On March 30 of this year, the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam submitted documents to us implicating American social scientists in counter-insurgency activities in Thailand. We shall summarize these documents in this article, but it is important first to make clear the situation in which we received them and the controversy which has arisen over them among scholars.
At that time, one of us, Wolf, was chairman and the other, Jorgensen, a member of the Ethics Committee of the American Anthropological Association, a committee which had been set up in the aftermath of a Statement on Problems of Anthropological Research and Ethics adopted by the Fellows of the Association in 1967. Clearly, this statement had been framed against the immediate background of the war in Vietnam (the Association condemned the war in 1966), but more generally it sought to guard the integrity of anthropologists whose specific knowledge and experience, based on field work in the third world, obviously commend them to the executors of government policy for counter-insurgency and related forms of clandestine research.
The problem that confronted the Association and the Ethics Committee has dogged anthropologists from the inception of the discipline. European conquest and colonialism had, after all, provided the field for anthropology’s operations and, especially in the nineteenth century, its intellectual ethic of “scientific objectivity.” But “scientific objectivity,” we believe, implies the estrangement of the anthropologist from the people among whom he works. Lévi-Strauss has defined the issue very well:
Anthropology is not a dispassionate science like astronomy, which springs from the contemplation of things at a distance. It is the outcome of an historical process, which has made the larger part of mankind subservient to the other, and during which millions of innocent human beings have had their resources plundered, their institutions and beliefs destroyed while they themselves were ruthlessly killed, thrown into bondage, and contaminated by diseases they were unable to resist. Anthropology is the daughter to this era of violence. Its capacity to assess more objectively the facts pertaining to the human condition reflects, on the epistemological level, a state of affairs in which one part of mankind treats the other as an object.1
On the other hand, anthropology, as Stanley Diamond has pointed out, was inherently “a revolutionary discipline,”2 which, in the tradition of Montaigne and Rousseau, radically questioned the pretensions to superiority of Western civilization, while seeking alternative visions of man. This latter aspect of the anthropological consciousness has always been recognized in the United States, to the enduring credit of such men as Franz Boas, Robert Redfield, and Paul Radin. Throughout the history of the profession anthropologists have condemned the assault of the American government on American Indians (although the “solutions” they suggested were not, and perhaps could not have been, better than those from any other source); and the Association has defended the social and cultural rights of minority peoples, and taken early and unequivocal positions against fascism and racism. The…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.