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Beeman on Anthropologists in Iraq

6 April, 2008

Brown University anthropologist, William O. Beeman, recently published Lethal Field Work: Anthropologists Cry Foul Over Colleagues’ Aid to Iraq Occupation in Le Monde diplomatique (the link is to an English version on Alternet). Beeman is probably one of the anthropologists who most successfully publishes in the popular press, drawing on his fieldwork in the Middle East to comment especially on US foreign policy in regular columns. In this article, he covers the basic outline (very basic) of the recent controversy over the Human Terrain Systems (HTS) in the US military.

One of the principal proponents of cooperation is Montgomery McFate, a Yale PhD anthropologist and senior fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace. In a seminar on 10 May 2007, McFate presented a plan that was influential in establishing the HTS project. She pointed out that the U.S. military spends almost nothing on social science research that would be crucial to the success of operations, and recommended an approach to closing the cultural knowledge gap.

The article really does not add much to the anthropological discussion of anthropology’s potential role in Iraq, certainly nothing beyond what’s already been covered on this site and on others, like Savage Minds. In fact, the article is so general that the only reason I provide a link to it is to note that this mostly internal discussion in our field is only leaking out in very limited forms. I’m left perplexed by the article, frankly. Either Beeman does not know about, or chooses not to write with any recognition of much more extensive debate in our field, including some much stronger opinions than those he relays: basically, that there is a conflict, with some anthropologists doing HTS-related work, even when not experts in the regions involved, and other anthropologists criticizing them and pushing for a resolution to prohibit intelligence gathering for counter-insurgency by anthropologists.

I usually like Beeman’s columns, but this one left me flat. If this is how discussions within our field are being relayed to those outside it, then the effect of any critiques of these programs is liable to be negligible. The debate sounds polarized and, oddly, comes out muffled, balanced between those who want to use anthropology to reduce casualties and those who worry that anthropology will be used as a weapon. Do we use anthropology for good or for evil? Is that really all this debate is about, because if that’s it, then it’s a pretty easy debate to resolve: I’m for good and against evil. But I think that if the debate is reduced to this flat of a discussion, the general public isn’t going to really understand why its still going on. ‘What are you guys carrying on about? Just use anthropology to decrease casualties and don’t assassinate people. What’s your problem?’

In this case, I think a simple moral framing actually robs the public account of much that is engaging in this debate. The methodological, pragmatic, structural, and other difficulties of doing serious ethnography, and of using anthropological knowledge in these settings, the likelihood of becoming ethically compromised, of having data compromised by its use, and the epistemological challenges of anthropology in war are, in my opinion, also amenable to popular accounts. And these all make the simple, do-we-use-anthropology-as-a-weapon-or-to-save-lives framing, actually more interesting because it becomes clear the question is not so simple.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. 7 April, 2008 2:07 am


    Just to make it clear, “O” is my middle initial, not a part of an Irish sounding last name. My name is William Orman Beeman, or William O. Beeman for short.

    This article, written for Le Monde Diplomatique at their request was cut down by the editors from a longer manuscript that covered much more debate in the field, and included opinions from four other anthropologists. This is one of the difficulties in writing for the popular press. One is at the mercy of editors, who put their own titles on the articles, and frequently eliminate material that is necessary for the fuller understanding of an issue.

  2. gregdowney permalink
    7 April, 2008 11:10 am

    Prof. Beeman is exactly right, and I get what I deserve for blogging last thing before bed. I knew his name sounded funny to me as I wrote it, the rhythm off, but I chalked it up to the festivities surrounding my 40th birthday weekend. I’ve taken the liberty of editing the original post to correct it, but I also want to apologize. I have no excuse other than frozen margaritas for my inability to notice the obvious problem.

    The thing that Prof. Beeman points out in his comment is precisely one of the details that turns some people off to making public press statements; even with the peer review process, we’re pretty used to controlling in academe what gets published in our names. In most popular media, however, we end up getting severely edited, sometimes in ways that undermine our most important points. Prof. Beeman has been, no doubt, incredibly resilient to this sort of process as he’s continued to find ways to get his points out and has not been so frustrated by these editing processes that he’s just entirely withdrawn.

    I’d love to see the original piece he wrote, before it was edited down (could we post it on Culture Matters if it’s not already somewhere else?). I suspect that most of us in the discipline would find the original much more interesting and wonder why on earth an editor would take out precisely the points that only someone knowledgeable of the internal debates in our field and the ethnographic editor can make. So how to deal with these media editing processes that frustrate these goals? I hope I wasn’t too critical of the original piece because it’s no surprise to me that the original got watered down.

    My own much more limited experience with the media, including CNN and a production company with National Geographic, have been sobering, especially the editing process. In particular, my first experience working on a documentary on racism with a CNN team that visited Brazil (along with three other countries) in 1994 was harrowing. The interviewer seemed to want to get me to say that black Brazilians were not proud of being black. I thought that this was not accurate although I could see how an American might think that at first glance, so I kept trying to redirect the interviewer; ‘Well, I wouldn’t say that they’re not proud, it’s just that an explicitly Afrocentric political or cultural movement hasn’t gotten off the ground like it has in the US because of the way that black culture is integrated into the mainstream, blah blah blah blah…’

    The interviewer was having none of this, and she kept circling back to the question, ‘So do black Brazilians have less pride in being black?’ She must have done it three or four times before I fell for it. Me: ‘Well you could say that black Brazilians don’t have the same racial pride as black Americans, BUT blah blah blah…’ Got me! You know what happened. They edited out starting just before the ‘but’ (which of course went on to say that this would not be a very good way of describing attitudes about race in Brazil). Then the interviewer gave this very serious introduction about how researchers studying Brazil say that black Brazilians have no racial pride. Cut to Greg Downey, Anthropologist, ‘You could say that black Brazilians don’t have the same racial pride as black Americans.’ Or something just like this.

    When I saw the video, I nearly choked. The interviewer and editing had made it look like I was saying the opposite of what I repeatedly tried to say. Brilliant on their part in a kind of blockhead sort of way. It was a lesson in media that I will never forget — never say anything, no matter how qualified, that you would not want to hear as a soundbite later. I had the same thing almost happen to me during a documentary on fight clubs when the interviewer clearly wanted to push the hydraulic interpretation of the phenomenon, that it was people who had ‘pent up aggression’ because they couldn’t punch their bosses at the software company, so they ‘took it out’ on each other. I thought it was claptrap, so I had to be very careful to concede NOTHING to his point on camera in a way that could be edited out of context.

    The point of all this is just to say that anthropologists are being encouraged, by our peers, by our universities, and by funding agencies, to really get engaged in public debates. There was recently a bit of snark on the Aus Anthro Society mailing list, for example, asking why more anthropologists weren’t making public statements about recent interventions in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities. But it’s HARD to make public statements: it’s hard to get them published, they get edited up in ways that we’re not always happy with, we get quoted out of context, and a host of other problems. Most anthropologists care very much about how we word things. We tend to write carefully (unless we’re tired and blogging after too many margaritas), and we’re not always keen to have someone else ‘fix’ what we write.

    I’m glad Prof. Beeman is out there writing about the Middle East, the HTS and other issues. I feel like this particular piece left me flat, unlike many of his others (search for other works by him from the Alternet piece if you want to see more; just click on his byline). I suspect, especially after his comment, that I would have much preferred the longer version of this than the one that appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique. But Prof. Beeman’s piece also highlights the challenges of getting our views out; it’s not just the need to write for a popular audience — we have to get the material past the editors and onto the pages in the first place.

  3. nursel permalink
    7 April, 2008 12:55 pm

    Anthropologist can disseminate their research&opinions to the public through alternative platforms like internet blogs etc without being edited; instead of so quickly giving up on the idea of engaging in broader public debates. In some cases they have the responsiblity to speak up; like in the Northern Territory intervention in Australia.


  1. Anthropology, Tribal Politics, and Iraq « Neuroanthropology
  2. Savage Minds: Notes and Queries in Anthropology — A Group Blog » Around the Web
  3. A antropologia como arma dos militares « direitos e humanos
  4. Abu-Lughod on the Nakba « Khaldoun
  5. Anthropologists in the public sphere « Culture Matters
  6. Anthropologists Engaging with Media | Savage Minds Backup

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