There has been a fairly lively debate in anthropology circles recently about the use of anthropologists by the US army in Afghanistan and Iraq. The “Human Terrain Team”, as the army calls it, was first brought to public attention just over a month ago when the New York Times published this article about the now notorious “Tracy” and her colleagues. Tracy is proud of her job, which consists of – depending on how you view it – either a) helping Afghan and Iraqi people in a time of need, or b) spying on behalf of the US occupiers.

There has been much virtual ink spilled as people argue about the best way to, and the best reasons why we should, condemn such ‘mercenary anthropology’, much of which has been splattered over here at Savage Minds. (Even the reverend old man Marshall Sahlins himself has mastered this new-fangled internettery to post comments on the blog debate!) I won’t repeat the discussion going on there, but will just give a brief characterisation, because this topic is something I plan to come back to over the next few weeks.

Contemporary American anthropology, and my department in particular, is very proud of the role it played in severing the discipline from its colonial and racist roots. In over two years, no matter what the class I took, we would read at least one article somewhere by Franz Boas. Before I came here I had never heard of him, but he’s the father of contemporary American anthropology and an ancestor of the department I am currently in. His most important work was in the dismantling of the concept of race – namely, he challenged the concept of race as a biological and therefore ‘natural’ category, instead demonstrating that it is a social and cultural concept. In practical terms, he argued that non-white people were not, in fact, biologically and naturally inferior, and that there was more variation within racial categories than between them. His work is credited with initiating the transformation of anthropology from a science obsessed with proving the natives need to be colonised, to one that fought against colonisation. (For a taste of Boasian rhetoric that still sounds depressingly relevant today, skip down on this page to his letter to the Nation entitled “”Scientists as Spies” from 1919.) My point in all this, is to say that anthropology has positioned itself – particularly at the University of Chicago – as actively fighting against the oppressors and the racists, not for them. From Boas in the 1900s, to the present day John and Jean Comaroff who were active in the resistance to apartheid, anthropology sees itself as having come a long way from those days of studying the natives so we could know better how to civilise them. Tracy and co, by acting as go-betweens/spies/PR for the US occupiers, are pissing all over that.

I’m being a little flippant, because I have problems with the slightly smug acceptance of this discourse that fails to see that there is a responsibility to do more than write nice academic books condemning colonisation and capitalism in order not to be a part of if. But at the same time, it would be a misrepresentation to say that contemporary anthropology is currently actively involved in the direct way it was 100 years ago in governmental projects of colonisation. Understanding that this discourse exists, however, goes a long way towards understanding the semi-hysterical outcry of disgust at the involvement of anthropologists in the Human Terrain Team. It goes against everything we see ourselves as standing for. It taints our image, it sullies our reputation, it might mean other people won’t trust us if we later come to study them. But, most importantly, it goes against every ethical and professional code anthropologists have, as well as utterly contradicting the theoretical foundations of their project.

We are having a roundtable about this topic (as opposed to email and blog debates) in the department in a few weeks time. And the American Anthropology Association is having a symposium at its annual conference at the end of November. I intend to write a bit more about this after those events. I’m interested in particular in two things. First, how the debate rolls out, because although the majority of people are actively opposed to professional anthropologist being involved in this kind of project, there are still some that think its desirable as the only way of having an impact on the contemporary administration. In other words, it is being seen in some circles as the way to involve anthropology in the world outside of the discipline. Frankly, I find this argument ludicrous – like hell the administration or the army would take notice of an anthropology professor telling them anything they didn’t already want to hear. But this line of reasoning says something pretty bleak about the role of academic in a society that has no public intellectuals, and about the institution of the university itself. The second thing I am interested in is related to this first one – namely, what suggestions are they going to come up with, to transfer the outrage into action? So far we have a Pledge of Non-participation in Counter-insurgency. Will any other suggestions arise that call for action and engagement, rather than words of disgust?

In the meantime, I’m going to post here a contribution I wrote to the email debate that we’ve been having, concerning the role of archaeologists in excavating war graves.

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