More on Anthropological Research Ethics and Association Politics

A little more deserves to be noted about the current announcement by the American Anthropological Association’s plans to consider revising its code of ethics, a topic of importance given the extent to which that same code is used for teaching purposes even outside of the United States. Overall, I think that the suggested revisions are worthy of support, and very timely. (It is timely also given that Wired is praising the likes of McFate, and endorsing her, as one of the top five people the next U.S. president should listen to, while we are left to deal with the mess she and her kind has caused, and the ways they endanger the lives of potentially all anthropologists overseas, as well as the lives of the people targeted by her kind.)

Reacting to Militarization

In connection with the last point above, it seems clear that the planned revision of the code of ethics, and the aim of bringing it back in line with a version put in place after the last time that counterinsurgency reared its ugly head in anthropology (see this post for more), occurs as a result of the debates of the last two or more years. This is made explicit in the motion below:

At the most recent AAA Annual Business Meeting, held in November of 2007, a resolution introduced by Terry Turner was passed by the membership. The resolution directed the AAA Executive Board to restore certain sections of the 1971 version of the code of ethics in order to, in the words of the sponsor, “[affirm] the importance of transparency and openness in anthropological research and the need for anthropological knowledge to circulate freely.” The full text of the resolution appears below:

WHEREAS the 1971 AAA Code of Ethics (“Principles of Professional Responsibility”) contained clear language affirming the importance of transparency and openness in anthropological research and the need for anthropological knowledge to circulate freely (including to those studied); and

WHEREAS this language was weakened in the 1998 AAA Code of Ethics; and

WHEREAS the heightened involvement of anthropologists with U.S. military and intelligence institutions increases the danger that anthropological knowledge will be used to harm those we study and to impede the free circulation of anthropological knowledge; and

WHEREAS the final report of the AAA Commission on the Engagement of U.S. Anthropology with the U.S. Security and Intelligence communities recommends that “the Ethics Committee or general membership should consider reinstating former language from the 1971 CoE (sections 1.g, 2.a, 3.a and 6)” (p.25);

Be it moved that the AAA restore sections 1.g, 2.a, 3.a and 6 from the 1971 ethics code, to wit:

1.g “In accordance with the Association’s general position on clandestine and secret research, no reports should be provided to sponsors that are not also available to the general public and, where practicable, to the population studied.”

2.a “He should not communicate findings secretly to some and withhold them from others.”

3.a “He should undertake no secret research or any research whose results cannot be freely derived and publicly reported.”

6 “In relation with his own government and with host governments, the research anthropologists should be honest and candid. He should demand assurance that he will not be required to compromise his professional responsibilities and ethics as a condition of their permission to pursue research. Specifically, no secret research, no secret reports or debriefings of any kind should be agreed to or given. If these matters are clearly understood in advance, serious complications and misunderstandings can generally be avoided.”

It should be noted that the Ethics Subcommittee of the Executive Board of the AAA did not simply adopt this language. In a document dated July 17, 2008, the EB stated:

The AAA EB subcommittee agrees with the Committee on Ethics that the 1971 ethics language cannot be reinserted verbatim into the AAA Code of Ethics, as proposed by Turner. This is because the 1971 language uses male pronouns to refer to anthropologists and this sexist language is not acceptable. Furthermore, certain elements of the 1971 language conflict with ethical responsibilities to protect cultural heritage or tangible and intangible cultural property, and to recognize valid but crosscutting ethical obligations.

The Committee of Ethics proposed six changes in the Code of Ethics. The AAA EB subcommittee endorses these changes, with some minor revision of language that seeks to reconcile the majority and minority opinions expressed in the Committee on Ethics report to the EB.

Critical Commentary

Both a majority and a minority decision surfaced from the deliberations of the Ethics Subcommittee. Two working group members, at least one of whom also represents the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, indicated their support and agreement with the majority in revising the language of the Code as follows:

  • III.A.2 (so that it reads: “Anthropological researchers must do everything in their power to ensure that their research does not harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people with whom they work, conduct research, or perform other professional activities, or who might reasonably be thought to be affected by their research.”).
  • III.B.4 (so that it reads: “Anthropologists should not work clandestinely or otherwise misrepresent the nature, purpose, intended outcome, distribution or sponsorship of their research.”).
  • III.C.2 (so that it reads: “In relation with his or her own government, host governments, or sponsors of research, an anthropologist should be honest and candid. Anthropologists must not compromise their professional responsibilities and ethics as a condition of permission to conduct research. Anthropologists should not agree to conditions which inappropriately change the purpose, focus or intended outcomes of their research.”

Where disagreement did occur was in connection with the Ethics Subcommittee majority’s decision to revise the language of the original motion drafted by Terence Turner and Hugh Gusterson with respect to “Dissemination of Results.” Indeed, it is very strange, that rather than simply address the motion they would reword the motion and create an effectively new version to address. Members of the NCA emailed their letters of protest to the AAA at the end of this past July. Specifically, this is an example of the problems encountered and raised by the minority and their NCA partners:

The majority’s insistence on adding the clause, “it is generally expected that” to our statement that “researchers will not withhold research results from the persons or communities studied when those results are shared with others,” fundamentally breaks with Professor Turner’s intent.  The majority’s clause alters this sentence’s intended meaning in the same way as would a translation of the Ten Commandments reading “It is generally expected that thou shalt not kill.”  Professor Turner’s principle intent was to issue a strong injunction against such research, and the majority errs in replacing their intent for Turner’s.  As such, it does not incorporate the principle of the Turner Resolution as we are charged by the Executive Board under the charge’s first stipulation to “incorporate the principle of the Turner Resolution.

In effect, those who opposed the Turner Resolution to begin with, were now using the opportunity to create a revised and altered version with which they could agree, without the wider membership knowing that such alterations were being done behind the scenes.

The minority’s main point, and that of those supporting the Turner Resolution was simply:

that reports provided to anyone other than research participants must not be sequestered under policies of secrecy, classification, or propriety policies designed to make it impossible for research participants to access.

Of especial relevance to the Turner Resolution was a paragraph from the 2007 final report of the AAA Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities in evaluating anthropological engagements with military and intelligence communities, which read as follows:

Anthropological ethics may be compromised by national security mandates that conflict with standards of full informed consent of participants in research. Pre-1986 versions of the [AAA Code of Ethics] offered more clarity on such interactions with the proviso that, “classified, or limited dissemination restrictions that necessarily and perhaps understandably are placed upon researchers do conflict with openness, disclosure, and the intent and spirit of informed consent in research and practice. Adherence to acknowledged standards of informed consent that conflict with conditions for engagement with national security agencies may result in a decision not to undertake or to discontinue a research project” (CoE 1971-1986).  As discussed in the “Recommendations” section, the AAA Ethics Committee may wish to examine the possibility of reincorporating such language into the current [Code of Ethics]. (final report of the AAA Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities 2007:16)

More from the Minority Report

The minority report submitted to the Ethics Subcommittee challenged the majority’s interpretation that the Turner Resolution was inherently incompatible with the current Code of Ethics:

During our committee deliberations, the majority argued that the minority’s proposed prescriptive language was out of keeping with the current Code of Ethics.  This is not true.  We find over a dozen instances of the code stating that anthropologists must do things like disclose funding sources and the potential impacts of work, strive to protect, gain informed consent, tell about possible impacts, not engage in clandestine research, be truthful, etc.  Our proposed language simply clarifies that providing reports to external groups, while not making these reports accessible is but another of these ethical obligations that anthropologists must fulfill.  This relates to the second charge that the Executive Board issued the Ad Hoc Ethics Committee stipulating that we should identify principles–themselves compatible with and/or following from the principles in Sections II and III in the existing Code of Ethics–that identify when the ethical conduct of anthropology does and does not require specific forms of the public circulation of knowledge.

In keeping with both significant elements of the current Code of Ethics, and the Turner Resolution, the minority report identified these areas of commonality (emphases added):

  • The Code of Ethics advocates that “In both proposing and carrying out research, anthropological researchers must be open about the purpose(s), potential impacts, and source(s) of support for research projects with funders, colleagues, persons studied or providing information, and with relevant parties affected by the research” (CoE III). Our proposed language in a natural extension of the code’s commitment to sharing knowledge with research participants who are themselves the most “relevant parties affected by research.” Our language strengthens and clarifies the duties of this core value and repairs inconsistencies created by the 1986 modifications of the Code.
  • The Code of Ethics demands that anthropologists’ primary duty be to those they study, yet the intentional generation of reports that these same people cannot access is counter to the spirit of the Code of Ethic’s mandate that: “Anthropological researchers have primary ethical obligations to the people, species, and materials they study and to the people with whom they work” (CoE III A.1). As Turner Resolution collaborator, Hugh Gusterson, wrote to the committee in reply to a query from Price, “the purpose of the motion was not a crudely indiscriminate ban on any confidentiality, but a re-emphasis on anthropologists’ primary obligation to those they study. Because anthropologists have a unique methodology that (unlike archival or survey work) generates information from relationships of trust with living people, we have a unique obligation of transparency and openness with the people who open their lives to us and, thus, make our work possible” (Gusterson to Price 6/12/08).
  • The Code of Ethics states that anthropologists are obliged “to consult actively with the affected individuals or group(s), with the goal of establishing a working relationship that can be beneficial to all parties involved” (CoE III A.1). Our position is that active consultation is an ongoing process, and openness of reports and results is in accordance with this point, while intentionally inaccessible reports are in conflict with these core principles.
  • Sharing research results has been traditionally accepted as a minimal means of reciprocating with people studied. The Code of Ethics states that anthropologists “should recognize their debt to the societies in which they work and their obligation to reciprocate with people studied in appropriate ways” (CoE III A.6). Our view is that not sharing reports with these “people studied” while sharing such information with others who have the power to keep these results secret risks the betrayal of this obligation of reciprocation.
  • The code’s directive that “anthropologists should not work clandestinely” (CoE III B.4) addresses the spirit of a directive declaring that anthologists will not selectively make information available to powerful sponsors, while withholding this information from those who generated this knowledge, and to whose lives it pertains.

The complete Code of Ethics, with proposed revisions inserted, is available in the last portion of the post on the AAA Public Affairs blog.

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