteria by which their work is legitimated. Is the discipline defined by perspective or method? Can the veteran anthropologist translate the wisdom of their field experience to understand other contexts? These are questions I cannot fully explore here, but rather I’d like to respond to the question of the Department of Criminal Services. Though Swedenburg had not been to the field referred to by the defendants, he had indeed conducted fieldwork, and a multi-sited project no less.

In order to “make effective arguments that might persuade the court to accord NGE members the same religious rights accorded to other recognized faiths” (147), Swedenburg traversed the NGE’s sonic and textual fields and, by the translation of many differences, brought them into conversation with the criminal justice system. To liaison the vernaculars, Swedenburg had to enculturate to legal language, customs, and practices, and underwent hours of ‘expert’ witness initiation. He observed and participated in the compilation of legal and cultural data, its scripting into legal narrative, testified at trial, and produced a 9 page report substantiating the plaintiff’s argument. He also studied the  Allah School’s publication “The Five Percenter” (146) and drew on his own research on NGE Islamic hiphop (Swedenburg 2002a). Swedenburg had “been there”, in the fields relevant to context’s demands (153). 

The ironies of Swedenburg’s anthropological intervention leads us to consider the weaknesses, limitations, and deficits of the current academic paradigm and expectations of the discipline. The knowledge produced must often be transmuted for its consumption or application in legal, state, or public domains. This may indicate that anthropology’s critical conversations about ‘otherness’, difference, and similarity are not having the impact they could, and should, beyond the academy. 

Where is anthropology missing the mark? How is it that its conversations and practices, mostly relevant to critical socio-political issues, are belittled and dismissed outside the towers and texts (111) while other sciences are enticing the public with popular journal publications which broadcast discussions such as How Did We Get Four Limbs? Because We Have a Belly (Science Daily 2014), Low semen levels in mice make for fatter sons (Science News 2014), or A turkey’s wattle inspires a biosensor’s design (Science News 2014). I am not dismissing the importance of the discoveries of ‘hard science’. I only urge anthropology to find equal space in the public’s interest where it can speak to, and perhaps change some minds and discourses about difference. If this could be so, perhaps the anthropologist’s professional experience would differ from Swedenburg’s. Rather than needing to reify the constructs of its harshest critiques, the discipline could engage other domains in a dialogue open to alternative “way[s] of life” (153).

Additional References:

Science Daily

2014    How Did We Get Four Limbs? Because We Have a Belly. January 24.        http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/01/140127112729.htm?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+sciencedaily/top_news/top_science+(ScienceDaily:+Top+Science+News), accessed January 25, 2014.

Science News

2014    A turkey’s wattle inspires a biosensor’s design. January 28. https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/scicurious/turkey%E2%80%99s-wattle-inspires-biosensor%E2%80%99s-design, accessed January 28, 2014.

2014    Low semen levels in mice make for fatter sons. January 28. https://www.sciencenews.org/blog/science-ticker/low-semen-levels-mice-make-fatter-sons, accessed January 28, 2014.

Swedenburg, Ted

1997   Islam in the Mix: Lessons of the Five Percent. http://comp.uark.edu/~tsweden/5per.html, accessed January 27, 2014.