Defining a Ban on Secret Research

Board of anthropology association pushes ahead to restore prohibition on studies that can't be shared, but hesitates on absolutist language encouraged by members.
March 13, 2008

When members of the American Anthropological Association gathered for their annual meeting in November in Washington, the subject of the most intense debate was over the ethics of scholars working with the military or national security and intelligence agencies. A special committee released a report that said such relationships needed close scrutiny and that they may sometimes be inappropriate. But the panel stopped short of suggesting a blanket ban on such research.

In response, rank and file members of the association voted to ban all research that is secret -- in effect restoring a ban that was in place in the 1971 code of the association.

While the proposed ban on secret research wouldn't cut off all work with the military and security agencies, the ban would minimize such work for those seeking to comply with association rules. Further, the ban would limit the work anthropologists could do for corporations, many of which consider the studies they sponsor to be proprietary.

There was one major problem for those pushing for the ban on secret research. Because the proposal wasn't submitted on time, the vote was considered strictly advisory, raising questions about whether the board of the anthropology association would accept it.

Now the association's leaders -- following a board vote -- are drafting language -- that would accept a ban on secret research, but specify a few kinds of cases where the ban might not apply. Supporters of this approach say that the association is embracing the principles of the absolute ban sought by members. But some of those members are nervous that the process could have the potential to water down the ban.

Specifically, the anthropology association board asked its ethics committee to draft a revised ethics code that "incorporates the principle" of the total ban on secret research while "stipulating principles ... that identify when the ethical conduct of anthropology does and does not require specific forms of the public circulation of knowledge."

What anthropologists familiar with these actions are debating is whether those stipulations will truly be consistent with the ban, or will undercut it.

Dan Segal, the association board member who drafted the language adopted, does not see a conflict, and said he believed it was possible to identify some relatively narrow circumstances where secrecy would not contravene the principles called for by association members. For example, Segal said that many archaeologists work under contracts that bar them from specifying the precise location of digs so that looters can't use the published papers as a guide. That kind of issue, Segal said, is one where "a specific restriction on free circulation of information is merited."

Segal -- an anthropologist at Pitzer College -- stressed that he personally favored the principles behind the ban on secret research. The proposed ban adopted by members, he said, was "a broadly correct ethical position," but as the example of the archaeologists demonstrates, "the world is a very messy place and ethics can't always rely on absolute bold principles. Sometimes they have to be complexified."

He said he saw the process going on now as one in which the association is identifying anthropologists who might have examples where "there is a reason to have some limits on absolute openness." He said that he viewed such circumstances as "complexifications," not exemptions, and that he did not view these modifications under consideration as any sign of weakness about the general principles of openness.

If the process should result in a "wishy washy policy," Segal said he would become "a bold critic" of the board. Personally, he said he could not see most military or proprietary research fitting into the kinds of situations where the association should declare secrecy to be acceptable.

James L. Peacock, chair of the committee that reviewed the discipline's military ties and a professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he thought it would be possible to keep the spirit of the proposed secrecy ban while carving out a few exceptions. Peacock said that a key part of the anthropology code of ethics is the principle of "do no harm" to those you are studying. As long as that principle is applied to any exemption from the secrecy rule, he said there was little danger of the rule being undercut. He said he saw the association's work at this point as "being pragmatic about the context of research."

Others are more skeptical. At the meeting where anthropologists voted for the ban on secret research, many scholars accused the association leadership of not being strong enough in questioning research that isn't public.

Terence Turner, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Cornell University, who introduced the proposal to ban secret research and was its most outspoken advocate, said he was "a bit nervous" that the association's leaders might make changes that "would try to soften" to resolution. Turner said that he agreed with any secrecy -- such as the archaeology example -- that was needed to protect "the identity or integrity" of research subjects, their homes or villages, or excavation sites. Turner said he thought this was long understood and wasn't needed in the resolution he proposed, but that he didn't object to clarifying language.

But beyond that one issue, he said, the ban on secret research should be absolute. "There is no other valid reason for secrecy in an academic discipline committed to the free discussion of research and ideas," Turner said. "There should be no right either of sponsors of research or governments or whatever to limit the kinds of information and research findings or the purposes of research or any of the aspects. The results of research should not be concealed either from the people they are practiced upon or the public."

Hugh Gusterson, an anthropologist at George Mason University, another supporter of Turner's proposal, said he "wasn't a fundamentalist" and that he was open to modifications that "preserve the spirit" of the ban on secret research. Gusterson is among the leaders of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, a group that has gathered pledges from more than 800 anthropologists not to do work that supports the U.S. war effort in Iraq or the "war on terror."

Of the process now under way in the anthropology association, Gusterson said, "it entirely depends what the final product is. If they gut the mandate, they'll have a big fight on their hands."

The anthropology board also voted to take a number of other steps to carry out recommendations of the special panel created to study issues related to work with the military, and to extend the mandate of that panel for another two years to develop "modes of dialogue with security, intelligence and military agencies in order to communicate the AAA's perspectives on ethics and in order to better understand those agencies' interest in anthropology."

The board asked its ethics committee to work on identifying possible changes needed to the ethics code that relate to issues of informed consent. The special committee noted the difficulty of obtaining true informed consent when an anthropologist is working in a country experiencing war or occupied by U.S. troops.

Another area addressed by the special committee and now by the anthropology association board was advertising by military and security agencies in association publications. One impetus for creating the special committee was anger by some anthropologists over seeing job notices for work for federal agencies doing work that these anthropologists questioned.

The association board adopted the following rules:

  • That the job placement section of its publications in print and online "contain a header stating that the AAA urges applicants to make sure that job conditions for positions for which they apply allow them to act in ways which conform to the code of ethics and that counseling is available via whatever means the Committee on Ethics sets up."
  • That federal agencies placing job ads be asked to "affirm that the position in question allows the eventual employee to conduct anthropological activities in ways which are in accordance with the AAA Code of Ethics."
  • A new board committee will be "charged with vetting potentially problematic recruitment ads, as flagged by AAA staff members." If job postings "place candidates or eventual employees at risk of not being able to act in in accordance with the AAA Code of Ethics," those ads "should be declined, and the reasons for this decision should be communicated to the agency."


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


Back to Top