How Others See Us: Anthropologists, WikiLeaks, and the Vertical Slice

This essay draws on Laura Nader’s urging for anthropologists to study up, to consider how their work is used by those in power, and to consider where anthropological knowledge fits within a vertical slice connecting a scattering of anthropologists, research subjects, state actors, and nation states. Nader’s notion of the vertical slice—which focuses on how individual segments of society relate to each other in hierarchical power relations—helps us to consider how power structures shape social formations. The dataset used for this paper’s analysis comes from one of the most significant leaks of the Twenty First Century, the so-called Manning Cables (sometimes referred to as the “Cablegate” files) that were leaked to WikiLeaks in 2009 by Chelsea Manning, and which WikiLeaks began publishing in February 2010. These diplomatic communiques are as a body referred to as “cables,” though the more recent one were originally emails; this designation of “cables” refers to the earliest technology used to transmit these communication which were known as “diplomatic telegrams” (sometimes referred to as DipTel) or as embassy cables, which were confidential communications sent between diplomats stationed around the globe. Chelsea Manning was court martialed for various espionage related charges associated with the leaking of documents to WikiLeaks and was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Her sentence was later commuted to seven years by a presidential order issued by President Barack Obama, and she was released from confinement in May 2017—though she was later imprisoned again after refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks.

This leak made public over 250,000 cables, dating from 1966–2010, coming from 274 United States’ consulates, embassies, and diplomatic missions located in 180 countries. These cables were a mix of unclassified and classified documents, and as such they provide an incredible sample of the larger universe of US Department of State cable traffic, a universe which is generally hidden from public scrutiny.

 While many of the more sensational documents from this massive leak made significant news headlines (such as those relating to US military activities in Afghanistan and Iraq) soon after Wikileaks published these documents, there remains a wealth of more mundane information worth studying; information that can help us understand a range of significant topics relating to the American empire. This paper draws on one of the thousands of subsets of data in this record cache: it examines what these documents reveal about how the US State Department views, interacts with, conceives of, and ignores anthropologists and the field of anthropology.

Seeing Like a State Department: WikiLeaks and the Anthropologists

While the Manning Cables reveal many shocking details of illegal and unethical behavior of US civilian and military actors around the globe, beyond these startling revelations, this dataset provides us was a unique view into what is essentially the mundane realism of state department functionaries daily work.

My interest in this collection draws on Laura Nader’s conception of the vertical slice—essentially a heuristic device to help contextualize various actors’ positions within extant power structures, a tool that can help us consider how anthropology and the work of anthropologists is consumed and viewed by others within the US international political apparatus focused on maintaining US global hegemony.

These Manning Cables provide a unique view of mostly non-public interactions between State Department employees in embassies, consulates and Washington, D.C., and with a scattering of anthropologists. Using the WikiLeaks search engine, searching the Manning Cables for the terms “anthropology,” “anthropologist,” and “anthropological,” I identified 122 cables containing the term “anthropology,” 82 for “anthropologist,” and 31 for “anthropological,” after checking for multiple listings of the same cables, I found these terms appear in 207 unique Manning Cables. The below discussion summarizes the contexts in which anthropology appears in these cables and excerpts passage and critically analyzes anthropology’s appearance in the Manning Cables.

The Manning Cables document no single type of anthropological interaction with the U. S. Department of State. These cables instead show a range of ways that State Department employees interact with anthropological knowledge, or perhaps more significantly they reveal how the State Department views anthropologists, and the emerging narrative finds anthropologists performing many different roles for this audience. These roles include, anthropologists speaking truth to power—sometimes with information that power appears unwilling or unable to understand; advisors appearing to adjust their views to better coalesce with State’s mindset; consultants at times apparently destined to have their work taken out of context and used in ways that would likely make little sense to them; and informing US Consulate or Embassy personnel of developments in remote regions away from the capital or urban centers.

These types of interactions are familiar to most anthropologists engaging with various power structures, though the particulars of these engagements have some unique elements.

Read the full article on Public Anthropologist journal

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