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War and the anthropologist: Why an academic society continues to agonize over clandestine research

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) is again caught up in a debate over the ethics of secret research. A similar debate almost tore the AAA apart during the Vietnam War, when a group of prominent anthropologists secretly obtained a grant from the Department of Defense to do research in Southeast Asia to provide data useful for the planning of counter-insurgency military operations.

The scandal that followed the discovery of that project led to the formation the association's first ethics committee, which recommended that clandestine research, secrecy about sources of research funding and limitations on the publication of research results be condemned as inconsistent with the ethical standards of anthropological research. These provisions were incorporated in a code of professional ethics -- which, among other things, banned secret research -- that was adopted by a majority vote of the membership in 1971.

After the war, an increasing number of anthropologists began to engage in proprietary research for government agencies and private corporations. Many of these "practicing anthropologists," as they called themselves, complained that the AAA's ban on secret research was incompatible with their terms of employment by corporations. In the 1970s and 80s, they lobbied to remove prohibitions on clandestine research, secret funding, acceptance of constraints on publication by proprietary research patrons and the fundamental ethical requirement that anthropologists must put the well-being of their subjects above all other considerations, including in some cases publication of their findings. Some academic anthropologists also supported the repeal or weakening of these provisions on the grounds that they inevitably involved political implications that were disruptive of or irrelevant to scientific research, teaching and collegial discourse.

In the 1980s, the leadership of the AAA sought to minimize the conflict over clandestine research by removing or softening the provisions of the ethics code that practicing anthropologists and their allies found unacceptable. A "modernized" code was produced that omitted the key prohibition of clandestine research. This was adopted after bitter debate in 1989. This shaky compromise, however, could survive only as long as circumstances did not again force the association to confront the political implications of its ethical stance.

In 2007 the CIA advertised for anthropologists with expertise in the Middle East in the AAA's newsletter. Many members objected that this implied tacit approval of the Bush regime's Iraq policy, participation in which would, they alleged, risk violations of the AAA's code of ethics. A troubling new factor in the situation was the increased involvement of private corporations in military operations, which exacerbated the ethical opposition to clandestine research of any kind, whether for corporations or government or military agencies.

The issue of the ethical status of secret research thus once again burst into the open and could no longer be swept under the rug by the amended codes that had attempted to make it go away by ignoring it. A special committee, appointed to consider the issues raised by the CIA ads, presented its report to the AAA in November 2007. The report pointed to problems with secret research in general and collaboration in clandestine research for the military in particular, suggesting that the association might wish to reinstate the provisions of the 1971 code of ethics banning all clandestine research. However, it made no definite recommendation to this effect. It also explicitly avoided ethical criticism of anthropologists working for the military in nonsecret capacities.

Many in the association felt that the committee's report did not go far enough. A newly formed organization, Concerned Anthropologists, held a heavily attended meeting the night before the debate and approved a motion to reinstate the provisions of the 1971 rules against clandestine research in the current code of ethics. This motion was duly proposed at the plenary meeting of the membership the next day, which approved it by a massive majority. The motion is being reviewed by the Ethics Committee and Executive Board, which may recommend changes in wording before the motion is circulated for a mail ballot to the membership as a whole.

This complex procedure reflects the extreme sensitivity of this issue, not only for the ethics and honor of the profession but for the continued unity (or not) of the association, particularly its "practicing" and "academic" sides. All now hangs in the balance.

Terence Turner is courtesy professor of anthropology at Cornell. With the Ethics Committee of which he was a member, he introduced proposals to ban secret research to the association in 1971 and proposed the motion to reinstate the ban in November 2007.

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