Monday, December 3, 2012

Guest Blog Posting by Kerry Fosher of Practicing Military Anthropology

Practicing Military Anthropology
Edited by Robert Rubinstein, Kerry Fosher, and Clementine Fujimura

Sometime in 2008, I realized I was spending a third of every conference presentation talking about things I don’t do in the course of my work with the U.S. military. I do not spy. I do not do classified research. I do not work for the Human Terrain System. I do not collect information about the people who live in places where U.S. forces are deployed. Many anthropologists who worked with military and intelligence organizations were experiencing similar problems. We joked about wearing t-shirts or displaying posters listing all the things we don’t do so that we could spend our presentation time on what other anthropologists were able to, our work and research. The idea for the book, Practicing Military Anthropology, began in those discussions of how to provide better information about what it means to be a military anthropologist.

Between 2006 and 2008, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) began to take note of an increasing interest in anthropologists and anthropology on the part of military and intelligence organizations.  As the discipline became aware of the Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS) concept, much of the discussion came to center around that program. Many in the discipline felt that HTS epitomized the problems that arise when anthropologists get involved with government organizations, especially those involved with spying and the use of force.  Many conference panels on militarization, military anthropology, ethics, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were organized. Anthropologists spoke to the press and began to publish their concerns about the connection of anthropologists to the military. The first report from the AAA’s Commission on the Engagement with U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities (CEUSSIC), which tried to introduce some of the scope of work anthropologists were doing in the security sector, was nearly eclipsed by the discipline’s new awareness of HTS and the questions it raised. The work of CEUSSIC was extended to allow a more thorough investigation of HTS.

As I and other anthropologists involved with the military participated in these discussions, it became clear that we were swimming upstream against strong assumptions. Almost every discussion was sent spinning off in strange directions by the assumption that military organizations only wanted was anthropologists to do fieldwork or act as spies. The discipline had little frame of reference for thinking through the significant ethical, professional, theoretical, and methodological questions our work raised. Much of the critique was based on macro-level assessments of the problematic nature of working within flawed institutions. Relatively little incorporated the sorts of empirically grounded knowledge that the discipline normally prioritizes. It became clear that if we wanted to have a more robust discussion, we would need to do more than react to assumptions and assertions. We also needed to provide information on what we actually do and how we think about it.

When Syracuse University’s Anthropology Department approached me and Brian Selmeski with a generous offer to support a symposium about military anthropology, the timing was perfect. It was not only a chance to produce the accounts of practice we felt were so urgently needed. It also allowed us to bring together old and new colleagues to think about what it might mean to work with military and intelligence organizations in the future and the broader issues the topic raised. In particular, it was a chance to engage with anthropologists who had examined some of this realm before, people like my co-authors Robert and Clementine, Anna Simons, and Jessica Turnley. As discussions and work on the book progressed, it became apparent that there was no one set of conditions or decisions that led people to work with the military. People had varying degrees of interest in the things that were preoccupying people at AAA meetings and located themselves differently within those debates. In fact, despite the book’s title, some of the authors, including myself, do not think of ourselves as military anthropologists. Rather than trying to standardize what the authors addressed, we chose to let the differences be part of the message of the book. Although other demands on his time caused Brian to have to leave the project toward the end, in that choice and in other ways his influence is still felt in the volume.

Although it was not a focus in most of the chapters, one of the interesting side effects of the interaction among the authors was the discussion about how the focus on military anthropology raised (sometimes resurrected) issues for other aspects of anthropology. In the concluding chapter of the volume, Robert raises some significant issues for how the debates reflect on work in the academy. Unsurprisingly, we also found that the same issues of the potential for bias, enabling flawed institutions, requirements for ongoing decision-making, and compromises necessary to influence policy apply in anthropological advocacy and applied or practicing projects across domains. Some of these domains, such medicine, public health, work with NGOs, human rights actions, etc., are seen as topically and contextually less problematic in the discipline and, therefore, receive less scrutiny. The work of fully articulating these commonalities remains to be done.

For several authors it was a period of intense personal and professional decision-making. Almost all of us changed jobs or focus during the development of the book. So, while there is diversity within the book, the chapters also represent snapshots of lives that were simultaneously shaped by and shaping the practitioner context.  Many of us were in the midst of intensive work to create or significantly reshape the programs and institutions in which we worked. Some of us had been brought into the organizations to instigate such changes. Others were taking advantage of what we knew to be a momentary wobble in powerful institutional processes in order to insert changes.

Far from being constrained by the dictates of the state, some of us had fundamental disagreements about what kinds of engagement were appropriate, about the legitimacy of critiques being made of military anthropology, even about what anthropological theories to teach to military personnel.  Those disagreements took place among people who were almost constantly on travel, away from home for long periods of time, tired and cranky. Yet the discussions remained civil and constructive.

The civility of this process and the similar atmosphere in CEUSSIC matter greatly. At a time when the debates were at their most polemic among military anthropologists and the broader discipline, it has been possible to create places where difficult questions can be asked and possible answers discussed in ways that do not a priori categorize and exclude certain participants. It also has been possible to expand discussion outside of the frames proposed by the loudest voices, frames that do not always take the complexity of practice into account. Practicing Military Anthropology represents one such effort, moving beyond assertions that rely on one reductionist view of anthropologists in military contexts and delving into the complexity of practice that must be understood for informed debate to take place.

 Practicing Military Anthropology is available to purchase through Kumarian Press and retails for $24.95. To request review and/or exam copies, email Jennifer at  


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