Social Science as a Tool for Surveillance

In the wake of inmate unrest at Poston and Manazanar in the winter of 1942, the War Relocation Authority decided they needed to better understand what they dubbed a “trouble pattern” emerging in WWII concentration camps. By early 1943, they had formed the Community Analysis Section to study the population of Japanese American incarcerees. 

Some twenty social scientists—predominantly cultural anthropologists—employed to work in the community analyst program soon were embedded among Japanese Americans at all ten of the WRA camps. They issued reports to the WRA on a range of topics, including assimilation and unrest. While their work lends some insight into what life was like inside the camps, the researchers have been criticized in years since for limiting their critiques of WWII incarceration and the way camps were run to internal reports, rather than making them public. And as the following essay illustrates, community analysts like cultural anthropologist Edward Spicer also became a part of the surveillance machine that further penalized select incarcerees, especially in the aftermath of the so-called “loyalty questionnaire.” 

Excerpt from Social Science as a Tool for Surveillance in World War II Japanese American Concentration Camps, a new introduction to Impounded Peoples by Edward Spicer

A closer look at the community analysts’ role in administering the notorious “loyalty questionnaire” illustrates some of the ways in which Edward 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, 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.

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.

This community analyst report from July 1943 considers the extent to which Nisei have assimilated to American life.
This community analyst report from July 1943 considers the extent to which Nisei have assimilated to American life. Read more.

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.”

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. 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.

While Spicer’s unapologetic admissions that the “findings of the Community Analysts were most clearly manifest in connection with a new major policy—segregation,” 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.” 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. 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.”

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.” 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.

By Densho Communications and Public Engagement Director Natasha Varner, excerpted from a new introduction to the book Impounded Peoples by former community analysts Edward Spicer, 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). An open access digital version of the book was published by Open Arizona/University of Arizona Press in 2021.

See the original essay published by Open Arizona for complete citations and bibliographic information. 

Header image: A guard tower and gate at the entrance to one of the ten WRA concentration camps. Courtesy of the Frank Abe Collection.

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