Should the American Anthropological Association “denounce the current human rights violations in Honduras” and “support Hondurans that… continue to resist the June 28, 2009 military coup in their country”? This question, put to a vote of AAA members, passed by a margin of 656-166 in online voting that ended last Friday. Taking a stand on a Central American coup may seem like an odd topic of concern for an academic organization. Increasingly it seems that no such organization is complete without a foreign policy of is own; from Iraq to Afghanistan to nuclear disarmament.
Organizations based on academic disciplines, traditionally balanced and detached from politics, have been sliding toward political advocacy since the 1960s. The American Anthropological Association was founded in 1902 to “promote the science of anthropology, to stimulate and coordinate the efforts of American anthropologists, to foster local and other societies devoted to anthropology, to serve as a bond among American anthropologists and anthropologic[al] organizations present and prospective, and to publish and encourage the publication of matter pertaining to anthropology”. The relation of Honduran policy to this purpose remains unclear.
In 2006 the American Historical Association passed a resolution urging members to “do whatever they can to bring the Iraq was to a speedy conclusion.” The resolution declared that “interrogation techniques at Guantanamo,” “the re-classification of government documents” and other practices, were “inextricably linked to the war.” It passed by a margin of 75% to 24%. The resolution flatly identified the war as a danger to the historical profession itself, asserting that the conflict and the Bush administration’s related policies imperiled “the unfettered intellectual inquiry essential to the practice of historical research, writing, and teaching.” On questions from the Iraq war to affirmative action to statehood for the District of Columbia and same-sex marriage, academic associations now regularly issue partisan resolutions that present opinions on contentious political issues as professional certainties.
The AHA Iraq resolution is a prime example of how easily political zeal tramples routine standards of argument in the most distinguished academic organizations. Many historians objected to the logical foundation of the resolution, damning a war on the basis of several tenuously-related Bush administration policies. As Martin Wiener, a Professor of History at Rice University observed in a comment at Inside Higher Ed.com, “the level of argument linking the two would surely have been given a failing grade if submitted by an undergraduate.” On similar grounds, you might think that Japanese internment would have decisively invalidated World War II. Others wondered how the war posed an evident danger to an organization incorporated “for the promotion of historical studies, the collection and preservation of historical documents and artifacts, and the dissemination of historical research.”
An astonishingly succinct example of the mindset behind this politicking appeared in “The Neoliberal Challenge,” an essay by Frances Fox Piven in the Summer 2007 edition of Contexts, a journal of the American Sociological Association intended for a non-academic audience. Piven, then President of the American Sociological Association and a pioneer in “public sociology” efforts to wed advocacy to scholarship, offered the following revealing thought:
“..neoliberalism [i.e., modern conservatism] is not only an attack on 20th-century social democratic policies and culture. Although we were slow to recognize it, Thatcher and the neoliberal project she championed declared war on the basic tenets of the sociological enterprise. To be sure, we also study individuals and families, but the sociological enterprise rejects the radical individualism of Thatcher and the personal responsibility plank of the Republican “Contract with America.”
Piven is a famed academic radical, yet suppositions of exactly this sort that now guide numerous academic organizations. It’s not clear how Margaret Thatcher or the Contract with America directly threatened “the scientific study of society,” as sociology is most commonly defined, but many academics no longer seem to admit any distinction between their prescriptive beliefs and the objective interests of a discipline. Jonathan Imber, professor of sociology at Wellesley College, commented that “the sheer vagueness of her accusations suggests that she rejects anything like a scientific, indeed, empirical, understanding of society.” He confessed himself “mystified” by the term “sociological enterprise” wondering if Piven didn’t “conceive of sociology as a kind of political party without mandate.”
The ASA rejected the marriage amendment on grounds that “sociological research has repeatedly shown that systems of inequality are detrimental to the public good.” As recent political processes show, this definition of marriage as a system of inequality commands less than full agreement nationally. Yet the ASA advances its position as a definitive statement on the issue for an entire discipline.
In 2004, the Anthropological Association also endorsed same-sex marriage, asserting that “the results of more than a century of anthropological research on households, kinship relationships, and families, across cultures, and through time, provide no support whatsoever for the view that either civilization or viable social orders depend upon marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution.”
Peter Wood, an association member for more than 25 years, labeled this statement “a breathless lie.” In fact, he wrote at National Review Online, “some 250 years of systematic inquiry by anthropologists leaves little doubt that heterosexual marriage is found in nearly every human society and almost always as a pivotal institution. Homosexual marriage outside contemporary Western societies is exceedingly rare and never the basis of ‘viable social order.” That might sound like a still-vibrant debate, but the Anthropological Association has declared the matter settled.
Jonathan Imber and Irving Louis Horowitz called attention to the AAA’s fondness for political declamation in a 1999 Society magazine essay “Ferment in Professional Associations.” The organization had called for District of Columbia statehood and an end to pre-war U.S. sanctions against Iraq. Imber and Horowitz commented “that such resolutions are only remotely connected to the operations of the association, or that they lack any support resembling a broad national consensus, is deemed irrelevant.”
Just a lot of fusty academics talking to themselves? Not quite. Academic organizations don’t stop at press releases; they’re happy to suggest their opinions to courts and politicians. In 2007 the AAA filed an amicus brief supporting the City of San Francisco’s effort to strike down the California same-sex marriage ban. The only surprise is that it wasn’t joined by more of its colleagues. The American Anthropological Association, American Sociological Association, and the American Psychological Association all filed amicus briefs in support of the University of Michigan in the Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger cases. Each argued that, from the perspectives of their respective disciplines, affirmative action was essential. Sandra Day O’Connor seemed convinced; she cited the contributions of amici in the Grutter decision, in pointing “to the educational benefits that flow from student body diversity” and showing that “student body diversity promotes learning outcomes and better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce and society.”
The Road to Activism
It’s a long road from Congressional charters to arguments before the Supreme Court. How did we get here? Sociologist C. Wright Mills spearheaded a theory of academic activism in 1959’s The Sociological Imagination, describing “grand theory” and “abstract empiricism” as tools of the ruling classes. His arguments for a “critical sociology” demanded a more active political dimension to sociology. Such criticism was soon joined by criticism of the anthropological establishment as a tool of U.S. militarism in South America and Southeast Asia. A new school of “action anthropology” became increasingly popular, foregrounding work with communities to identify their goals and aid their achievement as the foremost aim of Anthropology.
The late 1960s saw these new political perspectives reach a critical mass as numerous academics began to define their studies as inherently political. The American Anthropological Association passed a resolution against U.S. military practices in Vietnam in 1966. They also demarcated a strict line of division between anthropology and government service, stating “Except in the event of a declaration of war by Congress, academic institutions should not undertake activities or accept contracts in anthropology that are not related to their normal functions of teaching, research, and public service.”
Some organizations resisted the political drift, for a time. The American Sociological Association and the American Historical Association both rejected, by large margins, resolutions against the Vietnam War. Eugene Genovese, an avowed Viet Cong supporter at the time, spoke strongly against the AHA anti-War resolution, labeling it a “totalitarian” measure. The majority arguments, upheld by Genovese, that such resolutions were outside the proper sphere of their organizations, were rapidly becoming historical artifacts.
But the politicizing tide was too strong. Sociologist Martin Nicolaus, responding to an address by then-Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Wilbur Cohen, denounced professional sociology as “an exercise in intellectual servility” and depicted the typical sociologist as a “white intellectual Uncle Tom.” The ASA passed a resolution moving future conventions from Chicago, in opposition to the treatment of Democratic convention protesters there. In 1969, activists interrupted a speech by the organization’s President to hold a memorial service for Ho Chi Minh. The regular conference proceedings were forced to move elsewhere.
Most organized radical activity subsided with the end of the Vietnam War, but the following decades saw the establishment of most of the dissenters’ demands. “Public sociology,” a term devised in 1988 by Herbert Gans, is an open effort to increase the engagement of sociology with political processes; the ASA now has a “Task Force to Institutionalize Public Sociology.”
We All Agree; It Can’t Be Wrong
Academic conferences routinely feature panels devoted to the formulation of “strategy” or the express facilitation of activism. Why bother with debate when all of the panelists already agree? Better to move on to implementation. If you spend time at these conferences, the organizational resolutions begin to make perverse sense. You’d be hard-pressed to find a panelist who didn’t think that the Iraq war, the federal marriage amendment, and anti-affirmative action measures were objectively and professionally wrong. In fact, it’s easier to find apologists for female circumcision – the Anthropological Association featured two of those at their 2007 conference.
In some disciplines, members, tiring of the wholesale embrace of tendentious advocacy, have left to found new organizations. Eugene Genovese and historians who objected to the AHA’s “imposed ideological line” founded the Historical Society in 1998. The Association of Literary Scholars and Critics, founded in 1995, represented a similar flight from dominant, often politicized, theoretical presumptions of the Modern Language Association. Most recently, Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis’ Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa seeks to provide a “dispassionate” alternative to the heavily politicized Middle Eastern Studies Association.
Critics have been quick to allege, in each case, that “dispassionate” simply stands as code for “conservative.” Whatever the merits of these arguments, most established academic organizations abandoned any pretense at balance long ago. At the American Sociological Association conference in 2007 I witnessed a panelist argue against “balance” on the grounds that “we cannot reduce all ideas to equality, sidestepping content.”
The AAA for one, in its resolution condemning the participation of anthropologists in military operations in Afghanistan, first declares aid to the government a “problematic application of anthropological expertise” but then asserts that anthropology is “obliged to help improve U.S. government policies” and that anthropology “can legitimately and effectively help guide U.S. policy to serve the humane causes of global peace and social justice.”
David Vine, a member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education in November, offered a lengthy argument against anthropological work with the military, followed directly by an encouragement to “advocate work proposing new directions in foreign and military policy to end such wars and to protect the lives of U.S. troops and peoples around the world.” In the airtight logic of contemporary anthropology, work with the U.S. government is professionally impermissible, but boundless activism in pursuit of other political goals is an obligation.
The politicization of academic organizations shows no sign of slowing down. It took the American Historical Association 114 years to condemn a war, it’s doubtful it will wait that long to do so again. The overwhelming problem isn’t that many professors share the same opinions, it’s that they’re happy to reify these opinions, in any form possible, through the very organizations traditionally dedicated to preserving professional standards of disinterested research and inquiry. It may not make much of a difference to the broader polity, but it seems a crisis for the modern academy. It’s been apparent for many years that humanities and social science departments are highly left-wing; academic organizations have clarified the matter; now the budding historian, sociologist, or anthropologist needn’t undertake a bit of research to find out what he should believe, they’ll simply tell him.