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Anthropology Association Moves Toward Adopting Ethical Rules on Military Engagement

November 21, 2008

San Francisco — A longstanding debate over ethical rules for anthropologists who work with the U.S. military continued this week here at the annual conference of the American Anthropological Association. But in a signal that tensions over the issue have cooled somewhat, the association is moving toward adopting common guidelines on military engagement in the next several weeks.

Those guidelines, which would involve changes in the organization’s code of ethics, are a response to concerns about the roles of social scientists in several military and intelligence programs. The proposal says that anthropologists must be “honest and transparent with all stakeholders about the nature and intent of their research,” and it bans anthropologists from conducting clandestine research.

At the organization’s business meeting here on Thursday, no motion was introduced to attempt to change the proposed new language for the ethics rules on military engagement, and the organization’s full membership is set to vote on them, via e-mail, early next month. The new rules are likely to be approved, according to David H. Price, an associate professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University, in Washington, who was involved in discussions about the new language.

The process to revise the ethics code began after last year’s meeting, when members approved a resolution that recommended restoring the group’s Vietnam-era ethics rules against “secret research or any research whose results cannot be freely derived and publicly reported.” The language of that resolution was more strict than some of the changes now being considered.

But Terence Turner, a professor emeritus at Cornell University who was the author of last year’s resolution, said he would support the new language, despite some reservations. On Thursday, members narrowly rejected a new resolution from Mr. Turner that would have recommended the removal of some language during a future revision of the ethics code.

The discussion of the proper relationship of anthropologists and the military still attracted some spirited debate, both in sessions relating to the issue and during the business meeting. Gerald M. Sider, a professor of anthropology at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, said at the business meeting that the process of establishing new ethical rules was too slow given the activities of the U.S. military.

“To take two years to debate an ethics proposal while people are being butchered … strikes me as terrifying,” Mr. Sider said.

In other news from the meeting:

Members voted to take steps to make the annual meeting more environmentally friendly, including setting the goal of making the conference carbon-neutral as soon as existing contracts would allow, possibly within four or five years. The Network of Concerned Anthropologists submitted a letter with more than 1,000 signatures that says anthropologists should not participate in activities that support the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. The letter will be sent to top Congressional and administration officials.—Josh Keller