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A round-up of news coverage of the AAA meetings

6 December, 2007

Usually anthropology is only in the news when some new theory about Neanderthals is announced. But in the past week, anthropology has been all over the news, thanks to the American Anthropological Association meetings in Washington, D.C. which just ended a few days ago.

Before I left for the meetings, I fantasized that every night I would post some news from the day’s events on Culture Matters. I diligently took notes during the sessions on anthropology and the U.S. military, but between the intensity of the perpetual overlapping meetings (at one point I actually ran back and forth four times between two panels that I was trying to follow simultaneously) and the jet lag, I barely opened my computer. Now that I’m back, I see that journalists have covered the AAA meetings better than I possibly could have done, so instead I thought I’d just provide a round-up of the coverage and links to recently published stuff.

  • Inside Higher Ed has covered a slew of anthro-related topics. One was a panel on new media in anthropological teaching. Here’s an excerpt:

Evoking associations with musty, forgotten archives and spiral notebooks in the field, anthropology doesn’t immediately come to mind as a discipline fully situated in the modern, wired world. On the contrary, anthropologists have been tackling the implications of technologies on ethnography with each new innovation, from handheld 16-millimeter film cameras and cassette tapes several decades ago to the Internet and digital video in more recent times.

The information age hasn’t rendered anthropology obsolete, but it has brought with it a host of issues and controversies — as well as injected longstanding debates into new forms of media. At a session Friday at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, scholars and graduate students in visual anthropology discussed projects that harness new media to enrich scholarship, focus the ethnographical microscope on media producers themselves, or both.

In doing so, the presentations encompassed applications on both sides of the ethnographic pipeline: the gathering of oral, visual and audio material; and the storage of such content in online digital archives. Presenters at the “New Media Anthropology” panel raised issues of intellectual property, cultural sensitivity and the intersection of commerce and culture — hot topics in any anthropological pursuit, but especially pertinent in the more open, chaotic online realm.

With debate over the role of anthropologists in aiding the military machine a theme threading through their annual meeting, scholars voted Friday to demand that the American Anthropological Association reinstate strict language from its 1971 code of ethics prohibiting secret research. Members at the meeting – who, for the second time in about 30 years and the second year in a row constituted a quorum in excess of the required 250 — also voted overwhelmingly to oppose “any covert or overt U.S. military action against Iran.”

  • Meanwhile, on the topic of the Human Terrain System, the Chronicle of Higher Education is today (December 5th) reporting on a religion grad student named Zenia Helbig who was hired to work on the HTS, apparently because of her multilingual skills but not because of any experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then fired four months later because of a flippant remark she made over drinks that led them to question her “national loyalty.” Here’s an excerpt from the Chronicle article, which is unfortunately available by subscription only:

Recruitment shortfalls have left all of the human-terrain teams in Iraq seriously understaffed, says Zenia Helbig, a doctoral student in religious studies at the University of Virginia. The participants’ training has been haphazard and often pointless, she adds, with too little attention given to the culture and history of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ms. Helbig was released from the program amid an investigation of her national loyalty, shortly before she was to deploy to Iraq. The investigation stemmed from a quip that she made over beers late one night in June. As she recalls, she said, “‘Okay, if we invade Iran, that’s where I draw the line, hop the border, and switch sides.'”

Ms. Helbig says that her firing—which was first reported last week by Wired magazine—was a ludicrous overreaction to a casual piece of hyperbole. With the help of at least one senior administrator in the human-terrain program, she is fighting to expunge her security record and to clear her name. There is even a possibility that she will return to the program, which she describes as potentially valuable despite its problems.

The human-terrain program has generated enormous controversy among academic anthropologists, many of whom claim that anthropologists in military uniforms cannot possibly gain free and informed consent from the people they study (The Chronicle, November 30). Ms. Helbig says that in her four months of training, she can recall no explicit discussion of informed consent or any other element of fieldwork ethics.

But Ms. Helbig, who spoke before an emotional crowd at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association last week, says she believes the program’s scholarly critics are exaggerating its actual power. Organizational disarray, not ethics, is the real story, she suggests. “It’s been funny to watch this debate in the triple A, knowing what HTS has become,” says Ms. Helbig. “Because HTS has become such a joke.” …

… “I made a comment over a beer on a Saturday night,” she says. “There was a handful of us, and we were talking about the potential of the U.S. invading Iran. One lieutenant kept saying, You know, we just need to bomb the hell out of the Middle East. And one point that I made was, If we haven’t learned from Iraq yet, then there’s really no helping us. Iranians are proud, and if they’re invaded, they’re going to support their government, whether or not they like that government. They’re too proud to let someone else get rid of their government for them.”

As the conversation wound down, Ms. Helbig made her fateful joke: “I just turned to somebody, and I said, ‘Okay, if we invade Iran, that’s where I draw the line, hop the border, and switch sides.'”

The line should never have been taken seriously, she says, and it was made in a climate that constantly featured quasi-offensive banter that most people accepted in good spirits. One officer of Arab descent, she says, would often joke about “going jihad” on the human-terrain program’s leadership. And because Ms. Helbig speaks such an odd array of languages, “there was a running joke about which agency I secretly work for.”

But one person who heard Ms. Helbig’s comment took it seriously….

Even before the military-intelligence investigation was complete, officials in the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, which oversees the human-terrain program, decided to fire Ms. Helbig. In an e-mail message on August 7, which Ms. Helbig obtained through an open-records request, one official wrote that “there are too many indicators that raise serious doubts about her allegiance to the U.S., as well as possible direction from intelligence agencies.”

Ms. Helbig says that that charge is hilariously mistaken. When she was finally directly interviewed by a military-intelligence agent, the day after she was fired, he seemed fixated on the fact that she had traveled to Iran for conferences in 2004 and 2006, and she could not convince him that that might be normal behavior for a graduate student in religious studies.

Although Ms. Helbig’s comment concerned Iran, the official statement that was placed in her security file when she was fired in August says that “her preference toward the Iraqi government is in question.”

“They can’t even get their countries straight,” says Ms. Helbig…

L.L. Wynn

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