News 2008


Military spies invade anthropology conferences?


Written by Lorenz



The U.S. military is not only interested in employing anthropologists. Now, they have started attending anthropology conferences. Anthropologist Caroline Osella from the University in London and one of the editors of Social Mobility In Kerala, is worried.

In a post in the ASA Globalog (run by the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth) she tells us about her recent experience from a conference at the Exeter Gulf Studies Centre where she met people from the U.S. military both in the bar and in the conference:

Bad enough to have to check oneself and what one says in conferences…but to have to be on your guard in the bar afterwards in case you say something of interest about the Gulf-connected Muslim Indians you work among is surely one step too James Bond for an anthropologist?

A week before, she had attended a conference on south Asian studies in Leiden and “also found some of these security types there, listening in on the panels on south Asian Muslims – and even presenting papers themselves!”

Do we have to tolerate this?, she wonders:

I still maintain that this is a worrying trend and that effectively, academic freedom and decent research is jeopardised if all our conferences are gatecrashed.

Conferences are places where we try out ideas and present first drafts of our work; we may later decide to alter some things before going to publication in order to protect the people we work with.

By letting security personnel or academics form the military into conferences then effectively our work is going into the public realm before we are ready for it to do so.

Washington and whoever else is welcome to read the published versions of my and Filippo’s work, like any other members of the interested public. But they can download it and read it in their offices.

They can please keep away from academic conferences, where I want the freedom to try out my ideas, decide which details I might want to keep confidential for ethics’ sake, and feel free to engage in discussions which are not monitored or where the information I may pass on is not feeding into any policy agenda. And I want to be able to go and drink and talk shop in the bar in the evening without wondering who is listening.


We teach our undergrads about our shameful past with regard to colonialism. Are we going to find the next generation of anthropologists teaching about us and our pathetic accommodations to state power and our polite refusals to speak out?

>> read the whole blog post on the ASA Globalog

>> more posts on counterinsurgency on the ASA Globalog (quite a lot actually!)

On the website of the Network of concerned anthropologists (NCA), Hugh Gusterson tells a related story. During a panel at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting featuring three NCA members, witnesses saw two U.S. Army personnel writing down the names and institutional affiliations of anthropologists who had signed copies of the NCA pledge of Non-participation in Counter-insurgency circulating during the panel.


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