Temple on Price, 'Cold War Anthropology: The CIA, the Pentagon, and the Growth of Dual Use Anthropology'

David H. Price. Cold War Anthropology: The CIA, the Pentagon, and the Growth of Dual Use Anthropology. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. xxxi + 452 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-6125-1.

Reviewed by Chris Temple (Notre Dame)
Published on H-War (March, 2018)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=47672

The book Cold War Anthropology: The CIA, the Pentagon, and the Growth of Dual Use Anthropology is written by an anthropologist about anthropologists. But its message is not intended exclusively for anthropologists. Cold War Anthropology joins a collection of David Price’s book-length works focused on the history of the relationship between anthropology and American intelligence agencies in the second half of the twentieth century.[1] In it, Price offers a three-pronged argument: anthropologists can learn from their past, they ought to carefully consider the high risk and price of surrendering intellectual independence before accepting government research funding, and inherent complexities make it difficult to disentangle lines of participation from lines of responsibility.  

For this work, Price borrows the concept of “dual use” anthropology from its application with the study of the history of the physical sciences. While some anthropologists during the Cold War might have wished for the “pure science” ideal of the detached scholar, the dual use nature of their research contributed to “applied science” goals defined by the government agencies paying the bills. Price’s analysis dissects the research practices of American anthropologists from the 1940s to the 1970s by primarily focusing on the degree to which their funding came from government agencies such as the CIA and the Department of Defense. Price documents the ways in which funding influenced the selection of research projects and how research findings were guided to conclusions amenable to American national security interests.

Price divides Cold War Anthropology into two main sections. The first section considers how anthropologists failed to recognize shifts in American foreign policy thinking immediately after World War II. Patriotic modes of thought prevalent during the war led anthropologists to engage in studies which they might have otherwise recognized as unethical. As the East versus West mentality began to dominate American foreign policy in the postwar period, Price shows how anthropologists embraced federal funding opportunities in both witting and unwitting ways. Price’s second and longer section names individuals, lists organizations, cites archives, and quotes reports to illustrate the numerous connections between American anthropologists and American military and intelligence agencies. Some of these connections were open and explicit, and some were secret. Some of these financial connections were direct, and some were indirect. Price provides numerous examples for each.

One strength of Price’s book is his depth of research, and he has been working on this topic for decades.[2] His application of the Freedom of Information Act yields extensive documentation for the intertwined relationship between American military and intelligence agencies and academic anthropology. Price’s largely self-funded commitment to writing this book testifies to his belief in the democratic principle of fostering an open society where citizens have the right to know. With this openness goal in mind, Price’s book shows who was paying for what and why.

A second strength is that Price’s book is an effective wake-up call. If anthropologists or other social scientists did not already know these historical Cold War details or simply needed a reminder, Price delivers the necessary shot of caffeine.

As a third strength, Price’s book serves as a useful example of social science self-critique. The concept of dual use anthropology can be applied to any academic field. The dual use nature of anthropological research during the Cold War made it possible for researchers to plausibly and honestly defend a project as being of theoretical scholarly importance regardless of its inherent utility for political or militaristic goals. Price shows how a careful consideration of funding sources can illuminate potential influences on the direction and the conclusions of supposedly independent scholarship.

However, Price’s book neglects to grapple with the philosophical questions it raises. Price himself would probably agree that it might be possible for military-funded and CIA-funded anthropological research to be done objectively although his useful book shows how exceedingly difficult such an ideal would be. Price’s book could have grappled more explicitly with the notion held by some anthropologists that CIA-funded or military-funded research might still be objective. As philosopher of science Heather E. Douglas wrote: “For so long, we have been convinced that the value-free nature (or ideal) of science was what made it valuable. Being value free gave science its objectivity; being value free gave science its superior ability to resolve disputes over contentious empirical issues. But the objectivity of science does not fall with the rejection of the value-free ideal. Value-saturated science can still be objective.”[3]

A second criticism of Price’s book comes in the form of a question: Did the Cold War corrupt American anthropology or did the Cold War create it? Or to put the question another way: if anthropology had not been seen as “dual use,” would society at large have considered it to be of any use? Price’s book does not properly credit the Cold War period for anthropology’s growth as a profession. The long history of anthropology suggests that perhaps anthropology does not really have a long history. Anthropology did not emerge as a professionally distinct academic field until the late nineteenth century, when preliterate cultures became a primary subject of study.[4] In the United States, few anthropological societies existed when the journal American Anthropologist first began publication in 1888, and the field’s primary professional society, the American Anthropological Association (AAA), was not founded until 1902. Anthropology in the United States had few funding sources before World War II. However, the AAA grew rapidly in the second half of the twentieth century. When the AAA commissioned a self-study of the relationship of anthropology to science and society in 1953, it focused mainly on the needs of the eligible employers at the time: government agencies, museums, and universities.[6] Rather than casting a suspicious eye on the “dual use” anthropological research funded by agencies acting on behalf of an American society focused on winning the Cold War, we might say that anthropology owes its professional flourishing to the Cold War period. In short, Price deserves recognition for chronicling the hidden influence of the CIA and the Department of Defense on American anthropology from the end of World War II to the 1970s, but his work leaves some of the bigger philosophical issues unaddressed.


[1]. David H. Price, Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), and Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State (Oakland, CA: Counterpunch/AK Press, 2011).

[2]. Examples abound. For an early version of Price’s thinking on this topic, see “Cold War Anthropology: Collaborators and Victims of the National Security State” Identities 4, 3-4 (1998): 389-430. For a more recent but brief article, see David H. Price, “Subtle Means and Enticing Carrots: The Impact of Funding on American Cold War Anthropology,” Critique of Anthropology 23, no. 4 (December, 2003): 373-401. For another brief work, see David H. Price, “Anthropology Sub Rosa: The CIA, the AAA, and the Ethical Problems Inherent in Secret Research,” in Ethics and the Profession of Anthropology, 2nd ed., ed. Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban (Walnut Creek, CA: AltMira Press, 2003), 29-49.

[3]. Heather E. Douglas, Science, Policy, and the Value-free Ideal (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009), 114.

[4]. Jim Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015). In particular, see Turner’s chapter titled “’The Field Naturalists of Human Nature’: Anthropology Congeals into a Discipline, 1840-1910.” Turner argues that philology, the study and love of words, lies at the historical root of the academic disciplines now recognized as the humanities and that anthropology emerged as a new field because it permitted a focus on studying peoples who never wrote anything.

[6]. For a consideration of this report and the history of the AAA in the middle of the twentieth century, see Susan R. Trencher, “The American Anthropological Association and the Values of Science, 1935-1970,” American Anthropologist 104, no. 2 (2002): 450-462.

Citation: Chris Temple. Review of Price, David H., Cold War Anthropology: The CIA, the Pentagon, and the Growth of Dual Use Anthropology. H-War, H-Net Reviews. March, 2018.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=47672

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