David Price

Photo of David Price


B.A., The Evergreen State College, 1983
M.A., University of Chicago, 1984
Ph.D., Anthropology, University of Florida, 1993


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David Price on anthropology, military & intelligence agencies

Biographical Note

Born in Seattle in 1960. Grew up in McMinnville, Oregon. Attended Evergreen from 1979-1983. Hiked the Oregon and Washington sections of the Pacific Crest Trail. Studied Near Eastern archaeology and the history of anthropology at the University of Chicago, received MA in 1984. In 1986 married Midge Miller (Evergreen '84), and attended the University of Florida studying anthropology and Arabic. In 1989 and 1990 conducted fieldwork for the National Science Foundation on ancient and contemporary irrigation systems in Egypt. Moved back to Olympia. Received Ph.D. in anthropology in 1993 from the University of Florida. Had two kids, Milo (born '92) and Nora (born '94). Am currently the Chair of the Department of Cultural Anthropology & Sociology at St. Martin's College, Lacey, Washington. Am currently using the Freedom of Information Act and archival sources to write a book on the impact of the Cold War on the development of American anthropology.

Publication Types

Non-Fiction, Scholastic, Journalism

Latest Publication

Challenging America's Pharaoh: A Revolutionary Movement and the Future of Egyptian (In)dependence. CounterPunch Feb 2, 2011.

Additional Publications

David Price--Cold War, World War, Terror War Publications Page

Publication Excerpt

"Water Theft in Egypt's Fayoum Oasis: Emics, Etics, and the Illegal"
Chapter Six in Science, Materialism and the Study of Culture
Edited by Martin F. Murphy and Maxine Margolis
University of Florida Press (1995): pp. 96-110

ISSUES OF IRRIGATION AND POWER played an important role in the development of materialist, cross-cultural evolutionary theories (Wittfogel 1957; Marvin Harris 1968d, 1979a; Sanders and Price 1968). Most of this research examined the role of centralized irrigation systems in the formation of pristine and secondary states. The recognition of similarities between irrigation states in the Old World and the New World provided some of the best evidence of the recurrent role of infrastructure in cultural evolution.

Wittfogel's contribution to cross-cultural research was his recognition that similar ecological, demographic, and technological (infrastructural) conditions gave rise to similar ("despotic") state structures in the New World and the Old World. Wittfogel demonstrated that bureaucratic states were drawn to power primarily to coordinate the construction, use, and maintenance of large-scale irrigation works.

In the last two decades a body of literature has accumulated that questions the validity of hydraulic models of state development and notions of centralized, state-controlled irrigation works. These critiques of Wittfogel's model have all failed to recognize his distinction between hydraulic and hydroagricultural societies (compare Pfaffenberger 1989, 1990; Varisco 1982; Wittfogel 1957, 195-204), and they minimize the importance of technology in determining the level of state control of irrigation works (compare Hunt 1989; Wittfogel 1957, 166).

The worst caricatures of Wittfogel's theory represent his argument as one in which all irrigation systems lead to a system of centralized decision making. Nothing could be farther from the truth. His definition of hydroagricultural societies clearly precludes such misunderstandings. "Hydroagriculture, farming based on small scale irrigation, increases the food supply, but it does not involve the patterns of organization and social control that characterize hydraulic agriculture and Oriental Despotism" (Wittfogel 1957, 18). 1

Beyond the debate over intrastructure's role in the formation of hydraulic states there are issues relating to the influence of infrastructure at a more circumscribed, local level. This chapter is not concerned with the role of irrigation in state formation. Rather, it examines the infrastructural effects of an irrigator's distance from a water source on his or her compliance with irrigation rules, and applies the principles of emics and etics to studying aspects of a state-managed irrigation system already in place. Just as infrastructural forces determine the large state formations, these forces also determine many of the subtle, small-scale behaviors and social formations at the local village level.

There are relationships of power and productivity inherent in the material composition of any irrigation system. On a large scale there are relationships based on the technology, demography, economy, and particulars of the physical environment. These are the large, infrastructural features examined by Karl Wittfogel, Marvin Harris, and others at great length (compare Wittfogel 1957; Marvin Harris 1977). On a smaller, local scale are infrastructural features relating to the particulars of an individual plot of land such as soil quality, distance from water source, and drainage ability. These infrastructural features, both large and small, determine the social formation of irrigation-based societies. Though most materialist studies have tended to examine the large-scale infrastructural dynamics, the small-scale, local infrastructural relationships also deserve systematic attention.

My fieldwork in Egypt's Fayoum Oasis relied on methodological distinctions between emic, etic, mental, and behavioral distinctions in studying irrigation practices. 2 The primary distinction between emic and etic approaches is to be found in the difference of authority given to cultural insiders in an emic approach and that given to an observer using operationally defined criteria (Headland, Pike, and Harris 1990; Marvin Harris 1979a). I adopted this method under the assumption that a holistic anthropology requires a recording and analysis of both emic and etic information. The epistemological concepts of emics, etic, mental, and behavioral helped untangle the varieties of information I collected. These concepts allow discussions without getting mired down in questions of intentionality, lying, or the consciousness of an actor-informant. The distinction of emic/mental data relieves an investigator from "trying to get inside the head of a native," or deciding when an informant is lying or simply mistaken.3 The distinction of etic/behavioral data allows anthropologists to easily handle behaviors at variance with emic/mental data.


In an article on bureaucratic-based irrigation systems Susan Lees observed that "A farming family's ability to survive in the context of bureaucratic constraints depends on both the adequacy of its means of manipulating the rules while appearing not to break them, and on the compliance of others by failure to correct prohibited or unauthorized irregularities" (1986, 610). She even goes so far as to say that in some Israeli collective settlements "up to 70% of the water used is unaccounted for (stolen!) by tampering with outlets and meters" (parenthesis and exclamation in original; 1986, 612).

The fact that farmers in hydrobureaucratic systems do not comply with all the rules does not weaken arguments for the power of hydraulic states. Instead, it demonstrates how farmers try to optimize the disadvantaged position in which the state has placed them. The water available to the system is a given, but an individual's share relative to his neighbors can be changed through actions outside the state imposed rules.

In the Fayoum water theft is a vital cultural element of agricultural production. It can mean the difference between the success and failure of a crop, especially during the hydraulically crucial early years of an orchard's life. Water theft regularly occurs, despite the fact that the emic/mental rules of Fayoum irrigation are clear to all irrigators who participate in the drawing of water for their fields, and it is easy for anthropologists to elicit these rules from farmers. Mehanna quotes one farmer as saying, "How could anyone take water, water is my blood"; but she did not take the next step of observing whether "blood letting" occurred, or to what degree competing farmers were "bleeding" each other dry.

Egyptian farmers are not mindless, unconscious automatons who are unaware of the world around them. On the contrary, they are acutely aware of the particular requirements of their individualistic environmental settings and as such take precautions to improve their chances of agricultural success. It would seem that Egyptian irrigators did not state as an emic rule that a plot's distance contributes to water theft because their daily life does not expose them to this systemic pattern. The impact of conveyance loss is dealt with on an independent, individual basis. Individual irrigators perceived their own water shortages but did not emically connect this with the interfield magrur problem.

Water theft in the Fayoum does not simply occur in a vacuum. It predominantly occurs as a result of etically measurable conveyance loss and is most frequently emically justified as a defensive posture against what are perceived to be the actions of up-canal thieves. I found that there was little emic/mental consciousness of conveyance loss presenting an identifiable problem. At no time did an informant state an emic rule that distance from a water source was a contributing or determining factor in water theft.


Funding for this research was provided by the National Science Foundation, Grant BNS-88-19558.

1. Widespread confusion persists among scholars who do not acknowledge that Wittfogel made such distinctions. For example, Robert Hunt ignores the hydraulic/hydroagriculture distinction and then claims to find gigantic irrigation systems managed at local levels and small systems managed at national levels (1988). But Hunt is able to make this claim only by characterizing systems such as the U.S. government-built King's River project as a locally administered system because irrigators who use the system are also system regulators.

2. Fieldwork was carried out between July 1989 and July 1990 in the Fayoum.

3. A simple example can demonstrate this problem. If an anthropologist entered a bar located across the street from an American university on a Friday night and began asking all the patrons how old they were the query would generate a number of responses that would be etically spurious. Underaged patrons would not willingly admit to a stranger making such inquiries that they were breaking the law. By definition, their responses would be emic/mental data, but it would be wrong to conclude that underaged informants believed they were actually the ages they claimed to be. If it is impossible to get inside an informant's head, then some operational definition involving emics and etics must be made when studying illegal activities.

How did Evergreen help you in your career?

I entered Evergreen an avid reader who did everything possible to avoid writing. I had this slick idea that I would never have to learn how to write because I would become either a professional filmmaker or musician and would not need to deal with what I considered to be the base mechanics of writing. I wound up in a Basic Program where David Hitchens made reading, writing and thinking seem to be interesting and worthwhile pursuits. Through a process that focused initially on quantity over quality (e.g. taking courses that forced me to write a lot), I began to learn how to write. Mark Papworth and Malcolm Stilson showed me how to conduct primary research in field, library and archival settings. This taught me how to find things to write about, while at the same time Papworth taught me the importance of theory and interpretation in research. During the bombardment of Beirut in the summer of 1982 I went with an Evergreen program to an archaeological excavation in Acre, Israel; wound up quitting the dig and taking off to bus, train, hitchhike and walk through Egypt, Turkey, Syria and Jordan; and have been studying the Middle East ever since.