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Reviewed by:
  • Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State
  • Sverker Finnström
David H. Price , Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State. Petrolia and Oakland, CA: CounterPunch and AK Press, 2011. 219 pp.

With dedications to Laura Nader, David H. Price delivers a powerful anthropological manifesto. From Nader, he acknowledges, we have been taught to study up and confront power. More, as Weaponizing Anthropology proves an example of, Nader tells us that this means that we will have to work harder than those aligned with power. In Price's up-front analysis, the powerful are the social scientists behind the Human Terrain program of the US armed forces who have adapted (should I say abducted?) anthropology for their counterinsurgency warfare ambitions. As Price shows beyond any doubt, their ambitions are intellectually soiled, representing a kind of anthropology that without self-insight is a bad version of the obsolete cataloguing exercises of George Peter Murdock and the like-minded. Moreover, the Human Terrain anthropologists have the power, backed by secrecy and military might, to ignore the usual academic standards of peer-review, critical reflection, and intellectual openness. In short, they are as intellectually closed as the societal and cultural descriptions they present. At the same time, military people today claim the role as global humanitarians. Here the Human Terrain program is seen as merely a tool in the global war on terror, with mainstream US media acting as "cheerleaders for the program" (95). In the process, ethical research standards as we have come to know them no longer exist. Torture has been accepted by the powerful as they set out to defend Western liberal democracy, but also, it seems, as a tool in the very production of ethnographic data. In the war-zone, the Human Terrain proponents say, the anthropologist has to finish his interview within no more than seven minutes, before sniper attacks can be expected. "How deep an understanding, rapport or trust develops in 7 [End Page 979] minutes?" asks Price (158), adding that uniformed Human Terrain social scientists have killed and even cold-bloodedly executed hand-cuffed informants, and they have themselves been killed in action-slash-fieldwork.

Price exposes real ethical and political consequences for anthropology, and in his critical assessment he revisits well-known anthropological debates. Even if the colonial legacy in anthropology has been discussed endlessly, Price's work proves this to be perhaps more important than ever. "Just as it was becoming passé to remark on anthropology's status as colonialism's wanton stepchild," he states in the opening sentence of the book, "George Bush's Terror War rediscovered old militarized uses for culture, and invigorated new modernist dreams of harnessing anthropology and culture for the domination of others." Here is again a political program of global ambitions that presents a fundamental ethical dilemma for the everyday work of the anthropologist. But such a program is not only ethically indefensible and politically questionable. It is also epistemologically faulty, as Price shows, because it is an anthropological program that "creates something misshapenly Frankenstinean" (182). A rich history of anthropological thought, debate, and controversy is glossed over as something completely homogenous, a manual set for use, and in the process "profound epistemological differences" are "cannibalized" (183). Anthropology becomes a monster, and Price expends quite some effort in identifying the intellectual roots for this monstrous project. Even with well-respected, old-time anthropologists, Price can delineate how the Human Terrain anthropologists not only misrepresent their thoughts, but many do it in ways that are pure plagiarism. No references are given, context is removed, and the usual peer-review process is made nearly impossible. Anthropology becomes a closed business. Price does a great job in identifying and disclosing all those misquoted sources. Victor Turner is one such old-time giant whose writings are shamelessly decontextualized and cannibalized by the Human Terrain anthropologists. So, in presenting a devastating critique of the intellectual and scientific substandard of anthropology in service of the US armed forces, Price's work will be very instructive for students who today set out to learn the crafts of anthropology but all too often and rather uncritically refer to Google...