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Never Mind

Never Mind
June 29, 2005

Members of the American Anthropological Association, weighing in on a dispute that has divided their discipline, voted 846 to 338 to rescind a controversial 2002 report on allegations of research misconduct by scholars studying the Yanomami people.

In another referendum, members of the association voted overwhelmingly to rescind the censure of Franz Boas, one of the discipline's founders, who was denounced by his colleagues in 1919 after he criticized anthropologists who served as spies during World War I.

The dispute over the Yanomami research has raged since Patrick Tierney published Darkness in El Dorado in 2000. The book charged that prominent anthropologists had repeatedly caused harm -- and in some cases, death -- to members of the Yanomami people they had studied in the 1960s in Venezuela and Brazil.

In the furor that followed the book’s publication, the anthropological association appointed a committee to study the issues raised by the charges. That committee in turn issued the report that has now been rescinded. It found fault with both the Tierney book and the researchers Tierney had attacked: Napoleon Chagnon, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the late James Neel, who was for many years a professor of human genetics at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Chagnon and colleagues of Neel have disputed many of the claims in the Tierney book and have said that they helped the Yanomami.

The statement approved by the association's membership does not actually take a stand on the merits of the charges against Chagnon and Neel. It says, rather, that the investigation was unfair. The referendum was an outgrowth of an article published in the December issue of American Anthropologist, “Guilt by Association: The Culture of Accusation and the American Anthropological Association’s Investigations of Darkness in El Dorado." The article charges that the committee that prepared the report did not allow for due process and violated the association's own rules, which generally leave to college and federal bodies the task of investigating misconduct allegations.

As anthropologists prepared to vote on the referendum, fierce debates took place at meetings and on Web sites over the various issues involved. Public Anthropology, a Web site, features good summaries of the best arguments offered by various scholars.

Elizabeth Brumfiel, a professor of anthropology at Northwestern University and president of the anthropology association, called the vote "one more step" in the profession's grappling with the ethical issues raised by the research on the Yanomami. "This says that there are a variety of issues and views and anthropologists have not thrashed their way to a consensus," Brumfiel said.

She declined to say how she voted on the referendum.

Brumfiel said that she was pleased to see consensus on Franz Boas (1858-1942), who pioneered the study of anthropology, teaching for 40 years at Columbia University. Boas was an outspoken critic of World War I, and he infuriated members of the anthropology association when he wrote a letter to The Nation in 1919 denouncing those anthropologists who served as spies during the war. In his letter, Boas wrote that scientists must work in the "service of truth," and such work was not possible as a spy.

Within weeks, the anthropology association had censured him, a sanction that stood until now.

 

 

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