Fight Clubs


Peter C. Baker reviews Napoleon A. Chagnon's Noble Savages My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists, in The Nation:

In December 1919, Franz Boas, the German-born academic widely recognized as the father of American anthropology, published a letter in this magazine accusing four of his American colleagues—whom he did not identify—of having used their research positions as cover for engaging in espionage in Central America during the recently concluded war. Ten days later, the governing council of the American Anthropological Association voted 20 to 10 to censure Boas, claiming that his highly public letter was unjustified and in no way represented the AAA’s position. Boas was a founding member and former president of the association, so the censure was doubly humiliating; it essentially forced him to resign from both the AAA’s governing body and the National Research Council.

The Boas incident was the prelude to a century in which anthropology has been haunted by questions of means and ends. What sorts of alliances with power are worth it? What responsibilities (if any) do anthropologists have to the populations they study? Above all, to what extent has Western anthropology been fatally compromised by its associations—direct and indirect, public and covert—with a violent and imperial foreign policy? In several books, the anthropologist David Price has cataloged the substantial sums of money funneled from the military and intelligence community to academic anthropology over the years, as well as the contribution of American anthropologists to every significant war effort in modern US history. Most recently, ethnographers have joined the Army’s Human Terrain System program, designed to aid military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan by decoding the nuances of local culture. Price notes that although the revelation of these collaborations has often sparked heated short-term controversy, the disputes have passed without prompting broad, discipline-wide reform—or even conversation. After all, what anthropologist wants to spend time discrediting anthropology, a discipline that relies on trust, most importantly the trust of foreign governments and the subject populations that are the source of the discipline’s prized product of local knowledge? At what point are the ethical costs of doing anthropology too high, for ethnographers as well as the people they study?

That last question applies equally to anthropologists who may not work directly for the military or do fieldwork in areas explicitly labeled war zones. There is no better example than the career of Napoleon Chagnon, author of the bestselling anthropological text of the twentieth century, a slim volume called Yanomamö.