Social Sciences and Human Decency

NEW ORLEANS -- A researcher doing fieldwork in the southwestern U.S. happened upon something close to the anthropological Holy Grail: a small group of Native Americans who had never been exhaustively studied.

November 22, 2010

NEW ORLEANS -- A researcher doing fieldwork in the southwestern U.S. happened upon something close to the anthropological Holy Grail: a small group of Native Americans who had never been exhaustively studied.

While master's-level research conducted decades ago had made some inroads with the group, this work reflected the long-held, and mistaken, view that this group was the same as another, larger one nearby. Not so. The researcher amassed a trove of ethnographic notes and could see that the group's distinctive culture was rapidly disappearing after waves of westernization. She (the gender of the researcher is not clear in the anonymous account, but Inside Higher Ed had to pick a pronoun) hoped her scholarship would preserve the record of a civilization that was about to vanish.

But, then, a hitch emerged: the group objected strongly to her publishing an account of certain beliefs and practices -- how they worshiped and related to the supernatural -- because they said such things do not rightly belong to non-natives.

The researcher abandoned writing an article on the group, but she remained torn. “My question is this,” she wrote to the Anthropology News, as described in a collection of 25 case studies assembled in Handbook on Ethical Issues in Anthropology. “Do the wishes of my consultants override the need of science for an ethnographic description of a little-known culture that is becoming westernized?”

The quandary described in this real-life case is, at its root, the same ethical dilemma that more than 1,100 practicing and student anthropologists identified in a recent survey as the one they confront most: How does one work with human subjects in a way that honors their traditions and wishes while also fulfilling the duties of scientific inquiry?

It might seem easy to honor each imperative, when considered individually. “The tough part is when, in real life, those core values conflict with each other,” said Janet Levy, a longtime member of the association's task force on ethics, and an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

That conflict is one among many that members of the American Anthropological Association were grappling with here during several sessions of their annual meeting last week. The association is working on its first large-scale revision of its code of ethics in a decade, though some adjustments have been made in the interim, said Dena Plemmons, chair of the task force and a research ethicist at the University of California at San Diego. A new ethics statement is likely to come up for a vote among members in spring 2012.

Not Sexy, but Central

The notion of ethical behavior and treatment of subjects is crucial to the discipline's sense of itself, perhaps because of the kinds of people who go into it in the first place. "Many anthropologists were moved to enter the discipline because of a strong concern for the peoples of the world," Joan Cassell and Sue-Ellen Jacobs wrote in their introduction to the handbook. "During their fieldwork, most have developed a strong empathy for the peoples they have studied and have felt a sense of personal responsibility for their welfare."

The existing code bears out this tendency. “Anthropological researchers have primary ethical obligations to the people, species, and materials they study and to the people with whom they work,” it states.

The dilemma articulated by the researcher in the southwest U.S. seems benign compared to controversies in the discipline that have surrounded the Human Terrain System, in which anthropology was deployed toward military ends, or a 40-year-old scandal about the conduct of western anthropologists studying a tribe in South America that is the subject of this year's film Secrets of the Tribe (which some lauded for casting a much-needed critical eye on the discipline, but which Laura Graham of the University of Iowa derided Wednesday as “anthropological smut”). Nonetheless, the dilemma described in the case study touches deeply on the basic practice of anthropology.

Guidance on that question is needed in a field that, by definition, submerses its practitioners in the knotty, complicated world of other human beings. The task is made even more important, several association members argued, because not every college program even teaches ethics to its students.

Some noted that any guidelines the association puts forth may eventually have wider impact on other disciplines. “Anthropology is leaps and bounds ahead of other social sciences in this regard,” a member of the code of ethics task force said Friday, asking that her name not be used because she was not allowed to speak publicly without clearance from the agency for which she works.

Many Perspectives, More Obstacles

Several hurdles complicate the task of writing a new ethics code. Anthropology encompasses a field with some three dozen subspecialties, each of which carries its own nuances and obsessions. “There's too many of us and we're too different,” one anthropologist said Wednesday. Archaeologists may not be as worried as cultural anthropologists when it comes to chronicling, and staying out of, the longstanding blood feuds of subjects. A medical anthropologist need not preoccupy him- or herself with the question of who truly owns a sacred artifact.

The field's cherished diversity also can veer easily into the fractious, several anthropologists noted. “If you get three archaeologists in a room you'll get five opinions,” Alex Barker, adjunct associate professor and director of the Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, joked Wednesday.

In addition, many in the discipline differed strongly on what the point of a code was in the first place. Some said they wanted ethical guidance in practicing their craft when it was never taught to them in college; others wanted a tool to punish colleagues whose work was, in their view, ethically shady.

Once the code -- or set of guidelines, as some wanted to call it -- emerges, it will not be the only document to set out how anthropologists should do their work. Other pressures can come from the institutional review boards of sponsoring colleges, which can be tricky all on their own. Staffed by scholars from a range of disciplines, including hard science, these review boards can block anthropological research, several scholars complained Wednesday. Some members of these boards don't believe that what anthropologists do qualifies as science because it can't be replicated. Others ask anthropologists to hew to standards -- how to handle dead animals, for example -- that are impractical or inapplicable in, say, the jungle, where animals die and become food for other species. “It's as if they never imagined that research never took place outside of a laboratory,” Levy said Friday.

On top of that are the strictures put in place by government agencies or foundations that pay for the research an anthropologist is doing. And ultimately, of course, there is one's own conscience. “How do I be a professional in this very social context?” Plemmons said Friday, summing up the tension between the interpersonal and the scholarly. “It's the overlap between being an ethical person and working as an ethical professional.”

Do No Harm

Several anthropologists cited Hippocrates as their guide. The notion of doing no harm is embodied in the idea that an anthropologist's first and greatest obligation is to the community you work with, said Levy. But she said that fulfilling this vision is seldom clear cut. “It implies that you know what might happen 10 years down the road,” she said. “It also implies there's only one good kind of anthropology or anthropologist.”

Several scholars pushed for an even more vigorous standard: research must not only avoid hurting its subjects, it ought to help them, too. Richa Dhanju, a graduate student at Texas A&M University who has done fieldwork in the slums of India, was among those who voiced some version of this view. “Do we ever know that the knowledge that we extract benefits our subjects?” she asked Friday. “Any kind of anthropology has to be connected to its source.”

An audience member who spoke after a screening of Secrets of the Tribe went further still, arguing that engaging in anthropology carries with it the obligation to help one's subjects. "Activism and research need to go together,” she told a panel of speakers. “You cannot research an isolated group like the Yanomamo and not be an activist. What's the point of studying them when they're not going to be there for much longer?” Others were deeply uncomfortable with this position because it imposes a burden that could be impossible to fulfill.

For now, anthropologists seem to want to err on the side of consideration. The existing version of the code spells this out, saying that the desire to avoid harming subjects may supersede other pressures. Two responses accompanying the case study of the researcher in the southwest advised the same thing, while encouraging negotiation over time. “The wishes of the people with whom this ethnographer has worked must be honored at all costs,” wrote Keith Basso of Yale University. “Science must take a back seat.”

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