Banning “Secret Research” in Anthropology

An article by Scott Jaschik in the March 13, 2008, issue of Inside Higher Ed titled, “Defining a Ban on Secret Research“, indicates that the board of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) is finally moving closer to drafting a proposed ban on most “secret research” save for that which is kept secret to safeguard the identities of subjects or the integrity of archaeological sites. The primary focus of this effort, spearheaded by Terence Turner at the November 2007 meetings of the AAA, has been to bring attention to, and possibly bring to a halt, anthropological research done in the service of military counterinsurgency and intelligence operations. Jaschik points out that, “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”.

Jaschik indicates the following features of the ban:

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.

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.”

Apart from the ban, we also learn of other steps to specifically question and challenge the militarization of anthropology:

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.

Militarizing a Florida Campus
Having recently returned from a visit to the University of South Florida, I was struck by the fact that the issues of militarizing anthropology, and state-directed political control of academic settings, was plainly evident. Aside, from the state-mandated presence of an American flag in each and every classroom on campus (seen from one angle, it is a chilling reminder of totalitarianism; seen from another angle, it is comical, as if there were a danger of students forgetting where they are located), a new Military Science Institute was erected right in front of the Social Science building. Keep in mind that the Florida university system is reeling under ever greater budget cuts, and yet money is found for flags and military science. It was a new experience for me to see people in army fatigues walking on campus. Apparently there has been some attempt by the Military Science people to draw social scientists in military-related research. I did not realize before that this connection, this proximity, was being drawn so starkly on some campuses themselves. I had assumed that some social scientists had individually crossed over to the military, outside of an academic setting.