• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

A Special Supplement: Anthropology on the Warpath in Thailand

…intended to develop systems of collecting, coding, processing, integrating, storing, updating, checking, retrieving and publishing data concerning tribal people of Northern Thailand and contiguous areas. Building and equipment facilities are to be developed into a reference center with in-house study facilities for use by scholars and concerned government and nongovernment agencies and personnel. It is hoped to establish regular communication with those parties who can provide the raw data or who will wish to use the processed data. [italics added]

Gathering raw data, “data storage,” and “data retrieval” appear to be central to the concerns of the Tribal Data Center, for the form letter to each social scientist—personally addressed—goes on to say: 30

We understand that in the course of your work you may be in a position either to supply us with raw data concerning tribal communities, to utilize the processed data, or to give us technical advice as to systems of data collection and processing…. We need such up-to-date information as the location of tribal villages, the number and ethnic identity of the inhabitants, their migratory history, and so on. [italics added]

The type of raw data these seekers after information hoped to collect is made evident by a dummy “Proposal for Village Data Card,” which was circulated along with the invitation and other materials emanating from Chiang Mai. Few of the entry spaces on the card concern the kind of information normally collected by anthropologists or data which could be kept anonymous. The nineteen entry spaces on the card request, for example, exact village location and map coordinates; names of the village headman and other influentials: years of residence in situ and place and duration of residence elsewhere; names, racial affiliation, and occupations of occasional residents in the village; and weapons on hand.

It is hardly conceivable that participants in the Consultants’ Meeting were unaware of the plainclothesmen in their midst, and thus unable to sense the politics of the occasion. It is possible but hardly plausible that members of the conference on shifting cultivation ignored the fact that knowledge of such techniques had allowed aerial surveillance to distinguish ethnic populations from the air, during the Malayan insurgency. It could even be the case that an unusually naïve scholar might not raise an eyebrow at requests for information which violate the anthropologist’s unwritten code: protect the anonymity and privacy of your informants. But only a scholar with an unusual capacity for self-delusion could fail to see what was implied by the letter of invitation, the conference membership, the request for information, and the data card.

Eighty-six scholars and public officials were invited to the Consultants’ Meeting, including a number of American anthropologists, but we do not know how many attended. Fifty-nine names appear in the documents given to us by the SMC. Thirty-two are identifiable as social scientists. Of these, twenty-two are affiliated with US universities.

This number, of course, represents only a fraction of social scientists taking part in Thailand counter-insurgency research. In November, 1969, alone, ARTA/DOD, in addition to nineteen Thailand projects of its own, maintained sixteen external contracts for this purpose, involving eleven universities and private research institutes.31 The total number of social scientists employed in these activities is not known to us, but cannot be negligible.

Since 1962, moreover, the Stanford Research Institute has conducted at least five major research projects in Thailand. By mid-1969, SRI had issued more than one hundred reports on this research. More than thirty of these reports (nine of which were confidential) were written by social scientists; the project and report numbers are known to us but are too numerous to list here. All of the thirty reports specifically concern counter-insurgency operations.

The contributions from RAND Corporation to counter-insurgency in Thailand include a study of “Limited War Patterns: I, Southeast Asia,” in July, 1962; an inquiry into “Certain Effects of Culture and Social Organization on Internal Security in Thailand” by an anthropologist and a political scientist; and “Seminars on Developments and Security in Thailand,” held in November, 1969.32 USOM/AID has, since 1966, turned out forty-three publications, mostly by social scientists, on problems relating to security in Thailand. Furthermore, in a five-month period during 1966-67, one American anthropologist and ten Thai research assistants employed by USOM surveyed twenty-two villages in two provinces, producing forty-six reports on counter-insurgency and “Communist-Terrorist” topics.33


The Thailand episode is only the latest violation of the conscience of anthropology; in retrospect we see that anthropological projects calculated to interfere in the affairs of others have a long, and not entirely visible, genealogy.

The advent of World War II, in the words of the outgoing president of the American Anthropological Association, “[provided] anthropologists [with] an unprecedented opportunity to play a variety of applied roles in government.”34 There was, for instance, an opportunity to aid in the forcible relocation of 100,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry to places east of the Sierras. There was the opportunity to analyze Japanese culture through the analysis of secondary sources and interviews with Japanese in the United States, under the auspices of the Foreign Morale Analysis Division, Office of War Information. There was, further, the chance to write war background studies of individual countries, such as “Siam—Land of Free Men,” under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution. Finally, anthropologists shouldered the White Man’s Burden in Micronesia, serving as administrators to local populations under the auspices of the Navy.

Throughout this heady period, the Cross-Cultural Survey of Yale University—set up as a purely scientific instrument in the early Thirties—began to provide ready-made information for intelligence and military government purposes.35 The techniques used by the survey staff to produce civil affairs handbooks for the Navy were also employed by the Office of Inter-American Affairs, then directed by Nelson Rockefeller, to organize the available data on Latin America.

As World War II slipped imperceptibly into the cold war of the late Forties, anthropologists found that they could build readily upon the varieties of experience gained during the shooting war. The study of Japan at a distance gave way to the study of European cultures in the Columbia University Research in Contemporary Cultures, under a grant from the Human Resources Division, Office of Naval Research.36 At Harvard University, social scientists, including anthropologists, launched the Harvard Project on the Soviet System, with strategic support from the United States Air Force37 and the Carnegie Corporation.

The Carnegie Corporation, presided over by a former OSS officer, also recognized the potential of Yale University’s Cross-Cultural Survey for both scientific and practical purposes, and sponsored its expansion into the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) on condition that these files be multiplied and installed in at least five major universities. Funds from Carnegie were further supplemented by the Office of Naval Research, the Rockefeller Foundation, and other university organizations. Use of the files produced some basic work; but their practical possibilities prompted the Army, Navy, Air Force, and the CIA to make annual contributions of $50,000 each in order to build up organized data banks on critical world areas.38

At first none of this research was classified; all materials were deposited in each of the participating institutions. By 1954, however, the federal government decided that it was not getting $200,000 worth of information for its $200,000 spent each year, largely because much of the ethnographic information catalogued was forty or fifty years out of date. Therefore, the subsidy was terminated.

In the same year, however, the Army ruled that continued support of the HRAF would be contingent on the fabrication of classified, as well as unclassified handbooks. The military offered HRAF four million dollars to process sixty-three such handbooks on world areas that they defined as critical. These useful little guides were actually assembled at an HRAF branch office located at American University. Eventually—in 1957—this information depot was closed. However, an up-and-coming research organization known as Special Operations Research Office, or SORO, emerged at American University. HRAF, bereft of its paramilitary satellite, returned to the pursuits of the ivory tower.

By 1960, however, it had become apparent to the government that the study of cultures at a distance was no longer worth the investment. Our growing military engagement in Guatemala, Cuba, and Vietnam created a counter-insurgency mentality among political and military leaders who hoped to stifle spreading “brushfire” wars through the deployment of counter-guerrilla forces of their own. And who, of all available experts, would, presumably, give the best advice not merely on cultures at a distance, but about cultures “on the ground”? Once again, the anthropologist attracted the close attention of the political-military elite. “The old formula for successful counter-insurgency used to be ten troops for every guerrilla,” an American specialist in Thailand is quoted as saying.39 “Now the formula is ten anthropologists for each guerrilla.”

A generation of postwar anthropologists who were eager for field experience and hoped that their science would prove useful to mankind were now potential applicants for the jobs offered: but the universities which trained these new scholars had changed. New connections had been made between the schools, the foundations, and the federal government. The end of the war and the attenuation of the empires maintained by European states had opened the way for the development of a new global American involvement. During the cold war a new political alliance evolved, in which government officials, university personnel, and foundation executives became interchangeable. Area institutes and international studies programs proliferated. In many of our largest and most prestigious universities more traditional branches of learning were resynthesized with “forward-looking” projects in economic development and political nation building.

Nearly everywhere, anthropologists were drawn into the network of information gathering and processing; the demand was for their data, not for their values. The anthropologist was supposed to bring in the “behavioral” information; others would use that information to formulate and execute public policy. Thus the curious quid pro quo which provides current working conditions for a great many anthropologists was established. The researcher would get the chance to carry on field work with a heady sense of engagement in a global welfare operation, punctuated by occasional participation in an international meeting, followed by a dry martini at the airport bar in Bangkok or Dar es Salaam. In exchange, others received the right to play with his data. Many signed their contracts, unwittingly or otherwise, in return for fellowships, research grants, and jobs. Others, more reticent, subcontracted.

Then, suddenly, in the late Sixties a number of paramilitary adventures masquerading as scientific projects were launched, in which anthropologists played a formidable part. The best known of these enterprises was Project Camelot, sponsored by the US Army and the Department of Defense, and channeled through SORO. Despite its connection with leading social scientists at major American universities, it had only the dimmest connection with science; its counter-insurgency orientation severely undermined the credibility of North American social science in Latin America. The American Anthropological Association was quick to condemn the venture; resolutions passed in the aftermath of Camelot’s collapse certified the righteousness of the Fellows.

Yet not long after, in 1968, the university-foundation-government combine was once again caught red-handed, this time in India where the Himalayan Border Project of the Institute of International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, turned out to have received its funding from ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Defense Department. When the Indian parliament discovered the source of the project’s funds, it immediately terminated the research involved. Subsequently, the Indian government went further and decided that no research project supported by US government funds would receive approval, though in a display of unusual patience it still exempted individual research projects from this ban. The severity of the response was probably influenced by the disclosure just six months earlier that the Asia Foundation, an American organization, had acted as a CIA conduit for research in India.40 Now we have the disclosures of the Student Mobilization Committee on scholarly activities in Thailand.

It is reasonable to anticipate an accelerating effort to centralize power and control resources on a global scale by the US government, and by the multi-national corporations based in the US. Accordingly, we can expect that as people in the poorest and most dependent areas multiply, and as their living conditions worsen, the men at the center of power will demand to know ever more about the deprived, “under-developed,” and oppressed, as groups and as individuals. As the Thailand papers show, the government is less interested in the economic, social, or political causes of discontent than in techniques of neutralizing individual or collective protest. As governments request more information of a particular kind, moreover, they are able also to furnish the technological devices to simplify the gathering of their one-dimensional data. Infrared photography and miniaturized microphones, for example, can help to provide exact descriptions of areas and people, while computers can be used to store and retrieve the information on command.

Obviously, such techniques and goals are anathema to the anthropologist who is dedicated to open and free inquiry, and who feels an obligation to the people among whom he performs his work, people whom he can no longer regard as objects of the goal of “scientific objectivity.” Indeed, the anthropologist’s traditional obligation to the people among whom he works is the critical issue. In order for the anthropologist to work at all, he must learn to trust them and they him. He must learn to depend upon them, and in return, he promises that he will not betray their personal confidences, or permit his findings to be used without their knowledge for political purposes. Furthermore, many anthropologists feel that they should obtain their subjects’ consent to collect and disseminate information, and that, moreover, having received such consent on one topic, the researcher is not free to collect and use information on other topics.

Consent” poses a special problem for the anthropologist because he is usually in the host community for several months, and may become privy—through familiarity and observation alone—to much information which his subjects would prefer him not to possess. In view of the many politically volatile situations in which anthropologists work, e.g., northeastern Thailand, it is clear that data gathered by the anthropologist can serve to hurt people in ways that can be neither anticipated in advance nor compensated for after the fact.

The days of naïve anthropology are over. It is no longer adequate to collect information about little known and powerless people; one needs to know also the uses to which that knowledge can be put. Behind an appeal for pure research, a research grant, a consultant’s fee, an appeal to personal vanity or to patriotism, is a government that may well use the knowledge gained to damage the subjects among whom it was gathered. Perhaps this is the grimmest lesson of all the events of the past years: many a naïve anthropologist has become, wittingly or unwittingly, an informer.

At least one person who was engaged in ethnographic research among the hill people of northeastern Thailand is not present in these documents. He appears to have understood that the request for “raw data” and the eagerness of unnamed persons to “use the processed data” are politically and professionally intolerable. He has, therefore, refused to make available his field research data, and has asked other anthropologists to do the same.41 Furthermore, this lone dissenter has called on anthropologists to help create radical political alternatives for the people among whom they work, people whose social integrity is already—and whose physical existence may soon be—at stake.

This anthropologist states that as a graduate student in a foreign area program in the early 1960s he was engaged in studies in the hill region because US government funds were available, and because his professors who were specialists in the area advised him to do so. He thought it unfortunate that no information on the area existed prior to 1960, and he was pleased to join political scientists, anthropologists, and linguists in filling this gap in ethnographic knowledge. Statements by Thai officials made at the Tribal Research Center, Chiang Mai, in 1967, however, disturbed him, as well as the kind of data gathered at that center. When the Student Mobilization Committee exposed the project in the spring of 1970, the truth was brought home to him.

Furthermore, as he reflected on the conference held at Chiang Mai in 1967, he came to realize that other researchers not only recognized how their basic work had been put to use by the Royal Thai government and its Border Patrol, but that they were aware of the political uses to which their data could be put. They had chosen to comply with the Thai government’s requests for further information, because such compliance guaranteed their continuing research work in the region. If they refused to comply, it was made clear that future anthropological research in Thailand would be closed to them, and their careers would be in jeopardy. Thus the lone dissenter had witnessed how the increased awareness of his colleagues intensified their compliance.

Individual dissent is, of course, honorable, but it is not enough. The issues transcend the individual; they are political, they concern the nature and distribution of political power in our society and in the world.

Admittedly, anthropology was ambiguously conceived. Now, in our view, it must disengage itself from its connection with colonial aims or it will become intellectually trivial. The future of anthropology, its credibility, depends upon sustaining the dialectic between knowledge and experience. Anthropologists must be willing to testify in behalf of the oppressed peoples of the world, including those whom we professionally define as primitives and peasants. As Stanley Diamond has written,

In turning away from the implications of their knowledge, anthropologists, and other academics, were not only false [to those whom they studied] but to themselves. The field is no longer safely enclosed…and it is precisely the objective study, the reified examination, which is proving to be an illusion. In this situation, there can be no more students of Man studying men as fixed specimens in fixed environments. This was a privilege that the Western world preserved for itself as a consequence of domination. There can only be men who learn to bear witness to each other. In the struggle for the creation of culture against collective and dehumanizing forces, no matter [what] their ideological pretension…there can only be partisans.42


Anthropology on the Warpath: An Exchange April 8, 1971

Africa Research March 11, 1971

  1. 30

    Letter, provisional list of delegates, dummy proposal for village data cards, and agendas of the proceedings of the Consultants’ Meeting for January 14, 1970, and the program on Shifting Cultivation and Economic Development in Northern Thailand for January 18-24, 1970, were dated Chiang Mai, December 23, 1969.

  2. 31

    The Symington Subcommittee of the United States Foreign Relations Committee, Hearing, November, 1969.

  3. 32

    Memo. RM-3786-ARPA, RM-5871 and 5872-AID/ARPA.

  4. 33

    Lists of publications and reports available through USOM Thailand, Bangkok.

  5. 34

    George M. Foster, Applied Anthropology (Little, Brown, 1969), p. 203.

  6. 35

    Clellan S. Ford, Human Relations Area Files: 1949-1969, A Twenty Year Report (Human Relations Area File, Inc., New Haven, 1970), p. 7.

  7. 36

    Margaret Mead and Rhoda Metraux, The Study of Culture at a Distance (University of Chicago Press, 1953), p. v.

  8. 37

    Raymond Bauer, Alex Inkeles, and Clyde Kluckhohn, How the Soviet System Works (Harvard, 1956), p. 3.

  9. 38

    Ford, p. 13.

  10. 39

    Peter Braestrup, “Researchers aid Thai rebel fight: US defense unit develops anti-guerrilla devices,” The New York Times, March 20, 1967.

  11. 40

    Gerald D. Berreman, “Academic Colonialism: Not So Innocent Abroad,” The Nation, November 10, 1969, pp. 505-508.

  12. 41

    See the comments on Joseph G. Jorgensen’s essay “On Ethics and Anthropology,” Current Anthropology (forthcoming).

  13. 42

    Betty Nickerson, ed., Chi: Letters from Biafra, Preface by Stanley Diamond (New Press, Toronto, 1970), p. vii.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print