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Controversial Topics in Anthropology in 2008

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Wanted: Anthropologists and other social scientists.
Location: U.S. Combat Zones
Salary: Up to $400,000 annually
Please Contact: The Central Intelligence Agency

While not traditionally considered lucrative or "prestige" work, the knowledge, talents, and services of anthropologists have recently been assigned unprecedented fiscal value by the CIA and the Pentagon. Social scientists embedded in war zones can earn up to $400,000 annually in federal compensation, according to TIME.

In comparison, The New York Times reported that law associates at major New York firms pull in about $150,000 to $180,000 annually, while physicians make between $150,000 to $300,000. A separate Times article placed the annual salary for the "average [Wall Street] bank employee at" $250,000, while researchers and analysts at hedge funds that manage $1 billion to $3 billion will average around $337,000 in 2007.

The average anthropologist makes $25,000 annually as a starting rate and will average $60,000 after 10 to 15 years, according to the Princeton Review.

This counterintuition begs analysis.

Monetary remuneration has traditionally and syllogistically been linked to return over investment. Accordingly, the inherent logic on the part of the Defense Department and the CIA concerning their participation in the meteoric ascent of the field of anthropology into the pantheon of coveted jobs must result from their acceptance that they - just as in all other fields where results matter - will need to pay for talent.

TIME revealed that the Pentagon has financed a $40 million dollar project dubbed "Human Terrain Teams" where four to five-person teams of cultural anthropologists, social psychologists and sociologists will be deployed to all 26 U.S. combat brigades in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The essential premise behind the project's genesis seems to differ little from the impetus behind the hedge funds' willingness to pay top dollar for the best analysts and researchers. To wit, accurate, relevant, and timely data preexists adroit, effective performance.

In 2005, then-assistant secretary of state for public diplomacy Karen Hughes visited Iraq on a "listening tour" as part of an initiative that stemmed from the express intent and peremptory need to mitigate some of the damage caused by the U.S. invasion two years earlier. CNN reported that "she had a tough sell, and many Arabs criticized Hughes for what they called her lack of understanding of the region." That perception persists to the current day, as misguided, incomplete, somnambulant, and just plain wrong information and policies continue to result in misunderstandings and increased enmity toward U.S. troops and toward the White House and American people in general.

But the federal sponsors to these programs expect more than just field research from their Human Terrain Teams, they want them to actually be part of the offensive. That is to say, they want and expect them to be part - an integral part - of the diplomatic and defensive offensive.

When James Glassman was named as Hughes' replacement as head of the State Department's public diplomacy office, Senator Joe Lieberman introduced him to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and proffered that the public diplomacy position is "the closest thing to a supreme allied commander in the war of ideas and one of the most important posts in Washington," according to CNN.

Glassman's immediate boss, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates took a less ebullient stance in a November 2007 speech and opined that "Public relations was invented in the United States, yet we are miserable at communicating to the rest of the world what we are about as a society and a culture, about freedom and democracy, about our policies and our goals."

$400,000 anthropologists apparently exist to attenuate the defense secretary's lament that our ineptitude in disseminating culturally relevant communications is "just plain embarrassing."

But is more rhetoric the answer; even if it's better-informed and well-intentioned?

To the "liberated" yet concomitantly occupied peoples to whom such projects as the Pentagon's Human Terrain Teams exist to pacify, even conciliatory demagoguery must come across as self-serving, demeaning, and semi-aggressive. After all, appellations like "the handmaiden of colonialism," - a fairly long-held pejorative description of the field of anthropology - do not arise independent of just cause. Couldn't smiling spin potentially exacerbate antipathy?

Then there's the money. The corporatization of the scientific disciplines is already a current hot-button issue and paying such comparatively exorbitant salaries to impel the enthusiasm and best efforts of academics has a number of glaring logical flaws.

First, the inherent conflict of interest is staggering. Prior to two years ago, there can be little argument against the premise that an anthropologist - even a brilliant and potential-laden one - understood and accepted that he was gunning for $60,000 two decades into his career. Motivation to excel within his discipline sprang from academic interest, personal fascination with the subject material, and yes, even philanthropic concern.

But even a summary analysis of human nature will yield that such a precipitous change in the going rate may inspire the best and brightest of their field to jettison academic integrity for American foreign policy-coefficient rhetoric in order to secure the salary. The sophisticated and the sophists will undoubtedly be shrewd and ambitious enough to embellish and expand on the preexisting partisan and non-negotiable American take on diplomacy, whether or not it happens to be THEIR scholarly and culturally-informed personal take on diplomacy.

Second, what happens if the pay rate becomes transparent? How does that particular understanding pursuant to the socio-economic status of one's "cultural liaison" inspire trust and goodwill in a citizen of an invaded, war-torn, and severely impoverished nation? The powers that be doubtless see the wisdom in doing all that they can to keep the compensation packages of their goodwill ambassadors clandestine, but chaos theory dictates that these things have a way of making it into the wrong hands. The creative and unorthodox ways in which its citizens are compensated is all the U.S. needs for its occupied would be-allies to be ruminating on while they remain ill able to shop in markets they're afraid to visit.

Finally, the U.S. doesn't need more spin from the formerly spin-abhorrent once they're occupying foreign territory. Relevant cultural information - whether or not its paid for to the tune of $400,000 - is best disseminated and elucidated, with all the vigor and rhetorical prowess a top gun social scientist can muster, as a deterrent to the U.S. blundering and bludgeoning its way into another nation where explanations will be demanded and actions necessarily accounted for.

After all, a $400,000 apology seems rather pricey.

More about this author: Nathan Wada

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