APLA at AAA 2017: Beyond Snowden

The Anthropology of Whistleblowing

Photo by Katy Blackwood. A Chelsea Manning themed flag in the parade at Pride in London 2016. CC BY-SA 4.0. Photo cropped for display on this website’s homepage.

Friday, December 1, 2017
2:00 PM – 3:45 PM
Location: Omni/Governors Room

Whistleblowing, exposing confidential, secret or illegal practices in firms, organizations and public authorities, has been viewed as a heroic act on the part of individuals who risk their jobs and even legal prosecution to expose their employers. Seen from the organization’s perspective, the whistleblower is a disloyal employee, who should have gone through proper channels to reveal ethical or legal shortcomings instead of going public. Since employees in modern workplaces are now more flexible and less loyal, since we are encouraged to promote greater transparency and disclosure in all aspects of business and government administration, and with social media exposure a few clicks away, the potential and risks posed by whistleblowers have increased exponentially. Faced with the whistleblowing threat and pressure to institutionalize whistleblowing procedures, firms, organizations and governments can choose to become more transparent, but they can also retaliate against whistleblowers with legal measures or worse. NGOs and government agencies can now also offer whistleblowers legal support against retaliation or even financial rewards. In an era of secrecy and surveillance, of disclosure and exposure, the era of Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Wikileaks and the Panama Papers, this panel proposes an anthropology of whistleblowing. Who are the whistleblowers and what new kinds of social relations and subjectivities is whistleblowing creating? How is whistleblowing being enacted in policy and practice and with what effects? What are the wider legal, political and institutional implications of whistleblowing? Papers will deal withistleblowing policies, practices, discourses, implications and scandals, including retaliation, protection, and organizational disloyalty.

Organizers: Steven Sampson (Lund University) and Cris Shore (University of Auckland)

Chair: Steven Sampson (Lund University)

Discussants: Cris Shore (University of Auckland), Brian McKenna (University of Michigan, Dearborn)


The Duty to Report: Organizing for “whistleblowing” within the Swedish Social Services

Renita Thedvall, Stockholm University

Legal protection for whistleblowing varies from country to country. In Sweden, whistleblower protection is part of the Public Access to Information and Secrecy Act, which gives public sector employees the right to inform and make official whatever without fear of retaliation from their employer providing it is for media publication. Exceptions to this right exist, of course, and they cover national security or data regarding individuals, delimited by what is called ‘professional secrecy’. Within the social welfare services, which is the focus of this paper, professional secrecy is strong and there are few examples where whistleblowing could be performed within the boundaries of the law. However, the social welfare services are also governed by the Social Services Act, which includes the duty to report on irregularities in social care (known as Lex Sarah, after a Swedish whistleblower of that name). If the Public Access Act allows employees the right to inform, Lex Sarah commands employees to report. This paper discusses the contradictions that arise when the act of whistleblowing necessarily means to take a step outside the organization becoming an individual critically looking in. How is the act of reporting according to Lex Sarah performed? How are secrecy and whistleblowing balanced? What kinds of violations are permissible or socially acceptable to report? What possible tensions operate between the organization subject of the report, and the employee who report? Whistleblowing is a theoretical window by which we can identify what it means to be both “inside” and “outside” the organization.

Citizen Duty or Stasi Society? Informing on Unethical Behavior in Firms, Organizations and Communities and the Neoliberalization of Whistleblowing

Steven Sampson, Lund University

This paper describes two systems of whistleblowing: 1) the U.S. Government whistleblower program for unethical behaviour in corporations, where the whistleblower can receive up to 30% of the reward based on the size of the violation (the highest payment to date is 30 million dollars!) and 2) the citizen informing programs in Denmark and Sweden where citizens can upload ‘evidence’ (fotos, videos) to the local tax and welfare authorities, showing neighbors who are employing ‘black work’, claiming false disability, or single mothers with a man living with them. In the U.S., private whistleblower firms (for a fee) and NGOs help whistleblowers file their claim with the SEC and Dept of Justice and to avoid retaliation from employers. In Scandinavia there are no rewards, but the whistleblower can be anonymous, with the possibility that the government becomes a vehicle for conducting nasty neighbor conflicts and accusations. The public and media response to such programs is discussed, and whether such whistleblowing represents citizen ethical duties or whether a new informer society, a ‘Stasi’ society, is being created, the Danish word being ‘Stasification’. As we see new kinds of whistleblower systems being formed, we are also seeing the neoliberalization of whistleblowing.

Intimating secrecy: doing labor activism in South China

Darcy Pan, Stockholm University

Based on my fieldwork with a group of grassroots labor NGOs in South China, this paper discusses the ways in which the NGOs negotiate their existence by gauging what and how much information they share with the state. The position of these NGOs is precarious. On the one hand, they operate in a politically restrictive environment where state surveillance is in full operation, on the other hand, they are required to be accountable and transparent to their foreign funding agencies. As such, this paper discusses how the NGOs mediate their precarious situation by examining how they engage in different practices of imparting information, or practices of concealment as well as revelation of information. Such practices are pivoted on two popular representations in the labor community: the courageous image of a labor activist that can keep a secret and the spineless figure of a thief (a snitch) that betrays workers’ trust in the face of state coercion. Enmeshed in the ethos of secrecy and suspicion in an authoritarian state, these images and practices reveal the specific workings of state power and how they shape the internal politics of the labor community. I argue that these practices of concealment and revelation are not so much about evading state surveillance as about ensuring trust among the NGOs.

Temporality, Precarity, and Secrecy: Whistleblowing in Pueblo Online Spaces

Erin K. Debenport, University of California, Los Angeles

Since appearing in 2012, the public, but anonymous, Facebook page Isleta Haw-Men-Choo has taken as its mission to “provide hard-hitting and uncompromising reporting on Isleta Tribal Politics, issues, and events that impact the Pueblo of Isleta and its members.” From its inaugural post that publicized a tribal official’s arrest, Haw-Men-Choo has served as a forum for exposing government misdeeds and hypocrisies occurring in this New Mexico reservation community, doing so by engaging in the genre of whistleblowing, a surprising act in Pueblo contexts where the political/religious system is predicated on the tight control of knowledge. As the author(s) of the page exposes the inconsistencies and crimes of those in power, the comments from known respondents expand each post, in some cases burying the original topic with newer responses. The affordances of Facebook age these examples of whistleblowing by displaying the most recent posts first, exposing older posts to the effects of familiarity and neglect while also allowing for their temporal resuscitation through the ability to endlessly repost, comment, and link. Building on my work on secrecy and textual circulation in Pueblo communities, this paper examines perhaps the most transgressive contemporary example of media exposure—the unpermitted, public revelation of secrets—by analyzing how such acts deteriorate, age, and are revived in public fora, informing understandings of secrecy, the precarious yet powerful role of the whistleblower, and the ways that the always shifting distinction between public and private is used to perform and imagine new visions of citizenship and political action.

The barefoot whistleblower: an anthropologist’s journey exposing corruption in an international NGO

Sarah Milne, Australian National University

This paper is an auto-ethnographic account of how I reluctantly blew the whistle on the international conservation organisation I was working for in 2010. Although employed as a global-level “social specialist”, the contested Cambodian field site was not new to me: I had 8 years’ experience there. Later I would be branded as someone “too involved”, but initially my field knowledge was considered an asset. It meant that, when villagers and project staff disclosed to me the NGO’s complicity in a massive illegal logging racket, I felt a moral obligation to act. Naively too, I thought I could engage my NGO superiors on the issue, and help tackle the logging! But upon initiating the process of sharing-our-knowledge, I was vilified and side-lined. Indeed, I found myself unexpectedly engaged in a painful battle over “the truth” with the NGO’s highest powers. What happened subsequently (releasing data, watching the story go viral, suffering the murder of my colleague) leads me to contribute some insights into the psycho-emotional aspects of whistleblowing. It was not something that I set out to do, but it happened to me. I became all-consumed by the desire to expose the injustices I had seen and felt. Thus, while driven by “the primacy of the ethical” (Scherper-Hughes 1995), whistleblowing goes further: it takes the barefoot witness deeper into the intoxicating muck of power. It is personal, affective, and even entails a kind of madness, by which I mean a deep unravelling of one’s (disciplined) identity and self-interest.


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