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Survey on anthropology & the military

3 August, 2009

In a 1990 article on anthropological ethics, Philippe Bourgois wrote,

We have come a long way from our European forebears (especially the British) who flew into colonial war zones under the auspices of colonial offices to interview ‘natives’ and write ‘how-to-administer-more-humanely’ reports for government bureaucracies intent on increasing ‘administrative’ efficiency and lowering costs. Today, few self-respecting anthropologists would condone the exercise of anthropology at the service of a world superpower or as a complement to espionage (Bourgois 1990:44).

It would appear that either Bourgois was a bit too cavalier in assuming that all of his fellow anthropologists shared his opinions about serving an occupying power, or perhaps anthropology has just changed a lot over the past two decades, because, while it’s not quite accepted by the disciplinary mainstream, there are indeed self-respecting anthropologists who are participating in the Human Terrain System and in other efforts to put anthropological knowledge at the service of an occupying superpower in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was one of my honours students, Nikki Kuper, who brought Bourgois’ article to my attention.  Nikki is doing a very interesting research project on the relationship between anthropology and the military, looking in particular at the Human Terrain System as the current flashpoint for debate about research ethics and about our historical relationship with colonialism.  And she’s just launched a survey to canvass academic opinions on the topic.  It takes about 15 minutes (I timed it myself), so if you’ve got an opinion about the relationship between anthropology, the military, and research ethics, go to and tell Nikki what you think.

[reference: Philippe Bourgois, 1990. “Confronting Anthropological Ethics: Ethnographic Lessons from Central America.”  Journal of Peace Research 27(1) p.43-54.]

–L.L. Wynn

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 8 August, 2009 5:26 pm

    I suppose just about every discipline is ethnocentric, and sometimes we are aware of it than others. I would think the military count as an ethnic group too

  2. daniel burton permalink
    11 August, 2009 7:46 am

    I’m not sure what I think about this program… obviously the residue of colonial collaboration is scary, but isn’t there something to be said for working to establish mutually beneficial arrangements for iraqis/afghanis and the armed forces? isn’t this preferable to ignorance and mutual distrust ruling the day?

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