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Cultural Anthropological Practice in US Military Organizationsunlocked

Cultural Anthropological Practice in US Military Organizationsunlocked

  • Kerry B. FosherKerry B. FosherMarine Corps University
  •  and Eric GauldinEric GauldinDavis Defense Group


Cultural anthropologists work with US military organizations in a wide variety of employment situations and roles. Some who work full-time within these organizations conduct research on personnel or teach in schools, holding roles and doing work similar to anthropologists in academia. Others are external consultants, providing advice and research in ways similar to practicing anthropology in other sectors. Others work in less common capacities, such as providing scientific advising, conducting analysis, or designing and administering programs. Most forms of engagement or employment with military organizations are controversial within the discipline of anthropology. The controversy is an important source of caution and critique. However, it sometimes masks the complexity of the work and context. Few large institutions are truly homogenous. The several million uniformed and civilian personnel who work in US military organizations have diverse, often conflicting perspectives on important issues and varying degrees of agency to effect or resist change. Consequently, the opportunities and constraints anthropologists have to affect the institution depend heavily on not only their specific roles but also on where they work within the institution and who their colleagues are. The broad range of the roles and positions anthropologists hold in military organizations, coupled with the complexity of the work context, create challenges for developing ethical and practical guidelines. Practicing anthropologists in this sector must collaborate with colleagues to interpret and meet disciplinary professional standards for ethics, transparency, and quality. The work context and controversy also create challenges for building and maintaining an identity as an anthropologist. As is the case with practicing anthropology in all sectors, anthropological work with US military organizations also has broader implications for the discipline. Connections to powerful institutions, such as corporations or government entities, always bring with them legitimate concerns about how the biases and intentions of the institutions might reshape the field. There are also significant questions about how colleagues can assess ethical decision making and evaluate the work of those employed in nontraditional roles and settings. In addition, the field continues to grapple with how anthropologists practicing in this sector can communicate most effectively what they learn about military organizations back to the discipline.


  • Applied Anthropology


This article provides an overview of the context, types, and considerations of contemporary cultural anthropological practice in military organizations in the United States.1 We draw on the existing literature of practice in this sector, our research and practice within national security over the past two decades, and discussions with other practitioners in this sector over the years.2 Anthropological work with military organizations understandably has been controversial within the discipline, raising many questions about professional ethics. However, controversy over some types of work with the military has sometimes made it difficult to focus attention on the complexity of the organizational context and the many types of practice that can occur within it. As is the case with practicing anthropology in any large bureaucracy, understanding work in this context requires attention to the policies, processes, and formal and informal relationships that are the stuff of daily life. These aspects of military organizations have significant influences on what anthropologists can and cannot accomplish. An understanding of them is necessary for those considering work in military organizations, for the faculty and senior practitioners who mentor job seekers, and for those seeking to understand and evaluate the efforts of anthropologists already working in the sector.

Anthropological Engagement with the US Military and the Literature of Practice

To begin building an understanding of the debates and activities that took place during World Wars I and II and the Vietnam War, as well as connections to anthropology’s earlier relationships with colonial governments, we recommend the work of David Price and some of the core works that captured debates in the 1960s (Fried, Harris, and Murphy 1968; Hymes 1974 [1969]; Jorgensen and Wolf 1970; Price 2008, 2004; Stocking 1982 [1968]). Also useful is the history of anthropology and militarism, an overview of the topic can be found in Hugh Gusterson’s review article (Gusterson 2007). Although not focused exclusively on anthropology, Seymour Deitchman’s account of the attempts of the Department of Defense (DoD) to use social science during the 1960s from his vantage point as a program manager within DoD provides an interesting and at times disturbing outsider’s perspective on the ethical debates in social science at the time (Deitchman 2014 [1976]). Another outsider perspective on debates is the book by the ethicist George Lucas on the ethics of military anthropology, which is focused on contemporary debates but provides some commentary on historical matters (Lucas 2009).

Histories of anthropology’s work with the military up through the Cold War are replete with accounts of well-intentioned anthropologists providing information or guidance that was subsequently misused or simply failed to shift the orientation of a military organization sufficiently to produce meaningful change. There has been a recent effort to recharacterize as less problematic the work of anthropologists during past conflicts (see for example, Montgomery McFate’s book Military Anthropology), but this attempt has been critiqued as thinly researched and for cherry-picking historical facts (McFate 2018; Price 2019). The historical literature points to the concern that work with military or intelligence organizations by a few anthropologists generates risk that all US anthropologists will be assumed to be working for the government, creating problems for the discipline’s ability to carry out fieldwork. This literature also highlights an enduring tension within the field among those who believe the only appropriate stance for anthropologists with regard to the military is one of external critique, those who believe action within or in support of military organizations is acceptable or perhaps even a patriotic duty, and those whose opinions occupy different places within the large space between these two poles. These historical concerns and enduring tension formed the context for the ways the discipline responded to renewed military interest in anthropology in the early 2000s.

In the summer of 2006, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) convened its Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC), conceived after AAA members expressed concerns about the Association’s publication of an advertisement for a position at the Central Intelligence Agency. The CEAUSSIC, of which Fosher was a member, initially was charged with looking at the roles anthropologists play in security organizations, whether or not existing AAA guidelines were sufficient to address work in the national security context, and the ethical, political, methodological, and practical challenges faced by the Association and the discipline as a whole regarding these types of work. The Commission delivered its initial report in 2007 but was extended for two years to address continuing concerns, most notably concerns about the Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS) (Albro et al. 2009; Peacock et al. 2007).

HTS was a program that, as initially promoted, would hire anthropologists to serve on teams in Afghanistan and Iraq.3 The teams were intended to do field research in areas occupied by US forces and advise military leaders.4 The reaction of the AAA membership to HTS, the potential for anthropological work in support of counterinsurgency, and the connection of any such work with militarism/militarization, was very strong.5 While some attention was given to the latter two concerns, most notably in the work of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists (2009), the majority of attention (typically critical) in conferences, publications, and other activities was directed to HTS or the arguments of its proponents (Bickford 2008; Forte 2011; Gonzalez 2009; Loewe and Kelly 2008; Sluka 2010). A few anthropologists attempted to address other culture-related efforts within the US military. Paul Nuti, Rochelle Davis, and Hugh Gusterson provided critiques of the cultural “smart cards” (small, foldable cards with basic information about other cultures) provided to military personnel, correctly noting their factual errors and general inadequacies (Davis 2010b; Gusterson 2010; Nuti 2006). Keith Brown, Rochelle Davis, and Hugh Gusterson critically examined military education and training approaches (Brown 2008; Davis 2010a; Gusterson 2010), and Gusterson and Fosher have highlighted problems with technology-centric approaches to culture (Fosher 2014; Gusterson 2010). However, unlike the pieces on HTS, these critiques tended to address the military organizations themselves. Anthropological work within military organizations, including both research and non-research work, such as policy advising, teaching, or consulting on organizational change, was addressed as a secondary concern, if at all.

While the discipline’s reaction to HTS was understandable given anthropology’s history, the focus on one program had a secondary effect. It led to a situation where many anthropologists assumed that anyone working with military organizations was doing something similar to the work of HTS teams. In reality, many anthropologists working in military contexts were equally concerned about the program and were working to inform military decision makers about the problems we saw. We also were concerned that the discipline’s focus on one program employing relatively few anthropologists was distracting attention from the need for guidelines that addressed the complex ways practicing anthropologists engaged with the military.

A few publications attempted to address other forms of practice. The edited volume Anthropologists in the Securityscape presented cases of anthropological practice with editor comments and author responses on each case emphasizing ethical and political issues (Albro et al. 2012). Another edited volume, Practicing Military Anthropology, offered accounts by anthropologists working in the national security sector that emphasized reflections on their choices, their ethics, and the ways anthropology informed their practice (Rubinstein 2012). The volume Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency contains several chapters written by or commenting on the work of practicing anthropologists (Kelly 2010), and the Handbook of Practicing Anthropology includes a chapter on work with the military (Fosher and Tortorello 2013). The edited volume by those involved with HTS, Social Science Goes to War, includes chapters written by anthropologists describing various aspects of the program and experiences working within it (McFate and Laurence 2015). Several other books and edited volumes, while not explicitly focused on practice, include sections written by anthropologists that point to the kinds of work anthropologists do in this context (Holmes-Eber 2014; Albro and Ivey; Sands and Greene-Sands 2014). In addition, some broader pieces, such as Shirley Fiske’s article on working for the federal government, can provide valuable insights (2008). However, as of this writing, the literature of practice remains considerably smaller than it needs to be for academic colleagues and others to understand and assess work in this sector. The relative thinness of this area of the literature can be attributed, at least in part, to challenges with publishing that are shared across domains of practice.6

Although understandable, the lack of publications by practicing cultural anthropologists in military organizations is regrettable, both because it promotes a perception in the wider discipline of a lack of transparency on the part of military anthropologists about their activities and because it represents missed opportunities to develop the discipline’s understanding of the organizations in which we work and the people who constitute them. The literature of practice needs to grow considerably in order to contribute to ongoing debates about how effective anthropologists can be in creating change in military organizations and challenging the assumptions of military leaders. Between 2005 and 2020, anthropologists seeking to understand these aspects of the work of their practitioner colleagues have tended to rely primarily on documents and, more rarely, interviews with anthropologists working with the military. In his article on conducting research on military and intelligence organizations, Roberto Gonzalez highlights the challenge of finding written source material (Gonzalez 2012). This difficulty in finding formal documentation of military decisions and processes also hampers others’ efforts to understand anthropological practice in this context. The work of anthropologists often is not captured overtly in official documents or, if it is included, is not attributed to any particular person, anthropologist or otherwise. In our experience, the moments when it is possible to “speak truth to power” in this context tend to be just that—moments to speak rather than write. Some anthropological influence finds its way into documents, usually only after we have influenced discourses and decisions through the relationships we have developed with our military and civilian colleagues. Only by publishing accounts of the sometimes-dry details of our daily work with the military can we provide a clearer picture of the opportunities and risks of practice in this sector.

The Context of Practice

The Complexity of Military Organizations

In casual conversations, it is common to hear anthropologists refer to “the Pentagon” or “the military” as though those terms captured some homogenous group of people or superorganic entity. These verbal shorthands are understandable, but mask more than they reveal with respect to understanding the complexity of the military. The Pentagon is not an entity that has agency or its own thoughts and is simply a building that houses all or parts of many military organizations. The number of people who work in it is no longer made public, but as of 2014, 23,000 military and civilian personnel worked there, not including contractors (US Department of Defense 2014). The number of people working in the Pentagon represents a very small part of the overall workforce. The DoD as a whole is structured in a fairly complex way, simplified here and illustrated in figure 1.

Figure 1. Chart showing the macro-level organizations that make up the DoD. Directorate for Organizational and Management Planning, Office of the Director of Administration and Management, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2013. Public domain image.

The secretary of defense is the civilian head of the entire department and a member of the cabinet that advises the president of the United States. The Office of the Secretary of Defense encompasses many offices with functional or oversight responsibilities across the entire department, such as personnel, acquisition, and larger research and development efforts. The Joint Chiefs of Staff serve as an advisory body on military matters to the president, the secretary of defense, the president’s National Security Council, and other entities inside and outside the DoD. The Military Departments and Services, including the Army, the Navy (which includes the Marine Corps), the Air Force, and, for some purposes, the Coast Guard, have the responsibility to train, staff, and equip their respective services but are not the parts of DoD that organize for operations. Operations are left to the geographic and functional Combatant Commands (CCMDs), such as Southern Command or the Special Operations Command, which draw on personnel from the services. Each of the CCMDs has multiple locations and representatives in the Pentagon. In addition, there are Defense Agencies and Field Activities, which perform functions across one or more military departments. Examples include the Defense Logistics Agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency. A more comprehensive overview of the DoD, its processes, and its relationships can be found in the guide developed by the Directorate for Organizational Policy and Decision Support, which is available on the website of the Federation of American Scientists (2019).

To give some sense of the additional depth of the organization, figure 2 illustrates where we (Fosher and Gauldin) are located underneath the block labeled “Marine Corps” in figure 1. Each organizational block above us has a wide range of other organizations for which it is responsible. For example, Training and Education Command, led by a lieutenant (three-star) general, has responsibility for all the organizations involved in developing and delivering training and education across the Marine Corps at facilities in the United States and abroad.

Figure 2. Chart showing the layers between the authors’ group (the Translational Research Group) and the organizations shown in figure 1.

Chart by Eric Gauldin, (2019).

The preceding paragraphs and graphics provide the barest outline of a large, complex, and constantly changing bureaucratic institution.7This outline does not capture one of the most salient aspects of this context, which is the sheer number of people encompassed by the term “the military.” As of March 2019, 2,890,072 active duty and reserve personnel and government civilians were employed in US military organizations (DMDC—Defense Manpower Data Center 2019). The number of contractors working within or supporting DoD is harder to pin down, but one recent government estimate puts the number at 560,000 (US Government Accountability Office 2018).

“The military,” then, consists of more than three million people, a number larger than the population of Chicago and roughly equivalent to the population of Uruguay. There is no single “military culture” that anthropologists can explore and describe. As anthropology has long known, it is analytically problematic to make sweeping generalizations about large populations based on geographic proximity. The same point pertains to institutional affiliation. Anthropologists working with different military services, such as the Army or Air Force, or even different components within a service, such as a training command or an operational unit, can have wildly different experiences. Likewise, most of us who have worked in this context for a few years will report that the political stances, beliefs, and orientations toward the world among our military, civilian, and contractor colleagues are very diverse. Consequently, when trying to understand or evaluate anthropological practice with the US military, it is necessary to gather some detail regarding the organization in which a person works before making judgments about the context in which they work. This lack of homogeneity also has implications for understanding the work anthropologists do.

Common Orientations toward Science in Military Settings

Although the military workforce is diverse, there are some discursive trends that are common and powerful enough that they affect many anthropologists in this context.8 The first of these trends, broadly construed, is an orientation toward science that privileges quantified results, the physical sciences, engineering, and, to a lesser degree, psychology. When you ask people in military organizations to describe science, their responses typically center on ideas of experimentation, hypothesis testing, and similar positivist notions. If the discussion goes further, many will show a more nuanced understanding, and a broader view of scientific activities. However, the first ideas evoked by the word science are much more restricted and, in the absence of longer discussions, tend to shape expectations and reinforce people’s overall orientation toward research and scientific expertise. This orientation has grown out of and been reinforced by the specific histories of the US military’s interactions with scientific communities.9 We are not suggesting that individuals and some organizations do not value qualitative approaches and insights from fields such as cultural anthropology, but the military’s orientation and discursive patterns, along with the structures and processes that have grown out of them, create challenges for military officials who wish to employ qualitative approaches and use the results derived from them to shape policies, programs, or other aspects of the ways their organizations operate.

For example, many of the formal processes used by the military to sponsor science and technology research are geared to facilitate the development of technologies. Even when the intent is to solicit ideas for projects not focused on technology, such as developing approaches for teaching military personnel about culture, the official “Calls for Proposals” tend to be written in terms of research to develop tools and systems, which can render the opportunity invisible to potential researchers. In addition, for the researchers, whether internal or external to DoD, and the organizations sponsoring them, the indicator of “success” in this process is a document called a Technology Transition Agreement (TTA). A TTA is developed when a research effort has produced results that an organization has decided to adopt. It indicates that whatever has been developed is being transitioned from research processes into acquisition processes and will be used by one or more military services. The transition process is complex, as shown in figure 3. Acquisition processes are even more convoluted, as shown in figure 4.

Figure 3. Some of the complexities of transitioning DoD research into implementation.

Source: “Transition of Technology into the DoD Acquisition Process” (presentation), DARPA Webinar. Graphic by Gary Hagan, 2011 cited in Eric Lofgren, “Explaining the valley of death in defense technology.

Figure 4. Some of the main aspects of the process used to purchase items or implement solutions developed through research that have a physical component such as technology.

Source: Defense Acquisition University, 2019. Public domain image.

As shown in figure 3, the TTA process is heavily slanted toward the development of tangible, usually technology-based research outcomes that will be transitioned to acquisition processes, which involve monitoring implementation. This arrangement makes sense if your research is intended to produce a piece of equipment or software prototype. However, how is success signaled if the end result of the research is knowledge that can be used immediately, such as new information about the best way to select or train personnel? When the research results in advice rather than technology, once the results have been delivered, there is nothing else for the military to buy, nothing to transfer. Without the indicators of success in nontechnology research, in the form of TTAs, the process can make it seem like qualitative research is unsuccessful, despite useful results being delivered. When the results of many different science and technology efforts are aggregated into quantitative charts, such as those showing the number of TTAs resulting from a particular research area, for review by higher-level leaders who know nothing about the specifics of any particular project, the lack of familiar success indicators can make it less likely that similar work will be requested and funded in the future.

The processes we have described are not the only way military organizations get work done. There are many smaller, less complex processes, and some organizations are able to fund individual projects directly or, if they have scientists on staff, do research on their own. Even in smaller engagements, as when a military organization sponsors research directly, there can be challenges. It is relatively rare for military officials to have educational backgrounds that would provide them with a solid sense of how long qualitative research takes, the opportunities and limitations of various approaches, or how to frame a problem so that it can be addressed effectively using qualitative approaches.10 As a result, sometimes there are mismatches between the problem and the method requested, such as trying to understand broad changes in organizational culture using only a survey, or other problems with how research or advice is requested (Fosher 2015b).

Likewise, military officials have become used to consuming scientific advice and research results in particular ways. For example, results are usually presented in short bullets on briefing slides in language that is much more definitive than anthropologists normally would use. When caveats and limitations are presented or when researchers try to convey the importance of context, decision makers can get frustrated and dismiss or minimize the relevance of the results.

Common Orientations toward Expertise in Military Settings

An additional pattern in how military officials are used to consuming science, one that is not uncommon in practicing anthropology in other sectors, bears mention here. It affects not only the adoption of advice and results but can also shape long-term relationships—especially employment relationships—that anthropologists develop in this context. Within military organizations, expertise usually is talked about in terms of “subject matter experts” (SME, often pronounced “smee”). This particular framing of expertise has many implications, but we will highlight only two of them. First, the pervasiveness of the SME concept means that officials tend to think of experts as topical experts, valued for the knowledge they have already acquired rather than their ability to develop new questions and knowledge. This orientation can affect expectations and the limit the opportunity to infuse anthropological insights into the thinking process of decision makers. An official primed with the idea of experts as SMEs may be expecting that an anthropologist will show up to an advisory meeting with the needed answer in hand. If the anthropologist does not have an immediate answer but instead wants to develop one based on research and consultation with others, that anthropologist may discover they are not considered the “right” expert. In the context of the US military, somebody else is usually willing to assert that they have the answer. Anthropologists in this situation have the option to mold themselves to the expectation and provide rapid, but underconsidered, answers, a choice we believe to be ethically problematic. Alternatively, they can take a longer view and spend the time developing relationships across the context that can help reshape officials’ expectations and perceptions of expertise.

The second implication of the SME frame is the way it can affect employment conditions. The idea that experts are hired for knowledge they already possess means that the need for ongoing professional development is often overlooked. Often SMEs are treated as disposable commodities, used as long as their knowledge is current and then discarded or marginalized. Time to update knowledge and skills, maintain professional networks, and engage in scholarly activities, such as attending conferences or publishing, is not usually included in position descriptions or contracts. Yet we have observed openness among military officials to changing this aspect of working conditions. We made some progress in one military service in helping reshape official position descriptions and other aspects of the bureaucracy, such as protecting time to write and publish, to be more hospitable to social science expertise. However, DoD is a very large place, and the ripple effects of our efforts are limited. Anthropologists need to advocate early in the relationship for a different approach to expertise and the time needed to maintain it.

In our experience, with time and relationship-building, it is possible to overcome these impediments, as well as the occasional frustration of officials, and develop sufficient mutual understanding to convey anthropological results or insights in a way that can be used. However, that level of sustained engagement is not always available to all anthropologists interacting with the military whose job level or position does not provide them with routine opportunities for interaction with the leaders they hope to influence. In addition, the long-term work of relationship-building and organizational shaping means being willing and secure enough in your job to accept some failures with specific projects in order to pursue the longer-term goal of reshaping the context. The challenges should not necessarily stop anthropologists from taking jobs with or consulting with military organizations but are important for assessing patterns in how and why anthropological knowledge is used, partially used, not used at all, or used in unexpected ways, as well as the extent to which that knowledge has effects across multiple organizations. Also, for those thinking about working or consulting with the military, it does help to know in advance that you are swimming against some strong currents that may make it more difficult for military audiences to leverage your advice than is the case in some other applied settings.

Types of Contemporary Practice

Trying to understand the work of practicing cultural anthropologists based solely on the organizations with/for which they work—including the military—is generally a fruitless task. The fact that somebody works for the Defense Intelligence Agency, Air Force, or Defense Logistics Agency tells you very little about how they are positioned, what they do, and what opportunities and constraints they may have. Likewise, official data on anthropologists in the military is less than helpful. Even when limiting an examination to those employed in federal civil service, it is not possible to get an accurate number of cultural anthropologists employed, let alone a sense of what they do. People employed in the official job series designated for anthropology may not have degrees in anthropology, and many anthropologists are employed under other categories. For example, an anthropologist in a position designated as “social scientist,” such as Fosher, would not show up on an official count of anthropologists working in DoD.11 Asking military and civilian officials within military organizations for such information is also only a partial solution, as they will not necessarily know the educational backgrounds of civilian personnel. As the CEAUSSIC found in its assessment of anthropological work with national security organizations, even if you can figure out who and where they are, it is not easy to create simple categories out of the varied settings, positions, roles, and work that anthropologists do within this domain (Peacock et al. 2007, 9).

To start building an understanding of contemporary practice or when considering employment in or consulting for a military organization, it can be useful to think about four facets: stances with regard to organizations, jobs, roles and specific work activities, and goals.12

Stance: An Anthropologist’s Positionality

“Stance” refers to the position of the anthropologist relative to a national security organization as an employee, contractor, or consultant.13 The most common stances are:

Being employed by a military organization as a civil servant

Being employed by a contracting company and working full-time within a military organization

Being employed by a contracting company or Federally Funded Research and Development Center and providing research, teaching, advising, or other services to one or more military organizations14

Working as an independent consultant providing services to one or more military organizations

Conducting research funded by a military grant

Providing ad hoc, unpaid consulting

Each of these stances has advantages and disadvantages. Some, such as unpaid and independent consulting from a standpoint outside the organization, provide maximum autonomy in terms of being able to choose when and how to engage. Consultants who are not part of a larger business can select which projects to take, which advice they want to provide, and when they want to decline a request. However, because these stances often involve less time around military personnel and contexts, they can make it more difficult to understand implementation contexts or stay with an issue long enough to effect change. For example, a faculty member in a university may receive a request for advice from a former student who is now in the military and making decisions about gender integration. The faculty member can make the choice of whether or not to provide advice without concerns about funding or employment. However, if they know relatively little about the context or how changes are instigated and implemented within it, there is a significant chance that their advice will not be viable and will have little impact. Some stances, such as civil service positions, have the potential to offer greater stability and security, which can be an advantage in addressing controversial topics or shepherding efforts that make take many years to implement. Yet civil service positions can offer less autonomy in choosing what to work on and what requests to decline. In the case of very junior civil service members (or more senior but ambitious members), it can be difficult to say no to requests without fear of a negative performance review or other less tangible negative consequences, such as not being seen as a “team player” and being marginalized. Each stance is also viewed differently by others in military organizations. For example, outside experts can sometimes find it easier to get their ideas heard by senior leaders, but it may be more challenging for them to make those ideas stick than for anthropologists embedded within the organization.

Professional networks of anthropologists working from different stances can be highly effective, allowing a group to leverage the advantages of various stances to move an idea from concept to implementation. In the early 2000s, a loose network of anthropologists (and others) from a wide variety of stances worked together to reframe training and education programs related to culture. Originally focused on language, regional knowledge, and some basic culture-specific knowledge, these programs, as well as the policies that guided them, were gradually reshaped to include greater emphasis on social science concepts and intercultural skills. The result has not been perfect and may not be permanent but is a significant improvement over the original direction, one that would not have been possible without cross-stance work.

Job: An Anthropologist’s Formal Position in a Military Organization

“Job” refers to the specific position an anthropologist holds. Common jobs for anthropologists in military settings include:

Faculty member at a military college or academy

Instructor for training classes

Curriculum developer

Researcher focused on military personnel or organizations

Researcher focused on foreign populations

Research analyst or reach-back center analyst15

Policy analyst

Intelligence analyst

Administrator or program manager

As is the case in any employment situation, anthropologists’ specific job titles, status, and official levels play roles in framing what they are able to do and influence. The specific job matters, in that each type of position affords some opportunities and curtails others. Curriculum developers may have less ability to shape policy than policy analysts. Faculty members in military colleges and universities typically are covered by academic freedom policies that are not available to researchers or instructors in positions outside a college or university. Researchers may have more time to bring rigor to their subject matter than analysts. The perceived status and official level of the job also have an effect. Anthropologists in relatively high-status jobs, such as faculty member or organizational leader, are likely to be able to build and maintain connections that create more opportunities for action than those in lower-status positions. In addition to perceived job status, the official level of the job matters and can be a double-edged sword. In a higher-level position, scope, contextual awareness, and connections can create more opportunities. However, senior positions often come with greater managerial responsibilities, which can decrease the time available for substantive work.

As is the case with work in any sector, within a particular configuration of job title, status, and level, anthropologists sometimes have room to expand or constrain their scope. The degree to which they choose to alter their scope of work depends somewhat on context, but more often on their personal circumstances and preferences. A person with a relatively uncomplicated personal life may choose to push the boundaries of their job, building relationships and taking on more responsibilities, whereas somebody with greater family responsibilities may choose to stay more narrowly within the confines of their official position description. As with stance, anthropologists working together across different types and levels of jobs often can have a broader impact than any one person working alone.

Roles and Work: The Details of an Anthropologist’s Practice

Within any one job, anthropologists commonly hold multiple roles and do different kinds of work. A faculty member may do research and serve as an advisor on policy in addition to teaching and service. Researchers often provide scientific advice to organizations or leaders and may be asked to help organizations implement and measure change. For example, both of us work within the center responsible for providing education and training on culture to the Marine Corps. Gauldin works within the Translational Research Group, an organizational subgroup directed by Fosher, which supports the culture center’s curriculum development and assessment efforts and provides social science research and advice to other Marine Corps organizations. Fosher, a civil servant, holds the official title of director of research. She is the dean for our organization within Marine Corps University and therefore is involved in university governance and administration. She also directs a research group focused on military personnel and organizations, helps reshape the culture centre’s approach to culture-related training and education, directs the organization’s assessment platform, supports the organization’s director in matters of budget, policy, contracting, and staffing, provides scientific advising to a range of military organizations, serves as advisor for students’ master’s theses at Marine Corps University (see figure 5), conducts outreach to scientific professional associations, and occasionally teaches and does her own research.

Figure 5. Aerial image of Marine Corps University and surrounding parts of Marine Corps Base Quantico.

Source: Marine Corps University Facilities Department, 2019. Image provided for use by the authors in this article by Marine Corps University. Public domain image.

Gauldin, a contracted researcher, writes and provides advice for curriculum development to our organization’s training and education efforts, such as the career-long distance education program focused on regional knowledge and cultural concepts. He builds and maintains external working relationships with other individuals and organizations to facilitate research effort coordination and better awareness of our organization and its capabilities, designs and conducts field-based research to support organizational priorities, analyzes and translates research data for use by senior Marine Corps officials and students, and participates in professional and industry conferences and working groups.

While we work on similar topics, our different positionings allow us a greater collective awareness of what is going on with different projects and institutional priorities. For example, we both take a professional interest in how science and technology are understood, discussed, and used within large organizations. Because Fosher is at a higher level within the organization, she is privy to certain projects and lines of effort that are of interest to our organization, such as technologies for making online training available on personal devices. Gauldin is able to spend more time diving into the development of these specific interests and attending meetings and working groups where technologies are discussed. Gauldin can then report back to Fosher with more specific details on the projects, allowing her to use that knowledge at higher-level meetings where organizational priorities are set. In addition, Gauldin’s position as a contractor allows him to develop less formal working relationships across organizations, while Fosher as a civil servant can discuss things with other government and military personnel in topic areas that are not made available to contractors.

Goals: Why an Anthropologist Chooses to Work with a Military Organization

Ascertaining why anthropologists choose to work with the military is difficult, as relatively few choose to publish accounts of their goals and how those have changed over the course of their careers. Yet this question is often asked by our anthropological colleagues in academia and other applied sectors. Do anthropologists make this choice because they support the way a particular political administration uses military force? Do they find military personnel and families a particularly compelling community with whom to work? Could they not find a traditional academic job? Is the pay better? Are they trying to create change from within and, if so, what kind of change? For some, the job is just a way to earn a living. For others, there are deeper reasons for choosing to work in this kind of setting, and a particular job is just a platform from which to work on a broader scope of issues. Intent and goals also can change at various phases of one’s career. A passion for pursuing change may wane when a person is in a phase of life where personal matters, such as children or elder care, take greater precedence than professional concerns.

Questions about goals and intent are rarely asked of those in traditional academic positions, but they are relevant in understanding an area of practice. At the current time, there is no easy way for those of us working with the military (or other applied sectors) to easily communicate the reasons we choose to work where we do and why we stay. However, this situation is improving as new publication venues and repositories are opening and as anthropologists become more comfortable using existing venues, such as social media, to communicate about aspects of their professional lives that do not fit neatly in traditional publications.

Considerations for Working in Military Organizations

Similarities to Other Sectors

Anthropological practice within military organizations is, in many ways, similar to practice within other government agencies or large bureaucracies. (See for example the November 2013 issue of Annals of Anthropological Practice, focused on practice within the US Veterans Health Administration.) In any large bureaucracy, the “organizational culture” is rarely unified, and getting anything done requires an understanding of official and unofficial processes and interpersonal and interorganizational politics. It also requires a nuanced understanding of how individual human agency works within the bureaucracy and the various policies, discourses, and other tools that individuals can deploy to obstruct or facilitate change (Briody 2018). Building this knowledge takes time but is critical for getting ideas heard, understood, and implemented.

Another similarity to practice in other sectors is the interdisciplinary nature of much of the work, such as the need to work with both psychologists and military personnel in providing advice about programs to deal with stress among Marines. In many cases, this aspect of the work can be rewarding, as it allows the anthropologist to draw on a range of perspectives when conducting research and implementing results, despite how challenging it may be to help implementation happen. However, the orientations toward science and expertise that we have described can create situations in which an anthropologist is expected to collaborate with others who do not have credentials or knowledge appropriate to the work. (There also may be times when the anthropologist is the one without appropriate background who has been asked or tasked with participation in a project.) In such cases, it is necessary to weigh both the ethical and practical aspects of the situation. It may be acceptable to muddle through a situation of mismatched expertise if it is possible to guide it in productive directions. Yet there also are times when participating in a particular task simply makes the anthropologist complicit in something problematic that has serious implications for military personnel, the people with whom they interact, or anthropology as a discipline (Turnley 2012). These kinds of choices require active attention, often on a daily basis. For example, if an anthropologist is given the opportunity to comment on a proposed study on gender bias to be conducted by people without appropriate expertise, there may be more involved than a typical academic review. This situation is likely if they know that the research is going to move forward no matter what. Then the question becomes whether to provide a thorough review that will anger people and make it less likely that any of the suggestions will be taken or to recommend smaller refinements that are more likely to be accepted and live with the fact that you did not express your concerns about the research team and are somewhat complicit in any bad outcomes that result. We will now discuss the need for ongoing decision making in more detail.

Time: Getting Ideas Heard and Implemented

There are two aspects of the military as a bureaucracy that have some salient differences from other sectors. The first is the temporal quality of the work. While implementing ideas or results in any large bureaucracy takes time, even experienced anthropologists who have worked with the US military have been surprised by the lengthy time frames involved. It is common for it to take many years, even a decade, for an idea to move from concept to implementation. Sometimes the lag is related to processes that simply move very slowly. However, with anthropological work, we have found that the cause is more often that implementation requires the right opportunity, a combination of having the right decision makers equipped with the right knowledge at a moment when the organization has the time and openness to accept an idea. As a result, we have adapted by focusing on long-term goals and persistence. We accept that research results and advice may not be adopted at the time they are presented. We keep thorough, well-organized, and searchable records and try to maintain awareness of leadership changes and other organizational shifts that could create or hinder opportunities. When we see an opportunity forming, we try to take advantage of the relationships we have developed to get our ideas or results back into the decision making process. For example, in 2013, we proposed conducting research on changes in cultural patterns in the Marine Corps. To conduct the project would have required significant external funding and partnerships. Although we were unable to get the resources at that time, in 2017 the Marine Corps faced a crisis related to gender bias, and asked us to gather Marine perspectives. We were able to design the project to be broader than gender bias, thus capturing Marine perspectives on many aspects of Marine Corps culture (Fosher et al. 2020).

One important consideration for anthropologists regarding timelines in the national security sector is that the use of research or other work may come after the anthropologist has left the organization. For example, one anthropologist in our research group conducted important research on stress and resilience among Marines (Tortorello and Marcellino 2013). Although he left the group some years ago, we are still able to use his project data and results to inform other research and decisions about policy and programming. This option was possible because of the relationships he developed with officials, which helped maintain awareness that the research had been done, his relationships with other social scientists in the organization, which made it possible for his data and results to be preserved when he took another job, and the careful way he documented his work, which made it possible for others to interpret and use it.

As this case suggests, the long timelines involved in work with the military mean that anthropologists often have to take a long view of their goals and forgo any credit for successes if they occur at some future point. It can be rewarding to shepherd an idea through the organizational complexity and long time periods to the point where it can be used, but it is not a context that will be satisfying to all anthropologists. This aspect of the work also complicates matters when others from the discipline engage in the normal professional work of trying to evaluate the impact anthropologists have in military organizations or when we try to highlight our impact to colleagues. Not only are the subtle influences of anthropological practice difficult to trace from the outside, but the impact of a major research effort may be difficult to discern years later.

Transparency and Secrecy in Work with the Military

The second aspect of the military bureaucracy we want to highlight is transparency, particularly issues related to academic freedom and classified work. Anthropology appropriately places a high value on transparency among colleagues. There is at least some acceptance within the discipline that anthropological work in industry may result in research that is proprietary in nature and that those working on behalf of vulnerable populations may withhold some of their work to protect their clients/partners. Yet anthropological practice with the military continues to provoke a higher degree of scrutiny. Anthropologists working in this sector should anticipate this scrutiny and take steps to try to make both their research and their other job functions as accessible to colleagues and the public as possible, something that may require negotiation with employers or sponsors (if the anthropologist is not directly employed within a military organization). In most military organizations, other than military universities and research labs, there is no equivalent of academic freedom and no commonly held expectation that scientists will speak publicly about their work without their remarks being vetted by a public affairs office. It is up to the anthropologist to explain to employers and sponsors the importance of transparency, think through how transparency intersects with the organization’s policies, and make recommendations for practices that facilitate transparency. For example, in our research group, we established a policy that delineates a subset of projects over which the organization has a say in terms of our ability to publish and present (e.g., we do not release the results of program assessments while the organization is still considering them). Under this policy, all other work is presumed to be releasable without going through a public affairs office or other review and can be discussed with the public and colleagues.

Classified work presents special challenges to transparency. In many cases an anthropologist working on classified projects can provide general descriptions of the work but not the specific, classified details. While that level of description may not be fully satisfying to academic colleagues or the public, it often provides sufficient information to assess the ethical dimensions of the work. There are some positions, particularly within the intelligence community, where anthropologists may be expected to remain silent about all aspects of work or even not to tell family, friends, or colleagues where they are employed. The opinions of anthropologists working in this sector vary on this more severe set of restrictions. Anyone considering accepting employment requiring such extreme restrictions on transparency should consult the discipline’s ethical guidelines (American Anthropological Association 2012, National Association for the Practice of Anthropology 2018, Society for Applied Anthropology n.d.). Even classified work with fewer restrictions requires active attention to ethics. Any anthropologists considering working in settings where they will be exposed to classified material need to consider whether the work itself would be considered professionally unethical under current anthropological guidelines.

An additional transparency consideration for classified work is that any publication or presentation on a topic about which the anthropologist has had access to classified information must go through a security review before it is released. This requirement remains in effect even if the anthropologist stops working in government. The process is cumbersome at best and can have a chilling effect on writing and presentation. In turn, the lack of academic production can be seen by colleagues as evidence of undue secrecy rather than simple lack of patience with a bureaucratic process. In our experience, some academic anthropologists believe that any work in a classified setting is inherently unethical. We agree that it can be problematic and requires vigilance and scrutiny, but we believe that some types of work can be conducted in a classified setting while staying within disciplinary ethical guidelines.

Given the challenges, it is reasonable to ask why an anthropologist would seek to get a clearance to be allowed access to classified information. For many jobs in military settings a clearance is not required, but it is for some, even when the position itself involves little or no classified work. For example, as of 2020, anyone teaching in a Navy or Marine Corps school, such as Marine Corps University or National Defense University, is required to have a clearance (Department of the Navy 2006, 6–11). There is no clear reason for this policy unless a particular individual is going to teach classified material or teach in spaces that require a clearance for access, neither of which is a common situation. However, because the requirement to have a clearance was just one element of a larger policy document that would have been very difficult to change, many military organizations just complied. Beyond that type of requirement, there are other reasons. There are times when it is necessary to have a clearance to attend meetings or events where classified information will be discussed. Even if the classified material has no bearing on the anthropologist’s role, it is necessary to have a clearance just to be in the room to do the work. In addition, there are times when classified information can provide important context, such as helping an anthropologist understand why programs or activities are being prioritized. Still, the decision of whether or not to take a position requiring a clearance is a complex one. It can impose career-long constraints on one’s ability to publish and present on certain topics and thus is a choice that should be made only after careful consideration.

We have highlighted transparency and secrecy issues because they are not topics that a potential military employer will bring up during the hiring process. The restrictions associated with a lack of academic freedom or classified work seem normal to the people doing the hiring. Many anthropologists only begin to understand their meaning after they have accepted employment. It is better to ask questions about your ability to be transparent with colleagues and to publish and present before taking a job so that you make a decision with all the information you need.

Professional Ethical Considerations

Much has been written over the past decade on the ethics of working with military organizations, and it may seem repetitive to address the topic again (Albro et al. 2009; Fluehr-Lobban and Lucas Jr. 2015; Fosher 2010, 2012; Lucas 2009; Peacock et al. 2007; Price 2011; Rubinstein 2011, 2012). Yet ethical decision making and debate about the ethical considerations of different types of work are important and normal parts of any profession. In the case of anthropological work with the military, not only are the ethical decisions potentially different from and more complex than those addressed in most people’s graduate education, but heightened scrutiny from colleagues continues. Whether or not this scrutiny is warranted is beyond our scope, but it is a reality faced by those of us working with the military. In our experience, dismissing ethical questions and critique is not the right approach. By engaging in civil discussion with colleagues who have different perspectives, you not only refine your own decision making but also help expand the discipline’s understanding of the military and the types of work anthropologists do within military organizations.

In reviewing recent writing on ethics, such as the pieces cited in the preceding paragraph, a reader will quickly see that authors often are prioritizing different levels of analysis. This situation can result in people talking past one another rather than advancing the debate in substantive ways. To take one example from Fosher’s professional experiences, some in the discipline argue against working with the military on the basis that anthropologists who do so are enabling a flawed system, supporting flawed or illegal operations, or helping advance political agendas that are antithetical to the arguer’s sense of anthropological values. Other anthropologists argue that working with the military helps mitigate possible harm, provides alternatives to violent actions, or gives anthropologists opportunities to advocate on behalf of people in occupied areas. These positions do not really address one another. The macro-level argument does not leave room for the possibility that it may be feasible to do some good in a problematic context. The micro-level argument ignores the broader ethical and political contexts. In conference presentations and informal discussions, more nuanced aspects of ethical considerations do appear, but in the context of heated debates, these more nuanced arguments tend to be drowned out by the polar extremes.

One of our positions in these discussions has been that anthropologists working with the military can accept that they are enabling a flawed system while simultaneously trying to create meaningful, if small, changes from within, something that is not uncommon in other sectors. Our position tends to be countered by an argument that the systems we seek to change are so powerful and entrenched that it is not possible to enact meaningful change. While we accept that we, as is the case with most people, work within a flawed system, we have found this counterargument to be weak in two ways. First, it appears to treat military organizations as a monolith. We take a more agentic perspective, starting with the assumption that organizations are made up of people with at least some degree of agency, which they may choose to exert to support or resist change. From this perspective, change in large organizations may be messy, be difficult, and take a long time, but is possible. Second, the counterargument tends to involve asking for near-term, easily legible evidence of impact as proof that change is possible. Expecting military anthropologists to produce examples of easily legible changes after only a few years is unrealistic given the context and also deprivileges the thought and labor that goes into the very small changes that allow larger shifts to take hold at a later time. We understand the desire for evidence but also believe that those asking for it have to be willing to accept evidence that requires some understanding of the context.

In part because of polarization of the issues and the differences in underlying theoretical positions, the debates of the early and mid-2000s did not provide resolution of the ethical considerations of working with the military. The broader discipline also did not fully address the complex intersection of ethics and politics, an issue that also was not resolved in the debates of the 1960s (McNamara and Rubinstein 2011b, xviii–xix). As of this writing, the professional codes of the AAA and the Society for Applied Anthropology, while focusing on research, provide a basis for starting to think about ethics (American Anthropological Association 2012; Society for Applied Anthropology n.d.). Neither association has published guidelines specific to work with the military, although the guidelines produced by the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology, a section of the AAA, provide a more effective thinking tool for practitioners in all sectors (2018).

Given the number of sectors in which anthropologists work and the complexity of work within each sector, it is understandable that there are no specific guidelines for working with the military. Consequently, anthropologists working with the military, like those in working in other sectors, must engage with the guidelines actively and learn to use them to anticipate and address the inevitable ethical complexity they will face. We believe that the best approach, consistent with the guidelines of the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (NAPA), continues to be developing a routine of thinking about the ethical dimensions of work and of consultation with colleagues who have a range of perspectives on working with the military (Fosher 2010).

Anthropology is increasing its attention to applied work and, through organizations such as NAPA and the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA), improving the utility of its guidelines for anthropologists working in sectors other than academia. More work remains to be done to address issues commonly faced by applied anthropologists, such as more fully accounting for the kinds of work practitioners do, responsibilities to stakeholders as well as research participants, and navigating among different applicable professional codes in the workplace (Briody and Pester 2014; Livoti 2019).

Anthropological Identity in Military Organizations

We want to highlight two aspects of anthropological identity: individual identity and how institutions view anthropology. Relatively little has been written about either of these aspects of identity; we recommend Jessica Turnley’s examination of related issues as a starting point (Turnley 2012).

On the individual level, the primary consideration is how to maintain and project an anthropological identity in an organization that may have very little understanding of what it means to be an anthropologist and in which the formal job descriptions and working conditions were not developed with anthropologists in mind. For those operating from a stance other than full-time employment within a military organization, this matter may not be much of a concern. Anthropologists employed within a military organization need to make choices about whether to foreground their anthropological identity or allow it to take a back seat to an identity more familiar to the organization, such as analyst, researcher, or manager. Those who want to maintain their anthropological identity need to be prepared for ongoing work explaining to colleagues and institutional leaders what an anthropologist is and is not, the contributions anthropologists can make, and the working conditions (such as the ability to be transparent with colleagues) they need to be successful. It also may be necessary to observe changes in bureaucratic minutia, as small changes in policies or documentation, such as position descriptions, that can have long-term effects. For example, a change in policy that refers to research and writing time as “professional development” may suggest to a future supervisor that these activities are rewards rather than a normal part of the job. As with many other aspects of work in this context, the need to explain anthropology is not unique to work with the military, but the fact that uniformed personnel in military organizations tend to change every one to three years can make it more labor intensive.16

Another challenge with individual identity that the military context shares with other practicing anthropology sectors is staying connected with the discipline. Again, this challenge is primarily for those working from a stance within an organization. Officials in military organizations rarely start out valuing time spent communicating with academic colleagues through publications, conference attendance, and service within professional associations. These kinds of activities can be viewed as distracting employees from the work they are supposed to be doing rather than as an integral part of their work. With some officials and in some jobs, it is possible to explain the long-term value of this part of anthropological work. In other cases, anthropologists may have to conduct these activities on their own time. In our experience, the combination of lack of support for such time and the perceived hostility of academic colleagues to work with the military have led many anthropologists working in this context to disconnect from the discipline. While this is an understandable choice, we believe it is especially problematic for those working in the national security context. It cuts the anthropologist off from developments in the field, developments only they are likely to bring into the organization. It also distances them from the debate and critique that should inform ethical decision making and from the professional community that provides support, encouragement, and intellectual stimulation throughout a career. Also, the discipline is changing. In our professional experience, our academic colleagues now are much more accepting of and interested in applied anthropology than was the case in 2010 or even 2015. The changing atmosphere of the discipline is an additional incentive to stay connected.

Another challenge that many practicing anthropologists contend with, and which also exists in military organizations, is the need to use anthropological skills to navigate not only contexts they may be asked to research but also the employment context. Working within and conducting fieldwork for a bureaucratic institution such as the military positions the researcher within a sort of secondary field context. Figuring out what is going on and how things work is much like entering a new field research site, complete with all of the difficulties and confusion inherent in being out of your regular element. Fortunately, the basic tenets of fieldwork are generally clear enough to help the anthropologist to navigate this setting. Numerous times we have seen anthropologists run into obstacles within the military bureaucracy and not employ the field’s skillset to address the issue at hand. The need to use anthropological skills to understand the work context highlights the importance of maintaining professional identity in the office as much as one would “in the field,” because in this context an anthropologist can never truly set aside the fieldwork mindset.

How military organizations see anthropology is an identity issue with implications beyond the experience of any one anthropologist working within a sector. In the most recent renewal of military interest in anthropology from roughly 2005 to 2020, it was common for people with little or no anthropological background to portray themselves to potential employers as anthropologists. These portrayals rarely were questioned by the officials involved, and efforts to correct the situation were sometimes dismissed as academic infighting. In addition, in some cases, an organization ascribed anthropological identity to a person because that was what the organization was expecting, even when the individual involved tried to be clear about their actual degrees. It is easy to gloss these misattributions of anthropological expertise as typical foibles of an organization that has little knowledge of how academic credentials work. However, these types of misidentification can have long-term consequences for military organizations and for anthropology as a discipline. For example, during the time that HTS was active, we often heard military personnel complain about the uselessness of anthropological information. When we tracked down the specific problems, it usually was related to work by somebody on an HTS team who was not an anthropologist and often not even a social scientist. The opinions about the value of anthropology were being shaped by people with no connection to the discipline. Military personnel influence other sectors and often go on to leadership positions in government and business and will take their perceptions of anthropology with them, which may affect perceptions of anthropology well beyond the military.

In the absence of professional associations communicating directly with military organizations to manage how the discipline is perceived, which is unlikely to occur, individual anthropologists have some degree of responsibility to mitigate misperceptions. Direct confrontation with a military official, such as pointing out that their anthropologist is in fact a political scientist, sometimes is dismissed and has little impact. Collaboration among anthropologists working from different stances can be useful here. For example, anthropologists working from a stance outside the organization may be more effective at drawing attention to false portrayals than those working inside, as officials may see those outside as more neutral. However, the most important things anthropologists across all stances can do to help manage perceptions of anthropology as a discipline are clear communication, modeling appropriate behavior, and high-quality work to provide a counternarrative. As with individual-level identity issues, anthropologists should expect that this work will be an ongoing part of their practice.

Communicating Back to the Discipline from Practice in Military Organizations

Those of us working as practicing anthropologists, regardless of sector, face some challenges in communicating about what we do to our colleagues. Some of the challenges are simply habits of communication that can be overcome with attention and time. Others are more difficult to address, such as issues related to freedom to release and discuss our results with colleagues and the pubic or the complexity of communicating in publication and presentation formats designed with academic research in mind.

In terms of habits of communication, practicing anthropologists across all sectors sometimes talk and write more about things that we think academic colleagues will understand than we do about how we spend the bulk of our time. This habit holds for those of us working with military organizations. We describe research projects, teaching, maybe a bit about consulting on policy. We use less time in our presentations, publications, and conversations talking about the complexities of our contexts and other forms of practice, such as the long, slow work of changing discourses through interactions and small changes in the wording of documents. We don’t always convey the importance of influencing the future leaders of the organizations—or as one anthropologist put it, “changing the military, one major at a time”—to cultivate the potential for long-term change.17 We also rarely discuss the ethical complexities we face. This habit may make our conference hallway chats easier, but it does little to help build knowledge of the military within the discipline or to provide useful information to our academic colleagues who are producing the next generation of practicing anthropologists.

Across all practicing sectors, including work with the military, it is increasingly important that we find ways to convey the full range of the kinds of work we do. It matters not only for helping ensure that future anthropologists come to nonacademic roles better prepared for the challenges they face, as well as the knowledge and skills they may need to work in military settings. It also matters for informing disciplinary discussions about issues and organizations, such as the military, where there are barriers to traditional research. While there is a valuable body of anthropological research on the military, controls on access to military personnel by external researchers, as well as where, when, and how often they can interact, make it challenging for researchers to develop the kinds of deeply contextualized, fine-grained knowledge that comes from long-term presence interacting with a group across multiple settings. Anthropologists practicing in this sector, who develop knowledge not only through research projects but also through their daily work and relationships, can help fill that gap. Writing for the discipline from the standpoint of practice does present some difficulties in terms of informed consent from those with whom we work or the way limited word count can be eaten up by describing the how knowledge was developed through practice and addressing questions of employment-related bias (Fosher 2015a).18 However, as anthropology expands its experimentation with newer, flexible publication venues, there will be opportunities for providing more robust accounts of the military informed by practice.

Publishing from a stance within a military organization does require attention to how the working context is different from academia. Anthropologists in civilian universities generally are protected by both policies and laws related to academic freedom and intellectual property. Rarely is there any equivalent to academic freedom within military organizations. The exception to this rule is within degree-granting military colleges and universities, which must have policies on academic freedom in order to maintain their accreditation. Restrictions on publication are not unusual in practicing anthropology, where it is common for an employer or client to expect to have a say in what research or advisory materials, if any, are published or publicly released or presented. However, as a discipline, anthropology has tended to react more negatively to lack of publication, sometimes seen as a lack of transparency, in work done for government entities or large corporations than to work in other sectors. Fortunately, this orientation toward academic publication as the most important indicator of productivity and transparency is changing. Increasingly, anthropology is recognizing the contributions practitioners make through other venues, such as workshops, round tables, and mentoring.

In government work, the handling of intellectual property differs somewhat from its handling in other work sectors. When doing work for a private companies or nonprofits, it may be possible for practicing anthropologists to negotiate contracts that give them intellectual property rights over at least some of the material produced for the client or the ability to use data for independent publications. Yet any research or writing produced on government time or using government resources (e.g., funding, a computer, or office space) is considered to be a “work of the government,” meaning that it cannot be copyrighted by the author, even if an author’s supervisor wants the author to be able to hold copyright.19 For anthropologists working from a stance outside a government organization, it may be possible to arrange a contract that allows for some degree of intellectual property rights, but the baseline assumption is that anything produced for the government will become the property of the government.

The absence of academic freedom policies and the lack of intellectual property rights do not necessarily mean that the research of anthropologists working with the military cannot be released. In some cases, anthropologists have successfully made the case that their ability to maintain the credentials for which they were hired is linked to publication and presentation in scholarly and public fora. Even when such arrangements are not in place, much of the work anthropologists do in military organizations can still be released, although it may take some bureaucratic work and time.

In the United States, whether or not a work of the government is releasable to the public is determined by the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA). For unclassified materials, the government can restrict release only if the material meets one of the criteria specified in the Act, such as classified information or information that could breach an individual’s personal privacy. In fact, within the DoD, there is a requirement that research done in support of military organizations must be posted on the portal of the Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC). While not the same as a peer reviewed publication, this policy does provide an avenue for ensuring that reports are available to one’s colleagues and the public. Still, in daily practice, many things that can be released legally never see the light of day. In some cases, nobody asks for material to be released, and neither the anthropologist nor the government officials involved know about the DTIC policy. In other cases, the officials involved may misunderstand the FoIA or deliberately interfere. Anthropologists working with the military (or in any government setting) are well served if they equip themselves with knowledge of the various policies and laws governing release so they can be effective advocates for transparency.

Regardless of policy-driven constraints and opportunities, in our experience, the reason many anthropologists working with the military give for not publishing and not attending conferences is lack of time—yet another issue shared with anthropological practice in other sectors. For those employed as government personnel or contractors working full-time within a military organization, time and financial support for academic activities often are very limited. Over the course of a career, there will be times when an individual is willing to give up personal time to finish a publication or self-fund conference attendance. It may sometimes be possible to reshape a position description in ways that increase support for staying connected to the discipline. In other cases, the situation just has to be managed. For anthropologists who cannot get work time and support for these activities, we recommend carving out at least some personal time to stay connected to the field and continuing to advocate for support for academic activities in the workplace. As is the case with any profession or academic discipline, anthropological identity, knowledge, and skills take time and effort to maintain. Military officials understand the need for continuous work to maintain professional capability, but it may take time to get the organizational processes and policies to shift and extend that understanding to anthropology.


Given the ethical, political, and practical complexities of working with the military, it is reasonable to question why anthropologists would choose such work, regardless of stance or position. Some of the questions we believe should be considered by those considering work with the military and by those who mentor them are captured in the appendix. The goals an anthropologist brings to the context are varied and may shift over the course of a career. In our case, there are several intertwined reasons. We share a fascination with the interplay of structure and agency in large organizations, and working with the Marine Corps provides an opportunity to observe this across many levels of organization over long periods of time. We are interested in the small changes anthropologists can bring to military organizations that may have larger impacts over time. In addition, while the Marine Corps as an organization can be frustrating to work with, Marines themselves often are interesting and supportive colleagues, and the work is intellectually challenging. Finally, as with anthropological practice in many sectors, work with military organizations affords us a vantage point for the study of organizations and military personnel that can contribute to anthropological knowledge about both.

Key Terms and Issues When Considering Work with the Military

Key Terms and Issues

Questions to ask oneself and discuss with peers/mentors

Issues to discuss with a potential or new employer

Academic Freedom and Intellectual Property: Academic freedom and intellectual property are important concepts that may be interpreted differently by military organizations as opposed to academia. Practicing anthropologists need to be aware of not only what academic freedom and intellectual property policies are in place in their workplaces but also how these policies might be interpreted by others. In addition, even when documents are releasable to the public, it may take some time and perseverance to get them through the various release processes.

Is it important to my career plans that I be able to publish and present freely in academic venues?

Am I willing to conduct my scholarly activities in my time off if my employer won’t support academic work?

How will I respond if an employer refuses to let me share my work?

How comfortable and patient am I with the kind of detail-oriented bureaucratic work that may be needed to get a document released?

Will I be able to publish and present my work in academic venues?

Can scholarly work I do in this job be copyrighted?

If my work has to be reviewed before publication or presentation, what is the process and what criteria will be used?

Civil service/servant : These terms refer to civilians directly employed by the government (as opposed to those who work for a contracting company supporting the government). These individuals tend to have more job security than contractors but are held accountable to certain regulations to which others in the workspace (contractors, informal external advisers, etc.) are not. Individuals in these positions are able to stay in place and serve as institutional memory, which is crucial in a world where uniformed personnel generally turn over every one to three years.

Is it more important to me that I have job security or that I have more flexibility and upward mobility?

What are the organization’s policies on schedule flexibility, teleworking, and professional development and what options will be available in this specific job?

Does this position have potential for promotion?

What are the criteria used in official and unofficial evaluations of performance?

Clearance: Clearances are processes, like background checks, used to assess the suitability of an individual for access to different levels and categories of classified information. Accepting a clearance involves accepting legal restrictions on your ability to discuss the information. It also means that if you want to publish or present about topics on which you have had access to classified information, your work will have to go through a sometimes lengthy and complex review process. The restrictions and review obligation are lifetime requirements.

Are you willing to accept the restrictions a clearance involves?

How might the requirement for review affect publication and presentation later in your career?

Some anthropologists believe that working with classified information is ethically problematic. How would you address their critiques?

Is a clearance required for this job?

What is the review process for publication and how long does it typically take?

What restrictions will there be on my ability to discuss my work with colleagues?

Collaborative and multidisciplinary work: Almost all work within military organization involves some degree of collaboration whether with other researchers, practitioners, or stakeholders. Most of the time, this work is highly rewarding, pushing you to think about problems and solutions in new ways. Other times, you may have to work with people who do not value your contributions or who lack the qualifications to do the work they have been assigned.

What experience do I have (or can I develop) working with partners or teams from other disciplines?

What experience do I have (or can I develop) working with practitioners and stakeholder groups?

How comfortable am I working tactfully with somebody who may not have the right qualifications to do the work but who has been assigned to a project?

With whom will I be working on projects? People from other disciplines? Practitioners?

Who are the likely stakeholders for my projects?

How do you select people to work on research projects?

Contractor: Contractors are individuals under agreement to provide a certain product or service to the government or those employed by a contracting company that provides an array of services to the government. Contracted employment is not as stable as a civil service job, and contracted jobs may lack some insider access. Contractors do, however, generally have more freedom to move among organizations and are not constrained by the same set of rules as government employees.

Is it more important to me that I have job security or that I have more flexibility and upward mobility?

In terms of my goals for working in this sector, can I achieve them as a contractor or do I need to be a government employee?

What are the organization’s policies on schedule flexibility, teleworking, and professional development and what options will be available in this specific job?

What are the criteria used in official and unofficial evaluations of performance?

Disciplinary/professional identity: While one’s professional identity often is very important to an anthropologist, it may not be to a military employer. Military officials frequently do not know the educational backgrounds of their personnel and see it as secondary to topical knowledge or skills. (See also “Subject matter expert.”)

How important is it to me that my employer understand that I am an anthropologist and the capabilities that do and do not come with an anthropology degree?

Am I comfortable with the idea of subsuming my anthropological background into a different kind of professional identity all of the time, some of the time, or never?

How comfortable am I with repeatedly (but calmly) advocating for the particular value anthropology can bring to an organization?

Am I confident in my ability to manage the fact that I may be the face and voice of the entire discipline to a large number of people and with the responsibilities in terms of behavior and work quality that entails?

What about my anthropology degree do you think will be valuable to this organization?

Will I have opportunities to demonstrate the value of anthropology to organizational decision makers?

Are there any other anthropologists in this organization or the ones it works with most often?

What are the educational backgrounds of some of the other personnel in the organization?

Ethical considerations: Professional ethics guidelines for anthropologists tend to focus on research and teaching from a standpoint within academia. Considering the other types of ethical issues that may arise in practicing positions often requires interpretation of guidelines. This is especially true as one moves up in an organization to the point where one’s actions have the ability to shape decisions far beyond the scope and intent of one particular job. Anthropological ethics are not a checklist but a continuous process that takes place within one’s own mind as well as through engagement with colleagues.

What ethical guidelines are available to me from my professional associations such as the American Anthropological Association, the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology, and the Society for Applied Anthropology, and how do they apply to this job?

What do my peers and mentors think are some of the potential ethical challenges I might face?

How will I handle situations that are ethically problematic if not explicitly covered by available guidelines?

Will this organization accommodate my need to adhere to my field’s professional ethical guidelines?

If I have an ethical concern based on my field’s guidelines rather than organizational rules, what processes are available for me to resolve it?

Goals: Goals refers to anthropologists’ reasons for engaging with the military and what they hope to accomplish with the work they do. Continuing to work toward one’s goals often involves both persistence and compromise.

Why am I interested in working with the military and what do I hope to accomplish in the near and long term?

Are my goals likely to run counter to how the military currently thinks about or acts in relation to an issue?

I am interested in helping the organization work on X. Will there be opportunities to learn about and work on that issue?

How can I learn more about how the organization currently thinks about and addresses X?

Job: Job refers to the official position in which an anthropologist may be employed. This can be anything from curriculum developer to university faculty member or scientific advisor. The job one inhabits has direct bearing on the kinds of projects one is able to undertake, as well as their potential to create change and advance one’s career.

Will this job give me opportunities to work on issues I feel are meaningful and make progress toward my goals?

If not, could it be a stepping stone to another job that would?

How might my official title shape perceptions of me within the organization and among anthropological colleagues?

How might accepting this job shape future opportunities?

How are people in this type of job perceived within the organization? What level of status do they have?

What is a typical career trajectory for people in this job?

I notice that the job description does not include X or Y. Will there be any opportunities for me to work on those issues?

Positioning: Positioning in this case refers to the anthropologist’s relative proximity to or contact with influential people and organizations and their ability to effect decisions and knowledge bases. Different positions allow different levels of visibility, access to decision makers, and insider knowledge. This can be a trade-off in many cases. High levels of access may come with high levels of scrutiny and restrictions on transparency.

To what parts of the organization or particular people do I need access in order to do the job and make progress toward my goals?

What compromises, if any, am I willing to make in order to be positioned to influence decisions?

Will this job involve routine contact with X, Y, and Z (people or parts of the organization)?

Are there professional development opportunities that would help me learn more about the activities of X, Y, and Z (people or parts of the organization)?

Practice: Anthropological practice involves using anthropology in various aspects of your job. Practice may look different at varying levels of career and across different positions.

How might anthropology inform work that I do other than research?

Do I have the knowledge of theory, method, and ethics necessary to integrate anthropology in my work?

What can I find out about how a potential employer may view or understand anthropology?

How do you see my background in anthropology being useful to the organization?

Presenting/briefing scientific advice and research results: In most military organizations, advice and results are presented in highly abbreviated form—often in one-page overviews or in a few bullet points on one or two slides. This creates challenges in ensuring the audience is aware of important contextual factors and limitations. It also is a style that is usually an adjustment for anthropologists.

How can I practice presenting my advice or research in highly abbreviated formats?

What is my level of comfort with attention to detail regarding formatting and style?

How comfortable am I speaking about my research without notes?

Can you provide me with one or two examples of research reports or presentations that you found very useful?

What are the preferred formats to communicate scientific advice and research results?

If I need to ensure that an audience is aware of an important limitation or aspect of context, what is the most effective way for me to do it?

Professional association: A professional association is an organization or network of people with similar jobs or backgrounds that provides opportunities for sharing knowledge, developing guidelines, and other matters of interest to the group. Maintaining active membership and engagement with professional associations, such as the American Anthropological Association, the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology, and the Society for Applied Anthropology, is an important element of maintaining awareness of developments in the discipline and its ethical guidelines. Continuing to engage in intellectual exchange and critique is an important aspect of building and maintaining anthropological identity. Military organizations often do not provide time or support for these activities.

Is membership in professional anthropological associations important to me now or might it be at a later point in my career?

Am I willing to pay for my own memberships and conference travel if not supported by the organization?

Am I willing to spend my own time building and maintaining my anthropological expertise and professional networks?

Does the organization support memberships in professional associations and/or travel to academic conferences?

Does the organization support time to maintain professional networks and expertise?

Research, development, technology, and engineering (RDT&E) and science and technology (S&T) programs and processes: The formal processes DoD has for sponsoring scientific work are highly complex and geared toward supporting the development of technologies rather than science. This can make it difficult for scientific projects to be seen as successful. However, there are other ways DoD can sponsor science, either using internal personnel or by funding an outside entity or individual consultant.

How comfortable am I working within the constraints of a detail-oriented bureaucracy to get sponsorship for my research?

What do I know/what can I find out about the organizations and individuals who commonly do research for DoD (academic institutions, defense contractors, Federally Funded Research and Development Centers, and individual consultants?

Am I comfortable with not only doing research for an organization but also helping them figure out how to work my research through any necessary processes?

How do you typically sponsor scientific research?

Role/work: An anthropologist plays formal and informal roles within an organization and in the actual day-to-day work. While official position descriptions may describe some of the scope of the work included, the individual tasks and pacing may change from one year or project to another.

Will the routine business of a typical week in this job be acceptable to me or am I only considering it in hopes of the occasional opportunity to do something I find more important?

What kinds of work will I do in a typical week?

Who else inside and outside the organization will I work with on a regular basis?

What aspects of the military will I learn about in this job?

Will I have discretion and autonomy to take on additional projects?

Science: In common usage, the word science means different things to different people. For most officials in DoD, the word evokes ideas of quantification, experimentation, hypothesis testing, and similar positivist ideas.

How comfortable am I working collaboratively with scientists and practitioners predominantly focused on quantitative and experimental methods?

What knowledge of common quantitative methods and tools would be helpful to me in this setting?

What are some strategies I could use to advocate effectively for qualitative methods?

How does this organization use scientific results? What scientific fields are most trusted?

From where does this organization usually get its scientific input?

I will be bringing in new approaches and techniques. What are some strategies I can use to integrate them effectively with what you already do?

Stance: Stance refers to an anthropologist’s positioning in relation to the larger military and national security sector, for example serving as an independent consultant from within academia or as a civil servant. There are many stances from which an anthropologist may work, both inside and outside an organization. These stances all come with different positives and negatives in areas that include access, job security, work autonomy, and ability to be transparent in one’s work.

How would working from this stance affect my ability to access the people and processes necessary to make progress toward my goals?

Does this stance give me the right mix of autonomy and security?

How might I be able to work with people in other stances to affect processes, policies, and decisions?

If I am working from the stance of X (describe stance), how will that affect my ability to interact with others and access facilities and information?

I think I will be most effective if I can collaborate with people who have similar backgrounds outside this organization. Will that type of networking and collaboration be supported?

Subject matter expert: A subject matter expert (SME) is an individual who is considered to be an expert in a specialized body of information. While seemingly straightforward, the idea that certain individuals come pre-loaded with information and answers can lead to complications and a misunderstanding of what practitioners of certain disciplines may offer.

Is this organization interested in me because it thinks I already have the answers or because of knowledge I can develop?

Am I willing to maintain and develop my expertise on my own time and at my own expense if not supported by the organization?

How does this organization support its SMEs to maintain and develop their expertise?

What does the organization do if it feels a SME’s knowledge is becoming out of date?

Time: The way anthropologists spend and think about their time in the workspace is complicated in several ways. Facilitating sustainable change within any large organization often requires patience and a long view of timelines. Projects often come to fruition long after the individuals who instigated the efforts are gone from the organization. A strategic view of organizational timelines and priorities can help in this. Practitioners also must be consciously aware of what projects they choose to spend time on, as choosing one project means choosing not to take on others. In addition, supervisors and project stakeholders may not be aware of the long timelines involved in research design, fieldwork, and analysis. This requires practitioners to communicate the time needs of a project, as they may not be initially evident to those who request or approve them.

Can I be satisfied with slow, gradual change or very long implementation timelines or would I be happier in an environment that provides quick wins?

Am I good at balancing occasional work on long-term goals or projects with routine work?

Am I good at being prepared to respond to unpredictable opportunities or do I need reliable timeframes?

Can you give me an example that would give me a sense of how long it takes to change a policy or implement research results?

How long do you typically provide for project or research design?

Is the organization interested in and positioned to engage in projects that may take a long time to be adopted or is it more oriented toward short-term goals?

Transparency: It can be difficult for anthropologists in many sectors to make certain that their work and the decisions they have made along their careers are transparent to their fellow practitioners. This should not stop you from making every effort to document what you have worked on, when and why you have recused yourself from certain projects, and how you have arrived at those conclusions. This approach may not please every critic. However, for anthropologists working in a controversial sector, such as the military, to be able to lay out the ethical considerations of the work they have undertaken and be responsive to questions and concerns from others in the discipline is a key aspect of professionalism.

Could my stance, job, or work/roles related to this employment option create any barriers to transparency with anthropologist colleagues?

What kinds of answers do I anticipate providing to anthropologist colleagues who ask questions about the work I do, my relationship with the military, or my ethical decision making?

Am I prepared to listen and respond to critique in a professional and substantive manner?

In my field, transparency is considered an important aspect of professionalism. Are there any restrictions on communication that I should be aware of?

If my presentations, publications, and other scholarly work have to be reviewed before being released, what are the processes and criteria for the review?

Further Reading

  • Albro, Robert, George Marcus, Laura A. McNamara, and Monica Schoch-Spana. 2012. Anthropologists in the Securityscape: Ethics, Practice, and Professional Identity. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
  • Deitchman, Seymour J. 2014 [1976]. The Best-Laid Schemes: A Tale of Social Research and Bureaucracy. 2nd ed. Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University Press.
  • Fiske, Shirley. 2008. “Working for the Federal Government: Anthropology Careers.” NAPA Bulletin 29 (1): 110–130.
  • Fosher, Kerry. 2010. “Yes, Both, Absolutely: A Personal and Professional Commentary on Anthropological Engagement with Military and Intelligence Organizations.” In Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency, edited by John D. Kelly, Beatrice Jauregui, Sean T. Mitchell, and Jeremy Walton, 261–271. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Fosher, Kerry, and Frank Tortorello. 2013. “Military and Security.” In A Handbook of Practicing Anthropology, edited by Riall W. Nolan, 237–246. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Lucas, George R. 2009. Anthropologists in Arms: The Ethics of Military Anthropology. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
  • McNamara, Laura A., and Robert A. Rubinstein. 2011a. Dangerous Liaisons: Anthropologists and the National Security State. 1st ed. School for Advanced Research Advanced Seminar Series. Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press.
  • Peacock, James, Robert Albro, Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Kerry Fosher, Laura McNamara, Monica Heller, George Marcus, david Price, and Alan Goodman. 2007, November 4. AAA Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities Final Report. American Anthropological Association.
  • Price, David H. 2011. Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in the Service of the Militarized State. 1st ed. Oakland, CA: AK Press.
  • Rubinstein, Robert A., Kerry B. Fosher, and Clementine K. Fujimura, eds. 2012. Practicing Military Anthropology: Beyond Expectations and Traditional Boundaries. Sterling, VA: Kumarian Press.


  • Albro, Robert, and Bill J. Ivey. 2014. Cultural Awareness in the Military: Developments and Implications for Future Humanitarian Cooperation. London: Palgrave Pivot.
  • Albro, Robert, George Marcus, Laura A. McNamara, and Monica Schoch-Spana. 2012. Anthropologists in the Securityscape: Ethics, Practice, and Professional Identity. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
  • Albro, Robert, James Peacock, Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Kerry Fosher, Laura McNamara, George Marcus, David Price, et al. 2009, October 14. AAA Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC) Final Report on the Army’s Human Terrain System Proof of Concept Program. American Anthropological Association.
  • American Anthropological Association. 2012, November 1. Principles of Professional Responsibility. American Anthropological Association.
  • Briody, Elizabeth K. 2018. “The Woes of Implementation Practice: Getting Caught by the ‘Program of the Month.’” Journal of Business Anthropology 7 (1): 98–132.
  • Briody, Elizabeth K., and Tracy Meerwarth Pester. 2014. “The Coming of Age of Anthropological Practice and Ethics.” Journal of Business Anthropology (Special Issue 1): 11–37.
  • Brown, Keith S. 2008. “All They Understand Is Force: Debating Culture in Operation Iraqi Freedom.” American Anthropologist 110 (4): 443–453.
  • Clark, Jennifer A. 2015. “Playing Spades in Al Anbar: A Female Social Scientist among Marines and Special Forces.” In Social Science Goes to War: The Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan, edited by Montgomery McFate and Janice H. Laurence, 141–165. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Davis, Rochelle. 2010a. “Cultural Sensitivity in a Military Occupation: The U.S. Military in Iraq.” In Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency, edited by John D. Kelly, Beatrice Jauregui, Sean T. Mitchell, and Jeremy Walton, 297–310. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Davis, Rochelle. 2010b. “Culture as a Weapon System.” Middle East Report (255): 8–13.
  • Deitchman, Seymour J. 2014 [1976]. The Best-Laid Schemes: A Tale of Social Research and Bureaucracy. 2nd ed. Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University Press.
  • Department of the Navy. 2006. Personnel Security Program SECNAV Manual-5510.30. Chief of Naval Operations Special Assistant for Naval Investigative Matters and Security.
  • Directorate for Organizational Policy and Decision Support, Office of the Chief Management Officer, Office of the Secretary of Defense. 2019, March. Organization and Management of the Department of Defense Resource Guide v3.2.
  • Fiske, Shirley. 2008. “Working for the Federal Government: Anthropology Careers.” NAPA Bulletin 29 (1): 110–130.
  • Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn, and George R. Lucas Jr. 2015. “Assessing the Human Terrain Teams: No White Hats or Black Hats, Please.” In Social Science Goes to War: The Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan, edited by Montgomery McFate and Janice H. Laurence, 237–264. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Forte, Maximilian C. 2011. “The Human Terrain System and Anthropology: A Review of Ongoing Public Debates.” American Anthropologist 113 (1): 149–153.
  • Fosher, Kerry. 2010. “Yes, Both, Absolutely: A Personal and Professional Commentary on Anthropological Engagement with Military and Intelligence Organizations.” In Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency, edited by John D. Kelly, Beatrice Jauregui, Sean T. Mitchell, and Jeremy Walton, 261–271. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Fosher, Kerry. 2012. “Pebbles in the Headwaters: Working within Military Intelligence.” In Practicing Military Anthropology: Beyond Expectations and Traditional Boundaries, edited by Robert A. Rubinstein, Kerry B. Fosher, and Clementine Fujimura, 83–100. Sterling, VA: Kumarian Press.
  • Fosher, Kerry. 2014. “Cautionary Tales from DOD’s Pursuit of Cultural Expertise.” In Cultural Awareness in the Military: Developments and Implications for Future Humanitarian Cooperation, edited by Robert Albro and Bill J. Ivey, 15–29. London: Palgrave Pivot.
  • Fosher, Kerry. 2015a. “A Literature of Practice.” Anthropology News 56 (1–2): 36–37.
  • Fosher, Kerry. 2015b. “Reflections on Current Research: Science and Scientists in Military Organizations.” Journal of Culture, Language, and International Security 1 (2): 47–58.
  • Fosher, Kerry, et al. 2020. “Translational Research in a Military Organization: The Marine Corps Organizational Culture Research Project.” Annals of Anthropological Practice 44 (1): 14–32.
  • Fosher, Kerry, and Frank Tortorello. 2013. “Military and Security.” In A Handbook of Practicing Anthropology, edited by Riall W. Nolan, 237–246. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Fried, Morton, Marvin Harris, and Robert Murphy, eds. 1968. War: The Anthropology of Armed Conflict and Aggression. Garden City, NY: American Museum of Natural History.
  • Gonzalez, Roberto J. 2009. American Counterinsurgency: Human Science and the Human Terrain. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.
  • Gonzalez, Roberto J. 2012. “Anthropology and the Covert: Methodological Notes on Researching Military and Intelligence Programmes.” Anthropology Today 28 (2): 21–25.
  • Gusterson, Hugh. 2007. “Anthropology and Militarism.” Annual Review of Anthropology 36 (1): 155–175.
  • Gusterson, Hugh. 2010. “The Cultural Turn in the War on Terror.” In Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency, edited by John D. Kelly, Beatrice Jauregui, Sean T. Mitchell, and Jeremy Walton, 279–295. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Hagan, Gary. 2011. “The Valley of Death: The Divide Between the S&T and Program Management.” In the presentation Transition of Technology into the DoD Acquisition Process, DARPA Webinar, May 4, 2011, cited in Eric Lofgren, “Explaining the valley of death in defense technology,” Acquisition Talk, December 9, 2019.
  • Holmes-Eber, Paula. 2014. Culture in Conflict: Irregular Warfare, Culture Policy, and the Marine Corps. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Hoyt, Kendall. 2011. Long Shot: Vaccines for National Defense. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Hymes, Dell, ed. 1974 [1969]. Reinventing Anthropology. New York: Random House.
  • Johnston, Rob. 2005. Analytic Culture in the US Intelligence Community: An Ethnographic Study. Washington, DC: Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency.
  • Jorgensen, Joseph G., and Eric R. Wolf. 1970. “Anthropology on the Warpath in Thailand.” New York Review of Books 15 (9): 26–35.
  • Kaiser, David. 2011. How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival. 1st ed. New York: Norton.
  • Kelly, John D. 2010. Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Kevles, Daniel J. 1977. “The National Science Foundation and the Debate over Postwar Research Policy, 1942–1945: A Political Interpretation of Science—The Endless Frontier.” Isis 68 (1): 5–26.
  • Kevles, Daniel J. 2006. “What’s New about the Politics of Science?” Social Research 73 (3): 761–778.
  • King, Christopher. 2009. “Managing Ethical Conflict on a Human Terrain Team.” Anthropology News 50 (6): 16–16.
  • Livoti, Tommy. 2019. “Cultural Property Protection and Preservation during Counterinsurgency Operations: A Handbook for Archaeologists Choosing to Serve with the American Military in the Global War on Terrorism.” PhD diss., University of Montana, Missoula.
  • Loewe, Ronald, and Hilarie Kelly. 2008. “The Great Debate: Anthropology Goes to War.” Anthropology News 49 (5): 33–33.
  • Lucas, George R. 2009. Anthropologists in Arms: The Ethics of Military Anthropology. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
  • McFate, Montgomery. 2018. Military Anthropology: Soldiers, Scholars and Subjects at the Margins of Empire. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • McFate, Montgomery, and Janice H. Laurence. 2015. Social Science Goes to War: The Human Terrain System in Iraq and Afghanistan. London: Oxford University Press.
  • McNamara, Laura A., and Robert A. Rubinstein. 2011a. Dangerous Liaisons: Anthropologists and the National Security State. 1st ed. School for Advanced Research Advanced Seminar Series. Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press.
  • McNamara, Laura A., and Robert A. Rubinstein. 2011b. “Introduction: Scholars, Security, Citizenship: Anthropology and the State at War.” In Dangerous Liaisons: Anthropologists and the National Security State, edited by Laura A. McNamara and Robert A. Rubinstein, xiii–xxxiv. Santa Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press.
  • National Association for the Practice of Anthropology. 2018. Guidelines for Ethical Practice. Accessed January 12, 2020.
  • Network of Concerned Anthropologists. 2009. The Counter-counterinsurgency Manual or, Notes on Demilitarizing American Society. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.
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  • 1. The views in this article are the authors’ alone and do not reflect the positions of the US Marine Corps or Davis Defense Group.

  • 2. In this article, we focus on the practice of cultural anthropology in US military organizations. This focus orients us away from several important topics that merit separate attention if a reader is attempting a thorough examination of all anthropological practice within the broader domain of national security. To give just a few examples, our article does not address the roles of anthropologists from other subfields, either when working in alignment with their subfields, for example the archaeologist Laurie Rush’s efforts to integrate cultural heritage management into Army training (Rush 2014), or in roles more aligned with cultural anthropology, for example the work of bioarcheologist Jennifer Clark or forensic anthropologist Christopher King in the US Army’s Human Terrain System (Clark 2015; King 2009). This article does not include explicit attention to work in military or civilian intelligence organizations, such as Rob Johnston’s work with the Central Intelligence Agency or Fosher’s work with Marine Corps Intelligence (Johnston 2005; Fosher 2012). In addition, because of its focus on practice within US military organizations, much of what follows is specific to US institutions. For a discussion of the diversity of perspectives from anthropological communities in other countries, see the School of Advanced Research project, “Dangerous liaisons: anthropologists and the national security state,” on work with the military (McNamara and Rubinstein 2011a).

  • 3. Fosher has considerable experience interacting with the HTS program. In reality, the program was never able to hire more than a few cultural anthropologists. The majority of the “social scientists” employed by the program were from fields other than anthropology, and many were not from fields generally considered social sciences. Of the anthropologists employed by HTS, several were from other subfields, such as archaeology or biological anthropology.

  • 4. As with the disciplinary backgrounds of team members, the description of HTS teams’ purpose changed over time and with audience. At various points, the teams were described as doing research, providing advice for operations, and supporting intelligence activities. In addition, although they were the most visible aspects of HTS, the teams were not the only parts of the system, which also included a training program for team members, US-based “reachback” cells, the development of mapping software, and other components, a complexity that has complicated efforts to assess the program. Based on the work of CEAUSSIC and Fosher’s experience, it was clear that not all team personnel were aware of how the purposes of the teams were being described to either the military leaders the teams would support or the higher-level military organizations making decisions about funding sources or the long-term funding of the program.

  • 5. The types of concerns AAA members expressed regarding HTS and other anthropological work with the military, as well as additional information about HTS, can be found in the reports (Peacock et al. 2007; Albro et al. 2009) of CEAUSSIC. No report or publication can adequately capture the atmosphere and tone of the debates, which often were heated and sometimes involved personalized attacks on anthropologists working with military organizations (Rubinstein 2012). Yet, as the collaboration among anthropologists with very different perspectives on the CEAUSSIC showed, it also was a time of civil discourse on very difficult subjects. As Fosher personally experienced, through the debates it became possible for anthropologists to reexamine their assumptions about the military and about applied anthropology more broadly, creating new opportunities for the discipline.

  • 6. It is beyond the scope of this piece, focused on anthropological practice, to review the growing literature of anthropological research on the military. However, many of the recent works cited in this section contain useful bibliographies, including that literature, and can serve as points of entry for those seeking additional information.

  • 7. An example of the constant change: In 2018, the US Congress passed legislation to re-establish the US Space Command in 2019 as a component of the US Strategic Command. Later in 2018, the US president directed that Space Command instead be reestablished as a full unified combatant command that absorbed the functions of several other entities, such as the Combined Space Operations Center. The Space Command had previously existed from 1985 to 2002 before being merged with the US Strategic Command.

  • 8. When science is mentioned, it refers to a contemporary, broad view of science rather than a reductive or positivist view. In our work, science includes exploratory research and interpretive approaches to drawing meaning from the research experience and information gathered.

  • 9. A detailed description of these histories is beyond the scope of this piece. However, Daniel Kevles’s writings provide good overviews, and useful cases can be found in Kendall Hoyt’s book on the history of vaccine innovation and David Kaiser’s book on the history of physics (Kevles 1977, 2006; Hoyt 2011; Kaiser 2011). In addition, two key artifacts in the shaping of this orientation, Vannevar Bush’s Science, the Endless Frontier, and the final report from Project Hindsight, are available online (United States Office of Scientific Research and Development and Bush 1945; Office of the Director of Defense Research and Engineering 1969).

  • 10. Officials in military organizations can be either military personnel or civilian members of the federal civil service.

  • 11. The Office of Personnel Management uses job series numbers to differentiate between types of employees. The general anthropology series is 0190; the social science series is 0101. Due to the complexities of the personnel system, which are beyond the scope of this article, there is no guarantee that an individual employed in one of these series will have an MA or PhD in a field that most anthropologists would consider appropriate.

  • 12. It also is worth noting that, to the best of our knowledge, most anthropologists working with the military either work within or engage with what is referred to as the “supporting establishment” rather than the “operating forces.” They work with the parts of military organizations concerned with personnel, training and education, health, policy, and strategy, among others, rather than with the parts of the organizations that are actively preparing for or involved in operations. Exceptions include situations where an anthropologist is asked to consult directly for a unit or program, such as the HTS, through which an anthropologist may work with deployed units.

  • 13. At the current time, there are no US military specialties or billets with anthropology as part of the specification. Anthropologists, for example Christopher Varhola and Tommy Livoti, have served in the military, but in different roles.

  • 14. Federally Funded Research and Development Centers, such as RAND or MITRE, are organizations based on partnerships between corporations or academic institutions and the US government and conduct research for government entities. These centers operate under specific federal regulations and may work with greater access to government data, personnel, and facilities than normal government contractors. Additional information is available in the Code of Federal Regulations, title 48, pt. 35, sec. 35.017 (accessed June 4, 2020).

  • 15. In many cases, analysts perform tasks anthropologists would think of as research-related. However, they less often design and conduct large research efforts. The terms “analyst” and “researcher” do not have precise definitions within DoD, so it is not possible to make an absolute distinction. A reach-back center is an organization that responds to questions from military personnel who are in operational settings. For example, the HTS maintained a reach-back center to provide cultural analysis to military personnel.

  • 16. Military personnel rotate through different assignments every few years. It is rare for an individual to stay in the same assignment for more than three years.

  • 17. “Major” is a midlevel officer rank.

  • 18. Informed consent is a requirement in the AAA’sPrinciples of Professional Responsibility, regardless of whether or not an Institutional Review Board has reviewed a research protocol. In this case, we are talking about knowledge that comes from conversations with colleagues where no research protocol is involved. Current professional guidelines are unclear about whether informed consent is required to use knowledge gained through collegial conversation in publications.

  • 19. The prohibition on holding copyright is starting to change, at least for civilian faculty in military colleges and universities. In 2019, the US Congress enacted a change to copyright law that allows civilian faculty of certain military educational institutions to retain copyright for scholarly works. The details of how this change will be enacted are still being worked out as of 2020.