The LingAnth mailing list has been having a discussion of the increasing desirability of anthropology training in CIA recruits. The debate has been framed as the “militarization of anthropology” and discussants have brought up programs such as the PRISP scholars to show what a danger this is to the discipline.
There is another side to this, though, so let me play devil’s advocate. We could think of it as the anthropolization of intelligence gathering. The CIA is going to continue to exist whether or not the AAA approves of it. Wouldn’t it be better to have spies with a basic awareness of the relationship between language and culture, of the effects of extreme duress on the reliability of witness statements, of the importance of foreign language learning and of the world’s linguistic diversity?
This whole issue is a reminder that there are practical applications to the humanities and social sciences (apart from economics, whose practical applications we are already aware of), and that those applications have profound ethical consequences. Many academic disciplines produce results which have potentially both positive and negative consequences. Running away from these issues by saying that we don’t want anything to do with it is, in a word, irresponsible. After all, economists don’t seem to feel personally involved when someone applies game theory to, say, swindling an old age pensioner out of their savings.
Giving CIA agents a grounding in linguistic anthropology is a question separate from appropriating research for more efficient torturing, or, for that matter, of using academic linguistic anthropology as a cover for agents. The arguments on the linganth list seem to be confusing all three of these questions, but the answers aren’t always the same for each. For example, I oppose the use of ethnographic techniques in torture not because I do ethnography, but because I’m opposed to torture on principle. I’d still oppose it even if there was no use of anthropology in it. I oppose the use of academic fieldwork as a cover for agents because of the problems it causes other fieldworkers. But I don’t think it’s a bad thing, in general, for intelligence gatherers to be more culturally aware!
The argument of the AAA policy seems to be that the methods used for ethnography (such as actually, shock horror, learning about the culture you’re investigating) might be misused in the wrong hands. I find this whole argument rather strange. If one opposes torture, it should be on the principle that causing suffering to others is bad and that it doesn’t produce accurate information. Torture isn’t more acceptable if it’s less informed by anthropology! Which is preferable? Dropping bombs on a university dormitory because of faulty intelligence or dropping bombs on an armaments depot because of good intelligence? (and note that not dropping a bomb was not an option in that particular hypothetical).
Finally, intelligence gathering as applied ethnography has a long history – perhaps longer than anthropology and linguistics as disciplines. An ability to extract information from others, to learn about other people and cultures and to use that information for different purposes is not owned by anthropology – it’s the basis of diplomacy and until recently of spying itself.