The equal time clause

I have spent three entries on why anthropologist should not put limits on the professional opportunities an anthropologist should accept. I want to offer some links to other viewpoints on the web. In 2002, NPR broadcast a debate between Anthropologists Catherine Lutz of Brown University and Anna Simons from the Naval Postgraduate school in Montery, CA.

Both the Savageminds website and David Price writing in CounterPunch discuss the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholarship Program which funds students for language and cultural studies in exchange for working at CIA. Daivd Price also has an articles in identities: “Cold War Anthropology: Collaborators and Victims of the National Security State”
Identities,Volume 4 (3-4) (1998): pp. 389-430. Please check out the other resources page for a link to David Price’s homepage with more of his work.

The AAA established the Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security & Intelligence Communities and you can find their early report here.

Oh, and I would like to offer a tip O’ the Kula Ring to the blog site Putting People First for mentioning the launch of the new site.
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Blog Disclaimer. I will often go back to entries to make edits or clarify points. If I am changing my point of view, that will be a new entry.


Let’s get to the meat of it, am I an anthropologist? (Part 3)

Of course I’m an anthropologist, and I’ve been doing what I do for a decade. I think I’m one of the fortunate people that since leaving graduate school I’ve never taken a job as anything but an anthropologist. The question is am I just an anthropologist and the answer is absolutely not. Frankly in my field we can’t employ people who are just experienced in anthropology, we require more areas of expertise than that.

Cover2.JPGI was lucky; I started out life as a happy-go-lucky computer nerd. I built my first computer in 1976 as a high school sophomore (seen stage right, a Southwest Technical Products Corporation System), due to an article in BYTE magazine. My high school days and evenings were spent hacking into anything with a modem from Florida Power to the School District. Don’t be so shocked. My high school grades were so bad that a bit of hacking sleight of hand was the only way some of us managed to graduate. In fact it wasn’t until 2005 that I purchased my first off-the-shelf computer, one that I didn’t build myself. I have had professional technical training as both an audio and video engineer, flying what was at the time state of the art 24 track recording studios. So when I decided to combine anthropology and technology I was something of a rare bird, I was a social scientist that could talk like an engineer.

So why all the self-serving chatter above? Because while I never intended it in the straggly curving path of my life, all those experiences set me up for what I do right now. If my only experience was, as most of my fellow graduate students had, grade school, high school, college, grad school, I would not be able to do what I do today. I noticed that it was the older grad students in my group that were doing the really interesting projects about homelessness, or migrant workers. It led me to the belief that no one should be allowed to attend graduate school until they reached the age of 30 and showed proficiency in at least one trade. Look, anthropology is about making sense and meaning of an often chaotic world. How much real insight can you expect from a 23 year old whose entire life experience has been the classroom?

Some time ago I wrote a chapter in a book that frankly I’m not proud of these days because the editing was so abysmal. My argument was the then novel idea of the value of multidisciplinary teams. What I’ve learned since then is that even multidisciplinary teams are not all that effective. The idea then (and I also believed this) was that if you put an engineer, designer, researcher, marketer alone in a room together, they would eventually work out the problem. (This theory has also been floated by suggesting an infinite number of monkeys and typewriters with equally dubious results.) In reality what you’ve done is put someone that speaks French, English, Spanish, Mandarin in a room together and are astonished when what comes out of it are bad feelings, paranoia, and pretty bad ideas. What you really need are multidisciplinary people, and that is exactly what we look for in my company: individuals that are skilled in one area and have both the aptitude and interest in two other areas. If someone shows up in our office that has a masters in anthropology, and a masters in business that’s almost a no-brainer. One of the folks here has a graduate degree in philosophy and a grad degree in engineering, and the exciting part is to watch him blend those two things. That’s the core of what’s valuable about someone who’s a multidisciplinary person with a multidisciplinary brain. It’s not enough to have different degrees or interest in different subjects. What makes it very powerful is the ability to blend those different ways of thinking into something more.

I’m one of those people that are making it much harder for people who are just ethnographers or anthropologist to make a living in my neck of the corporate world. I counsel my clients that if someone wants to give you data without insights, or insights without action, then you’re under no obligation to cut the check. At the end of the day insights and action are what my clients need. They are not in the business of anthropology or ethnography. What our clients seek is competitive advantage that arises through a unique understanding of the world that the other companies don’t have.

The question then for those asking if an anthropologist working in industry or the intelligence community are still anthropologists or not is frankly limited and naïve. I would suggest that in order to provide the best professional services and consul requires someone to take on additional expertise than simply anthropology. Over the years I’ve become conversant in business strategy, manufacturing, and technologies ranging from plastic resins to ATM machines. I’ve learned how to offer useful criticism in industrial design sessions, and all of this has taught me the humility to realize there are a lot more ways of getting insight about the world than just anthropology, and how woefully limited that worldview can be.

Most of the people I’ve met that want to be anthropologists are usually people that are lifelong students, the idea of learning something new every day is what excites them. So why is it in graduate school we insist on corralling people into this little tiny box, when there’s an entire world out there of humbling experiences? I was fortunate, I had a degree in anthropology which is gives me the ability to uncover insights for my clients. But it also has given me the opportunity to apprentice myself to experts in the other fields mentioned above. What better place for a life long learner than to be always shown that you still don’t know enough?

So I guess the moral of the story is, the question is not if individuals outside of academia are anthropologists, but are they satisfied with just being an anthropologist and should their clients also be satisfied with that? I don’t think anybody should be. Don’t get caught in the myth, grad school teaches us how to be an anthropologist, and that is valuable. I just think you can aspire to more whether that is in academia, business or the CIA.

Blog Disclaimer. I will often go back to entries to make edits or clarify points. If I am changing my point of view, that will be a new entry.


Are you an Anthropologist (part two)?

Much of the conversation about who is an anthropologist is about the appropriateness of “secret” research. Currently the stance of many anthropologists and the AAA code of ethics is that no professional anthropologist should engage in secret research. This means you should avoid research were the data and analysis cannot be openly scrutinized by your peers. (Please see my previous entry, were I agree that the field of anthropology has not always been a paragon of ethical behavior.)

Peer review is wonderful; letting people look over your shoulder to vet your methods and findings is one of the pillars of being a science. This is one of the reasons we have journals and conferences. When you are making bold claims about a connection between abortion rates and crime rates, you can bet people are going to want a peek under the hood. (To read more about that example, I suggest reading Freakonomics, a great example of the fascinating things you learn when you challenge conventional wisdom.). Peer review is essentially the quality control mechanism of academia. For those of us working in industry, we also have a quality control mechanism, only we call it unemployment and bankruptcy.

But just because a person or group cannot publish findings, does not negate their membership in the discipline. The company I work at, Jump Associates, is often engaged in developing strategies and new opportunities for our clients that are mapped out over several years. Our clients would prefer we keep our yaps shut about those new ideas and strategies as they put them into place. In our case that can go even further; we have clients that contractually, we are not allowed to even acknowledge we have ever worked with them. Would we like to talk more about what we do? Or course, consultancies constantly need client case studies of the actual benefits previous companies have gotten from hiring us.

But I am talking about industry, what about the area that anthropologists are most nervous (or outright angered by), working for Military and Intelligence organizations?

This self-imposed barring of anthologists from doing work in which they cannot share data and results with the public unnecessarily limits the impact anthropology can make on the world. My own graduate work, conducted in a state prison, required me to make my own choices about the AAA code of ethics and if they might do more harm than good in that situation. I think most anthropologists face ethical conundrums in their career all the time, we work in a highly fallible human endeavor, and most of us want to do the right thing. Sometimes that means making a choice would we not make in another situation. For example, I promised the inmates I worked with that no one would see my field notes…. Ever. I would shred them as soon as the research was completed. Why would I do something that could let anyone, and not unreasonably so, call my work into question since I could no longer produce the evidence I had done fieldwork at all? Because I believed that anthropologists, particularly a graduate student at a small under-funded program in the South, don’t enjoy the same precedent of legal protection that journalists or psychologists do. If are you doing work in a state facility with inmates, you have very little legal standing if the state decides your fieldnotes can provide evidence related to a criminal act. I was also fairly confident that if something happed with one of my participants, for example the not uncommon shanking of another inmate, the University of South Carolina was not going to exactly leap to the legal defense of a graduate student doing research they would have preferred was not happening to start with.

Does this mean I, or any anthropologist, should never do research in a prison to start with? Of course it doesn’t. But it does mean that there are few ethical absolutes and what appears to be morally just at the moment can be frighteningly fluid. Would I make the same choice to shred my fieldnotes today? Probably not. Part of it is simply a matter of experience and confidence. I am at a stage in my career where feel if I made such a legal stand, my company would back me up. Also, I don’t overestimate how much stock people put in our work. The chances of the state actually going after the fieldnotes of a naive graduate student? Pretty unlikely in hindsight. But at the time, based on the life experience I had to that point, I did what I thought was ethically the best thing for my participants to protect them from any negative impact based on my work. Today, I think I could have given that protection without such extreme measures.

In the next installment, are people working in the intelligence communities, or me for that matter, still anthropologists?

Dammit as I write this, it’s 4:19 in the 4th quarter and I am watching the New Orleans Saints get their collective asses handed to them by the Bears in the playoffs. I mean, you have to be a flinty-hearted bugger to not root for New Orleans this year. Sunday afternoons have always been suspect in my eyes, now I know why.

Blog Disclaimer. I will often go back to entries to make edits or clarify points. If I am changing my point of view, that will be a new entry.


I’m anthropologist. No you’re not. Yes I am (repeat as needed)

Its amazing how otherwise bright people can spend a goofy amount of energy trying to determine just who is in the tribe of anthropology and who is not. It’s not that I object to keeping an eye the quality of the profession, I am all for it. My own little corner of the anthropology world is chock-full of dreadful charlatans that believe Ethnography is as easy as mashing the record button on a video camera and asking inept questions. Since they provide virtually no insights or value to their clients, they damage the reputation of my profession specifically by giving business people the sense that anthropology has nothing to offer them. Quite simply, it’s bad for business. That’s why I like most of the companies that we are normally in competition with for contracts. They are all quality firms that do good work and we are all competing on the value we provide the client, not how cheap or fast we can do the job.

Yep, I am all for the American Anthropology Association doing that. Unfortunately, that’s not what they are worried about. No, in this month’s issue of Anthropology News, the question of “Who is an anthropologist” is not based on the quality of the work or contribution to the client or the field. The criteria for being an anthropologist are focused on who you work for. In this case, are people that do work for the intelligence communities “really” anthropologists? After the AAA meetings this year, I would hope the main issue of the organization would be how to make academic anthropology relevant again before all the funding agencies uncover the scam. I have this recurring vision of a remake of “The Producers,” only instead of a Broadway show, its focused on the chair of an anthropology department after the NSF starts getting nosey.

I have to say it feels a lot like the old guard closing ranks. One of the truly offensive pretensions is call the anthropologists in academia with PhD’s “Anthropologists” (read: Real anthropologists) and people doing anything else (MA’s or PhD’s) “Practicing Anthropologists” (read: people that are not quite anthropologists). Bloody right I’m a practicing anthropologist, just as my father was a practicing physician. I actually do real practical work using my skills as an anthropologist. People get jobs, people lose jobs, and investments are made or not based on my work as an anthropologist. If I screw up, people get laid off, fired, lose insurance, homes, colleges funds, etc.

I try very hard to avoid the screwing up part, for which my company and clients are generally grateful.

At the core of the question is the AAA code of ethics, and at the center of that are the issues of informed consent, secret research and not doing harm to the people you are doing research with. Why do people want transparency in research? Is it to be able to replicate the findings? To extend the knowledge? No, it’s to insure that people doing secret research aren’t doing anything bad or “unethical.” Unfortunately, bad or unethical often means that it’s just something that some people don’t agree with purely for ideological reasons. In essence what they desire is to police the field to be sure it stays pure (read just left of Marx) and ultimately irrelevant to anyone outside the field.

To make my position clear, I agree that anthropologists have quite a bit to answer for ethically. We took the coin of the realm to do research that we knew would actively aid in the colonization and oppression of other countries. Data has been, faked, stolen and otherwise abused and none of it had the happy button-nosed outcome of the movie “Krippendorf’s Tribe.” Our discipline cannot claim clean hands and clear conscience. The stories of dissertation advisors withholding or outright taking data a graduate student needs to finish their dissertation are sadly common (to be fair, this situation can be found all over academia, not just anthropology). By in a classic “baby and the bath water” moment, we have indeed over compensated worrying about anything that could potentially open the door to the past.

I am perfectly fine with someone telling me that using anthropology to support the military-industrial complex is immoral. The odd intelligent idealist that makes you question your direction from time to time is good for the heart and the brain. No, the attitude that gets my back up are the people that say a person is not an anthropologist because of where they work. If one chemist is working to cure cancer and the other to spike nicotine levels in cigarettes, they are still chemists and each has made their own moral and ethical choice. The latter might not be the chemist you want at your dinner party, but they are still a chemist. Actually, I would like to have both at my dinner party, and then toss in a cattleman and vegan for good measure. After the cops cleared the building I would have quite the tidy little article to write.

To me the outcome of this question is no less than deciding if anthropology will commit itself to being a science or simply a strident self-righteous ideology that bars anyone from the hallowed halls that chooses a path it politically opposes. So maybe I am wrong, maybe this is worth spending time on. I was lucky. When I got my M.A. at the University of South Carolina, were we required to take an ethics class before starting our fieldwork. It was both wonderful and appalling. It was appalling because so few of my fellow students were interested in questioning the basic ideas and implications of the code, and questioning is how you learn. It was wonderful because I didn’t much care where individuals in the class came down on the issues. I loved the vigorous debates (usually with the instructor). I would question and cajole, make a stand one moment and then backpedal as my naïve argument fell apart. It was wonderful because I faced a number of basic ethical conundrums before I marched in the field. Certainly there is a wide gap between the academic debate of “what would you do” and it popping up in real life and realizing there are serious repercussions for the people you are working with no matter what you choose. But at least I had something to ground me. I had spent time exploring my own moral compass, and sure it still spins in circles from time to time as I try to do the right thing, but it helps to ask the questions before you get into the field. That’s always been my hole card: when my moral compass and the AAA code of ethics diverge, it’s my heart I listen to, not a piece of paper.

Blog Disclaimer. I will often go back to entries to make edits or clarify points. If I am changing my point of view, that will be a new entry.


Trip to Northern India!

This is my grand test of using YouTube to embed video into my blog. Tell me what you think!

Blog Disclaimer. I will often go back to entries to make edits or clarify points. If I am changing my point of view, that will be a new entry.