Tag Archives: Funding

Human Terrain in Oaxaca

Con Oaxaca, por Brad Will

Image by Libertinus via Flickr

For the past several years, my research has led me further and further into the world of counterinsurgency, military anthropology, human terrain, and other aspects of a military regime of knowledge. What concerns me, most of all, is the way that knowledge generated by social scientists can be used (and, if the past is any indication, will be used) to the disadvantage of the people on, from, and with whom anthropologists and other social scientists generate that knowledge.

This issue is hardly limited to anthropologists, though we have traditionally held a kind of loose monopoly on the world’s most vulnerable peoples. Nowadays, social scientists of every stripe traipse through the same terrain anthropologists once considered their own – and we, of course, have no problem returning the favor.

So when a friend forwarded me a story about geographers in Oaxaca mapping the “cultural terrain”, my disciplinary ears perked up. At issue are many of the same issues at play in debates over anthropologists’ and others’ involvement with HTS in Iraq and Afghanistan, although in many ways I find the situation I’m about to describe more frightening still, as it presages wars or conflicts as yet unfought – even counterinsurgencies to insurgencies yet to surge. Continue reading

Justify Your Worth

The New York Times reports that the humanities are feeling the pinch of budget cutbacks at universities:

With additional painful cuts across the board a near certainty even as millions of federal stimulus dollars may be funneled to education, the humanities are under greater pressure than ever to justify their existence to administrators, policy makers, students and parents

But it isn’t just the humanities. Anthropology is hurting as well.

These are uncertain days at Florida State University’s anthropology department.

University officials have told Glen Doran, chairman of the department, to not accept any new graduate students for the 2009-10 school year.

This has prompted rumors that the anthropology department – it has 120 undergraduate students, 35 active grad students and another 30 in various stages of finishing their degrees – may be on the chopping block when FSU is forced to make painful cuts following the upcoming legislative session.

I was sympathetic to this story, and even joined the Facebook group they set up to defend the department, but I was very concerned by this quote:

Anthropology plays a vital role in today’s geopolitical world, Ward said. The military recruited anthropologists to help it better understand and communicate with people in Afghanistan, she noted.

If we are going to have to start advertising HTS as a justification for Anthropology’s continued existence, maybe we should join the French and eliminate the discipline altogether.

ARC seeks passengers and drivers

One of my various projects is looking for new blood: the Anthropology of the Contemporary Research Collaboratory is looking for people to help with the management of the project. As a collaboratory, it’s intended to be an umbrella for different kinds of research projects that work together on problems and concepts in a loosely defined, geographically and academically dispersed way. The current research has settled into two major research projects. The first is a project on critical infrastructure protection or “Vital Systems Security” organized by Andy Lakoff and Stephen Collier. The other is a project on the ethics and politics of synthetic biology and nanotechnology that includes myself, Gaymon Bennett and Paul Rabinow.

We use a simple WordPress installation to coordinate our research, and much of the discussion over the years has been about how to improve the specifically academic modes of interaction we are accustomed to (i.e. email and sharing documents for review and critique) to take advantage of new software tools and new kinds of research, much of which is frequently discussed here. Right now, I’m the main “technical” person, but I’m looking for people (especially graduate students) who might want to participate in this project and help make the tools more effective, figure out how to manage a collaboratory (i.e. herd cats), or contribute to these research projects or even start a new one. This potentially includes one or more paid positions, but that depends on how much work required or desired. If anyone is interested in participating at any level, please contact me (ckelty at rice dot edu)

AAA Conference Call on Minerva

(Update 2008-07-18 8:28 PT): This is apparently a “media release” not a “member release” meaning that the conference call is for members of the media (which is why SM, via Strong, received it). I guess that means that all you members planning on participating better beg off, unless you are members of the media as well, as those of us at the elite Savage Minds Headquarters are. But seriously, don’t call in and grief. Give the AAA and Dr. Low your attention and your respect if you do.

Strong forwarded this email yesterday on an AAA to discuss ethical and intellectual standards for Project Minerva. Imagining the variety of perspectives and disagreements (and as Culture Matters points out, people may be calling in from different time zones around the world), a conference call seems like a pretty difficult medium to handle so many people waiting to speak. Should the moderator allow for questions that is.

Anthropologists Critique Pentagon’s ‘Minerva’
Conference Call July 31, 2-3 pm

For Immediate Release:
July 16, 2008

Anthropologists have a long and, at times, troubled history of working with the military during times of conflict—from World War II to the present-day war on terror.

Recent controversies surrounding the Pentagon’s Human Terrain System, a $40 million program that embeds cultural advisors in combat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan, have spilled over into new anxieties surrounding the Pentagon’s ‘Minerva’ program, a Defense Department
initiative to fund social science and humanities research in Pentagon-designated national security-related areas, including terrorism, religious fundamentalism and Chinese military and

Following a speech on April 14 by Defense Secretary Robert M Gates announcing his vision for Minerva, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) issued a letter from its president to address some concerns about the program. The letter called for a redirection of program management to external organizations that have extensive experience in peer-review and are familiar with the ethical standards and concerns of the anthropology discipline.

Continue reading

Research Funding 2.0?

Recently Kevin Kelly wrote a thought provoking post about how artists might function in the internet age.

A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.

The problem I had with his post is the word “only.” Having relied heavily on internet fundraising to produce a documentary film I know how much work goes into getting just a few hundred donations. A recent Savage Minds poll, which involved nothing more than clicking a button, was only able to garner 400 clicks from our own true fans. Kevin Kelly later posted a letter from musician Robert Rich, making a similar point, saying that

In reality the life of a “microcelebrity” resembles more the fate of Sisyphus, whose boulder rolls back down the mountain every time he reaches the summit.

If it is that difficult for a musician or a filmmaker to secure the patronage of 1,000 true fans on the internet, what is the anthropologist to do? Is it possible to even talk about bypassing traditional research institutions and appealing directly to the internet to support our projects? I think so.

We may not be able to live off of it, but it seems to me that small scale research projects which have a strong element of public interest should be able to secure funding in this way. Just look at the success of DonorsChoose, a charity which funds projects proposed by elementary school teachers. Only projects which are able to reach their fundraising goals get funded. Otherwise you can reassign your money to another project.

Anastasia Hudgins, a lecturer and former classmate at Temple University’s department of anthropology is trying to do something similar for her summer research project. She and two undergraduate students are trying to raise $4,000 in the next two weeks to fund a research trip to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She wants to followup on earlier research with Cambodian sex workers, to see how they have been impacted by recent laws outlawing prostitution. Like DonorsChoose, you only pay if enough people agree to fund the project before the May 15th deadline.

My personal experience tells me that this is a lot of money to raise in a short amount of time, but I’m curious to see if this works – and if it doesn’t I get to keep my $20. I can envision a DonorsChoose like site dedicated to anthropological research, where people can request small grants to replace a broken camera, buy a plane ticket, hire a translator, etc. After all, if we don’t want to depend on the military to fund our research, we need to find something better!

Anthropology Research Patches?

Geographer Kris Olds has a great blog on Global Higher Education where, in a recent post, he points out that 50% of the US Federal Government’s R&D budget goes to Department of Defense’s research programs “dwarfing agencies like the National Science Foundation (which gets a mere 4%).”

Military patches

But, as the New York Times notes, drawing upon Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments data, an increasing proportion of this is classified (hence the “black budget” moniker). Paglen’s research has delved into aspects of the research cultures associated with the highly secretive defense establishment via the use of graphic representations, especially patches (badges).

The patches analyzed in his new book titled I Could Tell You But Then You Would Have to be Destroyed by Me: Emblems from the Pentagon’s Black World are worth examining, for they convey information about the practices associated with building research team cultures in a key segment of US federal government-sponsored R&D. They are also, if you watch the Colbert Report interview, seriously surreal. I must admit never having seen patches created by non-defense scientists.

The NY Times article also has a slideshow about the patches.

I’ll be sure to add patches to the budget of my next grant proposal! I’ve already picked out the patch for the Taiwan research team!

Responses to comments on cross-disciplinary dimensions of IRB engagement

This is a response to the first five comments on my last post. These concerned a series of interconnected issues relating to the cross-disciplinary dimensions of IRB engagement:(please disregard the strange font size changes below, which aren’t intentional…) [I’ve removed some of the cruftier html to remove the weirdo fonts -Rex]:

#1 on sociocultural anthropology and ethnographic sociology: I strongly recommend Rosalie Wax’s book Doing Fieldwork (U Chicago 1971, reissued around 1986, and still available on Amazon or your college library). It’s a memoir of fieldwork, and contains a wonderful capsule history that moves between conventional anthropological and sociological sources. Park is an important part of the story, but before that (among other folks) Beatrice and Stanley Webb were working in London, contemporary with Boas and part of Malinowski’s environment. Just in U.S. anthropology, it’s my sense that the various subfields and theoretical styles are unevenly aware of ethnographic sociology (that is, we’re not all equally ignorant!).

I agree that there is a lack of reference to qualitative sociology in the recent generation’s revaluation of work “at home”. But anthropologists have always worked at home; indeed, working at home is cheaper (it doesn’t necessitate securing a research fellowship or grant) and was therefore always common. What has happened over the past generation is that working at home has become not only expedient but also sexy. So one question is: what was the relationship between ethnographic sociology and the long tradition of home style anthropology? Lots of other questions certainly (e.g., for example, how is the anthropology/sociology relationship managed in joint departments?)!

#2 on multidisciplinary projects and IRBs: How IRBs handle multidisciplinary projects is an interesting question. I haven’t seen much commentary in the gargantuan IRB literature on this: so, any stories folks? Tom—do you want to describe the HIV study with respect to IRB approval?

In any case, I very much agree that it’s important to improve our understanding of disciplinary differences: much of my work has focused on this (as my own AE paper suggests). I’ve been particularly interested in the partial connections—the reticulum of similarities and differences—among closely related disciplines like those I sketched (e.g., p 483, 484-5, and esp. 485-6) in that essay.

For example, the IRB literature—definitely including that written by folks who are critical of IRB “mission creep”—is full of generalized references to the problems “qualitative” researchers face when their work is evaluated by IRBs. While it is true that there are significant differences between qualitative and quantitative researchers, this distinction doesn’t begin to address the problems of cross-disciplinary communication between researchers and IRBs (and among IRB members). Consider that thoroughly quantitative survey researchers and thoroughly qualitative, interpretive anthropologists both approach potential informants on the latter’s home ground (where consent forms aren’t the most effective ways to ensure informant consent, where informants have considerable power to stop participating); in contrast, oral historians and interpretive anthropologists—both qualitative—have very different conventions with respect to confidentiality!

#3 on inconsistencies and a sneaky plan to heighten the contradictions:  John McCreery raises an excellent question.  It would be nice if consistency ruled: all researchers should face the same constraints, but they don’t. The irony here is that consistency is one of the core values of bureaucratic ethics management.  Consistency is a recurrent refrain on many local IRBs (“…well, if we allow you guys to do away with written informed consent, then we’d have to allow everyone to…”) and it is a key theme at the national level as well.

Ironies aside, as I understand it, there’s an important, fatal flaw in your deliciously sneaky consistency argument:  market researchers don’t depend on federal funds to do their work.

Strictly speaking, IRB oversight is only required for institutions (like most universities and colleges) that accept federal research funds.  The federal human subject protections regulations (45 Code of Federal Regulations, Pt. 46) were nicknamed “the Common Rule” in 1991 when 17 federal agencies (like NIH) that fund human subjects research all signed on.  Rick Shweder’s contribution to our November 2006 American Ethnologist Forum explains that universities and other institutions that accept federal research funds cannot get those funds unless they sign an “assurance” with the relevant funding agencies, or a general Federal Wide Assurance (FWA): documents that obligate them to have one or more local IRBs to review their employees’ research proposals.    

Now, as Shweder’s article also explains, university and college IRBs only need to promise to review federally funded research.  However, it seems that most of our institutions have gone beyond this minimum requirement and have checked a box on the FWA form that obligates them to review all research, not just federally funded research!  (Folks all over the place are looking in to this situation at their institutions: I recommend that you make friends with someone in your institution’s counsel’s office and look in to it too!)  In any case, over the past five or six years of IRB “hypervigilance” (the situation that prompted the AE Forum) boards have been jittery and have tended to review all research regardless of how it is funded, regardless of whether their FWA obligates them to do so or not.    

Responding to John’s question about the existence of guidelines parallel to those on which IRBs are founded: I can think of one that, while still being at least partially academic, is interesting nonetheless.  Check out the National Academy of Sciences “On Being a Scientist” booklet (available online at http://bob.nap.edu/readingroom/books/obas/ ), which concerns science research ethics very generally.  This is another example of the inconsistencies mentioned above:  unlike the IRB oversight of research with human participants, these general (mostly non-human participant research) guidelines are completely voluntary even tho the research is very likely to be federally funded!
#4  on the roots of the IRB problems in disciplinary ‘cultures of research’:  Another terrific question!  My responses to other folks’ questions contain bits and pieces of an answer to this one (as does my AE Forum paper).  But a fuller response would be the paper I mention in my comment on #5 (below).  My contribution to the Cornell conference was a paper entitled “Comparative ‘Research’: A Modest Proposal Concerning the Regulatory Object” (which I’ll be ready to make available in a few weeks).  In my view, the problems go way, way beyond the IRB context and derive exactly from the “cultures of research” of which IRB members and the rest of us are part.  My own long-term research has been all about disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity—that is, engagements like those cross-disciplinary discussions concerning methodology you mention.  As I explained in my AE paper, IRB discourse is just one of my “fieldsites” (which include other places in which disciplinary practitioners bump up against one another, as well as fractious intra-disciplinary moments of ethical crisis).  But it’s a fieldsite in which everyone is implicated and consequently of great interest.  My AE paper unpacks the Common Rule “definition of research” a bit; and it also begins to address exactly the issues you identify concerning how ethnographic fieldwork is understood by folks from other disciplines (and vice versa).  Check it out.  
#5 on the relationship between IRB and intellectual property issues:  If Michael Brown is still out there, what do you think about the relationship between IRB surveillance and the management of intellectual property contradictions? 

Different institutional mechanisms are at play with respect to intellectual property and IRB controversies.  For one thing, the IRB system exists outside of (or prior to) legal mechanisms for dealing with accusations about misrepresentation (libel laws), privacy, and the like.  This is a huge issue: several of us refer to it in the AE Forum (and anyone interested in following this might also check out http://irbinfo.blogspot.com/ and follow references to Hamburger’s Supreme Court Review paper).  In a paper that I wrote for a Cornell Law School-hosted conference on “Bureaucracies of Virtue”, I suggested that we’d be better off (and our informants no worse off) if our work were held to account in the same ways that the work of journalists and other writers are.  As I understand the current situation, IRB reviews do not protect us or our institutions from lawsuits (that is, whether or not consent forms are involved, IRB reviews don’t prevent our interlocutors from suing us).  As things stand, many critics see IRB reviews as constituting censorship-like prior review (arguably a kind of “prior restraint”, something that the First Amendment protects against).                

Realities of NSF Funding

I’ve been reading more about this bill (and the bill itself S. 2802), and it appears that the Bill as it stands does not explicitly exclude funding for social, behavioral or economic sciences. It does however, set priorities for funding in physical sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics. Two things are significant about this: the first is that this list also excludes biological sciences (although a later sentence lists “physical and natural” sciences–but the NSF doesn’t currently organize itself that way). Given that the funding breakdown at NSF is usually that Phyiscal science gets twice as much as Bio and Computer sciences, and usually about 10 times as much as SBE, it would seem that these priorities are already being met. I cannot imagine that such a bill would survive without being amended either to avoid micro-managing priorities, or at the very least, to include the biosciences and (maybe? at least?) economics as priorities as well.

The other significant thing is that the realities of funding at the NSF are never easily restricted by the actions of congress. Anyone who has applied for a large NSF grant in the social sciences in the last 4 years has encountered the “Human and Social Dynamics Program”–which is the NSF’s largest social science initiative ever, and explicitly promotes interdisciplinary work between scientists, engineers and social scientists. What this means to me is that a bill like S. 2802 probably provides the NSF with yet more incentive to create more programs like this, and to fund less “basic” research, especially in SBE, but probably across the board. This is, increasingly, what the NSF is expected to do: encourage scientists and engineers to move their science in the directions indicated by the taxpayers and their representatives. If there is no call, from any quarter of society besides that of the researchers, for continued research on neo-liberalism: THE AWAKENING, or on primate behavior under conditions of extreme scarcity of funding, or on anomalous Igbo fricatives, then the NSF has absolutely no mandate to fund it (I would note, however, that this is not what the NSF was originally designed to do, which was in fact to fund basic science and let corporate america sort it out later in “development”–but times have changed…). So, half empty glass = yes, NSF funding of anthropology is imperiled (has it ever not been?); meanwhile half full glass = those of you anthropologists willing to do interesting research on things that are prioritized by the NSF (like, for instance, “Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems” or “Human and Social Dynamics“) may well still find plenty of funding there.