August 2008

The debate in the halls of anthropology continues over the Human Terrain System program under way in Iraq, Afghanistan and, likely, other zones where the U.S. is engaged in conflict. Academic counterinsurgency? Conflict anthropology? Finding social and cultural sore spots to better flex your military muscle? I’m not going to seriously weigh in on the topic – because I’m unwilling to design my own personal Star Wars system to deflect the barrage of missiled attacks that would surely be launched my way from the philosophical Pyongyangs of the discpline – except to ask: Why is it not, as many in the halls are claiming, anthropology? That question was raised once again on a blog I often frequent, Open Anthropology.

The author(s) didn’t exactly raise any new points about the question of anthropologists roaming conflict zones in service to the U.S. military, except to take a swipe at Grant McCracken. Grant can probably take a swipe or two, given how much fortification he receives in the Canadian business media as its sole darling of social research for big corporations (small swipe, sorry Grant, but nice photo). My problem with Open Anthropology’s criticism is that it fortifies the position many anthropologists hold about HTS: that the debate is over – this is unethical, immoral, counter-intuitive to what the discipline is all about and, as Open Anthro and some others chime in, not anthropology. Rather than answers, some questions….

Who holds the certificate of ownership for the discipline?

Is support against HTS-as-anthropology among business/corporate/design/marketing anthropologists an attempt to assuage their own sense/guilt that their work as ethnographers isn’t ‘real’ anthropology as opposed to the professors most of them didn’t become?

Many of us gave up on ‘authenticity’ as a lens to view subjects as problematic, flawed and such, so why has the discipline turned it on itself once again but, in some corners, so rigidly?

And finally, if Chan Hon Goh puts on her tutu and dances at a strip club, is it still not ballet?


I’ve recently been immersed in field research, prepping reports and delivering presentations on some very rudimentary human issues surrounding food, other ancient commodities and the identities and rituals that swirl around them as they conjure various cultural experiences and expressions, so it struck me worth providing a link to an article, “Reinventing Brand Khadi,” that appeared in The Economic Times a couple of weeks ago. For those who don’t know, khadi is the cottage industry cloth worn – and made somewhat famous – by Mahatma Gandhi. And, for the same people who don’t know, it’s been in an increasingly steep decline towards less-than-fashionable over the decades. That’s sad because, like food, khadi holds an important place in the cultural – and political – heart of India. As the authors note,

“Never in history has a length of cloth played as central a role in shaping a nation’s destiny as khadi has in India’s freedom struggle. For that matter, never has cloth been as intrinsic to a country’s formative ethos as khadi has been to the notion of Indian nationhood. For what Mahatma Gandhi achieved, when he first sat himself down at the humble charkha, was not only to set in motion a mass rebellion to Colonial rule, but also lay the tenets of simplicity, self-reliance and empowerment which went on to become the cornerstone of an entire generation’s belief-system.”

What struck me about the article, other than the fact that the authors talked to Vinita Kapur, social anthropologist & head of the ethnography division at Quantum Market Research, are the re-branding initiatives taking place under the flagship of Brand Khadi. It’s worth checking out, particularly if you’re interested in how to appreciate the old and make it tap back into the new.