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Ethics Task Force – Draft Principle: Balance Competing Ethical Obligations

Below you will find the draft principle for your review and comment.

As a reminder, the task force has been asked to undertake a thorough review of our current code of ethics, and to suggest revisions. We have begun the process of drafting those revisions, and are asking for your involvement in that process.

In thinking about changes to our Code of Ethics, we 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, any conceived 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 core principles to be presented here are meant to provide a preliminary place to start the ethical decision-making process. It is intended that these draft core principles can be readily recalled and applied in a continuum of research and practice contexts that extends from the initial planning stages in which there is ample time to anticipate ethical dimensions, to those in which  on-the-spot decisions must be made in the course of ongoing projects. As currently drafted, the principles are followed by a brief discussion of the underlying values and beliefs on which the principles are based, as a means of helping foster the vital process of critical thinking about ethical issues in general, and constructing an ethical framework that addresses the specific challenges that are likely to emerge in a particular research project or other pursuit.

We do not address the issues of sanctions or enforcement; a wide range of opinions on such issues are held not only by the members of the Association but by members of the task force as well.  Regardless of viewpoint, however, the members of the task force agreed that a workable and appropriate code must be established before determining how it may be implemented or enforced.

When reading through the postings, please keep in mind: rather than incorporating all of the complexities and areas of concern — as well as all the unique concerns and situations particular to a given subdiscipline or context of anthropological practice — into a single document, we have sought to identify broad principles applicable to all anthropologists, principles which will be supported by layers of additional resources–explanatory text, examples from different contexts or areas of practice, case studies, and resources from other disciplines. We are asking for your involvement in drafting and refining these principles. We want to use your feedback to both revise the principles as appropriate and to help us determine how completely we’ve captured the concerns of the members, on the one hand, and the demands placed on the code on the other.

As you read through our blog postings over the next several months, please:

  1. carefully read each principle as it is posted to the blog, paying attention to the content  and thinking about its relevance to your practice
  2. make relevant comments and suggestions on the blog site in a timely manner.  Feel free to share personal stories, case examples, competing interpretations, etc.
  3. pay attention to the ongoing conversations about the principles and do background reading if you are late to join the discussion of a particular topic.

After all the principles have been posted, please let us know your thoughts about the document as a whole.

Thank you for being part of this important discussion.

-The Task Force

Here is the principle for your review:

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.

13 Responses

  1. (a) Disappointed in the continued process of removing ‘science’ from the anthropological inventory. Yes iit is social, but it used to be anyhow, also sicence.

    (b) Ethics without sanctions result in a paper tiger.

  2. It would be helpful if the Task Force would articulate why the current code is deficient. It seems to cover many of the ethical obligations that Anthropologists have.

  3. It would be helpful if the Task Force would articulate why the current code is deficient. What does it lack that this new code will provide?

  4. A workable code must be enforceable and sanctionable, or it is not workable. As regards the tendered 2nd principle, the key question is what ‘balance’ is to mean. The professional anthropologist and/or social science practitioner must import relevant metrics to determine any balancing between competing ethical obligations to other parties. For example, I work with Aboriginal peoples in Canada. The constitutional law of Canada is such that the Crown owes Aboriginal peoples a legal fiduciary obligation in relation to any matter that the Crown might have discretionary decision making over. If I advise the Crown in a matter that clearly involves such discretion, the 2nd principal requires me to to balance my ethical obligations both to the Crown (my client) and to the Aboriginal group affected (to which the Crown may hold a legal duty). How do/can I possbily balance these obligations without more sensitive and contextually relevant guidance?
    Accordingly, I suggest that the principle be amended to add reference to a reference process, which brings me back of course to the need for a sanctioning and enforcement process. However, even without the latter, if the profession were to sanction a formal reference process for itself (as indeed occurs in the legal and other professions) then this might naturally migrate to the appropriate sanctioning/enforecment regime that is required.

  5. I completely agree that a code of ethics without any sanctions is simply a paper tiger. Indeed, when the AAA Committee on Ethics (COE) is reduced to merely an educational function, albeit one extremely important function, are the COE in particular and AAA in general being ethical?

    In addition, is it being ethically responsible to the membership and interested public to remove from the AAA website the Final Report of the Task Force on Darkness in El Dorado and and its Preliminary Report and the very informative and insightful Commentary on the latter by some of the membership? These reports were developed for the membership of the AAA, yet any interested 10,000 to 11,000 paying members as well as historians of science and other legitimate researchers must search elsewhere to find these reports. Is the COE serving its educational function in this instance? Is the AAA following the principles in the Code of Ethics in this instance? Is such censorship in the interest of science, scholarship, the profession, and the AAA?

    Finally, two other questions: Does the Code of Ethics apply to staff of the AAA who are not anthropologists? Should the revision of the Code of Ethics include guidelines for the leadership of the AAA?

  6. Since the Task Force is presenting the Code of Ethics one principle at a time, I think this sounds good on its own so far. Every anthropologist, and in most cases, every worker, is the only one to know intimately all the entities, issues, extenuating circumstances, and ramifications of her actions. It puts the responsibility squarely on the individual to make the best and most ethical decision at the time. Good effort. I like the iterative process. On to the next.

  7. Principle #2) The idea of Balancing ethical obligations is an important advance.

    It is redundant to begin by saying that anthropology is a ‘social enterprise.’ Why say this to a group of anthropologists, unless the code is also intended for others’ eyes.

  8. I like the message of this principle; I would only suggest that it be re-worded, since the current wording is a bit awkward and lacks clarity. I think what is important in this principle is the acknowledgment that it is not so easy to pinpoint to whom our ethical behaviour is owed. At the same time, I think we need to NOT conflate professional ethics (among colleagues in the academy, say) with ethics in our field research (where we might have the potential to disempower people or put them at risk) – with all the caveats about “studying up” vs. studying any other way taken into consideration.

  9. […] (“Be open and honest regarding your work. Make your results accessible.“, “Balance competing ethical obligations due collaborators and affected parties“), and are asking for our help in crafting those. They are posting their thoughts on the AAA […]

  10. “Balance competing ethical obligations due collaborators and affected parties.” sounds good, but again implies power that the anthropologist may not have nor should be expected to have in this generic sense. In any anthropological endeavor, the anthropologist occupies a set of status/role positions visa a vise others in the situation. The simplest and, maybe, best way to balance the competing ethical obligations is two fold:
    (1) know what your obligations are to others and they to you
    (2) be honest in your dealings with the others

    . That is, be a good person and you may do what is right and expected of you.

    The anthropologist should not set her/himself up as a god. That is the role of the experimental scientist.. “Anthropology is not an experimental science.Anthropology is,”, as A. L. Kroeber said, ” the most humanistic of the sciences and the most scientific of the humanities.” Let our code of ethics reflect that reality.

  11. I agree with Barry Bainton; honesty and obligations are bedrock. Nevertheless, with regard to: “Anthropologists have an obligation to distinguish the different kinds of interdependencies and collaborations” – in addition to collaborators, informants (people who are willing to share information but who otherwise have little or no inerest in our research) are important stakeholders. Also, dependence is a critical variable but we need to include inequalities and perhaps also hierarchies. My point is that ethnical decisions cannot be made without understanding the distribution of power, and “dependence” is only one (however important) kind.

  12. One cannot easily disagree with the general principle, because it is vague. One might wish for more specific guidelines. There remains the problem that anthropologists usually owe a special debt to their consultants. Indeed, if one is “studying up,” this is a different matter from studying a vulnerable and persecuted small group. But, still, in normal anthropological practice, there is not an equality of “stakeholders.” Some of the people we have to worry about are just that: stakeholders. Others are much more seriously involved. We simply must figure out a way to deal with the fact that we owe a special debt to the people who have most often helped us, i.e. the Indigenous, marginal, impoverished, rural, and otherwise disadvantaged or oppressed groups of all types–or even just ordinary people. Surely we, professionally, given the history of this profession, owe them more than just adding them to a pool of things to be considered.

  13. Marvelous, what a weblog it is! This webpage provides valuable data to us, keep it up.

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