Anthropologists and Espionage, chapter 4,378

Anthropologists and Espionage, chapter 4,378

Is there anything new to say in the never-ending discussion of anthropology and espionage? Most anthropologists think it is unethical to gather intelligence on behalf of the government when they do their fieldwork — but not all of them. Some spies pose as anthropologists. Sometimes people start out as anthropologists and move into espionage as a form of applied work. Indigenous people and others have criticized anthropology as itself inherently a form of unethical surveillance which aids colonialism. It turns out there IS something new to say about these issues. In a recent number of History and Anthropology, Insa Nolte, Keith Shear, and Kevin Yelvington discuss the case of anthropologist and clandestine operative Jack Harris, comparing his fieldwork in West Africa with his intelligence work in South Africa during WWII.

Harris lived an extraordinary life, and there is a small literature about him. Born Jacob Herscovitz, he was a first generation American who grew up in the 1910s and 1920s as the son of Romanian Jews. During the depression he became a merchant seaman and travelled the world. Interested in other cultures, he then moved to Northwestern to study with another Herscovitz: Melville Herskovits, who was studying race and acculturation at Northwestern University in Evanston, just north of Chicago. Most of Herskovits’s students I’ve talked to or read about did not become close with him, but Harris did. He moved on to do a Ph.D., where he studied the acculturation of White Knife Shoshone people in Nevada and also did a postdoc. During this period he also conducted research in Nigeria, becoming one of the first American anthropologists to work in Africa. After that he got a job at Ohio State University and would have stayed there, perhaps, if it wasn’t for WWII.

Harris in Washington, DC, in the spring of 1942 before leaving for Nigeria.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Harris volunteered to return to Nigeria to gather intelligence. His cover would be that he was doing more fieldwork in Nigeria. He grew to be a successful agent, but came down with malaria and left the country. He was then deployed to South Africa, where he posed as a diplomat. The focus of Nolte et al.’s article is Harris’s interview with Hans Van Rensburg, the leader of a pro-Nazi Afrikaner political movement in South Africa called the OB. Van Rensburg’s group was aiding Hitler by supplying intelligence and sabotaging South African industrial production but the Prime Minister, Jan Smuts, refused to clamp down on the movement. It was Harris’s damning report on Van Rensburg that convinced Smuts to rein the group in.

Nolte et al.’s article compares Harris’s ethnographic work with his career as a spy in order to see the similarities and differences between each line of work. As an anthropologist working in Nevada and Nigeria, Harris had to develop close relationships with communities who resented the colonial rule they found themselves under. Sympathetic to their position, he attempted to keep his distance from the government even as he recognized that he had to play by their rules. In these cases, of course, he was above-board with everyone about who he was and what he was doing.

As Nolte et al. point out, some think that the difference between spying and anthropology is that spies must answer research questions set by other people, and have very little influence on the people up the chain of command. But during his time gathering intelligence in Nigeria, Harris was given very little indication what he was supposed to do, and made up the job for himself as he went along. In doing so, he shaped the OSS’s sense of what an agent could and should do for it. Could it be, then, that anthropologists who participate in programs of surveillance really can reform the system from within? The authors suggest that the Harris example suggests that that has been possible in at least one case. Personally, I am skeptical that in this day and age others would have the same success as Harris.

In the end, the authors ask: What was Harris’s ethnographic practice? Was it salvage ethnography? An colonial anthropology of surveillance and power? They conclude that:

Harris’s engagement with [Van Rensberg’s group] the OB was less distorted by epistemological differences than colonial anthropological encounters. But the racist ideology of the OB…  legitimated Harris’s unsympathetic portrayal of the group and its leaders. Taking Van Rensburg seriously as a political force, Harris perceived his ethnography confronting a powerful political adversary by provoking Smuts’s government to action. His report, and indeed his repertoire of ethnographic practice, show anthropology’s core methodology of personal engagement directly interrogating and challenging wider relations of power. At the same time, Harris’s case suggests how anthropologists in their various guises have often, despite their discipline’s self-representations, had to mediate systems of authority in situations of crisis.

As an agent in Nigeria and South Africa, Harris used these skills to observe these regimes themselves. If I understand them right, Nolte et al. argue that being an ethnographer made Harris a great agent, but that espioage and anthropology are two different things. Harris admitted who he was to his research respondents for his academic work. Both are politically positioned, and both involve accommodation to existing power structures.

One last note: Harris’s story has a tragic ending. After 1945 he got a high-profile job at the UN, where he worked aggressively to push for decolonization. Unfortunately, he fell victim to the anti-communism hysteria of the 1950s. He refused to snitch on other anthropologists and was fired from the UN. After successfully suing for wrongful termination, he moved to Costa Rica and started a taxi company, and eventually had a hand in creating the country’s first cement factory. Harris died a successful businessman, and never succeeded in breaking back into academic anthropology.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book “Leviathans at the Gold Mine” won the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology book award. He is interested in political anthropology, the anthropology of virtual worlds, the history of anthropology, and public anthropology and open access scholarship.

14 Replies to “Anthropologists and Espionage, chapter 4,378”

  1. Is the tragic turn that he never returned to academia? This is a bizarre framing of the culmination of his story. The anti-communism hysteria as cause for loss of employment is sad and angering. Failing to ‘break back into academia’ is hardly tragic.

  2. It’s certainly true that there is more to life than academia. However, in Harris’s case I do think that the situation was tragic. He spent eight years trying to get back into the academy unsuccessfully. I guess I’d call his failure to reenter academia ‘tragic’ in the sense that he wanted something, worked hard to get it, and was unsuccessful at getting it — basically through no fault of his own. To me, that’s tragic. At the end of this life he was happy with where he ended up, it’s true. But I do think he did the best he could with a situation that was not of his own making.

  3. I usually agree with Rex. Here, if I am forced to choose, S.D. Gottlieb makes the stronger point. If we shrink the meaning of tragic to an individual wants something, works hard to get it, but is ultimately unsuccessful, then every fisherman who has sat for hours in a boat and come home without a fish is a tragic figure. To compare a failure to return to academia with, say, the deaths of the 17 victims of the Parkland High School shooting or countless young black men who have been killed by cop because they seemed to be dangerous and appeared to frightened cops eyes to be carrying a gun is, what should we call it? To use “tragic” in this case is to use the term in a sense much weaker than the cosmic implications of “tragedy” in Sophocles or Shakespeare.

    Or is it? Is there not implicit in the use of “tragic” to describe a failure to return to academia, the academic cleric’s prejudice toward those who wind up, with or without fault of their own, in the dirty, polluted, ultimately contemptible world outside the ivory tower? And is not this attitude dangerous in a world increasingly inclined to regard the humanities and social sciences (not just anthropology) as luxuries or elite hobbies not worth the taxpayer’s or investor’s dime?

  4. Thanks, John. Both your points are apt. I was thinking particularly of your second point.

    The academic’s pity for those who, as Rex suggests, find some fulfillment (and it appears often remuneration) beyond academia is a tedious trope. It implies anything outside academia, even for those who would like to participate but cannot for a variety of reasons, is a misfortune, rather than an alternate path. Those who choose not to participate or who are unable to gain access do not need, surely in Rex’s case unintended but no less damaging, condescension about the ‘tragedy’ of the displaced/ex academic. Some of us choose to recognize our immense privilege of so much education without dwelling on the unrealized or rejected traditional trajectory. Although I do not know whether Harris perceived his circumstances as tragic, I imagine he might have had a different self-narrative about his disrupted academic career.

    1. Barbara, I did, did I not, mention my agreement that there are a wide range of possibilities between the extremes. I might have challenged your use of “continuum”, asking if the range of possibilities between any two points on it are infinite (the proper definition of “continuum” or if the range is a scatter plot with a finite number of points, stepping stones instead of continuous paths. I am glad that you mention usefully fuzzy. You are, I suspect, familiar with the following:

      Our discussion will be adequate if it has as much clearness as the subject-matter admits of, for precision is not to be sought for alike in all discussions, any more than in all the products of the crafts. Now fine and just actions, which political science investigates, admit of much variety and fluctuation of opinion, so that they may be thought to exist only by convention, and not by nature. And goods also give rise to a similar fluctuation because they bring harm to many people; for before now men have been undone by reason of their wealth, and others by reason of their courage. We must be content, then, in speaking of such subjects and with such premisses to indicate the truth roughly and in outline, and in speaking about things which are only for the most part true and with premisses of the same kind to reach conclusions that are no better. In the same spirit, therefore, should each type of statement be received; for it is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.

      Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, Book III-1

      That does not, however, mean that it is improper to take a set of conditions (here long effort/disappointing results) and push the logic to see where it leads. Here that might be the question, closer to the bone, why Harris is considered tragic and an adjunct who has spent years slaving away at poverty level wages to find her academic dream forever out of reach is not entitled to see herself as a tragic heroine.

      Or is she?

  5. I’m finding merit in both perspectives on whether Harris’s inability to find an academic job was “tragic.” John McCreery poses two poles of misfortune — the failure to catch a fish and the deaths of 17 people at Parkland — but by doing so sidesteps the question of where along the continuum of unwanted events simple inconvenience becomes tragedy. The fisherman can return tomorrow and hope for better luck, but if s/he spent a lifetime fishing and never caught a fish I’d call that something pretty close to ‘tragic.’ Perhaps this is a job for some enterprising cognitive anthropology student: a cognitive map of “tragic” and “tragedy” could be an interesting term paper project. I suspect that it wouldn’t include one day with an empty fish hook; would certainly include the slaughter of Black men by cops; but might well include a variety of failed efforts to achieve goals one works hard for, especially when success was first taken away unfairly. After all, literature has offered us countless examples of “tragic” figures who fail to achieve fairly trivial goals, and perhaps the more trivial the goal, the more tragic the failure. “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” (All I want is a room somewhere) plays on this point.

    S.D. Gottlieb also makes a good point about the ways in which we value academic positions, and our habit of viewing the failure to achieve an academic position as tragic. I’ll take Rex at his word that this was not his perspective when he described Harris’s failed search as tragic, but there is a caution here about conflating a discipline with its academic avatar and stacking kinds of professionals in a status hierarchy. Perhaps I am sensitive to this as a lawyer as well as an anthropologist, since it is arguable that in many areas of Law, the highest status practitioners work in prominent law firms, and full-time law school faculty are often lower status: clever thinkers, perhaps, but only so-so practitioners.

  6. Reading about Jack Harris I learned he died in 2008. It sounds like he had a rewarding career as an anthropologist and spy. In both fields he had a real impact during the course of his careers. It does not seem that he died in poverty, sad and lonely. Many people would be happy to get the opportunity to travel to differing countries form connections with folks from other cultures and work at the UN for some time. My politics might not have aligned with Jack Harris in some ways but his life does not seem tragic in any way to me.

  7. Regarding S.D.’s comments, I recognize that there is a long history of academic condescension to graduate students who do not get academic jobs. When this pity comes from a sense that academia is the only legitimate and worthwhile path in life, then I denounce it. But there are other reasons that people can feel that leaving the academy is tragic. For instance, I and many others were outraged when Steven Salaita was fired from UIC. Our outrage resulted from our anger in his unjust treatment and the way an institution acted against its values and procedures in order to injure and disempower Salaita (a move which in many ways did not succeed). I believe Harris’s case is much more like Salaita’s than it is like the case of someone who makes the principled decision to leave academia because life is better elsewhere. I know we have not met in person, S.D., but I would urge you try to imagine that the person on the other side of the screen you are reading this on might be driven by more positive motivations than those you suspect.

    Moreover, my presentation of Harris’s self narration is in line with Harris’s own self-understanding. Harris’s became a UN staff member after the war, not a professor, And note that I did not mock or pity this decision. On the contrary, I think he is a great example of an anthropologist who fought for decolonization, which was a worthy goal — and one that he pursued outside of the academy. But he himself describes as disappointing his failure to return to the academy (and the United States) in his early years in Costa Rica. If you’d like to learn more about this, feel free to read Kelvin Yelvington’s 2008 interview with Harris in Critique of Anthropology.

    Contrary to Banji’s comment, I never said that Harris died in poverty or sad and lonely. In fact, I explicitly stated he was a wealthy businessman, and thus not poor. In fact, as far as I can tell, he died a happy man with a loving family and the respect of his peers. But he achieved this only after two other of his main ambitions in life were blocked. It’s amazing to me that Harris was so successful in reinventing himself in life three different times in his life. I maintain its tragic that he had to do so.

    1. Rex,
      I know you didn’t mention that he died in poverty. Its just that your mentioning that his life after leaving the UN was tragic. I don’t know you but I liked your article and wish I could learn more about Harris. I was intrigued because my mother taught a class about Africanisms in American Culture and she cited Herskovitz fairly often. When I took that class I found it very informative. This is to explain where I am coming from when I read the article. To me when I hear someone’s life was tragic I expect misery, dissapointment, loss of friends, family. It’s clear Harris was experienced experienced sadness over not being able to continue his academic career. I think he deserved better but unlike other scholars who experienced the same thing he seemed to find other paths to satisfaction and happiness. I can’t speak for other people but a lot of the responses are showing many readers have a different understanding of tragedy than you do. Are you going to write more about him? Are there any books that you know of that cover more of Harris’ story?

    2. Rex I think I understand why you think Harris being forced to reinvent himself was tragic. After reading and listening to the stories of so many people; some who were amazing and famous, others ordinary and unknown I’m less sure what is a tragic life. So many people experience misfortune, even wealthy, admired people like Mozart, Muhammad Ali, Ted Kennedy, even folks who experience racism and misogyny despite that they might see their lives as tragic but maybe even satisfying. I really think life should not be so hard for people in this day and age of so much abundance along with automation yet here we all are struggling and striving.

  8. I agree with Barbara that there is wide range of possibilities between the failure to catch a fish and Parkland or deaths by cop. But I wonder about her example, the fisherman who fishes all his life without ever catching a fish. Why is he a “tragic” figure, when he might also be seen as a “comic” or “incompetent” one? I find myself reflecting that both Oedipus and Hamlet are royalty and wonder if Harris would be seen as tragic had he not achieved what he did before he was forced to reinvent himself. I observe, as both representatives of #BlackLivesMatter and the Parkland survivor have noted, that a mass shooting of 17 students had a “good” school in a wealthy neighborhood was instantly treated as tragic, while the deaths of black men, whether shot by cops or in drive-by shootings, are barely newsworthy.

    I take on board what Rex says about Harris. Now I wonder, however, why having to reinvent yourself three times is a tragedy. I recall recently reading that young people entering the labor force can now expect to change careers (not just jobs) three or more times during their lifetimes. On a personal note, I have been there, done that: leaving academia for advertising, then advertising for translation and writing services as co-owner of a small but flourishing business. Yes, it felt like tragedy when I didn’t get tenure. But in retrospect, it may have been one of the best things that ever happened to me. I see old friends still in academia stressed out, and the precarious lives not led by the untenured adjuncts who do more and more of tertiary teaching seem to me utterly unconscionable. In contrast, being able to pursue academic interests and teach a bit on the side as a self-supporting (grant application and committee work-free) independent scholar seems like a bit of heaven.

  9. John McCreery asks “Why is he a “tragic” figure, when he might also be seen as a “comic” or “incompetent” one?”

    Literature is full of examples of figures who are both. J. P. Donleavy make his literary mark using characters, from Sebastian Dangerfield to Balthazar B. who are tragic and comic and incompetent, for example. Again, the line between simple ‘unwanted outcome’ and more serious ‘tragedy’ is usefully fuzzy, but to pose only the two extreme poles is not a helpful way to understand where that line, however indistinct, might be drawn.

    I’ll let Rex take up John McCreery’s off-target question about “why having to reinvent yourself three times is a tragedy,” and will note only that the tragedy was not in reinventing himself, but in his loss of his first-choice career and his inability to regain it.

  10. I, too, was struck by the use of the word “tragic” to describe the end of Harris’s life as I did not find the description that followed tragic in the least. I am especially sensitive to that phrasing because I’ve been working with an executive coach (former academic now VP in corporate world) about my conceptualization of failure. She is having me write out how outsiders might view what I am conceiving of as failure. This post really helped me in that exercise because when I read the addendum I immediately thought, “well that’s not tragic at all!” Lightbulb moment of this is probably what an outsider like the exec coach thinks when she hears me talking about my “failures.” While Harris certainly faced struggles (for instance with the Red Scare) where he appeared to come out on top at least legally, my reading of this is that he had a fairly successful late life. This sentence in particular stands out for it’s double use of success: “Harris died a successful businessman, and never succeeded in breaking back into academic anthropology.” So excelling in one field, rather than your original chosen one doesn’t feel especially tragic. His life’s ups and downs when weighed at the end seem to balance out on the positive, at least to this outsider!

  11. On a different note (the theme of anthropology’s relationship to espionage), this post reminded me of this fascinating-looking forthcoming book by Katherine Verdery – which is about her discovery of the lengthy dossier which the secret police developed on her case, over the years that she conducted ethnography in state socialist Romania.

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