But We’re at War…

The Association of Social Anthropologists has kicked off their new Ethics blog with a sharp critique of PRISP, the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program, backed by anthropologist and unreformed cold warrior Felix Moos. PRISP offers funding to students in the social sciences, on the condition that they do summer internships and other activities with the CIA and other intelligence agencies, essentially serving as a recruitment tool for US intelligence services. I have posted about PRISP here before, voicing concern about the loss of autonomy this cozying up to the state may engender in the long run, and these concerns are shared by John Gledhill at the ASA:

Many anthropologists and people with anthropology training working for NGOs and government sponsored agencies in places and situations deemed relevant to security concerns are now likely to experience new levels of state intrusion on their working lives and ethics. Sometimes, they will face serious risks as individuals if they chose to follow the path of conscience rather than acquiescence to these demands and restraints.

Gledhill is also concerned with the issue of secrecy. PRISP-funded stsudents remain unknown to either their professors and their fellow students, and if the goals of PRISP are fulfilled, their research once they enter the field will remain hidden behind the security agencies’ firewalls. Anthropologists have a long history of distrust and dislike for secret research, especially research which touches on wide-ranging human issues like security — while we I think rightly feel that we are better-informed about the people we study than the everyday military strategist or intelligence operative, as scientists we are humble enough to remain sceptical about the accuracy and thoroughness of our representations. Open research allows — nay, invites — scrutiny by our peers, scrutiny that, it is hoped, leads to better research. The last 5 years have been nothing if not a demonstration of the dangers that a lack of such healthy scepticism can subject us to — especially the willful non-scepticism that has shaped America’s national security policies. As Gledhill notes, this lack of scepticism is inherent in the project of policy-driven strategising:

It is far from clear to me… whether closed debates within security agencies are more effective than the use of published sources and the more open kinds of dialogues between academics and national security professionals that would allow more sceptical thinking to flourish. The problem is that more public debate allows too much scope for worrying about moral impediments to decisive geopolitical action (such as mass civilian “collateral damage”), opens more space for discussion about how far expert knowledge can actually reliably predict, let alone direct, the future course of events, and empowers dissenting minorities within the security apparatus itself. Secrecy is an effective way of covering up ignorance and doubt…. More open debates tend to expose to greater critical scrutiny the possible premises of national states’ global strategies and the role of different political, commercial and military backstage interests in shaping the behaviour of democratic governments.

Taking a step back, I want to say how thrilled I was to come across the ASA’s Ethics Blog — what a great idea. Done well, this has the potential to far outstrip the AAAs weak online Ethical Currents Case Studies, by providing both an immediate outlet for issues as they arise and, through the use of comments and links (alas, they’re on blogger, so no trackbacks), an excellent forum for debate. I’d like to see more initiative of this sort in our own AAA…

6 thoughts on “But We’re at War…

  1. Whatever happened with the AAA President’s pledge that he was going to appoint a blue ribbon committee to investigate current CIA intrustions in the american anthropology, and if the AAA should run CIA advertisments? I just looked on the AAA’s website and found nothing on this. Does the AAA think this is just going to go away?

  2. Since Felix Moos is chairing this committee the AAA’s approach to this committee seems pretty obvious. We are at war.

  3. I just want to clarify that it was not the AAA (the “institution” or the executive board) that decided to show some political nerve. The resolutions was submitted by two concerned members (one anthropologist and one grad student). Anthropologists concerned enough to attend the business meetings to vote helped to facilitate its passage. This was very much a grassroots effort.

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