Anthropological Engagement, for Good and for Bad?

At annual anthropology conference, scholars discuss ethical imperatives to apply their expertise outside academe -- and ethically fraught applications.
November 24, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO – At the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting, which ended Sunday, the official theme was “Inclusion, Collaboration and Engagement.” That final word – “engagement” – inspired lively and at times prickly debates and discussions, with sessions and meetings focused on the Human Terrain System and other controversial forms of collaboration with the U.S. military, secret research, and a planned comprehensive review of the association’s decade-old Code of Ethics.

Other forms of engagement discussed were less controversial and included the need for anthropologists to apply their talents in real-world settings and to better interact with the publics that support their research.

Among these discussions and others, questions of what it means to be a public intellectual, what it means to be an engaged scholar – and which forms of “engagement” are to be encouraged and which might be flat-out unethical – dominated.

The Human Terrain System

One panel Friday afternoon featured two scholars who work with the Human Terrain System, a controversial initiative, opposed by the AAA’s executive board last year, in which social scientists are embedded with the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq in order to help units understand the local population. The program has raised questions about issues of voluntary informed consent and potential uses, or misuses, of anthropological information for targeting purposes.

When asked why she joined HTS, Kathleen Roedy, a Virginia-based analyst with the program who has a Ph.D. in social anthropology, said she wanted to apply her anthropological knowledge. “You can actually see the results of your work in a day-to-day environment.”

Her colleague at HTS on the panel, Marcia Hartwell, added: “It’s a chance to change the military; it’s a chance to change the Army. It’s a challenge. When I say that to soldiers they laugh, but they get it.

“In many ways the Army’s ready to do things in a different way, for different reasons. And we’ll see how this all works out.”

Yet, during a generally civil but at times pointed and consistently unorthodox question and answer session (during which the moderator, Rob Borofsky of Hawaii Pacific University, cut off follow-up questions and at one point barked at an audience member “That’s, it! Down!” as if addressing a dog), many questioners grew unsettled with the panelists’ answers.

Roedy, in particular, seemed genuinely ready and willing to “engage” with her audience -- and even in good faith shared her salary, which, at $70,000, was $11,000 higher than that of the assistant professor who raised the question. But the panelists deferred to unspecified superiors on a number of questions, including inquiries about programmatic matters like the budget and about allegations of unethical behavior by HTS team members in the field. (Neither panelist has been deployed, and Roedy has no plans to go overseas with HTS.) Hartwell stressed several times that the intention of the HTS program is that the information gathered should not be used for targeting purposes.

“The moment of truth is they were asked twice why anthropologists had concerns about [HTS], and they didn’t know the answer,” said Hugh Gusterson, a professor at George Mason University and founding member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, which opposes anthropologists’ participation in counterinsurgency efforts. Gusterson pointed out that, in their answers, the panelists cited misinterpretations of what they do, and concerns about militarization of the discipline, but didn't reference the AAA executive board’s short statement, and, specifically, concerns about potential dangers to the populations being studied.

“I’m really concerned that you didn’t understand the reason for our concern,” Gusterson told the panelists.

Roberto J. Gonzales, an associate professor at San Jose State University who has written a forthcoming book on HTS (University of Chicago Press), added that, given the AAA’s official opposition to the project, “My immediate impression was, ‘Why are they even here?’ ”

Other Military Matters

Another panel was notable in part for the conspicuous absence of the senior social scientist for HTS, Montgomery McFate, who was scheduled to present a paper but recently canceled because of obligations overseas, according to the session organizer. The conversation at this particular session, "Anthropology, the Military and War," moved beyond HTS to focus on anthropologists' engagement with the military more generally.

“I do not work for HTS, nor is that the approach that I have advocated in my little corner of the world," said Kerry B. Fosher, who works at the Marine Corps Intelligence Activity writing classified and unclassified analyses on cultural matters for Marine Corps commanders and intelligence agencies (Fosher stressed in her comments that she was not speaking on behalf of the MCIA). Fosher said that she has come up with a three-pronged strategy to navigate the ethical terrain she treads -- by positioning herself so she can leave immediately if needed ("I have to have a pot of money so I can walk out the door at any point"), by being constantly vigilant about her position on various slopes, and by widely consulting with others. Speaking of concerns that anthropological knowledge could be used for unintended purposes, “At a certain point we become like priests of some involuted religion deciding who does and does not count themselves worthy of the particular knowledge we hold," she said. If anthropologists weren't so "tight-fisted" with their knowledge for fear of its misuse, she suggested, "Maybe the world would look a lot different than it does."

“More fundamentally, I accept that causing unintentional harm is possible, and that’s a very difficult pill to swallow," said Brian R. Selmeski, who teaches anthropology at Air University, an Air Force-run university in Alabama. "How do I counterbalance that -- by putting in the balance the possibility of doing good."

In a formal response, David H. Price, of St. Martin's University, criticized what he described as an "unjustified innocence," especially given anthropology's sorry past in this domain. “There is a belief that their own agency can break through historical forces that they admit have abused anthropology in past conflicts," he said.

“In these contexts, intentions matter little beyond functioning as a sort of gateway drug."

Asked whether any forms of engagement with the military would be acceptable to him, Price said sure. “Personally I’m not working for the military for a number of reasons, one of which is the larger mission as it’s being carried out is unacceptable to me. For myself, that’s my answer.”

‘Anthropology’s Little Secrets’

The association is set to begin a two-year process to revise its entire ethics code, prompted by debates about clandestine research and these collaborations with the military in particular. The issues of secret research are multi-pronged, involving not only anthropologists' responsibilities to be honest with and do no harm to the groups they study, but also questions of whether they have an ethical obligation to publish or otherwise share their research more broadly. Many practicing anthropologists work for the federal government or corporations, where restrictions on disseminating research findings, proprietary or otherwise, can apply.

“Many anthropologists who are railing against [secret research] have absolutely no experience dealing with government agencies,” said Laura McNamara, who researches intelligence analysts and their slow transitions into post-Cold War postures for Sandia National Laboratories. “I think a calm and empirical assessment of what it actually means to work in a classified environment is important.”

McNamara, who sits on the AAA’s Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities, said she would argue that anthropologists working in universities “also face choices about who they’re going to be disseminating to and why.” She noted that in her own doctoral research, she negotiated with Los Alamos National Laboratory about what she could publish. “I could write about absolutely anything I wanted as long as I didn’t give any technical details about the width of the spheres that were being used,” she said. “I could disseminate anything I wanted to as long as I didn’t deal with those tiny technical details, and I don’t think anyone in this room would think that matters.”

She added, however: “That does not mean that all classified research is benign.” Particularly problematic is compartmentalized research, she said, where scholars engage in one piece of a project but lack a sense of the total purpose of the study. “I think those are really dangerous projects. I won’t participate in them.”

Nevertheless, ethically studying shifts in bureaucratic cultures like U.S. intelligence agencies “is the kind of thing that anthropologists really should be doing,” McNamara argued at the end of her talk.

“It’s the difference between politicized scholarship and really politically engaged scholarship.”

Encouraging Engagement

While the AAA conference featured discussions of some controversial forms of engagement, at the same time, many speakers stressed an urgent need for anthropologists to more productively and positively engage with the world outside the academy.

“The whole idea of engagement in anthropology comes out of a larger set of higher education aspirations that have sort of been out in the ether for the last 10 years, and that is, 'What is the role of an engaged university?' " said Yolanda T. Moses, an anthropologist and administrator at the University of California at Riverside and a former college and association president.

“That is, to what extent are institutions like higher education motivators or triggers for building civil society and for integrating diverse folks? So there’s also on the national scene an issue of higher education for whom, higher education for what, and higher education as a public good or higher education as a private enterprise.”

On the other hand, an earlier conference session on “The Academy and the Publics” focused largely on the barriers to engaged and public scholarship faced by anthropologists in academe. The three pillars of the faculty rewards system are research, teaching and service -- service as narrowly defined. “Service usually means service to the academy rather than service to the publics. That is, people are awarded for service to the discipline or university more so than [to] the publics,” said Paula L.W. Sabloff, a museum administrator and adjunct associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

"The political economy of academia demands that people’s value depends on their production. How do we judge that production? With numbers, numbers of scholarly productions only?

“How can we get our public outreach efforts included in faculty evaluations also? For example, we can count the numbers of books sold, the number of visitors to a museum exhibit or lecture… or the number of issues of a magazine sold in which anthropological work has appeared.”

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley whose research interests include the trafficking of human organs, offered some advice for young scholars interested in public anthropology.

“You do double time, keeping up on the expected home front duties… that is, keep on publishing those scholarly articles… while you’re simultaneously doing your international human rights work or serving on international panels or giving speeches at places that don’t matter a hoot to the academy,” Scheper-Hughes said. “If you want to be a public anthropologist, then do it, I always did. But don’t expect to be rewarded for it.

“Be grateful… that we still live in a democratic enough society that we can do it and get away with it.”

Scheper-Hughes said that, over time, the university withdraws from you, the administration pulls back – and, in her case, the more activist she became, the less she was asked to serve on university committees (that traditional form of "service"). “We all want to have roles on search committees; we all want to see changes. That’s one of the sacrifices that you make, but in the end it might be a good bargain. It might be a good enough bargain.”

Lastly, she advised, “Don’t wait to jump into the public fray until you’re safely tenured. If you do so, you’ll find you’ve lost the habit of courage.”


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