Price, D. H. (2011). Weaponizing Anthropology. CounterPunch and AK Press.

In Weaponizing Anthropology, David Price first explains how the CIA is silently taking over American academic institutions and how it, like the military, recruits on campus or afterwards those who have studied social sciences. Price lists and describes government funded programs and scholarships such as PRISP, ICSP and NSEP (p.33). Such programs engage the beneficiary upon graduation to work for a certain number of years for the government or choose a lifelong bankruptcy.

The second and third parts are concerned with Human Terrain program, “a new form of anthropologically informed counterinsurgency” (p.95). Using specific citations from The New Counterinsurgency Manual, Price shows how cheap and quickly put together the Human Terrain program is. Price clearly demonstrates how the author of the Manual, who had only basic training in anthropology, did not hesitate to plagiarize and mix different theories and theorists so that it would succeed to convey the message intended by the military and/or the government administration. Who would seriously think that the military could change its structure and become “anthropological”? Price raises the issues of the influence of the militarization of anthropology on theory, and this in turn raises the issue of the porous divide between academia and the military.

I am thankful to Price for the hours he spent filling access to information claims and demystifying those documents for his readers, but I was surprised to see Julian Assange’s name come up as a source without any questioning, even more so as Assange explicitly asked Price to write something about the documents he was sending him (p.100). I think some reserve is appropriate when it comes to international public figures like Assange, Snowden and the likes. In a hypothetical COIN operation against the ever renewing groups of conspiracy theorists, what better way to control and assert authority over domestic insurgents than the friendship and apparent genuine honesty of such male characters? Leaked information exists, but it is rarely clear where it leaked from.

Price did a good job in shedding light on the contemporary version of the shady, tortuous relationship between academia, in this case specifically anthropology, and the military. Indeed, as Price demonstrates, the COIN operations in which the HTT personnel is involved could only function if the personnel was always in place that is, occupying permanently. History has shown what the results of such occupation were.

The relationship between anthropology and imperialist expansion is the most well-known thing about anthropology. The discipline itself has tried to move on (the Reflexive Turn, that advent), but some scholars still find glimpse of romantic hope in thinking they can make war less violent by domesticating the savage through culture engineering. Price thoroughly exposes the craftiness of academic collaborators to the military. Yet, one Amazon reviewer describes Price’s book as “Truly a brutal book which at once has nothing to do with Anthropology and at the same time has everything to do with it.” This is a comment that was phrased differently many times in class and I agree too.

Weaponizing Anthropology is a daring book with its bright red cover crossed by the black silhouette of a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). This image on the cover made me think of one quote by Price in response to his informant John Allison. Allison suggested that the Human Terrain Team social scientists should be put as residents with the local people instead of being “embedded in the military and ‘inside the wire’” (p.163). The Human Terrain System program would engage with the population without force. Price replied that this proposal sounded “like the dream of panoptical control of the enemy: becoming the all seeing eye; surveillance ethnography brought to a new level” (p.163). Indeed, in Weaponizing Anthropology, David Price demonstrates to the readers the dangerous potential of HTS. If the project worked as it is intended to, social scientists participating in it would become somewhat like drones, sent out to remote locations with the function of mapping the human terrain. They become the moving eyes of the panopticon. Perhaps that is only until the singularity happens, then the military won’t need anthropologists to play drones.

We students are told every semester that a life of stress, poverty and shattered hopes is most likely what awaits us if we choose to pursue higher studies in anthropology. Yet, the military seems keen on welcoming us and at fantastic wages. It does not mean we should join the military but that the skills we acquire must indeed be truly worth something, enough so that the CIA and the army actively seek them. Price makes clear throughout his book that who we should serve should not even be a question since by choosing to label yourself as an anthropologist, you accept to serve the people you are working with; your informants, the inhabitants of the places that welcome you. Who would betray the trust of his or her hosts? The theme of ethics is present throughout the book, and I believe that it is its strongest point. The future of anthropology is intrinsically linked to ethics, and to reinforce this aspect of the discipline is the only way to set the standards of what can be labeled anthropology and what cannot.

Mathers, K. (2010). “Conclusion: Saving Africa: Love in the Time of Oprah” In Travel, humanitarianism, and becoming American in Africa.

Mathers, K. (2010). “Conclusion: Saving Africa: Love in the Time of Oprah” In Travel, humanitarianism, and becoming American in Africa.

The conclusion of Travel, Humanitarianism and Becoming American in Africa begins with a quote of Rudyard Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden and ends with an eight-page critique of Oprah Winfrey. Kipling’s quote opens on a short discussion of empire, colonialism and the resulting ‘white man’s burden’. The author’s main argument is that the students she interviewed came to encounter this burden through their travel to South Africa. Mathers concludes that her study has shown how “young Americans living and traveling in South Africa came face to face not only with America and their Americanness but with something that could be called empire and the burden of its recognition”. As young members of the millennial generation, “their burden was not constituted by a prior experience in colonial subjecthood” (p.182). It would have been interesting to know the students’ thoughts on colonialism prior to their travels. However, Mathers readily admits in the introduction to have forgotten “to consider what idea of Africa Americans had before embarking on their journeys” (p.6).

Mathers leaves out prior experiences of students and chooses to focus on their experience of traveling to southern Africa. She argues this experience allowed them to recognize a “new consciousness” which required them to “reconsider their ideas of self and other”. This newly found consciousness did not result in greater knowledge or appreciation of their host countries “but in a greater understanding of Africa’s relationship to them as American citizens and to the United States” (p.183). If I understand Mathers correctly, in other words the students’ travels to the African continent resulted in a greater ethnocentricity and failed at developing multiplicity of perspectives. Encounters were ultimately less about Africa than about America (p.185), and while the reversed gaze of Africans did destabilize the students’ ideas about Africa, it had a deeper effect on their ideas of what it means to be American.

The author writes that “Africa is the place where Americans can be good Americans”. This is made possible “by the way that African people are rendered as present but irrelevant” (p.184). I would like to suggest that this does not apply only to Africa: any country which is not already controlled by American interests and values is a place where Americans can be good Americans and “find their true selves” (p.184). Americans thought they could be good Americans in Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, South Korea, Vietnam, and of course Mexico and a large part of Latin America. The only difference is that from a Western perspective, Africa as a continent is imbued with the spirit of colonial romanticism and a generic jungle landscape for background, something Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness can explain better than I.

Mathers further argues that “In finding where they belonged in America, the younger travelers especially were driven to take responsibility for the citizenship” (p.186). Mathers’ informants came to this realization of having an obligation to play world police, but came back to America to join American NGOs (p.185). Is it because it was not possible to be a good American over there, right on the spot, but only through the mediation of governmental and institutional instances? Mathers does not elaborate. Those who chose a different path tried “in their jobs and their personal lives to teach people about their responsibility for helping Africa become more like America” (p.186). Students came back with certitude that Africa (the Countrinent) was not okay, and that to be okay was to correspond to North American standards and values. If students who travel to South Africa come back with a feeling of being responsible for helping a whole continent to become more like their own, I am even more interested in knowing what were their thoughts and what kind of knowledge they had on Africa, African countries, and African cultures prior to their travels. And yet, despite the ‘excitement’, Mathers rightly concludes that “these are gestures that, despite their good intentions, effectively make Africans disappear” (p.186).

This quick recapitulation of the argument of the book opens on a discussion of Oprah as embodying the typical American (p.187), and how, through her use of shared suffering and call to common selfhood to engage her audience, she creates the same disturbing relationship between Africans and Americans as Mathers’ informants did. Numerous pages are spent to expose the marketing practices of Harpo Inc. Mathers argues that her informants replicated Oprah’s “individualizing and depoliticized framework” (p.194) and her “consuming the suffering of others” (p.194).

Unfortunately, the argument gets a little sketchy when it turns to Africa’s importance in Americans’ ability to dwell in the United States. Mathers argues that “by taking the idea of America seriously” and “putting Africa center stage through a study of travel and tourism between these two spaces”, she shows the “global connections and disconnections on which contemporary identities are formed” (p.194). I am not quite sure what it means to take the idea of America seriously, it sounds very Ayn Rand to me, and I am not quite sure Africa really is the center stage since her argument always drives back to America. Mathers could have expanded a bit more on what she meant by global connections and disconnections.

She concludes that her books fills in “what has been missing in anthropologies of America, which is the way that the geopolitical boundaries of the United States constitute a highly mobile national cultural space where Americanness is endlessly constructed and contested” (p.194). I personally think what is missing in anthropologies of America is a world anthropologies account of America, and more ethnographies about America not written by Americans or people of American descent. Mathers concludes that her work “asks Why is Africa so important to Americans” (p.186). Again, one wonders why she did not ask her informants what they thought of Africa prior to their travels. It is as if the question came after the book was written, making up for the lack of methodology.

Finally, it seems to have become the norm when writing a book about the United States and/or Americanness to include a reference, however loosely related and perhaps not even mentioned elsewhere in the book, on the collapse of the Twin Towers in September 2001. Mathers makes no exception to the rule. She writes: “Although I was watching young Americans in southern Africa as they negotiated a new perception of America, I believe that this was just an extreme version of what became a new generational reality after September 11, 2001. It was no longer possible, as it had seemed in 2000, to imagine an American and an American identity as separate from the wider world” (p.185). This foggy reference to 9/11 is another clue that leads me to think that Mathers wrote the book more from an American perspective than a South African perspective, although she claims membership to both national identities.

The use of typical 9/11 lexicon is so deeply American in style and wording it perhaps shows how writing this book has led Mathers to discover her own Americanness. She compares the students’ confusion in South Africa to the American people’s “deep confusion about their place in most of the world” after 9/11. In both cases, Americans are moved by an understanding of belonging in America, which includes a sense of global responsibility, to help Africa as a way to respond “to their confusion about their country’s place in the world” (p.195).

Mathers finally concludes that this nonetheless leaves Africa as a space of no geography or politics of any other kind. (p.195). But the central argument of the book seems to be that when going abroad, young Americans, whether they have hyphenated identities or not, come back more convinced and more proud of being American, more certain of being on the right track, in the process of doing good things. From what Mathers tells us, it seemed that there was no real cultural exchange, but a reinforcement of barriers. Mathers does not tell us what the students gained from learning about South African knowledge and culture, except that it reinforced their sentiment of having an American identity, of belonging to America, and of wanting to promote the empire. Investigating what the students knew prior to their travels would have allowed a more thorough analysis of their notion of being part of an empire, of how they gained consciousness of it at home, and of how it became actualized abroad.

Review: Reversed Gaze, Chapter 2: Tripping On Race

Ntarangwi, Mwenda. (2010). “Tripping On Race”. In Mwenda Ntarangwi, Reversed Gaze: An African Ethnography of American Anthropology (pp.24-51). Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

Mwenda Ntarangwi’s Reversed Gaze is the first in-depth ethnographic account written by a non-Western anthropologist that I had the chance to read. I also deliberately chose to read this book because its author is a non-Western anthropologist, an interesting fact which I think should be kept in mind. In this post I review the second chapter of the book, titled Tripping on Race, which touches upon questions of segregation, racial and class integration, discrimination, and the problem of studying up. Ntarangwi opens the chapter with a series of questions regarding race and anthropology, fieldwork and historically-determined racism. Such series of questions occur at strategic places in the book and are refreshing as they open different streams of thought. Ntarangwi readily admits that there are no unique conclusions with regards to the answers these questions might create.

The argument in this chapter is that “anthropological fieldwork has predominantly been shaped by the asymmetrical relationships that attend between the anthropologist and his or her subject as framed within race” (p.24). Ntarangwi’s conclusion is that “the power dynamics attendant in anthropologists’ own cultures present fieldwork challenges that in turn may make research in “other” locations more tenable” (p.25). This explains why Western anthropologists tend to prefer fieldwork abroad rather than in their own communities. Ntarangwi also questions his own fieldwork “advantage” as an international student in the United States and how his own skin color might have helped him, or not, in his fieldwork.

The reader will appreciate Ntarangwi’s new look at seemingly mundane events. In this chapter per example, Ntarangwi reflects on his experience as an international graduate student in an American university, more specifically on a group research project on race in a low income neighborhood inhabited by a large proportion of African-Americans. Ntarangwi recalls a step-by-step account of the process of doing a team project with four other graduate students and the different approaches to fieldwork by members of the group. Ntarangwi is as interested in the group project as in the group dynamics. He discusses the “fieldwork ritual” (p.26) and how each person had his or her own perspective on what should be the focus and on the kind of information to collect (p.26). Later in the text he writes about teamwork: “our own individual interests were taking precedence” (p.35) and that the group members “should have focused more on the project than [their] personal issues” (p.37). However, despite the tensions and divisions among the group, Ntarangwi writes that team members were “determined to make the project work” (p.47) and that ultimately they receive a high grade for their work.

A very interesting section of the chapter is concerned with Ntarangwi’s account of how he came to discover the “shifting nature and fluidity of the field site” (p.37) when a man standing in line at McDonald’s begins to talk to him. They end up eating together, and the man later becomes an important informant to Ntarangwi. It is at this point that the author comes to realize that he had assumed “that there was a need, and even the possibility, to separate “research” from “real life” (p.33). Ntarangwi is especially interested in “the logistical and personal challenges that anthropologists face in the field as a result of their subject positions marked by race” (p.25). The group project gives him the opportunity to reflect on how his own subjective position as international student and as a Black man influences his relations in the field: “My skin color may have endeared me more to the people I was making contact with – besides the fact that I was a foreigner” (p.38). As far as the reader knows, Ntarangwi is the only student of his group to actually interview Black persons, many of whom approached him directly without being aware of his anthropological work most likely because of their shared skin color. Ntaranwgi writes that “As a foreigner I was not part of the dynamic of race relations in the American academy and, as a result, may have been more welcome in a conversation with African Americans about race than my White colleagues would have been” (p.39). I am not sure just how much the “foreign” advantage weighted compared to Ntarangwi’s own skin color in the context of fielwork in a neighborhood mostly inhabited by Black people. On the other hand, I do reckon the “foreign advantage” described by Ntarangwi is a significant component of fieldwork. It also raises interesting questions: should we select anthropologists most apt to reach out to the people studied so as to get more information?

However, Ntarangwi also realizes that his “foreign advantage is short lived” (p.39) when the women in the group decide to hold a meeting without the men and he is confronted to the “gender thing”, adding another layer of complexity to fieldwork and team research. At another time, everyone but Ntarangwi has been informed that a group meeting has been cancelled, and he alone shows up at the meeting venue, experiencing isolation from the group (p.47). I wondered if the women of the group might have felt isolated from the field. When Ntarangwi recalls how a female member of the group “said that going to church was not dangerous, even though she wondered how it would feel to be the only White person in church” and that he told her “it did not matter, but she seemed a little disconcerted” (p.36), I can understand why the student felt this way. It did matter to her since she voiced her concern. Another episode is the group going to the American Legion (p.47), where the non-Black female members of the team experience discomfort and uncertainty. I think anyone will experience a feeling of estrangement and discomfort when being the single representative of his or her kind among a larger group and surely this influences fieldwork as well. Finally, as Ntarangwi points out, “perception of the area [are] shaped by experiences and identity, especially [by] social class and educational backgrounds” (p.32). Similarly, George Orwell writes in the Road to Wigan Pier that “It is in fact very difficult to escape, culturally, from the class into which you have been born” (2001(1937):209).

The last section of the chapter relates to race as a topic of classroom discussion (p.49). In a class where the students were to discuss Ruth Frankenberg’s White Women, Race Matters (1993), Ntarangwi notes a certain level of discomfort in the classroom. He resents the fact that there had been no honest conversation about race (p.50) and wonders: “Were the students too greatly implicated in the study that the only way to deal with the data was to dismiss it? Is this common practice in an anthropology classroom?” (p.51). Interestingly, one student in our seminar mentioned before the class that he expected that we would probably not even “talk about race”, and after the class remarked that we had indeed not talked about race. I am not quite certain what it really means to “talk about race” but I admit that I do not recall a specific moment in our own class discussion when we explicitly discussed race. We did talk about different cultures but not specifically about different races, if this is what it means to talk about race. The fact that we did not go in depth in the subject as we might have if one of us had actually raised the matter perhaps has something to do with the culture of our own multicultural city. Race is a sensible subject and like Quebec’s two referendums and the language question, we tend to try to avoid it when possible. Maybe due to an overdose of half-covert public debate on linguistic and religious rights of cultural groups, we have come to completely dismiss the question of race.

Later in the book Ntarangwi criticizes academics that recycle their field notes and produce ethnographies that present cultural groups as historically fixed. Yet, Ntarangwi reflects on his experience long after it happened, based on notes and diaries he wrote at the time of his graduate studies (p.9). I do think, however, that distance in space or in time is sometimes necessary to clearly understand what has happened. It might be that we never really stop processing the information we absorb. Ntarangwi also observes that “Many of the nationals in […] post-colonial locales have never seen Westerners in subordinate positions and especially under local authority” (p.24). This reminded me of another novel by Orwell, Burmese Days (1934), in which the character of Dr Veraswami, an Indian doctor, constantly argues for the intellectual superiority of the British over the Indians. The fact that this Western “research advantage”, Ntarangwi argues, is what “makes Western anthropologists choose “other” field sites than those in their own communities” and that research funding also tends to be dominated by these structures (p.25) certainly deserves further inquiry.

I am glad that Dr Forte put this book in our hands at a timely moment. The book is titled Reversed Gaze and on the cover there is a face: two eyes and the arch of a nose. Many passages make me think of certain aspects of my own life as an anthropology student to the extent that at some point I had the feeling that “reversed gaze” not only meant the gaze of the Kenyan ethnographer onto America, but that the book was actually looking at me. It is an interesting book and I think it perfectly fits in the context of our seminar. It truly opens up on new directions in anthropological research by asking the reader to consider his own subject position in the field as well as the fact that ethnography is clearly dominated by Western thought.

 Additional references

Orwell, George. (2009). Burmese Days. New York: Penguin Books.

Orwell, George. (2001). The Road To Wigan Pier. New York: Penguin Books.

“Censorship, Surveillance, and Middle East Studies in the Contemporary United States” by David A. McMurray

McMurray, David A. (2005). “Censorship, Surveillance, and the Middle East Studies in the Contemporary United States”. In Anne Meneley and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto-Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (pp.173-185). Toronto, Ontario: Broadview Press.

David A. McMurray opens the eleventh chapter by recalling the story of an encounter with “an angry college student in the military reserve” while he and a « rag-tag bunch of middle-aged pacifists » (p.173) were protesting for peace in front of their small town’s court house as they did every evening at 5pm since 9/11. The student stopped his pick-up truck in the middle of traffic and yelled at the group of pacifists that their protest made him sick; they “could enjoy the freedom to stand there and tear [the] country” while he had served for ten years in the army to protect this very freedom. That night, McMurray went home “unable to figure out what made the student so angry – even as he seemed to recognize our right to be there protesting” (p.173).

I am not war supporter but I can imagine myself in the position of the soldier who yelled at McMurray and his group. This student has been raised to be patriotic (through practices such as the Pledge of Allegiance per example), sent oversea, been at war, had his friends or classmates killed, saw civilians die. Perhaps it is not so complicated to figure out what made him angry. As he saw the protesters, he most likely interpreted it as a message of confrontation, as saying that all he did was vain, that his friends died for nothing. It also contradicted the message of the constitutional state. Put into context, the student-soldier’s position is perhaps easier to understand. There was some disagreement during our discussion in class regarding McMurray questions on the soldier’s attitude: “Wasn’t he making our point? Wasn’t he deriding for us exercising the freedoms he claimed we all enjoyed thanks to him?” (p.173). One side argued that the soldier was also exercising his freedom of expression and the other argued that the soldier was trying to negate the peace protesters’ freedom of expression.

McMurray told the story in the context of his introductory anthropology class on the Middle East studies and did not receive the response he expected. Worse, he “never really recovered the class’s good will” after this episode. McMurray draws a clear distinction between him and the male students sitting in the back because through their divergence of opinion (p.174) and singles out supporters of the troops as “the guys in the back”, typically understood to be the spot occupied by the least interested students even though this is not always the case. Eventually, thanks to “the boys in the back” for having opened his eyes to “the presence of such forces” (p.174), McMurray “came to discover that there had been a serious intrusion of reactionary, jingoistic political forces into the university” (p.174). From there, the chapter focuses on the repercussions of right-wing attacks against Middle East Studies on American campuses after 9/11 (p.174).

More specifically, McMurray describes the “post 9/11 attack strategy” as a “demonization of the whole field with the targeting of individual specialists” (p.174). This attack strategy has been mainly carried out by Daniel Pipes, Harvard educated historian and political commentator, and Martin Kramer, an American-Israeli scholar currently president of Shalem College in Jerusalem and author of the book Ivory Tower On Sand (2001). Daniel Pipes was given a recess appointment by George W. Bush in 2003 (p.176) after his appointment to the board of directors of the U.S. Institute of Peace was protested by Democratic leaders. He also promotes the findings of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit global policy think tank located in Santa Monica and formed to offer research and analysis to the U.S. armed forces by Douglas Aircraft Company.

McMurray writes that “the use of student monitors to carry out classroom surveillance” (p.177) was initiated during the Reagan era. The RAND Corporation also has connections to the Heritage Foundation, inter alia, through its staff and the latter regularly tweet pictures and inspirational memes of Ronald Reagan. The RAND Corporation also collaborates with the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation. Interestingly, Lisa Anderson, past president of the Middle East Studies Association, and who according to McMurray was influenced by Kramer and Pipe in her “decision to publish her negative assessment of [an aspect] of Middle East Studies” (p.179), also served on the board of Carnegie Council on Ethics in International Affairs from 2000 to 2010.

McMurray names other “fellow Middle Eastern Studies bashers” such as Stanley Kurtz and David Horowitz, an ex-leftist turned conservative, now promoter of the Academic Bill of Rights and co-founder of the David Horowitz Freedom Centre. The centre runs websites such as Students for Academic Freedom and Jihad Watch. However, large sections of the McMurray’s chapter are concerned with Pipes, the founder of Campus Watch (2002), a website with the pretension of monitoring anti-patriotic academic activity and classes, and which is thoroughly denounced in the chapter. One of my colleagues and/or classmates, depending on whether or not the reader considers us graduate students as anthropologists, pointed out that McMurray was actually named on the website as a one of those who requested to be listed in solidarity with the targeted professors. There was some confusion in the class about whether or not McMurray had mentioned that he was on the website. The text is composed in a way that some of us thought we had read that he was, and some of us did not remember having read so. The only reference is to his “named fellow travelers” on the website (p.181). I am curious to know why McMurray has chosen not to explicitly mention that he had given his name to be on the list and what consequences this might have had for him.

Unfortunately, McMurray brings little data to clearly evaluate the repercussions of the attacks on the Middle East Studies, something he acknowledges (p.182). He recalls comments of unnamed colleagues, but there is no other form of data. One of McMurray’s colleagues told him how she was “feeling less secure” about the content of her classes and that such questioning “[crossed] her mind with greater frequency” (p.182). However, McMurray concludes in the next paragraph that with regards to “internalizing censorship”, he was not sure that her colleague’s case could “provide much in the evidence of any change due specifically to Kramer and Pipes” (p.182). Indeed, perhaps his colleague’s feeling less secure was not only a consequence of Pipe’s Campus Watch list, but rather a reaction shared by many in response to the government and media propaganda about Islamic terrorism that was unleashed on all communication channels after 9/11. The day the Twin Towers collapsed, the United States redefined their conception of Islam, Muslims, and anything of Middle Eastern origin and this has had repercussions on all disciplines, and on every aspect of American international relations.

McMurray’s chapter touches on many interesting subjects such as the relation between the military and civil society, the growing collaboration between universities and philanthropic organizations funded by the right-wing, their influence on federal funding, the practice of naming and shaming. On the downside, it explores none in depth, most likely because these subjects are too complicated and too contentious to be described in a single chapter of a book designed for undergraduates. No solution is proposed either; no form of rapprochement or dialogue between the left and the right appears possible. How come the left is not able to get as much funding as the right? Is it because it does not have the support of big corporations? If so, how to compensate for such lack without depending on federal funding? Could universities create sustainable and profitable social ventures, either in their own countries or abroad? Could they host panels where the left and the right meet to resolve social and economic problems and create communication channels between both camps through a focus on common goals? How could a « rag-tag bunch of middle-aged pacifists » organize a strong, collective response to the attack of the right-wing? How are the members of the right-wing with leftist tendencies to respond? Should they make a website to denounce the right-wing holding on the major universities? Should they try to reach out to a larger public through publications and media?

Another question is whether McMurray actually believes a response is necessary. His conclusion on the consequences of attacks on Middle East Studies by public personalities like Pipes and Kramer is not quite clear: “It would appear that Kramer an Pipes on their own have not had a profound effect on the field or on the practitioners of Middle East Studies. In spite of their advocacy, altering the research being done so that it becomes more policy relevant does not seem to be happening” (p. 181). And on the next page: “So, in sum, it would appear that pundits who specialize in attacking Middle East Studies have had mixed results when it comes to affecting professors, research, or the larger field” (p.182). McMurray is correct in his final conclusion, and perhaps the most important phrase of the chapter: “However, something more serious may be shaping up at the institutional level” (p.182). Indeed. And more serious analyses are needed, not to keep the right or the left out of universities as it is just not going to happen, but to develop ways of working in collaboration, and to find ways to set our political allegiances aside in order be pragmatic and to fix practical problems. But then, when the presidency is a family affair, and it seems to be the case in so many places (I am writing to you from the Dominion of Canada and I am a subject of her Majesty the Queen, and I guess, of Will and Kate), where elections are rigged and citizen vote is almost a joke, I have my own doubts about what can actually be done. I don’t know if the conservatives’ ascension will be constant as their funding is reaching new heights, or if the economy will eventually crash and turn the political tide, perhaps not for the best, as it has usually done throughout history. But a careful in-depth analysis of that “something more serious” will allow whoever is interested in addressing the issues to be better prepared.

“Doctors With Borders” by Lesley Gotlib

Gotlib, Lesley. (2005). “Doctors with Borders”. In Anne Meneley and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto-Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (pp.39-50). Toronto, Ontario: Broadview Press.

In this chapter, Lesley Gotlib recalls her fieldwork experience early in her doctoral studies in two clinics for children born with a range of intersex conditions. Through “an articulate social worker named Tess” (p.39), she is introduced to Dr. Marvin, a child psychologist in charge of one of the clinics, and director of a collaborative research between the two clinics as well. Gotlib uses Dr. Marvin to introduce the question of who is considered, and who considers himself or herself a real scientist, and the question of the epistemological divide between “hard” and “soft” sciences. Per example, Dr. Marvin preps her before her first meeting with the doctors and suggests that she spits out her gum: “These guys are the real doctors” (p.40).

Gotlib’s first meeting with the doctors, where she is introduced by Dr. Marvin as a medical anthropologist, goes well. Although she feels “like a child amongst the grown-ups” (p.41), Gotlib manages to convince the doctors to agree to participate in her qualitative project. She prepares to leave the room, having not completed the ethics review yet, when Dr. Marvin stops her, tells her not to worry too much about ethics and to consider this her “pilot project” (p.41). However, Gotlib’s optimism at the idea of having found the perfect site for her research on medical management of gender non-conformity is quickly countered by the complicated process to obtain clearance from her university and the two different hospitals that house the gender clinic and the Intersex Clinic. The latter, housed in a prestigious hospital, refuses to proceed without assurance that the doctors will cooperate.

When Gotlib contacts the doctors to explain the situation and obtain the consent forms, she receives no reply. A few weeks later she sends a second message, and receives very different replies than at the initial meeting. Doctors decline to participate or literally state their opposition to her project. She is advised by Dr. Martin to carry on her “pilot study” while the ethics review can be sorted out. Had Gotlib not followed his advice, she would probably have had to give up on her project as it took nine months to receive the permission to carry out ethnographic research.

Gotlib then tells of her experience in the field and briefly describes the case of a young nine-year old-boy who the team agrees has gender disorder.  Gotlib writes that “In a nutshell, this particular case highlights some of the assumptions at work in the gender and intersex clinics”, where she argues that the “gendered paradigm was too limited” (p.46). However, a couple lines above, Gotlib describes how she was “struck by the fact that Mark resembles any nine-year-old boy” (p.46), which might have the reader wonder whether she too had assumptions about what children with gender disorders should look or act like.

The article’s main argument is that “the very nature of the relationship between [Gotlib] as an anthropologist and those [she] hoped to come to know through participant observation research was altered when a legal contract was introduced” (p.47). Consent forms “seemed unable to address the obvious power differentials at play; doctors themselves were granted much greater leeway in these regards” (p.48).  Gotlib further writes that the doctors “seemed more concerned with legal liabilities than with their patients’ rights” (p.48). More specifically, Gotlib felt uncomfortable with the casual manner in which the young boy and his mother were asked to give their consent.  She is even more surprised by the openness with which Dr. Marvin, not long after this episode, answers the questions of a journalist and shows him a video of the young boy in women’s clothing which the boy’s mother had not been allowed to watch.

Gotlib writes that “Dr. Marvin’s desire to promote the clinic publicly seemed to override the code of ethics by which his institution was governed” (p.47) and she clearly states her disappointment at Dr. Marvin’s disregard of institutional ethics during his interview with the journalist. Yet, were it not for Dr. Marvin’s wish and action towards getting publicity for his clinic, Gotlib would have had no doctoral thesis, and this chapter would not have been published either. Further, this leaves reason to think that Gotlib’s research was also a means for the clinic to obtain publicity to a certain extent since she received government funding. I can understand the author’s “ambivalence” (p.49) in a situation where she is confronted to how ethics are applied in daily life: often in opposition to the institutional, bureaucratic process she has been instructed to follow. But was this really a surprise?

The chapter is both a critic of the difficult process to obtain approval from institutional ethics review boards after the introduction of a new protocol in North America in the 1990s (the Tri-Council Policy Statement) and a critic of the doctors’ approach to forms of consent. The title, “Doctors With Borders”, specifically points to the reaction of the first groups of doctor who Gotlib initially met with when they were asked to give their consent so that she could obtain the hospitals’ ethics review boards approvals, and as a pun it is meant to contrast with the image of openness and selflessness of the organization Doctors Without Borders. As a result, the chapter appears to focus more on the “negative” attitude of the doctors rather than on a critic of the academic process of ethics review.

Gotlib nonetheless raises important questions. She argues that as for doctors, “ethics implies legal accountability” (p.48), same holds for universities and hospitals ethics review boards. Gotlib also writes that she became “a more ethical researcher in the eyes of the doctors” when she mentioned to them that she was guaranteed a large amount of government and private funding (p.48). The impact of money on credibility is an issue that will most likely never be resolved, but it nonetheless deserves further investigation with the goal of finding ways to neutralize bias. In my opinion, the most interesting question raised in this chapter is that of the difference between anthropologists, representatives of academia, and journalists, representatives of the media, when it comes to obtaining consent and information.

Journalists are also subjects to ethics guidelines such as that of the Society of Professional Journalists and of the Canadian Association of Journalists of which the first principles are respectively “to seek the truth and report it” and “accuracy”. I think the main difference between journalists and anthropologists lies in journalism’s claim to report the truth as opposed to anthropologists’ similar concern with accuracy but without specific claim to truth. The ethnographic account, especially in Gotlib’s case which is a qualitative research, is more complex, more open, avowedly subjective, and calls for a more reflexive approach, then the journalistic account.

My own hunch about why universities submit anthropologists to a more complicated ethics review than publishers do to journalists is that it has something to do with the desire of universities to preserve their prestige and situate themselves above journalists in the great chain of information. However, as more individuals become interdisciplinary, and more anthropologists publish as journalists and get involved in public anthropology (see the work of Thomas Hylland Eriksen for example), labeling will become more malleable.

Finally, Gotlib’s closes the chapter with a kind comment on her collaboration with Dr. Marvin. Her relationship with Dr. Marvin is an important topic of the chapter. Both an “important mentor and ally” (p.48), he also opens a window for Gotlib to observe how double standards are employed (p.49). However Gotlib rightly points to the importance of cross-disciplinary dialogue and of the right to openly disagree (p.49), two elements of research that are essential to an applied ethical approach and which she was able to share with Dr. Marvin.