Global Context

Relationships with Governments and sponsors

Sponsors ¦ Problematic relationships with one's own government


Researchers should seek assurance that they will not be required to compromise their professional and scholarly responsibilities as a condition of being granted research access.

ASA, Ethical Guidelines for Good Research Practice, p.8

Maintaining a positive working relationship with the relevant national or regional government can be important to gain research access and also to optimise the possibility of others being granted access in the future (see local scholars discussion). However, in negotiating research space, it is critically important not to compromise the ethical integrity of the project. In particular, the researcher should not agree to anything that could undermine her/his ability to protect the rights and interests of research participants, or control over data and publication. In cases where a government is considered to be corrupt, such that guarantees may not be reliable, researchers should weigh very carefully the potential benefits of the research against the potential danger to participants.


Ethical conflicts may arise in relation to external sponsors, such as governments or multinational companies. Researchers should be alert to the fact that external sponsors may differ in their motives for conducting research in developing countries. Where the underlying motive is commercial competitiveness – as is likely with a corporate sponsor – there may, for instance, be attempts to place constraints on publication, or dictate terms undermining the principles of participant anonymity and confidentiality.

(See also the ‘Appreciating the situation of academics in developing countries’ discussion.)

Problematic relationships with one’s own government

"My feeling is that anthropologists' primary ethical contract is with the people they study. Their loyalty to their government has to come after their ethical obligation to the people they study.”

Prof. Hugh Gusterson, quoted in ‘If CIA Calls, Should Anthropology Answer?’, September 2006

Anthropologists owe a responsibility to their colleagues around the world and to the discipline as a whole not to use their anthropological role as a cover for clandestine research or activities.

ASA, Ethical Guidelines for Good Research Practice, p.8

Governments have been known to ask the social science community for intelligence information to assist them with foreign policy, including control of indigenous communities and the prosecution of wars. In these contexts governments tend not to be interested in the values of the social scientist, but only in the data they can provide. When social scientists are, in effect, asked to act as spies serious issues of professional ethics and integrity are raised. Such aims are antithetical to those of social science practitioners who are dedicated to open and free inquiry, and who feels an obligation to the people among whom they performs their work. Such a betrayal of the relationship of trust is seen by many as undermining future research possibilities and the reputation of the social science.

In recent times there has been considerable debate in the UK about the setting up of a Research Programme entitled ‘Combating Terrorism by Countering Radicalisation’ to be jointly funded by the ESRC, the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) and the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the UK). See the posts on Counterinsurgency as part of the ASA Globalog Many social scientists, with the Association of Social Anthropologists (ASA) later joined by the British Sociological Association and the Development Studies Association, objected strongly to a number of aspects of this programme, arguing, inter alia, as follows:

  • There was a risk to social scientists working overseas in the areas covered by the programme not only in the present but in the future, once it became known what the programme was about, and particularly its apparent premises about Islam.
  • The programme threatened the reputation of UK social science.
  • The programme placed a huge burden on university ethics committees, which might well not be able to deal with the problematic issues raised.
  • Given the high levels of anxiety produced by the programme, there was a likelihood that it would not attract high quality research bids.

Eventually, the ESRC withdrew the programme and replaced it by another entitled ‘Radicalisation and Violence’.

(See also on her majesty's secret disservice’, 9 February 2007, Jeremy Keenan, at:

In the USA, there is now a CIA-funded programme known as PRISP 1which gives scholarships to postgraduate students, many of them social scientists, who are simultaneously being trained for intelligence work via summer schools. Such students are supposed not to reveal their status to their teachers or classmates (Price 2005). 2

(See 'Exposing the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program: The CIA's Campus Spies', by Dave H. Price at

This is not a new phenomenon. In 1970 Eric Wolf and Joseph G. Jorgensen – as chair and member of the ethics committee of the American Association of Anthropologists – published information revealing that members of the US social science community had been recruited to assist the military in dealing with counterinsurgency in Thailand:

Our examination of the documents available to us pertaining to consultation, research and related activities in Thailand convinces us that anthropologists are being used in large programs of counter-insurgency whose effects should be of grave concern to the Association. These programs comprise efforts at the manipulation of people on a giant scale and intertwine straightforward anthropological research with overt and covert counter-insurgency activities in such a way as to threaten the future of anthropological research in South-East Asia and other parts of the world (AAA Ethics Committee, chaired by Eric Wolf, 1970)

Joseph G. Jorgensen and Eric Wolf, ‘Anthropology on the Warpath’
The New York Review of Books Volume 15, Number 9 ┬ĚNovember 19, 1970

Wolf and Jorgensen pointed out that this was not new, pointing to the “colonial” context of early European anthropology and documenting in some detail, the employment of social scientists by US administrations from the 1950s. They stated that:

… anthropologists were drawn into the network of information gathering and processing; the demand was for their data, not for their values.
…the government is less interested in the economic, social, or political causes of discontent than in techniques of neutralizing individual or collective protest.

They were particularly appalled that, in the Thailand counterinsurgency project, a social science report speculated that “burning the crops” could be an effective means to strengthen reliance on aid and hence compliance.

Wolf and Jorgensen also document the inducements used to encourage reluctant social scientists to collaborate with the military in terms of: “increased salaries, congenial companionship, "interesting problems like existence of Thai communists"; professional opportunities and prestige …” and envisaging “… the development of administrative anthropologists who, on the British and French design, would become advisers to Empire.” They concluded:

Admittedly, anthropology was ambiguously conceived. Now, in our view, it must disengage itself from its connection with colonial aims or it will become intellectually trivial. The future of anthropology, its credibility, depends upon sustaining the dialectic between knowledge and experience. Anthropologists must be willing to testify in behalf of the oppressed peoples of the world …


1 Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program: see

2 Price, David, 2005. ‘Exposing the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program: the CIA’s campus spies’ Counterpunch March 12/13 (




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