Fall Semester, 2014
03 credits
September 5 – November 28, 2014
Meeting days and times:
Fridays: 8:45am—11:30am
Campus: SGW, Room: MB-2.285


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 Backdrop

This seminar was first launched in 2010 as a way of meeting a demand by anthropology and sociology students for a course that opened room to discuss and analyze some of the deeply troubling contemporary developments in the international sphere, such as the US-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan (and Canada’s own interventonism in Afghanistan and Haiti), torture in US detention centres, and the recruitment of social scientists to serve in counterinsurgency operations, among other issues. This seminar was thus 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. Even in the short time since 2010, however, some of the key foci have shifted.

The temporal frame of the seminar (what for our purposes we define as contemporary), is the period since the end of the Cold War. On the one hand, it would be valid to argue that one can overstate the uniqueness of the Cold War period by overemphasizing it as a struggle between two superpowers (as opposed to a “war against the ‘Third World’,” which both preceded, continued through, and followed the Cold War), and that historical continuities should not be dismissed. On the other hand, it would be difficult to contend that absolutely nothing new and significant has occurred since the end of the Cold War, namely the rise of unrivalled dominance of the US as a global military superpower. So we could rephrase the frame of the seminar as follows: it is the period marked by the singular dominance of the US as a military hegemon.

This period has thus 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 US 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 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. Moreover, the “new imperialism” also refers to what has long been called “the new empire”, i.e. the US.

The developments that unfold in the present and that form the special foci of this seminar 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 liberal imperialism; and, the use of mass media and state media to project “soft power,” in order to gain legitimacy and win approval for imperial dominance. The role of the social sciences also figures prominently in all of this.

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 US 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 formally defunct Project for a New American Century.

As the US 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 US, 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.


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 US hegemony in decline? What is/was the nature of US hegemony?
  • Where do we see a reworking of relationships between the military, intelligence, and civilian spheres in US-dominated 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? Do Western political leaders really care about human rights in Syria, and why Syria?
  • Should anthropologists not join the military to “help reduce harm”? What do such formulations typically leave out of the picture?
  • 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”? Again, what do such formulations take for granted?
  • 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”? In what sort of perspective would such terms matter?
  • 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?