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CEAUSSIC: Mandating Ethics Education?

Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban photo“The AAA’s Ad Hoc Commission on Anthropology’s Engagement with the Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC) continues its work. Our main activities at present include: 1. the writing of a report to the AAA on the widely and hotly debated Human Terrain System of the U.S. Army (by the fall), 2. The editing of a casebook illustrating the diversity of kinds of practicing anthropology, including associated ethical questions, with a primary emphasis upon the security sector broadly conceived, 3. And providing support for the AAA’s ongoing ethics process. In an effort to keep our work transparent and part of the public and disciplinary discussion of all of the above, CEAUSSIC is also going to be contributing a monthly entry to the AAA’s blog. Each entry, by different CEAUSSIC members, will address topics that have arisen or that we have been thinking about, which we will continue to discuss via the blog, a discussion in which we hope you will also participate.”


October 13, 2009

Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Prof. of Anthropology RIC, CEAUSSIC member

Thus far in the CEAUSSIC blog Rob Albro has reminded us of the distinction between intelligence analysts and fieldwork-based anthropologists; Monica Schoch-Spana has provided insight into the ‘colliding worlds of anthropology, public health and national security; Laurie Rush has argued against any false opposition between the ethics of professional archaeology and the military; and David Price argued that the political cannot be divorced from the ethical, try as we might to separate the two for fear of collegial cleavages along political lines. These thoughtful offerings on this blog are all part of the complex terrain the Commission has been negotiating since 2006.

As I reflect upon the work of  CEAUSSIC, I see the Commission in the context of the periodic crises of conscience that have marked the development of ethics discourse in American anthropology–from Franz Boas’ censure, to Camelot, to Vietnam, to Darkness in El Dorado, and now military and national security engagement. It is instructive that the involvement of anthropologists in World War II was not a crisis of conscience, as the darker side of this “good war” only came to light decades after the events. When ethical questions are raised — in response to a book, news report, or some alleged misconduct–  the discipline withdraws into a defensive mode and commissions or task forces are established to respond to the demand that “we do something.”  In the case of CEAUSSIC, the response was both reactive (to the CIA ad and news reports about anthropologists and  Human Terrain Teams) and proactive insofar as the Commission was well-balanced in its composition (both in Phases I and II) and was given the luxury of four years time to conclude its work.

We are now nearing the end of Phase II and the conversations, while diverse and broadly constituted in face to face meetings and conference calls, nonetheless continue to struggle to find precision, intent, shared meaning, and vocabulary. We often conclude our stimulating sessions with the lament that we could not share the richness of our discussion with the broader community of anthropologists. Our struggle for the “right words,” I believe, reflects a collective lack of basic training in professional ethics discourse. We were often held back by the lack of a shared normative base for discussion and debate about ethics traceable to our own education in undergraduate and graduate programs of anthropology. There is a disciplinary lag in ethics education that is especially acute because it exists at a time in which the environment of research has become ever more complex.

How can we advance a continuous, vigorous, discussion of  ethics in anthropology so that a majority of professionally trained anthropologists are prepared for the next crisis? I propose that ethics education be gradually phased in to eventually become a mandatory part of professional anthropological undergraduate and graduate training, and that the AAA put its weight behind such an initiative. Since the AAA does not credential or license, its weight as the major professional organization of anthropologists offers crucial legitimacy to the fundamental importance of ethics education. Pursuing the goal of ethics education as a mandatory part  of anthropology curricula would normalize ethics discourse, freeing it from its historic reactivity to periodic crises. Raising the literacy level in professional ethics would eventually eliminate the need for special tasks forces and commissions that are established periodically to revisit ethics in response to each crisis. In the present laissez faire system of anthropology education, there is a range of adequacy regarding ethics. Some programs and individual professionals import a high ethical consciousness into their basic curriculum or in research methods courses, while others may only discuss ethics in regard to mandatory appearances before university or other IRBs. There is still a tradition of resistance to the annoyance of having to go before an IRB. Part of this history rests with anthropology as the study of “the other,” of “subjects,” using “informants,” whereby the anthropologist is ideally unfettered with unlimited freedom to conduct research. But, clearly, this is not the world we live in. As standard practice, all anthropological research is, or should be, subject to external review. Indeed, this is a significant problem with certain forms of military, security engagement where external review is not required.

An open system of ethical discourse is established by making ethics talk pervasive in the classroom, basic to all research projects, and a clear base that informs analysis and publication of research results. With a normative ethical discourse, the distinctions made by the previous bloggers– between anthropologist and intelligence analyst–between the archaeologist and government agencies, or public health and national security — or between ethics and politics–would be known, or knowable, for the anthropologist grappling with ethical dilemmas. The relevant principles and related issues–for example that ethics is about principles, not politics– would have been discussed in an academic or collegial format before they are encountered as real field issues.

A future standard ethics curriculum would minimally include a history of the discipline and ethics– this would help to correct misconstruing history, as has been the case in security engagement polemics where a standard of “voluntary informed consent” is often cited as ‘traditional’ or normative when, in fact, language on informed consent appears for the first time in the 1998 AAA code.  It would also include case studies representing a realistic spectrum of scenarios and dilemmas where mixed outcomes are the likely norm, and clear positive or negative outcomes are likely exceptions.  Such a Casebook is one goals of Phase II of CEAUSSIC. An ethics curriculum would stress the collective gratitude that we anthropologists owe to our research collaborators and would celebrate the joys of these close, long term cross-cultural relationships. In this light the practice of fieldwork-based anthropology, whatever the sub-field, is a privilege not an assumed, unfettered right. The humility that this approach to ethics engenders and the trust it is built upon offers more of a guarantee that anthropologists will continue to have access to the world’s people, the poor and vulnerable, as well as its elites and power brokers.

[All guest commentary on this blog is posted with the permission of contributing authors. If you wish to reproduce work that appears here, please contact each author directly.]

2 Responses

  1. […] “Why not Mandate Ethics Education for Professional Training of Anthropologists?” ~ Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban (October 13, 2009) […]

  2. […] Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn. (2009). CEAUSSIC: Why not mandate ethics education for professional training of anthropologists? Blog of the American Anthropological Association, October 13. http://blog.aaanet.org/2009/10/13/ceaussic-mandating-ethics-education/ […]

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