Citation Bias Mars Task Force Report on Israel/Palestine 

By: David M Rosen, Professor of Anthropology and Law at Fairleigh Dickinson University

When the American Anthropological Association formed the Task Force on Israel/Palestine, it charged the group with developing “principles to be used to assess whether the AAA has an interest in taking a stand on these issues. This may include providing a comprehensive and neutral overview of arguments for and against a range of specific possible stands (including no action).” Inherent in this charge is the idea the Task Force should adhere to reasonable standards of neutrality.  Obviously, in a situation such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there is no end to passionate debate, and the slippery descent into detailed point/counterpoint arguments can be overwhelming. Nevertheless, it is useful to ask to what degree the narrative of the report is shaped by any particular agenda.  After all, most anthropologists reading the report are not experts in the Middle East and so would ordinarily rely upon findings of fact and conclusions contained in the report to help them form an opinion. Admittedly, the report is not an ethnography, but at the same time, there is a reasonable expectation that reports created by anthropologists should adhere to basic principles of fair-minded and unbiased investigatory perspectives and methods. With this in mind, I examined the report for its underlying narrative and for the ways it presents arguments for and against various aspects of the situation. I also analysed the report’s presentation of possible actions to be taken by the AAA.


In this short comment I’ll refer to one central issue, that of citation bias. Citation bias is a form of reporting bias that turns on the selective inclusion or omission of information. In citation bias, the citation or non-citation of research findings and of relevant perspectives can have a profound influence on the results — in this case, the central narrative of the report. I was alerted to the problem of citation bias early in the report, when I noticed that while the Task Force cited a petition in support of a boycott, it failed to cite a petition signed by other anthropologists in opposition to the boycott. This immediately raised in my mind the possibility of citation bias. Since this is a report written by anthropologists for anthropologists, I was particularly interested in whether the contemporary anthropological sources cited by the Task Force were biased in one way or another regarding the issue of academic boycotts.  The criterion I applied was whether an anthropologist cited in the Task Force report was either a supporter or an opponent of BDS. I used only public self-declarations, such as being signatories to pro- or anti- BDS petitions or other published statements relating to boycotts of Israeli academic institutions. I based this solely on self-declaration by the authors; I did not infer any political position based upon the writings themselves.  I also eliminated three anthropologists cited in the report from this list, as these colleagues were long-deceased before the emergence of the boycott movement. These were Raphael Patai, Eric Wolf, and Henry Rosenfeld. To be fully transparent, I am one of the more than 400 anthropologists who signed a un-cited petition in opposition to the boycott. See: The results of my inquiry are displayed in the following chart.

Author BDS Supporter BDS Opponent Unknown
Abu El-haj, Nadia x
Abu-Lughod, Lila x
Asad, Talal x
Ben Ari, Eyal x
Bishara, Amahl x
Bornstein, Avram x
Bowman, Glen x
Davis, Uri x
Deeb, Lara x
Feldman, Ilana x
Furani, Khaled x
Halper, Jeff x
Hammami, Rema x
 Kaplan, Danny  x
Kelley, Tobias x
Kersal, Morag x
Lomsky-Feder, Edna x
Markowitz, Fran x
Rabinowitz, Dan x
Sa’ar, Amalia x
Shokeid, Moshe x
Swedenburg, Ted x
Weiss, Erica x
Winegar, Jessica x

Clearly, the overwhelming preponderance of anthropologists cited in the report are self-declared supporters of BDS (fourteen).  Only six publically-declared boycott opponents are cited, while another four seem to have taken no public position on the issue.  In my next post, I will examine the content, narrative, and arguments presented in the report and investigate whether and how citation bias shaped the presuppositions ­­and conclusions of the report. Like many anthropologists, I am a critical opponent of the Israeli occupation, but I am greatly concerned about anthropologists blindly ignoring all the complexity of the situation and allowing anthropology to be used as a public relations channel for a particular version of the Palestinian cause.  In this light, AAA members should be particularly cautious about what steps should be taken by the association, especially an academic boycott, given the evidence of bias in the Task Force report and its recommendations.


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