Anthropology?: A Review of David H. Price’s Weaponizing Anthropology

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

In Weaponizing Anthropology, David H. Price informed and cautioned his readers against the U.S.A.’s incorporation of anthropology and anthropologists into its military. Through the incorporation of selective, and often misconceived anthropological theories, the military has exposed and utilized the fractures in the discipline’s core. Price suggests that anthropology’s failures to adequately define itself, has left it vulnerable and malleable to whatever a user may choose to use it for.

Price’s book explored both the U.S.A.’s public explanations of anthropological incorporation, as well as its more latent and sinister reasonings. Publicly, the presence of anthropologists in Human Terrain Systems was said to provide some much needed cultural knowledge. However, Price revealed that in actuality, cultural knowledge gained value because US military’s occupation in the Middle East was becoming more and more hopeless.

During our seminar this hopelessness was elaborated upon. We reasoned that once it became evident that the United States wasn’t going to win the war through technological warfare, rather than build more destructive weapons, the US military turned its attention to its enemy’s bomb-makers. The military began to strategically seek effective ways to turn its enemy against itself. In order to accomplish this goal, extensive knowledge of the inner-workings of the given culture needed to be obtained. Not for the first time, the military pronounced anthropologists as the best suited for the task. Imbedded anthropologists, as well as academics from other disciplines, were to “function as nerves, feeling and reporting the cultural-emotional responses of occupied peoples so that the machines of war [could] more exactly manipulate and dominate them” (2011:198). Through the help of academics, the sharpest minds were employed ensuring this to be a ‘smart war.’

Price dedicated many pages to the discussion of the military’s disregard for anthropological ethics and loyalties owed to studied populations. However, I do not believe examples of what little regard the military holds for occupied peoples to be particularly shocking. What I believe to be far more telling is Price’s unearthing, through the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, of the military’s selective adoption of anthropological theories. Price suggested that the military has treated anthropology as a buffet, from which it has cherry-pick the parts of the discipline agreeable to its palate. The result is a customized version of anthropology, which “offers an engineering-friendly, false promise of “managing” the complexities of culture as if increased sensitivities, greater knowledge, panoptical legibility could be used in a linear fashion to engineer domination” (2011:190). This ‘version of anthropology’ begs the question if in fact it constitutes as anthropology at all. Price admitted his uncertainty whether the body of knowledge emerging through this newly welded mould, will be recognized as anthropology in the future. However, I believe by questioning if something is truly ‘anthropology,’ Price has exposed a pressure point within our discipline, which requires immediate tending.

During a number of our seminars, the majority of our class, if not the entirety, agreed that the military isn’t performing nor producing anthropology. We agreed with Price that the military’s lack of ethical consideration, and a resistance to be criticized by other academics, would continue to produce over-simplified stereotypes, which deceive the true complexities of cultures. However, the military’s applied scholarship wasn’t the only instance in which we debated whether a body of literature was truly anthropological. Price’s book fell under scrutiny during one of our seminars. We asked ourselves if Price’s Weaponizing Anthropology was justifiably anthropology. Price certainly broke tradition through the ease through which one could read his book. This contrasted against the customary scholarly style of convoluted and dense texts. His heavy reliance on data and historic collections also differed from conventional fieldwork. While we struggled to decide if his work merited the stamp of anthropology, many of us agree that this was not an ethnography. The conversation became directed around the limitations of ethnography. It was argued that Price situated himself in the field, rather than passively observing. His unconventionally positioning allowed him to solicit information from powerful secretive elites, which would have otherwise been much more difficult, or even impossible to obtain.

While Price’s and the military’s methods might not ultimately be credited as anthropology, the point worth considering is that neither is automatically accepted nor rejected as anthropology. Arguments can, and were made for both. Admittedly, our class was fairly quick to reject the military’s use of our discipline as true anthropology. An overwhelming majority agreed with Price, or at least admitted to an agreement, in that the military’s pseudo anthropology was credited to their misuse of the discipline. This then begs the question what the correct uses of our discipline are. Price quoted Alexander Leighton, who compared the administrator’s uses of social science during wartime to that of a drunk using a lamppost for support, rather than illumination (2011:130). Due to anthropologists’ failures to unite the discipline in a common working definition, we have failed to instruct ourselves, as well as the public, of what anthropology is and what it should be used for. We shame the military’s misuse of this metaphorical lamppost, and provide no enlightened explanation of what the lamppost is and its acceptable uses. Rather, we observe, debate, and judge the engagements of others with the lamppost we have constructed. Only when these engagements with the anthropology-lamppost raise ethical, moral, and political issues, we are forced to confront ethical questions about what our discipline is. Even when forced, our definitions are often broad and center around what anthropology is not. Anthropologists have nestled themselves in a limiting position where it is easier to provide examples of anthropology gone wrong, or what the discipline will not stand for.

I believe a better defined discipline will not only save many of us from blank stares and archeological assumptions, it will also establish a more effective security system and free us from the policing jobs many have made their responsibilities. A well-known definition of what a lamppost is, and how it should be used, would likely deter many from misusing it. Thus liberating many anthropologists from their constant supervision of the uses of the anthropology-lamppost.

Of course it is very easy to talk about how wonderful it would be for anthropology to be more precisely defined, it is far more daunting to take action. However, we have reached a point in time where the anthropologically-induced harm of the past, often referred to as the discipline’s ‘skeletons,’ threatens to continue into our future. Even if the military’s plans to weaponize anthropology fail, which Price assures us will happen due to their limited understanding of culture, perhaps what is even more potentially damaging is their limited understandings and narrow stereotypings taking root in the American public’s imagination, if it hasn’t already. Through this logic, a militarized anthropology has the strong potential to backfire. I strongly believe a more accessible and well-defined discipline is the most effective defence.


TRAVEL, HUMANITARIANISM, AND BECOMING AMERICAN IN AFRICA, CHAPTER 5: Disrupting the Hyphen: Identity and Belonging in America

Mathers, K. (2010). “Chapter 5: Disrupting The Hyphen: Identity and Belonging in America’ Travel And The Discovery Of Home.” In Travel, humanitarianism, and becoming American in Africa. Palgrave Macmillon, 117-135.

Kathryn Mathers’ fifth chapter “Disrupting the Hyphen” in Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa, centers around the experience of three students studying abroad in Cape Town. Prior to their study abroad experiences, Megan, Maria and Corey had never “thought of themselves as just American” (P.117). Each woman had labeled herself as a specific kind of hyphenated American. Thus, their introduction to a South African perception of them as ‘just American’ proved to be particularly unsettling. Mathers argued that their interactions with South Africans caused each woman to rethink her identity, and to transform it in various ways.

Mathers began her chapter with an introduction to Megan, a particularly politically orientated “white American from a rural conservative town” (P.121). Prior to her experience in South Africa, Megan had accepted the American phenomenon that “only black Americans were allowed to speak about Africa” (P.121). However, visiting Africa bestowed her with a confidence and validity to speak about Africa. Mathers suggested that Megan’s desire to speak about Africa was reflected in her desire to buy and wear West African styled clothing. However, I am more inclined to argue that this interest in local clothing was perhaps more related to her financial insecurity. She wasn’t able to afford the fashionable clothes or the excursions that other students could. However, in South Africa, Megan realized that “a small amount of dollars went quite far in terms of life’s little luxuries” (P.122). Among the South African clothing stores, for the first time, Megan was likely in the position of a buyer who could afford to buy. Megan spoke about how she had “enjoyed being able to wear what she wanted and how in South Africa she was able to feel comfortable wearing clothes that matched her own sense of who she [was] rather than the expectations of others” (P.123). Perhaps ‘being able to wear what she wanted’ can be stretched to include being able to afford and partake in fashions. Perhaps someone who can afford to belong, is more in line with Megan’s sense of self than someone “who carries a stamp of the outsider” (P.119)

Mathers revealed Megan’s understanding that her West African clothing preference couldn’t continue back in America (P.122). Just as fashions don’t necessarily translate between countries, neither do one’s finances. Megan likely realized that her time as a wealthy individual in South Africa couldn’t continue in America. Despite the lack of permanence in Megan’s financial climb, she discovered that she was in fact wealthy, privileged, and powerful compared to many South Africans. She determined that this wealth and privilege was tied to her fate of “[being] born into the world’s wealthiest country” (P.123). In other words, Megan realized that being American, no matter the difference between working, middle or upper class, bestows one with a wealth and privilege in many places outside of America. This wealth and privilege, or American citizenship, likely fed Megan’s preexisting “guilt over the role the United States played in the negative effects of globalization” (P.121). As well as her “[feelings of responsibility] for the plight of others” (P.124).

During our seminar we discussed this concept of guilt transfer. Is it fair that these young Americans have to bear the wealth and power differentials of their country? We came to no definitive answer. One student related guilt transfer to a coffee shop worker or a cashier. These workers are almost never in charge of store policies, price augmentations or really any responsibilities outside of their often limited tasks. However, due to their frequent interactions with customers, they bear many complaints. Ironically, it is often common knowledge that these workers hold no power to change things to satisfy a customer’s desires. Similarly, travelers are often confronted with complaints in regards to their countries’ governmental decisions, policies, and etcetera, even though it is often known that these travelers have very little power to change their governments. Whether it is fair to hold citizens accountable is almost irrelevant. The point that was emphasized during our class is that it happens regardless. An anthropologist’s task should be focused on capturing and interpreting these moments of collision.

In the chapter Mathers also introduces Maria, a Mexican-American who experienced culture shock in college due to her traditional Mexican upbringing (P.124). During Maria’s time in Cape Town she was confronted with South Africans who refused to believe that she was Mexican, due in part to her light complexion. Mathers noted Maria’s performance of drenching her food in hot sauce in order to assert her Mexican identity, and resist the American identity imposed on her (P.126). Mathers concludes that Maria’s use of hot sauce was in fact her assertion of the possibility of being both Mexican and American, rather than a rejection of an American identity. I am not so convinced. Maria’s experience is the only one that mentions a xenophobic and negative reaction towards Americans. She encountered South Africans who vocalized their ability to identify Americans through their accents, and their general discontent with their presence (P.125). Perhaps this general displeasure towards Americans encouraged Maria, through the use of hot sauce, to distance herself from the possibility of being ‘just American,’ and her American classmates.

During our seminar we questioned why these Americans left their perceived identities to the hands of South Africans. Why should they have the last say? Why should their uninformed perceptions of American culture flatten Maria’s identity to that of ‘just an American?’ Examining Maria’s story a little closer, I am much more convinced that Maria’s performance of her Mexican identity was for the benefit of her audience, rather than her own. It is possible, likely even, that Maria’s resistance towards a singular American identity was due to her witnessed negative reaction towards Americans. Her alignment as more than an American can be interpreted as her method of gaining the approval and acceptance of her hosts. Perhaps Maria was aware that her flattened identity was only flattened in South Africa, when confronted with South Africans. After all, the opinion of a culture who shared none of her identities, is far less devastating. If Mexicans in Mexico had flattened her identity to ‘just an American’ perhaps that would have been more of a reason for an identity disruption. I argue that Maria asserted her Mexican identity in order to be better accepted by South Africans, rather than due to the inner turmoil Mathers had perceived.

Corey was the third and study-abroad student of the chapter. During her experience in South Africa, Corey discovered a piece of her identity no longer valid. Prior to her time spent in South Africa, Corey had labeled herself as an African-American, as most black Americans do. However, when a South African asked how she labeled herself, she realized that the African part of her identity sounded strange because she had no ties to the people in Africa (P.128). With the African part of her hyphen eradicated, Corey was left to contemplate the sole American identity left over. Labeling herself as simply an American also felt strange. In her journals Corey stated that an American identity only incorporated those of a European descent (P.129). Similar to Corey’s identity in South Africa, her hair was a source of stress. She needed to get it washed but she was faced with the dilemma of a lack of chemical strengtheners, not unlike the lack of adequate labels she was faced with. After hunting around hair salons, Corey gave up on her quest and opted for braided hair. What I believe to be truly telling is that Corey kept her hair in an even more natural style when she returned home. Her braids in South Africa can be understood as her temporary solution. Her ability to make do with what South Africa had to offer. Similarly, the disrupted ‘African’ in her African-American identity could have also been a temporary adherence to her presence in another culture. Upon her return back home, Corey could have easily reverted back to straightening her hair, and referring to herself as an African-American. What is interesting, and truly telling, is that she did neither. Mathers interpreted Corey’s afro as a sign of “how comfortable she felt with being both black and American” (P.130). However, I feel that Mathers’ conclusion expels the possibility that Corey was in fact just comfortable with her lack of any label. Rather than continue her former adherence to hairstyles expected of African-Americans, which her family articulated, or sample popular hairstyles of South Africans, Corey’s afro signified her resolve to simply let her hair and identity to be as is. Rather than navigate different identities, liker her afro, Corey seems to accept that she doesn’t belong to either an African or American identity, rather than to both as Mathers suggested.

Through Megan, Maria, and Corey, Mathers expressed the tensions felt by students who had their hyphenated identities threatened, even if only temporarily. Through the use of materials and objects, each young woman either asserted or navigated her challenged identity. Mathers believed that the manipulation of certain materials was a reflection of each woman grappling with her challenged identity. I have my reservations about her conclusions. I argue that each woman’s acceptance of fluidity in their identity, reflected through their use of certain materials, could have their desire to fit in, and adhere to a South African culture. Megan could have dressed in a West African style in order to better adhere to local trends, due to her ability to afford the trends. Maria could have asserted her Mexican identity in order to be better accepted by South Africans who exhibited animosity towards Americans. Corey could have rejected the ‘African’ in her hyphen in order honour the distinction South Africans made between themselves and her. Mathers correctly identified a complexity in each woman’s collision with her identity’s reflection in South Africa. By adhering to South Africans’ ideas of their identities were these women accepting their Americaness? Perhaps Megan was. I am not so convinced that Maria and Corey were.

Reversed Gaze, Chapter 4: Remembering Home, Contrasting Experiences

Ntarangwi, Mwenda. (2010). “Remembering Home, Contrasting Experiences.” In Mwenda Ntarangwi, Reversed Gaze: An African Ethnography of American Anthropology (p.78-100). Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

Mwenda Ntarangwi’s fourth chapter in Reversed Gaze, reflected on the use of anthropology to study one’s self and one’s culture. Even despite Western anthropology’s predominantly studied Other, Ntarangwi was convinced of the value of reflecting “upon one’s own culture” (p.78). In this chapter he demonstrated how the combination of his various geographical locations and his anthropological training, allowed him a unique vantage point from which he could ‘gaze’ and his own Kenyan culture.

After two years of graduate studies in America, Kenyan born Mwenda Ntarangwi, returned home for a visit. Revisiting Kenya presented Ntarangwi with his first real opportunity to conduct anthropological analysis. He hoped that his two-year absence, combined with his degree in anthropology, was “good ethnographic training that would make [him] more aware of the cultural realities and practices in [his] own country” (P.85). Throughout his visit, and through various conversations with family members, Ntarangwi became increasingly aware of the disparities between the African imagination of America, and the reality of Africans living in America. Ntarangwi noticed that in his absence the cost of living had increased, while many Kenyans were receiving below minimum wage. This enlarged the already existing gap between the rich and the poor. Ntarangwi felt that these problems “added to the lure of leaving Kenya for greener pastures abroad” (P.86). Prior to his move to America, Ntarangwi admitted that he believed Western tourists to be very wealthy. It was only once he visited America and interacted with Americans, he learned that the majority of Western tourists save for several years in order to amass enough money to make these two-week Kenyan excursions possible. However, it was noted during our weekly seminar, that although Ntarangwi stresses that money in America doesn’t grow on the “proverbial trees” (P.81), Americans are still rightfully perceived as wealthier. Despite the time it might take Westerners to save enough money, they spend their saved money on a vacation. America might not be correctly perceived as “the land of milk and honey” (P.81), but it is worth considering that it is a land with ‘more milk and more honey’ than often Africa has to offer.

The idea of America as the ‘greenest’ of pastures was echoed by Ntarangwi’s conversation with his family. He was advised to remain in America in order to presumably make money. During his family’s dinner conversation, rumored American salaries were discussed. Ntarangwi’s relatives fantasized about a job at an American gas station, which one family member claimed paid up to $16 an hour (P.86). Ntarangwi admitted skepticism towards the validity of this salary. He also noted an absence of the costs of medical insurance, taxes, car insurance, rent or mortgage, etcetera, in his family’s ‘fantasy’ calculations. The cost of living in America was wrongly compared to that in Kenya. Ntarangwi noted that the shared imagination of America as a land with abundant opportunities, contributed to the culture shock experienced by many new African students studying in America. “Many [Africans] who were used to help in their homes in Africa are amazed to realize that daycare is very expensive [in America]” (P.79). More so, due to visa statuses and economic needs, many African students find themselves working jobs they likely wouldn’t have considered in Africa. However, the salaries of laborious jobs are often not sufficient. Many Kenyan students quickly realized that they required the “financial support of their parents or relatives in Kenya, [in order] to make it through their first few years of college” (P.87). Regardless of reality, the image of America as a plentiful land is perpetuated. Upon their return, these struggling students don’t reveal that their time in America was spent working the “dirtiest and most demanding jobs” (P.87). Instead, they theatrically play the role as an individual who has greatly benefited from the wealth of America.

Ntarangwi doubted his ability to reveal the truth about ‘American wealth.’ After all, “who would believe [him] when [he] told his friends and family members that it is hard living in America” (P.87)? He ultimately decided that the best strategy would be for people to find out for themselves. During our seminar one student hypothesized that Ntarangwi may have refrained from revealing the ‘truth’ about America due to a family’s, and often a community’s resources that are pooled in order to send someone to America. Ntarangwi stressed the Kenyan spirit of helping one another in contrast to the rugged individualism that he experienced in America (P.92). Perhaps a more nuanced image of America is avoided because it would greatly disappoint existing contributors, and maybe repel potential contributors. Thus hindering “Harambee,” the Kenyan national slogan for pulling together (P.92).

A large portion of Ntarangwi’s chapter four was dedicated to the illustration of the imagery of America as a wealthy nation in Africa. However, Ntarangwi never implied that he himself travelled to the West due to a monetary hunger. Rather, throughout the text, Ntarangwi implied that his reason for travelling to the West was due to his pursuit of enriching his existing field of study. Prior to his graduate school training, Ntarangwi described his feelings of suppression while focusing on popular music. In his existing study of poetry and popular music, Ntarangwi desired an incorporation of a more holistic approach. He felt that an anthropological training would grant him the liberty to do just that. However, anthropology was, and “continues to be a very marginal discipline in Africa generally and in Kenya in particular” (P.94). Thus his educational advancement needed to advance in a more Western direction. During our seminar it was questioned why Ntarangwi specifically chose to study anthropology in America. We considered that an anthropological training in the United Kingdom would have been just as beneficial, as well as closer to home. It was agreed that it would have been enriching for Ntarangwi to elaborate on his choice to study in America. Without his explanations, the reader is left wondering if he was influenced by the African image of America, perhaps more than he was willing to admit.

Despite the “near absence of anthropology departments in African insulations,” Ntarangwi noted that the discipline is essential in understanding Africa’s innumerable social, economic, and political challenges (P.94). By explaining certain underlying practices or beliefs that aren’t always apparent, Ntarangwi stressed the importance of anthropology, as well as the need for African anthropologists. However, in order to transform anthropology into a discipline with more significance, Ntarangwi remained convinced that “a more defined collaboration between anthropologists in the North and those in the South” (P.97), is required. Through Ntarangwi’s American publishing, distribution, and general ethnography about Africa, rather than from Africa, our class determined that he was mainly writing for a Western audience. Perhaps Ntarangwi’s perceived collaboration solution was his leading motivation. Perhaps he imagined that the West needed to be made aware of their potential role in leveling the anthropological playing field.

Ntarangwi communicated his belief that his anthropological training equipped him with a unique awareness and a heightened sense of observation. However, in order to gain anthropological training Ntarangwi was required to travel Western universities, were anthropology was offered as a distinct discipline. This meant he was geographically distanced from his site of study. Ntarangwi explained that this critical distance combined with his anthropological training, “enabled him to step outside of his own culture and observe it from some outside position” (P.93). Ntarangwi’s unintentional combination for obtaining a new set of sociocultural lenses, begs the question if a training and distancing from one’s sight of study are necessary. Did Ntarangwi obtain access to an objective gaze that is unattainable to Western trained anthropologists who continue to study their own culture in the West? Ntarangwi brings up a good question, one worth exploring for Western anthropologists studying Western cultures.

“Writing Against The Native Point of View” by Donna J. Young

Young, Donna J. (2005). “Writing Against The Native Point of View.” Anne Menely and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto-Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (203-215). Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto.           

Donna J. Young’s chapter “Writing Against The Native Point of View” parallels two of her experiences with narrative truth in order to highlight the difficulties of ethnographic fieldwork that Young found most troubling. She began her chapter with an anecdotal introduction of Abigail, one of her informants from a small settlement in the northeastern corner of New Brunswick, where Young conducted field research.

Young began by recounting one of the two paralleling scenarios in which she opened her house to Abigail and Abigail’s parents. To her readers, Young admitted her puzzlement over her required presence for Abigail’s arranged announcement of her multiple sclerosis diagnosis. Young narrated Abigail’s accusatory explanation of her mother’s neglectful parenting to be the root cause of her diagnosis. Subsequently, the couple exhibited an apprehension to believe their daughter’s illness. Over the following few months, Abigail and her mother, Scarlet, continued to feud over Abigail’s firm decision to keep her mother from speaking with her doctor. Young, positioned as a third party, gained access to both the women’s concerns. Scarlet, cautioned by her knowledge of Abigail’s hypochondriac tendencies, found Abigail’s story suspicious. On the contrary, Abigail admittedly feared that her mother would “convince the doctor the diagnosis was wrong” (2005:205), if she was given the opportunity.

Young admitted that she never knew, and would likely never know if Abigail was correctly diagnosed with MS. However, Young wished to drive her work away from a literal truth and absolute certainties. Instead she chose to concern herself with “the interpretation of culturally mediated narratives of self-understanding” (2005:205). Young came to celebrate Abigail’s ability to recast her story. She noted the hours the two spent on the phone “discussing symptoms and rewriting her history in light of her new medical condition” (2005:210). For Abigail, MS became the sound medical explanation for all of her ‘shortcomings’ and general inability to cope with life. Therefore MS removed the need to explore her troubled past for answers about her present inadequacies. MS became held accountable for everything.

Young expressed her gratitude that the post-structuralism focused anthropology’s attention on contradictory accounts. Therefore Young wasn’t expected nor encouraged to discover an “all encompassing point of view” (2005:206). Rather she was encouraged to be reflexive about her representation of the lives of her informants. Many of the forefathers have been criticized for casting their informants as radical others who have remained stagnant in time. Through Young’s determination to avoid repeating these mistakes, she reasoned “if one took the radical otherness, or the exotic, out of anthropology, it would cease to make objects of its subjects” (2005:207).  Young admits her naivety to think that “studying one’s own would ease the ethical and representational dilemmas of ethnographic fieldwork and writing” (2005:207). In fact she found that conducting fieldwork in her hometown, among familiar faces, had its own set of problems and dilemmas.

Initially, Young felt as though her New Brunswick informants had more readily accepted her due to her familiarity. Many informants were able to “successfully locate her geographically and according to kin” (2005:209). Young explained that her profound connection to the place and people she studied made her less likely to be marked as an outsider. However, her connection also closely bounded her to acceptable codes of behaviours. She noted that her informants were more forgiving and tolerating of her ‘African-born’ husband’s inquiries. Nevertheless, Young noted that her husband’s accepted inquiries only skimmed the surface. Neither her husband, nor her informants, revealed any of the complexities of their personal lives. “They seemed satisfied with their stereotypical understanding of each other” (2005: 209). Young suggests that it was through her connection and familiarity that she was able to gain access to the complexities of her informant’s lives.

By using her ‘native identity’ to approach her informants, Young likely eluded, or at least minimized, the ‘outsider’ label bestowed on other anthropologists, researchers, and academics alike. Thus she was able to connect with her informants on a friendship, or possibly even a kinship level. This was certainly visible when Young revealed that Abigail had lived with her for the duration of an entire summer. As well as by her presence at Abigail’s intimate MS reveal. Young criticized anthropology for being an “impolite discipline” (2005:208), because “anthropology disrespects the personal limits of others in the name of science” (2005:209). Young admits that these ‘personal limits’ are even further breached once an informant and researcher begin to relate more as friends and neighbours. In order to compensate for the discomfort she felt by probing ‘too deeply,’ she allowed “those who were the focus of her curiosity to reciprocate” (2005:209). However, by revealing too much of her personal self, Young has likely highlighted her identity as a friend, and dimmed her identity as a researcher. This confusion of roles was most apparent once Abigail began dating a student from Young’s department. After a lengthy relationship where ‘probing and gossiping’ were welcomed by young, it likely disorientated Abigail that the subject of her students’ personal lives was off limits. In this instance, Young abruptly switched from ‘dependable pal’ to a ‘professional researcher.’ Had her identity of a professional researcher been better maintained, perhaps Young wouldn’t have been faced with Abigail’s resentment.

To conclude her chapter, Young identified herself and Abigail as “storytellers.” Through this chosen identification, Young admits that just as there exists informant narrative truth, there is also ethnographic narrative truth. An anthropologist incorporates certain aspects in their ethnographic accounts, and excludes others. This selective recording indicates that ethnographies are a personal interpretation of a researcher’s experience. Perhaps the feud and eventual ‘falling out’ between Young and Abigail is due to the fact that both resented the characters they were cast as in the other’s story. Perhaps Abigail’s eventual accusation of “unethical practice,” was attributed to her feelings of deceit and exposure due to her perceived misrepresentation in Young’s work. Young admitted to feelings of betrayal after Abigail’s sudden reluctance to see Young’s point of view, which she had readily done earlier on. However, it is important to note that as an anthropologist, Young is a different kind of storyteller than Abigail. Young is a storyteller with a responsibility to the characters in her ethnographic stories. She has relinquished the liberty to simply go on feuding much like the way Scarlet and Abigail did. Similarly, Scarlet resented the neglectful unfit parent Abigail’s story portrayed her as. However, Abigail has no professional or ethical responsibility (apart from a close kinship) to adhere to Scarlet’s discontent. As an anthropologist, Young is a storyteller who is first and foremost indebted to her character’s consent. Even despite any other less formal, or more personal, relations she may of had or created among her informants.

“The Torso In The Thames: Imagining Darkest Africa In the United Kingdom” by Todd Sanders

Sanders, Todd. (2005). “The Torso in the Themes: Imagining Darkest Africa in the United Kingdom.” Anne Menely and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto-Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (126-142). Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto.           

In the chapter “The Torso in The Thames: Imagining Darkest Africa in The United Kingdom,” Todd Sanders described the 2001 investigation surrounding the discovery of a torso belonging to “a young black boy found floating in the River Thames” (2005:126). Sanders began the chapter by describing the case’s development over the following two years. Through his summary, Sanders considers the consequences of the police-media engagement surrounding the investigation. More specifically, he draws the reader’s attention to four sequential consequences–the homogenization of an African image, the supposed moral bankruptcy of this artificially unified culture, their perceived Western infiltration, and finally the role anthropologists play in the public sphere.

By mid-October of 2001, merely one month after the torso was first reported, newspapers began reporting the possibility of a ‘ritual murder’ performed by ‘African witchdoctors.’ Several months later, Police furthered the possibility of a ‘ritual killing’ when they announced the decision to fly in a South African pathologist specializing in African muti killing, to conduct further testing on the torso. During the same conference, police also announced the discovery of “seven half-burnt candles wrapped in a white sheet in the Thames” (2005:127). The media suggested that the police believed the name on the sheet to be of West African origin. Simultaneously, the torso was linked to both South and West Africa. No attention to the geographical, cultural and or religious differences was paid to the two vastly different locations. Rather, Africa was being imagined, and not for the first time, “as an undifferentiated entity” (2005:131). Sanders noted that the police and media’s interchangeability between South and West Africa, continued throughout the whole of the case’s investigation.

In April 2002 The Met’s Detective Inspector Will O’Reilly, and Scotland Yard’s Commander Andy Baker travelled to South Africa in order to ask Nelson Mandela to appeal for help identifying the boy’s murderer. Sanders noted that the detective and commander’s desire for Mandela’s involvement indicated their ignorant assumption of Mandela as Africa’s orator. Even more, the efforts to appeal to an African icon situated within Africa, is indicative of Western police-media’s insinuation that Africans are unlikely to receive news from outside Africa. Sanders described the case’s blending of Southern and Western Africa, and the sought out cooperation of Mandela, as both proof of an imagined singular African culture and belief system. The continual reduction of multiples to singulars allowed the police-media to reproduce an image of a communal African identity, and therefore a communal African threat.

Sanders emphasized the evident ‘us versus them’ dichotomy at play in the Thames Torso case. He described the ‘us’ identity as incorporating The Met, British, European, and white. Reasonable, sensible and logically minded individuals were all tied to the image of ‘us.’ While ‘them’ encompassed African, black and Other. Through the case’s homogenization of Africa, all of Africa and Africans were summarized as those “who hold weird, inexplicable and morally bankrupt beliefs” (2005:132). These overarching generalizations were eagerly attached to the notions of ‘them.’ In this epic battle, the police-media pitted the rational ‘us’ against the superstitious savage ‘them.’ ‘Them’ was imagined as an entity to be feared, especially when police-media began claiming that their proximity was increasing. Sanders highlighted Baker and O’Reilly’s cautions that due to technological advancements that have enabled globalization, ‘them’ resides uncomfortably close by.

Anxiety towards the proximity of these others was heightened further by the release of a scandalous story that detailed the raid of a north London shop. The raid was lead by detectives and environmental health officers in search of illegal African bush meat and human flesh. The story communicated the idea that the young boy “was trafficked from West Africa to the UK for the sole purpose of ritual murder and that his body parts were sold alongside bush meat for occult purposes” (2005:130).  The story left its readers imagining that not only has human flesh become accessible in the UK, but this underground business is blossoming. In January 2003, the story aired on television as an hour-long segment. The documentary intensified existing feelings of angst by claiming that the number of heinous African practices was steadily increasing. Sanders argued that the documentary conveyed the message that “the Thames torso is only the tip of a massive malevolent iceberg” (2005:130).

Sanders argued that the sudden presence of this “malevolent iceberg” was explained by police-media as being a “corollary that comes with globalization” (2005:134).   Sanders quoted O’Reilly’s explanation that “in promoting cultural diversity [the UK has] imported these aspects of a culture into mainland Britain” (2005:134). Thus due to a willingness to incorporate different cultures, the UK has simultaneously incorporated the darker aspects of African culture. Sanders importantly suggested that these xenophobic explanations likely satisfied the public because it echoed existing “British anxieties about otherness, globalization, immigration, and multiculturalism, and raises the grave possibility of having “our” life-world unraveled by “their” cultural practices” (2005:135). Sanders found these xenophobic justifications issued by the police-media to be remarkably tenacious. His efforts to dismantle the underscored ideas of otherness went unheard when he called the Met in 2001. He later discovered that three of his colleagues, with comparable opinions to his, had experienced a similar neglectful treatment.

Sanders concluded his chapter with a humbling realization that the anthropological voice is in fact not as authoritative as some might think. He left his readers contemplating the treacherous navigation of broader power structures we must face as anthropologists. Sanders ended his chapter on a hopeful and rousing note through his sober ‘work cut out for us’ finale. While he identified a commendable and necessary goal anthropologists should strive towards, an analogy as to why the police-media might have ignored the opposing opinions of anthropologists seems to be lacking. Sanders is direct about his belief that anthropologists, through the nature of the discipline, often have access to first-hand reliable facts and information. However, in this case he emphasizes that both anthropologists and the Thames Torso detectives knew that the panic over ‘ritual murder’ “far outstripped the number of actual killings” (2005:136). Furthermore that such practices in Africa are quite rare. Throughout the Thames Torso investigation, the police-media has, like the screenwriter for a horror movie, gripped its audience with fear by drawing on pre-existing xenophobic anxieties and derogatory images of Africans. Anthropological oppositions, confined to much smaller platforms, have acted as the logical parents who peek under beds to check for monsters, and resurface with reassuring confirmation that there are in fact none.

Perhaps the ideas of ritual murder and underground human meat markets prove to be simply more seductive to a culture obsessed with entertainment saturated in murder, serial killings and crime scene investigations. Or, more cynically, perhaps the “reassuring” logic anthropologists offer is in fact more terrifying than blaming other misrepresented cultures. Perhaps by removing the blame placed on another culture(s), the Met must face the possibility that one of their own citizens, maybe even someone with a long British ancestry, brutally murdered and disfigured a child.  After all, accounts of ‘Jack the Ripper’ and Amelia Dyer, to name a few, are reminders that human remains in the Thames is more characteristic of British history. Perhaps the police-media involved in the Thames Torso case were well aware that the anthropological opposition proposed an  unbearably unsettling reality.