There’s nothing like a combat situation to sharpen ethical dilemmas to their most extreme point. For instance: the US military’s use of anthropologists in the course of their operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. As the New York Times reports, an experimental Pentagon program is embedding “anthropologists and other social scientists” with combat units in the field, and utilizing their professional expertise to alter both strategic and tactical courses of action. The goal here, at least on the part of the Pentagon, is of course to increase the effectiveness of their efforts to control the situation on the ground; some of the embedded scholars think of their work as transforming and humanizing the military, while other scholars accuse them of (in effect) selling their souls and compromising their professional integrity for political ends.

I’d be lying if I said that I thought there was a simple solution to dilemmas like this. In its broadest form, the question “if I have knowledge that can help some actor accomplish goal X, and if the actor is willing to pay for my knowledge and expertise, is it okay for me to sell my services to them?” has bedeviled the social sciences since their inception. No one has a fully satisfactory solution, which is not surprising when you consider the fact that the dilemma goes right to the constitutive heart of the social sciences — indeed, the sciences, but the dilemma is more acute with the social sciences — as distinct modes of knowledge-production.

Let me start, as I so often do when questions like this come up, with Weber. Weber draws an important distinction between wissenschaft (“science”) and politik (“politics”) in a pair of essays treating each of these as a “vocation.” What distinguishes these two orientations is their ultimate goal: the politik orientation is all about achieving results, while the wissenschaft orientation is all about generating knowledge that is in some sense valid. From the fact that Weber treats these separately and somewhat in opposition, one might conclude that he regards these two orientations as complete incommensurate, but that would be a misreading of Weber’s entire analytical stance. Politik and wissenschaft are, rather, ideal-typical notions, and as such can be found in almost every concrete activity to one degree or another; it’s the precise mixture that is important, since there is a tension between the orientations that has to be worked out in various concrete ways.

Consider, for instance, the difference between trying to learn something about social movements (wissenschaft) and seeking to participate in and advance the cause of a social movement (politik). Although there are certainly relatively clear examples of each of these orientations — the pure scholar and the professional activist — there are also a whole bunch of intermediate cases, such as the research department of the social movement or the movement organizer who also holds a faculty position at a university. At each point among the continuum between politik and wissenschaft, the choice between a focus on concrete results and a focus on logical consistency imposes itself, because a preference for one implies a devaluing, however slight, of the other. Do we achieve our desired reforms, even at the cost of some degree of precision or coherency, or do we insist on coherence at the cost of results?

Politik versus wissenschaft, then, is a continual issue rather than a categorical distinction. Rather than there being inherently politik or wissenschaft activities, there are politik-or-wissenschaft decisions to be made all the time. Applied to the matter at hand, this relieves us of the error of assuming that there is something called “anthropology” (or “social science”) that is inherently wissenschaft. Instead, there is a set of aims and goals, and an arrangement of resources and capacities designed to meet particular goals, both in the academic university setting and outside of it. Within the university, the preference is ordinarily given to the wissenschaft disposition, so people are rewarded for the theoretical sophistication and disciplinary integrity of the ways that they generate knowledge rather than the wider effects that their knowledge might provide. It is this arrangement, rather than “anthropology” or “social science” themselves, that is wissenschaft.

Hence, the first question is: what is the goal of the military operations in which these anthropologists are now involved? Clearly it isn’t to produce scientifically valid knowledge about the lives of people on the ground, even of some of these embedded anthropologists are actually conducting covert participant-observation studies. Instead, the goal is to improve the efficacy of military operations, by relying on the anthropologist’s professional expertise on matters like the structure of social conflict and the importance of cultural norms. So it’s an overall politik goal rather than a wissenschaft one; the addition of the anthropologist to the mix does not really have the potential to pull the entire professional activity of the military unit towards social science, even though it might produce a better (both in the ethical sense and in the practical sense) set of professional activities overall. The embedded anthropologist — like, I’d say, the embedded journalist — serves a military purpose rather than a purpose that is strictly governed by the professional norms of their non-military occupation.

In this way, both the embedded anthropologists and their professional critics are somewhat missing the point. The senior science adviser to the program embeedding the anthropologists is quoted in the article as claiming to be “anthropologizing the military,” a ludicrous claim if by “anthropologizing” is meant “turning the military into an anthropological organization.” That would mean, in effect, transforming the current military into Starfleet, and I cannot for the life of me see how simply embedding a few social scientists with combat units is going to accomplish that goal. As long as the main job of the military is to destroy targets and hold territory, there is no way that any military-affiliated knowledge-production enterprise can ever be anything but an adjunct to the overall politik sensibility and orientation of the enterprise.

On the other hand, the scholarly critics of the program — at least according to the article, since I have not seen the letter than some of them are circulating, not being an anthropologist myself — seem to be focusing on the political goals of the U.S. missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, accusing those who participate in this program of covertly supporting imperialism and brutal occupation. Sure, sure — but that’s a critique of the military operation, not a critique of the embedded anthropologists. Indeed, such a critique could justly be leveled at virtually every academic in the United States, inasmuch as we a) train students who may end up in the military or the government; b) give any advice to policymakers about the means rather than the ends of their policies; and c) benefit from a preferential tax code that allows universities to operate as non-profit enterprises while amassing millions of dollars in endowments and other resources. No one has completely clean hands, even the academic critics of the administration’s policies, and it’s ludicrous to pretend that any of us do.

As Stuart Kaufman and I argued elsewhere, the only way to retain some measure of scholarly-professional (wissenschaft) integrity when giving policy advice is to take ends as given and focus on means. I probably should have added: and to remain at least nominally separate from the government, in the sense of not being employed by an agency dedicated to overtly politik goals. There is no way that an embedded anthropologist can meaningfully claim to be operating as an anthropologist when giving advice to her or his unit — they’ve become experts rather than scholars, and unless we are willing to argue for a direct transfer of scholarly knowledge into the applied sphere of practical action (something I am very unwilling to do, not in the least because such a position presumes that scholarly knowledge is a good deal more universally valid than it has ever proven to be) we have to admit that the individual applying her or his analytical skills and base of knowledge to improve the efficiency of a practical operation in a specific situation is doing something radically different than the same individual working to improve our knowledge of that situation.

Hence: I am not sure that there is any problem whatsoever, and I can even see the benefits, of having an anthropologist (or some other social scientist) in a combat unit. Indeed, having a little bit of local knowledge about the region one is patrolling or occupying is probably a good thing — imagine the alternative. [Oh, wait, we don’t have to imagine that; we can just look at Iraq and see what happens when one invades without an adequate knowledge of on-the-ground conditions.] And the critical analytical disposition that one presumably (hopefully?) cultivates through advanced study in the social sciences would be a great asset, both to the unit and to the military as a whole. Also, given the interrelationship of facts and theories — since there is no such thing as a perspective-less fact — means that the introduction of certain facts has the potential, however small, of eventually (if given the proper institutional support) imparting the more humanistic, relational perspective of the cultural anthropologist to other members of the military. But this is a long-term goal, and it would require a lot more than simply putting some social scientists in uniform and deploying them to combat theaters.

At the same time, it would be deeply problematic if the entire anthropological profession became a training arm for military operations, since that would mean the end of anthropology as a social science. The social sciences are always in danger of this kind of annexation to one or another political program, and the government and the military, as large funding agencies, have perhaps a disproportionate chance of influencing how a given social science develops. It is therefore important to retain the institutional autonomy of the wissenschaft orientation, and to be somewhat vigilant about doing so. But simply saying “don’t collaborate” is insufficient to do that. Instead, care has to be taken to point out — As Robert Gonzales does in the June issue of Anthropology Today (couldn’t find a free online version of this, sorry) — that what the military is doing does not count as scholarship.