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.