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Code of Ethics: Draft Principles One to Four – A Compilation

Below you’ll find the principles that have previously been posted on this blog. As we continue working on others, we’ll keep posting them to the blog and soliciting your comments, but we wanted to circle back and post these four, as a group, and again ask for your help in reviewing and refining these. 

We read your comments and suggestions, and value your views and concerns, and are using them to revisit, review and revise the text on an ongoing basis. We have posted a comment under Principle 1 addressing the concerns that were brought up in member responses to that principle. As we noted there, we consider this an on-going dialogue.

We look forward to hearing from you.

-The Task Force for Comprehensive Ethics Review
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

5 Responses

  1. [...] principles that have previously been posted here. The Task Force wanted to circle back and post the draft principles as compilation in a continued request for help from AAA Members in the reviewing and refining [...]

  2. Dear Ethics Task Force and Anthropology Community,

    Where is the depth? After having read the new principles and comparing it to older guidelines (in particular the PPR). I feel like all of the particularities which made the ethical guidelines for our discipline different from other guidelines such as the ASA (Association for Social Anthropologists), BSA (British Sociological Association) and the PSA (Politics Studies Association) were that there was a lot of substance to our guidelines.

    This code must go beyond the needs for American anthropologists. AAA is the largest organisation that serves and is composed of anthropologists from all over the world. The guidelines need to reflect the membership of the organisation.

    The name for the document is very apt though, what we have here is a “code”. It is short, convoluted and ambiguous. Not in its purpose though but in its contents. For younger anthropologists, more than a simple framework of principles is needed, there need to be guidelines.

    In regards to the section entitled “Do no harm”, I would like to raise some concerns. First, the title is unrealistic and does not reflect the research done in anthropology. Any research has the potentiality for harm, although the harm may not be physical, acute, or immediate does not mean that harm is not there. This section strikes me as something that is very useful and forward to a person that has been working in an anthropological context for some time but for people that are still undergraduates, new postgraduates from other disciplines they may not be aware of the social, environmental, political, and spiritual harm among others based on the geographic, cultural and specific substantive area of research interest. “Do no harm” is based on the principles of medicine as outlined by documents such as the Belmont Report and the Nuremburg Code and then adapted to almost all disciplines. By using this title, you are producing expectations that good research will be harmless which set up an unrealistic goal for researchers and members of this organisation.

    The focus should be on negotiating harm, alleviating it when possible but only conducting research when the benefits to the individual and group or community exceed the expected harms. There should also be guidelines for helping to identify latent consequences of your research and how to prepare oneself for the ethical quagmire that happens during fieldwork. It strikes me as odd that for our discipline, one that thrives so much on its ability to study things within context that how little attention is paid to the decisions that must be made in the field. Preparing is still a crucial step of anthropology, particularly when working in litigious nations, but obstacles will come up. How does one justify changes that must be made in methods/instruments? What if a gatekeeper prohibits access to a crucial informant? More practical questions that help to clarify the principles could be instrumental in further explaining the ethics of the organisation.

  3. Dear AAA members and Ethics Task Force,

    I would like to post a comment in relation to the third and fourth ‘Principles of the Code of Ethics’ as stated above. To be more precisely my comment will try to relate the third and the fourth principles of the ‘Code’ so that if we look to them separately, they seem fine, but in the time they are put together to conduct anthropological fieldwork, an inevitable contradiction emerges.

    I am talking about the relation between the idea of making one’s anthropological results ‘accessible’, which in turn is translated in the Ethics Code as ‘transparent’ stuffed by an ‘informed consent’ together with the ‘participants’; and at the same time of the ‘responsibilities of dissemination’ of this same results.

    That anthropological results have to be wide spread and be accessible one has no doubts. That anthropologists have to be careful to where and whom they are providing these information’s is also out of question. But how then one might divulge its results to be accessible to crescent number of people without exposing itself to risk?
    Risk is an ethical question, and anthropologists have to know if they are talking about the same risks that their subjects are worried. Does risk concerns only money? Risk is not avoided by written forms or because one is aware of its possible emergence. Risk is an integral part of anthropological research and it’s never fully transparent.

    Accessibility can’t be measured, limited or controlled. That, of course, doesn’t mean that anthropologists shouldn’t take precautions when publicizing their results. To the contrary, awareness is important to extend the notion of risk, covering its multiple significances, and not limiting possible movements. Disseminating research results is not a good and bad matter. It is either not a matter of intentionality. If it was, Ethics Codes will avoid almost all problems.

    How one can ‘expand understandings of lives, histories, cultures and communities’ without allowing multiple interpretations of this same research? Does the form anthropologists make their research accessible is really accessible, or is just the reflex of risk?

  4. Dear Ethics Task Force

    To begin, I find the title Do No Harm to be something to strive for, but the reality of the situation is more akin to Calculating Harm. While anthropologists preparing to go into the field put as much effort into reducing the amount of harm (mental & physical) to the people and culture being observed, the single anthropologist cannot account for unexpected occurrences once in the midst of field research. This process of Calculating Harm should obviously be something prepared prior to leaving for the field, yet decided upon with the people being observed once there. Calculating potential harm to a culture should be considered from the point of view of those being studied. I find it a bit ethnocentric to believe we can decide what is ethically right or wrong without discussion with the subjects.

    Regarding Balance competing ethical obligations due collaborators and affected parties, I believe that it should be stated that the anthropologist in the field must strive towards open communication between the people and culture being studied as well as the employers and funders. Without carefully analyzing this network of relations the anthropologist becomes a “middle-man” attempting to balance the needs and intentions on both sides of the spectrum. The communities and individuals being observed need to be aware of who you, the anthropologist, is reporting to and what limits of power you have. This way the people being observed will have a better image of this network. Furthermore, colleagues, employers, and funders will be able to gauge the effectiveness of the field work itself. I believe that by possibly opening communication between these two ends of the spectrum will the anthropologist be able to prepare for any ethical dilemmas that may arise. Though, this is not to say that the responsibility is disassociated from the anthropologist; they still should remain individually responsible for making ethical decisions in the field. However, I believe that establishing the network of relationships that accompany field work will help calculate harm.

    Regarding Balance the responsibility to disseminate with its potential consequences, once again to calculate harm regarding the dissemination of field data it should be stated early on with the subjects as well as employers and funders. “Explicit negotiation about dissemination and data access with sponsors/clients may be necessary before deciding whether to begin research” basically sums it up wonderfully. However, unless we can fully understand what perspective those being studied will see this as, the anthropologist is still making ethical decisions from an ethnocentric viewpoint, based around the expectations of themselves, funders and clients. The risks of disseminating some information should be openly discussed not only prior to conducting research but also as one of the first things brought up with the people and communities being studied. If there is any conflict with those being observed this can then be taken into consideration when disseminating and analysing data. I find it to be highly important that this is done early in the field work rather than after. This should be reflected in the code of ethics.

  5. I am also interested in the “Do no harm” concept. I would hate to see a certain kind of direct “harm” reduced to philosophy. There are real harms that have come to people through research. I do not feel it is the position of the social scientist or any other researcher to weigh out benefits to society versus direct harm to research subjects. I would compare the “millions will be saved” by the harming of some to the “ticking bomb” scenario of torture. They are hypothetical and unlikely to occur in real life. People who don’t have a personal sense of right and wrong in that regard shouldn’t be working with human subjects at all.

    Where I do think “harm” has to be dissected is in the area of those things that are potentially harmful – that is, where there is an uncertainty of what harm would constitute. I think the issue of consent can often overrride those things which are questionable in terms of informed consent. Focusing on informed consent – what kinds of information is the questioning/ethnography leading to, what they know could be done with that information, etc. helps people who are research subjects, collaborators, and interviewees make better decisions about what information they want to share (or not). The position of collaborators has to be considered.

    Another issue that comes to mind is the reporting of information about people/groups we didn’t interview via the statements of collaborators in the communities we work with. Is the harm issue only for those who were directly involved in the research process? What about secondarily reporting material, information about other people/groups etc. by collaborators who were involved in the research?

    Finally, it seems that while most of us have worked with individuals, communities, etc. on a smaller scale, but how is nation dealt with? Obviously many anthropologists work with communities that have national policies directed against them or are in some way disenfranchised. How much do we understand about political processes in those areas. To what extent is it the obligation of the researcher of understanding the broader context in which the research was done? How much should we know how the information we collect could be used by someone who does not have the same interests in mind?

    It seems that there is a point that should be a legal issue – people should not be harmed by research that they did not consent to. On the other hand, there is a personal point – one that has to do with researcher interests and the potential outcome of the research and our understanding – beyond direct harm – what harm really entails.

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