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Anthropology’s conscience: reading David H. Price

He didn’t even hear what I said; he was absorbed already in the dilemmas of Democracy and the responsibilities of the West; he was determined – I learnt that very soon – to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world. Well, he was in his element now with the whole universe to improve.

Graham Greene, The Quiet American, 1955.

There have been many contributions to the history of anthropology, ranging from the late George W. Stocking’s multi-volume disciplinary histories, which focus primarily on US anthropology, to the accounts by Talal Asad, Kathleen Gough, Peter Pels, Johannes Fabian and Oscar Salemink of anthropology’s co-imbrication with colonialism, to Adam Kuper’s works on the historical development of British and South African anthropology. As Bourdieu observed in his Sketch for a Self-Analysis, however, ‘There are many intellectuals who call the world into question, but very few who call the intellectual world into question’ (Bourdieu 2008: 23). Thus it is that anthropologists – in accounting for their discipline’s past – have sometimes represented it as if anthropologists were always and inevitably in opposition to power and marginalized from it. Perhaps for anthropologists, as for other scholars, it has been a natural and understandable impulse to think of themselves, in Susan Sontag’s apt characterization, as “heroes”.

At an early stage of David Price’s monumental undertaking in the history of anthropology, fellow anthropologist Janice Harper cautioned him to start with the more honourable story about anthropologists’ past: ‘Anthropologists love stories in which we are the victims (as in McCarthyism), but won’t like being shown as “collaborators”’ (Price 2016: xxv). Of course, important contributions to the history of anthropology over the years have done much to unsettle this way of seeing things. From the work of Gretchen Schafft we have learned how German anthropologists like Eugen Fischer played instrumental and influential roles in German Nazism’s “racial science”. Johannes Fabian has enlightened us about the far from rational and innocent behaviour of explorers and scientists in colonial Congo. John W. Sharp, Robert Gordon and Andrew Bank have explored the role that German and Dutch-trained “volkekunde” anthropologists like Werner W. Eiselen played in the formulation and implementation of the racist policies of apartheid. Helen Tilley has documented how scientific knowledge was put to use for interventions and administrative purposes under colonialism.

With regard to US anthropology, perhaps no other scholar has done more to unsettle the by now defunct representation of the anthropologist as hero than David H. Price.[1] With the publication of Cold War Anthropology: The CIA, the Pentagon, And The Growth of Dual Use Anthropology, he has completed a triptych on the discipline’s variegated relationship with the military superpower’s vast military and intelligence complex. The triptych started with Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists (2004), continued with Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment And Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War (2008), and has come to an end with Cold War Anthropology.

Price has managed the feat of pursuing this research whilst simultaneously being a prominent member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists – which was established in response to attempts by US intelligence agencies to “weaponize anthropology” through inter alia the Human Terrain System (HTS), and large-scale recruitment of, and funding for, anthropological contributions to the ill-fated Global War on Terror (GWOT). He has published and taught on these subjects at the same time. He has contributed to Anthropology Today, to the leftist website Counterpunch, and to the 2009 Counter-Counter Insurgency Manual published by Marshall Sahlins’s Prickly Paradigm Press, in addition to editing volumes on anthropology and global counterinsurgency. One gets the distinct impression from Price’s work that doing disciplinary history in a field where the scholarly habitus still revolves around a tendency to fetishize ethnographic fieldwork as the sine qua non of being an anthropologist remains a pursuit which brings very limited rewards in terms of funding, grants and status. ‘I had no idea that it would take me two decades of largely unfunded, but highly rewarding, research, to document this story’, writes Price in the acknowledgements of this latest volume (Price 2016: xxv).

At a dense 452 pages in total, Cold War Anthropology is packed with detail. So I will here limit myself to highlighting what I take to be most important on an analytical and conceptual level in this book.

Anthropologists in the Cold War

Price’s opening salvo is that ‘military and intelligence agencies quietly shaped the development of anthropology in the United States during the first three decades of the Cold War’ (Price 2016: xi). This should not be taken to mean, however, that Price sees the CIA and the Pentagon as ‘totalizing forces that explain everything, and thereby nothing, at the same time’ (Price 2016: xiv): Price is simply too good a disciplinary historian, and too attentive to the proverbial devils in the historical details, to resort to such polemical simplicity. When I have noted that this latest volume is part of a triptych from Price’s side, I have also meant to imply that the three volumes in question ought ideally to be read in conjunction. Price is for example clear about the fact that the development and the strictures of the Cold War anthropology he delineates in this latest volume can only be understood in the context of anthropological thought and practice in the context of World War II. For it was in this context that the American Anthropological Association (AAA) resolved in a resolution to ‘place itself and its resources and the specialized skills of its members at the disposal of the country for the successful prosecution of the war’ (cited from Price 2008: 23). It was estimated that ‘over half of American anthropologists were directly involved in war work while another quarter worked part time’ during World War II (Price 2008: 37, citing Cooper 1947). US anthropologists worked for the Office For Strategic Studies (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, as analysts and spies; for the Office For War Information (OWI) as propagandists; for the Army as soldiers and officers; and for the Strategic Bombing Survey, which analyzed ‘the impact of Allied bombings on enemy military and civilian populations’ (Price 2008: 39). They taught courses in colonial administration and trained GIs who were preparing for war in Indonesia and Micronesia (Price 2008: 41, 83). Most controversially, US anthropologists took part in the management and study of an estimated 110,000 Japanese Americans rounded up and interned by the War Relocation Authority (WRA) under Executive Order 9066 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 (Price 2008: 143-45). It was also in the context of World War II that the Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations and the Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) recognized the potential value of George Peter Murdock’s Cross Cultural Survey (at Yale University), which in the postwar years would turn into the Human Relations Area File (HRAF), and laid some of the institutional foundations of the Area Studies Centers which would become so important in the context of the ensuing Cold War (Price 2008: 91).

It is not that Price cannot understand and empathize with a generation of US anthropologists who decided to enroll in the struggle against fascism and totalitarianism during World War II; but rather that he thinks that many of the US anthropologists shaped by that struggle were insufficiently aware of ‘how the methods used in this necessary fight could in the long run be supporting forms of the very tyranny they were fighting’ (Price 2008: 36). For, as he puts it, ‘the wartime applications of anthropology in the early 1940s continue to bedevil us in new and unforeseen contexts’ (Price 2008: xiii). Price’s ideas about what anthropology is and should be perhaps makes him an outsider under the present conditions of neo-liberal audit cultures in much of Western academia, but for him ‘there is no such thing as politically neutral science’ and ‘what is needed is not depoliticized science but science that is ethically aware of and engaged in the political context in which it functions and is used’ (Price 2008: xv).

The shadow of the unintended consequences of US anthropologists’ applied anthropology during World War II looms large in Cold War Anthropology.  As happened in most other academic disciplines, Cold War Anthropology as it developed in the US was enveloped in post-war political processes and funding streams. At the end of World War II, many US anthropologists returned to university departments where funding and student enrollment had been bolstered by the GI Bill. But others remained in the employ of the state. It was not that the latter necessarily had a poorer academic record, or were less radical for their time than those who returned to academia: Cora Du Bois, who published her prewar ethnographic study of Eastern Indonesian cultures in The People of Alor in 1944, was a lesbian and a civil rights sympathizer, who during World War II worked at the OSS Headquarters in Washington D.C and directed OSS wartime operations in Malaysia, Siam and Burma from what was then British Colonial Ceylon (Price 2016: 31). After the war she worked for the State Department, before becoming a full professor of anthropology at Harvard University in 1954, and the president of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) from 1968 to 1969.

As set out in the very first sentence of Price’s preface, his book ‘considers some of the ways that military and intelligence agencies quietly shaped the development of anthropology in the United States during the first three decades of the Cold War’ (Price 2016: xi). Note the qualifier ‘quietly’ herein: what Price’s monograph demonstrates so well is the extent to which so little of this shaping was undertaken by means of brute force on the part of the relevant state and intelligence agencies. The AAA’s one time president George P. Murdock at Yale, who had worked the Naval School For Military Intelligence at Columbia University during World War II, became after the war a central conduit for CIA funding of what Price refers to as “dual use” anthropological projects. This was done in part through his work on the Human Relations Area Files. The not so quiet ways involved Murdock’s informing on anthropological colleagues he suspected of Communist sympathies in letters to the FBI’s notorious Director J. Edgar Hoover (Price 2004: 119) when Murdock was a board member of the AAA.. The most outrageous part of this is that the very Murdock who informed on his fellow AAA members to Hoover in a letter in 1949 was four months later appointed as chair of the AAA’s Committee on Scientific Freedom, and tasked with “protecting” AAA members rights – to academic freedom (Price 2004: 79). It is a fact that several fellows of the AAA were later dragged before congressional committees on national security established by the likes of Senator Joseph McCarthy (Price 2004: 109), and had their academic careers ruined. As Price rightly notes, ‘from its beginnings, the CIA established links with academia’ (Price 2016: 9). Some central Cold War anthropologists were perfectly aware of the situation and intimately involved in strengthening these links. ‘The CIA approached the AAA in 1951 and established a covert relationship with the board through which the AAA secretly gave the CIA the raw information it had collected for its roster, with the understanding that the CIA would keep the information for its own uses’, writes Price in one of the most damning indictments of the postwar boards of the AAA (Price 2016: 192). We also know that there were anthropologists working as CIA operatives. But as Price notes, ‘in most instances the academics receiving these funds [from CIA funding fronts which supported international research projects] were unaware that the CIA funded their work’ (Price 2016: 22). What is ultimately more striking, though, is the sheer number of US anthropologists working in the context of the Cold War who readily accepted funding, work and commissioned research which had CIA written all over it in capital letters, or who never bothered to enquire about the sources of such funding, when it was common and public knowledge that the CIA used any number of funding fronts in order to achieve its aims as far as securing academic cooperation. This bears, for example, on Clifford Geertz’s involvement in MIT’s Modjokuto Project (Price 2016: 94-96), not to mention the anthropologists who volunteered to work on counter-insurgency in Thailand and Vietnam at the height of the Vietnam War in the 1960s (e.g. Gerard Hickey, who for a decade wrote commissioned reports for the RAND Corporation), or the US professors who from the start of the CIA’s University Associates Program in the 1950s until the 1970s regularly briefed the CIA on findings from their ethnographic research in sensitive places deemed of interest to the agency (Price 2016: 9-10). Here, Price obviously notes something important in arguing that ‘anthropologists, like others of their time and place, internalize the political views of their times in ways that generally coalesce the political processes of their society’ (Price 2016: 52). What was at stake for anyone foolish enough to attempt not to “internalize the political views of their times” was of course ‘struggles for tenure and promotion [which] guide many of the contingencies regulating research and publication decisions’ (Price 2016: 320). It is clear that Price sees the long aftermath of Cold War Anthropology as having effected a transformation of anthropology’s development ‘in ways that continue to influence the discipline today’ (Price 2016: xi).  And here we get to some of the political and ethical lessons that Price’s longstanding and crucially important work on the historiography of modern anthropology should teach us.

For there does seem to have been more “subtle means and enticing carrots” than sticks involved in the ways in which US intelligence agencies were able to effect a transformation of the discipline suitable for Cold War Anthropology uses. It was not until the Vietnam War and the revelations about Project Camelot and Operation Modjukuto that important factions within the AAA and the anthropological community at large started voicing concerns over the dual uses to which anthropological knowledge could and were put. Price shows that when these concerns were first raised in the 1966 Beals Report to the AAA Council, the AAA’s condemnation of covert research was more focused on potential threats to anthropology’s reputation – i.e. following revelations to the effect that CIA agents had posed as anthropologists and that actual anthropologists had used ethnographic fieldwork as cover for intelligence work for the CIA – than on the security and wellbeing of studied populations (Price 2016: 292). But there followed the first AAA Code Of Ethics in 1968, as well as significant mobilizations among US anthropologists against the Vietnam war, and against the dual use of anthropological knowledge for US counter-insurgency operations in Vietnam and other places. Price considers this epoch as one in which US anthropologists momentarily awoke from their ethical and political slumber about the uses to which anthropological knowledge had been and were being put, and about the unethical behaviour of a number of anthropologists who were all too ready and willing to be subcontracted for US military and intelligence powers during the Cold War. But the qualifier here – momentarily – relates to Price’s judgment that US anthropology has learned little of long-lasting value and impact from this epoch, given that the ethical challenges relating to anthropology’s dual-purpose nature are still with us, and would return with full force during the War on Terror after 2001.

Bringing political economy back in

An absolutely crucial aspect of Price’s argument, in my view, is the centrality he accords to the political economy of anthropologists’ knowledge production. Price has consistently had little time and patience for structuralist and poststructuralist analyses which in his words have ‘stepped back from acknowledging the primacy of economic forces’ and ‘diminished anthropologists’ responsibility to acknowledge the political economy of fieldwork settings’ (Price 2008: 263). There is a certain risk here of writing off outstanding anthropological scholarship from recent decades as so many ‘escapist, authorial heavy narratives’ (Price 2008: 263). Without going into details, one could easily argue, pace Price, that many anthropologists engaged in poststructuralist analysis have, in fact, written ethnographies that demonstrate a keen awareness precisely of the political economy of fieldwork settings. Be that as it may, Price’s methodological emphasis on political economy has the epistemological advantage of largely avoiding the “naming and shaming” of individual anthropologists often found in radical critiques of anthropology and the social sciences at large. What ultimately matters for Price’s account is not so much the moral and ethical failures of individual anthropologists, as the political economy of funding streams and institutional structures which shaped the environment within which anthropologists labored and developed their knowledge. Though Price does not use the work of Pierre Bourdieu much, the applicability of Bourdieu’s analysis of scholarly fields as akin to the ‘space of possibles’ which defines the limits of what a discipline at any given time will accept, comes readily to mind here. And so in order to understand the argument that Price is making, and the consequences it has for our understanding of anthropological theory and practice past and present, we had better start with his understanding of the political economy of anthropological knowledge production.

In the preface to Cold War Anthropology, Price argues that ‘the disciplinary histories of the last half century have seldom consistently focused on political economy as a primary force shaping the theory and practice of’ the discipline (Price 2016: xii). For Price, understanding power ‘involves studying the economic and social systems from which power relations arise’ (Price 2016: xii).  A central concept in this book, as noted above, is dual use anthropology. What this means in the case of anthropology is simply that we as anthropologists – much like any other scientists – ‘understand that the knowledge [we] produce enters a universe in which [we] likely have no control over how this knowledge is used’ (Price 2016: xv). For anthropologists working in the Cold War context, this meant that ‘anthropologists often pursued questions of their own design, for their own reasons, while operating in specific historical contexts where the overarching military-industrial university complex had its own interest in the knowledge generated from these inquiries’ (Price 2016: xiv).

US intelligence agencies during the Cold War knew very well that more could be achieved by structuring the disciplinary field through grants and funding streams which privileged those among anthropologists willing to either close their eyes to where the funding came from, or to be actively complicit in it. Compare this to the situation during the so-called Global War On Terror. I vividly recall having been told by anthropological colleagues in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks on the US that there would now be immense amounts of funding available if I wanted to do research on ‘radical Islamist terrorism.’ I said ‘Thanks, but no thanks’, and have basically stuck with that ever since then. But others certainly took this bait, and the terrorism research industry is if anything a burgeoning trade, which also includes quite a few anthropological scholars (Montgomery McFate and David Kilcullen, to mention but two of Price’s contemporary nemeses), and the employment of anthropological knowledge in the service of military and intelligence purposes. Though the anthropologists who have put their knowledge in the service of military-industrial complexes and intelligence services since 2001 would presumably argue that they did so for the “best of reasons”, and have had the “best interests” of local populations in mind, it is worth recalling the anthropologist Alexander Leighton’s post-World War II dictum that ‘the administrator uses social science the way a drunk uses a lamppost, for support rather than illumination’ (Leighton 1949, cited in Price 2008: 197). Whether the terrorism research industry has had any effect on preventing terrorism is debatable, given that the rise of the terrorism research industry in the context of the Global War On Terror has coincided with a dramatic rise of non-state and state terrorism worldwide. ‘American anthropology has been slow to acknowledge the extent to which it is embedded in dual use processes, preferring to imagine itself as somehow independent not only from the militarized political economy in which it is embedded but also from traceable uses to which American academic geographic knowledge has been put,’ argues Price (2016: xvii). Elsewhere, he observes that ‘Our memory gaps have political consequences’ (2008: xvi). We can be quite sure that few are disposed to learn much from the history of modern anthropology, unfortunately. But for those so disposed, there are few better and more important guides than David H. Price.

  1. [1]Full disclosure: I have known Price, who is based at St. Martin’s University in Lancey, Washington, USA, since I first meet him over coffee at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in San Francisco in November 2012. Together with my colleague from the University of Bergen, Bjørn Enge Bertelsen, I had the pleasure of hosting him in May 2014 as a guest in a series on public anthropology I organized at the House of Literature in Oslo, Norway. The transcript of the conversation between myself, Price and Bertelsen also forms part of a forthcoming edited volume to be published in 2017 under the title Anthropology of our times: from a series in public anthropology.

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