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After five years of study, the American Anthropological Association has adopted a new code of ethics. In a vote of members, 93 percent approved of the statement, which shifts away from a legal-type list of specific prohibitions (a characteristic of past codes) and stresses general principles.

As a discipline, anthropology has at times been divided over ethics, with many in the field feeling shame over early work in the field that was used to promote imperialism and with more recent debate over whether it is appropriate for anthropologists to work with the U.S. military. But debate over the new code (as is reflected in the overwhelming vote to approve it) was not as intense as discussions in recent years over very specific questions, such as whether anthropologists should work to help American efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The new code offers seven main principles:

  • Do no harm.
  • Be open and honest regarding your work.
  • Obtain informed consent and necessary permissions.
  • Weigh competing ethical obligations due collaborators and affected parties.
  • Make your results accessible.
  • Protect and preserve your records.
  • Maintain respectful and ethical professional relationships.

For each principle, the document outlines some key issues to consider, and includes links to additional source materials and case studies on how anthropologists handled these issues. But the subsections on the principles avoid spelling out exactly how different situations should be handled. The document notes that the association "does not adjudicate assertions of unethical behavior," and that this new document is intended to "foster discussion, guide anthropologists in making responsible decisions, and educate."

When members of the committee that drafted the code presented their work last year at a meeting of the association, they talked about how previous codes seemed to assume that scholars were studying some single village, with a single set of ethics considerations. In contrast, much of the new code notes that research may involve multiple groups with different sets of interests, making it more difficult to determine whether research may cause harm.

The text of the principle on "competing ethical obligations," for example, says: "[V]arying relationships may create conflicting, competing or crosscutting ethical obligations, reflecting both the relative vulnerabilities of different individuals, communities or populations, asymmetries of power implicit in a range of relationships, and the differing ethical frameworks of collaborators representing other disciplines or areas of practice. Anthropologists have an obligation to distinguish the different kinds of interdependencies and collaborations their work involves, and to consider the real and potential ethical dimensions of these diverse and sometimes contradictory relationships, which may be different in character and may change over time. When conflicts between ethical standards or expectations arise, anthropologists need to make explicit their ethical obligations, and develop an ethical approach in consultation with those concerned."

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