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One Who Raged Against the Machine


A few mornings ago I saw an announcement that anthropologist Gerald Berreman died this last December.  Berreman was a professor of anthropology at Berkeley for decades who became an important voice of dissent in the 1960s and 70s, speaking out against anthropologists’ interactions with the CIA and other intelligence agencies, and championing openness in science.   Berreman’s early ethnographic work studied caste stratification dynamics in India, and cultural ecology in India and Nepal.

I did not know Professor Berreman well.  We occasionally corresponded and both contributed to an American Anthropological Association (AAA) panel on militarism a few years ago, but his writings, his work on the AAA code of ethics, and his political activism have had a significant impact on my work and on generations of anthropologists who followed him.  I write this brief salute to Gerry Berreman’s ideas with the simple hope that some new generation of anthropologists and other academics might be drawn to his work (his essays like “The Social responsibility of the Anthropologists,” “Ethics Versus ‘Realism’ in Anthropology,” or his book The Politics of Truth) in this disjointed era where notions of knowledge for the public good have been outsourced to cynical opportunists of capital or state.

Berreman was the real deal, a strong early voice speaking out against anthropologists’ collusion with military and intelligence agencies, playing crucial roles in giving legitimacy to the AAA’s efforts to develop an ethics code during the late 1960s and early 1970s.  This was an era when a strong belief in unmitigated science led many to view other cultures as datasets to be explored as needed, but to Berreman, the world was no longer anthropologists’ “laboratory,” but “a community in which we are coparticipants with our informants.”

In the late 1960s he worked on the University of California’s Himalayan Border Countries Research Project.  He resigned this project in early 1968 after its funding became dominated by the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, the institutional predecessor of DARPA).   Berreman understood how Pentagon funds altered the focus of the project and after resigning from the program he publicly critiqued the damaging impacts of these military funds.

In early 1968 Berreman wrote Foreign Relations Committee Chair, Senator Fulbright, notifying him that he had withdrawn from his Himalayan research project because its Pentagon funding had compromised the entire project.  Ironically, it was Berreman’s whistle blowing that later found him arguing with the Indian Extern Affairs Ministry in New Delhi that his funding from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare was in no way associated with intelligence agencies like the CIA.  With Berreman’s previous critiques of ARPA funds, and
weaponpriceRamparts and the New York Times revelations the previous year that the Asia Foundation had been run with CIA funds since its establishment in the early 1950s, the Indian Parliament was suspicious of US researchers, and Berreman learned that “one member charged that the Pentagon and CIA were busy infiltrating spies into the Himalayas, not only as scholars but also as artists, bird-watchers and yogis.”  Berreman understood (with attributions to Mort Fried) that “science has no responsibility, but scientists do.  Scientists are people.  They cannot escape values in the choices they make nor in the effects of their acts.”

But Berreman’s most significant contribution to American anthropology came in the early 1970s, when as a member of the AAA’s Committee on Ethics, he and fellow committee member Eric Wolf became embroiled in a controversy surrounding leaked stolen documents establishing that several anthropologists were assisting American intelligence agencies conducting counterinsurgency operations in rural Thailand.  Upon the revelation of these documents on April 1, 1970, anthropologists Marshall Sahlins and Eric Wolf, and Gerald Berreman issued a statement condemning anthropological contributions to counterinsurgency.   Because Wolf and Berreman were members of the AAA Committee on Ethics, these early condemnation later became the focus of criticism by the accused anthropologists and others, and led to moves to remove Wolf and Berreman from the Ethics Committee.  A 1971 AAA investigation led by Margaret Mead, enraged many AAA members by focusing more criticism on Wolf, Berreman and Joseph Jorgensen, than on the anthropologists engaging in counterinsurgency work.  The Mead Committee report was rejected by the AAA membership, and fallout from the Thai Affair helped press the AAA to approve its Ethics Code, which prohibited secret research, oriented anthropological research towards the interests of research subjects, and required new levels of disclosure.

In 1973, just two years after the AAA adopted its first code of ethics (known as the Principles of Professional Responsibility, or PPR) Gerald Berreman wrote a brief summary of the AAA’s efforts to establish a code of ethics prohibiting secret research.  Berreman concluded that the Association’s struggle over the prohibition had largely been waged along generational lines.  He predicted age-set’s split would determine the final outcome of these divisive issues, arguing that the generational, “reverberations will be felt for many years for the demand that anthropological research be relevant and socially responsible is increasing.  The age structure of the Association and the Association and the mortality of its members virtually assure that these demands will win out in the end.”

Berreman’s optimism was understandable, but history would show him misjudging the extent to which economic forces would shape the attitudes not of some distant unborn generation, but of members of his own generation and the academic-generation that would follow.  It was only be a little more than a decade later that the AAA would revise its ethics code, once again opening the doors for anthropologists to do covert research and to produce secret proprietary reports that studied populations could not access.  Though the motivations for these changes had everything to do with the market forces leading anthropologists to work for industry and a broad array of non-military and intelligence governmental agencies, and little to do with disciplinary members seeking employment with the Pentagon or CIA; but once propped open, these doors would be used soon enough by anthropologists seeking validation for their work for military and intelligence agencies.  Berreman’s early optimism failed to realize just how powerful the economic forces of America’s military industrial complex would be in shaping the attitudes of its anthropologists needing to eat and pay off student loans in an era of limited employment possibilities. These shifts were profound enough even before the coming of the post-9/11 Terror Wars, that in a December 2000 piece I published in The Nation, I wrote that:

“By 1990 the attenuation of anthropological ethics had reached a point where anthropologists were merely “under no professional obligation to provide reports or debriefing of any kind to government officials or employees, unless they have individually and explicitly agreed to do so in the terms of employment.” These changes were largely accomplished in the 1984 revision of the PPR that Gerald Berreman characterized as reflecting the new ‘Reaganethics’ of the [American Anthropological Association]: In the prevailing climate of deregulation the responsibility for ethical review was shifted from the association to individual judgments. As anthropologist Laura Nader noted, these Reagan-era changes were primarily ‘moves to protect academic careers…downplaying anthropologists’ paramount responsibility to those they study.’”

These dynamics would only intensify in the post-9/11 world, where a perfect storm of high student debt, crashing academic employment opportunities, and wild claims of opportunities for anthropologists to do good within military and intelligence agencies waging a terror war with little understanding of the cultures they sought to occupy and conquer.

As far back as the early 1960s Gerry Berreman understood the corrupting features of academic pursuits tied to military sponsors, when he was approached in 1963 by members of Special Operations Research Office (SORO—later to become infamous with its Project Camelot) seeking his assistance with Project PROSYMS, an Army PSYOPS program targeting the peoples of the Himalayas.  He later wrote that he had been told that “in return for information, it was suggested that I might receive money, employment, fringe benefits, and anonymity.  I have received similar offers and inducements not only from SORO but from other furtive organizations and individuals hoping I might have a change of heart and join the ranks of gumshoe social scientists.”

Through his efforts to establish ethical guidelines prohibiting covert research and anthropologists working on projects with secret reports, and for his work advocating that anthropologists’ primary responsibilities be not with sponsors but with the populations they study, Gerry Berreman left a significant mark on American anthropology.  His insistence that scholarship contribute to a public good challenges the decay of our neoliberal age, as does his arguments for public research, which fiercely maintained that, “there is no scholarly activity any of us can do better in secret than in public.  There is none we can pursue as well, in fact, because of the implicit but inevitable restraints secrecy places on scholarship.  To do research in secret, or to report it in secret, is to invite suspicion, and legitimately so because secrecy is the hallmark of intrigue, not scholarship.”

David Price a professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He is the author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State published by CounterPunch Books.


David Price a professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University in Lacey, Washington. He is the author of Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State published by CounterPunch Books.

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