Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 7, 2007

Colonial anthropology

Filed under: Academia,imperialism/globalization,science — louisproyect @ 7:05 pm

Last Friday the New York Times reported that anthropologists have been working alongside the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan in order to make the occupation more effective:

In this isolated Taliban stronghold in eastern Afghanistan, American paratroopers are fielding what they consider a crucial new weapon in counterinsurgency operations here: a soft-spoken civilian anthropologist named Tracy.

Tracy, who asked that her surname not be used for security reasons, is a member of the first Human Terrain Team, an experimental Pentagon program that assigns anthropologists and other social scientists to American combat units in Afghanistan and Iraq. Her team’s ability to understand subtle points of tribal relations — in one case spotting a land dispute that allowed the Taliban to bully parts of a major tribe — has won the praise of officers who say they are seeing concrete results.

This is not the only instance of professionals becoming handmaidens to the Bush White House. It has recruited psychologists to fine-tune interrogation techniques in Guantanamo over the protests of some members of the profession.

David Price

Anthropologists have also intervened to challenge the misuse of their skills. Chief among them is David Price, who has launched a Pledge of Non-participation in Counter-insurgency. Background articles can be found here. A number of them were written by Price and are included along with others in his excellent website. One of them that originally appeared in the Nation Magazine quite rightfully lauds Franz Boas:

On December 20, 1919, under the heading “Scientists as Spies,” The Nation published a letter by Franz Boas, the father of academic anthropology in America. Boas charged that four American anthropologists, whom he did not name, had abused their professional research positions by conducting espionage in Central America during the First World War. Boas strongly condemned their actions, writing that they had “prostituted science by using it as a cover for their activities as spies.” Anthropologists spying for their country severely betrayed their science and damaged the credibility of all anthropological research, Boas wrote; a scientist who uses his research as a cover for political spying forfeits the right to be classified as a scientist.

Franz Boas 1858-1942

While there are many reasons to admire Boas’s courage, his academic record was not entirely unblemished. While at the Museum of Natural History, Boas decided that Eskimos were suitable objects for study, because they represented a kind of “living fossil” that demonstrated a connection to Ice Age hunters in Europe. So eager was he to have some useful specimens that he commissioned Robert Peary to bring back some back from an Arctic expedition on his ship “The Hope.” Some 30,000 New Yorkers paid 25 cents each in 1896 to view the six Eskimos that Peary retrieved from their home. Later on they were transported to the basement of the Museum in order to be studied. When a reporter asked Boas how they were kept busy, he replied:

Oh, we try to give them little things to keep them busy. Their work doesn’t amount to much, but they have made some carvings, and occupied themselves either indoors or around the place with any employment that suggested itself to them. They do not seem discontented.

Only 8 months after their arrival, four of the six Eskimos had died of tuberculosis. One returned to Greenland and the last, a young boy named Minik who was the son of Qisuk, one of the deceased, remained in the custody of William Wallace, the Superintendent of the Museum. When Minik learned that tribal customs required the bones of ancestors be interred in their homeland, he was convinced by Boas and Wallace that a burial of the bones in New York City would suffice. When he reached the age of 15, he learned that Boas and Wallace had lied to him. The skeleton was being warehoused in the Museum’s basement, alongside hundreds of other bones that belonged to indigenous peoples. In “Skull Wars,” a book focused on the Kennewick man controversy, David Hurst Thomas, a curator of anthropology at the Museum of Natural History, recounts Boas’s flippant attitude toward the entire affair:

Pressed as to why the museum could claim Qisuk’s body when relatives were still alive, Boas replied, “Oh, that was perfectly legitimate. There was no one to bury the body, and the museum had as good a right to it as any other institution authorized to claim bodies.” When an Evening Mail reporter wondered if the body didn’t actually “belong” to Minik, Boas bristled “Well, Minik was just a little boy, and he did not ask for the body. If he had, he might have got it.”


Minik in New York

Minik’s lifelong struggle to retrieve his father’s skeleton and return them to his native soil has been documented in Ken Harper’s “Give Me My Father’s Body: The Story of Minik, the New York Eskimo.” A review of this book by Rhode Island College professor Russell A. Potter includes this observation on the cold-blooded “scientific” stance of Boas and Alfred Kroeber, a student of Boas’s who became famous for his writings on “Ishi”, the last hunter-gatherer in California.

They were brought to a damp basement room, and as might have been foreseen, most of them soon came down with tuberculosis, against which they had little resistance. Studied, even as they were dying, by some of the most prominent anthropologists of the day, including Franz Boas (also remembered as Zora Neale Hurston’s thesis advisor) and Alfred Kroeber (“discoverer” of Ishi and father of science-fiction novelist Ursula K. LeGuin), their last days were spent in agonizing pain without benefit of meaningful medical attention.

Considering that Franz Boas was one of the foremost critics of racial doctrines in the US, as well as a fierce opponent of the kind of misuse of anthropology now on display in Iraq and Afghanistan, one must surely wonder about the nature of such a social science. It is fairly easy to understand why an ardent Zionist and cultural anthropologist like Raphael Patai would write trash like “The Arab Mind.” But what explains Boas’s callous attitudes?

I think the key to understanding this kind of tunnel vision is unequal power relationships. No matter how enlightened the scientist, there is a built in imbalance in the way that one side is doing the studying and the other side is being studied. This imbalance rests on economic inequality. “Primitive” peoples simply lack the capital to fund scientific expeditions of the sort that Boas thought useful. Historical laws of capital accumulation made it impossible for Eskimos to send ships to countries like the United States to retrieve specimens to be studied in Greenland or Alaska. Fundamentally, anthropology rests on imperialist inequality no matter the good intentions of the scholars involved.

Some of the earliest attempts to institutionalize anthropology reflect this tendency, no matter the benign goals of those involved with the enterprise. In an article titled “The Discipline and its Sponsors” that appears in the collection “Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter” edited by Talal Asad, Stephan Feuchtang describes the birth of British anthropology as having an umbilical cord in the Empire.

Formed in February 1843 as a breakaway group of the Aborigines’ Protection Society, which had been founded in 1837 in the aftermath of the early 19th century Quaker campaign against the African slave trade, the Royal Anthropological Institute was to be “a centre and depository for the collection and systematization of all observations made on human races” as the RAI describes itself on its website.

Incorporating Wilberforce’s evangelistic fervor, the RAI sought “not to halt European colonisation overseas, but to change its character.” Feuchtwang sums up their approach:

The scientific aim, repeated into the present day, was archival, historical, and an academic reason for focusing on small-scale social units and not on large-scale systems, namely to record data from peoples vanishing through contact with Europeans—the aborigines of Australia, Oceania and the East Indies, the so-called tribals of India and tribes of Africa, not the so-called civilisations of the Far East and India, Malaya, Burma, Siam, the Middle East. The administrative aim was to co-ordinate information on the subject peoples for the preparation of colonial administrators so that they would not make anew the mistakes of the past.

Lord Hailey, a colonial administrator and member of the RAI, was a perfect symbol of this marriage between social science and social control. While in South Africa, Hailey employed a staff of anthropologists to conduct surveys of native peoples intended “to study the problems of culture contact and the application of anthropological knowledge to the government of subject races.” Feuchtwang describes Hailey’s mission in terms that will be instantly recognizable in terms of the tasks facing General Petraeus and his right-hand man, an Australian Lieutenant Colonel named David Kilcullen who has a PhD in anthropology with Islamic extremism in Indonesia his research topic.

Lord Hailey was obviously central in the articulation of colonial administration and professional anthropology. Writing from the vantage point of 1944 he described colonial development as passing through three stages, the first being introduction of law and order and creation of basic infrastructure for the economic development (i.e. extraction) of natural resources, the second, which he judged had then been reached, being one in which the colonial administration is faced with the ‘problem of assisting the indigenous communities to advance their social life and to better their standard of living.’ This would lead to the next stage, which he envisaged as the political advance of indigenous peoples. So his practical and effective interest in anthropology coincided with his second stage of colonial development. The anthropology which took his administrative interest was not the study of human origins, it was the study of how societies work. And the societies with which he thought administrators needed most help from anthropologists were not societies where an easily understood and compatible system could be incorporated easily to colonial rule using native personnel. These, we may note, were the ‘civilisations’ and ‘despotisms’ of the East, given to another set of academic disciplines and institutions altogether —namely, Oriental studies. Anthropology could help with another kind of people and imperial problem, tribal peoples of India and Africa and the Pacific ‘where administrators encountered cultures which were to them of a novel type, and where they did not find personnel of a class which they could readily associate with themselves in the formation of the legal administrative institutions of the country’ (i.e. colony).

Montgomery McFate

One of the odder figures to emerge out of the controversy over anthropologists and the US military is the oddly named Montgomery McFate, a Yale professor, who tries to strike an unconventional image no matter how conventional her ideas about American foreign policy. In an April 29, 2007 SF Gate profile, she is described as a “a punk rock wild child of dyed-in-the-wool hippies, a 41-year-old with close-cropped hair and a voice buttery with sardonic amusement, a double-doc Ivy Leaguer with a penchant for big hats and American Spirit cigarettes and a nose that still bears the tiny dent of a piercing 25 years closed.”

McFate also attracted the attention of New Yorker contributor and liberal hawk George Packer, who reported on her and David Kilcullen in an article titled “Knowing the Enemy: Can Social Scientists redefine the ‘war on terror’“. Although Packer has arrived at a somewhat pro forma opposition to the war in Iraq, it seems obvious that he would revert to his original pro-Bush outlook if people like Kilcullen and McFate produced results. Packer writes:

McFate grew up in the sixties on a communal houseboat in Marin County, California. Her parents were friends with Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and one of her schoolmates was the daughter of Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick and Paul Kantner. Like Kilcullen, she was drawn to the study of human conflict and also its reality: at Yale, where she received a doctorate, her dissertation was based on several years she spent living among supporters of the Irish Republican Army and then among British counterinsurgents. In Northern Ireland, McFate discovered something very like what Kilcullen found in West Java: insurgency runs in families and social networks, held together by persistent cultural narratives—in this case, the eight-hundred-year-old saga of “perfidious Albion.” She went on to marry a U.S. Army officer. “When I was little in California, we never believed there was such a thing as the Cold War,” McFate said. “That was a bunch of lies that the government fed us to keep us paranoid. Of course, there was a thing called the Cold War, and we nearly lost. And there was no guarantee that we were going to win. And this thing that’s happening now is, without taking that too far, similar.” After September 11th, McFate said, she became “passionate about one issue: the government’s need to actually understand its adversaries,” in the same way that the United States came to understand—and thereby undermine—the Soviet Union. If, as Kilcullen and Crumpton maintain, the battlefield in the global counterinsurgency is intimately local, then the American government needs what McFate calls a “granular” knowledge of the social terrains on which it is competing.

Meanwhile, the NY Times cited at the beginning of this article is clear that the real Montgomery McFate has far more in common with Condoleezza Rice, no matter the outre appearance. It reported:

The process that led to the creation of the teams began in late 2003, when American officers in Iraq complained that they had little to no information about the local population. Pentagon officials contacted Montgomery McFate, a Yale-educated cultural anthropologist working for the Navy who advocated using social science to improve military operations and strategy.

Ms. McFate helped develop a database in 2005 that provided officers with detailed information on the local population. The next year, Steve Fondacaro, a retired Special Operations colonel, joined the program and advocated embedding social scientists with American combat units.

Ms. McFate, the program’s senior social science adviser and an author of the new counterinsurgency manual, dismissed criticism of scholars working with the military. “I’m frequently accused of militarizing anthropology,” she said. “But we’re really anthropologizing the military.”

If nothing, McFate is certainly familiar with the anti-imperialist wing of her profession. In an article titled ” Anthropology and counterinsurgency: the strange story of their curious relationship” that appeared in the March-April, 2005, Military Review, McFate cites Feuchtwang’s article in notes 21 and 22:

In Britain the development and growth of anthropology was deeply connected to colonial administration. As early as 1908, anthropologists began training administrators of the Sudanese civil service. This relationship was quickly institutionalized: in 1921, the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures was established with financing from various colonial governments, and Lord Lugard, the former governor of Nigeria, became head of its executive council. The organization’s mission was based on Bronislaw Malinowski’s article, “Practical Anthropology,” which argued that anthropological knowledge should be applied to solve the problems faced by colonial administrators, including those posed by “‘savage law, economics, customs, and institutions.” (21) Anthropological knowledge was frequently useful, especially in understanding the power dynamics in traditional societies. In 1937, for example, the Royal Anthropological Institute’s Standing Committee on Applied Anthropology noted that anthropological research would “indicate the persons who hold key positions in the community and whose influence it would be important to enlist on the side of projected reforms.” In the words of Lord Hailey, anthropologists were indeed “of great assistance in providing Government with knowledge which must be the basis of administrative policy.” (22)

Citing Feuchtwang is of course not the same thing as agreeing with him. Indeed, she obviously views his aversion to colonial administrators exploiting the services of his profession as a hangover from the Vietnam era:

Although anthropology is the only academic discipline that explicitly seeks to understand foreign cultures and societies, it is a marginal contributor to U.S. national-security policy at best and a punch line at worst. Over the past 30 years, as a result of anthropologists’ individual career choices and the tendency toward reflexive self-criticism contained within the discipline itself, the discipline has become hermetically sealed within its Ivory Tower…

The retreat to the Ivory Tower is also a product of the deep isolationist tendencies within the discipline. Following the Vietnam War, it was fashionable among anthropologists to reject the discipline’s historic ties to colonialism. Anthropologists began to reinvent their discipline, as demonstrated by Kathleen Gough’s 1968 article, Anthropology. Child of Imperialism, followed by Dell Hymes’ 1972 anthology, Reinventing Anthropology, and culminating in editor Talal Asad’s Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter.

It is this “reflexive self-criticism” of course that David Price wants to keep alive, over and against the efforts of people like David Kilcullen and Montgomery McFate. Against the unseemly desire of principled anthropologists to keep the academy out of the business of killing, McFate urges reconciliation between the two estranged parties:

DOD [Department of Defense] yearns for cultural knowledge, but anthropologists en masse, bound by their own ethical code and sunk in a mire of postmodernism, are unlikely to contribute much of value to reshaping national-security policy or practice. Yet, if anthropologists remain disengaged, who will provide the relevant subject matter expertise? As Anna Simons, an anthropologist who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School, points out: “If anthropologists want to put their heads in the sand and not assist, then who will the military, the CIA, and other agencies turn to for information? They’ll turn to people who will give them the kind of information that should make anthropologists want to rip their hair out because the information won’t be nearly as directly connected to what’s going on on the local landscape.”

The goal of this reconciliation would be to destroy the insurgency in both Iraq and Afghanistan and to consolidate puppet governments that would be obedient to the will of the American ruling class, although McFate puts in a somewhat different manner:

Successful counterinsurgency depends on attaining a holistic, total understanding of local culture. This cultural understanding must be thorough and deep if it is to have any practical benefit at all. This fact is not lost on the Army. In the language of interim FM 3-07.22: “The center of gravity in counterinsurgency operations is the population. Therefore, understanding the local society and gaining its support is critical to success. For U.S. forces to operate effectively among a local population and gain and maintain their support, it is important to develop a thorough understanding of the society and its culture, including its history, tribal/family/social structure, values, religions, customs, and needs.”

To defeat the insurgency in Iraq, U.S. and coalition forces must recognize and exploit the underlying tribal structure of the country; the power wielded by traditional authority figures; the use of Islam as a political ideology; the competing interests of the Shia, the Sunni, and the Kurds; the psychological effects of totalitarianism; and the divide between urban and rural, among other things.

My guess is that colonial anthropology will meet with the same success that it met with in Vietnam, for after all the problem is not us understanding the native, but the natives understanding us all too well.


  1. Thanks for this sharp piece on the rather sordid history of anthros. and governments. There’ve been recent revelations about the struggle within the psychologists’ assoc. over collaboration with the military—and presumably “contractors”—branches of government. It’s enough to make me want to run out and buy Naomi Klein’s new book.

    Comment by talapus pete — October 7, 2007 @ 8:33 pm

  2. It is interesting that McFate did her PhD at Yale, which is where the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber was a faculty member before he was booted out, possibly for being too activist outside of class hours. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Graeber). Apparently McFate did not publish her PhD on the IRA due to ethical reasons – obviously ethics did not, however, prevent her from moving on to working for the military.

    Comment by Ed — October 7, 2007 @ 10:29 pm

  3. Really good post. I like the point about the inequality between studier and subject.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — October 8, 2007 @ 4:13 am

  4. You might be interested in some of the discussion over at this blog.


    Comment by Sheldon — October 8, 2007 @ 4:26 am

  5. […] Colonial Anthropology discusses Times article on anthropologists enlisted in Army […]

    Pingback by » Embedded anthropologists — October 8, 2007 @ 7:57 pm

  6. Never thought of my father as “fashionable” I must say. 🙂

    Comment by hymes — October 9, 2007 @ 1:46 pm

  7. Another view of the Kilkullen/McFate initiatives: http://bureauofcounterpropaganda.blogspot.com/2007/03/handmaidens-of-imperialism.html

    Comment by Ernie — October 10, 2007 @ 7:49 pm

  8. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me to see stories such as Minik’s, but it’s hard to accept them just the same. Vilhammer Stefanson sacrificed more than a few people to the anthropology of the arctic as well.

    Comment by danielwalldammit — May 6, 2015 @ 12:04 pm

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