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  • Practicing Ethics and Ethical Practice:The Case of Anthropologists and Military Humanitarians
  • Dena Plemmons (bio) and Robert Albro (bio)

In recent years the discipline of anthropology has given considerable attention to making sense of outreach by the U.S. military to assist with the "softer" side of its current global missions, which includes many humanitarian features. Significant disciplinary ambivalence and subsequent discussion about this invitation have focused attention on the ethical implications of working in or for secretive security agencies.1 These agencies have been taken to represent values antithetical to the anthropological project.

However, for this essay we point to the irreducibility of both secrecy and transparency in ethnographic work with counterparts "in the field."2 We focus, in particular, on the social embeddedness of the work of anthropology as a characteristic shared with humanitarian intervention. We also develop an account of disciplinary practice and sources of knowledge as fundamentally collaborative with counterparts. In fact, these collaborative relations are constitutive of anthropological projects. For these reasons, we highlight a disciplinary ethics not as representing any "core values" but as necessarily in close proximity to disciplinary practice, and as regularly provoking new dilemmas. As such, emergent military humanitarian work should not be placed between ethical brackets as a special case of "state secrecy" but instead be understood as posing constructive dilemmas about new tensions between transparency and secrecy as these relate to emerging horizons and future applications of disciplinary practice.

Ethics and Human Subjects

When it entered office, President Barack Obama's administration emphasized a "new era of responsibility."3 At the same time, and in an unprecedented development, MBAs at business schools instituted an oath upon graduation to pursue a higher standard of social responsibility, as opposed to their own "narrow ambitions."4 These are but two cases of a public turn to the language of ethics, which stands out against a backdrop of spectacular recent ethics crises, such as Abu Ghraib, the financial meltdown, the BP oil spill, and Wikileaks. These crises involved such diverse actors as the U.S. military, the National Institutes of Health, UNESCO, the Vatican, and corporations such as Enron. Commitments to increased transparency in government and more ethical professional conduct in war, business, or religion point to the extent to which the discourse of ethics has become a primary contemporary mode of public reasoning about social responsibility, and this includes the sciences.5

In recent years, government and watchdog groups have increased their public scrutiny of the ethics of science and the ethical conduct of scientists.6 Part of the turn [End Page 179] to the ethical language of social responsibility has been the ascent in public discourse of the "rhetoric of transparency," with transparency viewed as an "unassailable good" in answer to a host of perceived social and political challenges.7 In the past three years, multiple professional social scientific associations in the United States—representing psychology, geography, linguistics, anthropology, and economics—have all revised their disciplinary ethics codes or begun to draft one. In most cases this process was kick-started in response to perceived ethical lacunae, lack of oversight, and transparency, in association with more extensive applications of the social sciences in the interest of national security since 9/11.

Particular anxiety has accompanied emerging ethical borderlands resulting from new arrangements between researchers and research subjects. These borderlands have often arisen in relation to applications of novel techniques or technologies for research. New problems of privacy, surveillance, and sovereignty posed by the use of geographic information system (GIS) technologies spurred ethical discussion among geographers about their appropriate use; and ethical conversations among bioethicists were stirred by the implications of new nanotechnologies for privacy and social equity; likewise new data-mining computational tools have provoked active conversation among computer scientists about the status of online personal information, anonymization of data, and privacy.8 With the prodigious growth of post-9/11 "top-secret America," the application of ethics to privacy is being reconsidered and reconfigured, in connection with the evolving relationship of privacy to personhood in deepening contexts of security. These ongoing discussions, in other words, are transforming conceptions of privacy even as they are reconfirming its ethical importance.9



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pp. 179-197
Launched on MUSE
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