The AAA decides to oppose HTS Anthropology

It has taken the American Anthropological Association (AAA) over a month to respond to the issue of the US Military embedding anthropologists to aide in the war effort. I’ve commented on this in early October. I support the idea of embedding anthropologists, even though I do not support the wars. I see it as progress and a potentially effective application of anthropology.

The AAA has finally convened and decided to disapprove of the program, which goes by Human Terrain System or HTS. They say that the HTS program,

“creates conditions which are likely to place anthropologists in positions in which their work will be in violation of the AAA Code of Ethics and that its use of anthropologists poses a danger to both other anthropologists and persons other anthropologists study.”

I’ve read a lot of debate on this site and all over the anthropology blogosphere on this matter. I respect the amount of thought and concern the community has put into this issue. I really respect this piece of first hand anthropology in the military that was shared on our site. But the AAA has taken a really pitiful stance. I’ll do my best to explain why but I apologize if the following doesn’t come out very articulate because I’m writing this in haste.

First of all, the decision not to support the HTS is based upon a unacademic and uneducated possibility that future anthropologists may face conducting research. Does the AAA have any empirical evidence that future anthropologists will face hardships because of the HTS? No, they don’t. They are running on the notion that because people will not easily differentiate HTS anthropologists from the military, that they’ll forever have a irreversible impression on anthropology.

How do we know that HTS anthropologists will be so horrible that no other anthropologist can follow suite and reverse the damages? We don’t. Just as likely as it is that HTS anthropologists will completely botch up anthropology is the notion that HTS anthropologists may be evangelical figures for anthropology and make it easier to conduct anthropological research in the areas HTS anthropologists work at. What I’m getting at is that at this point we do not have any idea to see how HTS anthropologists impact anthropology as a whole. I really think the HTS anthropology programs should move forward, be supported with constructive criticism… not outright opposition!

Also, I was really disappointed to read in the conclusion of the AAA statement on how they affirm,

“that anthropology can and in fact is obliged to help improve… through the widest possible circulation of anthropological understanding in the public sphere…”

…When they were the very group that ignorantly opposed open access last year. Judging by their actions, the widest possible circulation of anthropological understanding is through closed access publications and through opposing real life applications of anthropology. Give me a break.

I’m really considering posting to their newly created blog on this issue. They basically have opened the flood gates to

“facilitate discussion on this subject, [to use the blog] to post comments regarding the Executive Board Statement and related issues.”

What do you think? How do you feel about the AAA’s stance? Please share your thoughts and comments!

9 thoughts on “The AAA decides to oppose HTS Anthropology

  1. Thanks a lot for posting on this. I have to say I really like the job you’ve done bringing attention to this issue. I find myself continually incensed with the AAA code of ethics and other ridiculous bylaws which always seems phenomenally out of step with responsible empirical work. Concern for this code constantly leaves us (as anthropologists) failing to do really basic work like documenting the depth and breadth of the human experience and bringing a well-grounded understanding of those experiences to the public. Isn’t that part of our job? among other things of course. Hmm, I can hear them snickering and saying how Boazian that is of me to say… I think Franz would be down for doing this fieldwork though. It matters.

  2. What is being conducted by anthropologists in the HTS program is NOT research. How much help are the embedded anthropologists providing to the people of this country?

  3. Oskar thank you for your comment. It is humbling to see that you also see the hypocrisy in how the AAA is using its code of ethics to justify not supporting this aspect of anthropology.

    Since when was the future of practicing anthropology as important as using anthropology to potentially save lives, reduce armed conflict, and build understanding?

    … A very rhetorical question, but effectively the AAA has drawn a line in the sand. They’ve indicated that their code of ethics is more important than conducting this type of research in war zones. I guess what we gotta ask is what’s more important to salvage in this situation, the discipline of anthropology or people’s lives?

  4. With all due respect airspud, what the HTS anthropologists are doing is research. They conduct fieldwork and publish their results.

    An introductory publication from October of 2006, explains the scope of the HTS,

    “This system is being specifically designed to address cultural awareness shortcomings at the operational and tactical levels by giving brigade commanders an organic capability to help understand and deal with “human terrain” the social, ethnographic, cultural, economic, and political elements of the people among whom a force is operating. So that U.S. forces can operate more effectively in the human terrain in which insurgents live and function, HTS will provide deployed brigade commanders and their staffs direct social-science support in the form of ethnographic and social research, cultural information research, and social data analysis that can be employed as part of the military decision-making process.”

    Furthermore, Barry Silverman, of the University of Pennsylvania, has drafted up some ideas on what to do with HTS data. Here’s a link. Roberto J. González, of San Jose State University, describes his accounts as an anthropologist conducting research in Abu Ghraib, in the journal Anthropology Today, here’s a link to his publication.

    Programs like the HTS have introduced soldiers to abstract anthropological concepts, such as what is a tribe? The link to the PDF is down, but this Google cache of the document can show you how HTS research has been applied to instruct and educate the military.

    Rather than obfuscate the actual definition of research, let’s see what the HTS is producing and evaluate its effectiveness.

  5. I’m convinced that an HTS-model approach to facilitating understanding of cultures is the ONLY thing that can help us out of this disgraceful conflict. The Iraq War Study Group published a “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Iraq”-like tract in their recommendations to the Bush administration, which you can download in .pdf form, and I think most Americans should start there.

    Even though we hear the names of ethnic and religious groups mentioned in the news every day, US citizens don’t really understand the differences between Shiites, Kurds, and Sunni, or why up until the US-led invasion of Iraq, it was politically incorrect to dwell on these distinctions of creed. The educated classes in Iraq, who have largely fled the country, would not use this ethnic/religious model to understand natinal politics, though the American military has broken it down thusly.

    It is my hope that the HTS will contribute some solid, relevant research, discover a way to ease conflict heretofore overlooked, and make AAA eat their words.

  6. The AAA is making the right call on this as this opens a can of worms for social scientists working in warzones on behalf of the DoD. Though the idea of facilitating understanding of subject populations is laudable we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that these are populations under foreign subjugation and social scientists working with, for, or around tactical military units are dangerously close to enabling actions that lead to wide scale civilian casualties and human rights abuses. Aside from the short term ethical problems there is the longer term issue of credibility in foreign nations from viewing social scientists as agents of empire. The British Empire already traversed this road during the “great game” in Asia in the 19th century and reaped a harvest of social scientists being viewed as spies first and foremost by foreign governments.

    Other fields are being burned by working with the DoD. Look at the firestorm within both the legal and medical community in regards to their roles in enabling military operations that contribute to human rights violations.

    The dividing line between working with the DoD as an “independent” group conforming to professional standards of conduct and active enablers for highly questionable conduct gets progressively hazier the closer you get to the DoD. Social scientists who choose to go for the “easy money” and largesse of the DoD should go with eyes open to the ethical costs of working for an institution devoted to killing other human beings.

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