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Presentism revisited

This essay looks at a recent addition to the debates surrounding Human Terrain System (HTS) to argue that proponents of HTS have distorted the history of anthropology in order to justify partnerships between social scientists and the military in the present.

By Nicholas Barron

This past July marked the 50-year anniversary of George Stocking’s seminal paper “On the Limits of ‘Presentism’ and ‘Historicism’ in the Historiography of the Behavioral Sciences” (1968[1965]). Though it is by no means bedside reading material for all anthropologists, this short piece of writing is invaluable to scholars interested in the history of social and behavioral sciences. In this paper, Stocking highlighted the importance of developing what he called an “enlightened presentism” (1968[1965]: 9)–a mode of analysis that views the cultivation of critical accounts of the past for the enhancement explorations of the present to be a necessary component of disciplinary practice. Such a use of history was intended to challenge what Stocking called “presentism” – a form of historical analysis that “wrenches the individual historical phenomenon from the complex network of its contemporary context in order to see it in abstracted relationship to analogues in the present…” (1968[1965]: 4). Presentist accounts of the history of the social and behavioral science, Stocking went on to argue, have a tendency to decontextualize past events and stick them in a narrative that justifies (as oppose to analyzes) present-day practices (1968[1965]: 8).

Cut to November 2015 when Oxford University Press published Social Science Goes to War: The Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan (2015). Co-edited by Montgomery McFate and Janice H. Laurence with a forward from General (Ret) David H. Petraeus, the book offers 10 essays (plus an introduction) from social scientists who participated in the Human Terrain System (HTS) initiative. First launched in 2007, HTS was a counterinsurgency program designed to embed social scientists in combat units in the Middle East. Contributions in this volume range from personal experiences of conducting social analysis in battle zones to more systematic assessments of the successes and shortcomings of the program. On the whole, the chapters do what the book’s synopsis suggests: “…they capture some of the diverse lived experience of HTS scholars and practitioners drawn from an eclectic array of the social sciences” (2015). My comments concern one particular chapter, “Mind the Gap: Bridging the Military/Academic Divide.” Written by McFate, who has been a leading, public defender of HTS, “Mind the Gap” looks to “[explore] in detail the uncomfortable alliance between the military and academic communities” (McFate and Laurence 2015: 41). However, McFate also seeks to explain why anthropologists in particular were so vehemently opposed to HTS so early in the programs development (2015: 81). McFate’s explanation is plagued by a presentism that distorts the history of anthropology and derails the possibility of creating a grounded debate about HTS.

Before I begin, I should state outright that the goal here is not to lob unwarranted accusations against McFate. I agree with her wholeheartedly when she states that a “‘culture of accusation’ within anthropology silences debate and discourages dissent from the prevailing consensus or moral right and wrong” (2015: 84). The history of McCarthism in the academy is a testament to this point (Price 2004). Debate is always healthy. But debate without stable historical footing tends to trip over itself before it even begins.

McFate’s Argument: How Sacred Values Rule Anthropology

In light of the American Anthropology Association’s stance against HTS and the formation of the Network of Concerned Anthropologist, McFate asks: “Why were anthropologists so disturbed that the military was asking for their assistance?” While she admits that “[m]any anthropologists objected to HTS on ethical grounds,” McFate is suspicious of these justifications, for “the moral outrage and the ritual scapegoating occurring in the anthropology community indicated that more than ethics was at stake” (2015: 81). What then was lurking behind anthropology’s condemenation of HTS?
In just a handful of pages, McFate offers the most interesting of answers: “sacred values.” Using Philip Tetlock’s definition, McFate tells us that sacred values are ‘those values that a moral community treats as possessing transcendental significance that precludes comparisons, trade-offs, or indeed any mingling with secular values.’ Sacred Values form an impermeable psychological boundary, beyond which one is thinking the proverbial unthinkable. When sacred values are challenged, individuals will seek to protect themselves ‘from moral contamination by the impure thoughts and deeds implies in the taboo proposals’ (2015: 51).

What are anthropology’s sacred values, the sacred values that turned HTS into the discipline’s bête noire? According to McFate, “[f]or many anthropologists, HTS represented a potential violation of the prime directive of the discipline: do no harm to the people you study” (2015: 81-82). This now obligatory component of both the AAA’s code of ethics and all institutional review boards is by no means beyond reproach. What constitutes harm? How do we measure it? However, for McFate, “do no harm” is suspect for other reasons. It borders on the unpatriotic. “This sacred value even trumps national allegiance: anthropologists’ ‘loyalty to their government has to come after their ethical obligation to the people of the study’” (2015: 82). Additionally, we are told that the valorization of “do no harm” transforms anthropology “‘from a discipline based upon an objective model of the world to a discipline based upon a moral model of the world’” (2015: 82). This last point probably sounds a little off to anyone who has taught or taken an introductory cultural anthropology course in recent years and learned that sound social analysis is not antithetical to moral stances. It might also seem odd to those who have read up on anthropology’s early thinkers such as E.B. Tylor (in Britain) and Lewis Henry Morgan (in the U.S.) both of whom had some form of a moral-political drive behind the veneer of their “objective” projects. To be fair, McFate is joining her point with a quote from Roy D’Andrade (1995: 399). However, McFate might have done well to engage Marvin Harris’s critique of how D’Andrade separates the moral-political and scientific-objective dimensions of anthropology:

"I agree that scientific inquiry must be carried out in a manner that protects its findings from political-moral bias to the greatest possible degree. But this does not mean that scientific inquiry should be (or can be) conducted in a political-moral vacuum. [Harris 1995: 423]

But this is all just window-dressing for the real object of McFate’s critique. The second sacred value: “do not collaborate with the military” (2015: 82). From whence does this value, which “frequently result[s] in ritual scapegoating,” (2015: 83) come?

“Franz Boas, whom many consider to be the father of American anthropology, set the precedent for attacking ‘collaborators’ during the First World War when he argued that some of his colleagues ‘have prostituted science by using it as a cover for the activities as spies” (2015: 83).

McFate than proceeds to recount (briefly) the experiences of anthropologists involved in the Vietnam War and, now, in Iraq who have been publically admonished by their departments and colleagues for their military collaborations. The historical root all of this being Boas, the “attacker” of collaborators.

Upon my first reading of “Mind the Gap,” I became quite excited when I saw Boas’s name appear. What a great opportunity to do just as Stocking once suggested: to recognize that our “predecessors were in many instances asking questions and offering answers about problems which have by no means been closed” (1968[1965]: 12). But just as soon as Boas enters McFate’s history of anthropological condemnation, he leaves as McFate hops, skips, and jumps to the HTS debates of today.

Let us pause for a second and fill in this “gap.” McFate is referring to a letter that Boas published in a December issue of The Nation in 1919 a little over year after the official end of WWI. In his letter, Boas cast aspersions on a group of Harvard anthropologists who had worked for the U.S. government as spies overseas.

In McFate’s narrative this letter becomes the origin of a “thou shalt not collaborate with the military” sacred value and present-day attacks against HTS social scientists. There are several problems with this reasoning. First, Boas was not necessarily saying that anthropologists should not work with the military. He was specifically critiquing the Harvard scholars for using their university affiliations as covers for intelligence gathering:

“By accident, incontrovertible proof has come to my hands that at least four men who carry on anthropological work, while employed as government agents, introduced themselves to foreign governments as representatives of scientific institutions in the United States, and as sent out for the purpose of carrying on scientific research” (1919).

Second, McFate ties Boas’s attack to the “scapegoating” of future anthropologists like Gerald Hickey who is purported to have been denied a promotion at the University of Chicago because of his advisory work for William Westmorland during the Vietnam War (2015: 83-84). She ends this brief historical reflection by drawing connections to a 21st century AAA meeting in which an HTS anthropologist was publically castigated (2015: 84). This is strange reasoning because in 1919 it was Boas who found himself unsupported by the discipline and not the spying anthropologists. Boas had been creating enemies in the academy and Washington establishment for decades due to his theoretical and political (read antiracist) stances (see Baker 1998; Stocking 1968a]). Boas’s opponents within the AAA used the 1919 letter as motivation for mounting a formal censure against him, which remained on the books until it was formally rescinded in 2005. The Harvard anthropologists were never really the victims of scapegoating. For many years, their identities were unknown, and they continued to work in the academy without interruption. If anything, the discipline rallied to their defense (albeit unintentionally) as they pushed Boas out of his position of power. In contrast to McFate’s characterization, it was Boas who felt the brunt of the “attack.”

Third, one walks away form McFate’s narrative with the greater impression that Boas is part of a larger legacy of social science “policy irrelevance.” Earlier in the chapter, McFate cites a 2009 study, conducted by Foreign Policy, a publication co-founded in the 1970s by Samuel Hunington (of Clash of Civilizations fame), that found that “nearly 40 percent of professors of international relations and political science” believed “they had ‘no impact’ on foreign policy or even the public discourse about it” (2015: 51-52). We are told that the sacred values of anthropology, which fuels the gap between the social sciences and the military, emboldens this sense of non-impact for anthropologists as scholars are put in a position where they are only able to critique, not make policy (2015: 89).

To be sure, Boas was not known for designing foreign policy. However, he was by no means a stranger to applied scholarship and partnerships with the state. In many respects, this would have been quite difficult during the earlier years of the discipline’s institutionalization in the U.S. where employment with the American Museum of Natural History and the Bureau of American Ethnology were almost necessary sources of income. Boas worked with both institutions. He also worked with the United States Immigration Commission. Though his conclusions were at odds with the 42 other volumes in a study that more or less provided justification for immigration restrictions, Boas actually sought out this position (Stocking 1968b: 175). His research was later published in the American Anthropologists (1912). Contrary to the impression with which McFate leaves readers, this particular partnership with the federal government would suggest that Boas was by no means policy irrelevant.


McFate is likely aware of much if not all of these historical particularities. In many respects, they are common knowledge in the history of anthropology. However, by not accounting for the context surrounding Boas’s attack, McFate enacts a form of presentism as she strips an event of its historical contingencies and uses it to explain/justify something going on in the present. While I applaud McFate’s desire to reflect on the history of the field in order to address contemporary conflicts, this presentist approach to the situation disrupts the very debate that McFate is calling for because it misrepresents both the past and the present.

What raised the ire of HTS’s most vocal academic anthropologists was not rooted in “an impermeable psychological boundary” set up by Boas, but a concern with anthropology’s relationship with imperial, nation-building projects–especially ones that we now know to have been conducted under false pretenses–and the unintended consequences that such partnerships produce. Consider that in a recent co-authored article, David Price and Roberto Gonzalez argue that HTS reports and the comments McFate made in public interviews simplified and perhaps justified the sexual abuse of children in Afghanistan through the use of hackneyed Middle Eastern stereotypes (Price and Gonzalez 2015). The situation that Price and Gonzalez unpack is far too complicated to be reduced to something as vague as “sacred values.”

If there are connections between Price and Gonzalez article (for example) and Boas’s letter, this has nothing to do with the sacred and everything to do with the historical. Like Boas before them, Price and Gonzales are engaged in a longstanding problem, which has by no means been closed: determining the proper relationships between anthropology as a means of knowledge production and the armed forces as a means of nation-making (and unmaking). McFate’s attempt to create space for this debate is at best half-heart because of the historically shallow orientation of her argument. If we are to seriously contemplate the relationship between the social sciences and the military in the 21st century, we must cultivate perspectives on the past that avoid oversimplification and the neglecting of context.


Baker, Lee
1998 From Savage and Negro: Anthropology and the Construction of Race, 1896-1954. University of California Press.

Boas, Franz
1912 Changes in the Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants. American Anthropologist 14(3): 530-562.

1919 Scientists as Spies. The Nation. December 20

D’Andrade, Roy
1995 Moral Models in Anthropology. Current Anthropology 95(36): 399-408

Harris, Marvin
1995 Comment. Current Anthropology 36(3): 423-424.

McFate, Montgomery
2015 Mind the Gap” Bridging the Military/Academic Divide. In Social Science Goes to War: The Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Montogmery McFate and Janice H. Laurence, eds. New York: Oxford University Press.

McFate, Montgomery and Janice H. Laurence, eds
2015 Social Science Goes to War: The Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan. New York: Oxford University Press.

Price, David H.
2004 Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists. Durham: Duke University Press.

Price, David and Roberto J. Gonzalez
2015 The Use and Abuse of Culture (and Children): The Human Terrain System’s Rationalization of Pedophilia in Afghanistan. Counter Punch. October 9

Stocking, George W.
1968 [1965] On the Limits of “Presentism” and “Historicism” in the Historiography of the Behavioral Sciences. In Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology. Pp. 2-12. New York: Free Press.
1968a The Scientific Reaction Against Cultural Anthropology, 1917-1920. In Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology. Pp. 270-307. New York: Free Press.
1968b The Critique of Racial Formalism. In Race, Culture, and Evolution: Essays in the History of Anthropology. Pp. 161-195. New York: Free Press.





Bronislaw #01

Nicholas Barron

Nicholas Barron is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico. His research concerns the history of 20th century American anthropology, the making of anthropological archives in the American Southwest, and the implication of such archives and the histories they enable in contemporary social life.




BronislawMagazine of provocative open-ended anthropological debate

Who are we? Bronislaw is an online magazine of new anthropological thought and debate. Our main purpose is in one hand to help disseminating anthropological research to a broader public, but in so doing, also to create a space where anthropologists can go beyond the limited frames of academic publishing and allow themselves to develop thoughts and questions that have arisen during research, to broaden fieldwork-based reflections, to expose developing ideas to community debate, or even to join into other contemporary anthropological debates by replying to essays published here or elsewhere.

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