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Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency

A Conference at the University of Chicago

Department of Anthropology

From the evening of April 25 through the morning of April 27, 2008:

Recent events have put new stress on the relationship between Anthropology, governance and war.  In the context of continuing violence in occupied Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States military and its planners have taken a new interest in culture and ethnography.  Hoping to revitalize  counterinsurgency theory and practice, the post-Rumsfeld Department of Defense has called for the production of “knowledge of the cultural ‘terrain,’” in General David Petraeus’ words. Simultaneously, global war and governance have emerged as significant objects of ethnographic and theoretical interrogation.  This conference explores Anthropology’s relationship to the United States’ global projection of its power, while simultaneously mounting an anthropological inquiry into the nature of that power and of the changing world in which it operates.

During World War II, Anthropology was among the social science disciplines with the most PhDs in US government service.  But at the war’s end, which is to say, after the United States deployed nuclear weapons against civilian populations in two Japanese cities, anthropologists left government service at an astonishing rate.  As Margaret Mead famously put it, “the social scientists...took their marbles and went home.”  Since then, and until very recently, only a small minority of anthropologists has worked for US institutions of war and governance—institutions that are increasingly objects of anthropological study.

In quest of a professional and scholarly response to these developments, this conference calls upon ethnography to widen our understanding of contemporary war, American power, and the structures and logics of security at domestic and international levels.  We seek ethnographic understanding of global responses to recent deployments of the US military, and of US military actions in comparison to other forms of coercion, compellance, and intervention.  Reading US military theorists, we seek to understand the emerging interest in study of culture in the broad context of military responses to US military failures (and opportunities).  We pursue the full implications of the connection now being sought by the US military between culture and insurgency and turn an anthropological lens on the nature of violence and order in the current era.

For more information, contact: seantmitch at gmail dot com