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Reflections on the Soon-to-be Released CEAUSSIC Report

Dr. Jean Jackson

“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, 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.”


November 30, 2009

Jean Jackson, Prof. of Anthropology, MIT

Perusing the various articles in Anthro News about ethics shows that the review of the Association’s Statement on Ethics is well underway, and that it continues to be controversial. I consider below some ways that CEAUSSIC’s work connects to the general debate on ethics.

Although the charge to CEAUSSIC encompasses a much broader area than the Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS) program, it was clear to us that evaluating it was of high priority, given the attention it was receiving in the media, and the concerns expressed by AAA members. The “Report on the Army’s Human Terrain System Proof of Concept Program” was sent to the AAA Executive Board (EB) in October, and will be available to the public on Dec. 3.

Our research into HTS allowed CEAUSSIC members the opportunity to discuss a number of fundamental ethics issues, most particularly ethical research practice. The debate has not involved the question of whether anthropologists should work for the military; in my view, and that of my CEAUSSIC fellow committee members, anthropologists may ethically work for the military in any number of capacities. For example, they might work in a Veterans’ Hospital. They might be hired to teach military personnel in a stateside university. They might serve as archaeologists.  They might be hired to conduct internal research on whether the organization of a particular unit is optimal. The question is, when does work for the military, intelligence, or security communities skirt the edge, or cross over into, unethical practice?

The first question has to do with whether HTS research complies with Institutional Review Boards, whether located within the military, other government agencies, or civil sector institutions that conduct research on human subjects. Clearly research should only be undertaken after informed consent has been obtained, and the Report addresses this question with regard to HTS in detail, in particular whether informed consent is possible in situations where military personnel are asking questions in a zone of occupation, especially when they are dressed in camouflage and sometimes carrying a weapon. Evaluating this aspect of HTS has been a lot easier than resolving a number of the larger ethical issues under discussion among CEAUSSIC members, the Committee on Ethics, the EB, and the AAA membership.

A second, related issue is the question of whether it is possible to separate Human Terrain Team (HTT) members’ roles as researchers from roles as combatants. The literature put out by HTS argues that such a distinction is easily made. In our discussions we considered the evidence available from HTS, other military sources, and the media regarding HTS performance, and also addressed the question more broadly—hypothesizing about the possibility of conducting “pure” research in the context of military operations in occupied zones. The numerous concerns that have arisen with respect to the way HTTs are configured have been amply discussed in venues such as the several sessions devoted to the topic at the 2007 and 2008 AAA meetings, the Savage Minds anthropology blog, and CEAUSSIC’s blog posts.

An additional issue is what happens to the research findings. They are property of the military, and, unlike much other research funded by U.S. taxpayers, do not become public. Nor are civilian research subjects given access to any data collected—perhaps not a very important consideration in tribal areas of Afghanistan or Iraq, but potentially far more significant in a future field site where HTTs are deployed. This point relates to the much broader issue of proprietary research, in which a researcher is hired by an organization (in industry, the nonprofit sector, the federal government), and the findings are the property of the employer and not available to the public or the study community.  This is the stickiest point for many Association members, the divide being sharpest between academic and practicing anthropologists.

A final issue concerns ethics only indirectly, but given that it continues to take up a lot of air space, I will attempt to lay it out. What is the relationship between “what should card-carrying anthropologists do and not do?” and “what is ethical anthropological practice?” The HTS program has provided us with a telling case study with which to consider the difference between the two questions. A significant amount of the discussion of HTS has been about the potential harm to anthropology’s image. A particular worry concerns the possible damage to anthropologists’ ability to carry out their field research: “If HTS continues to be developed and HTS teams deployed, won’t my ability to conduct research be jeopardized?  I will be seen as a CIA or Army spy no matter where I go.” Anthropology has a spectacular history of problems resulting from its practitioners getting involved with U.S. military, intelligence, and security activities.1 Project Camelot is one example, as are the various scandals connected with the war in Southeast Asia that were denounced at AAA meetings in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (See David Price’s books, Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War and Threatening Anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists.) It is true that most HTT members are not anthropologists, no matter how you define them.  But because HTS is perceived to recruit anthropologists, the nature of HTS employees’ practices is a legitimate concern, especially given that “anthropologist” is the main label the Army initially used for HTT researchers (it has since changed its terminology), and “anthropology” continues to be used by the media to describe HTS personnel and the kind of research they are carrying out. The tribal societies residing in most of the locations in Afghanistan and Iraq where HTS teams are deployed certainly look like traditional anthropological research terrain. In certain respects they evoke some of the small-scale communities targeted by Special Forces in Vietnam, who drew on published anthropological research. Having been trained in anthropology, we do not need to be told why we should be concerned with such trafficking in anthropology-as-symbol by the military and media, even when actual practice does not involve anthropologists to any major extent. I believe that debates over what kinds of research practices potentially damage anthropology’s image should take place at this analytic level. Such discussions are important and are related to—but distinct from—those concerned with unethical anthropological research practices.

A final comment on the disagreement voiced in two previous blogs regarding whether or not discussions about ethics should include the political context: Carolyn Fluehr-Loban (October 13) says that “ethics is about principles, not politics,” whereas David Price (September 11) argues that there is “no political neutrality. Instead there is only silence or engagement on these issues…the convenience of a categorical separation of ‘the ethical’ from ‘the political’ has left large issues unaddressed, and like most unaddressed issues I suppose that in the future these will surface in all sorts of predictable and unpredictable ways.”  Fluehr-Loban is describing a philosophical domain, and she is correct that if people are to have a fruitful conversation about an ethical problem, then they need to agree on how terms are to be defined—otherwise they will either talk past each other or continue to squabble about definitions throughout the discussion. During this process of establishing definitions and “rules of engagement,” the political context should be kept in the background, as disagreement over it can impede arriving at an agreement about terminology and ground rules.  (Of course a given term’s political connotations can be discussed when selecting or rejecting it.) Price, on the other hand, stresses the need to always keep in mind the political context within which conversations about ethics take place, decisions are reached, and actions are taken. He is correct, and not only because just about every human (and sometimes non-human—consider social animals) action that anthropologists are interested in has a political dimension, but also because we are engaging in these conversations, and the media and other parties are interested in their outcome, because of the larger political context. To quote the EB: “In the context of a war that is widely recognized as a denial of human rights and based on faulty intelligence and undemocratic principles, the Executive Board sees the HTS project as a problematic application of anthropological expertise, most specifically on ethical grounds” (from the EB’s memo on HTS).  Whether a given anthropologist agrees or disagrees with this statement, no one can deny that the context is 100% political.

1 Also see Mary Louise Pratt on E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s military role: “Fieldwork in Common Places.” In James Clifford and George E. Marcus, Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press: 27-50.

[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.]

4 Responses

  1. Please sign me up for CEAUSSIC and keep me informed of activities. I had to cancel my paper at AAA this year, because of a conflict, but will attend next year. I am a Korea/Vietnam veteran of the US Army Infantry, and have a paper on the role of the US Army in organizing prostitution in Korea and Vietnam (and a lot of other places).

    John Moore
    Professor of Anthropology
    University of Florida

  2. […] Reflections on the Soon-to-be Released CEAUSSIC Report […]

  3. […] “Reflections on the Soon-to-be Released CEAUSSIC Report” ~ Jean Jackson (November 30, 2007) […]

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