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Anthropologist denounces militarization
February 27, 2013 2:15 PM   Subscribe

Marshall Sahlins, a leading American anthropologist, resigned last week from the National Academy of Sciences. This may come as a shock to the scientific community and even to students at NYU. Anyone taking an introductory course to anthropology at NYU, for example, is bound to encounter several readings of Sahlins’s work. Among his more influential works are “Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities,” a case study of the murder of Captain Cook in Hawaii and how it was the result of underlying social factors. Normally, when a scientist or scholar resigns from such a prestigious position, one assumes that he probably committed an irrevocable and egregious error that forever taints his credibility as an academic. However, our assumptions sometimes deceive us. If we explore the reasoning and motivations behind Sahlins’s resignation, we may arrive at deeper insights into the issues at play.
posted by infini (14 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
(Is there a way to enlarge the font on this article that doesn't result in the left edge being obscured by that godawful toolbar?)
posted by cribcage at 2:27 PM on February 27, 2013


It seems to be more about their election of Napoleon Chagnon (previously). A response from him:

Asked to offer his opinion on Sahlins' move, Chagnon wrote in an e-mail, "I am surprised that Sahlins resigned from the NAS to protest my election last year to the NAS. One possible interpretation is that he is displeased with the gradual swing back to to the academic principle that scientists should tell the truth in their publications...."

Chagnon continued, "Sahlins was elected to the NAS in 1991, but he had published his Use and Abuse of Biology in 1976, which should have made clear to the members of the NAS how antiscientific Sahlins was."

posted by zabuni at 2:28 PM on February 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Recent metafilter thread (and pretty good NYT article) on Chagnon.
posted by yoink at 2:30 PM on February 27, 2013


Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of this, he really should have picked a single reason for the resignation. By citing Chagnon and the "militarization of research" he kinda makes it look like he was pissed about the Chagnon decision, realized that that sounded a bit crotchety and personal, and tossed in the "militarization of research" bit to add some gravitas.
posted by yoink at 2:33 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


NAS has been intended to work with any US govt interest, including military, ever since its founding under Abraham Lincoln
This NAS controversy is really about Chagnon, the militarization critique feels like an add-on or even fig-leaf
posted by Bwithh at 2:44 PM on February 27, 2013


and tossed in the "militarization of research" bit to add some gravitas.

It would also be more credible if the collaboration listed in the article wasn't:
As the U.S. military continues to transform itself to accomplish its full spectrum of missions in the 21st century, an efficient and effective research program to inform U.S. military personnel policies and practices is essential. Highly effective leaders and teams must be adaptable and flexible, because they operate in varied, dynamic, and changing environments. Therefore, any program to improve leadership and performance must consider the social and organizational factors that present external influences on the behavior of individuals operating within the context of military environments. This study, performed by an ad-hoc committee with oversight from the Board on Behavioral, Cognitive, and Sensory Sciences, will identify and assess these factors and recommend an agenda for future U.S. Army Research Institute research in these areas.

I'm pissed because this looks like the fluffiness, upper military/civilian management resume polisher. This is them telling people to go off and write some research about military environments, that they will place in a binder, and then place the binder on a shelf. And there it will stay. Now, I could see him being angry at the very presence of military dollars in the sciences, but that train left the station a long time ago.
posted by zabuni at 2:45 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is sad, an example of shallow but trendy stuff being lifted above substance. Chagnon is a bad, bad scientist. Sahlins is a living classic.

An aside: the euphemism for the anthropologists collaborating with the military industrial complex is "human terrain systems".

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of this, he really should have picked a single reason for the resignation.

I'm sure we all have the mental capacity of keeping more than one thing in mind simultaneously. Straw, camel, back, etc. I even suspect that if you were to ask Sahlins himself, he could possibly name even three or more reasons for his resignation.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 2:52 PM on February 27, 2013 [2 favorites]


Normally, when a scientist or scholar resigns from such a prestigious position, one assumes that he probably committed an irrevocable and egregious error that forever taints his credibility as an academic.

Well, no.
posted by Jahaza at 2:55 PM on February 27, 2013 [8 favorites]


I'm pissed because this looks like the fluffiness, upper military/civilian management resume polisher. This is them telling people to go off and write some research about military environments, that they will place in a binder, and then place the binder on a shelf. And there it will stay.

It sounds familiar to something I read about development aid programs. The cynical crone behind my skull wonders if she should reread the Hidden Persuaders again
posted by infini at 2:56 PM on February 27, 2013


This is sad, an example of shallow but trendy stuff being lifted above substance. Chagnon is a bad, bad scientist. Sahlins is a living classic.

No one was lifting Chagnon "above" Sahlins. They would both have been members of the NAS; now only Chagnon is--by Sahlins's choice.

I even suspect that if you were to ask Sahlins himself, he could possibly name even three or more reasons for his resignation.


I'm quite sure he could. However, I'm talking about what is rhetorically effective. To say "I'm protesting Chagnon!" would have been a nice, crisp position--even if it would seem a little pissy and personal (I mean, seriously, the NAS has more than a couple of thousand members--there are going to be people in there whose work you disagree with, no matter what field you're in). To say "I'm protesting the entanglement of the military with academic research!" would have been a bit Quixotic ("you only noticed this just NOW?") but at least a useful conversation starter. To offer them both just sounds silly. Adding any more reasons would, sadly, just make him sound like a grumpy old coot ("And they stopped serving those delicious donuts at our annual meeting, too! Dagnabit!").
posted by yoink at 2:59 PM on February 27, 2013


Resigning in protest? That's soft stuff. When the number theorist Serge Lang heard that the political scientist Samuel Huntington had been nominated to the NAS, he didn't resign -- he launched a massive and ultimately successful campaign urging the members of the Academy to vote against Huntington, whose work Lang described as "a type of language which gives the illusion of science without any of its substance."
posted by escabeche at 3:12 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fuck Yeah Marshall Sahlins! University of Chicago Anthropology has had somewhat of a reputation for intellectual rigor and for being the "upholders of tradition," while at the same time taking a strongly activist approach to ethnography. George Stocking, Terry Turner, and Sahlins himself (among others) were working to expand the scope of the discipline while Chagnon was insisting on a "scientific approach" that seeks to elide the presence and influence of the ethnographer (when he wasn't faking data or abusing his subjects). Chagnon's election would be enough of a reason for someone like Sahlins to resign.

However, Sahlins is also correct about what he sees as the militarization of the sciences. Anthropology has re-examined it's past collaboration with various military programs (from E.E. Evans-Pritchard's participation in the colonial administration of the Sudan, to the involvement of anthropologists in the militarization of S.E. Asian hill peoples in the '60s), and the risk this has created for its subjects, to the point where the AAA will now censure members for participation in any military activity. There is now a perception among many that other disciplines' members have become increasingly complicit in things like torture (Medicine, Psychology), and more generally in a neo-colonial project to extend American power throughout significant portions of the developing world, not to mention the propping up of various undemocratic and authoritarian regimes (sociology, economics). Of course, this was the case back in the '70s (when you could walk across the quad from Haskell Hall and meet the people running Chile) but the past decade has seen many professional associations in the social and other sciences turn a blind eye to their own increasing involvement in these practices. I think for Sahlins, the Chagnon thing was just the last straw.

His position is that the Social Sciences (not to mention Medicine) should not be used as a tool to contribute to the oppression of its own subjects.

Also, Marshall Sahlins has never been afraid to sound crotchety.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:12 PM on February 27, 2013 [5 favorites]


Counterpunch has a much better article with an interview.
posted by zabuni at 4:54 PM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


The story of Captain James Cook is fascinating enough, but then HST wades in..
posted by ovvl at 7:29 PM on February 27, 2013


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