Friday, September 28, 2012

Vicos - Mythical or Pragamatic Theory of Controlled Change

   In a recent article in the Anthropological News  Eric B. Ross presents an interesting analysis of one of the classic cases in applied anthropology. He places the Vicos project into its contemporary context and observes that,
"In time, the Cornell-Peru (Vicos) Project became one of anthropology’s fabled stories of how to induce change in the Third World."
He refers to Vicos as the theory of “Controlled Change” applied, in 1950s, to counterinsurgency Peru.

  The question raised here is about anthropology's involvement in national security policies and implementation. This involvement has been well documented elsewhere  e.g. Social History of Anthropology in the U.S. by Thomas C. Patterson and Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists by David H. Price, among others. Applied anthropology was born in and of conflict -- the conflict of colonialism, and especially WWII. The Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) for example, was born in 1941.

    As a student of the Vicos project, and a Peace Corps Volunteer who trained at Cornell and served in Peru during the early 1960s, I have found that the idea that the Vicos project was some type of Utopian anthropological experiment very idealistic.

    The events and the spirit of the period were fueled by the onset and heightening of the Cold War during the post WWII period, the wars of national liberation and anti-colonialism, the Indochina/Viet Nam War, the Sputnik threat, the Bay of Pigs invasion and subsequent the Cuban Missile Crisis. This makes the idea that an isolated pristine social science experiment could be conducted in isolation a fantasy of the time.

    Vicos represented one theory that a non-military strategy of community development and modernization might be an alternative to strategies of military counterinsurgency or civil war. The idea of winning the hearts and minds does stand in direct conflict with the idea of a military solution. However, this strategy has continued to be applied in Viet Nam and more recently in the Middle East in different forms. It is recognized that after any military action there is still the problem of nation building, political stabilization, and reconciliation. Today there is a debate about the role of anthropologists in Human Terrain Analysis, the latest attempt at developing a theory of controlled change

    The question anthropologists must answer for themselves and as a profession, "Is this something we want to be involved in; and Is there anything that we really have to contribute?"

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Church vs Art : Is this important?

Have you seen "Avatar," the movie?

Here is an essay I wrote sometime ago right after seeing the 3D version of Avatar. Since then the movie has gone to DVD, HBO, Netflick, and other formats, yet, I find now months later, that there is a message in the public response to the movie of anthropological interest. I think it touches a deeper nerve for our time, a message about our underlying beliefs about religion and art as cultural expressions.

I found the 3D version of the movie to be beautiful and impressive. The story line is predictable, as sci-fi goes. It deals with the question of technologically driven civilization verses the "primitive" world of sentient beings living in harmony with their world. On this simplistic level, it is pure entertainment. The battle scenes remind me of the final battle in episode 6 of Star Wars, albeit the CGI is generations more realistic and engaging.

I really enjoyed the nearly 3 hours of escape, as did my fellow audience members. Therefore it surprised me that the Vatican would get all upset by the movie.

Vatican says 'Avatar' is no masterpiece

Yet, this is a good example of super-organic (or institutional) competition. Religion vs Art, Religion vs Science and Art. The Roman Catholic church is one of humanity's great institutions with a life of approximately 1500 years, over a billion human cells world wide, and which has demonstrated an ability to survive many changes in its environment. It has both influence that environment and has reluctantly adapted to it. But it is also a example of one entity in the species of religion.

At one time in Western Europe, the Church was the patron of great art as well as the source of inspiration of great art. Religious art and religious themes have and do serve as a core of much of art today. The themes of art and the themes of religion overlap and complement one another. The nature of humankind, the reasons for suffering, the conflict between Good and Evil, mankind's place in the Universe, love and hate, judgment and forgiveness, death and resurrection, are universal themes which challenge all societies and cultures. They are part of the human condition.

The Church, which has both fostered and repressed scientific inquiry over its life time, is one institution of many that attempt to address these issues. Today it is attempting to act as the censor of the science that is leading to human spiritual progress, even when offered as a entertainment.

Science has added tremendously to our understanding of these issues, especially in the 20th century. Art, especially Sci-Fy, as a superorganic species made up of individuals and their corporate entities translate science into images and metaphors that bring these discoveries and understanding to the masses.

Today, we are in the middle of a great debate about mankind's future and its responsibility for the planet. Global warming and its consequences for humans and the global ecosystem are really important issues. Human technology and human institutions (the superoragnic manifestations of human inventiveness) are the source of much of recent change. Global pandemics, droughts, flooding, weather changes, pollution of all kinds, extinctions, are both the results of human superorganic activity, and the planet's response to that activity.

If Avatar has a spiritual message, it is just this. Technology, once a human tool for survival, has become a sentient super-organic life form in which individual human are but functional cells carrying out the will of the super-organism.

We see the short term greed represented in the "Corporation" and humans who inhabit it such as Colonel Miles Quaritch and Parker Selfridge, representative for the Resources Development Administration. The creature's need to feed off the much-desired natural resource, the mineral Unobtanium. According to Parker it can save Earth from its present energy crisis. This brings the moral conflict between harmony and chaos into focus.

Pandora, an apt name, is a living planet (actually a satellite of the planet of Polyphemus) whose dominant species, Na'vi, live in harmony with the other creatures who make up the organic structure of this super-organic entity.

The Pope apparently fears that this movie would lead to a neo-paganism. One thing is for certain by opposing the movie, he will generate even higher revenues for the film. He might also help to draw attention to the central moral problem of human existence and purpose.

But then his is but one voice and one opinion, for others check out the Wikipedia section on Avatar Critical reception and judge for yourself.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Why Professional Ethics Count!!

World War II was a watershed for anthropology both here in the US and for anthropology in the European colonial powers. How each reacted, and how individuals from the different traditions reacted to the wartime experience and the post war environment is a fascinating story and chapter in the history of anthropology as an institution and a culture.

While we, as anthropologists, advocate and believe that we can be both "participants" and "observers," the truth is we can never separate the two roles like our physical and biological science colleagues can. We will always be both, even when we attempt to dehumanize our "participant" role to become "more" objective. It is this fact alone which makes "professional" ethics an important and extremely complex issue in my opinion.

For example, the choice to not participate with the military in such areas as human terrain analysis is an individual moral and ethical choice. But is not a collective (professional) excuse nor escape from the consequences of the choice since collective is made up of the range of individual choices.

As a profession, for example, we have no moral right to criticize the actions of others (outsiders) who could have benefited from an anthropological input but were denied that input because some members objected to their colleagues working with the particular group or in a particular situation.

The profession must take a stand on what is ethically acceptable behavior of its members and which is the demarcation between Us (those we speak for i.e. the profession) and Others (those we do not speak for nor represent). The role of the profession is to define and mediate the limits of a member's acceptable behavior as it applies to its unique jurisdictional claim over a member's public behavior as it reflects on the profession and a whole.

A professional organization is by its very structure both a social/economic institution representing a group of specially trained individuals; and is the intermediary between the professional practitioner and the general public. In the role of intermediary, it sets ground rules for the interaction and, in return, receives (formally or informally) the right to administer those rules from the governing public authority. It is authorized to be self-governing as these rules apply to its official members. But it also limits the professional organizations authority over its members. And this is the problem we face in our organization and structure as "professional" anthropologists.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Is this anthropology's public image?

Anthropology tends to be viewed as an exotic branch of the social sciences by the public. They tend to define us in terms of paleontology/evolutionary biology (bones) and archaeology/prehistory (stones). Yet, the core of anthropology is ethnography, a subject that is little known or understood outside of academia.

So the questions are: What does an ethnographer do? How does the public get to see what we do?

Today, YouTube contains hundreds of video clips by and about ethnographers and ethnographic topics. To answer the question about what is anthropology and what do we do, may be we need to look at ourselves and how we present our selves and are viewed by others, our subjects, our colleagues, and by the general public. These public videos on YouTube are a place to start. Here is an example of what one can find.

"Director José Padilha brilliantly employs two provocative strategies to raise unsettling questions about the boundaries of cultural encounters. He allows professors accused of heinous activities to defend themselves, and the Yanomami to represent their side of the story."

Saturday, September 22, 2012

What happens when there are no more consumers?

 Every human is both a worker and a consumer. We are not like tree or plants that can produce all we need from the air, soil, water and sun light. In a modern post industrial society operating in a global economy we are all dependent upon one another both as worker and consumer. But as business or labor we have been at each other's throat for more than a century. The other day, as I was cleaning my old Playboy Magazines I came across an article entitled, No Help Wanted, by Charlles A. Cerami, in which he predicted
"One day unemployment figures will trigger a realization that the industrialized world has for decades been putting itself out of business. An ancient fear has come true: People are being replaced by machines. They're being replaced at the worst possible time time , when other trends are already pushing upper- and middle-incomers down a slope." Playboy | May 1, 1993 |
Back then we were entering era of prosperity and just coming out of the impact of the end of the Cold War. Yet Cerami, today, seems prescient.

Today with unemployment officially around 8 - 9% and millions of workers are no longer counted because they dropped out of the workforce, taken part-time work, or returned to be students to gain skills that they hope will get them a job, experts estimate the real figure for those who might be available for work at around 16 - 19 % of the working age population. Cerami's warning seems timely. Every unemployed and underemployed worker is also an under-consuming consumer. These leads to inefficient and under-performing consumption regardless of how productive the capital and/or labor assets of business are.

Cerami's prediction reads like an Op-Ed piece in today's New York Times or Wall Street Journal. However his article appeared in the May, 1993 issue of Playboy.

The question is: As consumer anthropologists what are we doing to address this issue? What are we doing to present the holistic perspective of consumer/worker relations to our clients whether corporations, workers, policy makers or the public?

Some people explain this as being a "Lubbite" ( and that is goes back much further to Hegel and Marx and the reaction to industrialization. The point I am making here is that once the status/role of human in society is divided, split, separated into two distinct status/roles, one of worker and the other of consumer then the status/role of human is "dehumanized." Individuals become valued for their status as a worker or as a consumer. For a producer (entrepreneur, investor, owner producer) the value of a human worker is weighed against the value of a technological substitute. Meanwhile, the consumer is still, in the end, a human being.

Innovation over the past two centuries have lead to tremendous "human progress" I will readily admit. However, the rate of innovation has now exceeded the reasonable expectations of a human life time which itself has been extended.

We have, as a species, the ability to extend our productivity and consumption by extending these advances to the third world -- and are doing it with our medical and scientific technology-- at a tremendous ecological cost. As the standard of living and expectations of improved living standards are extended to the third world -- we might expect that we are producing more consumers as well. But in fact, we are pushing the worker and consumer status/roles further apart. We are not only shifting the jobs but also the consumption offshore at a rate that is greater than the normal generational turnover we might expect to mitigate the impact of change on the social and cultural systems. The human being's ability to learn and unlearn skill sets that the emergent global economy calls for in today's world economy is not keeping up with technological clock.

Human labor is becoming obsolete faster, and faster. The years required for training are increasing while the years of productive use of that training are decreasing. The years of life as a consumer are being extended while the years of income generation as a worker are rapidly decreasing.

An annual growth rate of 7% produces a doubling of investment (see the rule 72 ( over ten years, so logically on the other side of the equation, it suggests that an amortization of a workers intellectual investment goes to zero in the same time period.

Have you noticed that experience no longer counts when applying for a job as it did once in many jobs? It is rationale for a business to invest in a machine that can be write off on its taxes in ten years, rather than hire a person with years the work experience but who training over the same ten years can not be.

The status/role of human is diminished when one's status as a worker/consumer is bifurcated and the role of the former is discarded as so much "pink slim" i.e. a filler. And one's only true value is as a "loyal" customer with a credit card that has not maxed out yet.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Where does truth reside?

Advertising is designed to lure people to attend to a message and to persuade them to take an action that the advertiser wants them to take. In the end people will decide whether or not to take the action whether the message is truthful or not.

Truth is found where people look for truth. In the modern secular world, that can be anywhere and everywhere. So is it the "customer" hunting for the truth in advertising? Or is it the advertiser hunting for the customer's truth?

I guess the real question is here is "What is truth?" "Would we know it if we saw it?" And, "Would others believe us, if we did?" 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Where are the Ethics and What is a Code?

The Question is: Where are the Ethics and What is a Code?

Once again the American Anthropological Association is going to vote on an Ethics Code. The link here points to a posting on inviting AAA members to cast their vote in reference to a "new"(?) version of the profession's 'code' of ethics. So much time and thought has been spent over the past half century on the question of what is "ethical" anthropology and still we don't know who or what should be subject to a AAA ethical position.

Anthropologists play many professional roles -- most have nothing to do with being an anthropologist -- and are subject to formal and informal codes, standards, and regulations that impact their performance in those roles. Among these roles are: teacher, employee, researcher, consultant, mentor, writer, counselor, administrator, business person, etc.

As a product of the Viet Nam Era, I have followed and been involved in this search for a unique and common ground where being a professional anthropologist creates a moral or ethic obligation that is not covered by the ethical standards already imposed by one or more these roles.

The Society for Applied Anthropology was the first professional association to be seriously concerned about professional ethics. This was stimulated by concern about the role(s) played by American anthropologists in the World War II effort. Today, the SfAA has replaced the ethics code with a procedure for dealing with Conflicts of Interest on the part of members.

Meanwhile, the AAA presented its first concern about ethics in a 1948 resolution on the Freedom of Publication which ran 5 short one sentence paragraphs. The statement basically reenforced the traditional values of academic freedom and scientific inquiry. The Viet Nam era and Cold War politicized the profession. In 1967, the AAA shifted to a more dogmatic debate over professional ethics. The debate aimed at limiting the anthropologist's professional involvement and conduct, especially as it applied to research. At that point in time to be an anthropologist was to be an academic, a researcher and a member of the AAA. This concentration of roles may have justified attempts to circumscribe professionally accepted behavior at the time. Today this is no longer true.

As the AAA has expanded and been transformed from a professional to a membership organization, its claim to be the moral and ethic center for the discipline has been deluded. Today, there are many conflicting interests collected under the AAA tent. Meanwhile the attempt to "codify" its ethic position has ballooned from 5 simple sentences to the present 9 pages of Do's and Don't's. A visit to the AAA Ethics website will show you the evolution of such thinking within the AAA.

While the intend may be honorable, the biggest problem with these codes and the efforts to regulate behavior is that they are without teeth. And, therefore, as a Code of Behavior, they are without purpose. This position is reinforced in the preamble to the current draft where the document does everything it can to deny that it is a code of ethics. Instead, it is presented as an educational tool.

Elsewhere I have been critical of the AAA and its attempt to be both the ethical guru/spokesman for all anthropologist and a disengaged bystander overseeing the behavior of its members' behavior.

So the questions, I ask are: "Why is the current document titled a 'Code of Ethics'?" And, "Is the AAA the right organization to set the moral and/or ethical rules for what it means to be an anthropologist today?"