Draft AAA Code of Ethics Compared With Existing Code

2 thoughts on “Draft AAA Code of Ethics Compared With Existing Code”

  1. Thank you for the chance to comment on the process of revising the AAA code of ethics. First, some comments on three general points:

    (1) The old code had more “dictums” or benchmarks of conduct, whereas the new code tends toward a “best practices” approach and provides more clarification, nuancing, and context. Both are actually helpful, so I suggest a more balanced approach.

    (2) This leads to the second point. Concrete, clear, specific statements regarding ethics and ethical behavior, both in the field and afterwards (dissemination and communication), can be useful to anthropologists who find themselves in situations where they must defend the ethical praxis of their work or resist what they see as harmful use of their research findings by external others (e.g. employers, clients, funders, lawyers, etc.). For example, the old code (C.2.) notes that “Anthropologists must not compromise their professional responsibilities and ethics and should not agree to conditions which inappropriately change the purpose, focus or intended outcomes of their research.” This is a direct statement that could be especially helpful to anthropologists working in applied settings or under circumstances where there are no direct institutional guidelines (the equivalent to IRBs) regarding research ethics. However, this type of statement is missing in the new draft code (unless I overlooked it).
    Related to this is the complex issue of “ownership” of research and data. It would be helpful to provide guidelines to anthropologists so that they take all necessary steps (from the submission of research proposals all the way through to final reporting and dissemination ) so as to protect both themselves and others who either participated in the research or may be impacted by it.

    (3) There seems to be little distinction made in the code of ethics between applied and non-applied anthropological work. On the one hand, treating all sorts of anthropological work on an equal footing with regards to ethics is a good thing. Much of anthropological work these days is applied in one sense or another (regardless of whether the anthropologist identifies it as such), especially if one accepts a broader definition such as “anthropology in use” (as I have done, along with my colleagues, John van Willigen and Merrill Singer). However, there are unique issues that arise when one is working for a client (and these vary widely depending on the situation … anthropologists work across and with a broad spectrum of settings, clients, collaborations, etc. that can be public or non-profit or private). The code of ethics should at least recognize this in positive ways, if not provide guidelines.

    In addition, there are several parts of the old 2009 code that are NOT included in the new draft code, which I want to comment on:

    (a) Old code: “While anthropologists may gain personally from their work, they must not exploit individuals, groups, animals, or cultural or biological materials.”

    This forceful and unequivocal statement about “exploiting” is important and does not appear in the new draft code (unless I missed it). One cannot assume that “doing no harm” necessarily covers exploitation. As the section on “do no harm” in the new draft code notes, “determining harms and their avoidance in any given situation may be complex” — the new code does not specify what is meant by harm nor who makes that determination. Also, “animals or cultural/biological materials” are not mentioned (at least not in the part of the draft code that we have been asked to comment on).

    (b) Old code: “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.”

    The old code is explicit about the anthropologist’s responsibility to take all steps to anticipate potential uses of data and let participants know. The new code seems to dilute this responsibility,
    although it does go into more detail about what such likely uses of data might be.

    (c) Old code (see ‘responsibility to the public’):
    “They should make clear the empirical bases upon which their reports stand, be candid about their qualifications and philosophical or political biases, and recognize and make clear the limits of anthropological expertise.”

    Section B2 in the new draft code notes that anthropologists “should be alert to the potential of bias to compromise the integrity” of their work. But this is a weaker statement than the original one. Given that everyone approaches a research problem and situation with some level of bias–especially if the topic/issue being studied has political/human rights/controversial aspects, having a statement that explicitly notes the importance of being candid regarding one’s biases seems important. Same goes for the level of one’s qualifications. There have been some recent cases where concerns have been raised about both biases and qualifications — e.g., anthropologists working for the military, and especially those working within war zones.

    (d) Old code: “Anthropologists may choose to move beyond disseminating research results to a position of advocacy.”

    The new draft code makes no mention of advocacy or activism. This is an omission that needs to be rethought (see my comment #2 above).

    (e) The old code included a number of statements regarding conduct and obligations while teaching. The new draft code seems to really water this down. In addition to duties and responsibilities of the anthropologist to the student, teaching involves unique relationships of power that should be addressed.

    (f) Old code (under “application”) notes: “Proactive contribution and leadership in shaping public or private sector actions and policies may be as ethically justifiable as inaction, detachment, or noncooperation, depending on circumstances.”

    It is a good thing, in my opinion, that this old statement was deleted, since it was problematic–in part because it implied that inaction or detachment were assumed to always be ethical stances. The new draft code seems to avoid this issue altogether, which is also problematic. There are many anthropologists working in situations or on problems, where advocacy is an accepted potential role. This is certainly true in explicitly-applied work, but also appears in work done by independent anthropologists (e.g., those who study illegal organ transplants, the complexities of homelessness, the underground economy, many issues/topics that have explicit human rights implications, etc.) This should at least be acknowledged in the new code.

    Thanks to everyone who is working on making the AAA Code of Ethics more relevant and useful.

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