Anthropologists Toughen Ethics Code

Changes stress importance of honesty about research projects and sharing findings, but policy is intentionally ambiguous in not explicitly barring classified work.
February 19, 2009

By an overwhelming margin of 87 to 13 percent, members of the American Anthropological Association have approved changes in its code of ethics that are designed to strengthen its protections of people who are studied, and to promote the values of free dissemination of scholarship.

But the degree of consensus among anthropologists may not be reflected by the lopsided outcome: At least some who backed the changes said that they did so because they view them as a step in the right direction, but nonetheless believe that the association ducked some important issues.

At a press briefing on the vote Thursday, association leaders in fact said that the language approved was intentionally ambiguous on the question of classified research, and that some scholars will read the code as barring such studies while others will not. The association has been in an intense debate about the ethics code for several years -- a debate prompted in part by highly publicized programs in which some anthropologists have worked for the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq, while far more quietly a growing number of scholars have started doing proprietary research for companies.

While the vote brings to a close one set of debates, the code of ethics is by no means set in stone. Even as the association was finishing this round of changes, it started a broader process that could lead to an overhaul of the entire ethics code. (The code, with changes noted, may be found here.)

Among the new provisions added to the code of ethics is this one -- which could appear to bar classified research: "Anthropologists should not withhold research results from research participants when those results are shared with others. There are specific and limited circumstances, however, where disclosure restrictions are appropriate and ethical, particularly where those restrictions serve to protect the safety, dignity or privacy of participants, protect cultural heritage or tangible or intangible cultural or intellectual property."

Generally, research that is classified carries with it the strong possibility that it may not be turned over to others, including research participants. So the first sentence could be read to bar classified research. But Dena Plemmons, an anthropologist at the University of California at San Diego and chair of the association's ethics committee, repeatedly refused at the press briefing to say whether the provision bars classified research. "It depends which anthropologist you are talking about," she said. Some would look at that language and say that the "precise result" would be not to engage in classified research. Others would look at the same sentence and disagree, she said.

And Damon Dozier, director of public affairs for the association, said that whether the provision bars classified research "depends on what classified means." When asked about the general meaning -- classified by the U.S. military -- he said that the association specifically avoided using the word in its code and would not answer whether such work is possible under the code.

Other changes approved in the code include the addition of the following statements:

  • "Anthropologists have a responsibility to be both honest and transparent with all stakeholders about the nature and intent of their research. They must not misrepresent their research goals, funding sources, activities, or findings. Anthropologists should never deceive the people they are studying regarding the sponsorship, goals, methods, products, or expected impacts of their work. Deliberately misrepresenting one’s research goals and impact to research subjects is a clear violation of research ethics, as is conducting clandestine research."
  • "In relation with his or her own government, host governments, or sponsors of research, an anthropologist should be honest and candid. Anthropologists must not compromise their professional responsibilities and ethics and should not agree to conditions which inappropriately change the purpose, focus or intended outcomes of their research."
  • "The results of anthropological research are complex, subject to multiple interpretations and susceptible to differing and unintended uses. Anthropologists have an ethical obligation to consider the potential impact of both their research and the communication or dissemination of the results of their research on all directly or indirectly involved."

All of these statements reflect concerns about such trends as anthropologists working for the military or corporations -- and fears that not all scholars have been as upfront about their research ambitions as they should be.

Throughout the association's debate on ethics, critics have charged that the association has been too slow to respond and that it has been unwilling to ban certain kinds of activities. At the same time, other anthropologists have defended some of the work that might be banned. Among examples frequently offered are variations on scenarios where an anthropologist is studying a site whose treasures might be plundered if the location became widely known, or a tribe that might be endangered by its enemies if certain details of its location were revealed. These instances, some anthropologists say, show why blanket bans on secret research are inappropriate.

The vote that was announced Wednesday is the result of a vote at the association's 2007 annual meeting, in which those at the business meeting voted to return to earlier ethics standards that barred secret work. That vote was ultimately treated by the association's leaders as a recommendation, however, and they crafted the changes approved this week as reflecting the spirit but not the exact language of the 2007 measure.

Terence Turner, a professor emeritus of anthropology at Cornell University, was the sponsor of the resolution approved at the 2007 meeting. He said in an interview that he voted for the proposed code changes as they represented a "slight improvement" over the previous version. But Turner blasted the association for refusing to explicitly bar classified research.

"They are waffling. They are going through the same agonized hypocritical twisting that they've been doing for years," Turner said. He charged that the association is afraid of offending "influential groups" that favor the military or corporations. Classified work for the military is unethical, Turner said, "and the association should have the will and guts to say so."

Instead, he said, the association's approach amounts to saying of its ethics code: "It means what you want it to."

Not all critics of anthropologists' military ties share Turner's views. Hugh Gusterson, a professor of anthropology and sociology at George Mason University, is among the organizers of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, which has been encouraging scholars to pledge not to “engage in research and other activities that contribute to counter-insurgency operations in Iraq or in related theaters in the ‘war on terror.’ ” Gusterson said he saw the changes that the anthropologists adopted would significantly add to the protection of research subjects. He said that the provisions would probably clearly bar "90 percent" of classified research, and that some of what would not be banned might not be as ethically questionable as critics assume.

Gusterson said that he sympathized with the discomfort of many anthropologists with their colleagues doing any classified research. But at the same time, he said that some are fighting a battle over "the last war's research," not current conditions. During the Vietnam War, a central ethics issue for anthropologist was whether classified research was being done that hurt local populations.

Today, Gusterson said, there are far more anthropologists doing proprietary research for corporations than there are anthropologists doing classified research for the military. Gusterson said that applied anthropologists who have good jobs with companies were "very nervous" about restrictions on secret research.

As to the military, Gusterson said that the biggest ethical mess today is the treatment of human subjects, not classified research. Specifically, he has been an outspoken critic of the Human Terrain System, in which social scientists work with military units to help them understand local groups in the Middle East. Critics like Gusterson have said that this work is inherently unethical as the local groups are not consenting to be studied, are not in a position to say no to the military, and could be harmed by the military. But, Gusterson noted, this isn't about classified research.

"The exploiting and betraying of human subjects is the most pressing issue in this war," he said.

He compared the ethics revisions to the stimulus bill signed this week by President Obama: "It's not what we would have written, but it has enough of what we wanted that we supported it."


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