Minerva and Critical Public Engagement

Robert Albro, American University

There are a myriad of reasons for the social sciences to be skeptical of developing closer working relationships with the military by cashing in on new opportunities like the Minerva Initiative, most obviously the possibility of a further militarization of academia. Anthropologists, in particular, have been vocal about their concerns — concerns that should be publicly aired and discussed. In the broadest sense, these include: 1) A deep-seated reluctance to participate, intentionally or unintentionally, in the promotion of perceived U.S. imperial designs; 2) the real potential for undermining academic freedoms and reducing formerly more autonomous scholarship and research agendas across the academy to questions of national interest and security; 3) the recruitment of social scientists into clandestine research projects, where deliberate misrepresentation could irreparably damage the reputation of non-military field workers through a taint by association, 4) and where an absence of open knowledge circulation would erode the academic public sphere; 5) as well as the potential unethical application of social scientific knowledge production in pursuit of military objectives, including for the targeting of research populations in the form of intellectual “smart bombs.”

If these and other concerns are differently expressed across the social sciences, they add up to resistance among social scientists in welcoming Minerva-like opportunities. But, whether justified or not in this case, they also actively contribute to a dramatic lack of public dialogue between the social sciences and the military. I want to explore here how that, too, can be problematic. In the absence of more lively and wide-ranging discussions between the military and university-based social sciences, the military is in effect left to make of social science research what it will. This includes the reproduction of potentially hard-to-dislodge and often parochial military-specific assumptions about how the social sciences are in fact relevant and should be used, which can lead to unhappy outcomes.

A Military Take on the Social Sciences

When the military at once incorporates the methods and insights of the social sciences while also remaining largely disengaged from a richer diversity of academic perspectives, the likelihood greatly increases that it will pick and choose from among the kinds of social science that best mirror image what the military already thinks it knows, or wants to do, and from among what fits best with how it already characteristically operates. A lack of substantive dialogue makes it more likely that military planners will hear what they want to hear rather than what they might need to hear. As such, the usual subjects of military funding — the computational modelers, or interdisciplinary teams of applied researchers adopting a systems approach, and the technical problem-solvers — will all continue to be supported in the absence of alternatives.

As Thomas Asher made the point about the categories of research proposed by Minerva in a recent SSRC-sponsored forum on the subject, they appear to express the military’s own “folk categories” (e. g. the deeply problematic elision of religion with Islam with fundamentalism with terrorism).[1] And if not otherwise engaged, these categories will remain mostly uncontested and continue to find their way into future policy objectives — with potentially disastrous results. A lack of meaningful dialogue further increases the likelihood of a permanently mediocre “military social science” that is largely conditioned by the policy, institutional, and epistemological constraints of the military establishment, as remote from the freer-wheeling debates of the academic community, and which is not in a good position to know what it is missing. And military pedagogy will likely suffer, and be more willing to embrace an area studies lite or program of language proficiency with a sprinkling of culture training, served up in stale regional thumbnail histories or lists of cultural traits to be memorized, and where urgent problem contexts (e. g. global warming) remain non-factors in the immediately instrumental mode of military problem-solving. This would not be good news.

More specifically, one way that the military has, and is, using social scientists is through subcontracting. This habit is an expression of a broader military predicament, in an era of increasing and more varied responsibilities and decreasing resources: the requirement to outsource. If this is part of the military’s own internal crisis, the outsourcing strategy also keeps what interaction does take place with social scientists at arm’s length, and where social scientists periodically are brought in to consult, in compartmentalized fashion, and often to address already well-defined mission objectives. When social scientists are used as temporary hired help, it becomes much more likely that they will continue to be thrust into historically well-established roles: as “useful idiots” and “eggheads”[2] who produce “data,” with the expectation that they simply be handed over, or worse, plugged in by the military, as a distinct user community. Outsourcing, thus, helps to discourage the military’s internal accountability in the form of self-critique.

In the process, social science training and expertise can quickly become reduced to that of the technician, engineer, or the translator, rather than as a critically engaged relatively autonomous knowledge producer. This has been part of the story with current invitations for anthropologists to work more closely with military institutions, or to take advantage of military funding. The need for generic “culture area experts” has led to an alarmingly indiscriminate employment of underqualified M.A. level or graduate student content area specialists and of differently qualified anthropologists. Despite an ethnographic career so far spent entirely in Latin America, for example, I have been asked to join research teams for Minerva grant applications as the resident anthropologist and “Iraqi culture expert.” Needless to say, this exhibits an alarming lack of awareness of the limits and the uses of the methods, forms of inquiry, and knowledge production, of professional anthropology.

The social sciences and the military would benefit from more quality time to discuss what it is that different kinds of social scientists do, their characteristic methods, the varieties of knowledge they produce, and most importantly, the ethical and conceptual limits of such knowledge with respect to military goals.

Anthropology Talking at the Military

A dialogue is, of course, always minimally a two-party reciprocal exchange. And one of the underappreciated facts in the ongoing, sometimes passionate, discussions and debate about what the relationship between the military and the social sciences should be is the fact that there are significantly different disciplinary versions of it. The “we” of the social sciences is in fact composed of distinct disciplinary histories, institutional arrangements, signature knowledge investments, and political identities. And whether social scientists should be open to new DoD funding streams is a question that significantly depends upon what social scientific interlocutor we have in mind. Just as “the military” is in fact really a wide variety of interests and institutions, military funders should embrace the extent to which any dialogue with the social sciences is actually a plurality of distinct disciplinary dialogues.

What a Minerva-based dialogue should look like from the social science end of things, then, depends in significant part on unique disciplinary factors. Anthropology has been prominent in sounding not only a note of caution with the military, but also in regularly making the point that the discipline should remain free of any and all military-derived entanglements. As I began this essay, the reasons are varied and important to understand. Anthropology is especially attentive to its own history, as “handmaiden of colonialism,”[3] and where influential disciplinary voices were professionally socialized during the era of the “bad war” that was Vietnam, with associated ethical scandals in the social sciences including the often cited Project Camelot. It is also important to note that contemporary anthropology, as a set of projects carried out among mostly marginal communities and in post-colonial contexts, has in large part been dedicated to often trenchant critiques of the “State.” This can make working with, or on behalf of, state institutions a challenge. The discipline’s Code of Ethics, itself currently under reconsideration, also emphasizes the fundamental principles of: do no harm, self-disclosure, transparency of research results, and voluntary consent.[4] These commitments support a primary disciplinary responsibility to one’s research subjects. And militaries are understandably viewed as not in the best interest of most research subjects. For these reasons, and others, it has been asserted that to not work for the military amounts to a long-standing disciplinary norm.

But this must also be balanced against the fact that, despite developing anthropological research on military and security topics, and despite the small number of anthropologists currently working within military contexts, at present the discipline of anthropology does not have an adequate working knowledge of the military as a social institution. Despite more than 1.4 million current active duty members, including inside-the-beltway policy types, outside-the-beltway practitioners, officers, grunts, different forces, and different missions, because anthropology tends to address the military from a distanced remove in ways almost comparable to the Cold War era “study of cultures from afar,” and because anthropology’s debate too often characterizes the military whole cloth simply as a blunt instrument of violence, this is unlikely to change. Such a state-of-affairs is reinforced by sometimes self-serving representations of academic institutions as Ivory Tower cloistered spaces of independent research, where, we hear, if military representatives want to talk with social scientists, they should do so “on our turf” and not the other way around. But I am skeptical about whether this would amount to a meaningful discussion at all. Rather, it is likely to be a more invisible and impoverished discussion, once-removed, conducted via Google, already available publications, the occasional forum, and including informal personal networks traversing otherwise agonistic arenas. In short, this is the present state of things. But a military establishment that is largely insulated, because removed, from substantive engagements with an academy determined to maintain its purity-at-a-distance is potentially debilitating to public and democratic debate.

Public Engagement

The American Anthropological Association’s Ad Hoc Commission on Anthropology’s Engagement with the Security and Intelligence Communities was created by the AAA as part of a realization by the discipline’s largest professional organization that it lacked the necessary knowledge to weigh in on these matters in a responsible and grounded fashion. Its November 2007 report to that organization’s Executive Board encouraged “openness and civil discourse on the issue of engagement.”[5] If it has been suggested that not to work with the military is a strongly defined disciplinary norm, this should be balanced against other core disciplinary commitments. If anthropology can no longer claim a monopoly on it, one of these is its signature method of field work: participant-observation ethnography. Ethnography is an inherently dialogical process. I am reminded of Clifford Geertz’s well-known remark about our counterparts in the field, “We are seeking, in the widest sense of the term in which it encompasses very much more than talk, to converse with them.”[6] This is a broadly accepted disciplinary charge.

I recognize this ethnographic sensibility as more than a narrowly defined “method,” but also as a principle of public engagement. We should, too, recognize that the injunction to converse, as is true of the vagaries of field work, is not unilateral. Nor should our politics decide its extent. If it is to be ethnographic, the conversation should be open-ended, and happen in a variety of locations not always of our choosing. Ethnographic conversations are also already of the “engaged” sort. As such, they are valuably productive of different kinds of situated knowledge. Experience-near sorts of engagements — working closely with the military — have their place in this exchange alongside more experience-far types of engagements — working from within the academy. Nor, of course, are these the only kinds of conversations we should be having. But, in ethnographic terms, we are better off not striving a priori to close the door upon our interlocutors.

Recent years have seen a repeated call for a more public anthropology that would more effectively address problems beyond self-imposed disciplinary boundaries and encourage broad conversations that constructively re-frame important questions and public critical debate. The military funding of social science research is certainly one such problem. In fact, it offers an opportunity for disciplinary self-critique with respect to what we mean by a “public anthropology” in the first place: How should we address the long-standing estrangement of academic from applied anthropology? What does the evident separation of theory from its application say about the discipline? What disciplinary response should we have when our stock-in-trade becomes the subject of public policy, as has been the case with the culture concept of late? As a kind of engagement with instrumental goals, is military work different from the engaged advocacy stance often built into the current anthropology of social movements? Most generally, who specifically is anthropology’s “public”? Sharpening our appreciation of these questions can be an outcome of Minerva-funded research.

Perhaps the most important reason for the strong repudiation of Project Camelot-types of cooperation between the military and the social sciences is because Camelot amounted to a “covert form of espionage,” if presented in terms of legitimate scientific research. The problem, in short, was secrecy and deception. For Minerva to be credible among social scientists, it will have to take significant steps to build in regular opportunities for public scrutiny and discussion at multiple stages of the Minerva process. In addition to keeping Minerva unclassified and open, this should begin by reforming the granting process to remove even the slightest whiff of behind-the-scenes manipulation, as is the case with the military role in the current peer-review process for the NSF Minerva funds. This can be complemented by instituting independent forums with non-Minerva funded academics at the stages of peer-review, to track what kinds of work the funds are used to support, in the assessment of outcomes, and with respect to research ethics. The goal should be that of Minerva as a contribution to public knowledge. If, as SSRC’s president Craig Calhoun has put it, Minerva is a kind of “listening project,”[7] then we should be willing to talk, while at the same time seeking to protect the relatively autonomous spaces of critical academic knowledge production and dissent. If it proves difficult both to keep Minerva public and to maintain critical debate, than that is where the dialogue ends.


[1] Comment by Thomas Asher as part of the Minerva Research Initiative Roundtable Discussion. Social Science Research Council. New York, NY. October 25, 2008.

[2] Speech by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Delivered to the Association of American Universities. Washington, D. C. April 14, 2008.

[3] The debate about this history is best epitomized by Talal Asad’s 1973 edited volume, Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter (London: Ithaca Press).

[4] The most recent version of the AAA Code of Ethics can be found at: http://www.aaanet.org/issues/policy-advocacy/Code-of-Ethics.cfm.

[5] Final Report of the American Anthropological Association’s Ad Hoc Commission on Anthropology’s Engagement with the Security and Intelligence Communities, p. 25. Delivered November 4, 2007.

[6] Clifford Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) (New York: Basic Books), p. 13.

[7] Comment by Craig Calhoun as part of the Minerva Research Initiative Roundtable Discussion. Social Science Research Council. New York, NY. October 25, 2008.

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