The “noble war” narrative and the problem with focusing on personal moral choices (review of ch. 11)

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

In chapter 11, David Price ends his quest to understand anthropology’s involvement with the war effort by looking at how war-related work affected the development of the discipline, and opened the way to the justification of Cold War-related anthropology. He also discusses, on ethical grounds, some of the questionable uses of anthropology that were dealt with in the previous chapters. Again, as mentioned during previous seminars, the vocabulary he uses gives credence to the narrative of a grand war against Nazi barbarism. On page 267, he states that “[u]sing anthropology to combat and defeat fascism seems, in retrospect, to have been not only a logical but also a noble undertaking under conditions of total warfare”. Two pages later, he describes the Nazis as “evil enemies” (p. 269). On page 280, he repeats that “[t]he war’s fight against fascism was a noble one”. In Price’s rhetoric, these statements usually appear right before he introduces a critique of anthropological practices. They probably serve as a way for Price to avoid alienating his more conservative readers, who could classify him as an anti-American radical. But isn’t he overdoing it, considering that he already mentioned his support for the fight against the Axis powers in the preface? Is the myth of the noble war against fascism still so prevalent that he feels obliged to re-state it before making any criticism?

In some cases, this reaffirmation of the myth might actually be historically problematic. For example, on page 274, Price says that “total warfare was the only way to combat the Nazis”. Was it really the case? I am no specialist of World War II, and even less of military strategy, but I have often heard it said that the Soviet contribution to the destruction of Hitler’s forces was greater than that of the United States. If it is so, it is possible to think that the Allied forces could have won even if the US had not been committed to total warfare, which means that the most unethical warfare methods could have been avoided. In any case, Price’s statement probably needs careful historical revaluation.

One of the important points discussed by Price in this chapter is anthropologists’ relative silence concerning their war experience. Very few published writings dealing in any depth with what they did during the war (p. 266). Moreover, much later, when some scholars tried to critically examine anthropology’s contribution to WWII, their efforts were met with hostility and with defensive rebuttals (p. 278). This probably explains in part why Price is so prudent in his own critiques. However, this silence is somewhat surprising. One would expect that such a major event would lead to a profusion of personal accounts. Unfortunately, Price does not try to provide an explanation for this discretion on the part of his war-involved colleagues. Maybe it is simply because many of them wanted to quickly turn the page and move on. Or maybe it is because some of them felt some form of guilt over what they did during the war, as seems to be the case with Gregory Bateson. But if it is so, it would somewhat contradict the idea, implied by Price, that most were moved by a strong commitment to combat the Nazis. If such a sentiment was dominant in the field, we could expect anthropologists to talk about their deeds with pride.

As to the questionable uses of anthropological knowledge and skills, it is a bit troubling to see that Price at times seems more concerned with their impact on the discipline than on the people affected. For example, he argues that “[u]sing anthropologists to train native peoples to fight as guerillas was also a logical and effective application of anthropologists’ skill sets” (p.  266) given the nature of the war. He later suggests that this sort of work damaged American anthropology’s credibility, but he does not ponder on the fact that it is extremely problematic to enroll people to fight in a foreign power’s war. In the case of populations conquered by the Japanese, if there is already a local desire to fight the occupying power, it might be justifiable to provide support. But there is a good chance that, for the natives, the victory of one side or the other will only mean the replacement of a colonial power by another, as implied in the previous chapter, when Coon mentions that it was hard to explain to the natives who supported the US side why their condition did not change for the better (p. 250).

Although he does admit that ethical codes are not always effective and can be distorted by various political interests, Price seems to put a lot of faith in them. In fact, adopting clearer and stronger ethical guidelines is the only practical measure he suggests to reduce the problems associated with anthropological engagement in war efforts. To me, this highlights one of the weaknesses in Price’s approach: his focus on the personal moral choices of individual anthropologists. With such a focus, direct criticism of what his colleagues of the past have done would appear judgmental and quite inappropriate, considering that he is writing from a distance, without ever having to experience the hardships and the intensity of war. By focusing instead on more structural factors, such as how having a specific position in the anthropological field brings you closer to state interests, or how organizational needs shape intellectual production, he could have criticized situations without putting all the blame on the shoulders of specific individuals. He might also have suggested measures that could hypothetically be more effective than ethical codes, such as advocating for more public funding by autonomous research councils, in the hopes of making CIA or private foundation funding less attractive. During seminar, it was also suggested that a systematic analysis of the career paths – before and after the war – of the anthropologists who contributed to the war effort and of those who didn’t would have provided major insights on the incentives to participate.

Putting aside criticism, I have to mention that Price’s book, although it has some flaws, makes for a very compelling read. It is also a well-researched, thoughtful and broad work which contributes uniquely to our understanding of anthropology’s dealings with power.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

A nonanthropological defense of British anthropology: Review of Jack Goody’s The Expansive Moment

Goody, Jack. (1995). The Expansive Moment: The Rise of Social Anthropology in Britain and Africa, 1918-1970. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

On the back cover of The Expansive Moment, it is written that “this is a study of the different ideological and intellectual approaches adopted by the emerging subject of social anthropology and how far these views were incorporated into and defined by the structures and institutions in which they developed”. Although the book does discuss the early British social anthropologists’ ideological and intellectual stances, this presentation still appears somewhat deceiving. Jack Goody does not provide a systematic account of these approaches, nor does he explain how they are defined by the structures and institutions in which they evolved. In the book, there are many cases in which Goody presents a specific individual’s intellectual position. Chapter 5 deals with Evans-Pritchard’s view of himself as a “detached scholar engaged in pure research” and strongly opposed to applied enquiry (74). In chapter 3, Fortes is described as a “progressive conservationist”, a “radical conserver”, who “would prefer to let the races remain in their natural state” (53). But Jack Goody doesn’t try to give an explanation of how these anthropologists came to adopt the positions that they defended. Rather, he presents their positions as a given and, when dealing with the question of how their approaches were influenced by the institutions they had to deal with, he makes the argument that “in general individuals carried out what research they wanted” (195). In other words, Jack Goody tends to view the early British social anthropologists as free individuals who were not seriously constrained by the organizations they worked with or by the provenance of their funding.

In Homo Academicus, Bourdieu tries to analyse the French academic field scientifically, by studying the social, historical and institutional conditions that lead professors to adopt particular positions. To do so, he creates sociological constructions of specific individuals by assigning them a definite set of properties which allow him to compare them rigorously to each other in a “strictly theoretical space of differentiation” (Bourdieu, 22-23). This seemingly complex method is probably not without its flaws, but it allows Bourdieu to avoid some of the pitfalls associated with studying a world you are part of. On the contrary, Jack Goody does no attempt to produce sociological or anthropological explanations of what is at play in the period surrounding the birth of British social anthropology. He focuses mostly on the personal relationships of individual anthropologists and his account is based almost exclusively on their correspondence. It could be said that such a way of writing his story has some advantages. First and foremost, it avoids lumping individuals together and makes it plain that, among anthropologists, intellectual positions were not homogeneous in any way. Secondly, it allows us to learn some interesting information about the characters involved. For example, Malinowski’s central role in the organization of the discipline of social anthropology is made clear, especially in chapter 1.  We also learn about the “leftward, sometimes Marxist, leanings” (9) of many anthropologists and about their support for colonial independence movements (11). But this method also has obvious drawbacks. Through the accumulation of data that often seems trivial, it feels as though the broad picture is blurred rather than illuminated. Moreover, Jack Goody writes phrases such as:

Some anthropologists may have received benefits as representatives of the colonial regime and its hierarchical attitudes.  Others certainly suffered from this association and tried to keep clear of contamination […] (196)

With this type of formulation, meant to repeat the truism that things are always more complex than they look, Goody makes it very hard to understand the nature and the extent of anthropologists’ collaboration (or refusal to collaborate) with the authorities. Admittedly, some typologies and classifications are badly done, but isn’t it part of the purpose of social science to put forward generalizations (which will of course have to be debated)? Furthermore, as discussed in class, by applying an anthropological grid to the study of foreign populations but not to the study of his own peers, Goody may inadvertently reproduce a colonial pattern whereby the former are treated as objects and the latter as subjects.

As stated above, Jack Goody makes the argument that early British social anthropologists were not told how to do their research:

Whatever bows had to be made to the interests of Rockefeller benefactions, the International African Institute (IAI) and the colonial authorities, by and large people were allowed to pursue their own academic purposes (as Rockefeller and the Institute intended) (154)

Not taking into account the fact that “allowed” is a strange word to use for someone who claims that researchers were mostly free, shouldn’t these “bows” to larger powers be a central topic of enquiry? Besides, it is plausible that the Foundation or the colonial authorities rarely imposed direct guidelines and rules to field anthropologists. However, the latter’s work might still have been in line with the former’s interests. The editorial writers of a newspaper probably don’t receive a phone call from the owners telling them what opinion they should defend – such a direct interference might even make them angry. But if they have been nominated in this position, it might mean that they had already internalized the attitudes that are expected of them. In the same way, it is possible to think that there was already some prior ideological and intellectual affinity with, say, Malinowski and those who were in charge of the Rockefeller Foundation. At the very least, research done by British social anthropologists didn’t seriously threaten their interests. As was mentioned during seminar, if the costs are low (the money given by the Foundation and by colonial authorities was substantial for social science research, but it didn’t cripple these institutions’ budgets), the benefits don’t have to be huge.

Much of Goody’s book sounds like a defense of his own legacy and that of his colleagues and mentors. There is some evident nostalgia in his description of the period covered. He speaks of an atmosphere of camaraderie, of solidarity, of communitas (83) and argues that anthropology’s most notable achievements took place in this period (86). He also severely criticizes some of his successors. One of the targets of his criticism is the type of anthropology that separates theory and fieldwork, particularly those anthropologists who limit themselves to recording the words and action of the people (149). For him, anthropology “is analytic or it is nothing” (150). He also has strong words about those today who limit themselves to a “general commitment to some brand-name anthropology […]” (101) without acquiring a deeper knowledge of other disciplines. Without such knowledge, “anthropology will continue to be the domain of the not-so-gifted amateur […]” (101). Another one of the targets of his criticism is the tendency to put aside the work done by the previous generations instead of trying to “build on earlier knowledge” (148), in order for science to be cumulative. This is a good point, which is also made by Vered Amit in a recent book on “mid-level concepts”. She denounces the tendency to reinvent the wheel by jettisoning concepts used by the previous generation (Amit, 2). To avoid this pattern, she and the other authors of the book present specific concepts by referring both to their actual and historical use in the social sciences. Similarly, to make sure that their work is not forgotten, Jack Goody dedicates chapter 7 to the scientific achievements of his colleagues and predecessors in Africa. This is one of the strongest chapters of the book.  Without being clogged by unnecessary detail about the anthropologist’s life trajectories, it clearly presents their contributions on specific topics, while still looking at how these contributions were made possible by the context and by the anthropologists’ particular training (in anthropology under Malinowski’s influence, as well as in other disciplines). If Jack Goody’s goal was to remind his audience of the value of the work undertaken in the early days of social anthropology, it might have been better achieved by organizing the whole book around his colleagues’ contributions and the social and institutional context in which they were made.


Bourdieu, Pierre. (1990). Homo Academicus. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Amit, Vered (Ed.). (2015). Thinking through Sociality: An Antropological Interrogation of Key Concepts. Oxford: Berghahn Books.