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.