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Complete Draft Principles Released by Ethics Task Force

The task force wants to take this opportunity to thank all the members, both as individuals and as representatives of and participants on AAA committees and sections, for your thoughtful engagement with this process of drafting principles for a new code of ethics over these past several months. These principles can now be reviewed and discussed as a whole by the AAA membership to examine whether this complete draft document adequately and coherently addresses key areas and concerns of anthropological practice.

During this process, we have reflected on what it is that a Code is supposed to do for its members. One purpose is to state clearly that anthropologists are responsible for engaging in an on-going process of ethical thinking and practice that grapples with dilemmas that necessarily emerge in conducting research and other aspects of our professional lives. Another is to assist faculty members and their students in teaching and learning about ethical dimensions and laying foundations on which anthropologists can continue to build throughout their careers. A third is to be of real value to anthropologists in the actual contexts in which they make ethical decisions. Finally, this framework must be flexible enough to adapt to diverse circumstances and adjust to the wide range of contexts of anthropological practices, while providing core principles informing ethical practice in real-world situations.

Our sense is that a new Code can more squarely address the third and fourth challenges, but only if seen as one resource among many. No code or set of principles or guidelines can anticipate every unique circumstance of practice, nor dictate direct actions in specific situations; instead the draft principles presented here are meant to provide a preliminary place to start the ethical decision-making process. Persons using the Code as a guideline are encouraged to seek out additional resources to help make manifest the principles in the code, including examples of the sorts of problems that anthropologists currently face and discussions as to how to approach them; such examples will eventually be available through the AAA Website. This Code of Ethical Practice affirms that anthropologists are responsible for making carefully considered ethical choices and are prepared to make clear the assumptions, facts and issues on which those choices are based.

The principles were initially released one at a time for several reasons.  First and foremost was to allow members to focus on each individual principle in turn; we wanted to encourage deliberate and substantive discussion on the merits of each as a meaningful and relevant principle on its own. Second, the work of the Task Force itself was — and remains —  ongoing, with additional meetings and discussions scheduled throughout the remainder of the year until we submit the final report to the Executive Board in November.  Finally, this was meant to be part of an iterative process in which ongoing discussion by the membership would determine both how each draft principle should be revised and how many additional principles might be needed to adequately address the concerns identified from discussion by the membership.

The Task Force invites your comments and suggestions on these draft principles through the end of August. We will then take all member comments and concerns and continue working on these principles, as well as crafting the preamble and introductory sections, and compiling other resources to help contextualize these guidelines.


Do no harm

Anthropologists share a primary ethical obligation to avoid doing harm to the lives, communities or environments they study or that may be impacted by their work.  This includes not only the avoidance of direct and immediate harm but implies an obligation to weigh carefully the future consequences and impacts of an anthropologist’s work on others.  This primary obligation can supersede the goal of seeking new knowledge and can lead to decisions not to undertake or to discontinue a project. Avoidance of harm is a primary ethical obligation, but determining harms and their avoidance in any given situation may be complex.

While anthropologists welcome work benefiting others or increasing the well-being of individuals or communities, determinations regarding what is in the best interests of others or what kinds of efforts are appropriate to increase well-being are complex and value-laden and should reflect sustained discussion with those concerned.  Such work should reflect deliberate and thoughtful consideration of both potential unintended consequences and long-term impacts on individuals, communities, identities, tangible and intangible heritage and environments.

Balance competing ethical obligations due collaborators and affected parties

Anthropology is an inherently social enterprise, whether in terms of teaching, inquiry, or professional practice.

Anthropologists develop collaborative and often interdependent relationships with, among others, research participants, students, professional colleagues, employers and funders.

These varying 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 or change over time.  When conflicts between ethical standards or expectations arise, anthropologists should make explicit their ethical obligations, and negotiate an ethical approach. Recognizing that anthropologists work in diverse settings and that research projects are shaped by anthropologists and their collaborators, nevertheless anthropologists remain individually responsible for making ethical decisions.

Collaborations may be defined and understood quite differently by the various participants. The scope of collaboration, rights of the various parties, and issues of credit, acknowledgment and data access should be openly and fairly established at the outset.  Collaborations normally involve compromise, and anthropologists must be sensitive to relationships of power and whether such compromise is freely given.


Be open and honest regarding your work. Make your results accessible.

Anthropologists should be clear and open regarding the purpose, methods, outcomes, and sponsors of their work. Anthropologists must also be prepared to acknowledge and disclose to participants and collaborators all tangible and intangible interests that have, or may reasonably be perceived to have, an impact on their work.

Transparency, like informed consent, is a process that involves both making principled decisions prior to beginning the research and encouraging participation, engagement, and open debate throughout its course. Achieving transparency should not conflict with the primary obligation to avoid harm to the individuals, communities, environments, or resources being studied.

In general the results of anthropological research should be made freely available, except in cases where restricted dissemination serves to protect the confidentiality, privacy, safety, and/or dignity of participants, and/or protect cultural heritage or tangible or intangible cultural or intellectual property.  Dissemination of the results of anthropological research to the participants is expected; however, when sharing results with participants is deemed to be inappropriate the reasons must be clearly explained as part of the consent process so that all involved are aware of any reasonable limitations prior to consent.

Research that by design does not allow the anthropologist to know the full scope or purpose of a project (i.e. compartmentalized research ) is ethically problematic, since by definition the anthropologist cannot communicate transparently with participants, nor ensure fully informed consent.  Researchers who mislead participants about the nature of the research and/or its sponsors; who omit significant information that might bear on a participant’s decision to engage in the research; or who otherwise engage in clandestine or secretive research that manipulates or deceives research participants about the sponsorship, purpose, goals or implications of the research, are not fulfilling basic requirements for openness, honesty, transparency and fully informed consent.

Balance the responsibility to disseminate with its potential consequences

The results of anthropological research are complex, subject to multiple interpretations and susceptible to differing and unintended uses. Anthropologists conduct research in order to expand our understanding of lives, histories, cultures, and communities. Thus a general goal is communication of new knowledge in a timely fashion. However, 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. Anthropologists should consider this issue prior to beginning research and throughout the research process. Explicit negotiation about dissemination and data access with sponsors/clients may be necessary before deciding whether to begin research.

Anthropologists should not normally withhold research results from research participants when those results are shared with others. There are circumstances, however, where restrictions on disclosure may be appropriate and ethical, such as where participants have been fully informed and have freely agreed to limited dissemination.  In some situations  other kinds of limited dissemination may be appropriate where such restrictions will protect the safety, dignity, or privacy of participants; or protect cultural heritage and/or tangible or intangible cultural or intellectual property.  Proprietary, classified or other research with limited distribution raises complex ethical questions which must be resolved using these ethical principles. Anthropologists must weigh the intended uses of their research and work to evaluate potential uses of their research and the impact of its dissemination now and in the future.

Limited dissemination poses significant risks.  There may be equally great risks associated with dissemination itself.  Once information is disseminated, even in a limited sphere, there is great likelihood that it will become widely available. Thus, anthropologists should consider situations where preventing dissemination may be the most ethical step.

Informed consent is a dynamic, continuous and reflexive process

Anthropological researchers working with living human communities should obtain in advance the informed consent of persons being studied, providing information, owning or controlling access to material being studied.  The degree and breadth of informed consent may be influenced by the nature of the project and its setting. Minimally, informed consent would include sharing with potential participants, in an understandable form, the research goals, methods, funding sources or sponsors, expected outcomes, and anticipated impacts as well as establishing expectations of anonymity or credit. Researchers must present to research participants the possible impacts of participation, and make clear that despite their best efforts, anonymity may be compromised or outcomes may differ from those anticipated.

Consent must be freely given, and anthropologists must be sensitive to circumstances in which consent may not be truly voluntary or informed. In the event that the research changes in ways that will directly affect the participants, forms of participation should be revisited and consent renegotiated. The informed consent process is necessarily dynamic and continuous; the process should be initiated as part of project design and continue through implementation as an ongoing dialogue and negotiation with those studied. Informed consent does not necessarily imply or require a particular written or signed form. It is the quality of the consent not its format that is relevant.

Protect and preserve your records

Anthropologists have an ethical responsibility for ensuring the integrity, preservation and protection of their work.  An anthropologist’s  ability to protect and use the materials collected may be contingent upon complex issues of ownership and stewardship.

Researchers have an ethical responsibility to take precautions that collected data and materials will not be used for ends other than those specified at the time the data were collected.  These issues are not always clear at the time of data collection, but the researcher is responsible for considering and communicating all likely or foreseeable uses of a subject’s datasets as part of the process of informed consent or obtaining permission. Researchers are also responsible for consulting with research participants regarding their views of generation, use and preservation of research records.  This includes informing research participants whether data and materials might be transferred to or accessed by other parties; how they might be transformed or used to identify participants; and how they will be stored and how long they will be preserved.

Researchers should use appropriate methods to ensure the confidentiality and security of field notes, recordings, samples or other primary data and the identities of participants. Ethical decisions regarding the preservation of research materials must balance obligations to maintain data integrity with responsibilities to protect research participants against future impacts. Given the multiple constituencies for and new uses that are often made of anthropological research, such as by heritage communities, the interests of preservation ordinarily outweigh the potential benefits of destroying materials for preserving confidentiality. Researchers generating object collections have a responsibility to ensure the preservation and accessibility of the resulting materials and/or results of analyzed samples, including associated documentation.

In the absence of other agreements or obligations, an anthropologist is presumed to own her/his notes and records, and has an ethical responsibility to ensure their integrity and continued accessibility after the anthropologist’s death.  Other factors (source of funding, employment agreements, or negotiated agreements with collaborators, among others) may impact ownership of records.  Anthropologists should determine record ownership relating to each project and make appropriate arrangements accordingly as a standard part of ethical practice.  Researchers should be aware that records may be subject to legal claim based on applicable laws and jurisdictions.


There is an ethical dimension to all our professional relationships.

Whether they work in academic or applied settings, anthropologists should strive to maintain respectful relationships with colleagues. In mentoring students, interacting with colleagues, working with clients, or supervising staff, anthropologists should comport themselves in ways that promote a supportive and sustainable workplace environment.

In their capacity as researchers, anthropologists are subject to the ethical principles guiding all scientific and scholarly conduct. They should not fabricate evidence, plagiarize the work of others, or otherwise knowingly misrepresent information. They should also be alert to the potential of bias to compromise the integrity of anthropological work. When they see evidence of research misconduct, they are obligated to report it. They should not obstruct the scholarly efforts of others when they are carried out responsibly.

In their role as teachers and mentors, anthropologists should provide instruction on the ethical responsibilities associated with every aspect of anthropological work. They should facilitate, and encourage their students to engage in, dialogue on ethical issues, and discourage their participation in ethically questionable projects. Anthropologists should publicly acknowledge student contributions to their research and writing, and compensate students justly for any assistance they provide. They should give students appropriate credit for the authorship of their ideas, and encourage the publication of worthy student work.

3 Responses

  1. I want to commend the Task Force on its efforts. Having been in a similar position during the 1980s I can emphasize with the challenge you have been and will face going forward.

    My initial response and primary concern is that while the principles expounded here are an improvement over the 1970 Code and its offspring (1984, 1999, 2009, and the February 2011) they still miss the point. Since the AAA will not enforce the code and the COPE has essential state as much, I wonder if we need a “Code.” The topic headers make for a good start at a set of principles — stating what anthropology and the AAA stand for.

    In my experience, as an applied/practitioner, the value of a code of ethics is one of protection — protections against clients who would ask me to use my skills in an unethical way to further their objective; protection against colleagues competing against me by using unethical, inappropriate, or unprofessional practices; protection for the client and the public against the lack of a standard, reliable and valid way of knowing what is “anthropology” and who is qualified to practice as an anthropologist.

    For more than a half century, the anthropological profession — as represented by the AAA — has seen ethics as being all about ME (the individual) — What can I do? What must I do? What can I get away with? This ego-centric attitude (or should I say “anthropocentric”) fails to recognize that the AAA is a social institution which exists in a real world of human beings and social institutions who could care less about our personal fears, doubts, and biases. To the degree that they care, they want to be assured that there is some institution that will stand behind its members and guarantees the ethical quality of product it purports to represent .They are looking to the institution for quality control guidelines to reduce their risk of employing an unqualified member.

    This is what a Code implies. It is a place to go to find the guarantee and to have that guarantee honored. It implies that the subject, the student, the colleague, the sponsor, and the client have recourse in the event of malpractice through the institution. Otherwise, the court system becomes the default.

    If we drop the idea of a Code and simple follow the lead of the SfAA that these will only be principles we expect members to follow, then we would be more honest in our presentation to the members and the public. The Principles can be stated in a 10 Commandment format without details and qualifications. Since the AAA is not going to enforce them, there is little need to go into detail — that only invites more detail and a theological debate that goes nowhere. As principles, they are goals to aspire to and enforcement is done through rewarding outstanding examples of upholding the principles, rather than the time consuming and costly due process of punishment..

    The AAA is NOT a professional society. Since the 1984 reorganization, it has become a consortium of clubs and voluntary associations. Unlike such professional association as the Bar Association, Medical Society, or American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, membership is voluntary and not required to practice the discipline in any of its manifestations (basic research, teaching, or practice) nor in any of the venues where anthropologists sell their service and making a living.

    I feel that the Task Force should broaden the scope of its effort to consider the basic question — who and what is, or to be, served by an AAA code of ethics?

    Again, i want to commend the Task Force for it work. It is trying, challenging, and thankless job

  2. […] you reviewed AAA’s complete draft Code of Ethics? AAA members have until Saturday, September 3rd to review and comment on the draft Code of Ethics. […]

  3. Overall this is a very impressive revision reflecting a lot of serious thoughtful work and should be greatly appreciated by the membership.

    I applaud B1 – including an ethics statement as part of every research proposal. [I included such a statement in my 1974 NSF dissertation grant proposal without anyone suggesting this to me. I have not seen it done very often by others, although I encourage my students to do so].

    B4 – states that the anthropologist should not deceive the people they are studying regarding this and that. But is it ethical to deceive them about anything?

    B5 – shouldn’t the findings be disseminated to the host community as well? I may have missed it, but it seems that findings should be shared with everyone else except the host community.

    C3 – Is advocacy never an ethical imperative, as for example, when one witnesses human rights violations or receives reliable information about them occurring in the community hosting the research or that hosted research previously? It is shocking how some anthropologists have mined communities for data, sometimes for years, to facilitate their careerism without giving much if anything of substance back in turn professionally.

    In addition to specific comment, I have some questions and ideas the Task Force might consider in their final efforts:

    I assume that this revision is in response to two recent serious ethical controversies, Darkness in El Dorado and HTS. Would these revisions make any difference in the original causes of these controversies and the ways that the AAA leadership and membership handled them when they developed?

    What means might be pursued to better inform the membership about the new code and gain better adherence? Perhaps the general theme of a future annual convention of the AAA might be professional ethics and interested session organizers invited to address the new code in particular as it applies to specific cases, problems, and issues.

    Is there no way that a new ethics code can be enforced? Otherwise, what percentage of the membership pays any attention? Perhaps the COE could contact textbook authors and encourage them to reprint the entire code in their textbook if not include an entire chapter on ethics.

    The top leadership of the AAA deleted the Final Report of the Task Force on Darkness in El Dorado from the official website, ostensibly to avoid threatened legal action by a non-member of the AAA. Thereby, the top leadership of the AAA deprived the membership of ready access to the Report which was ostensibly done for the membership with membership funds. Is this ethical? Do there need to be ethical guidelines in the new code for AAA leaders including the Executive Director and others who are not anthropologists? (Would it have been more responsible to invite a membership vote on such a serious initiative?)

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