Dual use anthropology and the politics of history

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © David H. Price. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.2.029


Dual use anthropology and the politics of history

David H. PRICE, St. Martin’s University

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

I thank Professors Ilana Feldman, Donna Goldstein, Laura Nader, and Katherine Verdery for their comments on Cold War anthropology, comments that overlap and diverge in the ways one expects when responding to a text that provokes. I hope readers interested in these issues will download a free copy of the book at the Knowledge Unlatched website.1

I’m never quite sure about venues linking reader, text, and author; mostly accepting that once a text is complete the author is, if not dead, then replaced by the text and readers. I suppose at best, the author can add a bit of context, at worse they start yelling at readers to get off their lawn. As for the context, I’d add that this was a slow book to research and write, but I worked on other things during the two decades since it began, with an accidental other book, on World War II growing out of what I’d thought was its introductory chapter (Price 2008), and a short book on anthropology and the Terror Wars responding to current political developments (Price 2011).[468]

While a long book, Cold War anthropology is cut back from an initial sprawling 312,000 words to its final 170,000 words. At one point Ken Wissoker at Duke asked me if I wanted to do a two-volume book, but I figured no one wanted to read anything that long, and authors have narrative responsibilities to readers, so I radically cut back the text. Probably a quarter of the 140,000 cut words were just overly-wordy writing, and of the remaining cut words, maybe a quarter were long quotes from documents that I abbreviated, summarized, or cut. The remainder of the cuts came from examples of Cold War interactions, some of a sort well-represented elsewhere in the book, others reduced five-page narrative accounts to just a few sentences of text. Other cuts came from historical narratives situating fieldwork, theoretical contributions, and lives of these anthropologists. It has seldom been my experience leaving a three-and-a-half-hour movie that I wished the director hadn’t cut out a chunk of the film, so on balance I’m glad I did it.

The roots of this book came from my wondering as a graduate student about the influences that area study centers and foundations had on anthropologists and others; there were also stories from other anthropologists about, and a few of my own experiences with, US governmental personnel contacting anthropologists during or after field research. Like other anthropologists, I wondered about the impacts of these interactions on the field, but I also wondered whether such influences could be documented. As Goldstein notes, others have suspected many of the types of interactions I document—yet the work needed to search for records of these relationships was missing. I wrote this book because I didn’t understand the extent of, or how these interfaces between anthropologists and national security apparatus functioned, and if no one else was going to document these details, I figured I should try—I just had no idea it would take me two decades to do so.

The Cora Du Bois quote on the complicated chains of responsibility and guilt stretching beyond our own awareness, discussed by Feldman, comes from a passage I read almost thirty years ago that stuck with me and served as a focal point for much of the writing of this book. In some sense, exploring dynamics of unintended consequences was a recurrent connecting theme throughout the writing of the book. What still strikes me as so unusual about this Du Bois passage wasn’t that an anthropologist had been accidentally involved in such a deadly chain of events but that she would so bluntly share such honest thoughts about these disquieting events.

I first met Laura Nader in the mid-1990s, not long after she taught her seminar that led to the “Phantom Factor” essay, and while I had already begun some of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and archival work, her critical sensibilities, and her representation of the invisibility of it all, especially during the pre-Camelot days, became a strong influence on my project. As Nader notes, during the 1950s and pre–Camelot ’60s, many of these anthropological encounters with Cold War forces were public yet invisible—when Du Bois declined the position at Berkeley over the loyalty oath, her reasons were public (covered in the American Anthropological Association’s 1951 News Bulletin), yet largely noticed by the discipline (see Price 2004: 297–303). It doesn’t surprise me that Nader had no awareness of this history or even memories of signing the document when hired at Berkeley—yet another procedural bit of paperwork in the bureaucratization of joining a new workplace; yet unlike others in the discipline, Nader’s growing focus on power [469]relations helped make these open secrets objects of study for the discipline, not afterthoughts or excluded details.

Verdery’s reflections on the ways that her own ethnographic work fed larger non-worker-utopian narratives of Eastern Europe during the Cold War is a nice extension of many of the book’s themes. I really like the way she situates her own Rumanian Cold War–era fieldwork and writings within a broader context of public-private foundations and the possible uses of her own representations of the Communist world. I assume that we rarely operate outside these contingencies. Verdery’s interpretation of her own work aligns with some of the ways I think about my own ethnographic fieldwork studying irrigation in Middle East in the late 1980s and early 1990s. With Title VI foreign language funding for Arabic programs, and National Science Foundation supported fieldwork, and tuition at a public university underwritten by the federal government at levels that made it possible to earn a doctorate without accumulating debt the size of an Iowa home mortgage. The state had uses for this gambit; in some sense it got what it paid for, while I got what I was after. This federal funding in part sought to establish a brain trust, or even student beneficiaries I would later teach who would contribute to or join governmental projects. I suppose this is somewhat the same in all nations, what is different here, is the United States’ devotion to warfare; while other countries tend to practice diplomacy or develop aid programs less directly tied to counterinsurgent outcomes that seep into so much of the United States’ nonmilitary aid projects.

Goldstein asks if we aren’t all complicit. My answer is yes, a central point of the book is that these dual use dynamics draw all into the orbit of military and intelligence agencies, though I don’t argue that we are all complicit in the same ways. I’m less interested in “guilt” than Goldstein supposes, nor do I pretend to have access to “unmitigated truths” or objective measures of these relationships—what I do have is a lot of archival and FOIA data that moves beyond the idle speculation of these relationships, data that does not speak for itself and needs interpretation. I also keep my political orientation on the surface. My interest in documenting these often-unrecognized disciplinary alignments with militarized projects is to critically evaluate past engagements to better think about our discipline’s present and future. This is because I see many elements of these engagements as recurrent (e.g., needing culture experts for counterinsurgency, language expertise, claims of peacekeeping, etc.). This raises the stakes for critically evaluating past engagements and for developing the sorts of metanarratives of power that can run against the grain of now standard postmodern approaches that wander in an overgrowth of ideology while missing larger structures.

Different readers have differing responses to a metanarrative of anthropologists’ engagements with military and intelligence agencies. Nader’s conception of studying up presupposes metanarratives of power, and as she notes, this work is an extension of these principles. My questioning the value of postmodern approaches precluding a primacy of political economy in shaping disciplinary practices obviously isn’t for everyone. As Goldstein notes with disappointment, “this is not the nuanced work of institutional discourses or patterns of power that Foucauldian scholars provide.” The reasons for this are multiple but it is primarily because such institutional discourse frequently becomes lost in the particular details of the own [470]narratives in ways that obscure political economic forces, and reduce the likelihood of confronting recurrent abuses of power by the CIA, the Pentagon, and others.

Since the post-2001 renewed efforts to link anthropology with military and intelligence projects, I have had many interactions with anthropologists reluctant to consider recurrent historical abuses of the CIA as relevant for discussions of contemporary engagements, explicitly rooting this reluctance in postmodern rejections of metanarratives. I have found a tendency to personalize these engagements as if good people can course correct flawed organizations tied to projects of empire; other times, ideographic features of these engagements are thought to override historical trends—as some argued with the Human Terrain Teams project. Obviously metanarratives can risk blinding as much as enlightening, but if we cannot conceptually hold the possibility of identifying recurrent abuses of power, we have no hope of breaking free from things like the CIA’s recurrent abuses of power.

Years ago a friend told me that “nuance” was her trigger word. She said that her departmental chair used it all the time to avoid confronting all sorts of systemic problems facing their department; it had become a catchall escape clause to avoid confronting systemic problems. I learned years ago that complaints of lack of nuance are stylized disciplinary tropes that we can all use whenever we don’t like something; I can complain about Geertz’s obvious lack of nuance in his failures to situate the production of his own work within the National Security setting that he wrote out of the foreground and background. And Goldstein can complain about my lack of attention to presenting Geertz’s reasons for ignoring this, and so on. Others, like Kieran Healy, argue nuance complaints are roadblocks preventing pattern recognition and theory building (Healy n.d.). It is true, if I wanted to write a longer long book, I could have kept more text explicating Clifford Geertz’s reasons for not publicly situating his interactions with the National Security State, Margaret Mead’s rationalizations for not writing a report that examined anthropologists’ counterinsurgency work in Thailand, or Clyde Kluckhohn’s thoughts about covertly directing Harvard dissertation research to meet the intelligence needs of the CIA. But that wasn’t the primary aim of this project. It’s not that these dimensions are not important, I saw my challenge instead to be to present a narrative that documented and mapped the extent of such interactions because I found it lacking in our disciplinary history, and this lack presenting political risks for our present and future.

Because I wrote this history to evaluate different interactions with—or different stances towards—military and intelligence agencies, some interactions are necessarily evaluated favorably, and others negatively. The determining factor in my critique was not whether I knew or liked them as people. My critique of Geertz’s failures to acknowledge the political power relations that were the backdrop of his fieldwork are not because I never worked with him, nor do I support Marvin Harris’ opposition to anthropologists contributing to counterinsurgency operations because I knew him. If anything, this theorized causal relationship is inverted: I have long been drawn to work with people with similar worldviews and with theoretical positions that expose power relations. That my analysis would favor those advocating studying up and criticize those whose work resisted this is axiomatic.

It’s not that I had no contact with Geertz. Geertz spoke with me about his time at CENIS and his awareness that some people there worked on classified projects, [471]that there seemed to be “two doors” where some like him did work without classified status, and others worked on projects they couldn’t discuss. Unlike the many anthropologists discussed in the book who were either unwitting or fully witting of such national security-linked activities, Geertz had awareness of some of these political connections, yet he ignored (then, and even later when he wrote After the fact [1995]) the ways that this milieu impacted the context of his work, and in the case of works like Agricultural involution, his analysis (1963).

Goldstein finds me guilty of “judging these canonical anthropological actors by today’s standards, with little patience or sympathy for historical timeframe.” I do, of course, devote a lot of space establishing this historical timeframe, but I also argue that the sort of historicist assertion made here by Goldstein dismisses the existence of the contemporary analysis making similar critiques, which undermines such claims that my analysis is too presentist (2016: 53). While Geertz apparently saw nothing compromising in an Area Center like CENIS’s ties to various political Cold War projects, some of his contemporaries, like Jerome Rausch, expressed the same sort of critique I follow. Likewise, my critique of Mead’s role in the Thai investigation was so broadly shared by many of her contemporaries that it contributed to her report’s rejection by the AAA membership (Rauch 1955; Price 2016: 106–8). As I argue in the book, “strictly ‘historicist’ positions necessarily champion and hegemonically elevate past voices from a dominant majority, most frequently aligned with power, over those from a marginalized minority” (2016: 53).

Goldstein claims I was afraid to write these things about Geertz while he was living. But I did not wait to publish my analysis of Geertz’s CENIS work until after his death, I sent Geertz a copy of my 2003 Critique of anthropology article where I first developed this critique (Price 2003). He didn’t like it, but he didn’t have to return from the dead to tell me so. Eric Wakin’s account of the Thai Affair, detailing Mead’s refusal to have the committee investigate anthropologists’ counterinsurgency work in Thailand, complete with an account of her angrily spitting on Joseph Jorgenson (Wakin 1992: 234), and of Mead ordering the destruction of the AAA’s records of her committee’s investigation, is instructive here. As Nader notes, the issues at the heart of the Thai Affair were personal for all who lived through them—and anthropology departments across the country were indeed in deep disagreement over these issues. I certainly don’t view myself outside these historical processes when analyzing them, but I do not shy away from trying to evaluate the ethical and political dimensions of these issues embroiled in this history.

One of the things I’ve tried to do with this trilogy is to bring the political dimensions to the fore of anthropology’s story—both the political context of the story and my own political critique. This creates a different sort of history than the work of George Stocking; yet I’d argue that Stocking’s own political story marked the carefully curated history he wrote, in ways that may not have always been obvious, yet there were omissions that powerfully formed his important narratives

Finally, I’d note that my recognition that the American militarized state has uses for the knowledge we produce is far from embracing a fatalist position. Anthropologists have more agency that we often realize. We have the power to develop critiques counter to those in power, and to ask our own questions; power to work outside the limitations of funding opportunities, and sometimes we simply have the power to say no. Though when comparing the state of American universities [472]today to that of the Cold War period covered in this book, we now find an academic-economic system built on the back of student debt where such possibilities of saying no becomes increasingly difficult. With the spread of and increasing reliance on military and intelligence programs within the academic sphere, the difficulties of this struggle may become ever more challenging, even as the stakes for the struggle rise.


American Anthropological Association. 1951. News Bulletin 5 (4): 5.

Geertz, Clifford. 1963. Agricultural involution. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———. 1995. After the fact. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Healy, Kieran. n.d. “Fuck Nuance.” Sociological Theory https://kieranhealy.org/files/papers/fuck-nuance.pdf.

Lee, Richard. 2016. “The anti-imperialist tradition in North American anthropology: Vietnam, the Left Academy, and the founding of ARPA” Dialectical Anthropology 40 (2): 59–67.

Price, David. 2003. “Subtle means and enticing carrots: The impact of funding on American Cold War anthropology.” Critique of Anthropology 23 (4): 373–401.

———. 2004. Threatening anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s surveillance of activist anthropologists. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

———. 2008. Anthropological intelligence: The deployment and neglect of American anthropology during the Second World War. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

———. 2011. Weaponizing anthropology: Social science in service of the militarized state. Petrolia, CA: CounterPunch Books.

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

Rauch, Jerome. 1955. “Area institute programs and African studies.” Journal of Negro Education 24 (4): 409–25.

Wakin, Eric. 1992. Anthropology goes to war: Professional ethics and counterinsurgency in Thailand. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.


David Price
Department of Society & Social Justice
Saint Martin’s University
5300 Pacific Ave.
Lacey, Washington 98503


1. Print versions of Cold War anthropology are available at normal outlets, and I have worked with Duke University Press to have a free electronic copy of the book available under a Creative Commons license as part of the Knowledge Unlatched Project. Readers can download a free copy of the book in a PDF format at the Knowledge Unlatched website (see http://www.oapen.org/search?identifier=604612%3Bkeyword%3D%22knowledge+unlatched%22).