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Anthropologists Not Keen on Human Terrain Systems

March 14, 2011

Al-Jazeera English is the latest media outlet to run an article on Human Terrain Systems (HTS) claiming “A new phalanx of anthropologist-warriors are being recruited, carrying ‘cultural scripts’ to battle”. Written by historian Mark LeVine, the article describes a brochure he received asking him to send job-hungry social scientists this way.

In fact, as an article by Maximilian Forte in the most recent issue of American Anthropologist points out, although HTS was originally pitched to the powers that be as a kind of military anthropology–and though most media accounts in Europe and the US pitch it as such–HTS has had little success recruiting anthropologists. Forte writes:

Several individuals with ties to HTS have admitted that the combined efforts of the AAA, NCA, and media have had an impact on severely limiting the number of anthropologists willing to join HTS, forcing the program to look elsewhere for recruits.

Forte offers a series of reasons for this:

  1. First, such research is seen by most anthropologists as violating key ethical principles, especially those concerned with doing no harm to our informants and those concerned with making our research publicly available.
  2. Second, a concern that this is an effort to restore the role of anthropological research to its 19th century status of “handmaiden of empire.” Most anthropologists regard this with calamitous concern.
  3. Third, there is fear that militarization could do  further harm to the reputation of the discipline, and  jeopardize anthropological fieldworkers, who could be mistaken as U.S. spies.

Advocates for HTS “claim that it is not unethical, that it helps to save lives, is not involved in collecting intelligence or targeting, and is a key way for anthropology to become relevant.” As a result, the bulk of the HTS recruits are actually political scientists these days.

Mid East battle of the sociologists – Opinion – Al Jazeera English.

Forte, Maximilian C. 2011 The Human Terrain System and Anthropology: A Review of Ongoing Public Debates. American Anthropologist 113(1): 149-153.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 17, 2011 11:20 am

    For us, people targeted by American offensives, HITs are merely spies, gathering information about occupied societies to enable the US army to destroy the social fabric. This is what was done to my country Iraq. These HITs are a disgrace to humanity.

  2. March 17, 2011 11:23 am

    Sorry , I wrote HITs wrongfully, instead of HTS. But perhaps HIT is more suitable, considering their shameful mission.

  3. March 18, 2011 6:55 am

    Many thanks for discussing my article, and for bringing attention to this issue.

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