Anthropologists and the Military’s Human Terrain System

hts.jpgThe U.S. Army is moving forward with a program called the Human Terrain System. This program attaches anthropologists to operational units in Iraq to both learn about and help the military navigate the complex cultural issues they are encountering.

One anthropologist that is a member of the HTS project is Marcus Griffin, on a year long leave from his job teaching anthropology at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. Marcus has been blogging about his experience working with the army. It’s rare that anthropologists get this kind of insider look at what it’s like to work directly with the military. Surprise! Despite what all your teachers have told you, working with the military is NOT evil….


I am a bit speechless, but maybe I can express it in blogging (now that I have this outlet).

So the current issue of Anthropology News has an article about biological anthropologists being upset with the Leakey Foundation for having journalist Nicholas Wade as one of their speakers (get the scoop here: Nicholas Wade Speaks to Leakey Audience: Productive Dialogue or Dangerous Advocacy?

That is not what I’m upset about. I agree, biological determinism should be questioned, critiqued, put into context, as necessary. What I’m upset about is this bit, from our AAA president, who states that (here I’m quoting from the aforelinked article):

‘biology is, in many ways, “separated out from the corpus of anthropology.”

Goodman recognizes that this practice, in part, has created an environment in which Nicholas Wade declares that many social scientists feel they needn’t bother at all with evolution or genetics. “They are ignoring the theory that explains all of biology,” says Wade, “of which humans are definitely a part.”

Because anthropologists of various subfields may too often see the foundations of human behavior and diversity through the limited lens of their own discipline, Goodman thinks “we really need a new science in which we look at how all of those things are interrelated…a science of development, a science of intersecting processes.”’

End quote. Read that carefully, boys and girls. The president of AAA (a biological anthropologist in his own right) seems to be suggesting that we need a new approach, a holistic approach, even, to the human condition.

Forgive me, I thought that was Anthropology.

Welcome New Blogger, Donna Lanclos

We are just chock full of new bloggers this week. The latest addition to the ranks is Donna Lanclos. Donna currently lives in North Carolina. While she is a cultural anthropologist and folklorist by graduate training, she claims to be part archaeologist by marriage. She is the author of the book At Play in Belfast: Children’s Folklore and Identities in Northern Ireland (2003 Rutgers University Press).

Check out her first post The Sentimental Anthropologist.

Welcome, Donna!

The Sentimental Anthropologist

For my first post, I thought I’d present something I wrote quite  a while ago, but still feels like a very current take on my feelings about anthropology.  It was originally written (and delivered) as a commencement speech, in the spring of 2000:

I did my fieldwork in Northern Ireland, and I worked mostly with primary school kids.  These were working-class kids, who lived in the neighborhoods hardest hit by the violence and poverty engendered by and at least partly responsible for the Troubles, the Protestant/Catholic divide.  One of the Protestant schools I was working in was in a neighborhood dominated by a particular paramilitary group, and at one point there was a feud within that group.  This feud spilled over into the homelives of the kids I worked with; two of the boys at the school were kept home for a few weeks because they had witnessed the beating of their dads and uncles, and in particular because they knew to where those men had fled, once the attacks were over.

I had never felt more useless in my enire life.  What good were my observations and analysis of kids’ lives, when there was nothing I could do to stop the violence that tore their families apart.  If I really wanted to effect change, why wasn’t I a social worker?  Someone really doing something about all of this.

As luck would have it, one of my colleagues at Queen’s University Belfast was a social-worker turned anthropologist.  I told him precisely how useless I felt, how meaningless I was finding anthropology at that moment, and wondered aloud what on earth I thought I was doing, anyway.  Noel smiled, because he had had those exact feelings about being a social worker.  “In social work,” he told me, “You only have the energy to deal with what people do.  In anthropology, you can try to change what people think.”

It should be clear to those who stuck it out in the undergraduate major, and crystal for those finishing grad school that we’re not in this for the money.  This is not a lucrative career track, the job that will get you the sweet pension plan.  Of course, there are very few jobs like that anywhere anymore, so I guess anthropology has been ahead of the curve in requiring its students–through the sheer brutality of its job market–to be flexible, to have a number of skills, and to be able to work situations to their advantage even in less than ideal conditions.  Being an anthropologist is, in its own way, perfect training for the kinds of lives we are increasingly living these days, ones fraught with change, and saturated with uncertainty.

I think that it is telling that when someone asks me, “what do you do?”  I say, I’m an anthropologist.  Not, “I *do* anthropology,” but I *am* an anthropologist.  As if it were a state of being, a way of moving through the world.  It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.  It is our gift as anthropologists to have a chance to access the everyday life that lies behind the totalizing categories we encounter so often in politics, economics, history, popular culture.  Whether we choose to examine the lives of our own communities, or of those far away from and foreign to us, we are engaging in an exercise of understanding, and sometimes we are even successful. 

Anthropology is the ultimate big-picture discipline.  In its American incarnation, it encompasses the whole of human existence, social and biological, past and present.  Studying it can’t help but change your perspective, if only to be the one at the cocktail party telling stories about how “they do it in other countries/did it in other times/say it in exotic places.”  Nowadays one can be an anthropologist in one’s own backyard, not just in the far-off places of our early disciplinary history.  I like to think that there is something for everyone in anthropology, if they would only give it a chance.  

For at least the last ten years –probably more, come to think of it, I have thought that anthropology was my passion.  My interest in it is nearly legendary in my family–my mother claims I was using a physical anthropology textbook as a picture book when I was just two, and I went to college as a freshman declared in anthropology, emphasis archaeology.  My marriage has been punctuated by fieldwork, first my husband’s in Ecuador, then my own in Northern Ireland.  My friends are anthropologists, my family has never known me to be anything else.  What else could anthropology be but the central passion in my life?

But where within anthropology does my passion reside?  I thought it was in the life of the traveler, the professional justification to go wherever we wanted because “anthropologists do fieldwork.”  I thought it was the sense that I was coming closer to understanding not just what people do in their everyday lives, but why.  I think I am still attracted by those things, but I have recently decided that the practice of anthropology gives a potentially greater gift.

One of the beauties of anthropology is that once you are an anthropologist, everyone is your teacher.  It doesn’t take a college degree, a high school diploma, or any formal schooling at all to make someone a potential teacher.  We start off in seminars, sure, reading books, discussing articles, writing papers.  But it is an institutional part of anthropology that you cannot just learn from books and the university setting.  You have to go out and live a life, somewhere, you have to have at least some first-hand experience, to inform your perspective, to flesh out your theories, to make what you have to say grounded in the real world, whichever part of that you have chosen to scrutinize.  Our real teachers are the people who used to be called, “Informants;” they are our age, older than we are, and in my case, far far younger.  My teachers were kids, none much older than twelve, and some as young as four.  They were Protestants and Catholics, some from mixed families; they attended segregated schools, and integrated schools.  Very few lived in integrated neighborhoods.  Some taught me by being open to me from the day we met.  Some taught me by avoiding me the entire time I was there.  Others insisted on treating me the way that they treated all adults at school (from a distance), while still others never cut me a break, never allowed me any more status than they would grant one of their peers.  It was on the setting of the playgrounds that I saw that these kids had to be concerned about the Protestant/Catholic divide, and all the attendant symbols surrounding Irish and British Nationalism.  They had to because to ignore the schism that defined so much of their everyday lives would be a devastatingly dangerous decision–one that they really did not have the power to make.  But their attention to that divide, and their concerns about what “the other side” was doing, were motivated by far more basic concerns, about the safety of their families, their friends, themselves, the security of their homes, their place in the world as they knew it then, and whether there would be any place at all for them in their future.

It was a gift for me to realize that I can learn from anyone.  That my growth as a person does not stop once I am no longer classified formally as “a student.”  All that it requires is that I continue to be around people, that I continue to pay attention, that I continue to care.  My most recent teacher in this regard is my daughter, Lily.  She died in October 1999, three weeks after she was born, and in her perfect but far-too-short life taught me some of the most important lessons I will ever learn about what is important in life.  My passion is for the people I love, my family and my friends, and my intention is to build a life that recognizes the importance of those people.  Whether or not I choose to go on and build a career in anthropology, I will always be an anthropologist.  I will also always be a daughter, a sister, a friend, a wife, a mother.  These parts of me coexist, enrich each other, and let me experience all of the pain and the joy that is life. 

Welcome new blogger, Tony Waters

Tony Waters has just uploaded his first blog post to, “Is There A Point To Learning Another Language?” Check it out. Tony comes to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he is a professor, though he is currently teaching in Germany. His books include: Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007)

Welcome Tony!

Is there a point to learning another language?

I am teaching at a German University which trains people to work internationally. This means that classes are held in both German and English, students do internships abroad, and all students are assumed to be fluent in both English and German. Last night, one of the students who did an internship in the UK last summer, indicated that she had heard a British manager indicate that it was not necessary for English speakers to learn a second language, as everyone else is learning English. This of course is a common—and perhaps realistic—attitude among Americans, Australians, and British working internationally, particularly in business and science. Others do learn English, and learn it well. Which raises the question for those of us who are native English speakers, why should we bother to learn a foreign language when everyone else is seemingly learning English? On a certain level, I know that the businessperson my student cited is right. There is an international world out there exemplified by CNN with its multi-national English reading staff. Business people and scientists who jet around the world, holding meetings, negotiating, and pontificating (in English) are also part of this set. There are also substantial middle classes in Europe and Asia which are routinely bi- or tri-lingual, and use their skills at resort hotels around the world. But the international world is more than conference centers and vacation spots. Irrespective of the new found strength of international CNN English, most decision-making does not take place in the international settings English speakers know from quick business or tourist travels. Finer decision-making still takes place in Chinese, Russian, Spanish, German, Japanese, Arabic, or the range of other world languages that do not share English’s privileged status. After the formal negotiation is finished, people still retreat into the ever more private world of their home language, effectively excluding the native English speaker. Does the mono-lingual English speaker lose out on something when this happens?

So at what point does a company insist on foreign language skills from Americans or other native English speakers in hiring, and assignments? Do you insist that the American, Australian, or British person enroll in language courses when they are assigned to a country where English is widely spoken as a second language, such as in Holland, Germany, Scandinavia, India, or increasingly, China? Or does the company save the cost, and take advantage of the willingness of others to study English? It seems that international labor markets are increasingly leaning towards letting us native English speakers take advantage of our situation. My fear though is that this creates an illusion of cultural competency derived simply from the fact that we know airports and hotels, not from the deeper understandings of the cultures of others, which can only be acquired from language study.

I will admit to a bias towards language learning, while also acknowledging that it is a frustrating, tedious, and occasionally embarrassing process. The lessons language learning teaches in humility, and even mental acuity, are valuable. And in the long run, language acquisition is one of the most satisfying experiences one can have. In large part this is because as anthropologists are acutely aware, language proficiency provides a window into culture of others. But are these human justifications enough to change the utilitarian attitudes of a business and scientific world where language is a means to an end, and not an end itself? And given the fact that so many others are willing to acquire English, how will this effect the integration of English-speaking people into the international business world in the long run?

More Business lessons from the circus

stephen_peer_niagara.jpgPeople that have known me for a long time know that I often use circus skills as a metaphor for life and business. When I was learning how to rope walk, my instructor at the time was fond of quoting his instructor (imitating his indeterminate accent) that would always yell at him: “Never jump off the rope! The rope is life!”  What he was referring to is a bad and dangerous habit that young rope walkers can develop. When someone feels like they are about to fall off the rope in practice, they will usually go ahead and step off rather than let themselves fall. It seems to make sense at the time because you’re usually only a couple of feet off the ground, so you just step off and start over again. However, the difficulty is that you create a sense memory to step off the rope when falling, rather than training yourself to fall and grabbing it as you go down. This is the difference between falling off 2 feet from the ground and falling off a rope at 60ft.  At 60 feet off the ground, stepping off has distinct disadvantages compared to the fall and grab method.

And this relates to business how?
People will do the same thing when they’re presenting material that they don’t feel quite confident about. We’ve all heard this a hundred times before; someone is about to give a presentation and they apologize for it in some way. The information’s not quite finished, or that the ideas are not as big as they want them to be. This is the equivalent of jumping off the rope at the first moment you feel like you’re about to fall. It’s the worst thing you can do for the same reasons. It doesn’t matter whether you are just talking to colleagues in the office or you’re giving a presentation to the CEO, it’s the same thing as training yourself to let the fall off the rope happen at 2 feet or 60. You have to commit and believe and trust in fact that what you have to say is important and worthwhile and there are people around that are spotting you so you won’t take that catastrophic fall from a simple 2 feet.

Just a thought.