Ethics Task Force – Draft Principle: Do No Harm

52 thoughts on “Ethics Task Force – Draft Principle: Do No Harm”

  1. Hi all,
    I think that is quite impossible to do no harm. whether intentional or unintentional there is always a consequence when there is a disturbance in an isolated environment from an outsider. I agree with some of the previous comments that we must do no harm but also try not to change any of their present culture with outside influences.

  2. Last week our cultural anthropology class took the Ethics Task Force Review as an opportunity to critically discuss the principle of “Do No Harm”. Our discussion echoed many of the comments made on this blog, including that:

    * This directive is an important core principle of anthropological research;

    *It is useful as a teaching tool for classroom discussions;

    * It shows non-anthropologists (including our participants) how anthropologists are expected to conduct themselves;

    * ‘Intend no harm’ might be more realistic or achievable than ‘do no harm’, as consequences cannot always be anticipated (especially when our work is published online);

    * Notions of ‘harm’ are context-specific and need to be situationally negotiated in ongoing conversations with participants.

    Overall, we felt that the principle of “Do No Harm” is similar to Wikipedia: a good place to start (but not to end) thinking about ethical considerations.

  3. I come to this debate rather late. It is an interesting academic discussion of moral and ethical principles, but it does not address some more basic ideas. Before we consider whether anthropologist and anthropology is good or bad (the ethical question), I think it is important to define what we mean by “anthropology” and then “good” and “bad”

    Anthropology is used very loosely in the profession as something that everyone should know it when they see it. It is described as a 4 or 5 field approach to the human species and its evolution. But aside from a methodology and a coalition of sub-disciplines there is no concrete definition being offer here. .

    What is uniquely “anthropological”?
    And, When does a person become or transcend into the state of anthropology?
    Who can officially call themselves an anthropologist?

    Do we need a unique code of ethics or can we ask “anthropologists” to simply practice “good” behavior as defined by the larger community?

    “To do no harm” is an impossible standard for what anthropologist do. Archaeologist destroy sites and data to do their job. Ethnographers describe “tribal” secrets and publicize the locations and resources of groups previously unknown. Linguist s commit to writing native languages that allow others to create bibles and pamphlets to be used to convert or sell to the natives. Physical anthropologist help to define populations with unique genetic features that may be used to stigmatize the group. Applied anthropologists seek to solve problems defined by others to achieve goals defined by the others.

    Regardless, the decision to take Action and no action = action which creates consequences. Consequences lead to someone being harmed if harmed is defined as being less well off as a result of the action or inaction of another..

    A better first principle would be the “golden rule” to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”At least here, the individual is admitting to accept the same harm he/she is inflicting.

    The purpose of a code of ethics is to subordinate the individual to the standards of the group. That standard then become the basis for evaluating whether the group member’s actions are “good” or “bad.”

    But if such a standard implies omniscient power to divine all future consequences of an action is to believe in tooth fairy. An effect code is one where an individual is held accountable for the actions he/she has control over.The control comes from the choices we make. We all have choices.

    The ethical judgement should be made about the choice. This is where the individual can or should be held accountable. Such a standard gets at motivation and purpose which are ethical and moral concerns. For an individual to be held accountable for the unintended consequence is to assume that the individual is omnipotent.

    “To do no harm” reads nice but does work in the real world unless harm is clearly defined. For many professions these are contextually defined. For example: For a medical doctor it is not to murder or cause unnecessary pain to a patient or subject. For the lawyer is to insure that the client’s rights are protected (regardless of innocence). For the accountant to see that the client properly account for and reports its earning and take advantage of all legitimate tax deductions.

    Where or which context apply(is) for which anthropologist(s)?

  4. It is the job of espionage agents to uncover the wrongdoings of people with power. It is the job of assassins to kill them. Anthropologists are not espionage agents or assassins. But we can and do uncover systems of wrongdoing, in detail, without naming names. Carolyn Nordstrom is someone who has performed this kind of ethnography with great skill and success. If you choose greater honesty, as soon as you do reveal the identity of a wrongdoer, all the other wrongdoers in the world will refuse to talk to you. Or worse.

    1. Margaret’s point also alludes to a broader theme that the Committee for Minority Issues in Anthro discussed today on a conference call about the Code. Although the second principle addresses power asymmetries, the first principle does not leave much room for the role of critique in ethnography. Moreover, the general tone of the texts presumes that our informants are always the vulnerable party within a broader social structure of power. All of our informants need to be respected, but they do not all require equal forms or levels of protection; personal confidentiality perhaps but not necessarily uniform insulation from the effects of our analyses. Who decides what wrong-doing is? The vulnerable and underserved may be exploited but that does not mean individual actors are unable to abuse others in turn.

  5. While I am sympathetic with the basic tenet of not harming those one studies, I think there are notable exceptions. The Nazi regime is the classic example where, were anthropologists to have been involved, a good rationale for deliberate harm would have made good sense. And there have been other situations since, e.g., regimes such as that of Idi Amin. We have to make judgments about the well-being of the populations we study, and, where abuse is obvious, we may have an obligation to intervene–to disrupt what may be a normal practice in that setting. The current work of Nancy Scheper-Hughes on the trafficking of human organs is a good example in which disruption of the practice is the ethical action.

  6. Dear All –

    Thank you all for your comments/suggestions/feedback.

    It’s clear that responses to this principle vary considerably.

    One set of comments supports the proposal as the “core principle for our discipline.”

    One set of responses argues that it is hard to determine what would actually cause harm, and that the principle should instead read “intend no harm.” While we understand and are sympathetic to this viewpoint, it introduces a number of difficulties, among them the challenge of framing ethical principles based on intent, and potentially allowing purity of motive to absolve anthropologists of responsibility for their actions, however well intentioned.

    Another set of responses suggests that ‘do no harm’ is inadequate, and instead the principle should require anthropologists to directly benefit the communities they study. Certainly anthropology serving those being studied is worthy, but we are not certain it is an imperative for all ethical anthropological work. In some cases determination of what is in the best interests of an individual or community may be problematic at best, and often more difficult to reasonably gauge than what is likely to cause harm. If we take seriously the concerns of a number of respondents that it is hard to know what may harm a community, it seems at least as likely that it will be as hard or harder to determine what should be done by others on their behalf. There are also venues for ethical anthropological inquiry in which this principle would be difficult to assess, such as many kinds of research not involving living human subjects.

    In a related vein, several researchers treat the principle as broadly analogous to IRB guidelines, and suggest using the approach articulated in the Belmont report, which follows ‘do not harm’ with the requirement to maximize benefit while minimizing harm.

    As noted above, there are several difficulties with requiring beneficence as a prerequisite of ethical anthropological research, and we have instead recommended that anthropologist should: 1) seek to avoid harm; 2) weigh carefully the potential positive and negative impacts of their work; and 3) recognize that determinations of best interest are complex and value laden, requiring careful consultation with all affected parties. Most of the respondents appear to interpret the Belmont report as expecting that research should benefit the individuals being studied, and some respondents stated that only research addressing questions of immediate interest and benefit to communities being studied should be allowed. Research may have a range of benefits at widely varying scales, however, and for many anthropologists the advancement of human knowledge is itself a real and tangible benefit.

    Some respondents question whether the principle is too vague, since in some situations harm to those in power or to those benefiting from inequities might be justified. This is a valid concern, and has been discussed by the task force at some length during its deliberations. We believe that the principle as worded allows for the complexity of individual situations to be considered, and for anthropologists to responsibly consider the differential impacts of their work on different individuals or communities. Like many of the principles in this and previous codes, they may have different interpretations or ramifications when applied to individuals or to communities of differing scale. Hence our intent has been less to propose cookie-cutter solutions than to offer core principles which encourage discourse and reflection.

    One respondent argued that we must all do harm, and the only question was to whom and why. Rhetoric aside, this view still presumes that there are more and less appropriate actions, and we feel that the logic of this principle, restated in accordance with this philosophical position, still offers meaningful guidance for ethical conduct.

    On balance, the comments seem divided between feeling the principle requires too much knowledge in the face of difficulties in knowing what might cause harm, on the one hand, and too little advocacy and beneficence, taking actions on behalf of those studied, on the other.

    Finally, as several respondents note, this principle is intended as a call to consider the complexities of harm, and for anthropologists to accept responsibility for their actions. We agree with one respondent that the devil is indeed in the details. We do not imagine these statements to be a series of simple dicta which can be followed without deliberate thought, but instead a set of principles which anthropologists may reasonably consider in assessing the ethical dimensions of their work, and apply to new situations not previously encountered.

    We very much appreciate these comments, and consider this an on-going dialogue. Please continue to share your thoughts and perspectives with us over the next several months.

    Best –
    Task Force

  7. “To do no harm” is a moral principle, highly desirable and impossible to achieve. Desirable because it expresses what iwe all ideally desire; impossible because it requires “perfect knowledge” of cause and effect. As an ethical principle, “To knowingly strive to do no harm” is a more realistic goal. This means that the anthropologist will control her/his actions as an anthropologist to minimize to the best of his/her ability any untoward impact of her/his anthropological actions.

    Unless one wants to be a victim or a god, it is unreasonable to expect that a human being can be held responsible for events beyond one’s own immediate control. But it is reasonable to expect them to take all reasonable steps to prevent those potential harms that are within their control.

  8. The phrase “first, do no harm” goes back to various Hippocratic writings, and Wikipedia has a nice history of it. Being medical, it always implied “no NET harm.” The ancient Greeks had a lot of fun with the fact that a surgeon must harm thepatient, by cutting him, to do surgery–especially problematic in those days when sepsis could not be controlled. The idea was to act for maximum benefit and minimum harm, given the fact that all actions harm something somehow. Hippocrates did warn his students not to do surgery, though! The question of what actions cause too much danger to be desirable is always with us. I was involved in field work 40 years ago in an area that suddenly blew up. I did not publish anything significant for eight years and never published a lot of what I found–it’ll have to die with me. One makes these choices. On the other hand, I published what I thought would solve the situation or at least prevent others like it, if anyone listened to me. Nobody did, but I gave them the option. The point of all this is that our first obligations are to the people we study–they have trusted us and bared their lives to us. We have to think of how we can use our best abilities to do best by them.

  9. As I understand it, the Committee on Ethics and the Code of Ethics of the AAA have been reduced to merely an educational function for many years. In teaching a course (410 Ethics in Anthropology) I use the Code as a framework for thinking about specific cases, actual and hypothetical, and often with the students engaged in a debate format. Do no harm, and ideally, do some good, are elemental and pivotal considerations. But, of course, the devil is in the details. Students quickly come to understand some of the difficulties. Nevertheless, at least the students start thinking about these issues in an informed, critical, and analytical matter. (See 410 syllabus and resource guide under “esyllabi” under “Courses” at

    However, my syllabus starts with this quote which suggests that ethics in anthropology involves far more than basic ideals to think about, discuss, and debate:

    “Yet the ethics of anthropology is clearly not just about obeying a set of guidelines; it actually goes to the heart of the discipline; the premises on which its practitioners operate, its epistemology, theory and praxis. In other words, what is anthropology for? Who is it for?” Pat Caplan, 2003, The Ethics of Anthropology: Debates and Dilemmas, New York, NY: Routledge, p. 3).

    Finally, have there been any actual cases in which convincing evidence revealed serious violations of the AAA Code of Ethics, whatever version existed at the time, and in which the AAA leadership and/or Committee on Ethics actually took any effective action? If not, is that an ethical problem in itself?

  10. David

    If you are talking about the hippocratic oath, it IS there in several of its forms. There it refers to protecting human life. The physician should know his bounds, and act to preserve life. The Physician should not take life, even that of the unborn. The Physician will leave surgery to those who do it, and not defile the human body by piercing it or entering it.

    You mention mitigating harm. Wait a minute. What most people here seem to be saying is that by the very nature of the field we harm people! Is that true?

    I am sitting on information that is historical now, but still information on the habits of young people in a part of the world that could come back to bite them in the butt if it were used by others in their society against them. Not just powerful people but anybody. I never published it and would not do so.
    Claire Farrer risked her career by waiting for permission from Mescalero to publish some or much of her data. I think she acted ethically and within the spirit of the precept ‘Do No Harm”.

    None of us can b e certain of the consequences of our actions. The John Frumm Movement, for instance, was started by an individual who probably died never knowing that he was the icon for a millenarian movement. There has been good and evil from it just as there has been good and evil coming from religious organizations all over the world. The important thing is that John Frumm tried to help people who needed help in the midst of war. We cannot hope for any better than maintaining the trust of the people we work with to the best of our abilities.

  11. “Do no harm” doesn’t even exist in the oath it is thought to exist in in any case. If the thought is to mitigate harm, my sense has always been that the standard IRB review doesn’t cover the half of it, and that jumping through that hoop doesn’t cover the actual problem, which is that we go on to write about the people we do our research with in a non-statistical way. My sense of “consent,” then, is only partially covered by the IRB indulgence that has me asking people to approve of what I do before I actually do it. The place where you need to get informed consent is at the point at which you have turned people into characters in your story. The medicalized pre-framing of the IRB process doesn’t cover that at all.

  12. I believe that “arguing with them” is a valuable way, sometimes the only way, of mitigating harm being done by the people you are working with in the field. You cannot turn them in to their enemies. That is not what you are there for. And you cannot stop them from doing the harm they are planning to do, if indeed they tell you in advance of their plans. But you can tell them why you feel this or that action is or was wrong. If they are willing to listen to your point of view, and trust you not to betray them, then individuals, if not the whole organization you are working with, may accept your point of view. The whole organization may not change its tactics, but at least those few individuals may have a chance to argue against certain future actions planned by the organization, or to leave the organization before it is too late.

  13. Ray Scupin

    I have thought about the “Do No Harm” ethical principle in respect to my fieldwork among the Muslim minority in Thailand. There were a diversity of political and religious views expressed within this community of 4 million or so Muslims in a Buddhist population of 65 million people. So it was a very complex setting. However, through interviewing these Muslims about their various views in 1994 and then again in 2002, I found that some of the more fundamentalist or Salafist types of Muslims were translating the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and Henry Ford’s “the International Jews” into the Thai language for their communities in order to promote their views within the very diverse Muslim communities. What should I have done about this ethical situation? I did argue with them about how they were promoting wrong-headed anti-semitic views that were harmful to both Jews and others. However, they argued that these “real” truths need to be learned within the Muslim communities. “Do No Harm” doesn’t seem to be appropriate in this situation.

  14. This discussion engages a deeper opposition, in the discipline and beyond. For those of us who see that a world system in which the large majority of people cannot get enough to eat is rotten to the core, the problem of people in power being “right” will not arise. To hold power in such a system is to be “wrong,” either for systematically inflicting harm or for not using power to unravel systematic harm, or both. For those of us who see a world of perhaps a few problems but no real alternative, power can be “right,” and what might look like harm to the powerless can be necessary for the greater good of stability, order, progress, or whatever abstraction has claimed their loyalty. This opposition is inherent in the system. There is no resolution.

  15. Do no harm, which sounds good and clean and noble, is just about the most self-serving, juvenile, crap I have heard in a very long time, and morally despicable to boot. It is very reminiscent of when I was a youth, in the Bronx, shoplifting from Woolworths, and we used to hold out our hands to the cops, palms up, palms down, palms up. saying “look ofiicer, clean.” Anthropologists want to pretend their hands are clean, in a dirty world, but they do so by lying to themselves, to the institutions of power, and to each other, in truly immoral ways.

    There is no way at all we can do no harm, unless we are postmodernists who write and do drivel, because to live morally in an unequal world we have to — have to — hurt someone. The only question that matters is who and why.

    Two stories will center the issues before us in real world terms, and perhaps give those of us who can not join the ethics committee, pressured into sitting on their thumbs, something to wonder about and talk to each other about.

    he first story is Georges Condominas’s 1972 keynote address to the AAA, meeting with CASCA, in which he said, with many tears rolling down his face, that he went to Vietnam Montagnards to do a dissertation on ethnomusicology and the US CIA bought a copy, translated it., and used it to identify village leaders and kill them in Operation Phoenix. He told us there can be no such thing as an innocent anthropology. An AAA that wants to pretend there is, or can be, is no different from an AAA that meets in non-union hotels, and that does not dismiss the hired staff that insists on doing this, against the wishes of its memers. Self-serving fraud is self-serving fraud, and a professional association, unlike the American Psychological Association, which expelled psychologists who aided US torture programs, that does not expell so-called anthropologists who work for the Human Terrain System is an association of opportunists and moral frauds, who want to pretend they do no harm. Some of you will want to tell me to then quit, but I joined in 1960, went to my first AAA meeting in 1957, and if you don’t like what I am telling you then you quit the association.

    Second, I was just in a northern Inuit village, where an 8-year-old child was standing out in the freezing cold at 10.30 at night, dressed in only a t-shirt, looking for his parents in the bar, who locked him out of the house so they could go out drinking. O offered to take him to his grandparents, but he told me he was scared of them, because they hit him. I went to the tribal council offices the next day, and asked for them 6to set up a safe house for young children, and they brushed me off — they were too busy rolling in the mining royalties that decorated their very vary fancy offices.

    Go and tell me you do not want to do any harm to anyone, when the violence of inequality and domination within — within — native communities is probably the most salient feature of the last 3 or 4 decades of indigenous peoples’ histories.

    In sum: get out of my way. Go play with yourselves, go lie to yourselves, go deceive yourselves, but do not for a moment think that what you are doing has anything whatsoever to do with ethics, I’ve owned sled dogs with a more developed sense of morality.

  16. As a non-traditional undergraduate student researching a vulnerable population, I have encountered some difficult ethical situations. My university does not include a separate ethics course, but every course I have taken has included at least a brief ethics component. Additionally, my professors have been very willing to discuss the ethical dilemmas that have arisen in my research and advise me on common solutions.

    I should point out that the principle “do no harm” is religious (Buddhism, Jainism) and not actually possible to achieve by the perfectly imperfect human beings we are. The principle “minimize harm, maximize good/benefit” is part of American culture, being the principle by which our government operates as well as being a standard operating procedure of fire, rescue, and police agencies. It is a more achievable goal. Another option might be “minimize intentional harm” as being a more generalized goal, suitable to American culture and idealistic without being unachievable.

    Ultimately, within the academy, it is not up to anthropologists to determine “minimize harm, maximize benefit” – it is the IRB that makes that determination. It can be assumed that IRB members are human and have agendas and other ideas of what “minimize harm, maximize benefit” is composed of in comparison to anthropologists submitting proposals. I appreciate the suggestion above to educate the IRB members when necessary. Perhaps a page explaining anthropological research with links to the ethical code and other pertinent documents could be added to the AAA website that would be useful for IRB members.

    The research I am engaged in deals with two populations involved on opposite sides of a human rights issue. I am researching something other than the human rights issue, but it is an important issue to my research participants (each of whom would like me to express and validate their point of view) and is a potential explanation for the differing results between the two populations. I am frequently reminded of the scientific principle of objectivity. Despite postmodern arguments that as humans we are always subjective, I believe that a high enough level of objectivity is possible for researchers to achieve that no sides need be chosen. Constituents will find evidence for their point of view regardless of what is written or intended. My project adviser has been invaluable in navigating through the complex and conflicting ethics involved in my research.

    Another question many have mentioned is the notion of what is owed to research participants. It is my thought that the notion of recompense is questionable in itself, related to the idea of knowledge as being something of financial value and the capitalization of knowledge in the American economic system, which is often ethnocentric in practice. I practice reciprocal research, acting as a “culture broker” – attempting to explain one culture to another in terms that might be understandable. Since I am acquiring information from my research participants regarding their culture and way of life, I tell them of my culture and way of life. This is an equitable exchange, though often research participants expect more. Is “helping” the same as “payment” for information? Is payment a necessary component of research and if so, are there guidelines for appropriate research compensation? And perhaps most important, does payment compromise the objectivity and accuracy of research?

    I appreciate the opportunity to discuss anthropological ethics and how they may best be expressed to “minimize harm and maximize benefit” within the field and the world. I look forward to future posts.

  17. As several others have noted, it would help to have principles that are workable in the context of limited knowledge, inability to predict the future in complex systems, and the contested nature of values and politics. Otherwise we risk principles that are “counsels of perfection” or become excuses for “sins of omission” by academic spectators unable to engage. While research often entails interactions where these issues are present, they are particularly pertinent if this code is supposed to encompass applied anthropology.
    If, not so hypothetically, in applied practice, I work, in conjunction with communities and a government agency, to design and support a process in which communities are likely to, in a reasonably democratic way, act to restrain the behavior and thereby (harm) reduce the benefits of a few people (upstream irrigators, large landowners) who currently take advantage of others, it’s not clear how a principle of “do no harm” would allow any practical engagement.
    The comments about beneficence are somewhat helpful, but seem to risk moving towards a utilitarian “greatest good for the greatest number” that is also highly problematic in terms of ethics and justice.

  18. ‘Do no harm’—Harm is a complex concept, as yet inadequately explored in our discipline, and may be subject to consideration of cultural relativism. The principle enunciated in the draft code is ‘do no harm,’ yet in the first sentence explicating the principle the ethical obligation is to “avoid doing harm.” Avoiding harm and doing NO harm are different. Avoiding harm may also mean prevention of harm or reduction of harm, but avoiding harm does not mean that NO harm will ever result from one’s research or application of anthropology. This old gold standard of medical and professional ethics has been subjected to review and debate in other fields.

    What is harm? Would all anthropologists or their research participants agree? ‘Harm ‘ should be problematized—are there agreed upon universal standards of harm, and where is there discussion of reasonable disagreement. What does the anthropologist or student reading the code need to think about when applying this principle in research? Vulnerable populations need to be specifically addressed here before they are mentioend elsewhere.

    ‘Well-being’ in the second paragraph is a more nuanced treatment of the subject and the task force might consider restating the principle with broader meaning as “Do no harm—Increase well-being.” This includes both the “thou shall not and thou shall” for those who are tempted to see something of the Ten Commandments in the principles.

  19. “Do No Harm” as a general guideline, intentionally vague and left to interpretation, is a very useful ethical starting point. However, expanding on this quickly gets into dangerous territory. As was mentioned above, every attempt to change a system is wrought with potential ‘harm’ and everyone who uses their research to push for change is harming *someone*.

    Ultimately, when we decide to use our research, or allow our research to be used, to promote change we are agreeing that someone’s interests are “worth harming” and some “worth protecting.” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but a blanket edict to “Do No Harm” could easily lead to a professional paralysis when one considers that a few steps away from the person giving you this interview is someone who will not like, will want or need to fight, or will suffer consequences for what is said much further down the line.

    To me engagement, honesty, transparency, and an iterative process with one’s subjects are much more important than a vague proclamation that only survives if one doesn’t think about it too much. At a certain point, any new knowledge can be weaponized, regardless of intent. I am sure Elizabeth Warnock Fernea had no idea that her book, Guests of the Sheik, would be required reading for some Army officers sent to Iraq 40 years later. Then again, it was required reading during my undergrad and graduate work in anthropology as well, so is the trade off worth it?

    As was also mentioned above, no ethical guidelines can provide a case-by-case rule set for ethical issues in the field. The only way for researchers (and students) to understand the basic assumptions of the Right and Wrong of our field is through exploration and discussion of our expectations and the practical and moral implications of violating those rules. We need rules that, while simple, encourage discourse and stand up to that scrutiny so everyone can judge for themselves if their actions under the ‘anthropology banner’ are reasonable and methodologically valid.

  20. I would like to inject a bit of history into this discussion and recommend that it would be beneficial for some of the bloggers who are discussing the nuances of the Do No Harm principle take a quick look at the Belmont Report. It is one of the first “official” places where the Do No Harm principle is proposed for protecting research subjects in the US. Please note that do no harm is immediately followed by the revised principle of Maximize Benefit, Minimize Harm for very much the same reasons that people are struggling with the absolutes of the Do No Harm Principle being discussed here. The AAA could do a lot worse than to follow the absolute with the do-able process of maximizing good and minimizing harm. The Belmont Report is a quick read. Here is the website:

  21. For those thinking about this principle in relation to the IRB, it might be helpful to return to the Belmont Report, which still today is an essential reference for IRBs. The three core principles related in this report are: autonomy, beneficence, and justice. This first proposed AAA principle most directly relates to the idea of beneficence.

    Notably, the Belmont Report identifies beneficence as an obligation that goes beyond notions of kindness and charity. The Report states that, “Two general rules have been formulated as complementary expressions of beneficent actions in this sense: (1) do not harm and (2) maximize possible benefits and minimize possible harms.”

    What is notable, then, is that the Belmont Report authors do not understand the “do no harm” maxim as in itself sufficient; researchers are not to be merely neutral. On the contrary, we should work to maximize the good of our research, while minimizing any injury it might cause.

    1. Agree with Murray’s “Do Good” principle (but not much help for the IRB process).
    2. Does concern for do no harm exaggerate the power of anthropology or anthropologists? The baseline is Nazi experiments with humans.
    2. This principle is way too vague and self-directed to be practically useful. Perhaps this is a preamble or introduction, but these ethical principles should be more about how does anthropology present ourselves to the IRBs of the world, on the one hand, and as an operational bible to protect communities and fieldworkers, on the other.
    3. We’re many disciplines, and each one has its’ own set of issues.
    4. Some of my concerns for sociocultural (or whatever you want to call this field) are: are we exempt research; how do we pass IRB muster without a formal protocol and questionnaire; which crimes that we observe need to be reported; how necessary it is, and how do we maintain confidentiality; what responsibilities do we have to existing local and national authorities; what is the nature of consent for anthropological research (and many more).
    5. Perhaps we need something like the old “Notes and Queries”
    5. I hate typing in this little box.

    1. I think the Code of Ethics differs significantly from how we engage procedurally with a local IRB, be that of our own home institution or another. Certainly, IRB-related questions will come up with respect to many of the forthcoming principles so forgive the possible discursion.
      That said, I’m a bit dismayed at the idea that anthropological research (in its myriad forms) could be automatically (a priori) exempt from IRB oversight. True, some research could be exempt (technical determination by the IRB), you still have to demonstrate this is the case; or it might be expedited- again, technical definition meaning not requiring full board review but review by a Chair. In this case, you still have to demonstrate Expedited Review is called for, and again following the form expected by an IRB administration. No work involving human subjects is a priori categorically exempt. Some ethnography in public places may well be, but the burden of proof lies on the anthropologist to make this case for each project. An ethnographic project may not have a questionnaire per se, but as a well-thought out project it should have a protocol that delineates the type of procedures involved and a summary of the types of questions, observed behaviors, conversations that the researcher might reasonably expect to undertake over the course of that project, however naturalistic.
      The fact that an IRB committee or administrator may not be familiar with our methods or know what passes muster as “quality anthropology” does not exempt us from their oversight. It does mean we may need to do legwork to train our IRBs or provide appropriate objective peer expertise to the IRB in order for our research to be reviewed properly. As the only anthropologist and full-on qualitative faculty researcher at my medical school, I have had to do so but have been well-received in these efforts.
      I’m interested to discuss further the relationship between our emerging/revised Code and our research.

  23. I agree that the diversity of anthropological endeavor makes a simple ‘do not harm’ principle difficult by itself to operationalize, especially given those areas of anthropological endeavor that do not involve living human populations. In these, and all contexts, I would argue that the ‘do no harm’ principle requires considering the broader societal impact: Who is funding? Why? How is research conducted? How is such research used?

    As our work is increasingly problem-focused and engages systems of power (and the abuse of power) it is indeed very difficult to determine appropriate course of action when our “subjects” also involve potential perpetrators of one sort or another (the ethical dilemma of ‘studying up’… Personally, when engaged in ‘studying up/down/sideways’ I utilize a transparent approach – so everyone I am interviewing or institutions that I am studying are aware of my work, have given permission for my engagement, and have an opportunity to receive and comment on the end product. There are times when such work produces material that may generate ‘harm’ to individuals or entities and in such situations I use the AAA human rights declaration as my guide. This declaration was adopted by vote by the membership in 1999 , and it situates our work within a broader moral obligation to adhere to international human rights law, including new and emerging human rights law and practice, such as the 2007 indigenous peoples declaration.

    I think the preamble provides a helpful starting point. My thought is that the preamble to ‘do no harm’ might include a specific link to our AAA Human Rights Declaration, thus providing a framework by which an ethical course of action might be determined.

  24. I think that the maxim “Do No Harm,” and the following two paragraphs explaining the subtleties of that principle of action are well-formulated and universally useful to anthropologists.

    While I agree with the spirit of many ideas here, I have concerns about a mandate to “help” being part of the AAA ethics code. This first principle, and the code in general needs to be universally applicable to all types of anthropology.

    It is difficult to imagine how a paleoanthropologist who studies the phylogeny of extinct lemurs would be able to “help” in the same way as an ethnographer who studies homeless kids in contemporary Rio De Janeiro, a linguist who studies dialectic differences in the Orkney islands, or a human biologist who studies aging.

    One might think that, because extant lemurs and their ecologies are endangered, the paleoanthropologist should instead be required to focus on “helping” by promoting conservation, community-based approaches to wildlife management, etc.. However, at that point, we would be using an ethics code to prescribe certain research as being less legitimate, and discouraging individual scholars from pursuing their own interests, and contributing in the way they feel they are most suited. While “do no harm” seems universally applicable and useful as an ethical principle across all types of anthropology, stating that “helping” is a universal ethical principle seems problematic in this regard. As the explanation of the maxim says, discussions about the benefits of anthropological work are complex and “should reflect sustained discussion with those concerned.”

    As long as it is not causing harm, what is wrong with some anthropologists just exploring ideas or creating knowledge without specifically “helping” in any obvious and direct way? While I agree that “helping too” should be encouraged, I don’t think that “not helping” should be encoded as a breach of ethics.

    There are too many examples of basic research which might have been deemed “unhelpful” when viewed within its era from a contemporary applied perspective (e.g., Mendel’s garden peas experiments). But, sometimes in the long span of history such work proves to be invaluable to humanity, as Mendel’s esoteric experiments with garden peas certainly proved to be.

    No one is omniscient, nor are anthropologists particularly powerful as a class, two points which I think we need to keep in mind in debating the merits of the first principle the task force has put forward. I believe the intent of a princple like “Do no harm” is that anthropologists are responsible to make decisions about how to be as confident as possible–at the outset–of doing no harm, and adjusting in an ongoing manner so as to always strive for that goal of doing _no_ harm.

    In reality, doing as little harm as possible, or doing the least-bad harm, or doing the harm that is necessary in order to do “the help” might often be how this principle plays out in real work.

    What I consider to be doing harm, and what you consider to be doing harm (vis a vis issues like working with powerful groups) may differ. No ethical code is going to be able to reconcile such differences in personal perspective, though it should state that doing no harm _is_ the all-inclusive ethical standard. Subsequent debates about whether or not a particular example of anthropological work does or does not strive toward, if not exemplify such a principle are inevitable and I do not think can be avoided at the outset by imposing a standard like “Intend no harm.”

    A standard of “intending” no harm I think relieves practictioners from their responsbility to constantly assess and reassess whether or not their work is doing or could do harm.

  25. Anthropologists are not only studying human biology, society, and culture, they are also “making society” and “making culture.” Leave the ethics of “making biology” to the medical profession and the IRBs. They know enough to understand the biological impacts of their work. ‘Do no harm’ is an good ethical principle to be applied to individual social relationships, which we hope that we understand; however, there is a problem when applying it to larger societies and cultures. Society and culture are immensely complex. How can “do no harm” be applied when we do not understand the future consequences of our activity on society and culture, especially our own? It can only be applied with an understanding of particular cases of social and cultural change. More guidelines are needed.

  26. I like very much this new approach to articulating ethical principles that (should) guide anthropologists. And I like the way this first principle is articulated. “Do no harm” is a simple principle – it can be left to each anthropologist to work out how it applies within and beyond her particular research framework. I think the text you have provided to support the principle “Do No Harm” is thoughtful and nuanced, and I personally would approach it very much the same way. You emphasize process and ongoing negotiation and dialogue. I would find this text not only useful in teaching my course on anthropological research practice, but also in communicating with the members of the university ethical review committee that I chair – members from a variety of social science disciplines who struggle to understand the nature of one another’s research. This approach of articulating basic principles is useful in getting out from under the burdensome straightjacket of audit culture that is currently on the rise and that threatens to stifle people’s ability to work out complex ethical dilemmas.

    If this is the direction that the AAA and its Task Force for Comprehensive Ethics Review are headed, I am very pleased, and I look forward to seeing the rest of the principles.

  27. I agree that anthropology is the problem, and as such is responsible to address the problems it creates. However this begins in education not the field. Do No Harm, a very understandable statement when anthropologists choose to listen. Many choose not to listen and not to apply the codes of ethics. An example of how this is intentionally reinforced in education. The display of a student poster with a photo of an open Native American burial, hung in a public (anthropology department) hallway, directly in front of the office of a Native American graduate student where he would be forced to view it every time he left his office. The students who created and displayed the poster did so under the tutelage of their mentors, members of AAA, SAA, and AAPA. In many USA anthropology departments there are no classes on ethics required to earn a degree in anthropology, no classes on the indigenous people required, and in my experience a great deal of lingering colonial attitude and exclusion. Discussing the ethical guidelines is a positive direction; however it may do little to promote their consideration or their value in academia where future anthropologist’s ethical guidelines are set by the actions of their mentors.

  28. I agree with Murray’s assertion that in lieu of focusing on ‘doing no harm’ we should instead focus on doing research that helps communities/groups/peoples address issues/problems/societal positives that they would like investigated. Unfortunately, even today anthropologists go into communities with a sort of unconscious paternalism that can ultimately do much more harm than good, however much that harm was not originally intended. I’m not saying all anthropology should be applied, but there certainly must be an applied context or at least some context of worth and value that helps the people we work with and this should perhaps be our initial ethical principle.

  29. Do no harm is fine as principle of medical practice, where you are working with a single individual. It is nearly meaningless when you (we) work with human communities, in which what is good and what is harm is usually in contention. As some of these posts suggests, what we do is often a matter of helping some while undermining the position of others. No harm at all, in such a context, would almost always be also no help at all–and no effect at all.
    I think we should help. A major complaint about anthropologists on the Navaho reservation, where there have been many, is that they come, take people’s time, do a dissertation, make a career, and in that sense benefit from the help the local people give them, but do nothing in return. They are never seen again, neither is what they write. I agree with the complaint. So how do we help? Some of the posts imagine we are politically powerful. Sometime, but this is actually a secondary topic. Most often we are not. The first concern should be about whether the scholarship itself is helpful for not. How do we do this? One way to do this is to make sure that our work is on useful and important topics from their own perspective, and that it is meaningful to the people it is supposed to be about.
    And of course this requires us to consider what “useful and important topics” might be, as part of our ethical obligation.

  30. Joans is my kind of ethnical anthropologist. It is essential that those with whom one works do have veto power. My work, with Mescalero Apaches, is now in its 46th year. They knew of my research prior to anyone else, leading the Tribal Council to allow my work with them. They have seen my work before it has been presented at meetings or offered for publication and have certainly vetoed (as well as emphasized) some items, even to requesting I did not publish for many years. So I didn’t. We both understand it is their lives under my microscope; they should have control.

  31. Anthropology is not the solution. Anthropology is the problem and no code of ethics can cover what may well be a basic flaw in our own design.
    We assume we have the right to study anyone. If they let us. Well, who decides to let us? There are so many issues that basically we do what we want, have fun doing it and try to “do no harm.? I have lived with many peoples, studied many groups and always showed my work to them before letting it out in the world. I also gave them all the right to change it-

    1. Ultimately, you work with your own moral principles, as well as with whatever disciplinary principles apply, as well as with the moral principles of the people you work with, as well as the law of the country you are working in. These different sets of principles are bound to collide in some cases.
      Anthropology need not be “the problem” – although it can be if it is done carelessly. Anthropology can and should shed light on important social issues that most people have been unaware of, and can facilitate the development of solutions, even though as anthropologists we should be very careful about proposing solutions, as our proposals can have disastrous consequences. But I can think of multiple examples where committed anthropological fieldwork has actually opened eyes and contributed toward solutions to hard problems. Meanwhile, if there are flaws in the design of our own methods, we can change those flaws more easily than we can change the rest of the world, so we should point out those flaws and work to change them.

  32. I remain committed to this as first principle, as I have been since the dawn of anthropological ethics codes. There are always “hard cases” (which “do not make good law,” we know) like those Noelle Sullivan mentions. In my experience, anthropologists causing significant trouble for people in power often leads to the latter causing much more trouble for people out of power in their own societies. It’s a dangerous game–sometimes necessary but never to be adopted lightly. Think who will bear the costs in the end.
    Since I am giving my website there, I might mention that I have some material on ethics posted on same.

    1. Agreed about giving the people in power trouble often can cause more trouble for those not in power…this is one of the reasons why I would welcome not necessarily a code, but some kind of guideline or paper that talks about some of the issues to consider when working with people in power–whether or not they are personally causing harm or in the right. I am very comfortable with the principle of “do no harm” and feel that this should be evaluated on a consistent basis as we’re in the field, as well as when we are teaching or mentoring students. There are responsibilities that go along with this and the principle articulates very nicely how complex “do no harm” can be in practice. That said, I think providing a guideline of issues to consider when working with people in power, or in projects where people are differently positioned in terms of power, could be very helpful.

  33. I also have concerns about “do no harm” for those anthropologists studying people who are in positions of power, particularly if their actions do harm to others less powerful. Many anthropologists are now “studying up” in this way. So how do we weigh our moral obligation to increase well-being of communities, for instance, against the moral obligation to powerful individuals who participate in our research?

    1. I wonder about how readily we make assumptions about ‘those in power’ as a way of straightening out ethical quandaries. In particular, it seems to me that assuming that some ‘cultural boundary’ is the marker for such determinations is problematic, if habitual. One of the things I think we owe to feminism is the sense that things like gender differences may count for more than our accustomed privileging of ‘cultural difference’ allows. If we take the notion of power as a serious guide to ethical conduct, then we might want to look more closely at how our work affects different people within a single community (or ‘group’), rather than just between them. This leads into much more complex but less formulaic ethical terrain. Answers won’t be easy.

  34. The “do no harm” principle not only suggests that anthropological work be consciously shaped (“intend no harm”) – it suggests that the act of doing generates a set of social obligations (to track and recognize outcomes, to own up to harm, to do further work to remedy). I see “do no harm” as a the core principle for our discipline, one that generates a set of obligations that, when met, demonstrate professional accountability and integrity.

    1. I completely agree with Barbara that “do no harm” is a core principle for our discipline, and yet recognize that doing no harm to the people we work with might be viewed as being potentially harmful to the powerful and the prosperous. We need a way to codify “harm to whom”. In the process of helping those we work for and with, we need to confront those who are trying to do them harm and frame our ethical codes in ways that are clearly on the side of the majority of humanity and not those in power.

    2. I have been teaching “Do no harm” to my students as the first ethical principle for anthropological fieldwork, for many years. It is a difficult principle to follow, precisely because you never know what might cause harm, and therefore you have to THINK about what you are doing in the field more carefully than you might in everyday life. Good intentions are not enough.
      Additionally, “harm to whom” is a good question, raised by Joan Mencher below. Sometimes to protect and advocate for one party (.e.g. Untouchables in India) is to, at the least, offend some other party – e.g. high caste Hindus. In this case, you have to consider what *could* happen, as well as what is likely to happen, in the case of both parties, and carefully make your choice. Sometimes to do nothing can in itself be a very harmful position, and sometimes to do something that seems good, without considering the consequence, can end up harmful to the ones you are intending to protect.

  35. I know “Do no harm” is an IRB principle, and so it should be in our code. However, I’d rather see it as “Intend no harm,” because you always hurt something. . .

    1. My second attempt to reply. My first attempt from a couple weeks ago appears to have vanished in the ether…

      In light of the unknowables embedded in the practice of engagement with others (or even oneself!), and taking anthropology to be a practice (action) rather than nonpractice (nonaction), might I suggest the following:

      Principle 1:
      Endeavor to do no harm.
      Failing that, endeavor to do more good than harm.

    2. But it’s not that simple. The IRB does not reject any proposal that includes some risk or potential harm to participants. Rather, the board weighs the expected cost and expected benefit to participants and the public… and if the tradeoff is potentially satisfactory, allows potential participants to decide whether to take part.
      Do no harm is a good goal to strive for, but unless we strategically ignore some harm (e.g., consumption of fossil fuels to travel to New Orleans for AAA’s) can we actually hope to achieve “zero harm”?

    3. “Intend no Harm” by a person with limited skills in Common Sense, more often does more harm than good.

      Common Sense is not about independently making a good decision, it is about the social processes that build a stronger position for one’s self in the common groups one associates with; including work groups.

      See “Corporate Culture Definitions” of for the body of developed awareness needed to have skills in Common Sense.

      Only people with strong developed skills in Common Sense does “Intend” no Harm become action oriented, and therefore manageable.

      The following link provides a chart that shows the organizational relationship between ethics and anarchy and how it affects available opportunities being developed and/or offered.

      Meetings are very often used for unethical racketeering (empire building) within a company. By documenting with Action Item Forms meetings can be transformed from waste, fraud, and abuse to productive tools; so long as a randomly selected ethics committee reviews the action item logs periodically looking for abuse. Who gets assigned what, what does not get completed satisfactorily…

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