Interdisciplinary Ethical Role-Playing

by Catharina Laporte

I am a cultural anthropologist. For the last two years, I have been immersed in developing and facilitating a class that specifically fulfills the ethics and professionalism component of the ABET (Accreditation Board of Engineering & Technology education) criterion.  Towards this end, I introduced the concept of role-playing in the class room — and it has taken off like wildfire!  I have never felt so invigorated about the application of anthropological thinking in the real world.  Why? … and what can an anthropologist teach an engineer?   

On the surface, anthropology and many of the STEM disciplines share professional and ethical values: do no harm (public welfare); follow the Code of Ethics of the discipline; respect fellow professionals; avoid conflicts of interest; avoid bribery and corruption etc. — but I feel the lessons and connection between the two lie deeper than that.  Ultimately, ethical and critical thinking require many of the basic tenants of all anthropology:  thinking holistically, the importance of building rapport and communication, recognizing ethnocentrism (it its many guises), and focusing on the influence that cultural diversity has in problem solving.

At the onset of this project, I started with a pilot group of 25 students. We’ve added more students every semester and experimented with different activities and case studies. Now we have a highly interactive, writing intensive, innovative, interdisciplinary class, ANTH370: Cultural Diversity and Ethics, that reaches 750+ STEM and anthropology students each year.   Students clamor to get in to the class and sections fill within minutes of being opened.  Every week I leave the class invigorated and inspired to do more.

Our primary objective was to provide an alternative to existing lecture-based engineering ethics curriculum and incorporate modern pedagogical theory: active, inclusive learning.  We also wanted to create an enduring interdisciplinary learning community that gave students a safe place to experiment, reflect, make mistakes, bring their own perspectives and research, and voice their concerns, experiences and opinions.  My TAs and I  quickly realized that just focusing on normative ethical stances and epic engineering failure case studies (e.g. Columbia Shuttle disaster or Gulf of Mexico Macondo blowout) was not the way forward.  Students felt little affinity with these tales.  We needed to move beyond traditional philosophical teaching to encompass fundamental anthropology concepts overlaid by the influence of culture and cultural construction of normalcy.  This task was twofold.  Firstly, we needed to synthesize real world ethical problems with the Code of Ethics of corporations and professional associations, together with individual worldviews, to view (and teach) ethics holistically. And secondly, we also needed to identify and holistically analyze opportunities to ‘do good’ — these opportunities are often embedded in the minutia of everyday life.

Role playing is an innovative activity that we introduced into the class to encompass these objectives. A caveat: don’t try this alone!  Without the 110% support of my Administration this huge interdisciplinary endeavor would not have been possible. 

This is no easy task.  Active learning? Role playing?  What is that? …and how do you manage 25/50/100 students in the classroom all having conversations at once?  From faculty detractors, we heard: “Where’s the lecture?”; “…and where are the readings on your syllabus?”; and “What?!? No textbook or exams?!?”  Engineering students, in particular, came to class with rigid conceptions of normalcy. Most are preconditioned to expect ‘lecturing’ and exams; after 3-4 years of being lectured and quizzed on black/white and right/wrong answers, they assume their engineering culture, their way of thinking, and their way of knowing, is the ‘right’ or ‘only’ way to think.  Anthropologists often turn to an old but good article to illustrate the concept of an etic perspective and alternate viewpoints — Body Ritual among the Nacirema (Horace Miner, 1956). However, in my experience, reading and discussing this article does not make much of an impact beyond superficial understanding.  Student do not creatively synthesize, utilize, analyze or evaluate the concept (hitting the upper levels of Bloom’s taxonomy) until they experience something themselves and get to ‘walk a few miles in another’s shoes.’

Role playing is an impactful classroom activity that enables students to ‘walk in another’s shoes’. Through the role play, debrief and subsequent reflections, students actively solve problems, work collaboratively in a community of peers, experience real-world application of knowledge, and reflect on their learning processes. Scholars from many disciplines assert that role playing is particularly good in many dimensions of skill acquisition: personal, interpersonal, cultural, cognitive and professional.

In our class, we initially introduced a role-playing exercise (called the ‘water boiling exercise’) in the second week of the semester.  We identified a real world case study of failed innovation1 that had ethical consequence, required critical thinking, was multi-dimensional and had multiple disparate perspectives.  Our primary objectives were to illustrate the fundamental concept of ethnocentrism and introduce STEM students to alternate epistemologies (ways of knowing), axiologies (what is valued) and methodologies.  We were sure that most of the STEM students, given the opportunity, would cling fiercely to a positivist, quantitatively driven, predict and control paradigm.  It took a lot of preparation and we were extremely nervous going in to the exercise. To our delight, the majority (~90%) of students embraced the idea and really got into it – it was clear they more than simply understood the objectives and concepts – they lived them!  We expected that this would be an impactful class, but what we did not expect was that it would evolve into a semester long discussion revisiting and expounding upon the lessons learned in the water boiling exercise in nearly every subsequent class of the semester.

In the role-play, students were grouped into characters or perspectives.  Each group was given their character attributes, their objectives and clues that they had to ‘divulge’ during the course of the role play — much like a murder mystery dinner.  The students worked through the role play, with very little guidance from myself or the TAs, exactly as anticipated: some demonstrating ethnocentric assumptions and asserting that their way of ‘doing things’ was the best and only way of thinking.  Some failed to acknowledge that there could possibly be other ways of thinking while others got angry and/or frustrated, or felt belittled or marginalized. They were actively engaged — just like the real world of problem solving and ethical decision making.  Weeks into the semester and they were still talking about and referencing the role play.  As the class progressed and their exposure to ethical considerations broadened, they often commented that if they were to do it again, they would tackle the role play entirely differently.  Not only did this exercise and its subsequent dialogue meet our university core curriculum objectives (critical thinking, communication and social responsibility), it also met many of the ABET criterion, and course learning objectives.

Over time we have developed multiple role-play scenarios based on real world, sometimes failed, engineering activities to illustrate other concepts such as the impact of culture on human decision making, fractious problems, differing ethical stances, bribery and corruption, and the importance of communication and rapport building.  We have found that the key to success of a role-playing scenario comes from ensuring there is opportunities for diverse opinions, worldviews and expertise to be brought to the table and debated.  With diversity comes insight into other worldviews and ultimately better solutions.

What I have personally learned from this exercise is that if we look beyond the superficial there are many parallels between what outwardly appear to be incongruent disciplines, their theoretical perspectives and what they value.  I learned that active learning can transcend disciplinary boundaries, and that ultimately, we all want to ‘do good’.  By teaching the fundamental anthropological concepts in a STEM classroom, we can not only help teach critical thinking and ethical decision making, but we can also improve the overall quality and longevity of STEM projects in the real world.


About the Author: 

Catharina Laporte is an Instructional Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M University. As a cultural anthropologist with a passion for quality education and a pragmatic theoretical perspective, she is specifically interested in how applied anthropology, and an appreciation for cultural diversity, can provide different perspectives on real-world phenomenon, projects and problems. Having extensive international experience in multinational corporations, her current work focuses on improving the education experience by emphasizing the importance on incorporating diverse perspectives into the STEM ethics and professionalism curriculum.   Email:  [email protected]  Personal website:  or Faculty website:

  1. Rogers, Everett M. Diffusion of innovations. 5th ed. Everett M. Rogers. n.p.: New York : Free Press, 2003., 2003. Texas A&M University General Libraries, EBSCOhost (accessed September 7, 2017).  (back)

Ethical Questions in Post-impeachment Brazil

By Rafael Estrada Mejía (São Paulo State University)

Last year, Brazil was in the world’s spotlight due to political turmoil and to its appeal as a tourism destination giant.  The global media followed with ferocity both former President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment with its accompanying massive protests for and against it, and the 2016 Olympic Games, when for the first time in history, ten refugee athletes from four countries competed together as the Refugee Olympic Team.  The great irony is that, in the same time period, almost sixty thousand people were displaced because of sports mega-events such as the World Cup and the Rio Olympic Games.  This occurred to make space for sports venues, tourism projects and transport, and to improve the international image of the host cities by eliminating slums from areas exposed to visitors and television audiences.

Two main concerns motivated me to write this piece.  The first one is the unrest I felt because, for the most part, the Brazilian elite and middle classes (many of whom are white, intellectuals and university professors) paid no attention to the forced displacements, and later enthusiastically supported the coup d’état against Rousseff.  Although outraged, I was not surprised. This scene is repeated in Brazil’s history. Disdain for democracy is the common denominator of both the coups of 1964 and of 2016.  The difference is that this most recent coup follows the rules of financial capitalism, thus requiring the neoliberalization of the state and making both dictatorial and social welfare regimes anachronistic.   

The second concern has to do with questioning the ethical implications of my own practice as an anthropologist and the role of social scientists at large in today’s political conjuncture. This reflection was fueled by my experiences as a postdoctoral researcher conducting studies of the elite.  I am the only anthropologist in a research team formed by a group of renowned geographers who study the production of urban space in mid-size cities in the states of São Paulo and Paraná.

One of the research lines of the project is the real estate sector and the role of closed condominiums (the Brazilian version of US gated communities) in the context of public space

Operarios (Tarsila do Amaral, 1933)

production. My contribution to the the study of the processes of subjectivation of the emergent Brazilian elites who live in these spaces. I also study how closed condominiums have become one of the most desired living arrangements for all Brazilians. The project aims to overcome the dominant macropolitical framework used to understand closed condominiums to move the focus to a micropolitical approach.  My understanding of these frameworks is based on the French thinkers Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, for whom both macropolitics and micropolitics are inherently political, public and private, and operate simultaneously from small to large levels so the distinction is based on the scale of the components interacting in a network, and not the scale of the network itself.

The Brazilian version of the 1% is not composed of millionaires, but by those who earn more than 30 times the monthly base salary (currently at R/.880 or approximately 244 dollars). The 1% in Brazil are people we see walking down the streets every day. It includes university professors, many of whom chose to live in closed condominiums.  For the record, I am not part of that elite and do not live in in a closed condominium.  But many of the professors I have interviewed for my research are part of this elite; some of them are social scientists and shared with me the belief that our role as researchers should be strictly confined to the analytical space.  These remarks have made me wonder about the role of academics and intellectuals in Brazil.  What are the implications of being progressive, analytic, and critical only within the confines of academic walls, and once the daily labor ends, comfortably returning to an individual paradise inside the walls of the closed condominium?  What are the mechanisms that allow us to ignore the criminalized alterity that the media and institutional powers have constituted and reconstituted? What are the ethical and political challenges of anthropologists and social scientists in the Brazilian context? 

The discipline of anthropology in Brazil tends to look at applied anthropology with disdain. This contrasts with other Latin American countries where there is a seamless flow between anthropological reflection, university life and applied projects.  Except for the committed work of anthropologists with indigenous peoples and peoples of African descent, Brazilian anthropology has tended to be restricted to university life.   

Studying Brazilian elites as an anthropologist and from a micropolitical perspective suggests a framework applicable beyond academia, as a map to navigate this complex world. By looking at the mode of existence of privileged groups who choose to isolate themselves from public life, we see that we cannot be committed and engaged at the macropolitical level, while remaining complacent at the micropolitical level.  We need to find a way to eliminate microfascism from our discourse, our acts, our heart and our pleasures. By microfascism, I mean the desire that individuals have that others follow their own personal rules, which ultimate enable fascism at the state level. This kind of totalitarian view operates in both the public and private spheres.

It is important to suspend common sense or what Brazilian scholar Renato Ortiz calls the “a-critic consensus.”  It is important to stop using the concepts of ethics and morality interchangeably.  Morality deals with a series of external coercive norms, assumed to be universal and based on punishment.  Ethics, on the contrary, deals with a series of facultative rules through which individuals constitute themselves as subjects, problematize their own actions, and create new modes of existence. Brazil is in dire need of ethically committed and engaged scholars.

Studying the elites is indeed a way to combat inequality in a country considered among the most unequal in the world.  However, this is certainly not enough.  It is essential to overcome the paralysis that sometimes accompanies the social sciences, to go beyond the academic sphere and reach a truly ethical dimension. It is essential to demonstrate acts of resistance in our lives, and to oppose all the established forms of fascism to impede that more be erected. As Brazilian scholar Suely Rolnik once said, “It is time for micropolitics to guide us!”

More Still To Do: Combatting Sexual Harassment in Academia

By Julie Lesnik and Aaron Sams


Julie Lesnik is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Wayne State University. Aaron Sams is a Research Scientist at Embark Veterinary, Inc., a start-up focused on providing genetic health insights to dog owners, veterinarians, and breeders. The views presented here were written solely by the authors and have not been reviewed or approved by their employers.


Sexual harassment in academia is a serious issue and anthropologists have played a critical role in highlighting the scale of this problem. For example, in 2014, a survey of academic field experiences (SAFE) conducted by biological anthropologists gauged “gendered experiences, sexual harassment, and sexual assault” in scientific fieldwork. The authors found that harassment and assault were commonly experienced by respondents during trainee career stage. These incidences occurred most frequently to women targeted by senior scholars on their research teams. Since the SAFE study, several employees (including students and postdocs) made accusations of sexual harassment/misconduct against high-profile scholars in several fields. Examples of high-profile cases include UCLA faculty and students protesting the return of an accused sexual harasser to campus, the quandary of when the accused is a professor of ethics, and a case where a professor under investigation at one school leaves and takes a different job across the country. The SAFE study also brought heightened awareness of these power dynamics to the field of Biological Anthropology. For example, at the 2015 annual meetings of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA), reports of sexual harassment occurring at the conference site were exposed via social media. The increased attention to these problems prompted the AAPA to write an open letter on sexual harassment, include a registration Statement of Ethical Conduct during the 2016 annual meetings, and update their Code of Ethics to specifically speak to sexual harassment.
Despite these recent efforts the field of Biological Anthropology has not been immune to scandal. Early in 2016, Michael Balter exposed “the sexual misconduct case that has rocked anthropology,” in an expose in the journal Science. This article detailed the charge made by an American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) research assistant that her boss, noted paleoanthropologist and the museum’s curator of human origins, Brian Richmond, had sexually assaulted her in his hotel room during an academic conference in Italy. To our knowledge, this case is still being investigated, and Balter, as a free-lance writer, is still committed to following the story.


Similar ethics statements, like that issued by the AAPA, have recently been crafted by other academic disciplines. For example, the recent meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) included a Statement of Ethical Conduct in the front matter of their conference program. Yet, cases of harassment were still reported, leading to the question – is a statement enough? As the AAA meetings approach, it is important for us to learn from these incidents. Like field research, academic meetings provide the perfect storm of sociality, alcohol, power differences, and distance from academic departments that can lead to sexual harassment and coercion. We would be remiss to think that our meetings are an exception. Sociologist Eric Anthony Grollman strongly urges for the bystander intervention approach. The AAPA statement on sexual harassment specifically mentions bystander awareness, but how do we make it second nature to all of us while in these settings?


We think that we need to keep doing what we are doing, but do more of it. As we worked on this piece, it was difficult for us to keep track of all of the relevant blog posts on the topic. That is a good sign, a very good sign. Scholars in privileged positions, which include the security of tenure but also fitting into any of the following categories: straight, white, cis, male, should especially consider speaking out as advocates and allies. This piece and this piece are particularly salient examples. But we also think that in addition to writing, we must do more. We must speak up. Although it is difficult to stand up to someone as the bystander, especially when these power dynamics are in play, we can speak up in other ways. We can all make a commitment to have these conversations with our peers and to point it out to someone we know when they might be exhibiting problematic behavior. We need to be good role models for the next generation, through our behavior and more. We can include Title IX statements in our syllabi, have conversations with our grad students about how they are to treat undergraduates and assistants, and let them know that we are there to help in case they find themselves the victim of harassment. Lastly, don’t be silent if something happens to you. The AAA does not adjudicate assertions of unethical behavior, but we do have a Committee on Ethics who are there to provide advice to AAA members facing ethical dilemmas. If you find yourself in a position where you need advice, contact the committee here. No issue is too big or too small.


It’s Time for a Stronger Commitment with Our International Colleagues

Leila Rodriguez Associate Professor of Anthropology

University of Cincinnati

The American Anthropological Association lists knowledge dissemination as one of its guiding ethical principles. In particular, it discourages withholding findings from research participants. But anthropologists who conduct fieldwork internationally have three additional and related ethical obligations: to participate in the academic conferences of the countries and regions in which they conduct research, to publish their findings in the academic journals of those countries and regions, and to cite the scholarship of local anthropologists. Failure to do so results in the continued colonization of knowledge and imposition of Western theory and epistemology as the true representation of social reality.

Why do so many U.S. anthropologists fail to fulfill these responsibilities? Diminishing funds in U.S. universities force academics to choose in which conferences to participate, and those closer to home may be more affordable. While funding is a legitimate concern, it is not an excuse for not publishing in local journals or knowing and citing local scholars. There is growing recognition about the importance of this kind of international academic engagement. The Wenner-Gren Foundation, for example, offers an Engaged Anthropology Grant for its grantees to return to their research site and share results with the community in which the research was conducted or the academic community in the country or region of research.

Increasingly strict tenure requirements often value U.S. conferences and journals more highly. The decreasing availability of tenured positions further pressures academics to focus their energy only on activities that will be most valued in tenure evaluations. Still, academic propriety is not reason enough to disregard ethical responsibilities. Most top universities list internationalization as an important value and departments have leeway in determining their tenure requirements: we can make a case for valuing the kind of international academic engagement I propose. More importantly, an occasional international presentation or publication, and the citation of international scholars in U.S.-based publications will not make excessive demands on the time nor diminish the rest of the scholarly output of researchers.

Some anthropologists may simply be unaware of the academic community in the countries in which they work. While problematic in itself, this is perhaps the most easily resolved. The World Council of Anthropological Associations lists almost 50 national and regional anthropological associations. Many others are missing from the list, and can be found using a quick Google search: Anthropology Southern Africa, Central American Anthropology Network, Latin American Biological Anthropology Association, to name a few. Technology further enables us to locate the existence of international anthropology journals. For example, Redalyc and Latindex provide a directory and catalog of most academic journals in Latin America, the Caribbean, Spain and Portugal.

Many anthropologists contribute to local communities and share their work with research subjects in other ways. Those efforts are absolutely necessary. Recently, a Chilean colleague lamented that local anthropologists’ access to some Mapuche communities has

been hindered by negative views of the discipline, a fact they attribute in large part to primarily U.S. and European graduate students not sharing their findings and publications with their Mapuche research participants. While sharing information with research subjects is crucial, it is not enough. The three tasks that I propose are aimed at something else that directly involves academic communities: they are necessary steps in the decolonization of knowledge.

My call to decolonize knowledge is by no means new. Anthropologists have been calling for it for several decades, and the publications on the topic are numerous and impossible to summarize here. Twenty years ago Mexican anthropologist Esteban Krotz (1997) remarked that “[i]t is ironic that the establishment within the North Atlantic civilization of an ever more prosperous and successful scientific discipline, dedicated particularly to cultural diversity, has come hand in hand with a strong and sustained tendency of the same civilization to silence that diversity.” The predominance of English language in academia contributes to that silencing, but it is not the sole culprit. To quote Harrison (2012) “there is a problematic tendency for southern anthropologists to be treated as high-level informants or over-qualified fieldwork assistants […] at best local anthropologists are relegated to the role of minor-stream scholars, rather than being regarded as significant sources of theoretically-nuanced mainstream knowledge.” This sentiment was echoed by a Central American colleague who complained that in some instances local archaeologists, who collected the assemblages or published reports with raw data that are analyzed by U.S. archaeologists, are at best cited in the bibliography with no real consideration of their contributions and perspectives. Countries like Costa Rica and Guatemala have enacted laws that require foreign archaeologists to collaborate with, hire or otherwise involve local scholars in their work. Cultural anthropologists are not subjected to the same requirements.

It is unlikely that any U.S. anthropologist today will admit to placing little value on international colleagues and their theory making. Elsewhere, anthropologists have called for the revision of anthropological curricula to include more diverse and so-called peripheral scholarship (see further readings list below). Moving forward on this issue, however, requires more steps, and I propose this one: include in the AAA’s Principles of Professional Responsibility the commitment to share knowledge with –and incorporate the knowledge of – local anthropologists by the three means I outlined above: participate in the academic conferences of the countries and regions in which they conduct research, publish findings in the academic journals of those countries and regions, and cite the scholarship of anthropologists from those countries and regions. Addressing these responsibilities in the ethics statement advances the narrative about decolonizing anthropological knowledge as an issue of ethics, or a “reexamination of one’s own taken for granted moral stances, respect and consideration for other cultural traditions of morality, and reflection on how to resolve the juxtaposition of sometimes disparate moral discourses” (Black 2016). Engagement with international scholars IS an ethical issue. As a scholarly community and as a professional association, we have the choice to continue to suppress local scholarship, or to learn it, spread it, critique it, and value it as much as U.S. scholarship.

References Cited:

Black, Steven P. 2016. Ethics, Anthropology and Adjudication. Available at:

Harrison, Faye V. 2012. Dismantling Anthropology’s Domestic and International Peripheries. World Anthropologies Network 6:87-110

Krotz, Esteban. 1997. Anthropologies of the South. Their Rise, Their Silencing, Their Characteristics. Critique of Anthropology 17(3)237-251

Further Reading:

Appadurai, Arjun. 1986. Theory in Anthropology: Center and Periphery. Comparative Studies in Society and History 28(2)356-361

Comaroff, Jean and John L. Comaroff. 2012. Theory from the South or, How Euro-America is Evolving toward Africa. London: Paradigm Publishers

Connell, Raewyn. 2007. Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. Cambridge:Polity

Dominguez, Virginia. 1994. A Taste for the “Other”: Intellectual Complicity in Racialized Practices. Current Anthropology 35(4)333-348

Harrison, Faye (Ed.) 2010. Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further toward an Anthropology for Liberation. 3rd edition. Arlington: American Anthropological Association

Mignolo, Walter. 2007. Introduction. Cultural Studies, 21(2-3)155-167

Mignolo, Walter. 2011. The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Durham: Duke UP.

Ntarangwi, Mwenda, David Mills and Mustafa Babiker (Eds). 2006. African Anthropologies: History, Critique and Practice. Dakar:CODESRIA-Zed Books

Ortiz, Renato. 2006. Social Sciences and the English Language. Revista Brasileira de Ciências Sociais 2(SE)0-0

Quijano, Aníbal. 2000. Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America. Nepantla: Views from South 1(3)533-580

Ribeiro, Gustavo Lins and Arturo Escobar (Eds). 2006. World Anthropologies: Disciplinary Transformations within Systems of Power. Oxford:Berg

Said, Edward. 1981. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 2012. Decolonizing Methodologies. 2nd edition. London: Zed Books

Wolf, Eric. 1999. Anthropology among the Powers. Social anthropology 7(2)121-134

Multispecies Ethics

Multispecies Ethics

Kate McClellan, Mississippi State University

Animals, plants, and other non-human actors have increasingly become subjects of anthropological inquiry as multispecies ethnography, posthumanist theory, and animal studies have gained disciplinary ground. Much of this effort has produced important work that explores how the human condition – and, indeed, very notions of humanness – are produced through relationships with non-human species. As anthropologists engage more actively with non-humans in their fieldwork, ethical considerations of how to behave towards, interact with, and think about non-human actors inevitably emerge. What are the ethical responsibilities of anthropologists towards animals and other species they encounter during research? How should different cultural understandings of animal abuse and cruelty be weighed against calls for universal animal rights? Though animals are mentioned in the AAA statement on ethics, should anthropologists’ ethical codes expand more to encompass to the non-human realm and, if so, how?

During my own fieldwork on animal welfare and protection movements in Jordan, I myself often grappled with ethical questions about the animals I encountered on a daily basis – both in the streets of Amman and at the clinics and shelters of the animal welfare groups where I conducted fieldwork. The mostly transnational animal NGOs working in Jordan promoted practices, attitudes, and behaviors towards animals that sometimes clashed with understandings of animal ethics held by many Jordanians. For instance, though stray animal problems abound throughout the country and animal welfare groups strongly promote sterilization or trap-neuter-release programs as responsible actions, many Jordanians disagree with the ethical arguments for such practices. Some saw spaying or neutering stray cats and dogs as a sacrilegious practice that altered animals that God had made in perfect form; others argued that it denied the basic right of all creatures to experience parenthood. For many Jordanians, it was unethical for humans to make decisions about animals’ rights to reproduce freely, even if such a stance meant more stray animals on the street. Euthanasia is viewed similarly. When I came across a dying kitten on a residential street in Amman, a man who lived nearby discouraged me from calling a veterinarian to euthanize the animal, arguing that it was unethical for humans to interfere with the natural death of an animal and noting that only God was able to make those decisions. When my response (and my feeling of responsibility) was to put the kitten ‘to sleep,’ his was to let it die in its own time as the appropriate ethical decision. To be clear, these beliefs are not more or less ethical than one another; rather, they signify the cultural contingency of moral and ethical codes anthropologists are bound to encounter in their work. Whether or not there should exist a universal code of animal rights (or human rights) is, I think, a different question.

Ethical responses and reactions to care and suffering – be it human or animal – are of course variable and, as global human and animal aid movements grow, are inevitably political. But as multispecies ethnography and similar anthropological inquiries continue to provoke important questions about human-animal relationships, discussions about the roles anthropologists take in their encounters with non-human species – and not just animals – are particularly salient. Several anthropologists have begun to address these issues, and it is an area that will continue to benefit from greater anthropological discussion on a larger disciplinary level. As we become increasingly aware of the ways in which our relationships, encounters, and engagements with other species shape our own lives, we need also to attend to how we as anthropologists respond to those encounters, and how we allow space for different cultural interpretations of multispecies ethics.

Class Struggle is the Name of the Game at Universities. It’s the Ethical Elephant in the Room

Brian McKenna

Picture this. You have a Ph.D. in anthropology and are hired, as an adjunct, to teach an anthropology course on “colonialism, economic crisis, peasant struggles, nationalism, indigenous rights, independence movements, and struggles over development and underdevelopment.” That’s an actual job posting. The salary for the position is $3,413.

A tenured faculty member may receive about $10,000 to teach the same course.

Now answer this. How can you NOT talk about your own struggles when the subjects you are hired to teach on – oppression and struggle – apply to you? You are a flesh and blood native of Nacirema (“America” spelt backwards) standing before the students. You can provide insider testimony, as a key informant, about “the other.” And you are “the other.” You are a Ph.D. anthropologist who is actually working in the field.

Many adjunct professors are afraid to speak about the elephant in the classroom. They are being monitored. They are under constant surveillance from customers (student smartphones and course evaluations), middle managers (teaching observations by Chairs), technicians (email monitoring by IT), executive officers (annual reviews read by Deans), and CEOs (Provosts and Presidents). They must be careful. They need that paycheck for food, housing, health care, even burial. At one university where I worked I was informed that, before I arrived, the department had to take up a collection for the funds to bury an adjunct professor after he died from a massive heart attack in his office.

The contradictions within the university are enormous. Self-censorship is the rule for any precarious worker, especially in a factory or fast food job. But for an educator? Surely those educated in the threatening science (Price 2004) and dangerous art (McKenna and Darder 2011) of anthropology would be at the forefront of resistance. Here is a troublesome irony: many of the adjunct’s superiors in the academic hierarchy are other anthropologists. They are often Deans, Provosts or Presidents, academics who have crossed over into administration. Here is another irony, those Deans and Presidents can erode tenured faculty pay, over time, in response to the existence of the dual labor market. Is their primary loyalty to the neoliberal institution or is it to their fellow anthropologists? Are they complicit in the deplorable pay and working conditions?

Of course this is an old, old story. I shared my thoughts with a veteran adjunct, a social activist who once worked as a housing organizer in the 1960s. He asked, “Why precarity now? Where was the association for the past 30 years? I’m sorry; nobody expressed adjunct precarity as an ethical or social justice concern. It was always I got mine, now get yours. There must be something wrong with you, It’s always been competitive; not everyone with a Ph.D. gets a job. The victim-blaming, stigmatization of adjuncts as invisible and ‘other,’ together with the adjunct’s feelings of self-blame, and self-doubt compound the sense of alienation and often even social paralysis. it’s about time that the discipline woke up; however, the train left the station decades ago, and that train has made thousands of round trips.”

Why Precarity now? One reason is because the United States is in its “end times.” The AAA itself recognized this with the title of its 2009 annual conference. America is now a post-Orwellian culture of permanent war, bulwarked by the “terror of neoliberalism” at home (Giroux 2004, 2007). Why precarity now? Because most of us are now treated like adjuncts. “There’s a lot of fear in academia,” explained noted anthropologist and labor organizer Paul Durrenberger in his 2014 Malinowski speech at the SfAA (see his “Living up to Our Words” 2014; See also his “Anthropology of Labor Unions” 2010). Indeed, class struggle is everywhere in the authoritarian university. It’s in the debt peonage of students, new corporate alignments, suppression of dissent, student push-out (drop-out) rates, elimination of humanities programs, and workplace bullying of dissenters. It’s in its focus on STEM for capital not ROOT for people: Revolutionary history, Ontology and ethics, Organizing skills and Transformational humanities.

Class struggle is deeply embedded in the digital revolution as well. E-learning, distance education, and Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)s have come of age. They are said to expand democracy. Some faculties question this. On April 29, 2013 the philosophy faculty of San Jose State University wrote a letter protesting the way in which a Harvard professor’s lecture was taped and disseminated widely for classroom use. The professors refused to teach that philosophy course developed by edX, “saying they do not want to enable what they see as a push to ‘replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities’” (Kolowich 2013). It’s not just MOOCS but e-learning systems like CANVAS and Blackboard too (McKenna 2013).

With their aggressive entry into higher education, the corporate state is consolidating its power in the third leg of Eisenhower’s feared trifecta: “the military-industrial-ACADEMIC complex.” In 2012 major industry officials announced their study showing the “enormous potential for the future of the e-learning market.” IBIS Capital and the Edxus Group, said that “While education as a whole is triple the size of the media and entertainment industry at $4.2 trillion, digital education is currently only 20% of the size of the digital media market. They expect to see fifteen fold growth in the e-learning market in the next 10 years to represent 30% of the total education market,” reported Pippa Cottrell in Realwire (Cottrell 2013). Educators have not yet had adequate time to theorize the darker side of the digital earthquake in their midst (McKenna 2013). It is one thing for computers to be freely chosen by faculty for their creative pedagogical ends (Jandric and Boras 2015); it is quite another for computers to be foisted on them, in authoritarian fashion, as a tool that faculty have to adapt to for fear of losing their jobs. There are few “Teach-Ins” over this ethical dilemma.

In their illuminating article on this blog in March 2015, “Professional Precarity, Ethics and Social Justice,” Avineri and Black noted that Principle seven of the AAA Ethics Statement “is impractical or even impossible” to satisfy at this juncture. They draw attention to the imperative that “Anthropologists should at all times work to ensure that no exclusionary practices be perpetrated. . .” Bev Davenport added, in the comments section, that one way out of this ethical dilemma (of excluding precarious professors) is to offer a “full time lecturer with a multi-year contract . . . an avenue for promotion” into the tenure track. I wholeheartedly agree.

We all know adjunct anthropologists who have worked in departments for 20 years or more, teaching full loads and making poverty wages. Once over the age of 50 they often become permanent adjuncts. They hope to retire with that job. In my estimation you have about five years after getting a Ph.D. to land a tenure track job. Competing against 150 applicants for the same tenure track position, people know the odds are against them. Some reassure themselves that it’s a level playing field, even after reapplying for twenty years straight. I’ve even heard it be said that “It’s a lottery.” Not so. The tenure track jobs tend to go to new Ph.D. graduates from a select group of universities.

Muhammed Ali was mercilessly pummeled for seven rounds by George Forman in the “Rumble in the Jungle,” but was miraculously able to spring back from the “rope-a-dope” and win. Can we? The class struggle in higher education demands a holistic analysis and an insurgent response. We must investigate the political economy, preserve teacher autonomy and bring the precariat into the tenure track where they can gain the dignity and respect they deserve. As applied anthropologists we need to teach organizing skills in our classrooms. As civically engaged activists we need to organize unions throughout academia. Remember, an injury to one is an injury to all. Take back higher education.


Avineri, Netta and Black, Stephen (2015) “Professional Precarity, Ethics and Social Justice,” AAA Ethics Blog, March 27.

Cottrall, Pippa (2013) “Digitalisation of Education Will Result in Fifteen Fold Growth for E-Learning Market Over the Next Decade.” Realwire. May 14.

Durrenberger, Paul and Reichart, Karaleah (eds.) (2010) “The Anthropology of Labor Unions,” Boulder:University of Colorado.

Durrenberger, Paul (2014) “Living up to Our Words” Human Organization: Winter 2014, Vol. 73, No. 4, pp. 299-304.

Giroux, Henry (2004) Take Back Higher Education. Basingstoke, UK:Palgrave.

Giroux, Henry (2004) The Terror of Neoliberalism. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Giroux, Henry (2007) The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Jandric, Petar and Boras, Damir, eds. (2015) Critical Learning in Digital Networks. Switzerland:Springer.

Kolowich, Steve (2013) “Why Professors at San Jose State Won’t Use a Harvard Professor’s MOOC.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 2.

McKenna, Brian. 2008a. “Ted Downing and Troublemaker Anthropology: How ‘Yes, Sir,’ Necessarily Becomes ‘No sir,’” CounterPunch, Petrolia, CA, December 30.

McKenna, Brian and Antonia Darder, eds. 2011. “The Art of Public Pedagogy, Should ‘the truth’ Dazzle Gradually or Thunder Mightily?” Special Edition, Policy Futures in Education 9:6: 670-685.

McKenna, Brian. 2013. “The Predatory Pedagogy of On-Line Learning,” CounterPunch, Petrolia, CA, June 3.

Price, D. (2004), Threatening Anthropology McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists (Durham, NC: Duke University Press).

Medical Volunteering Abroad

* Note: This is the first of a new type of ethics blog post—a short description of an ethics issue related to anthropology that is appearing in the news and other online media, accompanied by links to original source material. Students and scholars interested in submitting a piece should send their work to the Chair of the Committee on Ethics, Steven Black ([email protected])

Medical Volunteering Abroad
Gabriela Alvarado, MD, MPH
Georgia State University

Many people assume that poor countries with little access to health care and lack of health care providers benefit from international volunteers. However, this may not be the case. In the United States you cannot perform any type of health care related act if you are not a licensed professional. It is deemed unethical. So why is it appropriate for unlicensed people to provide these services in other countries? In addition to untrained people administrating medications, providing sutures, and even performing pelvic examinations there are another set of ethical issues that should also be examined. Developing countries have limited staff as it is, and sending in armies of unqualified volunteers means that the staff has to divert time away from actually caring for patients and tend to the international volunteers. Furthermore, medical student volunteers often want to learn procedures they might not be able to do in the United States, may will focus on experiences for personal benefit instead of what is actually needed in the community.

As a medical doctor, I volunteered in my home country (Costa Rica), in an area of the country called Talamanca. Talamanca is the region of the country where most of the indigenous communities are located; these communities tend to have very poor infrastructure and limited access to healthcare. As a medical intern I spent two weeks volunteering in Talamanca, and quite honestly, I never stopped to consider the ethical implications of me being there. The local doctor had to make time to accommodate three interns, show us around, and figure out things to keep us ‘entertained.’ Now, as a graduate student with an interest in medical anthropology, I wonder: was it really necessary for us to be there? Who gained the most from the whole exchange?

While these issues have been overlooked in the past in public discourses, they are now starting to be considered and there is a call to reexamine the role of volunteers abroad and how to really benefit local communities:

Ethics, Anthropology, and Adjudication

Steven P. Black
Georgia State University


In my work as the chair of the Committee on Ethics (CoE) of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), I’ve noticed that a number of the “ethical queries” that the CoE receives are not about what researchers should do during fieldwork, but rather about what other colleagues and professionals have already done that is perceived to be a violation of anthropological ethics. This is a valid and important topic for an ethical query, and the CoE endeavors to provide helpful advice in response to such questions, in addition to all others on the topic of anthropological ethics. However, it seems that many people want something more than advice from the committee—they want adjudication. There may be legal reasons why the AAA does not provide adjudication—certainly, the AAA does not have the legal authority to engage in many forms of punishment. Furthermore, senior colleagues have explained to me how adjudication backfired in earlier iterations of the CoE. However, there is also a philosophical reason for the current lack of adjudication: to encourage a stance on anthropological ethics that emphasizes nuance and reflection.


Moralities and Anthropological Ethics

Much of anthropology is rooted in a broad commitment to moral relativity in one form or another. Moral relativity is not an excuse for abandoning anthropological ethics but rather is an invitation to anthropological ethics. From this standpoint, morality becomes pluralized (moralities). Each cultural context is saturated in its own moral specificities, including multiple ideological and moral stances. This becomes a point of entry into discussion of anthropological ethics. As many anthropologists use the terms, “ethics” refers to understandings of cause and effect that are the result of conscious reflection and attention, whereas “morality” refers to default, taken-for-granted discourses and dispositions (this general distinction is taken from the work of Michel Foucault, among others). Here, ethics involves reexamination of one’s own taken for granted moral stances, respect and consideration for other cultural traditions of morality, and reflection on how to resolve the juxtaposition of sometimes disparate moral discourses.


Reflection and Adjudication

The AAA statement on ethics is a long-term result of these sorts of intellectual processes surrounding questions of moral relativity alongside consideration of the impact of anthropological research on research participants and others. In its current form online it is meant to be a living, breathing document. Indeed, this Ethics Blog is also part of the broader context of the statement. Anthropologists recognize the conflicting concerns and moral ambiguities that are inherent in our lives, both personal and professional. Do no harm—yes, but what happens when avoiding harm to one group involves the potential for harm with another? Be open and honest regarding your work—surely, but what about those cases in which honesty in one context will lead to harm in another?


Each conflict is an opportunity to consider the competing obligations and overlapping moral frameworks that make anthropological scholarship so interesting. By its very nature, adjudication involves a flattening of this ethical landscape, collapsing multiple moral universes into a one-dimensional artifact in the service of judgment. Adjudication is sometimes necessary and important. However, in its current configuration, adjudication is not within the scope of the CoE’s activities. Rather, the committee, the code, and the blog represent a forum for members of the AAA to unpack and examine competing moral claims, discourses, and ideologies, where our reflection is not shaped by the imperative to assign blame or administer punishment.


For more information on the development of the Principles of Professional Responsibility, Code of Ethics, and Ethics Blog in their current form, please see Anthropological Ethics in Context: An Ongoing Dialogue, edited by Dena Plemmons and Alex Barker.


Thank you to former chairs of the CoE Lise Dobrin and Dena Plemmons for suggestions and comments on an earlier draft of this piece. Any mistakes or omissions are my own.


Further Reading

For recent scholarly discussions of anthropological ethics, see:


Fassin, Didier

2008  Beyond Good and Evil?: Questioning the Anthropological Discomfort with Morals. Anthropological Theory 8(4):333-344.

2012  A Companion to Moral Anthropology. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Robbins, Joel

2007  “Causality, Ethics, and the Near Future.” American Ethnologist 34(3):433-436.

Stoczkowski, Wiktor

2008  The ‘Fourth Aim’ of Anthropology: Between Knowledge and Ethics. Anthropological Theory 8(4):345-356.

Throop, C. Jason, and Jarrett Zigon, eds.

2014  Moral Experience. A Special Issue of Ethos 42(1).

Zigon, Jarrett

2008  Morality: An Anthropological Perspective. New York: Berg.