Anthropologist Edward Spicer coauthored Impounded People: Japanese-Americans in the Relocation Centers after living and working among Japanese Americans detained in Arizona’s Poston concentration camp (officially called the Poston War Relocation Center).1 While Spicer is known primarily for his scholarship on Indigenous peoples of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, Impounded People was a collaborative effort born out of his work as a community analyst for the War Relocation Authority (WRA) during World War II.2 The community analyst program marked a critical moment in the field of anthropology, as it occurred during the formative stages of the applied anthropology subfield, which moves beyond observation to the use of ethnographic findings to inform policy. This essay examines Spicer’s role in the community analyst program and his influence on applied anthropology, as well as some of the conundrums that emerged through this work.
Anthropologists and World War II Incarceration
When the U.S. government incarcerated its own citizens and residents during World War II, it acted out of what is now formally recognized as “racial prejudice, wartime hysteria and a lack of political leadership.”3 But the wisdom that has come with hindsight did nothing to prevent 126,000 Japanese American lives from being upended during World War II. In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, men, women, and children—many of whom had lived on the West Coast for their entire lives—were subjected to searches, arrests, curfews, and forced removal from their homes. They were imprisoned, first in poorly equipped temporary facilities, and later in concentration camps in remote deserts, mountain areas, and swamplands across the United States.
During the first year of incarceration, unrest at the Manzanar and Poston concentration camps—in California and Arizona, respectively—spurred the WRA to employ social scientists to study what then director Dillon Myer called a “trouble pattern.”4 Anthropologist John F. Embree was brought on as a consultant and was later appointed to run an experimental new program that focused primarily on documenting “causes of friction and social disturbances,” “limited acceptance” of resettlement, and “reactions to new or proposed initiatives” among prisoners.5
At that time, Spicer was a newly minted instructor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, whose research in Mexico had been put on hold by the war. He joined Embree in Washington, D.C., where they devised what would become the community analyst program. Some twenty social scientists employed to work in the program soon embedded themselves among Japanese Americans at all ten of the WRA camps and issued reports on a range of topics, including assimilation and unrest.6
Spicer himself was stationed at Poston, a concentration camp that was located on the land of the Colorado River Indian Tribes in western Arizona and that imprisoned nearly eighteen thousand people at its peak occupancy.7 His writings indicate an awareness of the deeply unjust circumstances that Japanese Americans found themselves in, but they also reflect sympathy for the WRA administrators and the enormous logistical challenges they faced. He described the WRA as being “unusually inventive” and singularly concerned with the task of making the centers “livable places.”8 Spicer’s reflections on his work illustrate that he saw it as a largely positive use of social science, one that helped a beleaguered agency do the best they could under challenging circumstances.
Critics of the community analyst program point out that the social scientists who participated were in compromised positions. In a 1986 article, Peter Suzuki admonished community analysts for aligning themselves with the WRA and for using the tools of social science as an intelligence-gathering mechanism.9 As a case in point, Suzuki’s article points to a confidential memorandum in which John F. Embree recommended that the anthropologists act as channels of information for the FBI.10
The So-Called Loyalty Questionnaire
A closer look at the community analysts’ role in administering the notorious “loyalty questionnaire” illustrates some of the ways in which Spicer and other social scientists were complicit in advancing the objectives of the state, at the direct expense of a group of people who were already victims of injustice and oppression.
In an attempt to identify which detainees might be suitable for military service or early release from the WRA concentration camps, the WRA and the War Department developed an assessment tool known colloquially as the “loyalty questionnaire.” The premise and the rollout of this questionnaire were deeply flawed, leading to confusion, conflict, and divisions in the Japanese American community that linger to this day.
Two questions were particularly damaging and confounding for many respondents. Question 27 asked if detainees would serve in the U.S. armed forces, paying no heed to the fact that some individuals had family obligations, disabilities, or other circumstances that would have made service impossible or extremely difficult. Question 28 asked if detainees would be willing to “forswear any form of allegiance or obedience to the Japanese emperor.”
In his oral history with Densho, an organization that collects the testimonies of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II, Ben Takeshita described some of the conundrums question 28 presented:
Many people who lived in the United States were born in the United States, had no idea who the Japanese emperor was. Of course, our parents knew because they were born in Japan and immigrated legally to the United States. But so if you answer this “yes,” then that means that at one time you had sworn allegiance to the Japanese emperor, and now you’re swearing allegiance to the United States. And besides, our parents were Japanese citizens, born in Japan, they were forbidden by American alien land law in 1924 where they could not become American citizens even though they wanted to, and they could not own property. So it again became a dilemma, because like my parents, if they answered it “yes,” then they would be a person without a country.11
Despite the problematic nature of each of these questions, responding “no” to either one marked detainees as being disloyal to the U.S. government and subject to further segregation within the camps. Because there were so many “no-no boys,” the WRA designated the Tule Lake concentration camp in Northern California as a site where these respondents would be segregated from the other incarcerees. Thus began yet another major process of forced removals and disruption of lives, as “loyal” detainees were sent to one of the other nine camps and those deemed “disloyal” were sent to Tule Lake.
In addition to being a dark moment within a dark moment in history, the loyalty questionnaire also stands out as an example of social science being rendered as a tool for surveillance. Spicer later acknowledged that the questionnaire and segregation were two of the three major policy decisions that community analysts were instrumental in carrying out. Of the questionnaire, he writes that “the Community Analysts played a leading part in recording and describing these attitudes and viewpoints and diffusing knowledge of them throughout the WRA personnel.”12
While Spicer admits that the community analysts were complicit in the misguided attempts to segregate Japanese Americans, Suzuki offers further incriminating details. He points to a case in which Spicer reviewed community analyst reports to check them “for individuals that might be selected for (further) internment or other separation.” Suzuki claims that Spicer’s analyses in this case alone resulted in identifying approximately thirty individuals to be separated.13 He further claims that John H. Provinse, another anthropologist who was then head of the WRA’s Community Management Division, sent a letter to J. Edgar Hoover condoning returning incarcerees who became “serious sources of trouble” to Department of Justice–run internment camps for enemy aliens or to the Leupp Isolation Camp in Arizona.14
Despite Spicer’s unapologetic admissions that the “findings of the Community Analysts were most clearly manifest in connection with a new major policy—segregation,”15 his writings also indicate that he was keenly aware of the toll the questionnaire took on the Japanese American incarcerees. In Impounded People, he writes that “registration was comparable to evacuation itself in its unsettling effects on the evacuees.”16 At times, he acknowledged that the dichotomy between “loyal” and “disloyal” was a harmful invention that caused conflict and low morale among detainees, and biased the opinions of some WRA administrators against the population they were charged with caring for.17 Yet Spicer also showed his own bias against those incarcerees who were not falling into line, referring to the Hoshidan, for example, as “rough young men.”18
Despite the ethical and moral conundrums that arose as a result of this work, Spicer became an even more ardent WRA apologist by the time he reflected on the project in a chapter he contributed to the 1979 book The Uses of Anthropology. In it, he defended the WRA, claiming they had “anti-concentration camp values resulting in nonrepressive policy” and that the institution was primarily concerned with “the restoration of human rights.”19 However, his analysis fails to acknowledge the fact that the WRA, as the government agency carrying out the unlawful imprisonment of U.S. citizens and residents, was inherently complicit in this mass violation of civil liberties.
Spicer’s work didn’t exist in a bubble—he would go on to help found the Society for Applied Anthropology and to serve as its vice president in 1947.20 His influence over the formation of applied anthropology makes it all the more important to consider the ways in which his work and perspectives were entangled in state mechanisms of violence. In the direct application of field research to inform policy, the work that Spicer and other community analysts did for the WRA marked a distinct shift away from the origins of cultural anthropology as a purely ethnographic practice. And because the community analyst program served the surveillance and bureaucratic needs of the WRA, its objectivity was jeopardized from its very inception.
The research and findings that comprise Impounded People do offer valuable insights into daily life inside the World War II concentration camps, but they must also be understood within the problematic circumstances they were produced in. Similarly, this work ought to prompt questions about the ethics of applied scholarship in contexts of incarceration, war, and other cases of institutional injustice.
1. “Relocation center” is now widely recognized as a euphemism, as is the commonly used term “internment,” which refers only to the incarceration of foreign nationals and erases the fact that two-thirds of those incarcerated were American citizens. The more accurate terms are “concentration camp” or “incarceration camp.”
2. Spicer’s coauthors were fellow anthropologists and community analysts Asael T. Hansen, Katherine Luomala, and Marvin K. Opler. Impounded People was first published in 1946 by the U.S. Department of the Interior, War Relocation Authority (Washington, D.C.), and a newer edition was published in 1969 by the University of Arizona Press (Tucson). Citations in this essay refer to the 1969 edition.
3. Yamato, “Civil Liberties Act of 1988.”
4. Spicer, “Use of Social Scientists,” 20.
5. Spicer, 19.
6. The WRA camps were dispersed across California, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Arkansas.
7. Fujita-Rony, “Poston (Colorado River).”
8. Spicer et al., Impounded People, 17; Spicer, “Use of Social Scientists,” 19–20.
9. Suzuki, “When Black Was White,” 4.
10. Suzuki, 2–3.
11. Takeshita, “Interview.”
12. Spicer, “Anthropologists and the War Relocation Authority,” 233.
13. Suzuki, “When Black Was White,” 4.
14. Suzuki, 5.
15. Spicer, “Use of Social Scientists,” 24.
16. Spicer et al., Impounded People, 160.
17. Spicer et al., 158–160. The Hoshidan was a pro-Japanese group at the Tule Lake concentration camp, who organized as a form of protest and resistance to U.S. government treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
18. Spicer et al., Impounded People, 180.
19. Spicer, “Anthropologists and the War Relocation Authority,” 219.
20. Hayashi, Democratizing the Enemy, 214.
Fujita-Rony, Thomas Y. “Poston (Colorado River).” Densho Encyclopedia. Accessed April 11, 2021. https://encyclopedia.densho.org/Poston_(Colorado_River)/.
Hayashi, Brian Masaru. Democratizing the Enemy: The Japanese American Internment. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.
Spicer, Edward H. “Anthropologists and the War Relocation Authority.” In The Uses of Anthropology, edited by Walter Goldschmidt, 217–37. Washington, D.C.: American Anthropological Association, 1979.
Spicer, Edward H. “The Use of Social Scientists by the War Relocation Authority.” Human Organization 5, no. 2 (1946): 16–36.
Spicer, Edward H., Asael T. Hansen, Katherine Luomala, Marvin K. Opler. Impounded People: Japanese-Americans in the Relocation Centers. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1969.
Suzuki, Peter. “When Black Was White: Misapplied Anthropology in Wartime America.” Man and Life: A Journal of the Institute of Social Research and Applied Anthropology 12, nos. 1 and 2 (January–June 1986): 1–13.
Takeshita, Ben. “Interview with Ben Takeshita.” By Virginia Yamada. Densho Visual History Collection, March 11, 2019. https://ddr.densho.org/interviews/ddr-densho-1000-467-1/.
Yamato, Sharon. “Civil Liberties Act of 1988.” Densho Encyclopedia. Accessed April 11, 2021. https://encyclopedia.densho.org/Civil_Liberties_Act_of_1988/.