Ethics of applied anthropology

The Human Terrain System (HTS) was a US military program that ran from February 2007 through until September 2014. Growing out of a ‘cultural turn’ in the US military, it enlisted social scientists, including anthropologists, to provide cultural knowledge during the counterinsurgency war in Iraq and Afghanistan (Forte, 2011). The argument was that cultural information would be used for military occupations anyway and, by at least engaging with the military, anthropologists could give better information for the military. This could lead to less violence by the military because of better understanding of how local cultures work (2011, p. 150).

While the program was greeted with favourable press at first, it quickly started receiving major criticism, particularly from anthropologists (2011). The American Anthropological Association (AAA) released statements stating that the HTS was incompatible with the AAA’s code of ethics on a range of fronts. In the end, partly because of the efforts of the AAA and others, there were very few anthropologists in the program.

Understandably a very large number of anthropologists were horrified by the concept of ‘embedded’ ethnographers working within the US counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Particularly given how the discipline sees itself in the wake of the Postcolonial and Marxist criticisms of the discipline in the 60s and 70s: that it was a ‘handmaiden’ to colonialism & imperialism (Forte, 2011, p. 150). While the relationship between anthropological research and colonial administration within colonised countries has been well documented, the complex relationships between anthropology and the military-industrial complex are not as widely discussed.

David H. Price is an American anthropologist who has a series of books looking at some of these varied connections, in the US context, from World War I and through the Cold War. Especially during the two world wars, there were anthropologists who were actively involved with the national intelligence organisations, including as spies, language instructors and strategic analysts (Price, 2008). During the McCarthy era of the Cold War (1940s and 50s), anthropologists were targeted and put under surveillance by the FBI, creating a difficult atmosphere for activist or radical anthropological writing (Price, 2004). As the Cold War developed, more subtle relationships between the CIA and anthropology evolved (Price, 2016),

In Cold War Anthropology (2016) Price discusses what he calls the dual use of anthropology, which has long been a term known to natural scientists (particularly chemists and physicists) in which ‘basic’ research is often used for military and commercial uses, and vice versa. He argues that such interconnection, witting or unwitting, is often not talked about in the case of anthropology. While he discusses one example of a CIA agent going undercover as an anthropologist in the field, a lot of the influence came through the funding opportunities that were shaped by Pentagon and CIA funds, often as gifts to universities channelled through ‘front organisations’ or well-known ‘neutral’ philanthropic organisations. Funding structures can easily shape the kinds of research being undertaken, sometimes to the advantage (or not) of the CIA and US military. In fact the AAA’s first code of ethics was developed in the wake of the ‘Thai Affair’ in which anthropologists contributed to counterinsurgency operations in Thailand in the 1970s (Price, 2016).

Obviously not all anthropologists were involved or complicit in the manoeuvring of the CIA and the Pentagon during the Cold War, but it is a good reminder that the political economy of knowledge production can have profound influences on academic research, including anthropology.


Forte, M.C., 2011. The Human Terrain System and Anthropology: A Review of Ongoing Public Debates. American Anthropologist 113, 149–153.

Price, D.H., 2016. Cold War anthropology: the CIA, the Pentagon, and the growth of dual use anthropology. Duke University Press, Durham.

Price, D.H., 2008. Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War. Duke University Press.

Price, D.H., 2004. Threatening anthropology: Mccarthyism and the FBI’s surveillance of activist anthropologists. Duke University Press, Durham.

1 thought on “Ethics of applied anthropology”

Leave a Reply to Are We All Pawns in a Simulated Reality? Ethical conundrums in Surveillance Capitalism – Anthrozine Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s