I’m a huge fan of the documentary maker Louis Theroux, as his work often has a very ethnographic flavour to it. While he famously choices “weird” and often highly distasteful subject matters, he shares with ethnography the attempt to empathise with his subjects, that make his films more than voyeurism. Rather than encouraging the viewer to point and judge, his seems to be trying to understand the world in the way his subject understands it – even if he doesn’t agree. And that, ultimately, is what anthropology is about.

I’ve been watching his documentaries again recently and trying to use them as ways of thinking about doing ethnography – as a kind of foil perhaps. Given that I think so highly of them as a form of (very popular) communication and education, what do they have in common with ethnography, and what are they lacking? Given that in a documentary you see what in ethnography would be both the data gathering (fieldword) and the presentation (publication of a final work) stages at once, watching them provides some food for thought on both how to relate to subjects in order to find out something about them, and how then to present what you’ve learnt to a wider audience.

(All this in in the context of the fact that I’m reading the fantastic book “Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes” right now, which is a bit like ethnography bootcamp. Its full of insightful but sternly phrased instructions on what one must and must not do as an ethnographer, most of which I had never even thought about before. Its seriously whipping my ass.)

I’m starting with Louis’ documentary on African hunting holidays, which I think is one of his weakest films, while paradoxically one of the most interesting subjects. While there was a lot of good stuff in there, I was left with the feeling that it was too complicated a subject for him to handle. That in this case Louis’ own view point made him unable to explore the issue from a different – and ultimately more interesting – angle.

The 45 min long documentary follows Louis as he spends a weekend on various South African ranches where wild animals have been bred in order to be hunted by US tourists. We see him talk to a couple of hunters from Ohio, as well as various South Africans involved in the business. Louis is obviously highly distressed throughout the entire process. He can’t get over the fact that the animals are being killed, and when at one point he tried to bring himself to join in and shoot something himself, he backs out at the last moment.

The impression Louis seems to want to make with this documentary is that there is something really fucked up about shooting wild animals for sport, when the animal is practically domesticated and you are shooting it point blank with a very powerful gun. The problem is that this is really not that insightful a point. Most people viewing this film probably already share the same opinion, so we are not really learning much that is new. What I wanted to learn more about was why, then, do these US guys (and girls) want to do it? While Louis keeps asking them, he never gets closer to an explanation other than that it just feels amazing. At which point I read into the situation my own interpretation – that there is something about that adrenalin rush we see in their faces after they “make a kill”. That its not so much about a sense of skill (because there is barely any involved), as a sense of power.

But I don’t know whether that’s the case or not, because its never asked or explored.

Other more fundamental questions were raised though, that seem only unintentionally to have come up. And by ‘unintentionally’, I’m refering to the moment when one of the ranch owners gets really pissed off and starts telling Louis he’s asking all the wrong questions. While Louis keeps going on and on about how pretty the animals are, the owner points out that they would kill him if he got too close. Louis says isn’t it sad they have to die, and the owner replies that Louis doesn’t think its sad that cows and chickens die in far worse circumstances. Louis asks in a sad voice whether the owner likes animals, and the guy finally explodes that his country is “fucked”.

His land used to have orange trees and cattle, but that’s all gone. This is all the sells. The animals they are standing looking at were on the verge of extinction, and thanks to his work raising them for hunting they’ve been saved.

As the program ends Louis is still getting weepy about the pretty animals, but I’m left with more sympathy for the owners of the ranches who he has spent most of the program trying to run down. I might possibly be able to understand why someone would want to shoot an animal for sport. But I think I would find that person revolting. I think I can understand why someone would want to turn their failing agricultural business into a successful tourist industry, by switching from breeding domestic animals to wild ones and throwing in a hotel. And I don’t really have Louis moral repugnance to that.

Which then throws up the entirely unintended question of, why does Louis Theroux have such an issue with the whole set up? What image of the urban liberal is he projecting, that he can’t look at an animal without seeing Bambi?

So if this were an ethnography with the luxury of being able to spend one or two years doing fieldwork on this topic, rather than a 45 min documentary based on 3 days of research – I guess I’d start with the following:

    There ought to be more attention to context. What are the bigger social conditions in South Africa that have made farming so unprofitable, and tourism so attractive?
    How come he only ever talks to the owners of the ranches? Who are all those (black) guys we see working doing the driving and beating and skinning and hauling… What do they have to say?
    So those US hunters – what’s with them? So much of the kill seemed to be focused on getting a good photography. They kept using the word “trophy” without anyone asking anything about what that meant. How come its mostly men (and young men, given that the older ones all said they “grew out of it”)? Asking some deeper questions than “don’t you think its mean” might help get a little more insight.
    In this case – and this isn’t usually the case – Louis couldn’t get over his own issues enough to listen to the people he was studying. What is that saying about Louis’ own conceptualisation of animals?

I don’t think this was Louis Theroux’s best work, but it did get me interested in this topic. Next up to watch – plastic surgery!

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I’ve been hearing a lot of exciting things about Amazon’s Kindle recently, and as the time comes to leave for the field – and therefore leave behind all my books – its been sounding increasingly attractive. The $350+ price tag for the latest version aside, however, on doing some research I don’t think I’ll be getting one just yet. Although it sounds like it ought to be an academic’s dream, there are some serious drawbacks that, unless resolved sharpish, mean this product really won’t ever be an option for people like me.

First off though, what do I mean by “people like me”. Well academics in the humanities and social sciences whose jobs depend on reading a hell of a lot of books every day. In an average week I probably read about the equivalent of five books in their entirety, plus or minus a few hundred pages, but this is usually spread out over about 10-20 books or journal editions, each of which I might read a few chapters of. And I’m a lazy and slow reader in comparison to my friends. Most of these are library books, but in the four years since I moved to the US I’ve also collected a personal library that takes up 4 huge floor to ceiling bookcases: the essentials I just had to have my own copy of. And again, I’m lagging behind most other academics here.

So I’d assume that I’d be an ideal market for a Kindle. There can’t be that many other professions that require quiet so much book ownership and reading?

I’ve always been a little disparaging about my dear colleagues attitudes towards books. It frequently verges on the fetishistic, and tends to go hand-in-hand with a Luddite fear of computers. It amazes people that I prefer to keep all my journal reading to pdfs rather than printouts, try to write all my notes electronically rather than in notebooks, and never brought coursework books unless, having finished the course, I was really sure I’d want to read it again. Hence why my four bookcases are rather pathetic looking in most anthropologists’ eyes. I love a nice paperback to curl up with, but don’t have that dreamy-eyed attachment to the nostalgia of the printed page. (And don’t get me started about personalised name stamps…) Bring on the e-revolution, as far as I’m concerned!

But I’ve been noting a sense of palpable excitement among anthropologists about the Kindle, even though its out of most of our price ranges, and goes against the fuddy-duddy waffling about the joy of dog-eared coffee-stained 1st editions. I put it down to the fieldwork: one of the many, many things that makes fieldwork so annoying is not having access to any of your books. A Kindle could change that. Not only let you have the right reference book when you need it, or the timely copy of the book on interviewing techniques you never realised you would need.

But also the novels. The things that stop you going absolutely crazy when you’re holed up in your little house on your own trying desperately to escape from the reality that there are several more months to go and you hate everyone you’re meant to be studying. Or something like that. For when you need escapism, pure and simple, but its two days drive away from the nearest internet connection.

So anyway. Thinking this might be the answer to all my mounting anxieties, I started asking about and checking it out, and so far there seem to be two major, insurmountable problems:

1) The page numbers don’t stick.
2) The range of books on offer is crap.

The first relates to citation practices. Apparently in a Kindle book you can zoom in and out to make the font larger, but this changes the pagination of the whole book. Total disaster! Unless you can place a citation exactly so that someone else can find the same thing on the same page you are referencing, then its useless. Academic citation practices are not going to change in any hurry. I mean we still have to include the town where a book is published in citations for goodness sake! (something that always conjures up images in my mind of quaint 19th century scholars having to personally travel to New York/London or Cam:Mass to find a copy of a book I cite) Kindle’s gonna have to sort that one out before it can become usable for academics.

The second, though, makes me wonder more about whether the makers of Kindle even realise the market they are ignoring. A quick browse through Amazon’s site today revealed that, as of today, there are only 2,207 anthropology books available (not counting archaeology). In comparison, there are 3,239 books on cooking, 4,190 sports books, and 6,064 erotic fiction books (incidentally, all topics I would have assumed are better just practised, rather than read about… but there you go).

When I actually checked out the kind of books listed under “cultural anthropology”, most of them were utter crap anyway. Lots of Jared Diamond. A bit of Latour. No Sahlins.

As a quick test, I looked up everything I had on my desk at the time. So this is a roughly accurate reflection of what I’ve been reading this week, and whether I’d be able to find it on Kindle:

Biocapital, by Sunder Rajan – No
Alien Ocean: Anthropological voyages in microbiology, by Helmrich – No
Masons, Tricksters and Cartographers, by David Turnbull – No
Space in the Tropics, by Redfield – No
Opening Pandora’s Box, Gilbert and Mulkay – No
Nuclear Borderlands, Joe Masco – No
Battling for Hearts and Minds: Memory Struggles in Pinochet’s Chile, Stern – No
Landscapes and Labscapes, by Kohler – No
Science and an African Logic, H Verran – No.
Ella Minnow Pea, by MacAdams – No.
The Dictator’s Shadow, by Heraldo Munoz – Yes.
The Biographer’s Tale, by A.S. Bryatt – Yes.
Ethnography through Thick and Thin, Marcus – No!

So all I could get would be one of my novels, and the one biography I had on my desk. At the moment, then, its a bit of a let down. Ok so some of these are pretty obscure, but even the Marcus wasn’t available, and I don’t think any anthropologist can really contest that this is not a classic.

What I did find, though, is that for those that are available the price is bizarrely high. Lets say I was going to buy Latour’s Reassembling the Social. The paperback (new) price is $24, but the Kindle price is $18.56. How does that make *any* sense? Once the book is made, there’s barely any production cost at all. No paper, no printing, no shipping.

There has been a lot of discussion in academia about the demise of the academic press, the rising costs of producing the monographs that are a loss-maker for publishers, but that serve as the lifeblood of the humanities and social sciences. The print run of the average academic monograph is in the low hundreds, so the prices go up beyond the average grad student price range… . Less books are brought and production costs go up in a vicious circle.

Electronic books seem like the obvious solution out of the problem. The same few hundred hard copies would be sold to libraries and book fetishists. But the digital copy could be sent out at a fraction of the cost. It has the potential to totally revitalise the academic book market.

Yet we could take it even further. Over on the WAC mailing list in the last few weeks there has been a raging row about moving the contract to publish WAC’s journals and books over to Springer from Left Coast Publishers. The row started over whether working with Springer, a large corporation, undermined WAC’s ethical principles. (For more background on what WAC is and what it stands for: see here.) But it soon turned into a debate about the gulf in opportunity to access all academic publications between academics in richer and poorer countries. As temporarily employed adjunct faculty in the US complained they couldn’t afford WAC’s $40 books, professors from African nations pointed out they needed to take second jobs to get together the $20 membership fee.

WAC, like many anthropology organisations, tries to solve the disparity by having two tiers of membership fees, depending on where in the world you are coming from. This extends to journals as well, with two (sometimes more) tiers of pricing. With digital books, if the production costs are cut to a minimum, could we do the same thing?

Well. Only when Kindle and other e-book makers realise that we exist as a market. I’m going to keep my fingers crossed for it – but I’m not holding my breath.

When I started my field work a few months ago, a good friend of mine told me that during her year of field work she had read more novels than in any other point in her life. Hardly what they tell you in Ethnographic Methods 101, but several other veteran ethnographers I know agreed: when you do field work you have a lot of time on your hands. Unlike the rest of their graduate school experience, where most of them don’t do anything other than study for 10 years straight, the one or two years in the field stand out in the stories I was told as extravaganzas of fiction consumption and loafing about.

Well they all did it a few years ago without the joys of laptop computers and a thriving black market in DVDs. I’ve read a hell of a lot of novels in the last few months, but I’ve also watched an almost astonishing amount of DVDs. (And perhaps only people who know how many movies I watch back home in Chicago already can appreciate what that means.) Although I usually pride myself on keeping up with my movie and novel consumption back in the US, the last few months I have indeed found myself on several occasions with more time on my hands than I know what to do with. A few days ago I even starting doing some sketching again – something I used to do regularly and haven’t had time/energy to do even once in the last three years.

As lovely as it is to catch up on all these lost past times, I quiet like being as busy as I usually am. Reading a hundred novels because you have nothing else to do is fine if you never usually do, but not if you’re lying there thinking of all the other things you’d like to be doing instead. The problem is, that reading novels about the exciting lives of other people is all there is to do, because there really isn’t that much else to occupy you at the end of the day when you’ve already pestered your ‘informants’ as much as you can, and you’re living in a little town in the middle of the nowhere. When I go home to the US in a few weeks and reflect on my time in the field, one of the things I will take with me is a profound reassurance of my long held suspicion that living in the countryside sucks. Its hell!

While holding a good relativist position that my opinion is only that, my opinion, and not something that I would expect other people to share – I still think that I would rather like in a mental intuition than have to live in the country side longer than a few months. That great expanse of nothingness… What else is there to do of a night, other than curl up in bed with a novel/movie and be fast asleep by 9? (Well, those are the healthy options… The high rates of teenage pregnancy, alcoholism and drug taking in rural places only supports my argument here I would guess.)

In recent weeks I’ve found myself reduced to a state of paralysing ennui. I know there are things I could be doing with my time and work I should be getting on with, but something about the quiet and the dullness of a small town just takes all the life out of me. I end up counting the hours till I can go to bed, weighing up the time I can kill be walking to the plaza and buying something – even just a bag of bread – from one of the tiny shops there. At home when I feel restless of an evening I go for long walks through the city, not really caring what direction I’m going but just walking up and down endless streets trying to become lost. I watch the people hurrying past, look in brightly lit windows and imagine the lives inside, hunt out odd architecture or compare how two once identical houses have changed, discover new corners of the neighbourhood I never knew existed – hidden graffiti, gradual changes, strange buildings. I find I can sometimes just walk for hours as it soothes my mood – I always feel reluctant to return home no matter how exhausted I’ve made myself. Feeling all that life around me makes me feel better somehow.

In the small town I can walk as far as the plaza, or maybe down one of the country roads, and all I see are fields. Its so hideously depressing to me that I have begun to invent elaborate timetables and excuses in order to take the 2 hour bus journey back to the city at night. And I don’t think there is anything different between this small town in Bolivia and any other small town or village anywhere else in any part of the world. I’ve got the same chilly feeling of fear on road trips in the US, or during my childhood summers in rural France. My long held aversion to “market towns” in the UK springs from the same sense of doom and foreboding of being trapped in one of these places. I particularly think of a road trip I took with two good friends from Chicago to Virginia last summer, where we drove through an endless landscape where only a single house would stand out against the great expanse of fields. At one point we got utterly lost in a tiny suburban hole, going endlessly round and round the same narrow streets, past the same isolated houses, giggling uncontrollably in our fear of never being able to find the highway that would take us out of that dump again.

I’m sure there are people who love the countryside, and I’m glad they exist because it means I don’t have to. But I wonder how all the romantic glorification of the countryside may make it harder for people born there who like me can’t wait to leave. I remember reading back in school a piece about the industrial revolution that, while acknowledging all the evils it brought, pointed out that it allowed a lot of young people (and particularly young women) from rural backgrounds to leave their families and the rural towns they would otherwise have had no choice but to live in all their lives. While agreeing that conditions were usually very hard, it suggested that some people may have been drawn to urban life and the possibility of not only having a small disposable income of their own (rather than their families) but things other than the local Sunday market and the occasional visiting circus to spend it on. Now I realise there are a whole gamut of problems with this argument, but whenever I hear people lamenting the flight from traditional rural villages to cities – no matter how grim and slum-like they are – a little bit of me can understand the attraction that pulls young people away.

I’m prepared to be slaughtered for suggesting this – as I have in arguments with others before hand on the same topic. But why is it that the countryside is always presented as this idyllic paradise?

And in case you didn’t get the reference in the title: one of my favourite novels that I should really have brought with me this summer is, of course, Cold Comfort Farm.

Object agency is a favourite topic of mine within archaeological and anthropological theory. As if the concept of agency of humans is not complex enough, we have to go and add into it the concept of non-human things having agency too. I’ve been having something of an ongoing argument with some anthropology colleges about how the study of material things, while all very well in itself, is meaningless if you can’t also analyse speech. Note that this theory taken to its logical conclusion would invalidate all of archaeology, and in fact any study of the past not based on texts, because people are not there to talk to.

Well, I have several problems with this stance, the first being that what people say and what they do are two very different things, and that what people say and what the listener hears are another different set of things. But secondly, and more importantly, a vast amount of action and being in the world does not involve language at all. So lots of the things that happen to us and around us are not the result of language, and by implication communication through a medium that we presume to be able to understand each other with. Here’s an example.

This morning, I go down to the basement of my apartment and put my laundry in the washing machine. Coming back half an hour later I find the washing machine has broken. I collect up my soaking wet clothes and head to the laundrette. I find a machine, put my clothes in it, set it going, sit down on the bench in front. Above me, a television is blaring out Mexican telenovellas, and just to the side of me two men chat in Spanish. I take out my eeepc and continue the reading I was doing in my apartment. After I while I am vaguely aware of the men no longer talking, and I get the feeling, though I’m not sure, that they are staring at my eeepc. After a while one of them gets out his cell phone and starts to listen to music on it, without using any headphones. The tinny music on the tiny speakers is extremely annoying, and I wonder if he’s doing some kind of techno-posing in response to my little laptop. The music keeps going, the telenovellas keep stretching, and the laundry is no-where near done. I can’t concentrate on my reading, start to get annoyed, but can’t leave because I need to sit with my washing.

Nobody has said anything but a lot is going on and only some of the entities doing things are humans. Agency is variously defined, but most usefully as the ability to cause an effect in the world on something else (a patient). In many formulations other definitions are added – the need for intentionality being a common one. But the problem with intentionality is, how do we know someone has an intention before they enact it? If all we see is the action we have no way of knowing if they intended to do it, or if it ‘just happened’. Does intentionality require choice? Once they enact an action, we can only see the action and can’t tell if there was a choice of another action. Overall, its best to leave intentionality out of it, as we have no way of knowing whether it exists or not.

So in the example above. The music on the cell phone was irritating the hell out of me. I think to myself, “That guy is trying to annoy me by standing right behind me playing that crappy music”. In this case, the guy is an agent because he’s causing an effect on me (pissing me off). But I have no idea if he is intending to act as an agent (by having the effect of pissing me off) or if its an unintentional consequence of the world being as it is (he happens to be playing music and it pisses me off). But he’s not the only thing having an effect on me and making me a patient. The telenovellas are also having an effect (they are also pissing me off and making me unable to concentrate). So the television is also acting as an agent, but can I say that the television is intentionally pissing me off? No, no more than I can tell the guy is – although I might be able to ask the guy and I couldn’t ask the TV, in the case that I don’t (and I don’t) there is no way to tell if either have intentionality. But both are very similar agents.

But then, what other agents are at play? Do I, at that moment, have agency, in the sense that I have an ability to act? Well my potentially for agency, to do something to make a change on the world – in this case on my own experience of the world – is restricted. My washing is in the machine, I can’t move away from it. So my washing also has agency over me, in that it restricts my ability to move away from the annoying music and telenovellas. But thinking about that music, where is it actually coming from? I’m blaming the guy, but actually its coming from the cell phone. The guy would not be able to be the agent he is (someone who pisses me off with crappy music) without the cell phone. He might very well be able to be another agent (say, someone who pisses me off by whistling), but not this particular form of agent. So, without the cell phone, the guy isn’t this kind of agent. Its the combination of the cell phone and the guy that makes the agency he is at this moment. Its not that the guy has agency through the object, its that the agent is a combination of guy and cell phone. But then, what about the TV? The TV was turned on by someone who liked telenovellas, who then walked off. (Or maybe by someone who knew how annoying telenovellas are and then ran away giggling – but we are leaving intentionality out of this.) Is the agent the combination of the TV and the person who turned it on? In this instance, we only have the TV, but this kind of example has also been referred to as extended agency – its only the person and the TV that have agency, even though they are separated in space and time. I don’t agree with this explanation though. In this moment the person who turned the TV on is no longer part of the equation. Its just the TV that has agency and is pissing me off.

But what does that say about the cell phone? The cell phone is the thing that is pissing me off – or more specifically, the music. What connection is there between the music and the guy? Well, one that I assume to exist because he’s holding it, but is that really the case? His agency went into turning the cell phone on – he is the agent, the cell phone is the patient. Then the cell phone caused the music to exist – the cell phone is the agent, the music is the patient. (By the way music is still a physical thing in case you were wondering, sound waves having a physical existence.) Then the music hit against my ear drums and pissed me off – the music is the agent and I am the patient. But I still blame the guy and whoever turned the TV on. Whatever happens, we humans can’t help bringing in intentionality, we can’t help blaming things on humans.

And here is the most interesting distinction that complicates discussions of agency – there is a difference between the debate about ‘how we interact with objects in the world in terms of their and our agency’ and ‘how we humans conceptualise the ability of things and objects to have agency’. In the latter, we act very strangely. For instance, I still blame the guy for pissing me off, even though its the music that annoys me and I have no way of knowing his intentions any more than I know the intentions of the television. But we humans also have an interesting way of interacting with objects that reveals something of our understanding of their agency. I swear at my eeepc and beg it not to die on me before I finish writing this. Little girls talk to their dolls the same way old ladies talk to their cats (animals being that wonderfully confusing category somewhere in-between humans and objects). A women wears her lucky knickers which will always make her pull when she goes out on the town. A guy told me the reason my car kept getting traffic tickets was because I hadn’t given it a name yet (I still refuse to. I still get lots of parking tickets). And that’s even before we get to the classical ethnographic subjects of totemism, art, fetishes, religious objects, magic and lucky charms.

The way we interact with the world around us depends on subtle combinations of the cultural and the physical. That the washing machine in my apartment was full of soapy water that wouldn’t drain and that the one in the laundrette was not, effected the interaction between patients and agents (them and me). That the television was situated right above my head and had flashing lights and loud music similarly affected the way I acted (that I couldn’t concentrate, and kept glancing up at it). That the bench in front of the washing machine had enough space for someone to stand behind me, but that he would be fairly close in doing so. But the physical alone doesn’t explain why I thought it necessary to stay near to my washing, why I didn’t ask the guy to turn the music off, why telenovellas are so annoying, why I cursed my stingy useless landlord so profusely, or why I wanted to have clean clothes in the first place. Its this combination, though, of cultural and physical, that we interact with unthinkingly and unconsciously, that makes the world as we experience it.

(Incidentally, when the anthropologist Alfred Gell formulated a lot of these arguments in a book called “Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory” – which he died before finishing – he used the example of the a soldier and a landmine, rather than a guy and a cell phone.)

I was at an interesting seminar talk yesterday, given by a sociologist called Georgi Derluguian. His topic was roughly the concept of nationalism in the Balkans, but covered a lot of ground. I keep coming back, though, to a comment he made, during a discussion of what he called ‘de-modernisation’. I don’t want to get into the details of whether this is a useful or accurate term so will stick to his reading of it for now, which is that as the Soviet system collapsed/retreated countries like Chechnya have been going through a process of de-modernisation. So, for instance, its not just that tower blocks no longer have running hot water, they are likely never to have hot running water ever again. When the electricity goes out, people go into the back of the barn and hunt out their grandfather’s oil lamp.

Part of his argument (as I heard it) was a critique of the way we assume certain social forms, like feudalism or modernity, are set in a progressive linear relationship, and that once we have evolved through them we cannot return. He used the concept of ‘racketeers’ to describe the aristocrats through much of Balken history – surviving on codes of honour, loyalty and ruthlessness, and through a power and wealth vested in the owning the most advanced weaponry and paying for it with a lively slave trade. The most interesting point being, that he sees this as existing today as much as in the past – guns for horses, steel swords and chain mail; the trade in prostitutes for the trade in agricultural slaves and, well, prostitutes. (The racketeer/mafia code itself being so unchanging it needs no translation.)

Then he posed the question of ‘who is living in the refugee camps in Chechnya?’ The answer being people like teachers, nurses, professors – those who have always relied on wages to survive, and now lack the skills and the families that are necessary to survive by either subsistence farming or by their guns. Once the state collapses they are unable to survive. The people who are thriving are the underclass, the lowest of the low, the most downtrodden of society who, with the collapse of modernity, are able to access the skills and resources of their ancestors. Who reach for their guns and can go back to their fields when necessary.

Its an interesting argument. It nicely demonstrates that, either way, outside of modernity the middle-classes are fucked.

The following was written as a response to a question raised during an ongoing email debate on anthropologists working for the military. It might seem a bit of a tangent, but the the question of archaeologists working for the US Army in Iraq is something I’d like to bring up because I think its a relevant comparison.

The question raised was:
“Archaeologists and physical anthropologists were recruited– through posts from our own department–to aid in the post-invasion examination of human rights abuses and mass graves in pre-invasion Iraq. I don’t recall there being a lot of outrage in the department or the field in general at the time. Should we dismiss their work as “mercenary anthropology,” too?”

I think this is an important point to follow through. The reasons for or against objecting to working with mass grave excavations as opposed to becoming ’embedded anthropologists’ rest on three highly significant questions: 1) who/what is the subject of anthropology, 2) who do we imagine anthropology is being done for when we do it, and 3) what is anthropology’s responsibility to the world outside of academic?

I’m going to give a bit of background to the case of archaeologists working in contemporary homicide or genocide investigations and describe some of the ethical questions that have been discussed within the sub-field sometimes called ‘forensic archaeology/anthropology’, as they bear on the army ethnographer case. My main point perhaps is to make the argument that the motivations for doing such work stem from a very different idea of professional responsibility, and that the moral and practical implications of such work are quite different. But also perhaps just to point to the degree to which professionally-reflexive debates about the moral and social responsibilities inherent in academic work (and this type of work in particular) have been carried out within archaeology for some time now, and may be of use in this latest discussion.

In writing this, I am drawing on research I did back in 2002 with British practising archaeologists who work with human remains, as part of a study of archaeological ethics/conceptualisations of death and the body/the objectification and personification of human remains. Some of those archaeologists worked with the recently dead – either for the police investigating murder cases, or in war crimes investigations frequently uncovering mass graves. Not surprisingly, though, working in such situations is something that many archaeologists talk and think, even if they never do it themselves – everyone I interviewed had an opinion on the ethics of it, whether they could imagine themselves being able to do it, and so on. Most saw it as a way of being involved in the world outside of academia, as being socially involved, and as a positive part of the discipline – as something they respected, but would be emotionally unable to do themselves because of the highly traumatic nature of working with the recently dead.

I am also going to draw on the writings of Margaret Cox, a British professor of archaeology who has written very intelligently and compassionately about such work based on her own involvement in creating this as a sub-discipline within archaeology and physical anthropology. She is particularly vocal on a) the psychological effect on the archaeologists of working with recently dead bodies, and b) the responsibilities that accompany such work and how they include directly confronting media misrepresentations of the victims/causes of homicide and genocide. Her work would be of interest to anyone who wants to know more about these debates, along with that of Zoe Crossland.

So first, what is it that forensic archaeologists and physical anthropologists do, and how is it different to being an embedded anthropologist? As Margaret Cox often points out, there is a fascination in popular media with archaeologists as ‘forensic scientists’. But this terms is a misnomer that comes about partly because of a wider fascination in the media with all things gory – murder and crime movies are cool, therefore archaeology can be made to appear cool if its associated with gore and called ‘forensic’. Most archaeology is not ‘forensic’. But the skills that most ‘traditional’ archaeology requires can be highly useful in criminal investigations – careful excavation of physical evidence with the aim of attempting to establish what may have happened and how, and with the direct aim of identifying bodies; and understanding wider socio-cultural contexts. Involvement in homicide and genocide investigation is, to being with, a very new practice. Despite the existence of at least three MA courses in the UK dedicated to ‘Forensic Archaeology’ (and I am sure there must be a few in the US, but I know less about the situation here), the number of people who work full-time in collaboration with the police or in genocide cases is very small. As well as assisting with the police ‘at home’, there is the work done in many parts of the world working with war crime investigation and specifically the excavation of mass graves. This has included, to name only a few, places like the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and looking for Argentina’s “disappeared” – the latter being something that Zoe Crossland has written extensively about. And now there is the work in Iraq.

What does it take to work in these situations? Well, it can be pretty traumatic work. It takes someone who is emotionally and intellectually able to deal with not only the decomposing flesh aspect, but also with the ethical, political and emotional environment that they are immersing themselves in. As an archaeologist I interviewed pointed out, its one thing to excavate medieval skeletons in the calm of the English county-side, another thing when the watch on the arm of the body you are uncovering is still ticking and there are crowds of distraught relatives standing 2 meters away. This in itself points to a difference between the subject of investigation for archaeology and anthropology, in that people usually assume archaeologists work with the dead and anthropologists work with the living. Archaeologists work with dead people who (in some sense at least) can’t be affected any more by being studied, and yet they are also always working with living people in a contemporary moment. There is a responsibility towards the dead but also a pressing responsibility towards the living. In the case of forensic archaeology, this connection is especially clear. Any archaeologist who agrees to work in such situations has to think very clearly about their responsibilities and the moral implications of their work – will my involvement in this case lead to someone being tried and subject to the death penalty? Will I be part of imposing an inappropriate (and neo-colonial) conception of justice on a non-western group of people? Do I have a responsibility to the non-white, non-female, non-middle class victims of homicide that get ignored by the media – and should I apply my anthropological and archaeological training to understanding and representing the causes and contexts of both the phenomena of homicide and its distorted media representation?

There is a responsibility to work professionally and within legal structures, but also to be involved in a contemporary world – with our eyes open. To excavate and investigate a case in as objective a manner as possible – and to recognise that data does not speak without a human interpretor, and that subjectivity of interpretation is therefore not only something we have to be aware of – it is essential to being ethical. For this reason, the situation in Iraq is a difficult one. Those archaeologists who end up working in forensic cases often do so out of a desire to apply their skills, to have some positive impact, to help the victims of injustice and so on. What of Iraq? My understanding of the particulars is sketchy, but here are some personal reflections. When the email recruiting people from our department to go to Iraq to work on the mass graves there came around in 2005, I personally felt very conflicted about the moral implications of this particular case. I have considered in the past doing such work, and on the whole agree that it is a positive way of acting on my own (much talked about but rarely acted on) desire to connect academic to the rest of the world. But how could I bring myself to work within the US Army? I have no doubt that any benefit that came about for the families of the victims of the genocide would probably have to be balanced against the use of those crimes in an ongoing justification process for the US led invasion and occupation. To be sure, individuals would benefit from being able to identify and bury their family members, and we would learn something about genocidal practises in pre-invasion Iraq. But as long as this was conducted under the auspices of the current occupation, it would no doubt contribute to the justification of a colonial project. Although I think there are aspects of these dilemmas in all cases of working with war crimes, in the case of Iraq the ongoing occupation and propaganda campaign make them particularly urgent.

The complications of this moral dilemma directly parallel the situation of Tracy and co, but also reveal the hollow core of the arguments for anthropologists working in Iraq. Who is Tracy responsible to, and for? Is her involvement a response to a need on the part of the Iraqis, or on the part of the occupiers? In 2003 the media brought us images of Iraqis excavating mass graves in what was portrayed as a chaotic and frantic manner. Margaret Cox has claimed that, when she arrived very shortly afterwards, the same communities were excavating their dead in a highly organised manner, but that the media were not interested in showing this to the world. Her assistance in Iraq in these excavations was based on an already existing need to do that work. Once that work gets taken over by the US army, then yes, there is a problem in how you feel about how the results of that work is going to be used in the longer term. But if your help is requested by relatives of the dead to do something specific they are trying to do themselves (finding evidence of mass murder, identifying bodies) and you are able to do it, should you turn it down? The other side of course would be, should you reject the Army’s request to excavate, if living relatives don’t want you to, which is something some of my interviewees discussed.

Do the Afghan and Iraqi people Tracey is working with require or request her assistance? Is she using her professional skills to assist people in something they are trying to do themselves already? Of course not. The anthropologists who are working with the Army are responding to the direct and indirect needs of the occupiers, not the occupied. At best, they are making colonisation a little more PC. The difference is not between studying dead people or living people, because ultimately all archaeology and anthropology is concerned with, and impacts on, living people. (Although there is the very valid point of archaeology as a means of seeking ‘justice’ etc on behalf of the dead.) Instead the difference lies in who the anthropologist or archaeologist is working for the benefit of. This, to me, is what makes the Tracey a ‘mercenary anthropologist’, and the war-crimes investigators not.

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.