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CEAUSSIC: Ethics Casebook

Dr. Laura McNamara

“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.”

Moving Forward with the CEAUSSIC Ethics Casebook: What is the Casebook, and Why Now?
[January 27, 2010]
Laura A. McNamara
Sandia National Laboratories

Last month, George Marcus wrote a retrospective essay about the Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the United States Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC).  In his essay, he pointed to the CEAUSSIC ethics casebook as a vehicle for carrying CEAUSSIC’s work forward and expanding its complex discussions across the wider AAA.  Following George’s lead, I reflect on anthropology’s conversations about itself and the importance of an Ethics Casebook in bringing forth hidden and important narratives. Thanks to Rob Albro and George Marcus for feedback and comments.


Over the past few years, I’ve participated in many exchanges about the complex intersections of theory, politics, methods, and ethics in anthropological work, mostly in the context of national security problems.   I’m not the only one who’s trying to sort out these intersections.  With ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a seemingly endless battle against terrorism, and a keen policy interest in social science knowledge as the key to an uncertain world, anthropologists are deeply concerned about the potential encroachment of national security interests on our discipline.

Helpfully, the AAA has provided a number of mechanisms for its membership to discuss this trend and its implications for our association and our discipline.   Some venues are formal and structured: for example, the CEAUSSIC panel whose members created this blog have met regularly over the past three years to develop and release two reports on the involvement of anthropology with military, intelligence, and other national security efforts.  Other venues are more spontaneous.  You might have attended the 2007 business meeting, when Terry Turner and John Kelly introduced twin resolutions asking the AAA to consider reinstating language from the 1971 Code of Ethics dealing with transparency and disclosure in research; and directing the AAA to explain why such language was not reinstated, if and when such a decision was made (see www.aaanet.org/issues/policy-advocacy/Vote-on-Changes-to-the-AAA-Code-of-Ethics.cfm for the rest of the story).

Task forces and business meetings provide an important public outlet for our concerns, but I suspect that the most interesting discussions take place in private spaces.  Issues of practice, ethics, and politics are difficult topics for anthropologists. How they intersect in our work-lives is the kind of sensitive territory that one explores most honestly with trusted friends: the people we greet joyfully in the hotel lobby during the annual meetings, the ones who help us make sense of what’s happening to our discipline and what actions, if any, we might take.  I know I’ve had some extraordinary exchanges with CEAUSSIC members over dinner, after some pretty grueling meetings, when we discussed how sweeping events like war and terrorism were impacting how we perceived our work-lives as meaningful and purposeful and right.

The Origins of the Casebook

The idea of an ethics casebook came into being early in our CEAUSSIC tenure, and I think the idea has its roots in both internal and external interactions we had in the development of the first CEAUSSIC report.  Several of us CEAUSSIC members work in and around federal agencies, and it was not unusual for Commission members without that experience to question us extensively about our work environments and research projects. In response, those of us “insiders” from the security sector questioned our colleagues about their own decisions and experiences with ethics and practice.  I can only speak for myself, but these conversations were quite enlightening: not only did I develop deeper appreciation for the concerns of my colleagues, but their willingness to share difficult decisions they had made have helped sharpen the ethical framework that I use when choosing or refusing different kinds of projects in my own work-life.

Secondly, as part of the first (2007) CEAUSSIC information gathering process, George Marcus and I interviewed anthropologists working in “national security.” The internet enabled a snowball sampling strategy, in which we asked to talk to anthropologists who identified themselves as working in some kind of a national security context. In retrospect, that was a smart decision, since their workplaces and work practices were diverse enough that we’d likely not have guessed where to find these respondents. Our respondents included people with Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD degrees. Some worked in the CIA and the Department of Defense, but we also had respondents from a range of federal civilian agencies, private contractors, and universities that you might not normally associate with “national security.”  Our interviewees were conducting organizational research, working on historical preservation projects, teaching, giving talks and consulting, designing software, publishing in both open and gray literature (e.g., internal corporate or government reports, white papers, and other publication venues outside traditional publishing channels);  working on interdisciplinary modeling and simulation projects, and conducting “remote ethnography” in the form of document-based tactical and strategic analysis for intelligence and defense communities.

Their stories reminded us how anthropology itself has expanded over the past 40 years to encompass a dizzying array of work sites, projects, methods, tools, and interdisciplinary partnerships. Given this heterogeneity, we realized that the problem of how anthropologists practice ethics isn’t something that can be assumed or hypothesized with any degree of accuracy.   In fact, assessing what should be in a comprehensive ethics code is challenging in a discipline with anthropology’s diversity, as the current Ethics Task Force is in the process of discovering.  Instead, it requires examples and stories from real-world people doing real-world work – the very narratives that tend not to make it into the business meetings or task force reports.   Getting these narratives together is precisely the goal of the Ethics Casebook.

Ethics and Practice in the Present

In public forums, we tend to anchor our public conversations about disciplinary ethics with the stable pillars of principle and history, about which we are very certain.  We are less certain, I think, about the present: not just because anthropology encompasses so many different kinds of work, but because it takes a lot of chutzpah to stand up in public and relate a story about difficult ethical choices in one’s work.  As a result, discussions about how “anthropology” and “research ethics” intersect are weirdly impoverished by a lack of understanding about how our colleagues put their ethical commitments into real-world practice.  Particularly in the context of national security, I think it is widely assumed that the setting of one’s employment determines one’s capacity to make empowered and ethically informed research decisions, in a triumphant assertion of bureaucratic structure over individual agency.

Yet the context of anthropological practice has changed, and not just because “corporate ethnographer” is now a legitimate private sector job category. Consider that Institutional Review Boards did not come into existence until 1974; and that the Common Rule was not formally codified and implemented across the federal government until the Clinton Administration.  The ‘Common Rule’ comprises a set of federal regulations that 17 federal agencies, including the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency.  It is the law that governs how signatory federal agencies gather research data from human beings (see http://www.hhs.gov/ohrp/humansubjects/guidance/45cfr46.htm).  Although most of us groan at the thought of federal oversight for research, its application to programs like HTS is a matter of serious debate and discussion within and outside the Department of Defense, and is impacting how anthropologists in the federal sector might get involved with the program.

For example, Steven Chu, the current Secretary of the Department of Energy (DOE), recently issued a memo expressing concern about the risks that “Human Terrain Mapping” poses to both researchers and their subjects. It notes that the program is deeply contentious in the social science community, and limits DOE involvement to narrow forms of data management and some analysis.  Moreover, it emphasizes that any human subjects research involving DOE personnel and contractors, classified or not, must go through a DOE approved Institutional Review Board.  As someone who works for the Department of Energy, the Chu memo’s invocation of the Common Rule not only limits any involvement that I might have with a program like HTS; it also enables annoying gadflies like myself to invoke Department-level regulations when raising the issue of research ethics in projects that I might be asked to pursue. (For those of you who are wondering, I’ve never done HTS-type work. No one has asked me, and in any case, my expertise in human-computer interaction and expert judgment elicitation is profoundly irrelevant for insurgency warfare).

In short, “engagement” and “practice” and “ethics” and “national security” are all terms that need unpacking if we are to really understand ethics as a form of practice in the present, rather than as a set of rules or “thou shalt” statements.  From this, we might have a better chance at developing guidance that helps people make better decisions in a wide array of contexts, including “pure” research.

This brings me back to those hotel lobby conversations I described earlier: some of the most important unpacking and reflection that we do takes place in bars and lobbies during conferences, as we describe, reflect, and interpret, and make sense of our experiences with the friends that we trust. The challenge is how to bring these narratives into wider circulation without compromising the privacy and confidentiality of their owners, while simultaneously ensuring a collection of credible narratives that vividly portray a reality that might otherwise remain hidden.

The Casebook

Ironically for a discipline that prides itself on its narratives of the particular, we are missing the thick descriptions that would help us understand the many parallel universes of anthropological practice. With the help of our colleagues, CEAUSSIC is taking a step toward filling that gap. Hence the idea of a casebook – which Rob Albro, George Marcus and I refer to as the “Ethics Casebook,” but which has much broader aims than presenting a set of “just-so” stories that lead the reader to important lessons about commonly-encountered moral conundrums.   Over the past couple of years, CEAUSSIC members have plumbed their professional networks to begin assembling a set of illustrative case studies in which respondents share a bit of their experience in navigating the intersection of anthropological ethics and research practice in the context of national security work.

We need more cases and are actively working our own networks to encourage our colleagues to provide material for the book.  Rob Albro and I are spearhending this project.  We have contacted friends and colleagues who work in federal agencies, but we are also interested in talking to anthropologists who self-identify as having some involvement in military, intelligence, or other forms of national security work, or who have studied or critiqued some form of national security practice.  Rather than define “national security,” we are asking our contributors to tell us what that category means in their work-lives, because we think it is important that anthropologists in national security explain what this sweeping affiliation actually means.  The cases must be grounded in real-world experience, even if the details are disguised; but to ensure anonymity, we are working collaboratively with our contributors to make appropriate, case-by-case decisions about publishing the contributor’s identities and disguising identifying details, such as precise places or institutions or names.

We expect to publish this case collection as a set of discussion materials for use in classrooms. We are also talking with other AAA committees involved in ethics to develop mechanisms for expanding and maintaining grounded conversations about ethics, perhaps in the form of an ethics blog, an annual update to the casebook (which we hope to be made available online), or regular sessions at the Annual Meetings where we can present and debate particularly provocative or timely cases. We are also open to any creative suggestions about how maximize the relevance of this casebook, as a point of reference in ongoing disciplinary discussion on ethics, disciplinary practice, and security.

CEAUSSIC Blog Series:

3 Responses

  1. […] CEAUSSIC: Ethics Casebook from American Anthropological Association by Brian Dr. Laura McNamara […]

  2. […] McNamara, Laura A. (2010). Moving forward with the CEAUSSIC Ethics Casebook: What is the Casebook, and why now? Blog of the American Anthropological Association, January 27. http://blog.aaanet.org/2010/01/27/ceaussic-ethics-casebook/ […]

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