Confronting the uses of anthropology

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Ilana Feldman. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.2.026


Confronting the uses of anthropology

Ilana FELDMAN, George Washington University

Comment on Price, David. 2016. Cold War anthropology: The CIA, the Pentagon, and the growth of dual use anthropology. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

“There is no end to the intricate chain of responsibility and guilt that the pursuit of even the most arcane social research involves” (Du Bois cited in Price 2016: 32). So wrote Cora Du Bois in response to the Japanese execution of five of her Indonesian informants during World War II. Hers was not a case of direct anthropological engagement with a war machine or intelligence apparatus. But the fact of Du Bois’ presence in these people’s lives was a contributing factor, in ways that she could not have anticipated, in their deaths. This wrenching story comes early in Cold War anthropology: The CIA, The Pentagon, and the growth of dual use anthropology (2016), David Price’s unflinching look at anthropological entanglements with the CIA and the defense establishment. His aim is to force the discipline, and those of us who make our professional homes here, to confront our historical and present complicity in the forms of violence that extend from those collaborations. Most of the book is about formal collaborations, many willing but some unwitting (as when people did not know the source of the funding for their research). But, as Price indicates by telling us Du Bois’ story early on, the question of anthropological complicity with state violence is not easily bounded.

Much of anthropology may be, to a certain extent, “dual use anthropology.” The colonial connections that were central to the early days of the discipline certainly indicate that it was dual use at its origin. So perhaps what Price is tracing is not so much the “growth” of dual use anthropology as its more recent iterations. In using the term dual use, drawn from the physical sciences, Price points to a blurring of [454]boundaries between basic and applied research. And he also connects it to the funding requirements of complex research projects. While the scale and cost of physics research is at a different magnitude than ethnographic research requirements, anthropologists also rely on (and are increasingly pushed by their universities to pursue) external funding, and it involves them also in questionable relationships. The heart of Cold War anthropology is a detailed, painstaking account of sources of funding, front organizations, and anthropological enlistments in intelligence-related work.

The first part of the book focuses on institutional relationships, the ways that universities and professional associations such as the American Anthropological Association (AAA) developed relationships with the intelligence community that emerged from World War II. In addition to providing a careful account of the details of these relationships, including the sharing of lists of anthropologists with the CIA, Price also explains the context and some of the lacunae that permitted these developments. He notes, in a discussion that remains relevant for today, that the AAA had a “proclivity to sidestep political concerns in favor of ethical considerations in ways that focused on professional ‘best practices’ for fieldwork yet ignored political outcomes of projects using anthropology and anthropologists” (Price 2016: 64). This way of distinguishing what issues were relevant for professional consideration did not, in fact, mean that anthropologists never took up political questions—and race was an easier matter for the AAA to engage than was the security state—but it did provide a language through which to justify particular nonengagements.

In the second part of the book, Price tells us the stories of individual anthropologists who worked with the CIA, traces the paths of CIA funding of anthropological research, and describes collective and individual refusals of security cooperation by anthropologists. Given the covert nature of some of these relationships, not all rumored connections could be confirmed and Price is extremely careful in his use of evidence. And he is able to make the extent of security state intrusion into anthropological practice clear. He documents anthropologists working openly as CIA analysts and others working covertly in the field, using their identity as anthropologists engaged in field research as cover for their intelligence work.

Among the many front organizations that funneled CIA funding to anthropologists, and others, the Asia Foundation (TAF) was one of the most significant. Price describes the Foundation’s collaboration with the AAA, the revelations by Ramparts and the New York Times that it was a CIA front, and the AAA’s somewhat tepid response to these revelations. The AAA archives reveal considerable internal disagreement about whether to sever ties with TAF. Beyond TAF, the range of organizations and research projects that received CIA funding is remarkable. The fact that many researchers were unaware of the source of their funding should be cause for concern for any researcher who requires support for their work.

More heartening is the fact that some anthropologists have challenged these connections explicitly and directly. Price describes the efforts of the Radical Caucus, and later Anthropologists for Radical Political Action, to publicize these entanglements and to compel the AAA to take a formal stance against the militarization of anthropology. He also documents the steps taken by the AAA to thwart these efforts, and to inhibit future challenges to association practice. As Lara Deeb [455]and Jessica Winegar (2015) have documented in relation to Middle East politics, efforts to constrain nondominant voices have been part of AAA practice around a range of issues.

Even with institutional constraints, the 1960s were a time when a significant segment of the anthropological community was willing to look head on at the entanglements of the discipline. One goal of Price’s book, and his larger body of work, seems to be to generate another moment of confrontation. What are the political obligations of anthropologists? Price points us to an ethics and politics of recognition and refusal: recognition of the company we are keeping, the entanglements we are abetting, the consequences of these involvements, and refusal to participate in projects, parties, and institutions that we claim to reject. He does not imagine that disciplinary purity is possible—then or now—but recognition of complicity surely is. And so too is resistance to that complicity. As he says: “Resistance is not futile. There is much in the history of anthropologists’ efforts to confront the militarization of the discipline that can inform campaigns to limit such encroachments” (Price 2016: 368).

The current political and academic climate imposes new challenges to pushing back against dual use anthropology. All universities, especially public ones, face heightened pressure to prove that their research is “useful.” And what it often means to be useful is to be immediately translatable into either commercial or security deployment. Universities are also placing increasing pressure on scholars to generate large sums of external funding. The “war on terror” has created new security state funding mechanisms, such as the defense department’s Minerva Research Initiative, which explicitly ties funding to responding to a set of outlined security-related interests. Formally nonpolitical sources of funding like the National Science Foundation (NSF) are being commanded by Congress to support research that is in “the national interest.” The NSF is without doubt doing its best to fulfill that requirement without comprising its core mission of promoting the best basic research possible, but congressional demand underscores the extent to which the idea that “good” research is necessarily dual use research has penetrated the political climate. To stand against these developments can generate accusations either of ivory tower elitism or that professors are “anti-American.”

In thinking about how to respond to these conditions, it is important to recognize that there is no settled position among scholars about the ethics and politics of either putting one’s research in the service of national security or defining one’s research agenda to meet these needs. From my vantage point in Washington, DC, where there is a great deal of movement between government and academia, it seems that many scholars see no problem with such entanglements. Anthropologists may be, in the main, less comfortable with them than scholars in some other social science fields, but they too are not united on a position. Anthropologists tend to like to think of ourselves as politically progressive. This is not universally true to be sure, but it is certainly the dominant position. Cold War anthropology challenges avowedly progressive scholars to develop better ways to act on these commitments.

What can anthropologists who want to reject such collaborations do? One answer might be to refuse politics in anthropological practice altogether, to try to claim a space of genuinely pure research. But this path seems doomed to fail for several reasons. The security state will not retreat from seeking assets in anthropology or [456]any other discipline it deems useful. Anthropological research is by its very nature entangled in a political world. Ethnographic accounts that try to bracket out these entanglements are not only politically irresponsible, they are academically impoverished. And anthropologists have long recognized an—at least ethical—obligation to the people with whom we work that makes it untenable to refuse to look at the consequences of our research.

If all research will be to a certain extent dual use research, then perhaps the better answer is to support some other uses. Without ever reducing anthropological research to a political agenda, the anthropological community can actively take up political engagements that are in line with our stated commitments. If we want to stand against militarism we have to, as Price insists, recognize our discipline’s complicity with the security state and find ways to refuse it. If we want to support the Movement for Black Lives we need to bring that support into our institutional structures: in classrooms, hiring practices, and professional relationships. If we want to stand against colonialism, we have to not just decry past colonial orders but also oppose current ones as well.

Anthropologists cannot stop the security state from having an interest in anthropological knowledge or in employing anthropologists. We cannot control the uses of our publically available research. But we can control how we respond to these efforts and uses. To this extent, the important lessons that anthropologists can take from David Price’s book are not just about what the intelligence apparatus did and does, but how anthropologists, and the AAA, have responded to these and other political challenges. Our responsibility, as individual anthropologists and as a collective through our professional association, is to openly debate the politics of our entanglements, to decide where we stand on these politics, and to act accordingly.


Deeb, Lara, and Jessica Winegar. 2015. Anthropology’s politics: Disciplining the Middle East. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Price, David H. 2016. Cold War anthropology: The CIA, the Pentagon, and the growth of dual use anthropology. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


Ilana Feldman
Department of Anthropology
George Washington University
2110 G St., NW
Washington, DC 20052