Should academic organizations take stances?

Should academic organizations such as the AAAS, AAG and RGS/IBG take public stances and engage in and contribute to public debate?

In the case of organizations to which I belong (eg the AAG) the answer has consistently been “no.” But why is this? Do other organizations take part in public debate, or even debate contemporary issues internally?

This question has arisen in the past with regard to the use of race-based data (data sets employing racial categories). The American Anthropological Association (AAA), the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) and the American Sociological Association have issued statements on race-based data (the anthropologists generally urging its lack of explanatory power, the sociologists generally encouraging its reasonable use).

Geographers, who are also heavy consumers of these data, have not issued similar statements, have no plans to do so and do not even have internal debates about it.

This general lack of public debate among official geographical societies is all the more worrying not only because geographical and geospatial research often makes policy recommendations, but also because it represents a refusal to engage in important issues and problems.

This failure was pointedly underlined recently when the AAA issued an official letter on behalf of its membership condemning the recent “laptop searches” carried out by the US customs. The letter was written by Setha Low, the AAA president, to Michael Chertoff, Director of Homeland Security. It notes that these searches are unconstitutional and impede research:

The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution requires that federal authorities have a warrant to conduct a search and seizure of personal property and all US citizens and legal residents have these rights. Current practices have grave implications for anthropologists, social scientists and their research participants, as informants allow researchers into their lives precisely because they believe they have the ability to protect them and obscure their identities. The ability of scholars to honor their commitments to these individuals and communities could be compromised if a search were to take place.

Unlawful searches not only violate the rights of the scholar, but they unlawfully infringe upon the lives of our research participants. We urge you to revisit this policy, and allow the critical work of social scientists to continue unencumbered and uninterrupted.

This is a very simple point to make. The Savage Minds blog which discusses cultural anthropology is a good example of another kind of activism (blogs as activism was recently discussed on the crit-geog forum but not for long).

The AAG/IBG seem incapable of taking these stances. I think as a fees paying member of the AAG for over 20 years I’d like a bit more action or at least an explanation as to why my organization is not politically active.


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