The utility of ethnography for understanding (the Russo-Ukrainian) war

Ilmari Käihkö


The Russo-Ukrainian war raises the question about the utility of ethnography in understanding interstate war. As anthropology and sociology have historically punched below their weight when it comes to understanding interstate war and warfare, much of the academic study of war has been occupied by political science. In this article I discuss why this is unfortunate, yet not inevitable. I also discuss three strengths of ethnography in studying war. First, ethnography helps us to restore ambiguity into polarized understandings of war. Second, ethnography can assist us in understanding strategy because of its focus on people and the societies we constitute. Third, ethnography helps with the ethical responsibility of giving war a human face. I conclude by arguing that war is too important to be left to generals and political scientists, but that this is inevitable if ethnographers continue to distance themselves from the study of war.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/723015