Anthropology and the Military

At its annual meeting, scholarly association criticizes a Defense Department program that uses social science as a strategic weapon.
December 4, 2009

PHILADELPHIA -- A U.S. military program that uses social science field research to gain a strategic advantage in conflict zones does not reflect the ethical standards of the American Anthropological Association, a commission of the association said in a report released Thursday at its annual meeting here.

The program, called the Human Terrain System, embeds social scientists with U.S. Army or Marine units in combat zones, where they collect ethnographic data on the human populations there. Field researchers submit their findings to military and civilian “analysts” back home, who use those data to create reports on a wide range of topics -- such as social customs and key local conflicts and personalities -- for military decision makers. As of April, the two-year-old program had 27 teams deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More are likely to be dispatched soon as part of President Obama’s proposed “civilian surge,” the report notes.

As counterterrorism and counterinsurgency have emerged as a significant part of modern warfare, the report says, the U.S. military has expressed growing interest in using social scientific methods -- such as semi-structured and open-ended interviews, polling and surveys, text analysis, and participant-observation -- to develop a better understanding of the cultural landscapes in parts of the world where it is trying to get strategic footholds.

But the authors cringed at the notion of field researchers conducting “anthropology” for a program with such an ill-defined ethical framework. “When ethnographic investigation is determined by military missions, not subject to external review, where data collection occurs in the context of war, integrated into the goals of counterinsurgency, and in a potentially coercive environment -- all characteristic factors of the [Human Terrain System] concept and its application -- it can no longer be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology,” the association wrote in its report.

It was not the first time the controversial program has come up at the association's annual meeting. The association has spoken out against the Human Terrain System before, and its some of its members have cited it as an example of how military ties can corrupt scholarship.

The authors of the report, however, restated at a press conference the association's position that the goals of anthropology and the military are not necessarily irreconcilable. “We’re not talking about, ‘Can anthropologists work for the military in any capacity?’ ” said David Price, an associate professor of anthropology of Saint Martin's University and one of the report’s principal authors. “We’re talking [only] about Human Terrain here.”

While the Defense Department had expressed a willingness to reexamine the program’s ethical framework, Price said,“To the extent to which it relies on misshapen forms of fieldwork, which is really the core of what it’s doing, it cannot be salvaged.”

The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The purpose of the commission was “to provide a substantive, detailed, rounded point of reference” on a program about which little -- including how much it costs and who funds it -- is publicly known, according to Robert Albro of American University, the commission chair.

The point was not, Albro said, to assail the ethical integrity of the Defense Department in general, nor that of the individuals involved in the program, nor that of the various institutions, such as the Georgia Tech Research Institute, that are doing research on its behalf.

One of the things the commission found out was that only a tiny fraction of the people employed by the Human Terrain System -- 11 out of 417 -- hold advanced degrees in anthropology (six hold doctorates). Forty-nine hold any sort of doctoral degree and 135 have master’s degrees in fields that include sociology, psychology and political science. Of course, not every employee of the program plays the role of social scientist; the five-person field teams also include military personnel, and the program’s payroll includes significant back-end administrative and technical staff.

Educational backgrounds aside, the Human Terrain System ensigns go through a standard training program, the details of which fueled some of the commission’s ethical concerns.

“People with whom we spoke who have gone through the program raised concerns about the match between recruitment and training as well as the quality and relevance of the training received,” the commission’s authors write. They cited several specific complaints, notably that those in charge of the training lacked knowledge on Iraq and Afghanistan, did not adequately prepare the trainees for combat conditions, and combined their tutorials on proper data collection with lessons on how to “shape the environment” in strategically favorable ways.

At Thursday's press conference, Albro said that the commission hoped to distinguish between the anthropology supported by the American Anthropological Association and the pseudo-anthropology being conducted by the Human Terrain System teams. “Once you can’t distinguish between its intelligence, tactical, [and] data functions … the circumstances of collection cannot be ethnographic or anthropological,” he said.

“There’s no way we can say, definitively, you can meet your obligations as a professional anthropologist [while] participating in the program,” Albro added.


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