Profile: R. Brian Ferguson

Professor of Anthropology

Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Global Urban Studies/Urban Systems Ph.D.


Cultural Anthropology; The Anthropology of War; Ethnic Conflict; State-Tribe Interaction; Policing; Puerto Rico

My interest in explaining war began as a college student during the Viet Nam War.  My first paper in Columbia University’s graduate program in anthropology was an evaluation of four theories about war in Amazonia.   As a graduate student, I organized a student seminar and edited volume on war, which was published by Academic Press in 1984, Warfare, Culture, and Environment.

My field research, though, went in a very different direction.  First, I tried unsuccessfully to obtain permission for research in Cuba, to evaluate Che Guevara’s concept of the “New Socialist Man.”  (I was skeptical that “moral incentives” could replace “material incentives” for labor).  Following that, I conducted fifteen months of research on poverty, politics, and social transformation in Puerto Rico.  “My” village, Jauca, was the site studied by Sidney Mintz in The People of Puerto Rico Project, and I too worked closely with Don Taso Zayas, the “Worker in the Cane.”  The major questions addressed in my thesis, Class Transformations in Puerto Rico, were how the seemingly homogenous “rural proletariat” diversified socially as part of the island’s development, and why the once supremely profitable Puerto Rican sugar industry went into the red and collapsed.

Since completing my dissertation, most of my research has been on war. Five general goals characterize my research and publications.  First, I have tried to develop rigorous, testable theory to explain war, both as a recurrent aspect of the human condition, and in specific cases—why actual wars happen.  This has had three major components.  One is a basic materialist hypothesis, which is summed up as ‘wars occur when those who decide to start a war believe it is in their practical, material self-interest to do so.’   This calls attention to the political structure of decision-making and the total interests of decision-makers.  Another basic part of my theory is a strong political and historical orientation, meaning that war should be studied not as a disembodied cultural pattern, but as a behavioral reality in a concrete historical situation.   This has often meant highlighting the role of Western contact on indigenous peoples.  Lastly, I have always engaged in critical evaluation of other theories, including ecological, social structural, and symbolic explanations of war.  In recent times, my main efforts have been to challenge a variety of biologically oriented explanations, and archaeological claims that war has always been a part of human existence.  The best example of this over-all theoretical pursuit is the monograph Yanomami Warfare: A Political History.

Second, besides developing particular explanatory angles, I have tried to organize and synthesize existing anthropological knowledge on war.  That began with the broad survey in my 1984 volume, then moved on to a book length bibliography The Anthropology of War (with Leslie Farragher) in 1988.  A first attempt at synthesis of major research findings was published in 1990 (“Explaining War”) and connected to a programmatic, non-reductionistic modification of Cultural Materialism (“Infrastructural Determinism,” 1995).  Other efforts at broad synthesis include: a conference, co-edited volume (War in the Tribal Zone), and overviews (“The Violent Edge of Empire,” 1992, with Neil Whitehead, “When Worlds Collide,” 1992) about war-related effects of Western contact; a systematic compilation of war/society linkages comparing tribal peoples and ancient states (“A Paradigm for the Study of War and Society,” 1999); another conference, edited volume (The State, Identity, and Violence), and synthesis  (“Violent Conflict and Control of the State,” 2003) of anthropological findings on large-scale political violence within contemporary states; overviews of global archaeological findings on the origins of war (“Archaeology, Cultural Anthropology, and the Origins and Intensification of War,” 2006; “War Before History,” 2008); a general summary of my largest conclusions from all my research on the topic (“Ten Points on War,” 2008); and currently, a book in progress which critically evaluates the entire literature on deadly violence among chimpanzees (Chimpanzees and War).

Third, I have tried to bridge fields.  Within anthropology, that has involved crossing over many regional literatures (although with specialties in the Pacific Northwest Coast and Amazonia), moving from cultural anthropology to archaeology, and conducting extensive research on biological explanations of war, some of which are the focus of  Chimpanzees and War.  Beyond anthropology, I have participated in conferences and volumes that were primarily within the disciplines of history, psychology, political science, and strategic studies.  At the Rutgers Center for Global Change and Governance, I founded and ran the Working Group on Political Violence, War, and Peace, which for several years brought together scholars from many different disciplines.  Two of the overviews just mentioned, “A Paradigm for the Study of War and Society” and “Violent Conflict and Control of the State” were written to connect-up with literatures in history and international relations, respectively.   In all of this work, the objective has been to encourage two-way communication, bringing outside views to anthropologists, and making anthropological findings more widely available.

Fourth, I have always been committed to making anthropological findings applicable to real-world problems of war.  During the Reagan era, this resulted in two publications addressing the potential and peril of anthropological engagement in Cold War issues, “Anthropology and War: Theory, Politics, Ethics” (1989), and “How Can Anthropologists Promote Peace” (1988).  In our current climate, “Tribal, ‘Ethnic,’ and Global Wars” (2006)  and “Ten Points on War” (2008) are theoretical statements applied directly to large scale conflict around the world, including the invasion of Iraq.  This commitment was also expressed by membership in the Reducing Political Violence Action Group, a small team of conflict-reduction practitioners attempting to find new, practical ways to head off political violence, which led to a (so-far) successful peacemaking effort in Guinea-Bissau.  At the moment, I am trying to grapple with issues raised by the new demand for ‘cultural knowledge’ and ‘ethnographic intelligence” from the U.S. Army and other security agencies.  (“The Challenge of Security Anthropology,” 2008).

Fifth, I have made continuous efforts to make research findings known and relevant to non-academic audiences, both policy makers and the general public.  Regarding policy, this has involved many conferences, roundtables and other dialogues at places such as the Council on Foreign Relations, and the McKinsey and Company.  For the public, this has involved accepting just about any speaking invitation that came my way, from grammar schools to television and the web.