CEAUSSIC: Origin Story and Grand Finale

Dr. George Marcus

“The AAA’s Ad Hoc Commission on Anthropology’s Engagement with the Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC) continues its work. Our main activities at present include: 1. the writing of a report to the AAA on the widely and hotly debated Human Terrain System of the U.S. Army, 2. The editing of a casebook illustrating the diversity of kinds of practicing anthropology, including associated ethical questions, with a primary emphasis upon the security sector broadly conceived, 3. And providing support for the AAA’s ongoing ethics process. In an effort to keep our work transparent and part of the public and disciplinary discussion of all of the above, CEAUSSIC is also going to be contributing a monthly entry to the AAA’s blog. Each entry, by different CEAUSSIC members, will address topics that have arisen or that we have been thinking about, which we will continue to discuss via the blog, a discussion in which we hope you will also participate.”


December 7, 2009

George Marcus, Chancellor’s Prof. of Anthropology, UC-Irvine

As a late agenda item during one of  my last meetings as  a member of the AAA Executive Board, the matter of the CIA’s application to advertize  positions  in AAA publications was raised,  and it set off an impassioned  and at times tense discussion that went on for over an hour, as I recall, to everyone’s surprise.  It was the most energetic  and dramatic moment I witnessed during my time on the  EB (which included memorably  the  deliberations over the  AAA’s response to the  workers’ strike against the Hilton Hotel in San Francisco).  At one point, I suggested the formation of  a  Commission to look into anthropology’s relation to the immense and diverse  military, intelligence and  security sector of government, not to try to table heated discussion, nor as a response to controversy (at that moment, anyhow) that in the past has been  perhaps the usual prompt by which  AAA Commissions have been initiated, but in an investigative, educative, and even ethnographic spirit.  In  the heat of the moment, this suggestion might have gone nowhere, had not Paul Nuti, then AAA Director of External, International, and Government Relations, made a  most remarkable and powerful intervention—remarkable, not least because  AAA staff usually sit on the side lines of these meetings and rarely comment unless requested. Paul took the long view and imagined how anthropology might be viewed in the future if its leadership did not deploy research skills available to it to anticipate its likely increasing and already systematic relations with the military, security and intelligence agencies, signaled by the CIA ads issue.  How prescient!

The meeting ended unresolved about the ads issue or a Commission, but obviously the theater of the moment made an impression.  I later had a phone conversation with AAA president Alan Goodman about the idea of forming a Commission.  But with little help from me, he and the others who advised him did an extraordinary, brilliant   job of actually bringing the Commission about, and particularly in determining its composition, of finding the right people and assaying an effective mix of perspectives.  I was pleased to be asked to participate, although I considered myself more curious than qualified to do so.  Perhaps my personal intellectual stakes in participating were an interest in the AAA’s reflexive self-critical function as an organization—how an organization could think critically about itself in an anticipatory way when challenged by difficult issues of  public importance that  were more subtle and embedded than (as yet) controversial in a newsworthy way.  Also, I was simply interested in how a more self-consciously critical anthropology since the 1980s and 1990s was expressed by those who were making careers in military, intelligence, and security agencies.  However the Commission has been judged by various parties as it navigated through the shoals of public controversy that soon emerged and inevitably shaped its work (marked by its 2007 Report [pdf], and reactions to it; and its recently completed report [pdf] on the HTS/HTT program of the U.S. military), I have found my relations to my colleagues on the Commission and my sharing in their highly informed, open-minded, and subtle discussions to be among the most stimulating experiences of my career. These have been exchanges of a very high quality and sense of friendship.

But, of course, the Commission has not been an independent research project, though its internal discussions and its broad frame of questions in which it pursued its inquiry often had that character. It was constrained by its charge, by its sensitivity to the welfare of the profession that was at stake, and by the diverse passions and career investments that its mere subject matter would roil.  While I am grateful that the HTS controversy came along to focus the Commission’s charge beyond CIA ads, and a mere remembering and rehashing of older controversies and the politics that they fossilized, it also tended to undercut the broader picture of anthropology’s sustained participation in this expansive sector of government that the Commission could offer.

This broader picture is indeed laid out in the terms and coverage of the 2007 Report, in the interesting set of short articles that Commission members have produced as an AN column, and in previous contributions to this blog, but the  gathering and breaking public storms over HTS came to inevitably preoccupy the Commission.

The Commission formally will come to an end this year just after it has submitted to the Executive Board a comprehensive report on the beginnings and continuation of the HTS program.  I admire this report’s devastating, methodical and highly informative exposure—though in the mediating language of ‘concern’ rather than condemnation—of this continuing military experiment, which has involved a branding of anthropology.  This focus has also served as an appropriate medium as well for a commentary on some of the most pressing ethical issues defined by the lending of anthropological expertise and knowledge directly to the operational side of military action, even though HTS itself has proven a deeply flawed and counterfeit appropriation of anthropology.  Yet, I am pleased that the report will not stand as the final major written product of the Commission.  Its official life ends on plans underway for a casebook for which materials have already been gathered.  As have the AN series of articles and previous blogs, the casebook will offer indepth soundings of the diverse range of work of anthropologists in military, intelligence, and security agencies. It will at least overcome any simplistic sense of the ‘other-ness’ of such anthropology which is indeed practiced in an organized parallel universe to that of academic anthropology—with its own complex organization of schools, systems of publication and communication, competitive funding sources, conference circuits, and most distinctively, personal classification system regulating the distribution of and access to information and documents.  Indeed, anthropology practiced in this universe is not the same as anthropology practiced within academia, or anthropology practiced in corporations or other government arenas.  But I would argue that mutual recognitions and overlaps among these arenas are a far more interesting and productive way to approach differences rather than the all too apparent tendency to apply precipitously ‘other-ing’ frames to discussions of anthropologists working in the security sector.

The HTS controversy only served to undermine the possibility of discussions based on such mutual recognitions.  The casebook promises to do better, and to reset the terms and frames by which a more candid conversation can be had among anthropologists as the diverse university research programs that define academic  anthropology itself in inter-and increasingly trans-disciplinary contexts of knowledge-making change as well.   The 2007 Commission touched on these issues but in an understandably restrained way.  The casebook, composed post-Commission and looking away from the HTS controversy, should be able to provide material for discussions, complementary to those emerging between anthropologists in and outside of academic departments, that might break through the cautious stating of the “anti-anti-engagement” position of the Commission’s 2007 report.

So, I want to enhance the possibility of a different framing of discussions based on mutual recognitions mentioned above by articulating some ‘notes and queries’ in anticipation of the post-Commission production by its former members of a  casebook.  I will do so by triangulating with thinking expressed in earlier  blog posts by  Rob Albro  (July, 2009 ) and David Price (September 2009).

Triangulations:  Anthropologists Amid Analysts and Instructors; Ethics AND Politics

In his blog post of July 2009, Rob Albro gently pushes aside HTS and broadly characterizes the way that most anthropologists are involved in military, security, intelligence—as serving as, linked to, or amid cultures of analysts –and I would add also as teachers or instructors (e.g., one might hold soldiers can be taught to do what HTS does as an alternative to the latter). Albro gives a very astute portrait of the (mainly report writing) life of the analyst.  Some anthropologists combine collection with analysis.  There are a myriad of contexts of micro-politics in which influence, and dreams of influence, are brokered, and each poses distinctive puzzles for ethical judgment.  Collaboration or simple coordination of effort is the political currency and context of ethical judgment in complex organizations of defense/security.

Albro makes clear that many of these  working situations of analysts, and of anthropologists as them or among them, require a different kind of ethical discussion than  what is familiar to anthropologists who most often think of ethics, explicitly or not, in terms of the mise-en-scene of fieldwork and the commitments and responsibilities that it entails. As Albro points out, though imbued with its values and ethics through the pervasive emblematic form of their professional training in ethnographic fieldwork, many anthropologists, developing careers in security/defense agencies, are not working as ethnographers and this  matters crucially to how ethics in their work situations  might be thought about.  This thinking must begin with an explicit political understanding of their work.

In his blog post of September, David Price notes that the Commission “had to artificially separate “political” issues from “ethical” issues, and then set aside the larger political issues of how anthropological engagements with military/intelligence/national security sectors relate to larger issues of US foreign policy…and a growing military reliance on anthropologically informed counterinsurgency.”  Indeed. Without the discussion of the political contexts of anthropological research, the discussion of ethics can be formulaic, moralistic, however virtuous, and frankly naïve investing only in terms of established professional imaginaries of practice.  Yet, Price’s referent for “the political” goes directly to the big issues—how one’s actions are complicit with the great and tragic game of nations and states.  I take his point, but prefer to start, and stay awhile, with the very granular level of the politics of research or expertise itself –what one wants or aspires to achieve in one’s work situationally, with whom, and for what personal ends and results, and how one schemes (or collaborates) to get it (rather like the, perhaps too Machiavellian, account of politics that the anthropologist Frederick Bailey systematically developed in his classic work).  To think of ethics separate from such a micro-politics of knowledge is distorting of the precise experienced ethical issues at stake in doing recognized anthropology in many of the contexts in which the Commission has been interested.  And being ethnographically minded, I believe that the examination of such a micro-politics of expert knowledge leads inexorably to the bigger political questions that Price evokes.  The connections between everyday practices and larger complicities must be made and are not obvious in many, many situations where anthropologists make careers within defense/security agencies.  Otherwise, free of this granular politics of intellectual/expert labor and its webs of relations, the consideration of ethics tends to be  unsubtle, and detached—or worse, mistakes the politics for the ethics!—in carrying the banner of  the  historic values and commitments of anthropology in which area specialization and ethnographic expertise are presumed.  Indeed these values remain central as a kind of emblematic ideology of ethics wherever anthropology is involved, but they are not sensitive enough in themselves to the diverse situations of anthropological employment today in which ethical issues emerge from a very particular politics of doing research, analysis, or teaching. In this context, for example, I take the expression of Kerry Fosher, CEAUSSIC colleague, cited in Rob Albro’s July blog—“we are not talking about ethnography here so much as…applying ‘the conceptual apparatus of anthropology’ to help analysts think differently about the world around them”—as an eminently and distinctively anthropological political project in ‘doing’ expertise for which the established ways of thinking about ethics in anthropology are not adequate. Fosher’s is a potentially subversive, radical purpose—and it implies an ethics different than the one based on doing ethnography, most often, amid a community of subjects.  As Albro indicates, the politics (and thus ethics) of being  an anthropologist in defense/security agencies is not well served by habitual thinking about ethics emanating from fieldwork situations.

We hope that the cases of the casebook might integrate accounts of such micro-politics of broader political implication among anthropologists in defense/security agencies with the particularities of their ethical situations in a way that exceeds the limitation both  in the public  framing of our Commission reports, as Price points out, as well as in how IRB human subjects protocols fit  the  subjects and  working styles of anthropologists into its terms.  To make connections through an array of cases of the connection between the micro-politics of intellectual/expert work and their ethics in turn creates the basis for the mutual recognitions with -rather than the other-ing of– anthropological work in the defense/security sector.  “Do no harm” and its extensions, while basic, are not a sensitive enough framing of ethical judgment for the situated politics of anthropological work in many spheres today –and how these in turn, through webs of relation, figure in national and transnational policies and strategies of government.  Short of activism of a very committed sort, most anthropologists, as are citizens in general, complicit with their government’s policies, especially when security colors defense, colors warfare.  Ethics is about acting professionally within these layers of political implication and necessary complicity, short of protest.  This is the conceptual territory in which our cases will operate.

In its most ambitious sense, then, the casebook will be a contribution to a changing anthropology in general.  This achievement will depend on seeing the ethical and political predicaments of anthropology in the security/defense sphere along a cline of difference, yet defined by the mutual recognitions in the diverse range of anthropological practice.  As signaled by Albro, “If current debates  over anthropology in the security sector represent another reprisal of our periodic debate about differences between the discipline’s applied and academic pursuits, we aren’t talking enough…about the potential transformations of, and changing relations between, these distinctions.  Do they still matter in the same ways?”

Conversations Emergent Along a Continuum.

My answer to Albro’s question is: I hope not—and there are interesting signs of change.  Alongside the discussions at the 2007 AAA meetings swirling around the HTS controversy and the Commissions’ report, there was an interesting session (perhaps among several held) that I attended

organized by Inga Treitler and that reflected stronger overlaps than I had seen previously  between anthropologists who work in corporations and as consultants, and academic anthropologists whose research increasingly traverses the same terrains.  The common   ground was this interest in negotiating opportunities for independent inquiry in these controlled and contracted environments whether pursued by academic anthropologists or those who work in consulting or in corporations.  In addition, anthropologists working in corporations were deeply concerned by motions in response to controversies over anthropology in military contexts that intended to reinstate ethical code provisions regarding secrecy and confidentiality that would make it difficult for them to function.

My point is the same as that made by Albro: distinctions between anthropologists in defense/security, anthropologists in corporations and industry, anthropologists in NGOs and international organizations, and yes, anthropologists in academic departments (I have been especially interested in the constraints of  operating within the increasingly regulated environments of university  research done with the support and mandates of huge foundations, for example and most notably, the Gates) should not only be made on the basis of mutual recognitions of common elements in the politics and ethics in their environments of practice, but should result in a traffic along this continuum of relative strengths and weaknesses  of thinking about discipline wide concerns and interests in  ethical questions, especially when they arise in controversy.  Quite aside from the IRBs, professional deliberations about codes of ethics, and heightened concerns about ethics stimulated by controversy, as at present, the most interesting and sustained discussions of anthropological ethics, in my opinion, have emerged precisely in the spheres of overlap that I evoked between academic anthropology and anthropology in corporations and industry (see, for example, the 2009 edited volume  by Melissa Cefkin on the anthropology “in and of” corporations as one excellent access to thinking in this space of overlap).  These spheres are producing the most sophisticated conceptual discussions of the complex relationships between the politics of research and their ethics that provide frames adequate to the issues that  anthropologists are confronting across the full continuum of practice, including the defense/security sector of  concern to the  Commission.

The work of the post-Commission moves in the spirit and ambition of these spaces of mutual recognition among the diverse locations of the practice of contemporary anthropology.  The casebook will be a modest contribution to the nurturing of these spaces beyond the constraints of controversy that came to shape the work of the Commission during its official life.  Its potential is to place this work in longer term trends of ongoing structural change in anthropology.


Cefkin, Melissa, editor. 2009.  Ethnography and the Corporate  Encounter: Reflections  on Research in and of  Corporations. Oxford: Berghahn Books.


  1. Hi George,

    If you’re following up on this blog post, would you mind elaborating on what you mean by the following statements, specifically the discussion of ‘necessary complicity’:

    “…most anthropologists, as are citizens in general, complicit with their government’s policies, especially when security colors defense, colors warfare.”

    “Ethics is about acting professionally within these layers of political implication and necessary complicity, short of protest.”

    I can understand saying that if anthropologists are in *agreement* with their government’s policies, for their own security, this will tie into the ethics of the situation, for them.

    But why use the phrase *necessary complicity*? It seems to imply that anthropologists HAVE to act within this relationship, be complicit with government policies, whether they want to or not. In the U.S., citizens have to pay taxes, but beyond that there’s no duty to develop a working relationship with the military. Am I wrong?

    At the very least, the word “complicity” implies “association or participation in or as if in a wrongful act” (Merriam-Webster Online).

    How can *ethics* be about about “acting professionally within…layers of…necessary [participation in a wrongful act]”?

    It’s possible I misunderstood your intentions, so this is why I’m asking for clarification.



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