• Email
  • Print

Anthropology on the Warpath: An Exchange

To the Editors:

In an article by Eric Wolf and Joseph Jorgensen, “Anthropology on the Warpath in Thailand” (NYR, November 19), reference was made to an unnamed person who behaved in an ethical manner in the context of other researchers who were not doing so. Since this unnamed person has now been named, and I find to my great surprise that it is me, I feel that some statement is required on my part. Professor Hinton may wonder whether I exist (NYR, April 8). I do not exist in the form assigned to me by Drs. Wolf and Jorgensen. But I would like to lay to rest once and for all any doubts that Professor Hinton may have about my convictions. The information reported by Wolf and Jorgensen was taken from my article “Social Responsibility and the Basic Research Mentality: an example from Thailand.” The section of the Wolf and Jorgensen article which is supposed to relate to my experience is quoted in full.

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. 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 1969, 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.

It is difficult for me to recognize myself in the above description. Not only was a great deal of literary license taken but half-truths and distortions of the situation were related. I would like to clarify some of these distortions.

In my paper I was not primarily concerned with a personal history of myself or of other individuals who have conducted research in Southeast Asia. What I was trying to discuss was some of the philosophical issues involved in the problem of ethics and the underlying value system of anthropology—for example the value placed on data collection—which makes it difficult to consider the ethics of any situation.

According to Wolf and Jorgensen this person, whom I must not forget was me, 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.” The phrase “use the processed data” is set in quotations which implies that I used that phrase in my paper. I did not. What I was actually saying in this connection was that basic research is one of the primary concerns of our discipline and that we do not give enough consideration to why we are doing the research other than to fill gaps in information, and often do not consider the wider social and political context of our research: “This article is concerned with the social scientists who conduct basic research in a politically sensitive area such as Southeast Asia, often without any consideration of the wider political context and consequences of that research.” One of the reasons for this, I tried to demonstrate, is that we place a higher priority on the collection of basic data than we do on its practical implications.

I see in some way how the writers could conclude that I “had refused to make available my field research” to governmental agencies and had called upon “other anthropologists to do the same.” What I actually said was:

Most anthropologists who have worked among a people would express concern over what is happening and what is going to happen to that people. But few would consider that one of the ways to protect their people in politically dangerous situations is to refrain from publishing books and articles describing their way of life. This is the conclusion that has been reached by this writer.

It is unclear in the above quote as to when I reached this conclusion. But if there is any implication that I have not published on the tribal group that I studied or that such publications are not in the hands of various governmental agencies, then the record should be set straight. I wish now that I had the insight then that I have now. But hindsight is the cheapest commodity on the market.

The part of the discourse where Wolf and Jorgensen discuss the time when I was a graduate student and end with the conference at the Tribal Research Center in 1967 is the most distorted section. It is true that I was a graduate student in an area program. But I made no mention of this fact in the paper. Nor did I make any reference to professors of mine who advised me to conduct research among hill people. And when I referred to the availability of funds for research I was dealing with the more general tendency on our part to orient our research in the direction of available funds.

At one point in the Wolf and Jorgensen article, it was stated that I was pleased to join other social scientists in doing research in the area and at another point they state that I was advised to conduct research there by my professors. What I did say on this topic was as follows:

It is a fact that until the early part of the 1960s very little anthropological research had been conducted among the hill people of Northern Thailand. At that time a rash of Western social scientists flooded the area, among them this writer.

What I tried to explain in the first part of the paper was why all of us flooded the area. I tried to suggest that we were all drawn there by imperatives of which few of us were fully aware at that time.

When Wolf and Jorgensen described the conference at the Tribal Research Center it is implied that I was actually there. It was my reflection on this conference that was supposed to have made me realize that other researchers not only recognized how their basic work had been put to use by the Thai government but that they were aware of the political uses to which their data could be put. What I commented on was the “juxtaposition of the practical concern of the Thai government and the pure research orientation of the anthropologists.”

And finally, no “truth was brought home” to me by the Student Mobilization Committee. Nowhere does the name of that organization appear in my manuscript.

I have no basis to divorce myself from most of the other anthropologists who worked in Thailand. At one point I stated that to the extent that the Thai government has used anthropological data to develop techniques of dealing with particular tribes they have been “aided by all of us who have done research on hill culture.” And although I wrote from the point of view of a particular political conviction, I realized that there are other people with other convictions who would come to a different stance on the issue of research in Southeast Asia. I clearly stated that such people would and should follow their convictions.

The distortions presented in the Wolf and Jorgensen article are disturbing. They seized upon the more or less individual examples offered, rather than the general issues which were being discussed. The problem is not restricted to Thailand. The comments which I made about anthropologists were meant to apply to anthropologists in general, not only to those who worked in Thailand. The problem comes even closer to home as we begin to shift our attention to the study of urban areas in the United States. The focus of this research seems to be ethnic communities of various types. The number of students in anthropology increases each year. We have the expectation that they will conduct field research for a Ph.D. dissertation. Volume, therefore, becomes a very tricky problem. The “joke” about one anthropologist for every Navajo family is no longer funny, especially to the Navajos. Nor are Blacks living in urban ghetto communities amused by the influx of social science researchers. The problem is not the sensitivity of the groups in question but our own emphasis on data collection and our inability to ask of our own research and the research of our students, does this study really need to be made.

Whatever inadequacies my article may suffer from, the attempt was made to deal with the problems of ethics in relationship to some of the basic values we hold in our discipline. This is the level at which discussion should take place if a solution to the ethical problem is to be found.

Delmos J. Jones

Assistant Professor of Anthropology

CUNY Graduate Center

New York, New York

To the Editors:

With the demonstration that the SMC papers are irrelevant, and the revelation that the statements of Dr. Delmos Jones bear little resemblance to what Wolf and Jorgensen claim he said, the original case against the TRC has now collapsed. I am therefore intrigued to learn that what Wolf and Jorgensen now object to rests on a quotation from a report of mine—supposedly guiltily concealed and at variance with the account in my reply to “Warpath” (April 8, 1971). (In fact I circulated this report, and several others, among my colleagues in Sydney, and it was thus that it came to the notice of Professor Jayawardena, about one year ago. The report was also mentioned in the full text of my reply which appeared in the AAA Newsletter for March, 1971.)

I wrote the report because I did not like what was happening along the Laotian frontier, where developments were occurring which threatened to envelop all of the northern provinces. I was disturbed both by the use of terror and intimidation at village level by Pathet Lao affiliated guerrillas, and by the use of indiscriminate firepower by the Thai in response to this pressure. I was in no position to influence the Pathet Lao, but did have access to Thai authorities, whom I hoped to convince of the necessity of an effective civil administration in the northern periphery of the nation. Thus the report.

Wolf and Jorgensen are concerned about what is happening in the world, although they say they are only worried about what is happening to US anthropologists in Thailand. Others of us are also concerned about what is happening in the world, and about the anthropologist’s role in it, but having perhaps different views as to what should be done about the matter, do not write long articles to literary journals or maneuver in professional associations. Whatever the viewpoint, I think most would agree that the anthropologist’s role as more or less independent observer is compromised once he abdicates to some outside authority his autonomy to write and observe.

At the same time, the anthropologist is as political a man as any other, and reacts to events according to his political conscience. My reaction was to write a report to the Thai authorities; one of my colleagues reacted by sending copies of his reports to Hanoi; yet another remained quite detached from these wider issues.

As anthropologists, I reiterate, we were able to write as we wished, about whatever we wished, to whom we wished: as political beings we reacted very differently in the same circumstances. It makes no difference if General Vargas says that he thinks the work of the TRC anthropologists will be useful in controlling insurgents. Our work may have been equally useful to the insurgents—and as I noted, what we wrote remained unclassified. The main point is that we resisted those like Mr. Prasong, who would have liked us to emasculate our anthropology and become mere counter-insurgency consultants.

It seems to me that Wolf and Jorgensen are denying the right of anthropologists to react as political men—unless the course they take is in accordance with their own.

Peter Hinton

Department of Anthropology

University of Sydney

Sydney, Australia

Eric Wolf and Joseph Jorgensen replies:

Controversies such as the one in which we have been engaged seem inevitably to beget arguments regarding the activities of particular individuals. We want to reiterate that our dominant concern in raising the “Thailand case” in public was to give voice to the basic issues which challenge the anthropology of our time: the ever more evident consequences of the symbiosis between anthropology and imperialism, the political and military contexts in which academic findings are increasingly used, the cooptation of academics into the “intelligence community.” These basic issues need to be kept clearly in mind, lest they are lost sight of in the course of arguments concerning who did what, when, and where.

We are indeed saddened by Dr. Delmos Jones’s letter to the editors, for we had cast him in the role of the one authentic hero in the “Thailand case,” and in our enthusiasm upon reading his paper surmised that he had done some of the things he talked about, rather than only talk about them. We want to set the record straight, and apologize to Dr. Jones for any inconveniences caused by our interpretation. We were in error in imputing to him the statement that he worked in the hill region upon the advice of his professors—he did not say this, though others have done so. In his paper, however, he made much of the relation between concerns of politics and strategy and the ready availability of funds for anthropological research.

He did not take part in the 1967 symposium of the Tribal Research Center, though he said that “it involved many of the Western scholars who were then conducting research in the North,” and that “the anthropologists contributed their descriptive data and were silent on, but certainly not unaware of, the political and practical importance of these data.” We believe him when he says that there was only coincidence and not causality in the submission of his own paper to Current Anthropology and the revelations of SMC. And we want to note that he did indeed publish and report his findings, though in his letter he now states that he wished “now that I had the insight then that I have now.” But if he feels now that the main thrust of his paper was only to point out that “we place a higher priority on the collection of data than we do on its practical implications,” we got a different message from statements such as these:

Moreover, by presenting descriptive materials we have provided a tool which the more powerful can use against the powerless….

But there is no longer any excuse for any of us to pretend that the results of our research are not being used to help bring about the oppression of groups….

It is time that positive actions were taken by those who pretend to be radicals…. Certainly a first step is to consider seriously the political implication of research and publication and cease both when the situation warrants….

There is no shortage of researchers who support the goals of the establishment. What is lacking in anthropology at the present time is a viable force which supports the interests and aspirations of Third World peoples….

We must not only think twice when asked to provide services which directly, or indirectly, support the war effort (Berreman 1968: 395), if we do not support the war we must not do it. A true radical cannot do otherwise.

These are brave words, and we believe that Dr. Jones will not want to go back on them now.

We give every credence to Professor Hinton’s integrity; we did not say that he “guiltily concealed” his report to the Director-General, Department of Public Welfare (quoted in NYR, April 8, p. 45). Dr. Hinton evidently still feels that autonomous, objective, scientific work can be carried on among the hill people. Others do not seem so certain. When Professors William J. Siffin and Charles F. Keyes recently put together a brief selective bibliography on local government in Thailand (in Fred R. von der Mehten and David A. Wilson, eds., Local Authority and Administration in Thailand, Report No. 1, 1970, for the United States Operations Mission/Thailand, Academic Advisory Council for Thailand, printed at the University of California, Los Angeles, 1970), they found that Category 7 on Village Security “is only partially distinguishable from Section 6, and from other materials classified elsewhere” (p. 187). Section 6 is entitled Local Developmental Problems and Programs. Section 7 is followed by Section 8, on Studies Dealing with Aspects of Social Change, and indeed “the distinction between this section and the previous one is arbitrary and somewhat thin—a matter of convenience” (p. 189). The probabilities are on the side of Dr. Jones when he says in his paper:

It is extremely unlikely that there would be any official awareness of social and economic conditions among the hill people if they did not occupy the important strategic area that they do. And most certainly if anyone were aware of those conditions under normal circumstances, no aid would be given to the hill people. It is clearly indicated by official statements that the Thai and United States government effort is not meant to develop the hill economy but to prevent the hill people from becoming communists.

Dr. Hinton himself wishes to distance himself from the merger of the Tribal Research Center and the Tribal Data Center, as well as from the Meeting of Consultants and Interested Persons, held at the Tribal Data Center, Land Faculty of Social Sciences Reading Room, University of Chiang Mai, January 14, 1970. Both events are only explicable as outcomes of the extraordinary alliance between counterinsurgents and academics to which we are trying to draw attention. Chart II of the Record of the Meeting, entitled Administrative and Funding Channels, shows that the Tribal Data Center was under “Administrative control” (sic!) of the Tribal Research Center, while receiving funds through a “funding channel” from the Lanna Thai Social Science Research Center. The Lanna Thai Social Science Research Center, in turn, received funds from Applied Scientific Research Corporation of Thailand, which received funds from the 9th Logistical Command, US Army, which received funds from Military and Development Center-Thailand and Research and Development Center-Thailand, which received funds from ARPA.

Ultimately, of course, the source of funds is of less interest than the social and political context within which data are collected and distributed, classified or unclassified. To argue that relevant anthropological findings are as available to the hill people as to the Consultants and Interested Persons who met at Chiang Mai is but a latter-day variant of the old saw about rich and poor both having the same right to sleep under the bridges of Paris.

Dr. Hinton seems to have drawn parallel conclusions, for in an expanded version of his letter to the Newsletter of the American Anthropological Association, March, 1971 (vol. 12, no. 3), he says:

It cannot be denied that there are grave issues confronting American anthropologists today. It appears to be virtually impossible to work under government contract in a foreign country without being enmeshed in the counterinsurgency snare, and the government agencies are using both attractive inducements and discreet pressure to recruit anthropologists who might otherwise have remained uninvolved. (P. 13)

…the drawing together of the TRC and the TDC seems to me…to be evidence of the necessity for U.S. anthropologists to do all they can to exercise restraints on agencies of their government—and on the collaboration of certain of their colleagues—which attempt to corrupt indigenous efforts to foster the social sciences. (Ibid.)

We can only applaud these strictures, but must needs add a tu quoque. We hope that Dr. Hinton will also raise this issue in Australia where the Joint Intelligence Organization has begun to move toward an American-like symbiosis with the academic community since early in 1970 (Nation, Sydney, no. 312, March 20, 1971, p. 7).

  • Email
  • Print