A revised Code of Ethics for anthropologists

The American Anthropological Association is in the midst of revising their Code of Ethics, which was originally created in 1971 as a reaction to the discovery that anthropologists had been conducting counterinsurgency research during the Vietnam War. Issues arising from military activities in post 9/11 Afghanistan and the Iraq War have pushed the Association to rethink the Code of Ethics and to call for a serious revision.

Here is the story, by Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, an anthropologist, in the November 14 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education (sorry, subscription or academic access required!): New Ethical Challenges for Anthropologists.

One of the things that the AAA is most concerned about right now is secret research. To some degree, this has arisen out of the use of anthropologists by the US military as part of the Human Terrain Teams in Iraq and Afghanistan — which has drawn comparisons, by some, to Project Camelot and The Phoenix Program, both counter-insurgency military/social science “research” programs conducted during the Vietnam War, and partial catalysts for the introduction of an AAA Code of Ethics.

The Human Terrain Teams (HTT) program is a US military-based effort that embeds anthropologists (as a type of “cultural advisor”) with active combat units to help those units understand local cultures, engage locals, and understand cultural traditions and histories with the goals of helping the locals set up governments, police departments and other protective agencies in order to control counter-insurgency and sustain political stability. The AAA is more than a little concerned, however: in 2007, it denounced the program, stating that it was potentially unethical, exploitive and potentially disgraceful to the profession in the long run. The AAA is justifiably concerned that all anthropologists might be seen as “mercenary anthropologists” using discipline-specific knowledge for political gain or for intelligence-gathering.

Either way, the program could easily paint anthropologists in a negative light, as they may be seen as mere puppets meeting the goals of larger, often covert politically or militarily-driven projects. In a world in which foreign trust in America has been damaged, the continued use of embedded social scientist researchers might do further irreparable harm. Certainly, the project may do some good. However the notion of embedded, somewhat secretive social scientist-researchers as active partners in military counter-insurgency units is hardly the image to boost positive relationships or to engender trust in the discipline. The AAA currently has a Commission on Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security Community (which deals with anthropological research/practice in military and intelligence activities), and since 2006, Fluehr-Loggan, who serves as part of this Commission, alongside her colleagues, has been grappling with revising and articulating ethical standards for such complex research activities. In light of a new political age in America, it will be interesting to see how this story progresses. I’ll follow up with any new developments.
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Addendum:

Here’s a relevant book:
Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War, by David Price (Duke University Press 2008)

Here’s a review of Anthropological Intelligence from the Times Higher Education Supplement.

~ by Nancy Walton on November 14, 2008.

One Response to “A revised Code of Ethics for anthropologists”

  1. While it is correct that the AAA Code of Ethics dates back to the Vietnam War, an ethics statement promulgated by the AAA dating back to 1948 states, “Be it resolved . . . the interests of the persons and communities or other social groups studied are protected”. The statement was made in the context of the Resolution on Freedom of Publication dated December 1948 documenting the core assertion by the members of the AAA of a professional ethical obligation to do no harm to persons or communities studied. This comment is offered to put the amendment of respect for communities to Belmont’s respect, beneficence and justice in an historical context that acknowledges the AAA’s 60 years of conscientious concern on these issues. See http://www.aaanet.org/stmts/ethstmnt.htm

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