Something has been bothering anthropology professor John Borneman lately.
He is concerned that, as the Defense Department steps up efforts to make strategic use of anthropologists during military conflicts, his discipline may lose the capacity for independence and objective research it requires in order to survive.
"Could this be the end of anthropology as we know it?" he asked.
Though Borneman's fear may seem far-fetched, he's not the only one worried. In September, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates authorized a $40 million expansion of the Human Terrain System (HTS), a program that uses anthropologists to help train soldiers to engage properly with Iraqi and Afghani citizens.
The program's growth has sparked an uproar among academic anthropologists, who are concerned that it violates the ethical code of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), which released a cautionary statement about HTS in October. The controversy has also fueled debate about whether the AAA's ethical code is binding on all anthropologists.
That code, Borneman said, encourages an interactive rather than an extractive relationship between anthropologists and the people they study. This means having conversations in non-coercive conditions, avoiding harm or deception and forming mutually respectful relationships with subjects.
"The military wants anthropologists desperately because everything else they have done has failed, and they think we have knowledge they don't," Borneman said. "As the military tries to recruit more and more anthropologists, this issue will become more and more contentious."
Borneman, who has done field work in Syria, Lebanon and other politically volatile places, added that many anthropologists are concerned about the potential dangers of helping to collect sensitive information for the Pentagon. Additionally, they worry about how involvement with the military might damage the credibility of anthropological research and fieldwork.
But anthropology professor Lawrence Rosen said he is concerned by some scholars' proposed solution to such concerns — including the possible expulsion of AAA members who do work for security, intelligence or military agencies. "Codes of ethics are good for establishing a collective sense of acceptable conduct," he said, "but very bad in the case of anthropology if they are enforced."
Anthropology professor Rena Lederman agreed that codes like the AAA's are not binding rules for the field. "Ethics codes in anthropology, sociology and many other such disciplines are statements of principles, drafted and redrafted over the years in a collaborative process," she said.
Rosen added that he worries some anthropologists "let their personal politics get in the way" when they deem anthropological work for the U.S. military to be unethical. Anthropologists cannot "draw a line between legitimate and illegitimate employers," he added. "The best you can do is try to be transparent and put your work out there."
Lederman said the problem occurs when anthropological data is classified and inaccessible — whether it is the military or another institution demanding such secrecy. "There are many anthropologists who work for corporations that 'own' their employees' work and whose work is also not accessible," she said. "So that particular problem is wider than just the military situation."
This is not the first time anthropologists' collaboration with the U.S. military during war efforts has caused tension.
Soon after World War I, Columbia anthropologist Franz Boas published a letter accusing four American anthropologists of working for the U.S. military as spies in Latin America. At the time, the AAA condemned Boas' statement as endangering the credibility of all anthropological research and fieldwork, and the group subsequently censured him.
During the Vietnam War, the AAA again became mired in controversy, when evidence surfaced in the office of UCLA researcher Michael Moerman that several anthropologists had been involved in the war effort.
Rosen — who was present at the 1971 AAA meeting where the Moerman case was addressed by a committee led by anthropologist Margaret Mead — said he was troubled by how Moerman's colleagues treated him.
Though it was determined that the accused had done nothing wrong, Rosen said, "they treated Moerman like dirt. It was an outrage."
Borneman and Lederman attended the AAA's annual meeting last week in Washington, but Rosen chose not to attend, partly because he did not want to see his fellow anthropologists behave the way they did 36 years ago.
"The discipline got stung in Vietman," Rosen said. "Maybe it will remember."