Counterinsurgency and the M-VICO System: Human Relations Area Files and anthropology's dual-use legacy


  • David H. Price

    1. Associate professor of anthropology at Saint Martin's University. He is author of Threatening anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI's surveillance of activist anthropologists (2004) and Anthropological intelligence: The use and neglect of American anthropology during the Second World War (Duke, 2008). His email is
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Over the past decade, ANTHROPOLOGY TODAY has published a number of features covering the relationship between anthropology and the security state. Here, David Price draws attention to an aborted counterinsurgency project, known as the M-VICO project. Building on the categories and structures employed in the Human Relation Area Files (HRAF), this project relied on anthropologists to encode data cross-culturally on all forms of behaviour in as many strategic localities as possible, which the security services subsequently scrutinize and probe for possible weaknesses that could be exploited. In this article, David Price shows that, in the secrecy that often surrounds the financing and precise purposes of its projects, anthropology is not all that different from many other disciplines, with some projects serving what he calls ‘dual-use’ ends. Since civilian researchers are not supposed to have full knowledge of these ends, research into these semi-covert purposes is particularly challenging.