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Anthropology and espionage (2)

November 29, 2008

John Gledhill has kindly sent me the transcript of his recent BBC Radio 3 broadcast in which, to quote the BBC, he “charts his long-term research among the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, and discusses the ethics and responsibilities of anthropologists in the field as well as uncovering the overlapping history of anthropology and espionage”. I have pasted the transcript below with many thanks to John G.

Originally broadcast on 18 Nov 2008 23:00
Audio version freely available on BBC3 site

Anthropologists as Spies

When I tell people I’m an anthropologist, they often assume that I study tribal people with strange customs in some remote place unaffected by global capitalism. This isn’t true even of the indigenous people that I’ve studied in Mexico and it reflects a false perception of what anthropology is about. Anthropologists have also done fieldwork in capitalist plantations, urban slums and migrant camps. We study unionized workers, middle class families and powerful political and social elites. We study people, including indigenous people, who earn their livings crossing and re-crossing international borders, legally or illegally. We have also studied the inner workings of international organizations such as the World Bank and private and public corporations, including the BBC.

But whatever anthropologists study there is a common denominator, if we employ the ethnographic method of immersing ourselves in the day-to-day lives of our subjects for an extended period. We not only hear what people have to say, but get an opportunity to look closely at what they actually do. This is bound to include things that some people would have preferred us not to know about them. That is why professional anthropologists are asked to obey strict ethical guidelines about how they do research. We must explain the purpose of our research fully and truthfully to our research subjects, ensuring that their participation is based on “informed consent” every step of the way through our fieldwork. We can offer people we write about anonymity, but we have to be honest with them about possible limits on our ability to protect their identities from disclosure. The people we study may not always be able to judge the potential long-term impacts of our research upon them. So we have to try to anticipate possible harmful effects ourselves, even if this means not using some data or even not studying some issues at all. Because successful ethnographic research depends on our securing the trust of all the people we study, our primary ethical directive is that we must take all possible steps not to cause harm to our subjects. What I want to talk about this evening is why these principles make anthropologists uneasy about certain kinds of collaboration with governments.

Let’s go back to my opening image of anthropology as the study of small-scale “exotic” societies. Some of these peoples weren’t just subjected to colonial rule and taxes, but robbed of their lands or forced to work on plantations. Even if they weren’t plotting a rebellion or becoming communists, a lot of things that anthropologists learned about them, such as the role of witchcraft beliefs, were things that the people wouldn’t want the authorities to hear about. They had every reason to be suspicious about the anthropologists’ motives for studying them, since the anthropologists were white folks like their colonial masters.

There is plenty of evidence that most colonial administrators didn’t think anthropological research was of much practical use. But the US government brought anthropologists into the war effort against Japan. And as the colonial era drew to a close, the Cold War battle to defeat communism in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand provoked bitter controversies between anthropologists in the United States about what anthropological researchers should and shouldn’t do to support their government’s counter-insurgency operations. At the heart of these controversies was the basic ethical question of possibly doing harm to people with whom relations of trust had been built.

Covert work for government wasn’t new. In 1919, Frans Boas denounced colleagues for having used fieldwork in Mexico as a cover for intelligence gathering operations against Germany. The American Anthropological Association censured Boas for lack of patriotism and endangering all US anthropologists working abroad by revealing these clandestine operations. The AAA rescinded this censure motion in 2005. By this time the issues of what can be justified in terms of loyalty to one’s country, and the risk that combining research with spying creates for researchers who are not spies, had come back to haunt us again, in the context of the “war against terror”.

Anthropologists are now invited to contract out their services to US military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan under the Human Terrain Systems Project. Together with other experts in local languages, culture and society, their role is to support combat units, working in the field alongside soldiers in small teams. The project’s supporters argue that injections of anthropological knowledge make counter-insurgency operations more humane. Better understanding of society and culture helps occupying forces to avoid actions that will alienate local people and suggests less bloody ways of winning over adversaries. HTS work has certainly attracted people who wanted to make the outcomes of these military occupations better for local people, such as the political scientist Michael Bhatia, killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan in May this year. Yet the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association has stated publicly that the HTS project raises “troubling and urgent ethical issues”. Why?

The first problem identified by the AAA Executive is with “informed consent”. Would anthropologists working with soldiers be in a position to “disclose who they are and what they are doing” and explain the purposes to which the knowledge they acquire might be put? Even if they are completely honest, how can we be sure that “informed consent” has been given voluntarily when there are armed soldiers about? What might happen to people who exercised their right to refuse consent? “Embedded” anthropologists have responsibilities to their military units as well as to the local populations whose relationships with the military they are helping to negotiate. Would there not be a danger that their conflicting obligations could lead to violations of the directive to do no harm to those they study? HTS research provides information to military field commanders. The AAA Executive was concerned that this “could be used to make decisions about identifying and selecting specific populations as targets of military operations either in the short or long term.” HTS teams are not supposed to be involved in what is called “kinetic targeting”, which means bombing people. But as the advocates of military anthropology themselves point out, there are other forms of intervention that seek to weaken “the enemy” by interfering in local social and political life. I would have thought that the obvious lesson the West should have learned from the al-Qaida experience is that such tactics have unpredictable consequences in the longer term. HTS personnel cannot control all the uses to which knowledge they produce might ultimately be put by an occupying military power, and there is no requirement to disclose the results of their work in the public domain.

But the AAA Executive also identifies a further risk. Since US military intervention is not universally popular, the more people hear about the HTS project, the more likely it is that all anthropologists will be seen as spies. This doesn’t just threaten the personal safety of foreign anthropologists, who may be able to get out, but also the safety of local people who have been hospitable to the anthropologist, who may not be able to get out.

The risk posed simply by the perception that anthropologists could be spies also became an issue in Britain in late 2006, when the Economic and Social Research Council announced a research programme on “Combating Terrorism by Countering Radicalization” in partnership with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The FCO’s counter-terrorism policy has a strand called “Prevent”, which aims to “deter” those who facilitate or encourage terrorism by “changing the environment in which they can operate”. But no direct participation of academics in HTS-style operations was proposed. The aim was simply to commission independent academic research that could inform FCO actions. Unfortunately, the original call for proposals seemed to be inviting researchers to supply information on individuals and organizations in foreign countries that might constitute a “threat” without adequate consideration of ethical risks. It was withdrawn after protest from academics in anthropology and other fields with strong overseas research interests. Although there were fears that the wording of the revised call might still give the wrong impression abroad, guarantees were given that all research results would be in the public domain and the selection panel was extremely attentive to risk in deciding which projects to fund, none of which involved overseas field research.

When I was expressing my subject community’s concerns about these issues as Chair of the British Association of Social Anthropologists, a colleague who had worked in the civil service told me that we had got the whole thing completely out of proportion. When he had done fieldwork, he said, “everyone thought I was a spy.” Apparently this wasn’t a problem for him or for the people that he worked with. But his remark set me thinking about why it would have mattered to me and to some of the people that I’ve worked with.

In the mid-1990s I began to supervise PhD students studying the aftermath of the 1994 rebellion of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. This involved nervous navigation around a landscape of counter-insurgency “dirty war”. But what we all learned in Chiapas was that local conflicts often had roots that pre-dated the rebellion and that local factionalism was generally a lot more complicated than a simple division between pro-Zapatista and pro-government forces.

The ethics of doing field research in this kind of situation go beyond the need to be absolutely sure that no data that you possess can be used against the people you study. It’s also important, for example, that research does not inadvertently provide fuel for intensifying local factional conflicts by enabling members of faction A to falsely associate the leader of faction B with the violent paramilitary activities of faction C and justify his expulsion or even murder. This is a strong justification for doing sustained ethnographic research on the ground rather than relying on what are often inaccurate newspaper or Internet reports that reflect what someone with an axe to grind might say about someone else to an interviewer who only spends a short time in a place. Every researcher will have their political and ideological sympathies. But the first challenge is to try to put understanding before sympathy, because otherwise you may misread what’s going on and not grasp the likely outcomes of conflicts in the longer term. The second challenge is to get members of the different factions to talk to you in polarised situations in which those who are not with us are seen as being against us. Even if you get the data, writing it up is a further challenge. Because we cannot completely control how others interpret our results, anthropologists try to anticipate the risks that our writing could pose, not simply to individuals who might suffer persecution, but also to the long-term welfare of different groups.

My last Mexican fieldwork was on the country’s Pacific Coast. Ostula is an economically impoverished but culturally rich indigenous community that managed to retain control over its communal lands despite attempts by non-indigenous regional elites and invading cattle ranchers to get rid of the Indians altogether at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although the Ostulans fought to make Mexico independent from Spain, their defence of their lands has largely taken legal and peaceful forms. But at the start of the twenty-first century, this was another war zone, and one in which, in contrast to Chiapas, there were no human rights activists to help defend the Indians. The war was between drug cartels and the indigenous people were largely terrified bystanders.

Getting permission to do this research from Ostula’s communal assembly was tough, because people had good reasons to be suspicious of the motives of outsiders. Outsiders had repeatedly tried to take control of their resources, which included minerals as well as what had once been a wealth of timber, coveted by logging companies in California. When, in 2006, a new leadership allied the community with the Zapatista movement and invited the rebels’ subcomandante Marcos to visit them, even he had a hard time. “Can you prove you’re who you say you are?”, someone asked, “because we’ve suffered five hundred years of trickery!” Unlike the Zapatistas, the people of Ostula recognized the legitimacy of Mexico’s national governments and were happy to negotiate with them. But they insisted that only they should control the resources in their territory and that the government had failed to demarcate that territory correctly when it officially re-recognized their rights to their communal lands in the 1960s. They engaged in repeated confrontations with ranchers who invaded their borders. In July 2008, the schoolteacher elected by the community to lead the latest phase of this struggle was brutally murdered. So the stakes were as high as in Chiapas.

In this kind of context, I felt that I could only repay the trust placed in me by working and writing for the people that I had been so privileged to study. Ostula has its factions and internal conflicts. But an organized indigenous community is still there in a place where genocide was a real historical possibility because the Ostulans possess impressive mechanisms for moderating conflicts and divisions. Although I was allowed to listen to the debates in the communal assemblies, I also, like any ethnographer, did a bit of fairly visible spying as an observer of what went on backstage and out of public sight when important decisions were made. What I didn’t do was turn this data into a list of “radicals” and “moderates” that could guide the state in efforts to “engineer” a solution to the problem that these Indians refuse to sell their beaches to tourism developers or allow a major mining company to exploit their minerals. That would not only have breached my professional ethics, but it would also have obscured the processes that enabled this often divided community to unite around those very issues.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Bradford Counter permalink
    August 2, 2010 3:15 pm

    Thank you for publishing your BBC transcript; very interesting and informative. The British military seem to have recognized the ethical issues faced by anthropologists and other social scientists – the core issue being that the military seek to intervene and make changes within the community (aka the ‘Area of Operations’ or AO) and are not too concerned with the ethical issues with which we so rightly struggle.

    The British military, under the leadership of LTC Steven Windmill, seem to be preparing military personnel with a multi-disciplinary skill-set that seeks to identify only those cultural factors in the AO that are militarily relevant. The skill-set appears to be extracted from disciplines as diverse as anthropology, sociology, psychology and marketing; I can only assume that LTC Windmill is intending to identify cultural factors of interest in the AO and then to use the other skill-sets to influence the generation of desired change that is pro-ISAF, pro-UK and pro-US forces.

    From a purist perspective, this desire to influence and steer change in another’s community is to be deplored. From a military and political perspective, I can clearly understand why he has chosen to side-step the ethical issues you note in your transcript and to focus on the ability to successfully generate change. LTC Windmill’s approach is innovative and may well work; if even a single life is saved, his approach should be loudly lauded; I suspect this approach will save many lives … albeit at the risk of changing the indigenous society and I am sure the people of Afghanistan would prefer to be alive within a slightly changed but peaceful area … so even from this perspective, the British approach should not be criticised.


  1. John Gledhill: “Anthropology and Espionage” and some comments on anthropology as ethics « OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY
  2. Bibliography and Archive: The Military, Intelligence Agencies, and the Academy (with special reference to anthropology) – Documents, News, Reports « ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY
  3. More European Press Coverage of the Human Terrain System « ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY

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