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.

Gillian Tett: Interrogation is not a social science – FT.com (sadly paywalled for most)
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