AAA Ethics Code Changes & the Militarization of Anthropology: “Imperialism makes you a dick”

I think this post, “AAA Ethics Code Changes,” which deals with anthropological ethics especially in connection with the Human Terrain System and in other applied settings, is excellent for being very direct, concise, and gets straight to all of the most important points in the critical analysis of the Human Terrain System and its threats to local hosts, anthropologists themselves, and to these things we call the anthropology profession and discipline. The author is a recent graduate from a B.A. program in anthropology, somebody who obviously understood the essence of much of what we do.

Bonus points: yes, imperialism really does make you a dick.


To see what how an elite college fails to teach the basic lessons of how not to treat people as servants, pawns, and targets, see this post, and this other one. The claim in the latter piece is that students were not shielded from the ethical issues that arise from HTS (that’s grand), but in the meantime were exposed to its chief recruiter and PR stunt person.

14 thoughts on “AAA Ethics Code Changes & the Militarization of Anthropology: “Imperialism makes you a dick”

  1. Hey, thank you for the link! OpenAnthropology is a great blog, so I’m honored that you felt my entry was worth including.

    ““The people making these claims are simply blind to the possibility that it is possible to interact with [local people] without harming them,” Griffin said.”

    Griffin utterly fails here. If anthropologists (and I presume the AAA has got at least a few of those hanging around somewhere) didn’t believe it was possible to interact with locals without harming them, they wouldn’t be anthropologists.

  2. The bulk of justifications for presuming that anthropoloigists involved in the human terrain teams are violating ethical codes of conduct stem from juvenille non-starters such as the idea that any help to the “military kill machine” violates the principle of do no harm.

    Any reasonable person should recognize that it is politically necessary to end our presence in Iraq as soon as either stability permits or the conflict is deemed unsalvageable. Anything that aids in the creation of stability would thereby be a force for doing less harm. By refusing to help our military in a manner that does no harm to the Iraqi people, an anthropologist is not doing the Iraqi people any favors. By setting up blacklists and persecuting anthropoloigists that do help an anthropologist would in fact be causing harm to the Iraqi people. I don’t think the anthropologists that decide to do their best to lessen a tradgedy are the ones with an ethical problem.

  3. Well Alternate Opinion, you probably figured from even a cursory glance at this blog that you would get a strongly opposed response. So let’s get started…

    1. “juvenile non-starter”? What makes concern for the welfare of informants and opposition to a war of occupation “juvenile”? And how can you call something a “non-starter,” when obviously, as evidenced by the movement to revise the code of ethics, it has clearly been a “starter”?

    2. withdraw as soon as stability permits, etc.: Russia needs to use that explanation. So does every other invader in the future. It is wonderful self-justification, when the instability is a direct, a very direct, outcome and product of the war of occupation itself. You seem to assume that U.S. forces are a neutral presence. Now there’s a non-starter.

    3. anything that aids in stability = a force for doing less harm. No. Wrong. Stabilization in this case is based on counterinsurgency and heavy handed policing — all pacification programs are designed to do harm.

    4. doing the Iraqi people favors: well, if this was your real concern, you would be out on the streets of your country demanding an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces, because anytime there has been an opinion poll done in Iraq, as well as votes in the so-called sovereign and democratic Iraqi parliament, they have demanded your immediate and/or total withdrawal since your presence is a threat to peace. Now, you need to first deal with these facts before you can hope to have your argument get a serious hearing.

    5. Blacklists? What blacklists?

    6. Persecuting anthropologists? Do you mean the $300,000 earners, employed by the Pentagon, arguably one of the most powerful institutions on the face of the Earth? Really, are you kidding about persecution? Who wields the power and the money?

    7. Ethical problems: so we would have no ethical problem by putting on the uniforms, even the weapons, of one side of a conflict, an occupying power, and getting in people’s faces in an environment saturated with coercion? Alright, but then this tells me that you don’t know what “ethics” means, and you are not familiar with established anthropological ethics. So that puts you at another disadvantage in this debate.

    Nonetheless, let me say thanks for visiting and for taking the time to share your views. Contrary to what you might think — and contrary to what I would hope — a good number of anthropologists will actually agree with you.

  4. Sorry Cobalt, I almost missed your comment. No, I have to thank you, both for your visit, your comment above, and your posts today.

    Yes, I noticed marcus Griffin’s comment elsewhere, and I was really taken aback by it:

    *“The people making these claims are simply blind to the possibility that it is possible to interact with [local people] without harming them,” Griffin said.*

    Like I suggested to AlternateOpinion above, besides everything else the entire environment surrounding an Iraqi is saturated with violence, unequal power, and coercion. Then Griffin appears, in uniform, with rifle, smiles and says “Can I ask you a question?” and because the Iraqi says “Yes” he assumes consent, and assumes that his side gaining more information is not harming any Iraqi side.

    To be an anthropologist, you really need to try to put yourself in the shoes of the other, not just the boots of the oppressor. I think Griffin may mean that he does not go around slaughtering everyone he speaks to, and he assumes that is doing “no harm.”

    Then if you criticize these people, you are accused of “persecution” (see AlternateOpinion above), so apparently they do believe that “contact” can be harmful. I am certain that HTS supporters have been harmed by the criticisms, persecution is just the wrong word for it however.

    What Griffin’s comment tells me is that he has resigned from anthropology in more ways than one.

  5. I’ll place my response here to the trackback immediately above this:

    I think that the most important thing that should really be bugging you about these debates is the fact that it seems like we anthropologists are the only ones who get to decide what is right, wrong, hurt, or harm. Presumably, we work with local hosts and collaborators? When we already have difficulty showing of what benefit our research can be to them, when our hanging around their necks asking a thousand daily questions can be odious and insufferable from even the most harmless house guest, “we” now want to talk about “hurting” them in the short term for the sake of reducing “harm” in the long term? Wow. All I can say then is that some people have found some real suckers to work with. Normally, some protocols are in place with research funding agencies concerning work with the mentally handicapped. You must be speaking of the latter, if besides accepting your uninvited presence they also submit to hurt from you. And what do you give up, by the way?

    Marc, this is a ‘rationale’ you are offering — whether it is rational or not is something open to debate. I can’t see how it is rational to expect people to work with you if you intend to either hurt or harm or whatever that goes against their interests.

  6. While I personally would not work with any government because my research could be used negatively to harm the peoples I study, I respect Alternate Opinion’s viewpoint. I believe there is a definite advantage in any aims to study or the Iraqi culture. For example, the soldiers should be able to understand the language in case an Iraqi is saying something like “Don’t shoot!” If we really wanted to be liberators and not an invading army we would take the time to understand the cultural nuances.

    ““The net effect of these efforts is often less violence across the board and fewer hardships and civilian deaths,” Gates said in an official statement.””

    Less deaths= a good thing

    On the other hand I understand how that knowledge is unfortunately used for evil rather than for good most of the time. The military needs to be the one evaluating their ethics.

  7. btw human terrain system just sounds evil.
    I picture the troops using Iraqis as a meat shield or something.

  8. Just about your first comment cherry!, and thanks for visiting and posting by the way, it was often remarked in the media that the death toll on 9-11 would have been higher at the WTC had the attackers chosen to fly the planes into the buildings later in the day, when their maximum population would have been reached. If we use the argument that “less deaths is a good thing,” then we are praising the 9-11 attackers for doing a “good thing,” and presumably this should win American hearts and minds over to Al Qaida.

    Exactly. That is how bluntly stupid the HTS argument is.

  9. Wallerstein among others would explain it this way: Anthropology became institutionalized in the 19th century European university system, as part of an expansionist Europe and within the context of the capitalist world-system where dominant states required knowledge of the world in order to manage the world. Anthropology in particular provided knowledge about “tribal” peoples in colonized zones, adding knowledge to the debates of what is human (because there were doubts whether Others were also human and whether they were to be afforded treatment as humans), and feeding evolutionary theories that served to justify European dominance. So we are speaking of both practical, theoretical, and ideological support for the dominant states of the capitalist world-system.

    There were universities before the spread of world capitalism, and before Europe’s global expansion, but there was no anthropology in such universities. It only became formalized, professionalized, and ‘disciplined’ as a component of imperial Europe’s larger cultural project. And we are talking about “self-conscious” anthropology here, one that names itself as anthropology, and not just any body of thought anywhere else at any time that we might label anthropology.

  10. …and remember: children usually grow up. In other words, what I wrote above does not mean to suggest that anthropology remains beholden to its origins…or else we would see none of the debate that we see above.

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