This is a research seminar that brings into focus the anthropology and sociology of contemporary empire-building. Topics of study may include: nation-building, global and domestic counterinsurgency, “humanitarian intervention,” the ideologies of militarism, the militarization of the social sciences and the broader society, the national security state, soft power, the media and information operations, hegemony and capital accumulation.
The temporal frame of the seminar, what for our purposes we define as contemporary, is the period since the end of the Cold War. This period has witnessed the rise of a single dominant military superpower that proclaimed a “New World Order” and envisioned the 21st century as the “New American Century.” While at present we also witness the rise of what some call regional hegemons and diverse power blocs, the U.S. still retains unrivalled military power. While few analysts who use the term “new imperialism” would be willing to invest any energy in defending the idea that current imperialism is in substantially “new,” there are some contemporary developments that merit closer attention and that parallel those that came to the fore the last time a “new imperialism” was publicly announced: the late 19th century. The developments that unfold in the present and that concern us include: war as a means to secure access to resources; war corporatism (especially the privatization of the means of war); militarization of foreign policy and of social relations and political discourse at home; framing interventions and counterinsurgency as “humanitarian” and geared toward “protecting civilians,” what some varyingly refer to as the new military humanism or armed Wilsonianism; and, the use of mass media and state media to project “soft power,” in order to gain legitimacy and win approval for imperial dominance.
This seminar was prompted by numerous contemporary conditions and developments, stemming from George W. Bush’s “Global War on Terror,” to Barack Obama’s “Struggle against Violent Extremism,” and Canada’s own military interventions in Haiti, Afghanistan, and Libya. With respect to the social sciences, and the current political conditions of knowledge creation in universities, we see the increased re-expansion of the national security state into the universities, funding students through various CIA-related programs, recruiting faculty, and funding social science research through the Pentagon’s Minerva Research Initiative, all of which have an impact far beyond American borders. Anthropologists will have read CIA job ads in journals published by the American Anthropology Association; some will have followed the raging debates surrounding the advent of the Pentagon’s “Human Terrain System,” which embeds anthropologists and social scientists in counterinsurgency teams in Afghanistan and Iraq; and psychologists debate their involvement in torture and interrogation in places such as Guantanamo. Sociologists have joined HTS as well. At the same time, we see newly reclaimed imperial aspirations, formally articulated by the “new imperialists” (i.e., Max Boot, Michael Ignatieff, Niall Ferguson) and by the now defunct Project for a New American Century. As the U.S. finds itself stretched across the globe, and in a state of precipitous economic decline, under economic and other challenges from numerous actors operating transnationally, it turns to a wider array of instruments for projecting power, and maintaining supremacy in the face of decline. These range from controlling access to natural resources, building widened military alliances, to ideological and symbolic manifestations of empire building as part of a “soft power” strategy, to complement or make up for what the military cannot accomplish. We thus see both the militarization of areas previously dominated by civilians, such as humanitarian aid efforts, to the incorporation of civilians within military structures. Accompanying the militarization of popular culture and social life in the U.S., is the rapid growth of military industries and war-related services, especially through private contractors. War is very expensive, and very big business. This takes us through the economic, ideological, political, and military expressions of the new imperialism, specifically in connection with wars against “terror” and “insurgency”.
One of the reasons for having this seminar is that it is necessary, if not urgent, that students in anthropology and sociology should try to understand the contemporary global geopolitical and economic contexts in which they work, and in which the peoples they study live. Our assigned readings focus on some of the key works in this field, produced primarily by anthropologists, with some sociologists and writers in related disciplines. Our supplemental and further readings take students, if they wish, into wider fields of inquiry, bringing to the fore the works of military officers, anti-war activists, journalists, policy-makers, and other prominent figures that have worked to shape public opinion about empire today.
SOME QUESTIONS AND PROBLEMS
We will raise and discuss many more questions and problems than can be listed here, but at least some of these are sure to be raised more than once.
- Is there a “new” imperialism, and what is “new” about it? If it is not “new,” does that mean there is nothing at all that is novel about the present? Does it matter?
- What constitutes “empire”? Does one need to be an “anti-imperialist” to see empire?
- Why were Canadian Forces sent to Afghanistan? Are we “peace keepers”? What is “peace-building”?
- Is U.S. hegemony in decline? What is/was the nature of U.S. hegemony?
- Where do we see a reworking of relationships between the military, intelligence, and civilian spheres in international relations?
- If a program is humanitarian in intent, how could it be conceived as imperialist?
- Was NATO’s war in Libya a war for human rights?
- Should anthropologists not join the military to help reduce harm?
- If the military and intelligence communities wish to fund social science research, then what is the problem? Would it be better if those communities worked without an understanding of “foreign cultures”?
- Does the achievement of empire abroad threaten democracy at home?
- How can imperialism be “liberal”?
- What is “neo-conservativism” and how can we have, as we are told, neo-conservative policies when it comes to geopolitics, and neo-liberalism when it comes to political economy? Do our labels make sense?
- What is “anti-imperialism,” and is it reducible to a “leftist” stance?
- What makes a “failed state” and why should “nation-building” be our concern?
- What are the “perils of isolationism”?
- What is the difference between a “war of choice” and a “just war”?
- Should anthropologists and sociologists be actively involved in preventing unnecessary wars, and if so, how?
- Can we think of research ethics as separate from politics?
Download a complete copy of the course syllabus (pdf)
Winter Semester, 2012-2013
08 January – 09 April, 2011
Meeting days and times:
Campus: SGW, Room: H-619
Available in the Concordia Bookstore,
the required texts for this seminar: