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The Vicos Project and Project Camelot: Applied anthropology for good and ill

Updated on August 20, 2014

Map of Peru

Vicos is near Huaraz, which is not far north of the capital, Lima.
Vicos is near Huaraz, which is not far north of the capital, Lima.

Anthropology for Action

The anthropological dimensions of Project Camelot and the Vicos Project were integral to the ideas and goals underlying both projects, yet they manifested very different outcomes for the respective individuals involved.

Project Camelot was a government-sponsored project aiming at utilizing anthropologists to gather information regarding social unrest and the possibility of revolution in ‘developing’ countries, and also “…to find ways of eliminating the causes, or coping with the revolutions and insurgencies.” (Horowitz 1973:278). As what was conceptually the largest study in the history of the social sciences (and the best funded), Project Camelot attracted a number of anthropologists willing to work for the government in exchange for the opportunity to conduct research that some saw as ‘pure science’. But the study was ill-fated almost from the outset: setting aside the incompatibility of the human-intelligence ‘software’ that would have been produced by the anthropologists with the predilection for ‘hardware’ of the military brass in the Department of Defense – which may have dismissed any recommendations produced by the study anyway – the questionable ethical nature of the enterprise quickly attracted the attention of the world, first in Chile (446), and then the halls of Washington D.C.(447).

While Project Camelot would have been an anthropological study on a grand scale - involving participant observation, interviews, and other methods of ‘taking the temperature’ of the citizens of a given state with regards to their level of contentment with the current regime – a study of many cultures and communities around the world, all oriented around a single topic, allowing for the accumulation of very interesting information regarding the nature of government-citizen relationships across cultural and geopolitical boundaries, the origin of the impetus for the study essentially doomed it. Had the inspiration for the study been not to stifle change and prop up unpopular allies but to promote global social wellbeing through an increased understanding of the dynamics between governments and citizens (perhaps sponsored by the State Department as suggested in the article), then it may have been accepted globally, and contributed a large amount toward our pool of knowledge about the nature of human societies.

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Overview of the Vicos Project from Cornell University

"Cornell University's intervention in the northern Andean community of Vicos, Peru in 1952 became a paradigm for international development in the third world in the decade of the 1960-70's. Initially, the Cornell-Peru Project also conducted research in nearby Huaylas, Marcará, Hualcán Recuayhanca, as well as Paucatambo in the department of Pasco, Chinchero on the shore of Lake Titicaca, and coastal locations in Viru, Lima and Chimbote. The goal of the project was to bring the indigenous population into the 20th century and integrate them into the market economy and Peruvian society."


Confrontations between the Uses of Anthropology with the Ethics of Anthropologists

The Vicos Project, on the other hand, had anthropological dimensions stretching over at least fifteen years, which initiated the project, oriented the subjects toward a common goal, facilitated their overall emancipation from the serf-like peonage under which they had no personal freedom to labor for their own benefit, and increased the levels of literacy, health and nutrition and general quality of life of the Vicos community. Also, numerous anthropological studies were performed on various aspects of the Vicos community throughout the decade-and-a-half span of the project. Perhaps one of the most important steps an anthropologist took in aiding the development of the Vicos community was in the initial recognition and documentation of the archaic historical processes still exerting their sixteenth-century form of social control over the people of the Andes, enforcing through the nature of the system illiteracy, malnutrition, and a poor quality of life without possibility for reprieve. Elucidating the mechanisms at work was of paramount importance for the eventual dismantling of those mechanisms. In this case, as opposed to Project Camelot, the application of anthropology proved both useful and popular. In terms of the development of the discipline, the Vicos Project serves as a powerful reminder of the possibilities of applied anthropology as a force for good in the world.

That being said, there remain a number of ethical considerations attached to both of these projects, despite their divergent outcomes. While the ethical questionability of Project Camelot has been made historically apparent, the remarks of Galtung in turning down an invitation to join the project are germane: “He gave several reasons. He could not accept the role of the US Army as a sponsoring agent in a study of counterinsurgency. He could not accept the notion of the Army as an agency of national development; he saw the army as managing conflict and even promoting conflict. Finally, he could not accept the asymmetry of the project—he found it difficult to understand why there would be studies of counterinsurgency in Latin America, but no studies of “counterintervention”.” (Horowitz 1973:447). Here a number of ethical dilemmas associated with the work planned under Project Camelot are raised. Another set of ethical faux-pas occurred related to and illuminated by the Chilean incident, in which the project’s planned suppression of popular anti-government sentiment denotes a tyranny of thinking and a side being chosen, each of which that has no place within anthropology.

While Project Camelot has obvious ethical faults in hindsight (and, indeed, some of them were immediately obvious to certain individuals), the Vicos Project has its own ethical considerations associated with it despite its widely lauded outcomes. For while the life being lived by Vicosinos is healthier, longer, freer, and comprised of greatly increased opportunity and possibility now, due to the project, there remain ethical questions related to the nature of the anthropologist-subject interaction. To my mind, the intervention of anthropologists into a community’s lifeway is permissible only on invitation from the community. Looking over the website for the Vicos Project, I found a documentary from the mid-20th century with Cronkite as anchor listening in to a correspondent at Vicos. The correspondent proclaimed the righteousness of the project’s goals in lifting the Vicosinos out of poverty, helping them become less ‘backward’, etc…there was a generally paternalistic tone to the documentary which left a particularly post-colonial/neo-imperialistic taste in my mouth. There seemed to be a two-way flow of information in the study, which I applaud, but I’m not certain how much of the anthropologists’ research was significantly oriented around the desires of the community: that is community driven and co-authored. I also have to wonder, not because I endorse such a notion but rather as a thought experiment, how the economic freedom granted to the Vicosinos had adverse impacts on others – particularly the wealthy landowners to whom they and their ancestors had so long been chattel. The role of the anthropologist in destroying this (to our ethical stances) perverse power relation may seem correct to the anthropologist and the Vicosinos, but it would seem wrong to the landowners. Thus, within a neutral ground, some would argue that the injustice is being done to the landowners, perpetrated by the anthropologists (whose business it may not be anyway, to some minds). Finally, I think that with the intervention of the CPP and the fifteen year project becoming an important part of Vicos’ nascent independence, ‘pulling out’ may produce some ethical questions as well: to what extent is the population in question capable of navigating a wider world and social system to which they and their ancestors were denied access? Who bears responsibility if with this newly acquired freedom some disaster strikes? It seems like once a department of anthropology, or a researcher as an individual scholar, makes such an impact on a community, the responsibility of the department or researcher is clearly to remain connected with the community in any way possible, monitoring outcomes, addressing challenges that arise as a direct result of their research, etc., unless the community is completely against such a perpetual relationship.

Bateson and Mead

Bateson became unsure of the application of anthropology after his experiences during the war.
Bateson became unsure of the application of anthropology after his experiences during the war.


Gregory Bateson’s assessment of Applied Anthropology was strongly influenced by his historical context and his wartime experiences in the service of the OSS, during which he acted as an anthropologist in support of the war effort – a course of action which led to something of an ethical crisis for him. Price notes that after the war and despite his ‘applied’ research during the course of it, Bateson regained a negative view of applied anthropology after the war had ended. Yet Price wonders what changed Bateson’s mind: “…it is not clear why he reverted to this assessment.” (Price 1998:382.). Price cites Lipset, who claimed Bateson was “…disturbed with the O.S.S. treatment of the natives…” (382). Price also points out Mabee’s assertion that Bateson became uncomfortable with the fact that his research could be used for a range of purposes outside of his control, and that some of his wartime research had been oriented toward deceit as the goal. These considerations prefigured a later debate between applied and academic anthropologists regarding the possible eventuality of the profession becoming composed of little more than “technicians for hire” (383) with no moral scruples. It seems to me that Bateson was driven to the work he did during WWII out of socio-historical elements of patriotism, fear of the enemy, and other forces that frankly mobilized the entire world. His ethical foundation for the work seemed solid at the time because the alternative to assisting the war effort of the allies would have been a neutrality that endorsed the equal validity of the Japanese ambitions in Asia or the German global Reich design. Such moral relativism may be easier to practice in peacetime: for the men and women of the wartime era, sides were chosen, moral stands taken, and victory over the enemy was seen as worth even the most drastic measures – measures that in ordinary times would be ethically wrong. The contextual factor certainly influenced Bateson’s choices. And while the aforementioned scholars noted some of the reservations Bateson had about the way the ‘natives’ were treated, I think the real trouble Bateson had with his applied work was how it was used by the progeny of the O.S.S., the C.I.A., in the post-war era which saw the consolidation of the capitalistic hegemony of the industrial West, in direct opposition to the U.S.S.R. The subsequent, routine use of Bateson’s suggestions as enumerated in the Price article to influence the course of history in diverse nations based on the West’s version of the proper course history should take (theirs), for reasons far less apparently moral and just than the original reason Bateson had performed applied work, must have led him to question the nature of applied work in general: how can the destiny of one’s research be contained within a sphere of possible uses that aligns with one’s moral standpoint? Bateson, in returning to a negative assessment of applied work after the war, may not have been able to figure out how to solve such an issue.

Applied Anthropology Ending Anachronistic Injustice

Some of the first anthropologists in Vicos encountered an archaic mechanism of serfdom in the Highlands of Peru.
Some of the first anthropologists in Vicos encountered an archaic mechanism of serfdom in the Highlands of Peru.

Applied Anthropology at Vicos

The example of the Vicos Project illustrates that anthropology can be applied as a powerful force for good in the world. This statement is inherently controversial in the current climate of schism between 'theoretical' anthropologists who follow the neutral, post-modernist approach to anthropology which calls into question all motivations and relativizes all moral stances. To my mind, and the mind of the anthropologists at vicos, a respectful and cautious intervention by anthropologists at the request of a group of people for goals of their own is the next step in the evolution of anthropology.

However, it is important to recall the experiences of Bateson, and how the work he did with good intentions was subsequently twisted by others who used his material. Furthermore, Project Camelot highlights ways in which anthropology can be made to serve the few at the expense of the many.


"The Life and Death of Project Camelot." Irving Louis Horowitz

"Gregory Bateson and the OSS: World War II and Bateson's Assessment of Applied Anthropology". David H. Price, Human Organization, Vol. 57, um. 4, 1998.

"Ending Serfdom in Peru". Paul Doughty, in 'Contemprorary Cultures and Socieities in Latin america', 2002.


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