Anthroplogy and the Machine

Against the Current, No. 70, September/October 1997

Martin Ruane

ORAL TRADITION ATTRIBUTES the coining of the term “Teach-In” to a long-distance phone conversation between two anthropologists. In early 1965, Marshall Sahlins of the University of Michigan and Marvin Harris of Columbia University were attempting to formulate an action that would be both political and educational.

U-M faculty had originally proposed to have a one-day teaching strike, a moratorium on classes to call attention to issues surrounding the Vietnam War. State legislators and editorialists blasted the professors, reprisals were threatened, and it seemed prudent to seek a compromise.

The concerned faculty members wanted to articulate their opposition to the war in a manner that would remain true to their mission as teachers. Sahlins and Harris during their phone discussion came up with the term “Teach-In,” suggested by the “Sit-In,” a form of protest popularized by the Civil Rights movement.

The first Teach-In against the Vietnam war, held at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in March 1965, proved the ideal solution, an event that was at the same time an exercise in learning and a political protest. Its success was to spur a widespread series of similar events, bringing the anti-war message and the realities of U.S. “counter-insurgency” in Vietnam to other campuses.

It was not entirely surprising that one of the most innovative and effective strategies for opposing U.S. crimes in Vietnam was initiated by anthropologists. In a discipline sensitive to the problems facing peasant populations due to colonialism and the spread of western market interests, it was particularly difficult to accept at face value the rhetoric of U.S. geopolitical posturing.

By the 1960s many social scientists, naively or unknowingly, had been drawn into research dealing with the control of Third World economic development, “nation-building” and “counterinsurgency.” As the more brutal implications of U.S. policies became increasingly visible during the Vietnam conflict, such involvements could no longer be justified ethically.

Recognizing this was painful, even traumatic for many, leading directly to a serious questioning of the disinterested, value-neutral pretensions of research. Some poignant cases of this profound disillusionment and awakening occurred in social science disciplines like cultural anthropology, where a long-established method of “participant-observation” had deliberately cultivated a kind of empathy with the people being studied.

Then and Now

Today’s U of M community, however prompt with proper political sentiments, is less likely to mount a serious opposition to U.S. military intervention or imperial domination. Its anthropologists are as likely to consult for the World Bank and to intone the pious formulas of “sustainable development.” (Ann Arbor itself remains one of the most privileged and upscale communities in Michigan, while other parts of the state bear increasing marks of industrial decline.)

Meanwhile up the road in Detroit, at the inner city campus of Wayne State University, anthropology is advertising itself as the handmaiden of business. Offering a graduate program in “Business Anthropology,” the Anthropology Department draws more enrollments for its classes in this subfield than for its general introductory or its cultural courses.

Faculty members who have chosen to promote themselves in this area have pulled down major research grants from General Motors, Upjohn Pharmaceuticals and the U.S. Air Force. Business anthropology claims to be an application of the discipline which offers itself to corporations for various ends–among them the study of their own “internal culture,” the study of consumer culture, or the study of the local cultures where a business may want to locate, a kind of “cultural impact assessment.”

General Motors is one corporation that employs a full-time anthropologist to monitor its own internal culture. Upjohn on the other hand sought the aid of anthropologists in marketing Rogaine with monoxydil, the sales of which high-tech baldness remedy, it was felt, could benefit from a more “scientific” understanding of the significance of hair in American culture.

Supply Meets Demand

Yet the biggest plum so far for business anthropology–to the tune of $3 million!–has come from the United States Air Force. The principal investigator in the USAF-funded study is Professor Allen Batteau, a University of Chicago Ph.D who is fond of quoting the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, but is equally likely to be heard muttering a curse at Microsoft magnate Bill Gates.

Batteau’s project is called Readiness Assessment and Planning Tool Research (RAPTR–acronyms being very important in business anthropology). The purported aim of this research is to examine the internal culture of the Air Force, particularly among its civilian personnel.

Faced with post-Cold War downsizing and a severe morale problem, the Air Force apparently needs to learn a lesson in commonality and inclusion. Can a traditionally rigid military chain of command provide a secure dasein for its aging white collar staff?

It may seem puzzling why military brass would want $3 million worth of anthropological analysis, yet we ought to recognize that they are probably in as much panic as are many academics these days. Indeed irate taxpayers may have good reason to resent this expenditure: RAPTR’s main remedy for the internal cultural problems of the Air Force seems to be some new software aimed at “systems integration.”

We ought not wonder that some academics are putting the stress on marketability, as pulling in mega-grants does help assure the survival of marginal departments in very lean times. The question nonetheless remains: What kind of intellectual work is going to result from such a strategy? Is anthropology’s future limited to enhancing corporate efficiency and improved communication in state and military agencies?

Anthropology as a discipline has long emphasized the close observation and understanding of other cultures, particularly the traditional, more remote and distinctive among them. It has sought to illuminate human prehistory; to collect evidence about stateless and preindustrial societies; to depict the human condition in terms or long-term evolutionary and historical processes.

It thereby fosters, hopefully, the kind of critical (and sometimes, as the Teach-In experience showed, actively oppositional) awareness that requires such a broad scope of inquiry. If cultural anthropology now becomes an extension of business administration and motivational research, can this critical perspective be maintained?

Is our contemplation of human society and its possibilities to be limited to the institutions of existing capitalism? When intellectual life is subordinated to the interests of business and of imperialist objectives–as indeed much conservative dogma would insist it properly should be!–such questions must be asked.

Serving the Masters

Anthropology and other social science disciplines have of course served the foreign policy establishment during earlier periods. During the World War II era many anthropologists engaged in “national character” studies to assist in the conflict against the Axis powers. German and Japoanese society were looked at in terms of certain personality types which their cultures supposedly promoted–variously attributed to swaddling, toilet training or other customary child-rearing practices.

Of course this kind of study could be turned on our erstwhile allies, as was done with similar studies of Russian character. Then, in the war’s aftermath, much intellectual expertise was harnessed to the global task of containing Communism.

The policy-oriented research of the past, at least, was aimed at understanding other societies. By contrast much of the work of business anthropologists today seems like jargon in search of a subject matter, a “Read First” file for marketing some new software.

The Air Force study might result in more efficient inter-office communication, perhaps more touch-feely vocabulary in the service, but it hardly seems to offer any crucial new insight into human reality.

All of this leaves open the question of what role this research plays with respect to military objectives such as “rapid response” and the ability to conduct two was simultaneously in different “theaters.” It seems highly likely that however expensive a cultural analysis of the Air Force might be, it will do little to benefit the orphans of Tripoli, the amputees of Baghdad, or the former GIs suffering from “Gulf War syndrome.”

Conflicted Role of Academia

For many decades universities have occupied a position of contadiction and conflict. They form a crucial component of the military-industrial conflict and at the same time are promoted as sites of disinterested inquiry and debate, even of resistance.

Particularly in the large research universities, Pentagon and defense-related funding played a major role in the decades following the Second World War. Much of the rationale for expanding American education at all levels derived from the Sputnik shock of 1957. The growth in the university system that accompanied the coming of age of the baby boomers was in large part a response to the perceived Soviet challenge.

Yet with the arrival of that very generation, campuses became centers of much activist ferment–first with the Civil Rights movement, then opposition to the war in Vietnam.

A major issue raised by the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964 and frequently repeated throughout the student movement of the 1960s was the nature of the university as a “community of scholars.” Student activists and their faculty allies strongly opposed the corporate university with its heavy administration and its complicity in state and business activities.

Articulated by writers like Paul Goodman and movement leaders like Mario Savio, this argument sought to reinstate an ancient ideal of education as free from outside secular powers. Often utopian, this thinking nonetheless to genuine innovation and reforms.

During the years following Vietnam, many universities passed resolutions against military research on campus, or at least against its more lethal forms. At the same time efforts were made toward a more open and inclusive learning environment. Women and minorities were brought into the academy in greater numbers, often with sub-disciplinary programs of their own.

Such developments were of course imperfect and often quite disappointing in the long run, but we ought neither deny nor disparage these gains of the movement. At the same time we must also take inventory and evaluate our current situation.

Conclusion: A Necessary Debate

One of the big question marks left by the end of the Cold War has been the role of the military, and of foreign policy agencies generally, in academic life. As the elusive “peace dividend,” if there ever really was such a promise, recedes beyond the horizon, we are left wondering about the influence of imperialist power pursuits on the intellectual life of the country.

In fact a reduction of federal research funding in all areas has long been in effect and predates the Soviet collapse. Yet the military remains a significant presence on campus in various guises, from ROTC to some of the more lucrative weapons research to the faintly ludicrous USAF-funded study of its “internal culture.”

Even without the Communist enemy it seems the Pentagon and security agencies are persistently keeping their hands in higher education, controlling such things as scholarship money for foreign language study and disbursement of major research grants. This is all the more disturbing since, in the past, some of the most cogent opposition to U.S. imperial designs was campus-based, especially as criticism of the war in Vietnam mounted.

Universities today, of course, no longer present a major activist challenge to policy makers. As the late Abbie Hoffman remarked a decade ago: “Our university campuses have become hotbeds of social rest.”

Much work remains to be done in contesting the foreign policy interests still present in the university. A healthy intellectual life requires nothing less than a prompt and sustained debate on this question, a debate which should really be at the very center of academic life.