Anthropology Patrons

Academic anthropology is funded by many organizations, including the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the National Geographic Society, the Templeton Foundation, and much more.  A few like NSF may commit to strictly using peer review, but most use their own judgement to pursue their own agendas.  Apparently that is mostly fine with anthropologists, except if the patron is the US military:

The Pentagon’s $50 million Minerva Research Initiative, named after the Roman goddess of wisdom and warriors, will fund social science research deemed crucial to national security. … the research would not be kept secret. … Gates said Minerva would solicit diverse views, regardless of whether they are critical of the military. … “This is the first significant effort in 30 or 40 years to engage social sciences on a large scale by the Department of Defense” …

Minerva will fund research on five topics, including the development of China’s military and technological prowess and how religion, culture, economics and politics in the Islamic world “interact to foster political violence, terrorism or insurgent behavior.” The Pentagon also wants insights into Saddam Hussein’s rule and into terrorist groups.  …

But the Network of Concerned Anthropologists … said dependence on Pentagon funding could make universities an “instrument rather than a critic of war-making.” … the American Anthropological Association … [is] “deeply concerned that funding such research through the Pentagon may pose a potential conflict of interest.” … David Price, an anthropologist … said, the Pentagon effort is flawed. “It will only look at problems Defense wants us to in a narrow way.”

David Vine, an American University anthropologist, criticized the initiative, saying the research would be limited by the Pentagon’s worldview.  … Forte, an anthropologist … doing research in the Caribbean region, said debate over Minerva has made some of his subjects suspicious … “they are concerned I might be some kind of intelligence agent.”

If anthropology only has trustworthy expertise when funded by patrons with the “right” worldview, I fear we are already lost.  I have no particular confidence in the worldviews of previous patrons, and by assumption anthropologists wouldn’t know if bad patron worldviews had compromised their current expert views.  Prediction markets seem especially hopeful here, as we can have more confidence that subsidized markets would reward real insight regardless of who paid for the subsidy.

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  • Leo Zimmermann


    What is your response to that last concern cited in the article? Namely, that the ‘informants’ upon which anthropology relies will ignore or deceive anthropologists working for the US military?

    There is some indication that the employment of some anthropologists by the military could interfere with all anthropological work, particularly in places where the US military enjoys a less-than-favorable image. (

    (I’m not sure how prediction markets would fit in here; how freely will people talk to anthropologists who stand to profit by correctly predicting their behavior?)

    It seems to me that practical issues like these may supercede the ‘pure’ rationalism that you’ve advocated here.

  • Zimmerman, it’s a good issue to think about. However, it seems like a routine issue that anthropologists face. There is no particular reason to believe an interviewee will tell the truth about how they act and what is in their heart. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that an interviewee will use every opportunity they can get to paint of picture of themselves that will in some way be profitable. Why not? If the antropologist is a stranger, they’ll never see them again. If the anthropologist has become a friend, then they will want to impress their friend.

    To the extent anthropology has any hope of finding the truth of matters, it needs to be able to deal with this issue anyway. Thus your issue gets back to Robin’s main question. Are we to think of anthropology as a means for finding the truth? Or, is it just a way to reaffirm whatever the patrons already believe?

  • It is disingenuous in the extreme to pretend there is no difference in being funded by a foundation with a particular worldview and being funded by the Defense Department. While both organizations may have wordviews, The Templeton Foundation, ie, does not have billions of dollars in weaponry at its disposal. They do not go around the world deposing regimes, killing people, and imposing power on the unwilling. The subjects of study of anthropology might have reason to hate and fear the US military; such concerns do not apply to the Templeton Foundation.

    In short, a worldview with a gun behind it imposes a different sort of bias than one without.

  • Prison Rodeo

    Here’s a bigger issue: Turns out that the DoD/MINERVA folks and NSF are teaming up:

    So, what’s the NCA to do about *this*?

  • m, I don’t understand why patron worldviews with guns threatens anthropology accuracy more than other worldviews.

    Daublin, yes the issue of trust is general, though I can still grant a context specific extra trouble given the specific reputation of the US military worldwide. But this doesn’t seem to be the main issue in the article.

  • I second mtraven’s objection, and renew a charge of being disingenuous on Robin’s part. I think the fault is that the anthropologists’ objections quoted here do seem to be concerned with the independence of the scientists, in which case Robin’s point is totally legitimate.

    But obviously the larger objection is that the Defense Department engages in large-scale killing of humans on a regular basis whereas the other institutions presumably do not. If that’s their objection, then they SHOULD just come out and say it. They seem to be guilty of hedging about their true motives (perhaps out a fear of appearing “unpatriotic” if they called the DOD killers?), but not guilty of a true double standard.

    So this strikes me as more of a gotcha! post … they are simply not being honest about their reasons. Surely, Robin, you don’t really think there is no possible difference to be made among the above institutions and the moral implications of aiding them?

  • Didn’t the DOD also recruit a lot of anthropologists when we were involved in Vietnam? My suspicion is that the DOD may be getting a raw deal.

    Gene Expression had discussed a split between cultural and physical anthropologists. Do they also split over this issue?

  • What can we in the overcomingbias community learn from the academic discipline of anthropology?

  • Leo Zimmermann


    The HTS does employ cultural anthropologists, but many cultural anthropologists seem not to consider their work up to par.

    Furthermore, I have to take issue with Gene Expression’s contempt for cultural anthropology. Yes, that wing of anthropology appears to no longer prioritize the prediction and control of human behavior. This makes sense, given that anthropology owes its origin to colonialist exploitation and bears serious historical guilt for facilitating colonial administration.

    A contemporary anthropologist thinking Iraqis could, entirely reasonably, disagree with Gene Expression’s claim that “in the end they are animals to study.” Yes, this requires an ethical intervention that ultimately relies upon axiom, as would the idea that the collection of facts supersedes all other considerations. The debate over whether working for the military beats letting the military just do whatever is being had by the anthropologists… but can you see in the abstract how an anthropologist might make the decision to prioritize the safety of a group of people ahead of the US military’s need for information?

  • ” This makes sense, given that anthropology owes its origin to colonialist exploitation and bears serious historical guilt for facilitating colonial administration.”

    “but can you see in the abstract how an anthropologist might make the decision to prioritize the safety of a group of people ahead of the US military’s need for information?”

    This seems like a status hierarchy play to me. Anthropologists today above anthropologists of the past, anthropologists today above the US military today.

  • billswift

    “This makes sense, given that anthropology owes its origin to colonialist exploitation and bears serious historical guilt for facilitating colonial administration.”
    Somebody needs to actually read history rather than modern PC crap.

    “can you see in the abstract how an anthropologist might make the decision to prioritize the safety of a group of people ahead of the US military’s need for information?”
    Actually, the only people whose safety could be helped by denying info to the military would be those actually attacking said military. If driven to extremes, for example, by lack of information, the military could always fall back on “kill anything that looks like it could be a threat”.

  • Daniel, yes i suspect they are not giving their real objections.

  • David J. Balan

    I’m with mtraven and the objecting anthropologists. There’s a pretty clear danger in having our understanding of people in other countries be heavily influenced by the agendas of an organization whose primary task and reason for being is to kill people in other countries. That’s not as big a dig at the military as it sounds like; we need a military for some purposes. But the kinds of people who are attracted to being in the military are exactly the kind of people who we should suspect of being inclined to see everything through the sight of a gun, and those are the last people who should be involved in determining the agenda of social science. To say that other possible funders have biases too is true but doesn’t cut it. Nobody else has a bias like this; they might be equally likely to be wrong, but they’re nowhere near equally likely to be dangerous.

  • David, is there any evidence that people who use guns have a more biased worldview?

  • David J. Balan

    Robin, the claim is not that the gun guys are more biased (though they might be), but rather that their bias is more dangerous.