Some thoughts as my additions to ethnography.com wind down

Hello Folks-

I have been avoiding writing much about the Human Terrain System since I am not an “official voice” of the program. Also, as I have written before, I don’t consider myself a scholar in any way. I don’t write (or desire to) create the usual peer reviewed materials. I am part of the long proud tradition of tradesmen… craftspeople. I am an anthropological handyman if you will. People have a problem or issue and I am happy and lucky enough to use my training to help them with a resolution.

But what to make of my next adventure? It is of course an adventure, albeit a very serious one. When I started this road a few months ago some issues were pretty academic. Now, 4 months later, people I have known have been killed and injured pursuing this commitment to an idea.

Its hard to put into words how it makes you feel. I have been a corporate person for many years, my friends and colleagues span the corporate and academic worlds. Few of us have ever considered that there is a chance of getting killed during the fieldwork.

So why am I doing this? God knows, the program has its warts, thats hardly a mystery. As far as the nattering of the Concerned Network Of Anthropologists go, (yea, I am looking at you Gusterson and González), I see you as bolstering your flagging careers on the backs on both the people of Iraq and my passed colleagues.

I think its important to say that never, as in not once, has a corporate or academic anthropologist ever given me a moments grief about my choice. Most are very supportive and even the most conservative express their reservations by saying “no, I am not comfortable with this, but I will be interested in seeing what your experience is..” See people, thats science. You question, you may or may not agree and you say “ok, lets wait and see what the data tells us.” Thats always a respectable position.

The objections to Social Scientists working the corporate or military sectors is a vocal minority at best. Look, its 2008: Marx is dead, global warming is real, tobacco causes cancer, fossils are not “gods little jokes” and the experiment of communism really, really didn’t work out. Get the hell over it already. Most of us like to work, own homes, play nintendo Wii and send the kids to college. Money, as opposed to clam shells, seems to be the primary method of making this happen.

Its not the money… life would be safer (and my base pay was higher) in silicon valley, I would have done it for far less than I am making. For me, I feel like after all my time in the corporate world, I have something to give back, I hope. I am wiser than I was the year I got out of grad school, meaning I have learned I don’t know everything. But i can say without modesty that with my teams, we have provided advice to companies that have saved or earned them many millions of dollars over the years.

Surely I can turn that skill to something more meaningful, and a longer lasting effect?

So thats why I am doing it. I need to put my money where my mouth is. Do I believe in the power of cultural understanding to prevent violence or not?

I do. Of course, I might be wrong. Thats just the way it goes with human endeavors. They are uncertain, dangerous, it seems often outright stupid, but we all plod on regardless. I like to think that most of us do it to our own drumbeat that is guided by what our gut tells us is the right thing to do.

Will this all blow up in my face? Maybe.

9 Responses to “Some thoughts as my additions to ethnography.com wind down”

  1. Dylan says:

    So the reason you want to go is to “give something back,” you need to put your money where your mouth is because you “believe in the power of cultural understanding to prevent violence.”

    Great sentiments, and while you don’t actually saw what it is youll actually be doing on your next adventure you do give the impression its with the military and perhaps in a place like iraq.

    If either of those is the case, I have one question, why do you feel you have to go abroad, and also work with the military to apply your believe in the power of cultural understanding to prevent violence?

    I would have thought there are a lot of places in the US that are in need of such persons as yourself. Violence and a lack of cultural understanding are certainly related here – just think school massacres, poverty and crime, gun violence, terrorism the list is long.

    From you words i get the impression you think your ideas are better served when applied to another nation and person than to your own. A somewhat revealing power relationship and glimpse into the mind of another.

    And yes “i am not comfortable with this.”

  2. mark says:

    I am indeed a social scientist with a Human Terrain Team headed to Iraq. I have written about HTS enough that I assume people already know what I do. If you look through the site you will find diverse opinions on the topic from our authors.

    It’s a fair question to ask: Why there and not here, why the military and not a non-profit? Historically anthropology has been seen as something you do outside of your home country, and I have always thought anthro’s should spend more time here. So its funny that we are a bit of the same side on this. There are a heap of crappy problems all over the world, more than enough to share.

    In my case, I have always been interested in applying what I learned as a Design Anthropologist and Strategist in the corporate world (anthropology is just a tool in my tool box) to the task of rebuilding and stabilizing an area. I have also always been interested in working with the military and in working with NGO’s (no one says you have to think small in this world). When I decided to make the jump from the corporate world to something were I felt I would have a lasting impact, the HTS program was getting into the news, and the goals of the program are a natural fit with my interests. So here I am, not a big mystery or shocker to anyone that I’ve known.

    Yes, school massacres, poverty, homelessness, Global warming, and that fact so many people in the US don’t have adequate health care are all important issues. There is no rating system for “sucks” (but I am starting to think Global Warming is quickly moving to the front of the pack). But those topics don’t draw my passion as much (at this time in my life), and people should only do what they are passionate about. Choosing to work on one important issue over the other does not diminish the importance of either. I have a friend that is a gifted teacher, and thrives in the environment of her students, to take her from that thing she is passionate about to what someone else felt was a more “worthy” topic would be a disservice to her and her students. If one of those area are your passion, then jump in feet first and don’t let someone tell you other wise.

    I’m only 46 and I tend to change my area of focus every 8 or 10 years, so I have a few more cycles to go before I shake off this mortal coil, who knows what I’ll do next.

    I am not sure what the revealing power relationship is you mention. Unless its the “there to promote US imperialism.” argument, in which case we’ll just have to agree to disagree. But I don’t start or end my days trying to figure out who I have power over or who has power over me. I just work, try to do a good job as what I do, make as few mistakes as I can (and if you can do your work without mistakes, hats off to you) and stay as long in a place as i think a) i can make a difference and b) I am happy and fulfilled in my work.

  3. Mike Innes says:

    Mark, kudos to you – for your curiosity, and for you contribution. Stay safe.

  4. Chris Albon says:

    Excellent post Mark. Stay safe out there!

  5. Dee says:

    Be safe, Mark! Thanks for the excellent post — it’s nice to see someone writing intelligently about HTS from an insider perspective…there’s far too little of this in the blogosphere, I’m afraid.

    Dee

  6. Tony says:

    There is a place for peer reviewed materials, and a place for edited materials. Continue to think about what you are doing (including the moral implications), and as the others say, stay safe. And maybe most importantly for anthropology, keep a diary. Your reflections and thoughts about what happens in Iraq are important for how anthropologists will think about military activity. I look forward to reading your diary someday in print!

  7. Dee says:

    I totally agree with Tony — the personal records that you keep will be invaluable for anthropologists trying to understand the fraught relationship between anthropology and the military. I’m looking forward to reading it too on day!

  8. Mark – I admire the philosophy you bring to your decisions, or at least the way you frame it for us. That tension between confident and confused, tentative and determined – that’s one mark of a good consultant, good ethnographer, a good person, even.

    It’s hard to imagine a sequence of events that would lead me to be on your pathway, but says absolutely nothing about the rightness of your path for you. And I think you’ve articulated that aspect of things mos’ awesomely!

  9. Dave K says:

    Make sure you collect good network data (and keep safe, of course).

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