The ritual cleansing of anthropology using the Freedom of Information Act.

Discussion based on: Price, David H. (2008). Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War. Durham: Duke University Press. (Ch.10, p.220-261)

In Anthropological Intelligence, David Price covers many aspects of American anthropologists’ implication in the Second World War. He devotes chapters to the legacy of the first world war and to the role of professional associations. He considers the situation on campus during the war and he surveys the use of anthropologists by the USA’s adversaries. But the bulk of the book (six whole chapters) is devoted to cataloguing the roles played by American Anthropologists within the various agencies through which the USA implemented its plans during the war. Having covered the War Relocation Authority, the Office of War Information and the Special Intelligence Service , amongst others, Price concludes this cataloguing effort in chapter 10, with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). In many ways, the pattern seen throughout the preceding chapters is seen once more within the context of the OSS.

There is, of course, a judgement involved in my use of the term “cataloguing”. I mean to suggest that there is a great deal of presentation but rather little discussion. Because the content he is dealing with is heavy in ethical and moral implications, this issue is constantly in mind. But Price is coy with respect to his intent. His introduction refers to the difficulties inherent in judging other historical and cultural contexts and hints that he will try to avoid making value judgements. In many instances, he appears to do exactly that. A plethora of wartime activities is catalogued, ranging from banal administrative work to daring missions in the field, without any discussion of potentially meaningful differences between these different kinds of involvement. He likewise introduces without comment the practice of “moral outsourcing”, where plans that are clearly ethically and morally debatable are made by individuals instructed to think amorally on the grounds that unidentified others will be making these ethical and moral determinations. Yet Price is quick to suggest that the fight against “fascism” (or “totalitarianism” or a few other slogans) is a “good” one. He regularly implies its necessity. He is also, at times, explicit in his condemnation, such as when discussing internment camps or biological warfare. This oscillation between bland cataloguing and condemnation makes the instances in which Price is unclear all the more disturbing. So: what is Price up to?

In practice, Price is merely paying lip service to the idea that one should not judge. It seems clear that the point of cataloguing the activities he has documented is to enable judgement. The topics he covers are transparently considered sensitive (he had to pry this information from the government’s hands using FOIA). As such, Price is presenting an effective moral spectrum, one which goes from “things we can mention with a modicum of neutrality” all the way to “things even the narrator gets to be judgemental about”. This spectrum is in fact made of anthropologists and their ideas. At one end there are anthropologists like Carleton Coon who thought kidnapping was a reasonable means of acquiring information and who boasted of having made plans to maintain clandestine operations in allied nations following the war. Somewhere in the middle there are people like Gregory Bateson, who was guilt-ridden in the years following the war. At the other end of the spectrum, there are unknown recalcitrants, who refused or resisted involvement in practices they could not support, but whose decisions left few traces.

What questions is Price seeking to raise and answer with this text? A neutral reader might wonder if Anthropology attracts a certain type? Whether adventurers with amoral worldviews are somehow more common in this field than in others. But Price is not concerned with this issue; he does not actively seek to compare anthropologists’ involvement to that of other academic fields. One might wonder if anthropologists needed to be bribed and cajoled into service. But Price does not try to compare volunteers to dissidents amongst anthropologists.  The judgements Price seems most intent to enable are those which concern anthropologists themselves, as people. It is the questions raised by Steward, in the article from which the quote which opens chapter 10 was taken, which Price is most directly addressing. In the face of questions such as these, where Steward seems to consider it impossible for American anthropology to be both scientific and moral, Price is standing up for the image of the “fair” and “good” anthropologist. In effect he is saying: ” you cannot harm anthropology, ye vile and amoral practitioners, because anthropology will record you, and thus heal itself of you.”. Perhaps he is right.



Steward, Julian H. (1948). Comments on the Statement on Human Rights. American Anthropologist 50: 351-352.


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

(Ch.1, p.7-34)

Chapter 1 of Patterson’s contextual overview of American anthropology covers the period of 1776 to 1879, the period during which the United States was established as an independent entity and its centralized authority consolidated itself. The topics of the day in anthropology were those of interest to the developing American nation and the anthropology  of this time is very explicitly political. The agenda is set by the strategic issues of the day and the balance of power weighs on the competing positions.

In part, this situation us caused by a major difference between the intellectual environment of the early republic and the contexts described by Bourdieu and Goody. The anthropologists of the early republic are described by Patterson as amateur. This is in contrast with the professional anthropologists and social scientists described by the other two contexts. These professional anthropologists are trained as anthropologists with specialist degrees; they are, for the most part, funded institutionally and they publish in peer reviewed journals which are the manifestation of an institutionalized methodology. Meanwhile, the anthropologists of the early republic are mostly politicians and medical practitioners, drawn into anthropological debates by the political questions of their day. They publish in books and periodicals (such as the North American Review) which also serve as sources of funding. Other sources of funding for anthropological endeavor at this time are government commissions (official anthropology) and self-funding by wealthy individuals. Although many claims to scientific legitimacy are made by all sides in any given anthropological debate of the period, these are mostly hyperbole and rhetoric. In the absence of an institutionalized methodology for conferring academic legitimacy upon ideas, there are two main sources of legitimacy: institutions of power and popularity. Institutions of power, such as government and economic interests, weigh upon the debates of the day, lending support to positions which legitimize and promote the directions they intend to take. Meanwhile, the democratic nature of the American constitution and the local political context mean that ideas must vie for support amongst those who may vote.

The strategic issues of the day which define anthropological debate during this period stem from the need for the United States to establish itself as a sovereign nation, to extend its power regionally and to consolidate its centralized power (the emerging federal government). In order to establish the United States as a viable nation in the eyes of European nations whose diplomatic support (and capital markets) were essential to American security, people like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson found themselves analyzing native languages. By arguing that the natives were more culturally sophisticated than Europeans had initially thought, they thought to counter European beliefs (chiefly Buffon) that the Americas were a degenerate place where nothing could thrive. As the United States took its place amongst the world’s powers, the focus shifted to arguing that the natives were in fact primitive; too primitive to be said under English traditions (essentially the doctrines of Locke) to actually occupy the land they lived upon. Such conclusions were then used to justify land seizure, reservation and relocation policies. These arguments, by people such as Lewis Cass, presented the natives as incorrigibly backwards and were the foundation for an anthropology of race which would dominate anthropological discussion during the latter part of the period which the chapter covers. On one side of these debates were polygenist ideas, based on the belief that different human races were in fact different species and that differences between races were biologically driven and inherent. There was thus an immutable hierarchy of the races. Such ideas were often based on phrenology, such as the work of Samuel G. Morton. On the other side were monogenist ideas, most prominently argued by William Dwight Whitney and Lewis Henry Morgan, which held that all human beings were of the same species and that differences were largely due to quirks of development, were therefore essentially cultural and thus, changeable.

The dominant topic of the latter portions of the period was slavery. The polygenist/monogenist debate is even more virulent here than in the context of native questions. Polygenists argue that the inferior races are inherently unhealthy and that allowing the races to combine is fundamentally wrong and dangerous. Monogenists mostly argue for education and other “civilizing” policies. Nobody seems to think the natives and the black people might be fine on their own. Nobody seems to notice the chinese workers. Nobody seems to consider it relevant that women of every race don’t matter very much. Such ideas will be for a later period.



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

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


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


Sir John Rankine Goody (1919-2015; known as Jack) was not an anthropologist strongly associated with the British colonial empire (which was in the process of collapsing as he entered the field), nor was he generally held to be an apologist for the role of anthropology in colonial administration. But he was the William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology at Cambridge University, a role in which he succeeded Meyer Fortes who, in turn, was a student of Bronislaw Malinowski. The latter two are key figures within a wave of British social anthropologists specializing in African studies during the final decades of British colonial rule on the continent. These anthropologists viewed themselves as progressive and considered it a given that their work had a net positive influence on African cultures, in part by validating them in the eyes of western intellectuals. Jack Goody seems to agree with his academic forefathers’ assessment of their own merits and he bristles at criticism of their impacts. When asked to write his predecessor’s obituary, Professor Goody goes searching through university archives and troves of personal correspondence, most of which, he readily admits (p.5) are off limits to the general population. While making it clear in the introduction to this book that he has no intention of considering further sources (despite the existence of several), he turns the results of his research into an ostensibly scholarly work on the origins of British social anthropology in Africa. In fact, the result is more like a brief and idiosyncratic biography of his academic mentors and their peers, the objective of which is transparently to fend off their critics and defend their legacies.

Goody tells the reader an interesting and gossipy tale of a group of well-meaning and oft-misunderstood intellectuals interested in moving British anthropology away from “antiquarian ethnography” [Malinowski’s words] towards a more involved, fieldwork-centric and socially progressive anthropology which they call “practical anthropology”. The book’s most fascinating aspect is that despite being overtly presented as a defence of British social anthropology (at least the parts of it that interest Goody), in telling the story Goody actually presents a great deal of evidence that could be seen as supporting the above-mentioned criticisms. He is also often quite disingenuous when making his arguments in defence of his academic ancestors. In this review, I outline the story Goody tells, I describe some of the self-incriminating evidence this story reveals and I briefly discuss Goody’s arguments in defense of the story’s main protagonists.

The first clue that this is a story more about Goody’s intellectual forebears than it is about British social anthropology is found in the central role played by Bronislaw Malinowski. It is he, not Seligman or Radcliffe-Brown that is presented as the most eminent British anthropologist of his time and the focus on Malinowski brings with it a focus on Africa. As with the academic leaders described by Bourdieu in Homo Academicus, Malinowski’s central role stems less from his status as a leading researcher (his own field work was in the Pacific) than from his role as a teacher and administrator. Indeed, Goody himself is quite critical of Malinowski’s academic contributions to the group, both in terms of theory and methodology (p.60; though it should be noted that Goody seems highly critical of anthropological theory in general, p.80). Malinowski’s real power (and the group’s focus on Africa) derives from the position he establishes himself in with respect to the administrative, political and economic needs of this new “practical” anthropology, specifically its focus on fieldwork. Fieldwork requires a trained workforce, it requires funding and it requires political permissions to gain access to the desired territories. His dominance of the International African Institute ( brings the former two resources together and then secures the requisite political permissions. Briefly, he uses a strong relationship with an American charity, the Rockefeller Foundation, to secure funding for projects administered by the IAI and he uses his position at the London School of Economics to produce the trained workforce (which is itself attracted by the funded fieldwork opportunities). Having the needed tools in place, the IAI then seeks approval from the colonial office for its projects, a task significantly aided by the presence of missionary, military and government-linked individuals on its committees.

The Rockefeller Foundation’s (RF) importance is difficult to overstate. Immensely wealthy and virtually alone in its focus on social science in the first half of the 20th century, one is left with the impression that tales similar to the one Goody tells could be told with the Americas or the Far East in lieu of Africa and Chicago or Sydney playing the role of London. Malinowski’s power is entirely dependent on his ability to persuade this group to fund the IAI projects. Indeed, the manner in which Malinowski secures this support provides some of the first evidence that Goody may fail to fend off the critics. While Goody repeatedly asserts that the anthropologists were quite free to choose their topics and were clear of interference once in the field, this bland assertion is hard to reconcile with the origins of Malinowski’s links to the RF. While it is true that Malinowski’s approach to anthropology (a so-called sociological approach) was in line with the thinking of the RF’s program managers, it seems that the allegedly irrelevant constraints the RF placed on those receiving its money were sufficient to deter many American anthropologists from taking it. Malinowski stepped in and provided assurances that were accepted by the RF, most specifically that the work of IAI anthropologists would involve the study of “culture contact”. It seems unlikely that RF funding would have continued to flow towards the IAI had those assurances proven empty after the first projects had been completed. As such, one can conclude that the academic work of the IAI anthropologists was meaningfully constrained by the RF, contrary to Goody’s claims. It should be noted that the RF’s range of ultimate motives can only be speculated upon.

The role of the LSE is also relevant. It serves as the training grounds for Malinowski’s “practical” anthropologists, who then get IAI fellowships for fieldwork and return to Britain as established researchers. The result is that the relevant departments at other schools across Britain become dominated by LSE alumni. The LSE faculty is clearly aware and appreciative of Malinowski’s impact, leaping to the defense of IAI fellows who are denied access to colonial territories in a way that meaningfully influences the Colonial Office (p.49 & p.52). As such, the LSE serves as a key bastion of political support for Malinowski, despite his conflicts with many of his colleagues there. Goody neglects this aspect of the LSE’s involvement.

It is in Goody’s discussion of his protagonists’ political views and actions that the greatest contradictions emerge. An entire chapter is devoted to Meyer Fortes’ initial difficulties in gaining admission to the Gold Coast. Goody insinuates strongly that discrimination against Fortes for being Jewish, South African and an alleged communist sympathizer lie behind these difficulties. He does so despite providing much evidence (p.50/51) that his difficulties were just as likely to be entirely personal in nature. Then, after naming a chapter after Fortes’ alleged status as a progressive (even a radical), he simply mentions in passing that he worked as an intelligence officer (p.56) for the British Empire. Fortes is also enticed by potential positions within the colonial administration itself. Edward Evans-Pritchard is likewise presented as progressive towards Africa, despite serving as a soldier and a military governor there (!). Evans-Pritchard is actually (like Goody himself) a Knight of the British Empire. Similar treatment is reserved for Malinowski, who is presented as somehow being progressive despite his overt support for whatever requirements the Colonial Office sought to impose upon the IAI fellows. Malinowski actually seems less concerned by the interference of the Colonial Office than his colleagues at LSE do. In general, Goody picks and chooses among possible (and unverifiable) interpretations of individual actions and statements, always to the benefit of his preferred characters. Bigoted comments are just jokes (p.5, p.70 & p.74 for example) when they are made by those protagonists. Virulent criticism is reduced to being “somewhat suspicious of the field [anthropology]” (p.84) in the case of Nkrumah and is dismissed because he “had earlier taken courses in the subject”.

Ultimately, having arguably presented more counter-evidence than evidence for his claim, Goody states that “The colonial peoples were never simply subjects of anthropology; it was also an instrument of the colonized in their intellectual struggles.” (p.85). This reader is left to conclude that while British social anthropology may have started out being merely constrained by colonialism, the personal evolution of its practitioners led to it being rather subverted in the end.


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