Interrogation is not a social science

Image of Gillian Tett

In 10 days, one of the more colourful tribal gatherings of the academic world will take place: several thousand “social anthropologists” will descend on Montreal, for the annual gathering of the American Anthropological Association. To the outside world, the proceedings might look rather esoteric, if not downright hippy. In the 109 years since the AAA was founded, social anthropologists have tended to study far-flung cultures, or topics such as the cultural meaning of food.

But when the anthropology “tribe” assembles this year, it will have a new topic to discuss: its links with “power” – or, at least, the US military. Last month, the AAA posted an article from Nature on its website that claimed that the US military has been employing the services of anthropologists in Afghanistan to improve its data-gathering techniques. In particular, during the past five years, it has apparently run so-called “human terrain analysis” programmes, to make its Afghan operations more culturally sensitive.

No surprise there, then. Western intelligence groups have been using academics for years: just think of all the psychiatrists employed in the cold war. If nothing else, the past decade of western (mis)adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown just how badly the western governments need to improve their understanding of “other” cultures.

But what has made this latest revelation so controversial is that Julia Bowers, the anthropologist named by Nature, was not just writing tomes about Afghan marriage rituals, she was aiding interrogations too. Or as Nature reported her telling a conference: “Typically human-terrain analysis is more of a human data-gathering and mapping approach…” but cultural expertise was “key in the support I was providing to the interrogator to develop a relationship with the detainee”. While, crucially, it is unclear how widespread this practice might be, the revelation has reawakened the debate about just how far social scientists should allow themselves to aid the elite.

The contradictions are manifest. During recent decades, academic anthropologists – like sociologists – have tended to cultivate a fairly anti-authoritarian air. This is partly because they have often studied poor communities, but also because the very process of analysing how social systems work tends to leave one pretty cynical about the state and its dominant ideologies. Or, as the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss often observed, anthropologists tend to be “outsiders”, precisely because they are observers.

In practice, the discipline has often been entangled with power. Indeed, the whole idea of studying “other cultures” first emerged during the British Empire, when 19th-century colonial administrators, missionaries and educators decided that they needed to understand the “natives”. Sometimes this was for overt military ends. More often, though, there was a more subtle power game: Victorian anthropologists took it for granted that “native” cultures were inferior and “primitive”, which justified “civilising” missions.

In the early 20th century, some academics reacted against this legacy, and, after the second world war, the discipline came to deplore this colonial heritage. But in the 1960s, rumours surfaced that some anthropologists were being recruited by the CIA in Vietnam. In 1970, Eric Wolf, then chair of the AAA ethics committee, declared that social scientists were being recruited to assist the military in dealing with counterinsurgency in Thailand. “These programs comprise efforts at the manipulation of people on a giant scale and intertwine straightforward anthropological research with overt and covert counter-insurgency activities in such a way as to threaten the future of anthropological research,” he warned. And, according to a new book, Weaponizing Anthropology, by David Price, in recent decades the CIA has been funding social science programmes, and using the analysis for unlikely ends, such as designing policy at the Abu Ghraib detention centre.

This probably only affects a tiny minority of anthropologists. But it has sparked horror. Indeed, the AAA now operates a so-called “rapid response” team to offer ethical advice. This supports anthropologists who want to help, say, aid programmes – but not interrogations. “Advising people on how to extract information from people who don’t want information extracted, that is the antithesis of what the anthropological encounter is supposed to look like,” Hugh Gusterson, a network leader, has observed. But the pressures will not die away soon; not when budgets are being cut, jobs are scarce and governments (and corporations) are desperate to get better information about culture. To put it another way, precisely because anthropologists are good at analysing cultures and power structures, their research is of interest to people in… er… power. It is a bitter irony; even – or especially – in Afghanistan.

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