Anthropology, secrecy, and ethics

Inside HigherEd:

With debate over the role of anthropologists in aiding the military machine a theme threading through their annual meeting, scholars voted Friday to demand that the American Anthropological Association reinstate strict language from its 1971 code of ethics prohibiting secret research. Members at the meeting – who, for the second time in about 30 years and the second year in a row constituted a quorum in excess of the required 250 — also voted overwhelmingly to oppose “any covert or overt U.S. military action against Iran.”

The language anthropologists want reinstated on secrecy – which, the resolution’s sponsor affirmed would apply to anthropologists doing work for corporations too – stipulates that “no reports should be provided to sponsors that are not also available to the general public and, where practicable, to the population studied.”

But Friday’s vote only strengthens a recommendation contained in a new report from the AAA Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities, which suggests that the membership or ethics committee “should consider” reinstating those same sections (1.g, 2.a, 3.a, and 6) of the 1971 code. The report centers on whether the association’s ethical standards bar ties to the military or intelligence agencies. The commission’s short answer: Not necessarily, although more scrutiny is needed.

While there is certainly room for discussion about these important issues and people may take different positions, the vote highlights once again that disciplines such as Anthropology and Sociology take them seriously. Once again we have to ask why the AAG does not engage them as well?

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