Monday, November 10, 2008

Another Critique of Anthropology

I've just finished reading The Humbled Anthropologist: Tales from the Pacificedited by Philip R. DeVita. The nineteenth chapter is titled: "An Anthropologist as Travel Writer' by Robert Tonkinson. He said something near the beginning of his essay about the realities of Anthropology that made me think of a dilemma in the anthropological world at the beginning of the Iraq/Afghanistan war.

He wrote:

"... anthropologists, the askers of a million questions, have been condemned in some countries as being CIA agents. (Who else would be so nosy?) In others, the close identification of anthropology with the colonial period has rendered its practitioners suspect. And in some cased, the mistaken belief that we study only "primitive" peoples leads to rejection, in favor of those who designate their work "sociological". (p.159)

On war,

"Globalization has long since replaced wars of liberation. Long gone is any moral clarity that earlier anthropologists might have had, or thought they had, to guide them through their ethical dilemmas. There was even a time when anthropologists could volunteer to participate in a “just” war rather than refusing to sanction an “unjust” one. That luxury, most likely, no longer exists in practice." The whole article is here.

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) cites that it is up to the individual Anthropologists to decide what is ethical for themselves. Their last amendment to their Code of Ethics recognized this: "1998:
AAA members adopted a new Code of Ethics drafted by the Commission to Review the AAA Statements on Ethics, chaired by James Peacock. This code states, “because anthropologists can find themselves in complex situations and subject to more than one code of ethics, the AAA Code of Ethics provides a framework, not an ironclad formula, for making decisions.”"

The discussion came about because of PRISP (Pat Robert's Intelligence Scholars Program). It's described here

Inside Higher has been following the stories from the AAA. On November 29, 2007 they wrote: "A special panel of the American Anthropological Association — after spending more than a year studying the question of whether its ethical standards should bar ties to the military and intelligence agencies — issued a report Wednesday that recommended tighter scrutiny of such work, but explicitly affirmed the possibility that it could be conducted ethically in some cases.

“We do not oppose anthropologists engaging with the military, intelligence, defense of other institutions or organizations,” the report says. “Neither, however, do we advocate that anthropologists actively seek employment or funding from national security programs. We see circumstances in which engagement can be preferable to detachment or opposition, but we recognize that certain kinds of engagement would violate the AAA Code of Ethics and thus must be called to the community’s collective attention, critiqued and repudiated.”

The next day there was a follow-up article discussing the ethics of anthropologists involved in military and intelligence projects.

In December of 2007, Time magazine published an article about the recruitment of Anthropologists and other social scientists for their Human Terrain project in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So where do I stand? I agree that some good could come from working with the military and intelligence agencies. And as you raise/arch your eyebrow at me let me tell you that a good anthropologist can do a hell of a lot better than those trouble-making, culture wrecking missionaries!

1 comment:

CAM said...

Is it an issue of whose "side" is the anthropologist on? When the government is responding to situations that require cultural sensitivity (with the FBI, CIA, and/or military), they are looking for a specific outcome (predetermined). However the cultural identity of the suspect (subject) may not allow them to arrive at that outcome in the way they want. This is where a binding ethics code could help the anthropologist. Knowing whose advocate you are legally & ethically could relieve anthropologists of pressure from the CIA/FBI that would bend those of little moral integrity.

And if ethical code would help with maintaining professional integrity, would you recommend a missionary code of ethics as well? LOL