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Kelly Fosher’s “Under Construction: Making Homeland Security at the Local Level”

16 February, 2009

Merriden Varrall, our PhD student who is doing her research on Chinese foreign policy, forwarded a review of Under Construction: Making Homeland Security at the Local Level, a dissertation-turned-book by Kelly Fosher published by the University of Chicago Press. Writing in The Times Higher, Jeremy Keenan rubbishes the book as “the epitome of all that anthropology should not be,” and Merriden’s email seemed to have a worried undertone as to whether all research on government apparatuses may meet with censure for possible complicity. For Keenan does not say much about the book itself; for him, “Fosher’s relationship with the US military-intelligence-security establishment”, i.e. the fact that she is employed as “the US Marine Corps’ command social scientist at the Marine Corps Base at Quantico, Virginia” (having decapitalised “command”, Keenan makes some cheap fun of what a “command social scientist” might be) makes it impossible to take any of her claims of a detached observation seriously.

This may be so, but I would still be interested in what the book says. Those who have opposed any engagement with the military by anthropologists have tended to say that they would not produce any critical studies of the establishment anyway. Yet here is someone who, apparently, claims to have tried to do just that with the  apparatus of “homeland security.” Clearly this is a very important thing to do, and it is probably impossible from the outside. On the other hand studying it from the inside, without being kicked out, is likely to entail compromises and ethical dilemmas (whose description, according to Keenan, make the book “an unrewarding read”). I haven’t read the book myself, but I am looking forward to reading at least a serious review.

Any research of government apparatuses, assuming that to some extent it has to be done from the inside, can attract accusations of complicity. Sure, this is especially so if the apparatus is a military one and if the researcher is actually employed by it. Still, I can hardly think of more important tasks for anthropology than studying precisely these mechanisms of power from the inside.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Robert Albro permalink
    20 July, 2009 6:31 am

    Briefly, I agree that it seems well nigh impossible for research on powerful institutions to receive a reasonable hearing from people who have concluded that they don’t like powerful institutions. A view, of course, not particularly relevant to the urgency for such research and a grounded evaluation of its quality and contributions. For example, the author’s present employment (with the Marine Corp) is a development that took place well after the author’s research for the present ethnography — in any event on a different subject than the Marine Corps. So the idea in the Keenan review appears to suggest an ex post facto queering of the story to appease her present employers?! This is of course lazy (and fuzzy) reasoning. Public discussion of such issues, and the research on them, seems hamstrung by such rose colored glasses as Keenan’s. Pity.

    But, a small issue, the author’s name is “Kerry Fosher” and the book’s title is, Under Construction: Making Homeland Security at the Local Level (2009).

  2. Robert Albro permalink
    20 July, 2009 6:32 am

    Briefly, I agree that it seems well nigh impossible for research on powerful institutions to receive a reasonable hearing from people who have concluded that they don’t like powerful institutions. A view, of course, not particularly relevant to the urgency for such research and a grounded evaluation of its quality and contributions. For example, the author’s present employment (with the Marine Corps) is a development that took place well after the author’s research for the present ethnography — in any event on a different subject than the Marine Corps. So the idea in the Keenan review appears to suggest an ex post facto queering of the story to appease her present employers?! This is of course lazy (and fuzzy) reasoning. Public discussion of such issues, and the research on them, seems hamstrung by such rose colored glasses as Keenan’s. Pity.

    But, a small issue, the author’s name is “Kerry Fosher” and the book’s title is, Under Construction: Making Homeland Security at the Local Level (2009).

  3. 20 July, 2009 9:59 pm

    Thanks for the correction. Both times!

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