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29 October 2009

Thoughts on an Answer to the Previous Question

The previous question being "How can (Should?) anthropologists help the communities they work with?" More broadly, the question is, should we try to make the world a "better" place and how? The question is difficult to phrase without seeming idealistic, but I hope my meaning comes across.
I really appreciate the answers I received from Stacie and Josh (see comments on the previous post), and I'm still thinking about how to work those into my own conceptions. Here are some of my own thoughts:
1) I reject the premise that we can or should do nothing. Doing nothing is still doing something, that is, it's a political and moral choice that has consequences and repercussions. Even research for research's sake has consequences - we interact with a community, we write up our findings, we build a career based on our research, we talk to people about our research and all of these have not-insignificant consequences.
2) With that in mind, the only options are to a) intentionally reduce your impact as much as you can so as to limit the repercussions or b) attempt to direct your research toward some benefit.
3) If you choose option a), that's fine, but you still have to recognize the possibility that your research may have larger and unintended consequences. In which case, you'll have to take a more active role. If you choose b) then you have to recognize the possibility that your research may be used in ways that you don't approve and actively resist those uses.
4) If you choose option b) then you have to figure out a) What tools do you have? What are their potentials and their limitations? b) What is your ethical stance? and c) How effective is your research?
5) Anthropology has a set of tools including: a holistic perspective, a deep cultural knowledge about our communities, high resolution informations on large scale issues, the ability to compare cross-culturally, and the ability to translate cross-culturally (let me know if you can think of any more).
6) Ethically, you have to consider why you're conducting this research, where does the funding come from, who does it benefit and how. You also have to look at your own personal and professional history to see how it might interact with the community and the issues.
7) Much of the work of anthropologists is fairly ineffective, which, in some cases, may be a good thing. Most of the time research is simply published in an academic journal or book, recommendations are given and information is "disseminated" (a word I'm beginning to loathe). If you want your research to be effective, you're going to have to go beyond these activities - you'll have to advocate, reach out to the public, build networks, critique, etc. Sometimes you'll have to do one of these, sometimes you'll have to do several. I am convinced that any project that goes in with the idea of "doing X for this group" or of "helping this group do X" will fail. It will fail for two reasons, first, because it is always external. Even if X comes from community members it will still be only a partial representation of what the community wants or needs. Second, it is always teleological. Nobody can really predict how their research will turn out or the consequences of that research. Case study books in applied anthropology are full of these kinds of projects, and they tend to read like tragedies where nobody really gets anything from the project (except maybe lessons learned for the researcher).

In a world where powerful forces (capitalism, imperialism, ethnocentrism, etc.) are driving unprecedented cultural (and biological) homogenization, it seems to me that one of the most politically positive acts one can do is to propagate and promote Difference. This implies a 2 pronged strategy, advocacy for marginal groups and critique (or resistance to) dominant groups. That's where I stand now, and for this I am inspired by Bateson, Deleuze and Guattari, Escobar, Connolly, and DeLanda among many others I can't think of right now.

25 October 2009

How can (Should?) Anthropologists Try to Help the People We Work With?

This is the question that I struggle with perennially, and I'm confident that I'll never find a satisfactory answer. I think it's important to try, but I'm afraid I'll have to live with some degree of ethical ambiguity.
Here I am hoping to collect some different answers to the question in order to better understand how Anthropologists view themselves and perhaps find some ideas that resonate with my own. Please contribute whatever thoughts you might have - even if you're not an anthropologist (the question actually applies more broadly to all types of activism/advocacy).
Thanks in advance!

19 October 2009

Why I am Opposed to Military Anthropology

I feel I need to make a statement. I realize it won't be read by many people, and that those who do read it will likely agree with me. However, I want to go on record with my very visceral opposition to Military anthropology. That way, should there be a need, I can refer back here and show that there is some basis for my feelings.

In recent years the field of anthropology has been abuzz with discussions and debates about the use of anthropology in the military invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan in the context of the Human Terrain System (HTS) (a good source for critical perspectives on these issues is Max Forte's Zero Anthropology blog, formerly Open Anthropology. Also see the Network of Concerned Anthropologists). The HTS has been active in other fronts as well, but Iraq and Afghanistan are the most obvious applications of the model. The primary argument on the side of the HTS is that they do not carry weapons, they don't kill anyone, they don't assist with operations or intelligence gathering, and that their research actually helps reduce armed engagement and casualties on both sides.
First of all, contrary to those claims, some opponents have argued that the anthropologists (and other social scientists) involved in the HTS do in fact provide key information for targeting operations. Secondly, the claim that the HTS effectively reduces casualties is unfounded and strongly disputed.
However, my opposition to the HTS is even more fundamental than that. The premise of the HTS is that it makes a military invasion and occupation more humane. Let me repeat makes a Military INVASION and OCCUPATION more humane. Are they idiots? Do they not see the basic contradiction contained in that premise? Or do they really just use that argument as a mask for using anthropology as a tool for oppression?
It's the same argument they use to support Doctors and Psychologists assisting with torture - they make the torture more humane. How would you feel about going to a Doctor whose main credential is that s/he worked with the CIA on humane torture methods (as if that isn't a contradiction in itself).
Even if the HTS could prove that they reduce casualties, even if they were clearly not engaged in targeting, the fact that they work for the US military and provide information for military goals (which will always be oppressive) makes the HTS fundamentally unethical.
Why not turn the tables? Should anthropologists work for the insurgents in these countries to oppose the US military? Would the military be open to that if it could be "proven" that those insurgent anthropologists reduced casualties?
Or think of this. How would you feel if some foreigon power, let's say the Taliban just to be provocative, invaded the US and then brought in a team of Taliban Anthropologists to learn about our culture and make the Taliban presence more humane? Would you go up to those Taliban Anthropologists and thank them for reducing casualties? How would you feel about anthropologists after that experience?
Of course, I'm not saying that anthropologists should work for insurgents or the Taliban - but I'd urge anyone who supports the HTS to think about that potential. Military anthropology - in whatever guise - is oppressive, damaging to the field and unethical. That is why I am opposed to Military Anthropology.

16 October 2009

My Philosophy, In Brief

My social and political philosophy teacher back at KU told us that a philosophy proceeds through various levels. Metaphysics is at the top, and it informs Ontology (the nature of being), which informs Epistemology (the nature of knowing), which informs a whole lot of other things (including ethics, but I'll save all that for another post). Since we've been discussing this kind of thing a lot in my classes, and since I've been struggling with the questions on my own recently, I'm going to post a really brief outline of my own philosophical framework using these three levels.

To put it simply I am a Realist. That is, I do believe that there is a world "out there" independent of my consciousness. This is in contrast to solipsism which, as I see it, simply degenerates into nonsense. There's a whole lot more to my Realism than I want to go into here - ask if you want more depth.

I'm interested in a processual ontology. I see the universe as consisting of relationships and processes rather than objects or essences. I need to do more research on this, but right now I'm really interested in Manuel de Landa's assemblage theory.

Here is were it gets tricky. While I believe that the world does exist independent of my mind, I also believe that my knowledge of that world is shaped my my own interactions with it and by my ideas about it. I think it is impossible to separate myself from whatever phenomenon I may be studying. However, I don't think that my act of studying Determines the nature of the phenomena. That puts me somewhere in the middle of the subjective/objective spectrum with a slight leaning toward constructivism.

That's it for now. I might post some more on these issues a little later. Feel free to discuss.
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