Questions, Anger and Dissent on Ethics Study

The day after a controversial report on working with the military is released, anthropologists consider whether it went far enough. Many don't think so.
November 30, 2007

Can an association urge its members to apply the principle of "do no harm" in research when there isn't much agreement on what "harm" is? Is "doing less harm" a moral standard worthy of consideration or a cop out? Should scholars talk about their conduct during wartime in a general way without regard to the war taking place? Is the war in Iraq so terrible and is the conduct of the U.S. military so reprehensible that scholars should take a firm stand against any involvement?

Those were among the issues considered Thursday when the rank and file of the American Anthropological Association had a first chance to question members of a panel that on Wednesday evening released a report on the issues raised by doing anthropological research for the military or security agencies. In an official session with the authors of the report, scholars asked a series of tough questions, but there was no open rebellion against the findings.

But Thursday night, at a discussion sponsored by anthropologists seeking a tougher stance than the panel suggested, scholars expressed considerable anger and dismay over the report, with some anthropologists suggesting that they organize a protest of their own organization. The discussion was sufficiently heated that a graduate student who spoke to the group to defend the concept of scholarly engagement with the military was crying at one point, and at another point, the audience applauded the suggestion that any anthropologists who work with the military should be kicked out of the organization.

The report issued Wednesday noted many ethical risks associated with such work, and urged scholars to consider them carefully, but also rejected the idea that the association through its ethics code should specifically bar such work, or any category of work. At this point, the panel's report is just one group's recommendations -- while association leaders have been generous in their praise of the report, they have stressed that the study is the start of a discussion among members and is not policy at this time.

At the meeting Thursday where members could ask the panel questions, there were not frontal assaults on the report, although some critics said after the session that they felt constrained in that they had had time only to quickly skim its 62 pages, and so didn't feel prepared to offer a full critique. But some questions challenged the assumptions behind the report.

For example, panel members stressed that they had interviewed many of the anthropologists who work for the military or security agencies and that the academics are engaged in standard, unclassified work, as often as not looking at the organizations for which they work. Repeatedly, panel members said that they did not find evidence of anthropologists doing clandestine work, spying on other cultures or nations and reporting findings back to the Pentagon, or anything remotely like that.

That prompted Daniel A. Segal, a professor of anthropology at Pitzer College, to say that while he appreciated the work done interviewing anthropologists who work for the military, he didn't have confidence that the ones identified were necessarily representative of those posing ethical issues. Panel members asked agencies to help identify anthropologists, but why -- Segal wondered -- should they feel confident that they were pointed to all of those doing anthropological work when the answers were coming from an administration that "has never acknowledged that waterboarding is torture" and from an intelligence and military community that has been "repeatedly lying" about matters related to the war in Iraq.

Laura McNamara, a panel member who is an anthropologist who works for the government at the Sandia National Laboratories, said "we can't deal with things we don't know about," and added that "we weren't trying to do an investigation to root out evil anthropologists."

McNamara said that it is possible that some anthropologists that have joined intelligence agencies are doing undercover work for them, but she said that if that's the case, "they are doing something else" besides anthropology, and that the panel can't be expected to come up with a way to govern them. At the same time, McNamara said that the study left her believing that many anthropologists who do contract work for the government don't tell their colleagues about it -- not because those doing the work feel they are doing unethical, but because they don't want to be called unethical by fellow professors. She said that academe needs to "open up a civil space" for discussions of such topics, so people feel comfortable telling their colleagues about their work.

Panel members said that two principles were crucial to their recommendations on how anthropologists should consider work for the military or security agencies: the "do no harm" philosophy of importance to many disciplines, and a belief in being honest and transparent about work. But as the discussion Thursday indicated, those principles may not be simple to define.

Terence Turner, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Cornell University, said that the discipline was paying a price for watering down its stand against secret research. A decade ago, he said, the association's code of ethics was revised -- replacing a strong stance against secret research with one with less clarity. Turner said (and this belief appears to be shared by many anthropologists) that the change was made at the behest of anthropologists wanting to do proprietary work for companies. Once the discipline abandoned the principle that all research must have "public circulability," Turner said, it was a "slippery slope" down to the point where some anthropologists will do secret work for the military.

The panel in fact calls for the association to reconsider its language on secret research, perhaps returning to the old version. James L. Peacock, chair of the committee and a professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that it was not true that the association had changed its secrecy rules because scholars wanted to work for companies. Peacock speculated that the language barring secret research was written at a time that anthropologists were angry over the role some of their colleagues played in helping the military in Vietnam, while the rewrite a decade ago came a time that such issues weren't as urgent as they are today, with the war in Iraq.

Context is everything, said several panel members, in explaining why they didn't want to offer a "do and don't" list or to frame their analysis around the Iraq war.

Defining 'Do No Harm'

Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, a panel member who is a professor at Rhode Island College, said that defining "do no harm" isn't as straightforward as it sounds -- even if it is viewed as the "gold standard" of professional ethics. She said that many anthropologists who work for the government talk about "doing less harm" -- acknowledging that the military is causing harm to some people in Iraq or elsewhere, but arguing that their work lessens that. Fluehr-Lobban said that the argument could be taken further: Is there an obligation to do "more good" rather than just avoiding harm?

Is the "do no harm" standard really "minimal," she asked? Fluehr-Lobban characterized the discussions within the discipline about defining harm and the way it is considered as being at "a primitive stage."

Several audience members asked or suggested that "just war" theory should have been brought into the ethics report. In doing so, they acknowledged that anthropologists who worked with the government during World War II in some cases found ways to adhere to high ethical standards toward those they studied while also helping their country. But committee members, while acknowledging the differences among different wars, said that they didn't want to suggest that work was possible in some wars, but not others.

While the discussion was polite -- with audience members praising the panelists for their hard work -- critics of work for the military were clearly frustrated. David Vine, an assistant professor of anthropology at American University and one of the organizers of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, said that he found the panel's report to be "very weak" and "very watered down." The network is a group that does not rule out work for the military or security agencies, but that asks scholars to pledge “not to undertake research or other activities in support of counter-insurgency work in Iraq or in related theaters in the ‘war on terror.’”

Vine said he had hoped for a much more "clear statement" from the panel about activities that simply can't be considered ethical. During the public discussion, he said, "aren't there some forms of harm where we don't need to talk any more?"

In the interview later, he said that he didn't understand why the panel couldn't have said that doing classified research or working in battlefield situations -- both kinds of work that the committee suggested raise all kinds of ethical issues -- were simply wrong in any scenario. In both cases, he said, the anthropologist has lost any ability to live up to the "do no harm" standard.

As for the "do less harm" idea, he said that that was "a total violation of our ethical code," and that anthropologists should have no part of saying that their work is justified "if we kill 17 people instead of 20." He also said that the anthropologists saying that they are able to do less harm have not demonstrated to anyone how that is really the case, beyond their theoretical discussions of the issue.

A Tougher Stance

The Network of Concerned Anthropologists gathered with members of the American Ethnological Society Thursday night to consider these issues -- and the repeatedly voiced sentiment was that anthropologists must be willing to cut off certain kinds of ties to the U.S. military. The ethnological society's board adopted a statement that said that American security forces, in conjunction with the "American security state, have and continue to torture and kill." For that among other reasons, the society's board said that anthropologists should "refuse employment, graduate funding and participation in public relations efforts from or by the Pentagon."

Catherine Lutz, an anthropologist at Brown University, told the group that as she listened earlier in the day to the panel that wrote the ethics report, she had felt "a sense of nausea" at the "utilitarian approach" she said committee members took. Lutz said that the idea seemed to be that as long as anthropologists did their work "sitting in some cubicle," it didn't matter what effort they were supporting.

Many audience members said -- several times to applause -- that the ethics panel should have ruled out all military work, given that the U.S. military engages in actions that kill people. Anthropologists who were present said that the association's study did not speak for them, and that they intended to push for sanctions against work for military or security agencies -- and to rally support against a report they considered inadequate. (In a phone interview late Thursday, Peacock, chair of the committee that produced the report, said that he couldn't respond to specific comments because he wasn't at the Thursday night session, but that he wished people had raised their concerns at the earlier meeting. He said that the committee "responded to the charge" it received and that he believed it had done "a thorough job.")

One professor Thursday night said that the main reason scholars work for the military is for the cash, so the association should kick out any members who do so, and refund their dues from the last five years because they are "ruining anthropology."

Amid calls for blanket prohibitions on working for the military, it fell to Hugh Gusterson, a professor of anthropology and sociology at George Mason University, and one of the organizers of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, to defend even the possibility of ethical work for the military. He said, for example, that he would consider it possible to do ethical work if the Pentagon asked him to study post-traumatic stress disorder.

Much of the discussion Thursday night focused on the Human Terrain System, a military program in which anthropologists have accompanied and assisted the military in dealing with local groups in Afghanistan and Iraq. Military officials have said that the program allows social scientists to help people in those countries by advising soldiers on the ground. Marshall Sahlins, a professor at the University of Chicago, scoffed at this, and said that all the military was doing was using scholars to "make lethality more effective."

Sahlins referenced a recent blog item he wrote at Savage Minds in which he compared the logic of "collaborating anthropologists" to a cartoon he once saw, showing "two hooded executioners leaning on their long-handled axes, and one says to the other: 'The way I see it, if I didn’t do this, some sonovabitch would get the job.' "

The most unusual part of the discussion was a presentation by Zenia Helbig, a graduate student at the University of Virginia, who Wired Magazine reported Thursday was recruited to the training program for the Human Terrain System, but was suspended because of a joke she made about not wanting to stay involved if the U.S. invades Iran.

Helbig's message was that the Human Terrain System is poorly run and that the scholars involved aren't doing spying so much as helping military officers in "nation building" activities for which the military has no training. She argued that it would be better for Iraq if people with knowledge of the region became involved. While her tales of Human Terrain System foolishness were well received, her comments on a positive role for scholars were met with eye-rolling and some dismissive chuckles.

At one point Helbig said that she couldn't disengage from the military role in Iraq because it includes her fiancé, and she noted that if someone in the military refuses to deploy as ordered, that person would go to jail. At that point, a number of people in the audience shouted that her fiancé should have resisted nonetheless, and at that point, she started to wipe tears from her eyes and face.

Gusterson, the George Mason professor, urged the audience to show Helbig some respect, and said that she "showed courage" in expressing her views before an audience she knew didn't share her opinions. Gusterson's comments received applause as well and several of those who subsequently criticized Helbig's views made a point of praising her for attending the meeting.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top