The anthropologist always wins

Robert Albro wrote this short comment on ‘Anthropology and the military-AFRICOM, ‘culture’ and future of Human Terrain Analysis’ which summarises key debates on whether and how anthropologists should get involved in the military. I fully agree with his key argument that was produced for a report for the Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities (American Anthropological Association) (CEAUSSIC) (which sounds itself a bit like military jargon):
'When ethnographic investigation is determined by military missions, not subject to external review, where data collection occurs in the context of war, integrated into the goals of counterinsurgency, and in a potentially coercive environment – all characteristic factors of the HTS concept and its application – it can no longer be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology.'
But the real elephant in the room is less about the ethics of getting involved with the military, but the fact that most anthropologists would find it hard to resist such an offer-because the anthropologists usually ‘wins’ anyway. Imagine a large organisation or company gets in touch with you and offers you access to something unique-and you would get a fully paid fieldwork gig, too! An oil company, or maybe mining company, or bilateral aid donor-or the military asks you to get involved in a time of budget constraints, laborious grant applications and fierce competition for (permanent) jobs, publications and ethnographic kudos. Usually the risk of this involvement is small-because the anthropologist always wins! There are two scenarios: You do some research and consulting, it works well and you can write at least two articles or maybe even a book about your interesting time in this organisation. You add a paragraph/chapter on how your engagement was so new and groundbreaking that it stretched the boundaries of ‘ethical research’ etc. No problem, more research needs to be done, critical replies from colleagues can be published, too and there is always the chance of organising a conference around this new theme and then work on a large grant application. Win! In the second scenario things do not go as smoothly; maybe the organisation is not as keen on critical input as you thought or a key person is leaving the organisation etc. But nonetheless you will be a winner! Because you are part of the new generation of anthropologists who are self-critical, reflective and reflexive, meaning: Things go wrong, you pull out – and you can still publish two articles, maybe even a book and depending on your phrasing you may be able to get bigger kudos: That story of how the evil corporate giant ‘kicked you out’ because you were too critical and smart will be part of your seminars for the next years. Another win!
Maybe this is a bit too cynical, but my point is that debates about ‘research ethics’ need to take practical, professional issues into consideration as well. Given the increased number of graduate students, the ‘globalisation’ of research sites and anthropology’s great strength of stretching the boundaries of a profession further, we should be open about the (research) ‘sex appeal’ of engaging with forbidden fruits, i.e. organisations that are difficult to research and may have very different objectives from what most anthropologists believe is ‘right’; especially in peace and conflict research/situations the ‘shadows’ (cf. Carolyn Nordstrom) are often the most interesting, but also most questionable organisations, but somehow the anthropologists always wins, doesn’t s/he?


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