Friday, September 26, 2008

AAA Ethics Code Changes

I was sent an email by the American Anthropological Association about proposed revisions to their ethics guidelines. Check here for specific revisions they're looking at making. Anthropologists have worked with the military before, but it's becoming a more and more pressing concern. I can't give any better a run-down than this article, so I refer you there if you're curious. I'll probably refer back to this latter article a bunch of times because it's great.

I'm just putting down my opinion on the matter.

I was very interested at first to learn about the Human Terrain System. The idea is to have experts in culture on the ground to inform the military about the people they're dealing with. On the surface this sounds fantastic, and my first thought was, "Great. Maybe now our military can stop acting like total ignorant boobs everywhere they go. They'll have someone around who actually cares about understanding culture. What could go wrong?"

Well, I hadn't thought it through.

First off, anthropology started out as a component of colonialism. Imperialists brought experts on the local savages with them, so that they could better subjugate them. I assumed this kind of thing doesn't happen anymore until I realized one day into my Religions of the World 101 course that 2/3 of my classmates were there so that they could be better missionaries. That's right. They wanted to understand local religions better so they'd be more effective in supplanting local culture.

This is disrespectful. Imperialism kinda makes you a dick. I shouldn't have to point out that disrespect of one's informants (the people you're studying) is also unethical. They're helping you with your research, your career. If you can't actually give them something in return (other than the great gift of your superior culture), at least try not to hurt them.

Hurting your informants sucks for many reasons. First is obviously that it makes you a dick. You're hurting people who helped you. The second is that it hurts your field. If you give anthropologists a reputation for being dicks in a discipline that depends heavily on establishing trust with informants, you are hurting your colleagues' chances of doing research as well. If your colleagues are doing research in dangerous areas, it becomes even more important that they have the trust and esteem of their informants, because their informants are also protecting them. So you're also potentially compromising the safety of your colleagues, just because you had to go and be a dick.

The upshot of having anthropologists involved with the military is that whatever credibility anthropologists bring is going to reflect well on the military. They'll look better with us than without us, because at least for a while they'll have people around to tell them how to do stuff right. The downside of this is that their ignorance and destructiveness combined with the imperialist mode of our foreign policy makes anthropologists look worse, which means the credibility we're lending troops probably won't last forever. They'll look better for a while, but they'll drag us down and then we won't be able to do our work without building our reputation all over again.

These are all ethical considerations anthropologists have to figure out for themselves, of course. The AAA Ethics Code doesn't have rules so much as what you'd call guidelines. Each individual scholar has to decide whether their work is ethical or unethical given these guidelines, and there's always room for debate. Debate is too much fun (and far too important) to ever get rid of.

Here's another problem with working for the military: Anthropologists need the freedom (and the power) to make decisions about their own work. When an anthropologist is doing fieldwork for any entity (whether a corporation or a government or a foundation, whatever), we give up some of our autonomy. We lose a little of our room to veto things that we view as unethical. However, if we're working for some academic body or other, odds are we're working with and for other scholars who have some idea of why anthropological ethics are important.

You cannot do this as well with the military. If you're working for them, you're working for them. End of line. It's a much more authoritarian structure in which people with power command people with less. If you're a civilian anthropologist, this means you. This is a problem in any situation where you have experts under the thumb of non-experts, and most of the time it's merely annoying or counterproductive. But in the military, anthropologists can get people hurt if we don't have the ability to enforce our own ethics on our own work. As the article I mentioned above states, "Some scholars have been deeply alarmed by reports that social science work has been used by the military to figure out how to degrade or humiliate prisoners from Muslim nations."

I've already explained why hurting your informants is bad. Now I've established that the military can force you to participate in the harm of your informants. This is bad. It's bad for your ethical obligation to your informants, it's bad for your credibility as a scholar (and the credibility of everyone in your discipline), and in the end it's even bad for the military, since once they've squandered all the credibility you once had, they lose you as a resource to bolster their own poor reputation.

"But Ashley," you say. "Not all anthropologists are working in Muslim nations. This isn't just about the Middle East." Quite right. Just because Iraq is the big troublesome example doesn't mean it's the only one that matters. Any country with a foreign military presence is likely to be experiencing a great deal of political pressure. Political pressure from the military power on the local powers creates social and cultural pressure, and this causes problems with informed consent. The more social and cultural pressure your informant is under to accomodate and even obey you as a member of an occupying force, the more careful you need to be in getting their consent lest you inadvertently use your position to coerce them into doing what you want. This makes you a dick, and being a dick is generally unethical.

This means that even an anthropologist who is working with the military to ensure greater access to vaccinations and other medical services needs to be wary of whether their ties to power are pressuring their informants to do things they wouldn't do otherwise. Coercion is bad, mmkay?

I think in light of all this that work with the military is generally going to entail compromising a scholar's ethics. There are individual cases where it won't, in which case the opportunity to educate military leaders and help inform their decisions is absolutely worth taking. If anthropology can be done ethically with the US military, it's probably our responsibility as scholars to do it. However, it's so frighteningly likely that military work will compromise a scholar's ethics that I think the AAA is right to warn their people against it.


Sam said...

Did I ever tell you that you are freaking awesome? Yes. It's true. I miss anthro speak so terribly. Thanks for filling that void.

Cobalt said...

Glad this was helpful! I was actually surprised that I had something to say about this, since I do a really poor job of staying up on "current" anthropology (I have my last two or three mailings from AAA and Society for A. of Work sitting unread on my table).

Maximilian C. Forte said...

You really did do a great job with that post, it was an excellent overview, condensed, straight to many key points, and very incisive.

Cobalt said...

Prof. Forte: Thank you! Your info on it was very comprehensive and generally excellent. I found it really helpful.