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?"

1 comment:

Eric B. Ross said...

Nice comment! I'd like to see more discussion on this general issue. In the meanwhile, I continue to explore the underpinnings of the Cornell-Peru (Vicos) Project and the reasons it achieved such iconic status.