American Anthropology Association Issues Statement on HTS, based on… not much it seems.

Ah, the days go by and even I cool down. While I am very critical of the wording the Executive Board chose for its statement on the HTS, I am not sure I would have wanted to be on the “AAA Ad Hoc Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology With the US Security and Intelligence Community”. They were in what has to be a lose-lose position. No matter what they said, some large group of people were going to be really ticked off. So, let me precede my high-end rant by saying that I recognize that the Ad Hoc Commission was given a job that assured maximum heat.

The Human Terrain System is a highly controversial topic within the anthropology community. I understand that, and it is something that deserves a lively, vigorous and reasoned debate. Unfortunately the reasoned part is an element that seems sadly lacking. The statement issued by the AAA board reflects this. The second paragraph starts with these disturbing sentences:

“The Commission’s work did not include systematic study of the HTS project. The Executive Board of the Association has, however, concluded that the HTS project raises sufficiently troubling and urgent ethical issues to warrant a statement from the Executive Board at this time.”

In a larger frame, it shows how the governing body of the AAA is moving the discipline farther away from anything resembling a science and to more of an ideology. How can any organization that purports to represent a scientific discipline issue a statement that says they have not actually studied the group that is the topic of the controversy to start with? I know that all of the people on the Executive Board are anthropologists of some stripe. How serious can someone take such a statement when its board openly admits they have not completed the basic research? Did they even talk to anyone connected to the HTS?

The HTS is not a covert activity. It’s widely written about; there are at least two anthropologists in Iraq that blog about their work. In short, contacting them and or the even the creators of the program is pretty easy.

Are there problems with the program? Of course. But to issue a statement apparently without actually going to the source material or speaking with those actually involved (how I am interpreting what is meant by no systematic study) does not build credibility for the EB’s position.

3 thoughts on “American Anthropology Association Issues Statement on HTS, based on… not much it seems.

  1. Perhaps it was when I studied anthropology initially (the early 1990s), but I was always taught that Anthropology was specifically NOT a science. If you wanted science — study sociology. This debate was presented with the idea where we might have once sought legitimacy in science that need no longer be true. That there was legitimacy in a non-scientific, ethnographic research model that put personal experience above numbers and data. And that didn’t try to universalize that information.

    Now it happens that I agree with your point about the EB’s statement on the HTS — it reeks of knee jerkism and judgement. And not careful observation.

    It strikes me that a statement could have been made that said “we are concerned about the implications here” and that we will be establishing a committee to monitor the situation to make sure that it confirms to AAA ideals and humane treatment of subjects, etc. etc.

    But drawing conclusions from a hunch goes against everything that anthropology is supposed to be about — whether it is classified as a science or not.

  2. Donna

    I’d like to know where Nonsense was taught that Anthropology is not a science and that Sociology is. That’s interesting, and nothing I’ve ever heard before. It seems to me that the phrase “social science” incorporates both the subjective and objective facets of the study of the human condition. The recent (especially since the 1980s) problematization of positivist models of anthropological theory starts with the notion that humans cannot be “objective” scientific instruments, and that subjectivity must be confronted and incorporated into one’s analysis. We still have “data”–interviews, folklore, languages, material culture, etc.–to be analyzed. We have to be systematic and careful about that. We also have to be careful and deliberate about the meanings we interpret out of the data. And be upfront about our own humanity and subjectivity, so that those who read our work can more effectively evaluate it.

    This is obviously a side issue from the HTS. But even “real” “hard” scientists in medicine, chemistry, and physics have been confronting subjectivity in analysis and observation. Science is, at some level, about representations of reality and attempts at accuracy. So is, to my mind, anthropology.

  3. Cindy

    Warning: the following is not about the HTS…

    Indeed, when did science become a contrast to ideology instead of a particular sub-type?

    And that bit about the contrast between sociology and anthropology vis a vis science cracked me up, too.

    I guess I”m just a jaded post-neo-pseudo-hyper-structural-modern-femino-practice theorist or something, but you know, archaeologists always feel differently about these things anyway.

    We get funding from the NEH and the NSF and we like it that way. We also tend to find ourselves lugging all types of empirically apprehended bits home from the field. Maybe that’s why we feel we can afford to be abstract theorists with impunity.

    Those endless fields of difference and webs of significance keep getting caught on my piles of obsidian and fishhooks…

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