The latest New York Times features an article titled Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones. It describes a new program called Human Terrain Team, which assigns anthropologists and other social scientists to U.S. combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan. Team members use their expertise to study local populations and assist U.S. troops in creating solutions that will benefit both the local communities and U.S. operations. Supporters of the program say that this strategy has produced concrete results and has helped the U.S. Army in assisting and understanding local communities.
On the other hand, there is a body of opposition, fronted by anthropology professionals, who are concerned that anthropology will be used to exploit and harm the target populations and to serve the interests of the military and intelligence agencies. One anthropology professor went so far as to say that participants the program “will end up harming the entire discipline in the long run.”
I did some further research and it turns out that there has been a longstanding debate on the line between ethnographic study and counter-insurgency that goes back to World War I. A history of this debate and its consequences on anthropology and the American Anthropological Association written by David Price, a professor at St. Martin’s College in Washington State, U.S.A. and a leading critic of anthropology’s role in intelligence, can be read here. More information and debate can be found on anthropology blogs such as Antropologi.info and Savageminds.org. This has led to a petition created by an ad hoc group, the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, towards the development and promotion of an ethical anthropology.
It’s a very interesting debate, and it appears that it speaks a lot about anthropology’s ongoing identity crisis. I don’t really know enough about it to take a position yet, but I think this is definitely an indication of how relevant anthropology is, has been, and will continue to be in current affairs.