Tag Archives: Ethics

Good bye (and good riddance) to Human Terrain System

Both Counterpunch and Inside Higher Ed ran stories recently on the end of Human Terrain System or HTS. What was HTS? A program run by the army and employing social scientists, including some anthropologists, to help them learn more about the people (i.e. ‘human terrain’) in Afghanistan and Iraq. Booted up in 2005, the controversial program attracted massive criticism from anthropologists, including a report from the AAA and a formal statement arguing that it was fundamentally unethical. Now, a decade after the idea for embedded social scientists in American’s invasions was first floated, the program has officially folded.

There were many problems with HTS. Not only was it unethical, the quality of work it produced was, iirc, pretty lousy. Moreover, it actively supported American military action which was not only morally wrong, but a tremendous strategic error with an enormous price tag in dollars and lives. According to Counterpunch, HTS’s slice of the pie was US$725 million dollars. It’s hard to see HTS as anything except an object lesson in ethical and scientific failure. It didn’t even engage interesting ethical questions about collaboration with the military, applied anthropology, and ethics. It was just fail. Anthropologists everywhere can be glad it has now been relegated to ethics section of anthropology syllabi.

Perhaps one good thing that has come out of HTS is that the AAA managed to show strong ethical leadership throughout this period. This is in stark contrast to the American Psychological Association, which colluded with the CIA to produce ethical standards that made facilitating torture acceptable to its members. To be honest, I’m not really sure this indicates the strong moral fiber of the AAA so much as its lack of relevance to American actions abroad, at least until a network of concerned anthropologists pushed it to act (or, perhaps, to act in and through it).

At the end of the day, anthropology took a stance against HTS, and history has born this stance out. Goodbye and good riddance to HTS.


Committing Crimes during Fieldwork: Ethics, Ethnography, and “On The Run”

At this point the debate about Alice Goffman’s book On The Run looks something like this:

  1. Goffman writes a successful ethnography.
  2. Journalists are peeved that Goffman followed social science protocols and not journalistic ones.

  3. Journalist verify that Goffman’s book is accurate.

  4. Journalists remain peeved that Goffman followed social science protocols and not journalistic ones.

Although I’m sure no one feels this way, I think this is a success for everyone: Goffman is more or less vindicated, her discipline demonstrates it can withstand external scrutiny, and journalists do what they are supposed to do and take no one’s words for granted. In this clash of cultures, I think both sociology and journalism can walk away with their dignity intact.

There are still some outstanding issues, of course. One is Goffman’s claim that police checked hospital records looking for people to arrest — something I’d like to deal with later on. Here, I want to focus on the claim not that Goffman was inaccurate in her reportage, but that she broke the law during her fieldwork.

This criticism comes from law professor Steven Lubet. Having loved Goffman’s book, I thought it would be easy to dismiss Lubet’s critique — especially the part where Lubet asked a cop whether details of Goffman’s book were true and the cop is like: “No we never do that to black people” and I was like: “Well I’m glad we got to the bottom of that, since police accounts of their treatment of minorities is always 100% accurate.” But in fact Lubet’s piece is clearly written and carefully argued and I found it very convincing. That said, how much of a problem does it pose to Goffman’s book? Continue reading

Anonymity, Ethnography, and Alice Goffman: Welcome, journalists

I think I’ve written and thrown away three separate posts on the Alice Goffman debate trying to find something to say that people will find interesting. I personally don’t find the case to be very interesting, or to speak to core issues of what ethnography is or should be. In my opinion, the takeaway is: Goffman wrote a remarkable book at a remarkably young age, like all books it has some problems, and it is bearing an absolutely incredible amount of scrutiny fairly well. She did hard fieldwork and had to make hard choices writing her ethnography, and some people disagree with those choices. But that’s not an interesting theoretical problem. That’s just life.

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Writing Good Anthropology in a Time of Crisis: Lessons from the Nepal Earthquake

[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by guest author Heather Hindman. Heather is Associate Professor of Asian Studies and Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her book Mediating the Global: Expatrias Forms and Consequences in Kathmandu (Stanford University Press, 2013) explores the employment practices and daily lives of elite aid workers and diplomats over the last several decades of changes in the development industry, with a critical analysis of human resources management and cross-cultural communication. She is also co-editor of Inside the Everyday Lives of Development Workers (Kumarian Press, 2011). Her recent publications explore Nepals elite migration practices, the rise of voluntourism and the shifting interests of aid donors in Nepal. Currently, she is researching youth activism and labor, particularly among elites with overseas experience.]

How do scholars balance the need to write quickly and the need to write well? Pressures to “publish or perish” and the rise of “visibility indices” have led many of us to write in ways that will be recognized by our institutions, rather than in the other ways we also think and reflect. Some academics now are calling for a turn to slow scholarship, but this may be a luxury only the elite can afford. In a time of crisis, writing slowly does not work; instead, we need to write swiftly. Recently, I and many people who have conducted research in Nepal found ourselves under pressure to write quickly while still maintaining our academic integrity.

Organizing relief AYON Bijaya
AYON/Association of Youth Organizations Nepal organizing earthquake relief. Photo by Bijaya Raj Poudel.


The April 25th earthquake in Nepal proved devastating for the country and spurred many in the anthropological world to action and comment. In the days after the quake, and propelled forward by the major May 12th aftershock, academics in the US, Europe and Asia found themselves overwhelmed by requests for interviews and op-eds, and many of us were eager to do something. I felt paralyzed and incompetent, sitting in Austin, Texas, trying to finish the semester, working closely with local student groups and NRN (Non-Resident Nepali) organizations and operating at a high level of distraction. Social media was afire with check-ins of who had survived, where the greatest damage had occurred and what resources were needed to keep people alive on a day-to-day basis. I found myself pulled into the social media world and addicted to email and messaging as I had never been before. Many of us sought to raise funds and awareness in our own communities, to establish contact with those we care about in Nepal, and to write brief articles as we felt able for media venues. After the initial flurry of media contacts, several of those who had written about the disaster were contacted by Anthropology News to write an article for their online forum. We hoped to get someone familiar with facts on the ground, yet many anthropologists who were in Nepal were dealing with everyday needs of seeking shelter, looking out for loved ones and trying to provide basic relief as they were able. AN Managing Editor Amy Goldenberg posted a brief piece that collected links to essays written by North American-based anthropologists for other venues, and there were promises from others to write more substantive articles when more research and reflection was possible. Then, Anthropology News—an official publication of the American Anthropological Association—found a respondent in anthropologist David Beine, Professor of World Missions and Evangelism at Moody Bible Institute. Continue reading

Why you shouldn’t take Peter Wood (or Anthropology News) seriously

In this piece I would like to explain, in detail, why I think Peter Wood’s recent piece in Anthropology News is fundamentally misguided. For a lot of readers, there will be no point in my doing so — they will just write Wood off as ‘racist’ and move on. I’m, shall we say, extremely sympathetic to this point of view. But I do think that Wood’s piece deserves some scrutiny to explain why so many people find it so misguided.

In his piece, Wood takes issue with four essays in Anthropology News responding to the shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent reaction in Ferguson. Wood  argues that the essays are “a retelling of… the left’s canonical myth of Ferguson: facts submerged in a sea of fiction”. He goes on to argue that these authors’ accounts of Ferguson ignore “the record of events established by the grand jury”. He claims that the concepts of “structural violence” and “structural inequality” used in the essays are “intellectually lazy simplifications of complex social circumstances” which “remove all moral and social responsibility from the actors who are portrayed as victims”. In doing so, he claims, anthropology “erases the motives of key participants and reduces them to objects acted on by invidious external forces”. In the end, Wood claims, it is a “just-so story that America is a nation run by privileged whites determined to maintain their privilege.” In  fact, he says, “this is, quite plainly, a myth. There is nothing in the realm of fact to support it.”

These are amazing claims, and it is difficult to understand how Wood can make them in the face of an overwhelming body of evidence that proves exactly the opposite of what he claims. Wood is clearly not stupid. Charitable readers will assume that he is not evil. The nicest interpretation of Wood’s position, therefore, is that he is simply ignorant.

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Ethics, Visual Media and the Digital

As c.10,000 anthropologists descend upon Washington, D.C. this week for the annual American Anthropological Association conference, my colleague Jonathan Marion (University of Arkansas) and I, alongside an international cadre of researchers, have joined a long-standing conversation about the relationship between digital cultures, visual media and ethics that will fully manifest on Saturday, but that exists online in multiple forms too (more below). That conversation is a complicated one, known to induce frustration, confusion, feelings of helplessness, despondency and, at times, defiance among those who engage in it. By this I refer to the business of negotiating (1) the ethical implications of our own research programmes, (2) the experience of formal ethical review, and (3) ethical issues borne out of the everyday actions of our communities of study. Such ‘business’ is seemingly made even more complicated when digital and visual media are brought into the fold.

Indeed, more than ten years ago Gross, Katz and Ruby published Image Ethics in the Digital Age, a pioneering volume whose topical concerns – privacy, authenticity, control, access and exposure – are arguably more conspicuous now than in 2003. Today, their complexities appear to be extending as digital interactions themselves extend, and the consequence is an inevitably fraught landscape of practice with debatable outcomes.

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Boas and the Monolingualism of the Other

Kwakiutl texts

In my last post on Bauman and Briggs Voices of Modernity I explored their argument that Boas’s notion of culture makes it seem like a prison house from which only the trained anthropologist is capable of escaping. In doing so, however, I only really presented half of their argument. The book has two interrelated themes: One is a Foucauldian genealogy of the concepts of science, culture, race, language, and nation (as seen through the rise of folklore studies). The other is a Latourian exploration of the construction of folklore as a science. This is done by exploring how oral traditions were turned into texts, and thus evidence of traditional culture (however that was defined). Aubrey, Blair, the Grimm brothers, and Schoolcraft were each faced with hybrid oral texts whose own modernity (as contemporary documents) belied their perceived scientific value as authentic remnants of ancient cultures. For this reason the texts underwent tremendous alterations, if not outright fabrication, by these scholars in order to make them suitable for their own purposes. The book traces how these processes of entextualization were shaped by each scholar’s concepts of science, culture, race, language, and nation.

So where does Boas fit into all of this? Continue reading

Competing Responsibilities: An Interview with Susanna Trnka and Catherine Trundle

(former Mind Thomas Strong recently participated in a conference on ‘competing responsibilities’ organized by Susanna Trnka and Catherine Trundle. What follows is an interview between Tom, Susanna, and Catherine on the conference theme, which dove-tails wonderfully with Bree Blakeman’s recent blogging on the concept of responsibility. Transparency: By chance I’m going to the next round of the conference in Wellington, so this is something I’ve been thinking about as well -Rx)

TS: Could you both introduce yourselves, and talk about how you came around to the question of responsibility?

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Empathy: A Short Conceptual History and An Anthropological Question

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger LINDSAY A BELL

In my first post, I proposed that anthropology might be particularly well suited to thinking through the concept of empathy. In North America, “empathy” has come to be a prominent term across the caring arts. In areas ranging from self-help to health care, empathy seems to be something that can and should be cultivated. In 2006, President Obama declared that an “empathy deficit” was more pressing than a federal budgetary deficit. The scale of this claim reflects an increasingly popular view of empathy as producer of solutions to large, complex issues. In his 2010 bestseller Empathic Civilization, American social theorist Jeremy Rifkin argued that “global empathic consciousness” could restore a global economy and solve climate change.

Last weeks’ commentators aptly pointed out that “empathy” has become a gloss for broader concerns. Its implementation from the perspective of those of you working with social workers, health care professionals and so on made it clear that institutionalized empathy is a downloading of problems onto already thinly stretched personnel. As a former pubic schoolteacher, I can agree that it is tempting to dismiss empathy as a smoke screen for troubles of our times. Yet, I keep coming back to anthropology’s shared principles with empathy—specifically perspective taking, withholding judgment, and dwelling with the people we work with. I am not arguing ‘for’ or ‘against’ empathy. Frankly, I am curious. What meanings has this term come to hold in the context of North America, and what very real kinds of ways of relating to Others has empathy been trying to capture but somehow can’t?  Puzzled by the empathy boom, I went to a good friend for insights. As an analytic philosopher specializing in emotions and emotion history, she had a lot to teach me about the crooked conceptual path of the term. She was so generous in sharing what she knows, I thought I’d share what I’d learned here. Continue reading

Anthropology, Empathy and the Other Regarding Emotions

Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger LINDSAY A BELL

In the last few weeks, social work scholar turned pop-psychology web superstar Brené Brown came out with a short animated video summarizing much of her writing on empathy. It opens by drawing a distinction between empathy and sympathy.  According to Brown, empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection. For those of you who are expert in the area of the anthropology of emotions, I am guessing it would be fairly easy to come up with cross-cultural scenarios that put this pop-psych in its place (and please do!). That sympathy has become the bad guy in US self-help genres isn’t all that surprising.  In psychology and analytic philosophy, empathy and sympathy are part of a larger cohort referred to as “other regarding emotions”. Debating the appropriateness of the other regarding emotions—from pity to compassion to sympathy to empathy—lends itself to prescriptive ways of being the world.  This short video presumes that we can know what will feel good to others. In this case empathy feels good, and sympathy feels bad.

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Too-Close Encounters: The Mashco-Piro and the dilemmas of isolation and contact

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Glenn Shepard]

Just over a month ago a Peruvian indigenous federation circulated remarkable video footage showing about a hundred isolated (so-called “uncontacted”) Mashco-Piro Indians just across the river from a Piro indigenous village along the Rio de las Piedras in Peru. They  appeared to be asking for food and trade goods like rope and metal tools. The Piro and Mashco-Piro languages are close enough to allow communication. Hoping to avoid direct contact and the possibility of disease contagion, forest rangers at Monte Salvado floated a canoe laden with bananas across the river. After a tense three-day standoff, the Mashco-Piro eventually disappeared back into the forest. No one is quite sure why the Mashco-Piro — who have so steadfastly avoided such contact until recently — suddenly showed up. Many suspect that illegal loggers active throughout the region have disrupted their usual migration routes.

In late 2011, a different group of Mashco-Piro living near the border of Manu National Park shot and killed Shaco Flores, an old Matsigenka friend of mine, with an arrow. Having lived among the Piro for many years and learned the Piro language, Shaco had been patiently communicating and trading with the Mashco-Piro for over twenty years, always maintaing a safe distance but slowly drawing them closer with his gifts, food and conversation. But something happened on that fateful day in late November: perhaps the Mashco-Piro were spooked by Shaco’s appearance with several relatives at the manioc garden on a small river island where he had been allowing the Mashco-Piro to harvest his crops; perhaps there was internal disagreement among the Mashco-Piro whether or not to accept Shaco’s long-standing offer to bring them into permanent contact. We may never know.
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The Omniscient Narrator

I’ve spent a lot of time in India, but only briefly visited Mumbai. However, even though I was only there for a few days, I did manage to see enough to get a sense of the different worlds that people inhabit there: from the home of a wealthy patron of the arts near Victoria Terminus, to that of a struggling actor at the other end of the city, whose flat only had running water for ten minutes a day. Getting from one end to the other was an epic journey, and it (along with rides on over-crowded commuter trains, pollution, etc.) left me with a feeling that life in this city was  impossible. Perhaps this sense of impossibility is why so many talented writers have chose to write about Mumbai, and why I keep reading them. Among the more memorable books I’ve read are A Fine Balance, Maximum City, Beautiful Thing, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which I just finished last night. There is a lot that could be (and has been) said about these books — about the relationship of writing to geography, about the relationship between journalism and fiction, about the relationship of these authors to the city, etc. — but in this blog post I want to focus on something that struck me in Boo’s writing: the omniscience of the narrator.

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Anthropology Under the NSA’s Eyes

We now know that living abroad or corresponding with someone outside the US makes you fair game for government surveillance. Last year I wrote about the difficulties faced by anthropologists working in places like China, where there can be no expectation of privacy. We now know (as many long suspected) that nowhere is safe. What does this mean for anthropologists?

High levels of confidentiality may not be important for all types of anthropological fieldwork, but it can be hard to anticipate what statements might get our collaborators in trouble and we have a responsibility to protect their privacy to the best of our ability. As more and more of us are storing data in the cloud and more and more of our collaborators are communicating with us via email and on Facebook, we should be conscious of the fact that we cannot guarantee the confidentiality of anything stored online. Continue reading

Writing about Bad, Sad, Hard Things

Writing is not always easy. Sometimes the writing flows and sometimes it doesn’t. But writing about things that are emotionally weighty, heavy, and disturbing is a different kind of not easy.

Monday morning I wrote a political asylum report for a victim of political violence in Nepal. Monday afternoon, bombs exploded near the Boston marathon finish line, killing several people, injuring hundreds, and stunning many (including this Massachusetts native, runner, and former Boston resident). The next day, I read about a twenty-year-old Tibetan mother who self-immolated and died in Tibet, and I wrote two more Nepali political asylum reports, one especially gruesome, and then collapsed on the couch, paralyzed in a sort of grief and shock and despair at the bad things human beings do to other human beings.

Writing felt necessary but debilitating. I could only write about the particularly horrific asylum case in short increments, writing a sentence or two, then turning to something that would allow me to breathe freely, breathe in some goodness and hope, and then exhale the horror. Write the horror down. Make sense of the horror for a judge. Or at least try to. Continue reading

Quizzical notes on Zomia

State evasion is over

[Savage Minds welcomes guest bloggers Leif Jonsson, Masao Imamura, and Jacob Hickman, who offer individual takes on some issues raised by James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale U P, 2009). Kerim’s previous post on the book is here. This post is by Leif.]

James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia is an interesting read. If anthropology-readers are used to embarrassment regarding the gaze on tribal peoples, then here is a license to guilt-free gawking: These weren’t tribals but rather freedom-seeking secessionists from the lowlands. There were no real ethnic others, the book suggests. Instead, linguistic and cultural diversity and the profusion of ethnic labels are just markers of state-evading strategies. In my view this is all rather problematic, in that clueless western readers (people ignorant of, say, particular histories, cultures, societies, languages, peoples, or politics in Southeast Asia) are invited to feast on the identities and politics of the Southeast Asian hinterlands without any involvement.

The effect bears some resemblance to the fickle fascination with Indians of the Brazilian Amazon as natural allies of the rainforest, that evaporated once the noble Other was seen as somehow too modern. Scott draws explicitly on the work of Pierre Clastres regarding the Guayaki and other Indians of Latin America, that the Indians had run away from the state and hierarchy and all that. Clastres had been a student of Levi-Strauss, and his early tribalist work was deeply fatalistic regarding the looming disappearance of all indigenous peoples. Clastres’ shift in focus, from pre-contact- to ex-contact peoples does not remove the assumed purity of the tribal slot but instead relocates its source. The tribals aren’t pure because of their cultural- or other essence, but because they ran away from the source of all pollution (the state, with its inequality, taxation, sedentary lifestyles, and other contaminants).

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