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.

At the outset – a full disclosure: I have had the privilege of knowing Prof David H. Price of 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, California, in November 2012. In May 2014, I, together with my colleague from the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Bergen, Associate Professor Bjørn Enge Bertelsen had the pleasure of hosting David H. Price as an honoured guest in a series in public anthropology I organized at the House of Literature in Oslo, Norway in the period between 2009 and 2014. The transcript of the conversation about his work between myself, Price and Bertelsen also forms part of a forthcoming edited volume published later this year by Palgrave MacMillan under the title Anthropology Of Our Times: From A Series in Public Anthropology.

There have been many contributions to the history of anthropology, ranging from the late George W. Stocking’s multi-volume disciplinary histories, focused on US anthropology via to Talal Asad,  Peter Pels and Oscar Salemink’s accounts of anthropology’s co-imbrication with colonialism  to Adam Kuper’s accounts of the history of British anthropology.

By and large, however, I think it would be fair to say that anthropologists – in accounting for the discipline’s past – tend to represent this past as if anthropologists were always and inevitably in opposition to power and marginalized from it. Which I suppose one could refer to by invoking the late Susan Sontag’s ideas about ‘The Anthropologist As Hero’.

Or put it in the succint words of fellow anthropologist Janice Harper, who at an early stage of this monumental undertaking on Price’s part 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). Recent work in the historiography of anthropology has done much to unsettle this representation: From the seminal work of Gretchen Schafft we have learned how German anthropologists like Eugen Fischer played instrumental and influential roles in German Nazism’s ‘racial science’. 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.

In US anthropology, perhaps no other anthropologist has done more to unsettle this simplistic representation of ‘the anthropologist as hero’ in recent decades than Prof David H. Price. Price has recently completed a triptych on US anthropologists’ variegated relationships with the military superpower’s vast military and intelligence communities since the onset of the Cold War. This triptych, which has been published by Duke University Press, started with his 2004 monograph Threatening Anthropology, continued with his 2008 monograph Anthropological Intelligence, and has now come to an end with his 2016 volume Cold War Anthropology.

This final volume takes its title from an article Price first published in the journal Identities in 1998, which goes to illustrate the amount of work and time required for doing this kind of work in and on the history of anthropology.

It is a mammoth and impressive undertaking as far as archival and historical research goes, enabled by Price’s discovery that he could file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in order to access CIA and FBI records on interactions between US anthropologists and US intelligence agencies. And it is all the more impressive, in that Price has managed the feat of pursuing this research whilst simultaneously being a prominent member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists established in response to US state and intelligence agencies attempts to ‘weaponize anthropology’ through inter alia the Human Terrain System (HTS) and large-scale recruitment of and funding for anthropologist volunteers to the ill-fated ‘Global War on Terror’ (GWOT) pursuant to al-Qaida’s terrorist attacks on the USA on September 11 2001, and to publish, teach and lecture extensively on all of this at the same time. Whether in the form of regular articles for Anthropology Today,  essays for the leftist website Counterpunch  contributions to the 2009 Counter-Counter Insurgency Manual, edited volumes on anthropology and global counterinsurgency.

One would perhaps have thought that anthropology had by now matured sufficiently as a discipline in order to appreciate this sort of meticulous documentation of its not- so- distant past, but as the acknowledgments of this latest volume make perfectly clear (Price 2016: xxv), Price has laboured on his triptych for almost two decades, most of the time without any substantial funding for the work that he has been doing, and with what amounts to limited support from anthropology’s central institutions and publishing outlets in the US.

At a dense 452 pages in total, Price’s Cold War Anthropology is obviously too dense and packed with detail for even attempting to summarize it. So I will here limit myself to highlighting what I take to be most important on an analytical and conceptual level in this latest monograph of Price’s.

Bringing political economy back in

An absolutely crucial part of the argument Price is making in this book has in my view to do with the centrality he accords the political economy of anthropologists’ knowledge production.  For, Cold War Anthropology as it developed in the US was, like most other academic disciplines, enveloped in post-Second World War political processes and funding streams. From the precursor to this volume, namely Price’s 2008 monograph Anthropological Intelligence, we learned that at the time of the US’ entry into World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1942, almost half of US anthropologists at the time were working for state agencies such as the Office For Strategic Studies (OSS, the predecessor of the CIA) or the Office Of War Information. At the end of World War II, which many anthropologists rightly saw as a legitimate and global struggle against Fascism and Nazism, many anthropologists returned to university departments where funding and student enrollment had been bolstered by the GI Bill across the USA. Both 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 to Cold War Anthropology, 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. For Price, “understanding power involves studying the economic and social systems from which power relations arise” (Price 2016: xii). And “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 anthropology” (ibid.). And for sure, 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, and after the war became a central conduit for CIA funding of what Price refers to as ‘dual use’- anthropological projects through his work on the Human  Relations  Area Files , in his capacity as a board member of the AAA informed on anthropological colleagues he suspected of Communist sympathies in letters to the FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Price 2004: 119). The most outrageous part of this is of course 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). 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. Not to mention the anthropologists who volunteered to work on counter-insurgency in Thailand and Vietnam at the height of the Vietnam in the 1960s (like one 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). And what was at stake for anyone foolish enough to attempt not to “internalize the political views of their times” was of course the “struggles for tenure and promotion [which] guide many of the contingencies regulating research and publication decisions” (Price 2016: 320). And it is quite 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 which 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 concerned about the potential dangers to anthropology’s reputation following from revelations in the Beal Report 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, rather than with the security and wellbeing of studied populations (Price 2016: 292). But there followed the first AAA Code Of Ethics in 1968, and 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.  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’ (GWOT): I vividly recall having been called into the office of a Norwegian anthropological colleague at the research institute where I was working in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks on the US only to be told that there would now be vast amounts of funding and fantastic career opportunities available if I wanted to pursue research on radical Islamist terrorism. Believing (rightly, as it turned out) that I had an inkling of where all of this was heading in terms of a global war with no end in sight which would ultimately generate even more terror along with an attendant terrorism research industry with a limited potential for actually preventing terrorism, I said ‘no, but no thanks’, and have basically stuck with that ever since then. But there is no doubt that even in a relatively small and peripheral country like Norway, both my access to research funding and publishing outlets, my media profile and career prospects would have been significantly better had I opted to respond in the affirmative back then. For it is these privileged funding streams which has by now created a situation in which Norwegian academic researchers on jihadism by far outnumber actual jihadi sympathizers in Norway. So how different is all this really? We can be quite sure that few are disposed to learn much from the modern history of anthropology, but for those so disposed, there are few better and more important guides than David H. Price.

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