Ethical Questions about Who Counts as an “Anthropologist” in Military Organizations

Ethical Questions about Who Counts as an “Anthropologist” in Military Organizations

by Kerry Fosher[i]

When I first started working with the U.S. military in 2006, military organizations were desperate to hire anthropologists. Leaders in these organization had a very basic sense that anthropologists understood culture and could help their personnel interact with people in areas of operation, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan. Ethical questions about military anthropology have been extensively examined elsewhere.[ii] Here, I want to examine some ethical questions that have arisen for me in relation to anthropological identity—who counts as an anthropologist—in the U.S. military context.

The Department of Defense is a large organization, comprising more than three million people. Military personnel often stay in a short time before going on to second careers. The perceptions they develop during their military service get carried into other parts of government, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and, on occasion, even academia. So, the way military personnel perceive anthropology has implications not only for how the military thinks about the discipline, but also for how we are perceived in other sectors.

In traditional academic settings, you are an anthropologist by consensus of your peers. Your credentials matter, but not every person teaching in an anthropology department has a PhD in anthropology. Some come from other disciplines but use anthropological theories and methods and are generally accepted as members of our discipline. Conversely, somebody with a PhD in anthropology who has spent the last 20 years working as realtor or chef might not be considered an anthropologist by university faculty. In short, in academic circles we maintain fuzzy boundaries around our disciplinary identity, but we self-police by both subtle and overt means.

In other settings, your identity as an anthropologist may come from your position, or even simply by assertion, rather than from the perception of academic peers. In the most common U.S. federal government hiring plan, the official position description for an anthropologist at any level requires only that they have 24 undergraduate credits in anthropology or a related field.[iii] So, somebody with an undergraduate minor in psychology and a few language classes could be hired as a senior level anthropologist. Likewise, many government contracts prohibit organizations from specifying the credentials they want. They can say only that they need an anthropological capability. So, the company can choose to provide the capability with somebody who has only an MA in international relations or some other field. Hiring managers rarely have the expertise needed to understand or value disciplinary education, and in military organizations social scientists tend to work in multi-disciplinary settings where leaders are unlikely to focus on the credentials of individual employees. So once hired, someone can come to be considered an anthropologist by position regardless of credentials or experience.

In my experience, it is common for people to simply assert an anthropological identity in this context. Especially when the military was focused on recruiting anthropologists, many people presented themselves that way whether or not their backgrounds supported the claim. I would hear somebody say, “I’m a degreed anthropologist” when all they had was a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, or even a bachelor’s degree in something else but had taken one or two anthropology classes 15 years ago. I even encountered “anthropologists” who had never had any formal anthropological education, but who felt the label fit because they were widely traveled. A few times I met somebody with a PhD in another field who was hoping to cash in on the military anthropology boom and assumed, often correctly, that government officials would not review their credentials. I encountered this appropriation of anthropological identity at least weekly in meetings and correspondence across the Department of Defense from 2006 through 2012, when the demand signal for anthropology started to taper off.

This combination of bureaucratic factors, lack of knowledge of academic credentials on the part of military officials, and opportunism created situations in which ethical questions arose for me.

For example, at one point, one military service decided it wanted to hire cultural anthropologists into senior level positions in all its schools to integrate culture-related material into the curricula. I believe this decision was well-intended, but it was driven by a senior official’s somewhat hazy sense of what anthropologists do. So there was little guidance about what these faculty were supposed to accomplish, the hiring process did not specify the sorts of credentials they should have, and the people hired had a broad range of backgrounds. The consequences were predictable. Some of the people hired had backgrounds with little relevance to the task at hand. But their manager routinely referred to them all as anthropologists and, as became clear rather quickly, was either unable or unwilling to assess the quality of their work. The program only lasted a few years, but in that time, these faculty influenced how anthropology was perceived by thousands of military students, other civilian faculty, and government officials.

My concern about these matters did not come from a desire to protect my own disciplinary turf. Anthropology was not the only field with something to offer in integrating social science and culture-related curricula, and some of these other voices provided useful ideas, such as the emphasis on cross-cultural skills brought by intercultural communication scholars. However, most of the time, what the anthropologists-by-assertion/position were saying bore little resemblance to anthropology, or even to social science at all. When it did, it most closely matched long-discarded theory from the 1940s-1960s, such as structural functionalism.[iv] The issue was not about whether or not valid anthropology was being presented but about how the ideas being promoted might affect policy and educational programs for military personnel. I also was concerned that, when it turned out the ideas did not match reality, military personnel would assume that anthropology was to blame, carrying this negative perception with them through their military careers and into other sectors when they left.

Although military personnel routinely critique one another’s ideas, there is no pattern of open collegial critique among government civilian social scientists. Any effort to get people to correct faux anthropological (or just generally unsound) pronouncements in classrooms and meetings was routinely dismissed by officials as academic bickering. Sometimes they seemed to be protecting their own expert employee. Other times the dismissal was linked to a broader pattern of anti-intellectualism that is still widespread in the Department of Defense. Even constructive criticism could be seen as defensiveness or quibbling rather than careful scrutiny of ideas. If you engaged in critique or correction too often, you risked losing your ability to exert influence within the community. You could be marginalized as “not a team player.”

And so it was that I found myself in an ethically challenging “wild west” of social science where I often was the only person present with the legitimate knowledge to say what anthropology was and was not, to clarify what different disciplines could bring to bear on a problem, and to point out when an organization was being sold a bill of goods. Maybe I could have ignored it all, but there are only so many times you can hear your field described completely incorrectly before you feel the urge to speak up. Also, my time serving on the AAA’s Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC) had me thinking deeply about the complex ethical situations that arise when anthropologists work outside traditional academia, in particular how anthropological work in the military may influence or reflect on the discipline.[v]

What was my responsibility in such situations? If I corrected every false claim of anthropological expertise, I would come to be seen as a turf protector and lose my influence in the organization, ceding it to the very people I was hoping to counter. Yet, I felt I had ethical responsibilities to ensure that the anthropological information provided was sound and accurate and to be a good steward of how the discipline was perceived in such a large organization with such a fraught relationship with our field.

Ultimately, I had to choose my battles. Sometimes I could quietly undo whatever mess had been created and set the organization on a better course. In situations where I had ongoing contact with an individual misrepresenting credentials or promoting bad ideas, I could play a longer game of collegiality and lead them to change course. Sometimes I simply had to let things go. Doing this long, quiet work was sometimes frustrating, but preferable in many cases, as it allowed me to save my social capital for particularly egregious cases. As a result, I was usually (although not always) taken seriously by civilian and military organizational leaders when I brought a concern to them. To give one example, when a proposed program was planning to conduct supposedly anthropological research overseas without going through a human subjects protection process or using any kind of informed consent, I was successful in preventing it from getting funded.

I also have ethical questions about my responsibility to be fully transparent about these matters with my anthropological colleagues. As mentioned above, there were times when it was more effective to act quietly over long periods, making it challenging to talk or publish about some of the issues. My time with the AAA CEAUSSIC reinforced my sense that those of us working in unusual or controversial settings have an enhanced responsibility to ensure that our colleagues understand what we are doing both to clarify our ethical decision-making and to improve the discipline’s understanding of the communities or organizations in which we work.  I have discussed the issues occasionally in conference presentations or talks. However, I never wrote an article or book capturing the full scope of the appropriation of anthropology or anthropological identity and, based on discussions I have had with editors over the years, I doubt I could have gotten such a manuscript published. Anthropologists are very interested in other aspects of my ethical decision-making, primarily the decision to work with the military at all, and I have spoken and published on such issues regularly. But anthropologists do not seem particularly interested in how the perception of anthropology was being shaped for the three million people in Department of Defense or how that perception might be harmful. Perhaps I could have found ways to be more transparent with my colleagues that would have allowed them to assess and contribute to my ethical decision-making. Perhaps this post is a small first step.

[i] Kerry Fosher is the Director of Research at Marine Corps University. She began speaking on anthropological ethics while still in graduate school at Syracuse University, but it’s place as a major part of her professional life began with her work on the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities from 2006-2010. Since 2006, she has spoken and published regularly about the complexities of ethics in practicing and applied anthropology with a particular focus on work in the national security sector. Fosher is a member of the AAA MPAAC Ethics subcommittee. Her LinkedIn profile is at Her email is

[ii] See for example:

Albro, Robert, George Marcus, McNamara Laura A., and Monica Schoch-Spana. 2012. Anthropologists in the securityscape: ethics, practice, and professional identity. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc.; Albro, Robert, James Peacock, Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Kerry Fosher, Laura McNamara, George Marcus, David Price, Laurie Rush, Jean Jackson, Monica Schoch-Spana, and Setha Low. October 14, 2009. AAA Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC). Final Report on The Army’s Human Terrain System Proof of Concept Program. American Anthropological Association.; Gonzalez, Roberto J. 2009. American counterinsurgency: human science and the human terrain. Chicago, IL: Prickly Paradigm Press.; McNamara, Laura A., and Robert A. Rubinstein. 2011. Dangerous liaisons: anthropologists and the national security state. School for Advanced Research advanced seminar series. Santa Fe, N.M.: School for Advanced Research Press.; Peacock, James, Robert Albro, Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Kerry Fosher, Laura McNamara, Monica Heller, George Marcus, David Price, and Alan Goodman. November 4, 2007. AAA Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities Final Report. American Anthropological Association.  Price, David H. 2011. Weaponizing anthropology: social science in the service of the militarized state. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

[iii] Office of Personnel Management. (2009). General Anthropology Series, 0190. Classification & qualifications: General schedule qualification standards (Online detail from OPM site. As of access date, the linked Handbook of Occupational Groups and Families is the May 2009 edition). Retrieved 6 Apr 2014 from qualifications/general-schedule-qualification-standards/0100/general-anthropology-series- 0190/.

[iv] A handful of PhD anthropologists were also promoting these outdated theories. It was not that they believed they were using current material. Rather, they correctly assumed that the older, simplistic theories would be more readily accepted by the military and believed that getting something into use was better than engaging in a long and possibly fruitless fight to integrate more contemporary approaches.

[v] A description of the commission’s charter and its reports can be found at