Anthropologists of the world, unite!

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Chris Harman laments the historical "role of most British anthropology as the handmaiden of colonialism" (In Perspective, Socialist Review, October 2007).

Readers may be pleased to know that today's social anthropologists are not making the same mistakes.

The fact that the US and Britain are losing in Iraq means they are increasingly desperate to look for "solutions". For this they have been turning to anthropologists and other social scientists, who have responded with outrage and clarity.

After the Abu Ghraib torture scandal, it emerged that an outdated ethnography called The Arab Mind had been a part of the US military's torture training, and that its 2006 "counter-insurgency manual" included contributions from at least one anthropologist.

Subsequently the American Anthropological Association's 2006 annual general meeting unanimously passed a strong anti-torture motion and called for the closure of all US overseas prisons.

A motion calling for the immediate withdrawal of all troops from Iraq was also passed. Following a ballot of all 10,000 members, both motions are now official policy of the American Anthropological Association.

It has since emerged that the US military is recruiting social science graduates into newly formed "Human Terrain Teams" to be embedded with combat units in Iraq and Afghanistan. John Wilcox, the Assistant Deputy Undersecretary for Defence, has described mapping the "human terrain" as what "enables the entire Kill Chain".

Early in 2007 Britain's social science and humanities research councils put out a call for research proposals called "New Security Challenges", to inform Britain's "Counter-Terrorism" policy overseas. The Association of Social Anthropologists (ASA) subsequently passed a motion saying that such research is in conflict with the ASA's professional code of ethics, and advised its members not to participate.

A new Network of Concerned Anthropologists is now circulating "a pledge of non-participation in counter-insurgency". A debate on anthropology and the "war on terror" has raged in the pages of Anthropology Today since February.

Perhaps this new politicisation of the discipline will also spill over into a revival of some of the ideas of Leacock, Lee, Childe and other left-wing anthropologists that Harman discussed in his column.

Penny Howard
Aberdeen