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date: 21 February 2020

Anthropological Practice in US Military Organizations

Summary and Keywords

Sociocultural 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 applied anthropology in other sectors. Still 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. The controversy is an important source of caution and critique. However, it sometimes masks the complexity of the work context. Few large institutions are truly homogenous. The several million uniformed and civilian personnel who work within 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 not only on 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 applied and practicing anthropology in all sectors, anthropological work with US military organizations 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 also are significant questions about how colleagues can assess the ethical decision making and evaluate the work of those employed in non-traditional roles and settings. Additionally, the field continues to grapple with how anthropologists practicing in this sector can most effectively communicate what they learn about military organizations back into the discipline.