Ethics and Militarization Dominate Anthropology Meeting

At annual business meeting, anthropologists weigh in on planned review of the ethics code. Tensions simmer.
November 21, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO – The American Anthropological Association's annual business meeting was far less fiery this year than last, although issues of militarization and secret research, and tensions between anthropologists who work in academe and those who work in business or government settings, remained at the forefront Thursday night.

The association has been embroiled in debates over the ethics of secret research, such as when research findings are shared with sponsors but not with subjects or the public at large. The current debate is rooted in concerns about the Pentagon's use of social scientists, most notably through the Human Terrain System, which embeds anthropologists with the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, while the debate on secrecy is rooted in military matters, it has broader implications for proprietary uses of anthropology research, such as for anthropologists employed by corporations.

After a debate at last year's business meeting, and a nine-month review process that culminated in September, the AAA membership as a whole is set to vote on proposed changes to the Code of Ethics' provisions on clandestine research (many proponents of stricter restrictions are supporting the changes, although they don't feel they go far enough). More broadly, the association in October announced plans for a review of all of its ethics rules.

Against that backdrop, the AAA's business meeting failed to attract a quorum of 250 members Thursday, meaning all approved motions would be submitted to the group's executive board as non-binding recommendations. Arguably the most controversial motion – on the ethics code -- failed narrowly, by a 40 to 37 vote, with 15 abstentions. Terence Turner, who's a professor emeritus from the University of Chicago and is retired from Cornell University, offered up a motion asking that in the forthcoming, broad ethics review, the association strike two specific sentences from the current code, one from the introduction and one from the epilogue, which he described as neutralizing the effect of the code as a whole. The first of the two sentences that Turner proposed striking, from the introduction, reads, "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."

"If we're going to have a code of ethics that has meaning, we have to insist that it cannot be whimsically overridden by any other code of ethics," said Turner, who sponsored a successful motion calling for a ban on secret research at last year's meeting.

Among those who objected to Turner's motion was Kendall Thu, from Northern Illinois University, who is a member of the governing board for the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology, which supports anthropologists working outside the academy. Thu objected that scholars were being asked to strike the introduction and epilogue of a revised code that hasn't been (re-)written yet. "We don't even know what the revisions are."

After the motion narrowly failed, one audience member criticized the association for setting aside two years to reform its ethics code -- a code that lacks teeth -- "in a time of butchery."

On another note, Nathaniel Tashima, an anthropologist at LTG Associates, Inc., said that while the code of ethics should provide a framework for anthropologists to have such discussions, he criticized the idea of changing the code of ethics to respond to specific circumstances as they arise. "You're trying to legislate ethics on a case-by-case basis," he said.

Also at the meeting, the members approved a motion from the Anthropology and the Environment section to "green" the association and its future annual meetings. And, again on military matters, the Network of Concerned Anthropologists submitted a letter to AAA's president, Setha Low, accompanied by 1,056 signatures of anthropologists who signed a "Pledge of Non-participation in Counterinsurgency."

That pledge, written and distributed by the network primarily to members of the association, asserts that its signatories "believe that anthropologists should not engage in research and other activities that contribute to counterinsurgency in Iraq or in related theaters in the 'war on terror.' " It states more generally that "Anthropological support for such an enterprise is at odds with the humane ideals of our discipline as well as professional standards." In presenting the letter to the association's leadership, Catherine Lutz, of Brown University, said the Network of Concerned Anthropologists would also be sending letters to a number of major players in Washington including, upon a suggestion from the audience, President-Elect Barack Obama.

One seemingly more mundane matter actually took up a good chunk of time Thursday night: a motion to move the business meeting to a standard starting time, to 6 p.m. on the Friday of the annual meeting each year.

The motion spawned much discussion about conflicts with other meetings, and some complaints about the structure of Thursday's meeting, which started around 8:30 p.m. and was preceded by an awards ceremony, after which much of the room emptied (and too few remained for a quorum). The business meeting also included a musical tribute to outgoing board members and committee chairs, many of whom weren't present to hear their songs.

After much discussion, sponsors of the resolution agreed to modify it to ask the AAA executive board to set a standard time of its own choosing (with a few preconditions, such as that the business meeting should be held later in the week, on Friday or Saturday, and shouldn't conflict with concurrent sessions).

Low added that, as president of the association, she would see to it that the awards ceremony and business meeting are separated come next year.


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