John Gledhill: “Anthropology and Espionage” and some comments on anthropology as ethics

John Postill has posted the transcript of John Gledhill‘s very thoughtful essay, “Anthropology and Espionage,” first produced for BBC3’s radio series, “The Lives of Others,” and I am thankful to John Posthill for first introducing me to this series which has featured a series of prominent anthropologists already. Gledhill, known to many of us as a political anthropologist (I have used his book, Power and its Disguises in my own political anthropology course), has spent many years doing research in Mexico, including long-term research with the Zapatistas in Chiapas. Gledhill discusses the ethics and responsibilities of anthropologists in host societies as well as the overlapping histories of anthropology and espionage. I extract select passages here for the research purposes of this blog, and I would recommend the complete transcript to readers since it will make more sense as a whole.

The people we study may not always be able to judge the potential long-term impacts of our research upon them. So we have to try to anticipate possible harmful effects ourselves, even if this means not using some data or even not studying some issues at all.

….a lot of things that anthropologists learned about them, such as the role of witchcraft beliefs, were things that the people wouldn’t want the authorities to hear about. They had every reason to be suspicious about the anthropologists’ motives for studying them, since the anthropologists were white folks like their colonial masters.

Yet the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association has stated publicly that the HTS  [Human Terrain System] project raises “troubling and urgent ethical issues”. Why?

The first problem identified by the AAA Executive is with “informed consent”. Would anthropologists working with soldiers be in a position to “disclose who they are and what they are doing” and explain the purposes to which the knowledge they acquire might be put? Even if they are completely honest, how can we be sure that “informed consent” has been given voluntarily when there are armed soldiers about? What might happen to people who exercised their right to refuse consent?

HTS teams are not supposed to be involved in what is called “kinetic targeting”, which means bombing people. But as the advocates of military anthropology themselves point out, there are other forms of intervention that seek to weaken “the enemy” by interfering in local social and political life.

But the AAA Executive also identifies a further risk. Since US military intervention is not universally popular, the more people hear about the HTS project, the more likely it is that all anthropologists will be seen as spies. This doesn’t just threaten the personal safety of foreign anthropologists, who may be able to get out, but also the safety of local people who have been hospitable to the anthropologist, who may not be able to get out.

The risk posed simply by the perception that anthropologists could be spies also became an issue in Britain in late 2006, when the Economic and Social Research Council announced a research programme on “Combating Terrorism by Countering Radicalization” in partnership with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The FCO’s counter-terrorism policy has a strand called “Prevent”, which aims to “deter” those who facilitate or encourage terrorism by “changing the environment in which they can operate”….Unfortunately, the original call for proposals seemed to be inviting researchers to supply information on individuals and organizations in foreign countries that might constitute a “threat” without adequate consideration of ethical risks. It was withdrawn after protest from academics in anthropology and other fields with strong overseas research interests.

[There]… is a strong justification for doing sustained ethnographic research on the ground rather than relying on what are often inaccurate newspaper or Internet reports that reflect what someone with an axe to grind might say about someone else to an interviewer who only spends a short time in a place. Every researcher will have their political and ideological sympathies. But the first challenge is to try to put understanding before sympathy, because otherwise you may misread what’s going on and not grasp the likely outcomes of conflicts in the longer term.

I also, like any ethnographer, did a bit of fairly visible spying as an observer of what went on backstage and out of public sight when important decisions were made. What I didn’t do was turn this data into a list of “radicals” and “moderates” that could guide the state in efforts to “engineer” a solution to the problem that these Indians refuse to sell their beaches to tourism developers or allow a major mining company to exploit their minerals. That would not only have breached my professional ethics, but it would also have obscured the processes that enabled this often divided community to unite around those very issues.

Given Gledhill’s observations above, and two prior notes on this blog about “ethics and the other” and “cosmopolitan anthropology as responsibility to the other,” one has to question how “ethics” has been sequestered either in select courses on training to do “field research,” or instead appears as the subject of a one or two-week discussion in a regular course. While anthropology has consistently been defined as the study of humanity, Stade reminds us that to be human means facing others, which makes human existence fundamentally ethical, and he urges to take into account the ethical constitution of any form of human subjectivity. One would think that there would be wider and deeper appreciation then, that the ethical is the defining core of anthropology, that if anthropology is not ethics (and ethical), it is nothing at all, or worse than nothing, it is “generating data” or “gathering information.”