There is one central lesson that cultural anthropology has to offer. It is the lesson of Franz Boas, who founded American anthropology, of his students Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, and of their intellectual descendants, such as Clifford Geertz, arguably the most influential American cultural anthropologist of the second half of the 20th century.
That lesson is “culture matters.” If we want to understand people, to grasp what people are doing and why they do it, we have to examine their own perspective. As Geertz said, we have to see things “from the natives’ point of view,” whether the natives are from Brooklyn or Calgary, Palermo or Bucharest, Baghdad or Quetta.
The reason that we must understand things “from the natives’ point of view” is that people act according to how they perceive the world; according to what they value, what they disdain; and according to what they hope for, and what they fear. If we want to understand how people will act, we must understand the world from their perspective.
If we want to engage with people, to influence their actions and to win them over, to bring them into a counter-insurgency effort, to engage in economic exchange, to encourage development, to block their initiatives, or to fight them, we must understand why and how they act as they do. And thus we must know how they see the world.
When I say that we must grasp the natives’ point of view, I am not saying that people are the prisoners of the norms and rules of their society, hemmed in by the “cake of custom.” Cultural anthropology has moved beyond such an overly normative view of mankind. Rather, following the lead of Max Weber, and latterly, Fredrik Barth, we understand that people are goal-oriented, making decisions, choosing one alternative over another in order to advance their own goals. In other words, everyone, everywhere, acts strategically, at least in part. An anthropological approach to “strategic studies” is to study the strategies of people and peoples in the world as they pursue their goals. We had better know the strategies of other folks before we formulate our own.
Of course, culture, ways of understanding and evaluating the world, or, once again, as Geertz says, culture as “models of” the world, and “models for” action in the world, is not the only thing in the world. People may not just pursue their own visions, but must cope with the constraints of institutional limitations. British social anthropologists have stressed the ways in which societal institutions-such as chief, markets, descent groups, exogamous marriage patterns, ancestor worship, etc.-are constrained by their interconnection with each other. One consequence of which is that some institutions or patterns of action are incompatible. For example, sharing and mutual welfare in a large kin group, on the one hand, and capital accumulation, on the other hand, tend to be in conflict.
As well, people everywhere must cope with other populations and cultures, and their goals and strategies. Peoples and cultures often intrude upon one another, interfere with one another, and consequently every group must have a “foreign policy.” Everyone is constrained one way or another by other peoples and other cultures.
And, of course, people, whatever their culture, must cope with the challenges and constraints of their physical and biological environments. Culture, to some degree, incorporates strategies for dealing with the environment, to adapting to the environment while pursuing their other goals.
Once we have some idea of others’ cultures and the bases of their strategies, we are in a strong position to consider our own. Recently I received an inquiry from an Army major in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Currently he is a graduate student at the Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, and was assigned my book, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East , for review. In that book, I stress the tribal foundation of Arab culture, and discuss its implications for state formation.
One question that this major raised was what I thought, in the light of my analysis, of the U.S. Army’s counter-insurgency manual ’s position that counter-insurgency should always be directed toward supporting the legitimate government.
In the light of my analysis-that there were no legitimate governments in the Middle East, and that in many regions, including urban areas, only tribal or sect-based organization was regarded as legitimate by the local population-I replied that the counter-insurgency handbook’s position that counter-insurgency should always be directed toward supporting the legitimate government was a rationalization meant to justify our intervention in our own eyes according to our own values.
The emphasis on a legitimate government might not be a rational response to our practical interests in a particular region. For example, if we want to counter an insurgency, we might need to collaborate with non-governmental, even anti-governmental organizations, such as tribes. This is what happened in al-Anbar province of Iraq, where the U.S. Army gave support to the Sunni tribes when they rebelled against the impositions of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and in turn the Sunni tribes gave the Americans support as the Americans pursued Al Qaeda. If our interests and ambitions are to block an anti-American or anti-Western initiative, we might be wise to be satisfied with that result, once achieved, and allow local folks to carry on according their vision, rather than try to impose ours.
Another way to put this is that our culture matters in how we see the world. In trying to act upon the world, we must consider whether and to what extent our interests and desires coincide, or whether our interests are more limited than our desires. This question underlies some of the disagreements between foreign policy “idealists” and “realists.”
The al-Anbar case is an interesting one for the general argument I am presenting here. No one needed a good cultural anthropologist more than Al Qaeda in Iraq. Mostly non-Iraqis, the Al Qaeda fighters and functionaries pushed around local Iraqis, not realizing or appreciating that they were members of tribes, or the significance of that fact. They did not consider how the local Iraqis would receive their impositions, or understand that the Iraqi tribesmen had the capability to mobilize militarily in support of their own autonomy and self-determination. As a result, local Iraqi tribesmen rebelled against Al Qaeda, fought them, and turned for the first time to ally with the Americans. If Al Qaeda had had a good cultural analysis of al-Anbar, they might have acted with more restraint and respect, and might have advanced their cause rather than being crushed, as they have been.
In sum, one contribution of cultural anthropology to strategic studies is to urge pre-strategic studies of peoples’ presuppositions, values, goals, and strategies-those of other peoples and those of our own-before moving to formulating strategies to act on the world. For to act effectively in the world requires that we know our own biases and that we know other people’s trajectories.
Philip Carl Salzman made these remarks to a working session on strategic studies and the disciplines, convened by MESH at Harvard University on September 23.
Philip Carl Salzman is a member of MESH and Professor of Anthropology at McGill University. He is a member of the SPME Board of Directors.