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More on anthropologists and torture in Iraq

24 November, 2006

Another article, this one in Inside Higher Ed, discusses the debate within the AAA about anthropology and torture. The article outlines how some anthropological work has been used to ‘refine’ torture techniques used by the US forces in Iraq. The article does not suggest that anthropologists are actually involved in collusion, but that earlier work is being deployed by organisations like the CIA to develop more effective interrogation techniques. It reveals a chilling echo of the new-found interest in ‘culture’ in other fields. Citing Alfred W. McCoy, a historian and author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror, the article states:

Previously … when the CIA sought scholars’ help for interrogations, it was to learn about sensory deprivation, but now it’s all about culture, and behavioral scientists’ works are central. [full article]

It seems tha the CIA, like many corporations these days, has a new appreciation of the ways in which ‘culture matters’.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 8 December, 2006 8:29 am

    Hi Jovan
    It’s astunning, and yet if you think of it, quite logic that anthropological knowledge can be misused in this way.
    I guess it is a risk you cannot avoid: That someone use the knowledge of what is meaningfull to other people, that anthropologists have explored.
    Wasn’t it allready the case with the first anthropological research in colonist Africa and Asia?

  2. Jovan permalink
    8 December, 2006 11:12 am

    Yes, you’re right. Anthropological knowledge has always had its geopolitical dimension, whether it is data that has been ‘innocently’ produced (without any explicit political purpose), or whether more direct collaboration has occurred between anthros and states. For example there was a lot of controversy surrounding certain anthropologists who were said to have worked with the US government in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. I believe Edmund Leach was somehow involved in mediating between the British and various highland groups in Burma during World War II, and the list goes on.

    What strikes me as novel in the latest cases is the focus on ‘culture’ as something that can provide some sort of privileged access to the internal world of particular actors — such as prisoners of war. Anthropologists and their writing have often been used to gain some sort of local knowledge or access to people ‘on the ground’, but it seems to me (and I could be completely off on this) that there is a new appreciation of the more phenomenological dimension of culture. This seems to be a less traditionally political use of anthropological knowledge and more inflected by the ‘cultural turn’, at least that’s how it appears to me.

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