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Secrecy and Anthropology

Secrecy and Anthropology
December 3, 2007

With debate over the role of anthropologists in aiding the military machine a theme threading through their annual meeting, scholars voted Friday to demand that the American Anthropological Association reinstate strict language from its 1971 code of ethics prohibiting secret research. Members at the meeting – who, for the second time in about 30 years and the second year in a row constituted a quorum in excess of the required 250 -- also voted overwhelmingly to oppose “any covert or overt U.S. military action against Iran.”

The language anthropologists want reinstated on secrecy – which, the resolution’s sponsor affirmed would apply to anthropologists doing work for corporations too – stipulates that “no reports should be provided to sponsors that are not also available to the general public and, where practicable, to the population studied.” Like every item of business discussed Friday other than the resolution on Iran, the resolution on secrecy was not filed for consideration 30 days in advance, as is required under association rules, and so will be submitted to the association’s executive board on an advisory basis only.

But Friday’s vote only strengthens a recommendation contained in a new report from the AAA Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities, which suggests that the membership or ethics committee "should consider” reinstating those same sections (1.g, 2.a, 3.a, and 6) of the 1971 code. The report centers on whether the association’s ethical standards bar ties to the military or intelligence agencies. The commission’s short answer: Not necessarily, although more scrutiny is needed. Stressing the diversity of roles anthropologists can play in military and intelligence apparatuses, the panel determined that while certain interactions would violate the ethical code, members also “see circumstances in which engagement can be preferable to detachment or opposition.” On issues of secrecy, for instance, the commission offered one particularly complex dilemma as illustration: “Some situations might be counterintuitive for most of us: consider a situation in which a research project is kept secret from the scholarly community, but not from the local population or community under study – as when an anthropologist employed by a government agency helps a special operation to get medical supplies to a remote town in northern Afghanistan.”

Debate on the resolution to reinstate the 1971 secrecy language Friday was short and terse. Terence Turner, a professor emeritus at the University of Chicago and a retired professor from Cornell University, offered the resolution, which was immediately seconded. Deborah Nichols, of Dartmouth College, expressed concern that reinstating the language would have the effect of rendering archaeologists in violation of the AAA ethics code for keeping the location of archaeological sites secret (to reduce looting) – which Turner then refuted, saying that the language does not restrict AAA members from protecting the identities of their subjects, informants or fieldwork locations.

Another member suggested that “the language of 1971, as excellent as it is, may need to be revisited” in a post 9-11 world (“We don’t know the scope of this new landscape,” she said). Hugh Gusterson, of George Mason University, spoke in support. Others clarified what the measure would and would not do. J. Anthony Paredes, professor emeritus at Florida State University, said that he had opposed considering the resolution because he didn’t remember the language of the 1971 code (because it was only brought up Friday, no paper copies of the resolution being voted upon were available). Paredes later asked for clarification from the resolution's sponsor about whether it would apply to anthropologists working on proprietary reports in the corporate world (which Turner responded to by saying yes).

An AAA member called for a vote, seeking to cut debate short not long after it began. After a voice-vote on whether to end debate that garnered more yays than nays – but still generated significant noise from opponents – AAA President Alan Goodman, a professor at Hampshire College, declared the two-thirds majority needed to proceed to a vote. But a group cried “No” from the back of the room, at which point Goodman called for a headcount before finding there was in fact a two-thirds majority and the vote could proceed.

After the vote, Gerald Sider, of the City University of New York, expressed his dismay with the use of AAA as a platform for anthropologists who work for the military, and said he'd like to see the association publicly register its condemnation of the practice. But Paredes, who fills the practicing/professional seat on the AAA executive board, stood up to explain why he had opposed the board's recent statement against the Human Terrain System, a project in which anthropologists work as contractors for the U.S. military in war zones for the purpose of collecting cultural and social data for military use. If the project is having any part in reducing harm, he said, he wants no part morally in condemning it.

Also on Friday, members approved a resolution submitted by Roberto J. González, of San Jose State University, and William O. Beeman, of the University of Minnesota, to oppose the use of military action in Iran, condemn any public relations campaigns designed to convince the U.S. public to support any military action, and urge the president and Congress to work toward a peaceful and diplomatic solution. The resolution was the only one submitted 30 days in advance, and therefore, per the organization's bylaws, it will be put to the entire AAA membership for a vote.

Anthropologists also lamented the failure of recent business meeting deliberations to effect change at the highest levels of the AAA. John Kelly, a professor at the University of Chicago, sponsored a motion asking that the executive board take the recommendations that come out of the business meeting seriously and, if they don’t apply them, offer very good reasons why not. “Because of the urgency of the relationship of anthropology to the military, we want [the secrecy resolution] taken as written,” Kelly said after the meeting of his reasons for sponsoring the motion. “We’re concerned that the board respond in good will and faith to the advice they’re given.”

Finally, board members approved items – again on an advisory basis to the board – that would establish a task force to study the rise of food prices worldwide and urge the U.S. Census Bureau to alter its questions and classifications relative to individuals who speak languages other than English. In a resolution sponsored by Laura Graham of the University of Iowa, anthropologists urged the bureau “to include a question about proficiency in languages other than English, and to stop classifying those who speak English less than ‘very well’-- and all members of their households -- as ‘linguistically isolated’ because the term is inaccurate and discriminatory.”

 

 

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