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American Anthropology Association issues Human Terrain System resolution

8 November, 2007

The American Anthropology Association has released a statement of resolution by the Executive Board on the Human Terrain System (HTS) Project. The statement, posted online, is dated October 31, 2007 (though I just received the e-mail from the AAA announcing the resolution today, and as as far as I can tell from the metadata on the website, it was only posted online November 7, 2007).

The resolution is brief and it concerns itself almost exclusively with ethics, not with the methodological trouble of working for the military in a war zone (which Greg has discussed here on Culture Matters). The resolution identifies three key areas of ethical trouble that potentially puts anthropologists involved with the HTS at odds with the AAA code of ethics:

(1) the difficulty of distinguishing between anthropologists and the military “places a significant constraint on [anthropologists’] ability to fulfill their ethical responsibility…to disclose who they are and what they are doing”;

(2) the imperative of doing no harm to the people being studied cannot be assured when anthropologists are reporting on these people to the dominant military power; and

(3) the ethical imperative of voluntary informed consent is compromised when anthropologists are working for the military in a war zone.

It also notes that (4) involvement of anthropologists with the HTS project puts at risk other non-HTS anthropologists — and the people they study — all over the world.

It concludes,

Thus the Executive Board expresses its disapproval of the HTS program.

“In the context of a war that is widely recognized as a denial of human rights and based on faulty intelligence and undemocratic principles, the Executive Board sees the HTS project as a problematic application of anthropological expertise, most specifically on ethical grounds.”

The full text of the resolution can be read here.

The AAA has also created a blog where members can comment on the Executive Board Statement and related issues at However, as far as I can tell, one need not identify as a dues-paid member of the AAA to comment.

While the AAA statement is primarily about ethics, many of the comments posted on the blog grapple with the complicated entanglement of ethics and methodology. Some, for example, doubt whether an ‘applied anthropology’ can call itself anthropology when it is in the employ of an interested institution. For example, Hugh Jarvis from the University at Buffalo argues that, “Surely to achieve any credibility or scientific objectivity, anthropologists need to be independent observers.” Others profess deep disappointment with the resolution’s seeming rejection of any anthropological cooperation with imperial power on the grounds that, as long as harm is being done somewhere, anthropologists have a duty to try to minimize that harm, if necessary by working for the powers that be. Some criticize the AAA for not going far enough in expressing only “disapproval” and not “condemnation”; others criticize the AAA for taking a position on the war itself.

As of this writing, there are only 14 comments, but I expect we’ll see that explode in the coming weeks, and the matter of anthropology at war is bound to dominate the annual meeting of the AAA later this month. I’ll be attending and I’ll write about it on this blog, so stay tuned.

L.L. Wynn

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Third Tone Devil permalink
    10 November, 2007 10:26 am

    On Anthrodesign, a listserv whose subscribers are mostly anthropologists who do design consulting (or other corporate work, especially human-computer interfaces) and designers interested in ethnographic methods, there has been a heated discussion of the AAA statement. Interestingly (while some academic anthrop9ologists criticized it for not going far enough) most contributors to this debate condemned it as “speaking from the pulpit” without studying the HTS in detail, interviewing people engaged with it, and so on. (See e.g. Mark Dawson’s blog, Some of these people commented that this is why they had left the AAA — though undoubtedly some of this must reflect frustration with what they perceive as a patronizing attitude of academic anthropologists. One contributor, Natalie Hanson, who explicitly says that she does not agree with the U.S. involvement in Iraq, suggests that anthropologists involved in the HTS are at the same time studying the army, and on the other hand expresses her fear that if we start condemning a priori work done for the HTS then perhaps anthropologists who have been involved in designing the army’s website (!) are also to be condemned, and where do we stop?

    I share Rick Shweder’s opinion that it is better to have a culturally sensitive army than a culturally insensitive one. Moreover, I think that anthropology has a duty to make it clear to decision makers that their “cultural expertise” (see Raphael Patai and Bernard Lewis) is flimsy. It has a duty to do so because such flimsy grounds lead to real disasters — I am not talking about killings as such (they might happen with or without it), but e.g. the decision to stay out of Rwanda (apparently based on Clinton’s buying into the “ancient hatreds” theory), the hesitation to get involved in Bosnia (reportedly based on Clinton’s reading Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, another version of the ancient hatreds theory), and now the decision that democratic representation in Afghanistan and Iraq equals identifying a finite number of ethnoreligious groups and giving them each a voice (thus depriving secular non-nationalists of one). The army seems more willing to listen than ever, so I think that anthropologists should grasp the opportunity.

    The problem is, of course, to what extent anthropologists who are “embedded” in the HTS will have that opportunity, and to what extent their production will be subordinated to preexisting schemata in the minds of decision makers. Mind you, though, this is not so different from anthropologists working for development projects. Still, I think it should be up to an individual’s conscience and evaluation of the situation whether or not to take up a job with the U.S. Army. I wouldn’t take it up personally, but I think it is more important for the AAA to recommend certain criteria of how the work should be done (not at gunpoint) and how reports should be handled (transparently) than to say that considering the war is based on the wrong reasons nobody should join it.

  2. 12 November, 2007 11:35 am

    Some of the comments on the AAA blog site (now numbering in the 60s and climbing) speak to some of the issues you raise, TTD: some express skepticism about the wroth of any ‘applied’ anthropology — i.e. anthropology in the pay of any interested party — in what seems to be a rather naive or at least narrow conceptualization of what anthropology is or should be. Take, for example, the man who I quoted in my post who argues, “Surely to achieve any credibility or scientific objectivity, anthropologists need to be independent observers.” Of course, that begs the question of whether anyone can be an ‘independent observer’ and the fact that most of us receive salaries from institutions that we work for and grant funding from various interested institutions that shape the kinds of research that get funded (Clifford Geertz and Laura Nader have both written on this extensively) is a reminder that we have to be skeptical about claims of “independence.”

    On the other hand, just because nobody comes at anything from a position of complete, disinterested neutrality doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still pay attention to ways that institutional structures shape the kinds of research that get done and published. Just because working for the military and working for a development agency are both ‘applied anthropology’ and may both entail a decision to work from within the system doesn’t mean that there aren’t still very different structures shaping the kinds of anthropology that get done in those settings. So it seems that one of the things that needs to be done is to figure out just what sort of applied anthropology the HTS is.

    What kinds of safeguards are in place to protect intellectual independence and ethical positions, for example? If I were to contract with a corporation to do an ethnography of its employees for that corporation, I would put clauses in my contract that would protect the confidentiality of my informants and guarantee my right to come to independent conclusions, even if they’re not palatable to the corporation. Do anthropologists working for the military have the same sorts of rights vis-a-vis the government? That’s what we don’t really know, and that’s why it’s important, as the AAA says, “that judgments about relationships between anthropology, on the one hand, and military and state intelligence operations, on the other, be grounded in a careful and thorough investigation of their particulars.” We may find that working for the military is not so different from working for a development agency, as you suggest. Then again, we might find that it’s totally different, because the military has very different power than a development agency does.

    But I think that, of the reasons listed by the AAA for their disapproval of the HTS project, the final one offered is actually the most important and provides us with a key clue as to why the AAA Executive Board has issued this statement at this time, instead of waiting around for a “careful and thorough investigation.” In a word, the issue is PR. The AAA is worried about how news of the HTS anthropologists working with the U.S. military is going to negatively affect the vast majority of non-HTS anthropologists around the world, and their informants. I think that they issued their statement to try to protect the rest of us. As I’ve written, news that anthropologists are working for the military have already started to circulate in the Arab public sphere, and that’s probably bad news for anthropologists who work in the Middle East.

  3. 12 November, 2007 5:16 pm

    I also think giving more weight to particular criteria for ‘good’ research is better than some sort of blanket criticism of particular types of ‘applied’ anthropology, or applied anthropology in general. Seems to me that it’s more productive to ask whether a particular piece of research meets certain basic standards than to question the validity of military, corporate, or development anthropology as a whole. Focusing on specific criteria of specific projects would probably also help to break down the distinction between academic and applied approaches as it would bring the focus back to the real conditions of ethnographic engagement rather than dealing in the abstract comparison of ideal types. Indeed, to do this would be in itself a very ‘ethnographic’ move.

    It’s interesting that Kerim over at Savage Minds has just posted this, somewhat tongue in cheek, request for a 10 point code for anthropology based on a recently discovered Mafia code of conduct. Seems to be pointing in a similar direction.

  4. Warren permalink
    16 November, 2007 5:08 am

    I’m quite surprised at how much support there is for the HTS program. This program is not about anthropologists getting to know Iraq culture. Remember, the anthropologists report directly to military commanders. Information goes in one direction. They are not allowed to go and teach Iraq about how the U.S. military intends to control them… So in what way then are they studying the U.S. military? They aren’t. The information will be collected and used against Iraqi’s who want independence. There is NO question in anyones mind as to where they want to see US troops – its back home in the US.

    Anthropology hasn’t even escaped its colonial history, and already so many American anthropologists have forgotten where they came from.

    Its quite disgusting that with all the issues anthropology has addressed since its conception in Colonialism, have been thrown out the door in favor of a return to direct politics.

    I’d hope those HTS anthropologists work against the US military, perhaps gathering top secret information, and releasing it to Al Qaeda.


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