David Price’s Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in the Service of the Militarized State.

In December 2006, several months before the completion of my dissertation fieldwork in Istanbul, I offered a preliminary presentation of my research on civil Islamic foundations and secularism at the American Research Institute in Turkey, which had partially funded my research.  Although I had alerted several Turkish friends and colleagues of my talk, I was not terribly sanguine about the likelihood of a large or vocal audience—surely there were more attractive destinations along the Bosporus on that chill evening in early winter.  I was surprised, therefore, when two well-dressed men arrived late to my presentation and conspicuously sat in the front row, several feet away from me.  The first was exceptionally dapper; from his rigid posture and noticeable Ataturk lapel pin, I suspected that he might be Turkish military brass.  The second was somewhat more casual, and, as I soon learned, American.  After I finished my largely descriptive talk, I began to field questions in the traditional academic manner, almost all of which came from the second of the two latecomers.

He was relentless:  “What would happen if one of these groups of you study wanted to overthrow the state?  What kind of activities do they engage in covertly? Do you think they’re armed?” I insistently demurred:  the organizations of my study were all non-profits legally recognized by the state, not clandestine, militarized cells.  The second man continued to badger me during the reception, with his Turkish military companion gazing silently on.  When I finally asked him his name, he produced the most anonymous credential imaginable:  a plain business card reading simply “John Smith, Photographer”, without further contact information.  As these two somewhat sinister audience members departed, my John Le Carre moment came into focus:  the Turkish military and, in all probability, the CIA had taken interest in my research.  They had attended my presentation, driving all the way to Istanbul from Ankara (as I later learned), in order to determine whether my ethnography might have some strategic value.

Immersed in the privileged naivete that is the prerogative of every first-time ethnographer, I was rather shocked by the military and intelligence interest in my research.  I should not have been.  The relationship between military projects and anthropology is arguably coeval with the discipline’s founding itself; from the ventures of British colonialism to the American Bureau of Indian Affairs to Vietnam War-era Project Camelot, the expertise of ethnography has frequently been harnessed to strategic and tactical military ends.  The recruitment of American anthropologists to warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, under the guise of the controversial US Army Human Terrain System (HTS) Program is merely the most recent high water mark in the courtship of the scholars of culture by the brokers of war.

It is this troubled, troublesome courtship of anthropology and the military that occupies anthropologist David H. Price in his indispensable new volume, Weaponizing Anthropology (Counterpunch).  While Price is no newcomer to this debate—indeed, along with other members of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, his has been one of the most principled and adamant voices against military uses of anthropology in recent years—Weaponizing Anthropology constitutes his most forceful theoretical and political broadside against the military uses and abuses of anthropology to date.

Weaponizing Anthropology marshals an impressive battalion of arguments, aimed to appeal at specialists and non-specialists alike.  In the first section of the book, Price offers a timely overview of earlier intersections of anthropological knowledge and military projects, placing particular emphasis on the fraught relationship between early American anthropologists such as Franz Boas and Margaret Mead and American military forays against Native Americans, the effects of the Nuremburg Trials on ethical debates within the social sciences, and the role of Vietnam War-era military uses of anthropology in spurring the American Anthropological Association (AAA) to draft and adopt explicit ethical codes and standards for its members.

From here, Price moves on to a comprehensive critique of the recent glut of militarily-funded programs on American university campuses, including the National Security Education Program (NSEP), the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program (PRISP) and the Intelligence Community Scholars Program (ICSP), many of which are funded directly by the CIA or the Department of Defense’s Minerva Consortium.  Price devotes special attention to Minerva monies—as he notes, “the Minerva Consortium (is) a Defense Department program designed to further link universities to Defense’s prescribed views and analysis (p. 60).”  While he goes to some length to distinguish between these different military intrusions upon the American academy, the ultimate effects of each of these programs are broadly the same:  They directly undermine the principles of intellectual openness, independence from state and military interests, and peer review that define the Academy as we know and value it.

Price’s discussion of military-funded programs on American universities, which constitutes the bulk of the first half of Weaponizing Anthropology, does not concern anthropology alone.  Programs such as PRISP and NSEP have sinister implications for almost all of the social science disciplines, from area studies and political science to history and even library science.  Price details at length the fascinating case of a proposed Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence (ICCAE), funded by the CIA, at the University of Washington.  In contrast to the myopic enthusiasm of the financially-strapped UW administration for funding from any source, faculty from Latin American Studies, History, Southeast Asian Studies and research librarians from International Studies all questioned the probity and wisdom of accepting CIA lucre.

In the second half of Weaponizing Anthropology, Price focuses more specifically on the trouble for anthropology that military overtures and appropriations spell.  Price neatly outlines three distinct types of problems inherent in militarized anthropology:

“Culturally informed counterinsurgency categorically presents three types of problems for anthropology, these categories are: ethical, political, and theoretical. The ethical problems concern voluntary informed consent, transparency, manipulation of studies populations, and the likelihood of harm befalling those researched; while the political problems most obviously concern using anthropology to support neo-colonial projects of conquest, occupation and domination (p. 179).”

Price’s immediate targets in the second half of the book are the military ethnographers of the David Petraeus-era U.S. Army, the professional anthropologists who have lent their intellectual capital and expertise to HTS, and the publication of The U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual Field Manual, which has provided the imprimatur of theoretical sophistication to HTS.  He rightly notes that most Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) in war zones contain very few, if any, credentialed anthropologists—due to pervasive skepticism over the ethics and politics of HTS within American anthropology, the military has had to recruit impressionable graduate students and malleable social scientists from other disciplines to flesh out the ranks of the HTTs.

Price is especially scathing in his criticism of the anthropological boosters of HTS, such as Montgomery McFate, the Minerva Chair of Strategic Research at the U.S. Naval War College.  When he accuses McFate and others of placing personal and professional gain above the ethical and political considerations inherent in the military appropriate of ethnography, it is difficult for the trained anthropologist not to nod in agreement.  Price is equally unsparing in his attack on the Counterinsurgency Field Manual.  As he demonstrates through a barrage of specific citations, compiled in a chapter titled “Commandeering Scholarship: The New Counterinsurgency Manual, Anthropology, and Academic Pillaging,” the authors of the Manual plagiarized freely from such notable anthropologists and social theorists as Victor Turner, Max Weber, Anthony Giddens, and Antonio Gramsci, not to mention the Encyclopedia Britannica.

By the end of Weaponizing Anthropology, Price succeeds in leaving the reader deeply unsettled over the possible effects of the current military uses of anthropology on the discipline itself.  On the whole, ethical objections to anthropologists working for the military have tended to have more traction within the discipline than political arguments—professional bodies such as the AAA have confidently proclaimed informed consent and the imperative to do no harm to research subjects as sine quibus non of ethnographic work.  Price clearly would prefer that anthropologists take a robust political stance against neo-imperialism and American military ventures as well, and I, for one, agree.  Ultimately, however, his most trenchant and thought-provoking argument concerns the influence of militarized anthropology on anthropological theory itself.

Price persuasively argues that the military theorization of culture relies solely on anachronistic structural-functionalist concepts of culture—as he dryly observes, the experience of reading the Counterinsurgency Field Manual is akin to “that of reading a contemporary physics text relying on theories of aether to explain radio broadcasts, a chemistry text basing its analysis on inherent qualities of earth, wind and fire, or a geology manual with a chapter on Adam and Eve (p. 141).”  Despite his humor, however, Price is deadly serious in his assessment of the possibility of a full-scale theoretical revision and reversion within anthropology to suit military ends.  And this, ultimately, is the most sinister prospect of HTS and the more general military flirtation with anthropology.  Suspicious characters attending public lectures, in Istanbul or elsewhere, are certainly discomfiting.  But they pale in comparison to the experience of hearing licensed social scientists voice theories of culture and politics that dovetail neatly—strategically—with military projects.  This experience has become all-too-common in recent years; Weaponizing Anthropology provides a timely, urgent reminder that this should alarm anthropologists more than it already does.


Jeremy F. Walton is an Assistant Professor and Faculty Fellow in New York University’s Religious Studies Program.  He received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Chicago (2009), and is currently in the process of writing and revising his book manuscript, Pieties of Pluralism: Formations of Islam, Liberalism and Secularism in Turkey.  Dr. Walton co-edited, with John Kelly, Beatrice Jauregui, and Sean T. Mitchell, the collection Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency, and has book chapters in Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency, Orienting Istanbul: Cultural Capital of Europe? and the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies.  His teaching and research broadly interrogate the complex relationships among Islamic practice, the politics of contemporary secularism, and global regimes of publicity.


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