Some Thoughts on Anthropological Ethics and Today's Conflicts
Almost 70 years of applied anthropology since the onset of World War II have become a compass for much of our anthropological present. Yet, the gulf between an anthropologist’s two major roles—as field researcher and analyst—has become evermore complex and challenging.
In the 1960s, activist anthropologists like Kathleen Gough and others reminded us ever so often that in our first role as field researcher, anthropologists share the lives of the people they study and identify with them even to the point of siding with them in the conflicts they face. Whereas in our second role as analysts, anthropologists should, if at all possible, objectify and distill actual field experiences.
Responsibility to the Public
Yet today it is generally contended in the profession that anthropologists—be it academic or applied—are absent from public forums, and that this should be changed. Few, if any, voices from anthropology are heard in seats of power, nor are they conspicuous in domestic or international mass media. To keep such silence while playing it safe is currently even sanctioned by the AAA Code of Ethics adopted in 1998, which provides the following guidance: “An-thropologists may choose to move beyond disseminating research results to a positive advocacy. This is an individual decision, but not an ethical responsibility.”
As current debate among anthropologists focuses on issues of ethical responsibility in times of conflict, both in terms of our primary responsibility to those who participate in our research, and our secondary responsibilities to our profession and public, we might well ask if it is time for the AAA to put together a group to hash out the issues and report on anthropological ethics and national security. The AAA could follow the American Psychological Association, which established a Task Force on Psychological Ethics and National Security, a task force that issued a report this year.
Anthropology and National Security
In 2004, Murray Wax and I noted in our Human Organization article, “Anthropology: Vital or Irrelevant,” that North American anthropologists—and most likely British anthropologists—“may delude themselves with the belief that if they could only disassociate themselves from military and intelligence agencies, and avow that they were different from their fellow Americans [and Britons], that then their bona fides would be globally accepted.” This certainly was not always the case.
Some 62 years ago, for example, when the US—and Great Britain—faced another global challenge to their very existence, the National Research Council’s Committee on War Service of Anthropologists reported: “Governmental agencies and the armed forces are currently employing a large and growing number of American anthropologists. Over half of the professional anthropologists in the country are devoting their full time and energy to the war effort and another 25% or more are doing part-time war work.” This NRC committee, consisting of Ralph Beals (chairman), F L W Richardson, Julian Stewart Jr and Joseph Weckler, issued these figures in its 1943 memorandum, “Anthropology During the War and After.”
Moreover, Omer Stewart, the 1983 recipient of the Society for Applied Anthropology’s Malin-owski Award, informed readers of his Human Organization article of that year, “Historical Notes about Applied Anthropology in the United States,” that “immediately after the surrender of the Japanese, numerous anthropologists were hired as special advisors to naval units in the Pacific area formerly under the Japanese, and most considered their work applied anthropology. Among those directly involved were some of the past leaders of our profession: George Murdock, Edward T Hall Jr, John Useem, Ed Galahue, William Bas-comb, Leonard Mason, Douglas Oliver, Homer Barnett, Philip Drucker, Thomas Gladwin, John L Fischer, Frank J Mahony, William A Lessa and probably others.” Interestingly, Stewart also recorded that “the training of practical anthropologists for colonial administration (in Britain) did not start with Malinowski,” and that “most of Boas’ students demonstrated even less interest in applied anthropology than Boas … the major portion of Boas’ energy was devoted to abstract anthropology.”
Conflict and Personal Choices
Traditional wars have evolved into asymmetric conflict. War, as Clausewitz long ago believed, remains “a serious means to a serious end. It is a political act. It always arises from political conditions and is called forth by a political motive” (quoted in Anatol Rapoport’s 1968 Clausewtiz on War). Anthropological ethics, on the other hand, currently reflects political realities in the US rather than absolute universal ideals or non-political anthropological truths. No war is begun, Clausewitz thought, or at least no war should be begun, if “people acted wisely.” Thus, war never really breaks out suddenly, but asymmetric conflict does. Sometimes, even anthropologists may be forced to choose war, and thus make preparations beforehand, because peace may not always be the only or a readily available option.
Current asymmetric conflicts have caught the US generally, and anthropologists in the US specifically, unprepared intellectually, emotionally and materially. The current debate about peace or war in the US and among anthropologists, however, is as fruitless now as it was in the 1960s. It might be wise to recall what Marshall Sahlins, an often cited opponent, stated of both the US involvement in Vietnam and Project Camelot at the AAA Annual Meeting in Denver in 1965: “As against this, tedious debate and discussions of wording would probably not enhance solidarity nor produce a resolution of moral strength. More critical, we have no sanctions and cannot legislate ethics, and perhaps we should not try. For the moment, I favor the principle of letting each man learn to live with himself” (published in Sahlins’ 1967 “The Established Order” in The Rise and Fall of Project Camelot).
As in 1965, once again, we are definitely not at peace, though the conflicts today likely cannot be meaningfully described as “war” or “terrorism” either. It only remains for us to determine what level of conflict is politically—and academically—tolerable. Asymmetric conflict—even more than traditional war—is not waged with anthropological abstractions, but against a reality that is political, economic, social, religious, and perhaps above all, cultural.
PRISP simply allows some 150 plus professionals to become more globally attuned and educated, which may become instrumental in helping minimize some global conflicts. Furthermore, participants in PRISP can disclose their participation in the program; it is not a requirement of PRISP that they keep their participation quiet, although each intelligence agency in which PRISP students are placed has its own policy, some of which might require such secrecy. PRISP was not established to encourage institutional ties to the intelligence community, but to encourage some young professionals in the US to acquire a long overdue language and area agility. Surely, these current 150 or so PRISP scholars can’t possibly turn back the clock on hard-won victories for openness on campuses across the US!
Felix Moos is a professor of anthropology at the University of Kansas, Lawrence. He received his PhD degree from the University of Washington, Seattle, in 1963 and researches applied anthropology, culture change, development and conflict. His most recent fieldwork has been in the Himalayas of South and Central Asia.
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