Ethics. Research. Community.

After Human Terrain, Will AAA Debate IRBs?

Earlier this month, the American Anthropological Association's Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC) issued its Final Report on The Army's Human Terrain System Proof of Concept Program.

The report argues that the Human Terrain System (HTS) combines scholarly research and military information-gathering in a way that muddles ethical issues:

HTS ethnographers attempt to juggle dual loyalties both to civilian populations and to their military units, under conditions which almost inevitably lead to conflicting demands. Potentially conflicting demands (between serving occupied, studied populations, and serving the needs of the military with whom [Human Terrain Teams] embed) almost necessitates that HTS social scientists choose between multiple interests in ways that stand to undermine basic ethical principles that govern research with human subjects among anthropologists and among government researchers. (52)

Significantly, the report more or less recognizes that the choice of interests could go either way. One possibility would be to bring HTS wholly into the realm of scholarly research, with all of its ethical codes and legal regulations, including IRBs:

If HTS carries out a research function as advertised, and if it encourages its social scientists to use ethical research practices, then it should comply with 32CFR219, regulations issued by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) that address human subjects protection. (47)

Alternatively, the report hints that the real problem is merely a poor choice of words. "We should consider the work of HTTs to be sharply different, in its goals, from conventional disciplinary ethnographic pursuits and not to be 'ethnography' in any credible sense." (54) If HTS were re-branded to avoid the terms "anthropology," "ethnography," and "social science," and instead present itself as a counterinsurgency program pure and simple, then--it seems--CEAUSSIC would not expect it to follow either the AAA ethics codes or the Common Rule. All of this points to the need for clear definitions when discussing ethical and legal obligations.

For the purposes of this blog, a more interesting document is the October 13 blog post, "Why not Mandate Ethics Education for Professional Training of Anthropologists?" by CEAUSSIC member Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban.

Fluehr-Lobban calls for "ethics education as a mandatory part  of anthropology curricula." As she describes it,

A future standard ethics curriculum would minimally include a history of the discipline and ethics– this would help to correct misconstruing history, as has been the case in security engagement polemics where a standard of "voluntary informed consent" is often cited as 'traditional' or normative when, in fact, language on informed consent appears for the first time in the 1998 AAA code.  It would also include case studies representing a realistic spectrum of scenarios and dilemmas where mixed outcomes are the likely norm, and clear positive or negative outcomes are likely exceptions.

But while Fluehr-Lobban seems open to questioning such standards as "informed consent" and to exploring the nuances of real-world research, she is dismissive of comparable discussion of the legitimacy of IRBs:

There is still a tradition of resistance to the annoyance of having to go before an IRB. Part of this history rests with anthropology as the study of "the other," of "subjects," using "informants," whereby the anthropologist is ideally unfettered with unlimited freedom to conduct research. But, clearly, this is not the world we live in. As standard practice, all anthropological research is, or should be, subject to external review.

In other words, Fluehr-Lobban suggests that anyone who doesn't like IRBs wants unlimited freedom to study "the other." This is an insult to the many thoughtful critics who, over the decades, have shown that IRBs and their attendant apparatus can be a barrier to true ethical reflection. It is also an indicator of how entrenched the belief in IRBs has become within the AAA leadership. But has the organization ever really debated whether IRBs are the best way to promote its ethical standards? If not, CEAUSSIC should seize this opportunity for such a discussion within the profession.

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