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Anthropologists Adopt New Language Against Secret Research
February 19, 2009
By David Glenn (The Chronicle)
In the latest outgrowth of the debate over military sponsorship of social science, members of the American Anthropological Association have voted to strengthen language in their code of ethics against research conducted in secret.
Among other things, the new amendments declare that clandestine fieldwork constitutes “a clear violation of research ethics” and that anthropologists “should not withhold research results from research participants when those results are shared with others.”
The amendments were endorsed in a mail ballot by a vote of 87 percent to 13 percent. (The turnout rate was 16 percent.) The association announced the results on Wednesday.
The ethics code carries no formal weight, and the association has no mechanism for adjudicating charges of misconduct. But the code is widely discussed in graduate courses, and some anthropologists say that it embodies a powerful set of norms.
The code represents “a sense of our collective judgment,” said Dena K. Plemmons, a research scientist at the University of California at San Diego and the chair of the association’s Committee on Ethics, during a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. “We assume that it gives us a guiding framework for our practice.”
The new ethics-code revisions stem from a two-year-old debate about whether—and under what conditions—anthropologists should cooperate with projects sponsored by intelligence agencies or the military. Several government programs are at issue, but the most visible one is the U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System, in which social scientists give on-the-ground advice to military units in Afghanistan and Iraq (The Chronicle, November 30, 2007).
Officials at the Department of Defense have maintained that the research generated by social scientists in the Human Terrain System will be open and unclassified, except in limited cases in which data must be temporarily withheld for reasons of operational security. They have also said that the social scientists are always candid with Afghani and Iraqi citizens about their dual roles as researchers and military personnel.
If those assertions are true, then it appears that anthropologists could participate in the Human Terrain program without technically violating the new ethics rules.
But even if the Human Terrain teams’ reports are unclassified, it seems unlikely that the Afghani and Iraqi citizens who interact with the teams could realistically obtain those reports. As a recently leaked program handbook makes clear, many of the teams’ reports take the form of oral briefings and PowerPoint presentations for brigade commanders.
During a discussion of the Human Terrain program at the anthropology association’s 2007 meeting, Terence Turner, a professor emeritus at Cornell University, called for a strict ban on secret research. The association had added such a ban to its ethics code in 1971, in the wake of revelations about American social scientists’ clandestine counterinsurgency work in Thailand and elsewhere. But the ban was lifted during the 1980s.
The newly approved amendments are not as strong as the 1971 language, and Mr. Turner says he is not fully happy with them. “The new text of the AAA Ethics Code goes some way, but not all the way, toward satisfying the concerns I raised in my 2007 resolution,” he wrote in an e-mail message to The Chronicle on Wednesday.
Mr. Turner’s resolution was aimed primarily at social scientists who work with the Human Terrain System and similar programs. But strong anti-secrecy rules would also call into question the work of a much larger group of anthropologists who conduct proprietary research for corporations and nonprofit organizations.
Officials at the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology, which promotes nonacademic anthropology, did not reply to a request for comment on Wednesday. That association opposed Mr. Turner’s 2007 motion, but its president gave a qualified endorsement to the weaker language that was approved this week.
Mr. Turner is not happy that the code’s epilogue still includes language that suggests that anthropologists who are also members of other organizations might legitimately choose to follow the other organizations’ rules instead of the anthropology association’s code.
That passage “opens a hole wide enough to drive a Humvee through,” Mr. Turner says.
Mr. Turner will have plenty of additional chances to push for revisions. Ms. Plemmons’s committee recently began a wholesale review of the ethics code—a process that is expected to take two years. The anthropology association is also collecting material for an ethics casebook for scholars who work with the military.
'Accessory' to State
Scholars took up broader questions about the military and social science during a symposium that was Webcast on Wednesday afternoon from Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies.
“What happens to universities and to disciplines when military funding becomes larger rather than smaller?” asked Catherine Lutz, a professor of anthropology and international studies at Brown.
She said that anthropologists should look skeptically at how fields like physics and communication studies have been shaped by Pentagon money. “We’re not simply helping the state when we take military funding,” she said. “We are in fact restructuring and reshaping our discipline as an accessory to various kinds of state projects.”
But David Kennedy, Brown’s vice president for international affairs, urged scholars not to categorically reject collaboration with the Pentagon. He noted that military personnel themselves have played crucial roles in exposing abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison and in similar recent scandals.
Scholars should keep such complexities in mind, Mr. Kennedy said, rather than simply deciding that “the taint of militarization” can be avoided if they refuse to accept money from the Defense Department.
The Human Terrain program, meanwhile, has been through a difficult period. Three social scientists in the program have been killed since last May, including Michael V. Bhatia, a young international-relations scholar (The Chronicle, July 4, 2008).
Last week, Wired and the freelance writer John Stanton reported that the program’s structure had abruptly changed. Civilians in the program will now be government employees rather than contractors. Among other things, the change reportedly means that social scientists on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq could see pay cuts of more than 60 percent.
Officials in the program did not reply to a request for comment on Wednesday.
Thanks to David Glenn and The Chronicle for covering this document. Reprint rights remain with the aforementioned.