The Price is Right: Reading Up & Reading into Weaponizing Anthropology

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

“Weapon: A thing designed or used for inflicting bodily harm or physical damage.”

“Weaponize: Adapt to use as a weapon.”

                                                                        – Oxford Dictionary (Online)

 Anthropology is at war! Price has made that absolutely clear with his little book (or perhaps, as one of my cohort suggested “manual”) Weaponizing Anthropology (2011). This may seem somewhat shocking to many anthropologists and social scientists, because we are not accustomed to war. War is the ideological opposite of our practice. We do not engage in war, we engage most thoroughly critical thinking and knowledge production. Our ethos is of cultural understanding, sensitivity and conflict resolution. Few and far between are those who research socio-cultural phenomenon for the explicit purpose of social engineering, control, surveillance, targeting and “intelligence” within academia. Codes of ethics and protocols have been well established within the social sciences, especially anthropology, for experiments conducted using human subjects, and these stop studies for such nefarious purposes from ever being undertaken (a by-product of war). However, academics are one thing and the military is another. As this essay will show, though there may be moral and ethical codes which are in place to safeguard knowledge from being used to harm individuals/societies within anthropology, the military has no problem using any knowledge or ‘intelligence’ as such. Therefore, as those who both research and document culture, it is our job as anthropologists to protect the people(s) we work with and also the knowledge we ‘produce’ of the culture(s). This all translates to confronting a military academic complex. Anthropology is at war with the military, over the use of our knowledge and the real people that knowledge is based on.

The United States Military believes that anthropological knowledge is of some intrinsic value to them, which is a very impressive compliment, but one which we should rather not accept. The utilitarian ends to which the military would distort anthropological methodology and culture theory are a reflection of the differences between the two. For anthropology and the military are not that dissimilar. Both, wish to achieve conflict resolution, both want to protect (security and safety) people and both (at least ideally) want a similar outcome: peace. The major difference, however, is how these things are achieved and for who. The military holds a singular view of what culture and people should have peace and protection, while anthropology believes that these rights should exist for everyone (in many culturally relative ways). Knowledge for both is used as a transformative tool. The military is a discipline of guns and war. Anthropology is one of cultural knowledge, understanding and sensitivity (relativity). So here we are presented with a quandary. We can either accept the military’s role and its limitless reach by way of our government, either by diligently aiding in any form required of us, or we can continue to remain blissfully unaware that the military is using our knowledge for killing people and social engineering. Of course, there remains a third option, which may have existed outside of the scope of the answers of our discussion, namely, anthropology going to war with the military.

It is impossible for a discipline such as anthropology to go to war in any real sense of the meaning described in the definitions provided above, ethically we cannot engage in actions which will harm or potentially harm people(s) (I would include: especially their bodies). However, there are actions for recourse, though we need to be creative and resourceful in this the time of our attack. I believe what Price has offered in Weaponizing Anthropology (2011) can be seen as a very intuitive response, and I shall discuss some of his stronger points below, while overlooking some of his more fantastical allegories. (Though I strongly recommend it as essential reading for any student of anthropology or politics.) In doing so, I will highlight some of the areas in which anthropology has been attacked by the military, namely; infiltration of the university; commandeering of academic knowledge; and scholar recruitment.

The US military has made its way back unto the university campus (if it had ever left). Where once anthropologists may have been their own benefactors, studying who and what they choose to by their own predilection, now they are very much tied to the university system and are reliant on funding to continue their research. This has put them at the mercy of funding institutions and in an uncomfortable situation in which they must balance their endeavors with opportunities for making a livelihood. As one discussant in our seminars pointed out, how are we to remain ethical towards our subjects if we rely on money from others to study them? Does this not put us in a situation of exploitation? As much as I would like to believe the conjecture that anthropology at one moment in their history broke from Colonialism, I just do not see it. Was it between the moment we worked for the British Empire and WWII or later, before we helped develop counterinsurgency methods to be used in Vietnam? Following that, Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, the CIA and other intelligence agencies (Homeland Security, FBI, NSA) are funding anthropologists on an undisclosed number of campuses around the United States. These manifest through the National Security Education Program (NSEP) and funding opportunities such as PRISP and ICSP. The goal of these funding opportunities is to recruit future intelligence operatives and HTT members. Of course, the recruits for such funding serve a dual purpose of keeping an eye on dissident/unpatriotic scholars. The effect that such funding, plus “summer camps” has on students may be forceful enough to overpower any sentiments of cultural history and relativity which may have been possible to achieve. Just as worrisome is the fact that NSEP scholarships come with mandatory work within a national security institution attached to it. Price’s illustration of Flattes’ situation is representative of how anthropologists can get roped into such predicaments and left with few (if no) options to choose from. There is some sympathy voiced by Price for accepting such funding, especially in an atmosphere of educational funding cutbacks. However, “through such financial academics are increasingly becoming if not comfortable, then compliant appendages of the state” (Price 2011, 53). This speaks directly to our discipline’s amnesia concerning our involvement in the continued history of colonialism.

“Social scientists cannot ignore the political context in which their knowledge will be used in limited ways by those who fund it” (Price 2011, 64). This was a point that seemed to be a recurring theme throughout most of this book’s discussion and within our seminar. How is the knowledge we are producing being used for unintended purposes which go directly against an anthropological code of ethics (be it personal and/or institutional)? The production of knowledge in the university has been altered by the intrusion of the military in such processes and is becoming normalized (if not outright accepted). It has been argued by Giroux (2007), that this directive is another sign of the military’s appropriation of all facets of US culture for its own ends. Price explores this situation through the example of ICCAE and the University of Washington, in which the media overlooked the military’s “intrusion” on campus, concerned faculty members were pushed aside and administration gladly accepted the increased funds provided by the military arm of the government under secretive auspices. And, this situation is unfortunately not unique to the University of Washington. This is a threat to academic freedom and the pursuit of knowledge everywhere. It also funnels knowledge production in a manner which leads to a very specific sort of knowledge being constructed, which is very damaging to the institution of knowledge itself (perhaps best described in a word: university) and interestingly enough the military as well. Price attributes these changes to a culture of silence, which may be unfair considering the lack of attention garnered by academics from politicians, the media and the general public. Yet, being more public may be just the solution we are looking for, regardless of how the shortcomings of those before us may paint a different picture.

The last and most scary development for the future is the US military’s use of anthropologists and other social scientists for implementing HTS in Iraq and Afghanistan. This has been both as team members on the ground trying to “win the hearts and minds” of the people(s) the US is trying to bring “democracy” and “peace”, and the incorporation of anthropological works into a Counterinsurgency Manual. Anthropologists are recruited into HTT for targeting and intelligence gathering. Something our methods and skill-set are particularly suited for according to the military. Which sounds reasonable and convincing, except that all anthropological methods employed by the military are skewed and distorted for alternate means. Our abilities are reduced to a number of result garnering functions, which seek to identity “goodies” from “baddies”. However a manual was produced from anthropology to make such judgment-laden appraisals is beyond me. But Price sheds light on the misuse of years of anthropological research and theorization in his presentation and assessment of the COIN Manual. Theories, concepts and definitions from a variety of anthropological sources are haphazardly pasted together in a way which is hardly reflective of their original context and/or intent. Price shows how the manual is geared towards social engineering, stereotyping and population control rather than anthropological understanding. As well, those anthropologists who are employed on HTT are usually of the less qualified variety. While those who do question the party line and demand answers for unethical methods, are summarily silenced or expulsed. In the wake of some form of backlash from academics the military has even divined to establish their own education centers to produce their own social engineers of future wars, effectively bypassing any academic roadblock which may have prevented their hegemonic efficacy. As such, anthropological infiltration and attempts for reform are strongly curtailed by denying entrance and stymied by the military’s unflinching bureaucratic desire for the application of anthropology in war. Can the military be infiltrated and affected from within? Both John Allison and Price would have us believe not.

In our class discussions, we could not come to any practical, functional or pragmatic suggestions as how to overcome the military’s use of anthropology for ends/means for which it was not intended. The conversation turned quite heated and many were frustrated by what seemed like running against a brick wall. The conversation also turned militant, leading to calls for “absolute revolutionary action” and a “need to put our lives on the line in that sense… we need to be courageous.” It has to be acknowledged that the military is taking a “hands on approach” to curing the ills of the world, which could be argued that anthropology is not. If the definition of ‘good’ is how well something accomplishes the task it was designed for, the military is far better than anthropology. We are not activist and many an anthropologist bemoans the fact that we are very ineffectual in government policy-making and other social-institutions (how much this is true I have yet to see, but arguments lie on either side of the equation). Is this anthropologists’ fault, or the system we live in? Consistently in graduate studies we are told of the great honor and sheer chance it is to actually ever become an academic (read: full tenured professor). And, the idea of achieving less than such a status is a failure and representative of a waste of time, money, and resources necessary to complete a graduate degree is consistently reinforced. In such a clime, how are we to educate the political and cultural leaders of tomorrow? How are we enacting social change?

If we “don’t see the point in studying war”, how will we ever defeat it and its propagators, the war mongers? Maybe we should take a cue from our newest and brightest foe (and an old friend) the military and “know our enemy”. If we have no knowledge of the military, on what will our revolution be based our? If dialectic exists between war and peace (which I would argue it does), should we not question war to see what it can reveal of peace? Anthropology is poorer than the military in every material sense of the word; the army has the budget and funding of many small countries. The only thing we have is our knowledge, which is gradually being (mis)appropriated. The military knows the value of our knowledge, they pay top-dollar for it, because “you have the pentagon saying, ‘it’s junk’” about its technological advancements, which are not going to win wars without the intelligence and targeting. Something anthropology can do very well, according to some accounts.

If everything I have mentioned above is true and the questions I raise are valid, is it not time for some action? As anthropologists in the field, is it not our duty to protect those people(s) who we work with? What do we do when the US Military rolls into the places where we are researching? What then? Is it okay to combat violence with violence? I think not, violence begets violence. For “weaponizing anthropology is distorting anthropology.” Should we not be educating our people? Educating all people? “Shouldn’t we focus more on public anthropology?” It is not time to stop playing Hesse’s Glass Bead Game, because “anthropology needs you”?


Thoughtful Provocations (Part I) on “Through the Looking Glass: Encountering the Unexpected in Africa”

Mathers, K. (2010). “Chapter 4: Through the Glass: Encountering the Unexpected in Africa.” In Travel, Humanitarianism, and Becoming American in Africa. Palgrave Macmillon, 89-115.

In Chapter 4, Mathers explores the barriers which tourists in the study abroad program experience in their attempts to have a serendipitous and unscheduled, authentic (perhaps even interactive) experience(s) with locals on their travels in South(ern) Africa. For many this is a sign of an authentic voyage to another world, beyond the confines of the façade of tourism and the staged performances put on by those employed by tourist companies. In many instances, these interactions are as much a dubious recreation of everyday life in another context, as are those constructed, packaged and sold by the tourist industry. At times, they may be instances where tourists are inadvertently provided a glimpse into the lives of the people of the host country they are visiting. The main difference though lies in the way these experiences are labeled as authentic. Understanding this as a catalyst to the tourist experience, tourism companies have tried harder to provide exactly these experiences to those traveling in their company. This adaptation has changed the way tours are operated, and now excursions to traditional “native” and “indigenous” villages are on many retinues, alongside cultural and religious (among other) landmarks. These are many times mixed in with a number of other activities, such as zip lining through sacred territories, kayaking and other action based activities, which are meant to amplify the experience, if not to simply create an initial appeal.

In this article, I hope to delve into some of the points made by Mathers pertaining to the role of tourist companies in constructing and providing the basis for these authentic experiences, how they are interpreted and negotiated by tourists and what results they incur upon the world views of those who partake in them.

Mathers uses the example of Global Exchange tourist company as her example of the sort of initiative to bring tourists into contact with a more authentic version of South Africa on their travels. Though as the author states, these experiences are by no clear manner defined specifically in such terms, but are rather “both unique encounter(s) and ubiquitous one(s)” (Mathers 2010: 101). Americans on these tours wanted to both experience a validating tour of South Africa, but were also troubled by much of what they encountered and were reluctant to conform to social norms and cultural rules. In a sense, they longed for a true cultural experience, but did not intend for that experience to require cultural relativism. Much of the problem inherent in this yearning for authentic travel experiences within a unique culture stemmed from their inability to grasp the concept that authenticity is largely a social fabrication and that to experience the authentic one must be open to its form being far different from what was initially expected. When expectations were met, only then were the experiences deemed authentic, when they were underwhelming and did not fit ascribed cultural traits (imposed by the travelers themselves) then they were deemed inauthentic. One such example is when South Africans were friendly to the tour group and one traveler asked if these encounters had been staged, not believing that such friendliness could be mustered without provocation and/or without compensation.

Therefore the authentic, serendipitous engagement with locals while on a tour may be quite a difficult experience to encounter for many tourists, whether this is due to the socio-cultural divides which exist between host and visitor (such as language barriers, gender segregation etc…), expectations on the part of those voyaging and/or the simply inability for people to find a common ground on which to build communication and rapport. In this sense, Mathers both applauds companies such as Global Exchange and explores their limitations. For all that such programs bring people together to experience a unique encounter with “Others”, they cannot predict, nor control the outcome.

Such was my experience on a recent trip to Cancun, Mexico, where I took an excursion tour to Coba during my stay. This day was filled with engaging in traditional Mayan rituals, swimming in a sacred underground river, kayaking, zip lining, visiting and climbing the Mayan ruins in Coba (“the oldest and the original” from a pamphlet provided by the tour company AltourNative) and a jeep ride through the surrounding jungle area. As a student of anthropology I realized how orchestrated this experience was, but at the same time, I was fully able to engage and interact with the locals who were also present on the tour. I had felt that this was a shared experience in which everyone in the group spoke, and became as intimate, with the tour guide and locals who were also on tour, as I had. In retrospect, simply looking over the pictures on my return, I was able to identify a visible “body space” between the tour’s Caucasian travelers and the local Mexican contingent there “on their day off” to “have some fun… with my friend”. Amidst the local contingent were two tourists (my partner and I), though we were the only ones, I had not even recognized the divide between the two groups myself, until later, but it was a perfect illustration of the different intents travelers brought with them to the excursion.

For my partner and myself, we were undertaking this excursion as a way to see more of Mexico than simply our resort, we chose it both because we enjoyed the activities involved and wished to visit the historical sites, but also, because we thought it would be a good way “to meet people”. What I mean by this is, we like people, we like many sorts of people from many different places and we knew (from past experience) that excursions such as these create smaller groups for a more intimate period of familiarization. These groups are usually made up of tourists and locals. By engaging in the excursion in this manner we approached it not simply from the angle of experiencing an authentic tour of Mexico, something we both knew this tour would not provide, but instead as a way to engage with authentic people in a unique shared experience.

The four friends I have made since this excursion (Omar, Suri, Marie & Stephan) are both Mexican and Canadian, though the way we came to know each other was in much the same way. We experienced things together, no matter how those things were produced and/or received; they were made authentic by our shared participation. This may have been amplified due to the bodily nature of the activities we were involved in which allowed us to share also in embodied experiences which we could all relate to and draw on. No matter the cause, by the end of the trip we were all very excited to meet again in the future, with each other as houseguests. Already, Marie and Stephan (Canadians) have attempted to have dinner with my partner and me, though we have been too busy on both sides. As for Omar and Suri (Mexicans), it is an affront to my sensibilities for anyone to even suggest that I was simply using them (in any meaning of the word) for my own ends. These two men are exceptional individuals and perhaps if they weren’t this story would read quite differently, but those are arguments better left to another day. The authentic experience for me was going into a place where I knew nothing of the culture, allowing myself to be ignorant and shown the reality of the world they lived in. To be with them, not in an artificial or inauthentic way, but as the only way I knew how, as myself, as a Canadian on vacation, as an individual of very little knowledge about Mexico. To be any other way would demand authenticity where it was already destined to simple failure.

In writing this piece, perhaps I had wished to convey some sort of substantial argument which truly exposed the shortcomings of searching for the authentic experience in foreign locals, but it feels instead as though the bonds made that day are forever crystallized in the moment in which they existed. To convey that, as I have come to realize, may be impossible, it even feels inauthentic recounting the experience. So on that note I leave you with a few words of wisdom, reminiscent of Mathers’ statement that “tourism or travel is, therefore, trusted to be the panacea for false images of the other” (Mathers 2010: 92). Travel was never the solution to deconstructing images of the Other, it simply realigns concepts and reorganizes the boundaries of stereotypical categorization, what is truly needed to achieve this sort of renegotiation of “false images” is breaking down social barriers, not being scared to put yourself in danger, not being inauthentic with those you engage with, and remembering that we all have much of the same basic needs and that we all want to be treated with dignity.

Review, Reversed Gaze: Chapter 3: Pursuit of the Other

Ntarangwi, Mwenda. (2010). “Of Monkeys, Africans and the Pursuit of the Other”. In Mwenda Ntarangwi, Reversed Gaze: An African Ethnography of American Anthropology (pp. 52-77). Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.

In the third chapter of Reversed Gaze, Ntarangwi takes anthropology and anthropologists to court on several charges, these include, but are not limited to anthropology’s obsession with constructing and pursuing otherness, exoticizing and ‘preserving’ cultures (which are far more fluid than is being ethnographically represented), emphasizing theory while devaluing applied and practical anthropology, and a complicit role in the commodification of the education system, which is supposed to be public.

He points out that the many shortcomings he experienced in undergraduate, graduate classes and as a professor within a Liberal Arts college in the United States have been widely overlooked by anthropological investigation. The root of this oversight is based on the discipline’s normative structure, which actively encourages its adherents to study ‘otherness’ in all its guises. Therefore the proximity, commonness, ethnicity and racial composition, and familiarity may have dissuaded many academics from researching and/or commenting on the culture of American anthropology. When the anthropology of anthropology is done, many times it is by academics in the later part of their career, which are less useful due to the acculturation which has already occurred over many years.

One example of anthropology’s continued obsession with the ‘other’ which Ntarangwi discusses is a situation in which posters for his university’s Undergraduate Association for Student Anthropologists (UGASA) were posted around the department, which depicted a picture of a monkey juxtaposed with an image of the professional basketball player Michael Jordan in his iconic scissor jumping pose. The poster also related information pertaining to fictitious fieldtrips to “exotic” locations (predominantly in the global East and South). Though these associations were made to attract students and to garner further participation within UGASA, it alerted Ntarangwi’s “symbolic interpretive mind” to its hidden (potentially racist) meanings. This for Ntarangwi was evidence of how anthropology is “fixated with alterity”(2010, 52-54). Another example, is how researchers who could not gain access to foreign (read: African) field sites would nonetheless focus on these groups in their local context, adhering to the normative practice of studying “others” wherever they are located (or constructed).

 Contradictory to anthropology’s obsession with the “other” is the lack of non-Caucasian, non-male faculty members within its American university departments. For our university’s anthropology department specifically, this phenomenon is also quite noticeable (there is not a single non-White professor). Perhaps this is due to class and race divides, which relegate these peoples to the role of informant, rather than as researcher and professor. Perhaps, anthropology still contains remnants of its colonial past. In any case, the fact remains that it is a predominantly an enterprise of White males and is hardly representative of the diversity found in anthropology throughout the world.

Ntarangwi then enters into a more holistic interpretation of what he sees as the fundamental issues which concern him about American anthropology and its proponents. One of his major concerns is that academia is largely selling-out and becoming a commodified product which is being packaged and sold to students in the most easily consummable fashion possible. Accordingly, the author is concerned that such a style of education will lead to student conformity and a disposition for not thinking critically, but instead accepting information passively. The commercialization of education within the US is turning students into consumers, who are investing in a “college experience”, one which may not be geared towards the purpose of learning, but which is viewed simply as another of life’s stages and/or boxes to check. This leads students to employ the best techniques possible to achieve high grades, instead of focusing on the learning process; the ends become the standard of evaluation. This standard is predominantly based on middle and upper class values, which reward compliance, non-responsiveness and the regurgitation of material without any real intellectual digestion. As Sherry Ortner states, “As silence and obedience to authority were rewarded, students learned that this was appropriate demeanor in class” (Ntarangwi 2010, 69).  This situation can lead to professors becoming the sole responsibility for students’ success and if a student does not succeed within a course the blame is laid on the professor’s lack of proficiency, regardless of the degree to which the student engaged with the material. This is problematic, especially considering the anecdotal evidence provided by Ntarangwi concerning undergraduate reading habits.

It is humorous to see the author unable to comprehend how American students were required to read and digest such a large amount of material in such a short period of time compared to their African counterparts, while simultaneously describing his incredulity over the fact that American students who were leading discussions in his classes had privately admitted to not having completed the required reading. Obviously, not actually doing the reading and “bullshitting” their way through seminars made it far easier to achieve these insurmountable goals which so impressed upon Ntarangwi.

Unfortunately, this is a reality which I can personally attest to. Undergraduates simply do not do the required readings and/or work involved. From what I have seen in just one semester as a Teacher’s Assistant (TA) at the undergraduate level in my own university, is that students put in the effort where they locate compensation for their work in the way of grades. If half the energy assigned by my students to the pursuit of grades were assigned to learning the material, grades would be significantly higher. Quite a catch-22, but as Ntarangwi aptly identifies, this is due to acculturation. So, we cannot simply blame the students.

My mother was a professor at the CEGEP level for over 35 years and much of what is described by Ntarangwi would simply make her laugh, furiously, but laugh nonetheless (especially the section which describes how students have become the new “customers” of education and that according to the rules of customer satisfaction, the student is always right). My mother was anything but a conformist. She had a very unique teaching style and would not accept bullshitting, not in the slightest. The idea of being concerned about her chances for tenure based on student evaluations would seem ridiculous to her. So would the idea of catering to students to allow them to achieve higher grades, thereby compromising the material for better results.  Perhaps, anthropology could use of dose of my mother’s specific brand of non-conformity. For conformity begets conformity, and if professors are not challenging themselves and the systems of knowledge in which they exist, such as any self-respective anthropology professor should, how can they expect more from their students?

Ntarangwi does not delve into his own practices as a professor and I would be interested to see if his practices differed markedly than those he is commenting on. If they do, why has the author not provided a more detailed account of potential avenues for similar improvement or alterations? From my own experience (two terms of TAship), I can simply provide one example of how things can be done differently in the classroom setting. This was when I gave a lecture on interviewing, in which I briefly explained what the process entailed (the students had already read assigned texts on the subject) and then had three students attempt to conduct interviews with me pretending to be their informant, for all to observe. This practical application of anthropology is rarely experienced within the classroom and yet the professor told me that the students believed that they had benefitted greatly from the process. It had given them an experience of what fieldwork could really be and the sorts of obstacles they may have to overcome with unreasonable, vague and discriminatory interviewees.

In reviewing this chapter, I hope that I have given our seminar group some interesting points to discuss. The chapter is so very rich in great ideas and pertinent questions, that no less than a full paper could begin to address them all. The unique perspective provided by Ntarangwi should allow us the opportunity to reflect on our practices, making for stimulating discussion and providing insight into potential inroads to improvements in the inclusivity of our discipline.

“Teaching and Learning Across Borders” by J. Harrison & A. Meneley

Harrison, Julia & Meneley, Anne. (2005). “Chapter 5: Teaching and Learning Across Borders.” In Anne Meneley and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto- Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (80-93). Toronto, Ontario: Broadview Press.

In Harrison and Meneley’s chapter “Teaching and Learning Across Borders”, the authors discuss professors’ and students’ experiences of participating in a collaborative teaching project funded by the Ford Foundation entitled, Crossing Borders: Revitalizing Area Studies. In which, they taught seminars alongside professors from universities from Canada (Trent University), The United States (St. Lawrence University (SLU)) and Trinidad (University of West Indies (UWI)), in each of those various locations. “The goal of the project was to generate a collaborative dialogue about these various ‘global flows’ among faculty and students from different disciplines in each university” (Meneley & Young 2005, 81). Shortly after, it was decided that the project should be ethnographically investigated, “aiming to provide a kind of meta-commentary on the notion of collaboration itself” (Meneley & Young 2005, 81). What is revealed in their investigation and discussed in the chapter is a compelling story of how collaboration can have unpredictable outcomes, how the actors involved can influence and interpret events in a wide and various range, and that not all collaboration will have positive results. A superficial analysis of the poor collaborative efforts may put the onus of blame on a lack of cultural relativism and insurmountable heterogeneity. However, I argue that poor planning and preparation are more forthcoming explanations of the unsatisfactory outcome.

Harrison and Meneley’s informants’ accounts were described as so sharply divergent that the authors expressed bewilderment that those involved had attended the same event(s). It is difficult to identify this divergence, short of a generous reading. Rather, the resounding sentiment here is disappointment, in that the whole affair was poorly executed and did not deliver on its promise of crossing borders. If anything, the participants reconstructed and reinforced borders which were already present (dormant or otherwise). This was due to poor organization, lack of forethought, and some reprehensible, if not blatantly unethical, actions taken by those involved. This is a very instructive example of some of the less desirable outcomes that may occur, even in the face of anthropological reflexivity, discipline, and training. The instructors were unprepared for what was involved in crossing educational and institutional transnational borders. They neither approached the situation as collaborators nor as equals. This project is exemplary of what not to do, and though it may be painted in a less than damaging light in this chapter, it is anything but redeeming.

Perhaps because the instructors were fooled by their seemingly familiar academic surroundings, they were unaware that they had entered into foreign territory and that they were required to tread lightly. It is difficult to understand why an instructor collaborating with a foreign colleague/peer (from a different institution and culture) would believe it was acceptable to unilaterally create a syllabus and teaching plan without consulting their partner. Similarly, the instructors’ assumption that class decorum would fit their generic standard is confounding to the very notion of anthropology. These issues should have been discussed beforehand and perhaps would have allowed for participants to address more pressing issues. Professors are expected to organize class materials, curriculum and agenda in a professional manner to facilitate a smooth learning process for the students involved. If this cannot be achieved, what chance do students possibly have in overcoming the same borders? Obstacles are sure to arise, but the greater the preparation the greater the ability to move towards a quick and effective consensus. One student even went so far as to aptly draw an analogy between the professors’ interactions and that of a bad marriage, in which “more time was spent on miscommunications and at cross-purposes” (Meneley & Young 2005, 87), and another claimed that an equal number of borders were erected as those crossed. And, all the while the reader can only think how fortunate they are to be reading this account and not participating in it, for it is a foreboding tale. Not a foreboding of collaboration, of being unprepared and cavalier in our academic undertakings. One issue with this chapter is that it does not read this way, but instead is presented as a story of how transnational collaborations can be irksome, instead of a moral tale of preparedness.

Furthermore, perhaps the unfortunate incident which resulted from a troubling discussion, in which the Trinidadian students were made to feel inadequate due to their way of speaking English, could have been avoided had the instructors involved met to discuss such issues as hierarchy and hegemony within the classroom before conducting the seminars. This would have allowed for cultural differences to be discussed outside of the classroom, and approached in a more sensitive and acceptable manner within. It would also have the affect of presenting a more cohesive teaching front, narrative and course of instruction to the students, even if it highlighted the wide variety of views held by the instructors. By crossing borders, it is understood that what will be revealed is difference and the main goal is to strive for understanding, cooperation and acceptance. Once again, I cannot stress how intrinsic these notions are to anthropology and it is surprising how the instructors involved were not more prepared for what they encountered.

Finally, as if to shift the blame away from the instructors involved and onto the shoulders of the students, it is mentioned that perhaps their commitment to learning was questionable because when at “Pooja 2002”, a street festival, some students chose not to partake in crossing a cuisine border and opted to spend their allotted money on Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) instead. The issues I take with this transference of the less-than-successful result of the seminars are; that this event is given no context and is perhaps isolated; that longing for a reminder of home on a voyage in a foreign place is admonished, instead of explained/understood; and that the latter is based on the premise that KFC is universally identical throughout the globe. Such as with McDonald’s, KFC has tailored their fare to individual markets across the globe and in this case what the students in Trinidad were experiencing was one of the most prevalent forms of globalization. The incident, instead of being touted as one of the most central experiences of the effects transnationalism by the instructors, was seen as a lack of commitment on the part of the students. I find this highly problematic considering the evidence and a slight of the students’ commitment when faced with field trips which offered little in the way of direction or meaningfulness to the program. The students were doing what was asked of them and were engaging in the process of exploring globalization even if they were unaware of it. I find the entire situation an uneasy admonishing.
The chapter, though illustrative of what can go wrong, did little in the way of providing explicit answers and remedies to those problems. Did it really offer “innovative thinking” and a more effective “pedagogical practices” for future instructors in similar situations (Harrison & Meneley 2005, 81)? This is a story and not a hard lesson, the lessons to be learned are expected to be implicit, but are not analyzed in-depth. Instead, the reader is left to decipher the moral of the story, which is all but illusive in its message: Do not do what these instructors did. The more interesting questions were never addressed. Such as: Why couldn’t the cultural differences between participants be overcome? How does an instructor organize a syllabus for an ethnically varied audience? How are terms/concepts agreed upon in an efficient manner, which does not detract from the overall seminars? How can an instructor avoid the possibility of a hierarchy and some form of hegemony from taking place within the seminar(s)? For this to be a truly instructional piece, the events needed further analysis and attention.

Critical Thoughts on “Loyalty and Treachery in the Kalahari” by Renée Sylvain

Sylvain, Renée. (2005). “Chapter 1: Loyalty and Treachery in the Kalahari.” In Anne Meneley and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto- Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (25-38). Toronto, Ontario: Broadview Press.

In Sylvain’s chapter, the author explores the multiple subjectivities of identity and ethics (and by extension morals) and how these were strategically negotiated and dealt with within her fieldwork as an anthropologist studying the Ju/’hoansi (a San Tribe) of Omaheke Region of Eastern Zambia. In doing so, the author focuses on her position and agency within a cultural context in which her “whiteness” was socially constructed as a source of privilege and power, compared to that of her informants, who held a diminished social status based on their “blackness”. This social inequality existed before she entered the field, where the Ju/’hoansi were “one of the most stigmatized and marginalized ethnic groups in southern Africa” (Meneley & Young 2005, 25). Sylvain goes to some lengths to overcome these inequalities in her attempt to conduct her research agenda, whilst not exasperating, nor undermining the state of social inequality. The question posed at the end of this summary is: was Sylvain reflective and careful enough in her treatment of these inequalities? And, what may have been done differently?

The situation which existed when Sylvain entered the field was one in which the Ju/’hoansi were laborers on farms of rich Afrikaners. Poorly treated and summarily beaten for their insubordination, the laborers were placed on the diminutive side of the scale of power relations; they lived in constant struggle to “make ends meet” (Meneley & Young 2005, 25), in fear of their employers and the repercussions of anything less than complete obedience. The Afrikaner farmers controlled much of the Ju/’hoansi’s lives and intended to maintain the status quo of this unequal social relationship of exploitation of labor at a minimal cost, even if having to shoot anyone who interfered. In this situation, material wealth and social services were not evenly distributed and led to severe inequalities of living standards and power relations. In sum, the white farmers were very much cast as overseers and the San laborers as slaves.

To gain social entrée into the culture of the Ju/’hoansi, Sylvain had to tactfully deceive the white farmers she persuaded to allow her to work with their laborers. Sylvain employed subterfuge tactics that effectively obscured her real intentions in mistranslation. In this way, Sylvain was able to protect herself and her informants from any violent repercussions. Here, Sylvain’s end game is evident in her purchasing an opportunity for building rapport with her informants at the expense of their vulnerability. This rapport needed to be intentionally established due to the volatility of the situation and because within the groups of laborers existed “witvoet (white foot)” (Meneley & Young 2005, 28), who would reveal to the farmers the true nature of her work.

Sylvain also engages in manipulating her white privilege to help the Ju/’hoansi procure firewood, receive medical treatment and escape ensuing physical confrontation. The first instance is the most problematic, because it involves stealing firewood from the same white farmers who have warned Sylvain that any interference with their workers would result in them shooting her. Though having acknowledged this in the beginning of the chapter, when speaking of the firewood excursions the author simply states that if caught the farmers’ punishment of her informants would be lessened due to her presence. This may not be a clear contradiction of her earlier statement, but it begs the question that if apprehended would she not have been simply dealt with in this fashion? It also makes one wonder if at a later time (when she had departed, having completed her fieldwork), that the parties involved in these endeavors would not simply be notified of their guilt and summarily punished in her absence.

Sylvain describes two other incidences that demonstrate how her white privilege is used to gain access to medical care for her informants and to protect them from violent confrontation with other tribe members, both of which are far less contentious than stealing firewood because they take place in a moment where bodily harm was inevitable had she not interfered and may have  resulted in grievous injury or even death. The firewood may have been a necessary item for the continued subsistence of her informants, but it was not out of reach, it was simply easier to do with a truck. The established tradition of stealing firewood from farmers may not have been an ideal one, but it had worked before she had arrived, unlike the lack of medical services (this is presumed, for the author never speaks explicitly to this situation). It also lacks the same sense of gravity.

Power and privilege are common themes brought to the fore in this chapter. Sylvain explores how whether one agrees with their constructed identity or not, power relations can be enacted and conferred upon them by others. Therefore, it was not just that Sylvain had to deal with (de)constructing her white privilege, but she also had to contend with others’ negotiation of it. Though she may have tried to use her identity in dynamic and fluid ways, many around her were squeezing into an uncomfortably rigid mold, with little room for leeway. These presumptions were based on historical precedence and contemporary social constructions, which made them hard to overcome. The author (and her husband) do a exemplary job in not being enticed by the likes of Ju/’hoansi servitude, while simultaneously allowing for some moral flexibility in allowing one informant to wash their car (a practice described as futile) to earn some extra money. But, they also reinforce the same unfavorable power relations they are trying to overcome when Sylvain’s husband pretends to be an Afrikaner to scare away a group of threatening Damaras.

As Sylvain clearly states, fieldwork is understood to be a rite of passage in anthropology and lessons learned from the field in these initial endeavors can be quite shocking, such as those impressions made upon a fieldworker being thrust into an atmosphere of social inequality in which a delicate balance must necessarily be maintained between anthropologist, their participants and those who surround the field. Sylvain does an admirable job in trying to negotiate the social context in which she undertakes this endeavor, in the face of these moral and ethical obstacles, while simultaneously maintaining her agenda of “social and economic justice” (Meneley & Young 2005, 25). In addition, she also remains constantly aware of her position within this context and employs a fluid and reflexive perspective while engaging with its many particularities and social strata. This is important because “if we do not own up to our authoritative voice, someone else will gladly invoke it for us” (Meneley & Young 2005, 63) and in a situation such as that in Eastern Zambia, this can result in the reification of unequal power relations, severely compromising fieldwork.

Ultimately, I find it difficult to completely believe that Sylvain’s actions were not somewhat opportunistic and that much of her actions were not guided by the need to gain social entrée into the groups of Ju/’hoansi laborers. She puts both herself and the Ju/’hoansi in danger on multiple occasions, many of which could have resulted in severe punishment, injury or death. It should be acknowledged that these risks may have equally existed had she not been present. Sylvain does not however confront the unequal distribution of power openly and instead prefers to manipulate her position within the socially constructed hierarchy to achieve her goals. This may be considered as compliance with these norms to achieve her goal as an anthropologist, or as a way of not interfering and/or disturbing the culture in which she was a guest. And, perhaps that is my biggest contention; that her white privilege was not enacted to achieve substantial and lasting change within the uneven social distribution of power, but was used to sidestep authority which would have barred her research, entice and maintain participation of the Ju/’hoansi and to attain minimal and temporary benefits to her informants. Having never partaken in such a venture myself, I can only admire Sylvain’s account and appreciate what I have learned through reading it. It may be considered flawed, or exceptional, or even by some critics as exceptionally flawed, but it is an account of morality and ethics in the field which is of great importance in conveying reflexivity “on the ground”. I can only hope that when I am in the field, that if I encounter such a situation, that I am as adept at dealing with the nuances of power and privilege such as Sylvain does with the Ju/’hoansi.


Cummings, Maggie. (2005). “Chapter 3: Who Wears the Trousers in Vanuatu?” In Anne Meneley and Donna J. Young (Eds.), Auto-Ethnographies: The Anthropology of Academic Practices (51-66). Toronto, Ontario: Broadview Press.