Observing the 'bad guys': ethnographic approaches to non-state armed groups

Stefan Khittel (University of Vienna)
Alexander Horstmann (Tallinn University)
Start time:
27 August, 2010 at 11:30
Session slots:


The focus of ethnography used to be on the week, the victims, and not on powerful perpetrators. Today, the anthropology of the State and its armed forces has become an established genre within the discipline. At the same time, a certain nostalgia has impeded many anthropologists from studying left-wing radical armed groups, such as the Shining Path in Peru or the Communist Party of Thailand. Nevertheless, in the context of the Vietnam War, anthropologists were employed by the Central Intelligence Agency of the Unites States in order to provide information for counter-insurgency which started fervid discussions on the ethics of the discipline. After 9/11, anthropologists were suddenly in demand to research the micro-cosmos of Islamic fundamentalist networks. Apart from the real danger of political instrumentalization, we see a genuine opportunity for anthropologists and anthropology as a discipline to shed light on the inner workings of Non-State Armed Groups. Non-State Armed Groups use the ideology of liberation and of suffering inflicted by oppressive states to legitimize the use of violence. In the name of nationalism, freedom and justice, these organizations exert extreme pressure and unleash their intense propaganda on the populations among which they recruit fighters. Torture, extralegal killings and other violations of international humanitarian law committed by these groups are often considered taboo by the local population, underreported by international media, and seem to go unnoticed by the anthropological community. At the same time, many of these organizations are widely supported by solidarity networks in Europe or in the Diaspora.