MEXICO CITY — I have been looking for a book I used a long time ago as a first-year graduate student at the University of Oregon. It was a philosophical treatise, not light reading, titled “Explanation”, used by Professor Joseph G. Jorgensen in his anthropological methods course.
I bring it up because the book is one of the few works I know that specifies what kinds of evidence lead to understanding.
There are intention, rational, psychological, historical, and of course —the purpose of the course —empirical explanations, using the scientific method.
The most developed empirical methods in the social sciences were those applied in economics. Anthropology, the most humanistic of the social sciences, also weighed in, even with small-sample statistics.
We were studying this at a beautiful bucolic campus in the late 1960s. Some street corners, elsewhere in the nation, were burning and fiery rhetoric ignited disenchanted groups.
Bystanders became increasingly caught up at the instability of the world stage that came close to home when the Vietnam War escalated. People were told the war would end soon but were not telling them about the secret war in Cambodia and Laos and anti-insurgency in Thailand.
A number of graduate students in my class were drafted. Some volunteered, some fled, some refused.
I look for the book today to learn again the difference between explanation and understanding.
That year back then, Joe Jorgensen and other faculty members, mounted a speaker’s platform and talked about the immorality of the war.
The American Anthropological Association was already on record condemning it since 1966. Jorgensen, as member of the Association’s Ethics Committee, participated in trying to guard the integrity of how anthropologists do their field research because of how it was used to conduct the war.
Anthropological knowledge and experience in the third world often had been compromised—intentionally or not— by government counter-insurgency policy and clandestine research.
Along with eminent scholar Eric R. Wolf, Jorgensen wrote a classic essay in 1970 that appeared in the New York Review of Books and remains the ethics standard for anthropologists. It explains how anthropological research had been used in Latin America, India and Asia to formulate counter-insurgency policy and against peaceable people.
It is plain, they wrote, that “scientific objectivity” “implies the estrangement of the anthropologist from the people among whom he or she works.”
“The future of anthropology, its credibility, depends upon sustaining the dialectic between knowledge and experience,” Jorgensen and Wolf wrote.
Joe Jorgensen was an expert on North American Indians. He wrote a classic on the Sun Dance religion and about oil age Eskimos in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill. He retired following a distinguished research and teaching career as professor emeritus at the University of California, Irvine.
I did not know that he had died in 2008 until after I tried locating him to get the exact book title and its author.
I knew Joe Jorgensen when the consciousness of the nation was about to change after realizing the pain and suffering families experienced from having lost members in the military, friends and neighbors who returned home wounded, maimed or unstable.
Change came when casualties rose. People asked what were we, as a nation, trying to accomplish that came at this personal cost? Personal grief and dismay was behind the understanding when they realized how they allowed the nation’s leaders to conduct public war policies that produce death and misery.
Before it was over, nearly 60,000 U.S. service members were killed.
Today, in the last five years, that same number, nearly 60,000 Mexicans, have been killed or are missing as a consequence of the Drug War next door. It comes in part from gun trafficking, human rights violations, human trafficking, migrations, money laundering, illicit profiteering, buccaneering, corruption, business interruption and lawlessness related to narco trafficking to feed mostly U.S. drug habits and gunrunning.
Just as in Vietnam, another policy has been needed for decades.
That’s why you too should be out looking for that book defining what is an explanation. We all need to know why.
And we need to demand that our public policy leaders stop making us complicit with the violence.
José de la Isla, a nationally syndicated columnist for Hispanic Link and Scripps Howard news services, has been recognized for two consecutive years for his commentaries by New America Media. His next book, The Rise of Latino Political Power, will appear early in 2013. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.