Blog Post

On the Ethics of Employment

In its March 2013 issue, The Atlantic ran a tersely titled article, “Anthropology, Inc.”  The author, Graeme Wood, spoke about a market research company (ReD) that was hiring anthropology PhDs to use their training in social science field work to dreg up data closer to home—in fact, in the home itself.  In the first, attention-grabbing example, ReD employees “fanned out” to observe the human animal at cocktail parties, etc., and report their findings back to their managers, who would then process the data for their corporate clients. 

The article has received a lot of attention, mainly from two groups.  First, people latching on to any reason to make fun of academics (indeed, there is a decidedly anti-intellectual, anti-academic tone to the whole article).  When you come to think of it academics come off worse than their ReD masters—these poor ex-grad students groveling at the heels of their bosses, perhaps naively telling themselves they have added a bit of sophistication and seriousness to an otherwise tawdry enterprise.  The ReD folks just seem to be doing what our image of market-researchers do.  The author in fact, somewhere near midpoint, notes that this sort of stuff has been going on for decades.  So what’s the big deal?  The big deal is that in today’s academic non-job market, more and more PhDs are finding that gigs like this are their last resort, or nearly so.

That leads me to the second group and its reaction.  In two words—horror and disdain.  This came a lot from members of the mostly senior professoriate who were deeply chagrined that their/our profession was being sullied by these pathetic prostitutes.  Did they have no scruples?  How dare they descrecate the sacred oath of…. Here is where I draw a blank. <--break->

While I personally find the practice described in the article to be distasteful, why is it unethical?  From what I read, despite the author's saying that the ReD employees "insinuated" themselves into the parties, as the article progresses it is clear that ReD actually both informs and pays the "subject" households (if we are certain the parties were spied on then I would surely object, but the article "insinuates" rather loosely itself—it never says whether or not the party hosts knew they were being observed).  But in the clear case of the households that were duly informed and paid, what line was crossed?  Since this is not academic research supported by a university, how are the interviewers engaged in unethical practices, since a human subjects protocol is not required?  Reading through the article for some time, I finally hit upon a reasonable assertion, from San Jose State’s Roberto González, who argues that: “those who don’t follow the American Anthropological Association’s code of ethics should no longer be considered anthropologists at all.”  That is the key point, and an obvious one at that—these are not anthropologists—they are free agents with no academic affiliations using their training in a different context.  So why act as if they are?  Isn't this whole thing a red herring?

This to me does not rise to the level of the kinds of things Charles Schwartz, a professor of physics at Berkeley, pointed out in the 70s—how university-employed physicists needed to reflect on how their research was deployed in war.  And let's remember that the FLAS used to be called NDFL—a part of the federal funding for National Defense.  Many grads then went on to work for intelligence agencies like the CIA.  Should we worry about that, and return those funds?

I once spoke to a very successful corporate lawyer who happened to also have a PhD in anthropology.  She told a story about how she used her training in anthropology to her advantage in law.  Once a colleague in her firm suspected she had seen a confidential document because of certain analyses she put forward, when in fact she had simply observed the client meeting carefully and could read the intent and values of the participants.  Should she have disclosed?

I came to be interested in the issue of giving our humanities PhDs the widest set of options possible, while maintaining the rigor and nature of our degree programs, largely because as graduate placement officer I was deeply concerned about the intense pain and anxiety our grads on the market face.  I have had a few break down in tears in my office, expressing the feeling that they are utter failures and disappointments, simply because they have not obtained a tenure-track position. I also see the immense struggle of others who ended up trying simply to be employed, period.  It is all too easy for those of us nicely settled in tenured positions and home mortgages (or indeed, homes) to disdain "business."  I would love it if ethically-pure companies, let alone ethically-pure colleges and universities, abounded with jobs.  But that is not the case.  And in any case when "we" came up, the job market was significantly different.  We were thankfully not in the midst of a global economic recession of a magnitude unheard of since the Great Depression, our students are.

Even in relatively good economic times, the emotional and financial cost of graduate school is enormous.  In the 70s and 80s the history department at Berkeley placed an interesting addendum to their application materials. It was a brief statement that posted not only placement statistics, but also rates of divorce for graduate students while in their program. The department made it very clear the obstacles, downsides, as well as the potential rewards, of its PhD program.  I suggest our graduate programs today do the same.  It would seem to be the ethical thing to do.  If, on the other hand, we do not wish to be paternalistic, and prefer to let our students make the life choices they want, then we should not wring our hands when an anthro PhD goes into marketing, a Russian grad works for the CIA, or an English major goes into corporate law, each and every one using the training we provide to do things we would not imagine ourselves doing.

At last year's graduation ceremony the undergraduate program I now direct invited two highly successful grads to speak.  One was an Asian American female who had gone to law school and used that training to work on issues of public education, was eventually elected to the SF School Board, and now serves on the SF Board of Supervisors.  Clear-cut, ethically pure case, right?  The other speaker's case was much less clear.  She is the diversity officer for a widely-despised investment bank.  I masked my disappointment and actual distaste, but that stance of distaste gradually became harder to maintain.  She told of her first visit to Stanford during admit week.  Her parents could not attend, but only drop her off, because they were migrant workers and had a contract to harvest strawberries in the Central Valley.  All her life she had accompanied them and worked side-by-side. This time she couldn't.  She spoke of how much a Stanford education meant to her and her family, that simply being in college was a miracle in their eyes.  Ok, that seems completely understandable, and when she began to weep those were real tears.  But then, why work for this particularly vile firm?  For her, it was entry-level.  No training at all.  But soon her eloquence, intelligence, and passion for diversity became evident. And she speaks of her work as using her Stanford education to pave the way for minorities—who cannot attend Stanford, or any such university—to get a good job.  Now I assure you my skepticism was and is still intact—why advance the cause of this company?  But I find it impossible to say that she is doing something unethical.

This is all to say that I hope we can keep an open mind regarding the general idea of humanists finding jobs in places other than NGOs, non-profits, schools.  I have no doubt that the vast majority of our students would want employment in such work, and I hope they find it.  But, failing that, I would hope we could do everything we can to give them other options and be happy when they find something they find valuable.

David Palumbo-Liu's picture
David Palumbo-Liu is professor of comparative literature at Stanford.  His most recent publications include a volume on world-systems analysis co-edited with Bruce Robbins and Nirvana Tanoukhi entitled Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World" System, Scale, Culture (Duke University Press, 2011), and The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age (also from Duke).  He is the founding editor of Occasion: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, which is housed here on Arcade.