The Doctor and the Anthropologist

Note from the Editor-in-Chief: The Human Terrain System is in the news once again. An article in the Boston Globe discusses Vanessa Gezari’s new book, The Tender Soldier, about an ill-fated Human Terrain Team.  Last week, Gezari published an op-ed in the New York Times. A research team at the National Defense University has released a new assessment of the controversial Army program. One of the most contentious of the many debates surrounding the programs concerns ethics.  Thomas Rid of King’s College London has kindly given us permission to reprint his thoughtful take on the subject from three years ago.  It originally appeared on Kings of War.  When I first read it, I was in training as a Human Terrain Team Social Scientist and would later deploy to Afghanistan.  I thought it one of the best pieces of writing on HTS and ethics then and I still think so now. Enjoy.

Many social scientists dislike the military and even the study of war. Now a group of anthropologists is taking action to counter counterinsurgency.

The network of “Concerned Anthropologists” has collected signatures to block Congressional funding for the Human Terrain System, the program that recruits social scientists to help understand the human terrain the counterinsurgency forces in Afghanistan and Iraq operate in.

The reasons for the concerned anthropolgists’ opposition are outlined in an open letter to Congress (.pdf). They say the HTS doesn’t work, that it’s dangerous, and a waste of money. But the most significant criticism, we hear from Hugh Gusterson, a member of the American Anthropological Aassociation’s executive board, is that the HTS “threatens the ethical integrity of anthropology.” The letter adds that the Human Terrain System is “unethical” for “other social scientists” as well.

These are strong words. And they rest on a highly questionable assumption:

Like medical doctors, anthropologists are ethically bound to do no harm. Supporting counterinsurgency operations clearly violates this code.

This statement deserves some more detailed consideration. But first: why am I interested in this? Well, I spend a lot of my time with a medical ethicist and doctor — I’m married to one — and with a cultural anthropologist, a former flatmate here in this conflicted land. But, more on the substance, I’m one of these “other” social scientists myself as well as editor of a new book, Understanding Counterinsurgency, with a chapter on “Culture.” *

That comparison to medical doctors is rather revealing.

Anthropologists are not “like medical doctors.” Yes, both see themselves as scientists, as professions that strive for an ever improving understanding of their human subjects. But the differences are stronger than the commonalities.

Anthropologists are conservative — doctors are progressive. Not in a political sense, of course. But the goal of anthropology is observing societies and communities to better understand them, to document their time-honored ways, and perhaps to help conserve them. For medical professionals, understanding and documentation are nothing but instruments to the real goal, and that is change: to heal a patient, or even to make a community resistant to diseases. Doctors want to improve the human predicament, in the service of progress.

Anthropologists act to observe — doctors observe to act. Proper observation of any other culture than your own (and even your own) is work-intensive and requires a broad skill-set. For many anthropologists it is a preeminent problem that by observing reality, even if done professionally, you always affect it. Some writers like to refer to quantum physics to make the point that, yes, that’s also the case in the hard sciences: the line between observation and participation is difficult to draw — but the less interference, the better. For doctors, that is not even a problem; the point of their profession is to affect reality, to be invasive, the more functional and the more efficient the better.

Anthropologists are often relativists — doctors tend to be universalists. A key tenet of many anthropologically trained social scientists is that you can only understand a community by immersing yourself, through participation, by speaking their language, in a literal as well as in a metaphorical sense. The researcher is not supposed to impose his or her judgment on what is right and wrong, good and bad. These values are relative to a given community. But the anthropologists’ horror is the doctor’s routine: affecting the well-being of others through decisions that are based on statistically generalized information and often universal values of human dignity.

And this brings us to the crux of the issue. Occasionally, doctors actually do harm — because they don’t enjoy the anthropologist’s luxury of inaction. What if a doctor tries do to good but fails and thereby causes harm? Say because he or she made a human error? Or because potential benefits have to be weighed against the inevitable risks of any intervention? — In practice often a difficult decision. And the ethical issues get  worse quickly: what if a doctor treats a victim of torture in an ongoing conflict, thereby allowing the tormentors to continue their harmful work on the same victim? — There just are no easy answers. The conclusion seems inevitable: anthropologists tend to ignore power, because they don’t want to act; doctors can’t, because they feel obliged to act.

Two things are unnerving about this letter. First its seeming naiveté. Inaction is not risk free. In this case, it might actually cause more harm. Just face it: there is no ethically clean choice. Both risk and moral complicity cannot be avoided, they can only be managed.

Then there’s the obvious contradiction. Some anthropologists don’t seem to understand counterinsurgency and they don’t seem to understand the military. The mission’s goal is not “occupation” and the army’s task is not to “do harm.” Perhaps their own advice is not too bad after all? Don’t pass out judgments about communities you haven’t immersed yourself in.

You’d think this is obvious? 1,000 “concerned” anthropologists apparently didn’t and signed.

But let’s not judge too quickly here either. Because the real point is a more general one, a point that indeed affects us “other” social scientists, even political scientists, including those who study war. Can we actually understand power? Can we understand decisions? And even politics without immersion and participation? Without being “embedded”? — The anthropologist would say no, of course not. The doctor might say, well, we just have to.

As far as I’m concerned, I’m with the doctor.

* The chapter’s author, Montgomery McFate, has neither read nor discussed this post with me.


Dr Thomas Rid is a Reader in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and a non-resident fellow at the School for Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, in Washington, DC


Photo Credit: U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Donald L. Reeves 300th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment


CORRECTION: The original Editor’s Note incorrectly said Gezari was a member of a Human Terrain Team. She was not.  Gezari is an independent journalist who has been traveling to and writing about Afghanistan since 2002.