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.

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.

The Missing Ethics of Heritage

 

Bonnie J. Clark
Associate Professor, Anthropology
Curator for Archaeology, Museum of Anthropology
University of Denver

 

Ethics codes should play a key role in the education of future professionals.  Indeed, in teaching a capstone course for graduating seniors, I justify our multi-day exploration of ethics in part by referencing the Society for Applied Anthropology’s ethics code, which states in its principle 4 that “Our training should inform students as to their ethical responsibilities.”  But beyond ethical obligations, such training provides discrete touchstones to students who are learning how to behave in the world as anthropologists.

 

One way that I find codes pedagogically useful is that they provide benchmarks with which students can measure their own practice and that of others in the field.  And it was during just such a recent exercise in my Applied Heritage Management course that the students found the current AAA code of ethics lacking.  As part of an analysis of heritage management websites, students were asked whether sites failed, met, or exceeded the ethics codes of the AAA or the Society for American Archaeology (SAA).

 

It was revealing that few of my students found the AAA ethical principles salient for this exercise.  Despite the fact that the first principle in both the AAA and the SAA codes mentions stewardship of archaeological resources, students tended to choose the SAA “Stewardship” principle instead of the AAA’s “Do No Harm.” I suspect subdisciplinary position had some role to play (many of the students identify as archaeologists and so defaulted to the SAA principles).  However, I also believe that students looking to support advocacy skip over a principle whose title implies it is only about avoiding harm, despite later prose to the contrary.  In pointing this out, my experience aligns with others who find the code lacking when it comes to advocacy work (e.g. Rob Borovsky’s recent blog for this column).

 

Even more troubling was that students who chose case studies related to areas of heritage other than archaeological sites found little in either code to assist them.  They needed to translate the codes to cover the preservation of historic buildings or cultural landscapes.  In such cases students mostly substituted “historic resource” for “archaeological site.”  However, those who were interested in the preservation of culturally-important natural resources really had few places to turn.  Making the AAA statement on ethics relevant in this case requires a rather convoluted route, using principle 4 to identify natural resources as “affected parties” or perhaps “vulnerable populations.”

 

The management of heritage continues to be a robust and growing sector of our discipline as evidenced both by theoretical engagement and applied practice.  Many anthropologists contribute to the heritage fields, whether through social impact studies, museum work, or cultural resources management.  Such practitioners do have resources regarding ethics to which they can turn.  For example there are a number of other ethical codes more geared to heritage (e.g. those of the International Council on Monuments and Sites or ICOMOS. And there are also public discussions of heritage ethics, such as those supported by the Leiden-Stanford ethics lab.

 

Yet it is clear that the legal mandates for preservation from the local to the international level are not matched by our disciplinary ethical codes.  That makes for awkward class discussions, but even worse, it fails our students and those already in the field.  There are many good reasons why anthropologists should help people preserve their heritage, but we must turn to other benchmarks to support that position.

An Intersectional POV On How the Contingent Faculty Market Is Against Our Other Principles in the AAA Code of Ethics

The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous.

This blog discusses the ways in which people of color, and especially women of color first generation PhDs, experience the contingency market differently because of their intersectional identities and how this undermines the discipline’s goals of contributing a diverse body of knowledge under truthful conditions of knowledge production.

 

This blog entry seeks to encourage a long-needed discussion on how our structural participation in the contingency market can be seen as contra to the general AAA Ethics Principles we, as dues-paying members, hold ourselves accountable to. In their March 27th 2015 AAA Ethics blog post “Professional Precarity, Ethics, and Social Justice,” my colleagues and fellow linguistic anthropologists Netta Avineri and Steve Black focused on how the contingency market compromises the final part of the AAA Code of Ethics. Their focus naturally was Principle Seven, “Maintain Respectful and Ethical Professional Relationships.” I want to expand on their important contributions here to foreground how structural conditions of the most marginalized contingent faculty, which I will define below, impacts the other objectives in more indirect but just as equally consequential ways to the profession, the communities we study, and the students and broader society we aim to serve.

 

Before heading into the principles, I want to make a few important caveats that are often not made when this complex issue is discussed. I am not talking about faculty and administrators at all higher education institutions that rely on contingent faculty. Many institutions have actually created and shared best practices through forums like the Delphi Project at the University of Southern California. (Sadly, these practices are still few and far between and still seen as anomalies rather than innovators in higher education.) Moreover, I am not addressing all members of the contingent faculty class. There are contingent faculty members who are post-academics, or scholars who no longer work full-time in any academic position, and retired academics. These two classes often use contingent faculty positions as supplemental income and, at times, even donate their salary back to the institution. Some even say this is who these positions were originally designed for–people who are able to bring ‘real world’ experience to student instruction. Sadly, this minority of contingent faculty is also used by many to rationalize the current inequities in resources, compensation, and more for these positions when in fact we know this is not the majority of those we hire to teach classes.

 

Invoking Kimberle Crenshaw’s (1989) original framing of intersectionality to recognize not all oppression and ethical violations are felt equally, I emphasize that I am writing from the place of lived experience with the most marginalized of contingent faculty in anthropology departments: those part-time PhDs and PhD graduate students not in post-academic careers that are typically women and scholars of color (if not both–see the New Faculty Majority/New Faculty Majority Foundation’s Women in Contingency Project as well as the statistics from the American Federation of Teachers Report). Many times, like myself, they are also first-generation PhDs without adequate financial and cultural/social capital resources, which also includes knowledge of how to use the PhD as cultural/social capital in post-academic careers because they are often unintentionally cut out from other networks due to ‘pattern matching.’ They return to their home communities after having given a bulk of their lives to academia with their hopes dashed of contributing to knowledge production not only for themselves but also for the betterment of the profession and their communities. Moreover, they occupy a unique place in these discussions. Within their ‘own’ native professional circles that seek to promote ethnic, sexual, and gender diversity in the discipline, these scholars find that, when they make moves to speak of contingent issues, it is often construed as undermining or detracting from the ‘more important’ agendas of anti-racism work underway in academia. What is overlooked is that this is work that only some privileged tenure/tenure track academics get to fight. At the same time, to speak of intersectional identities and their invisibility in the contingent faculty movement risks them being called race-mongers and seen as undermining the labor movement. They are, in essence, in limbo and often relegated as an exception to be dealt with later on both sides.

 

When they face structural discrimination, one cannot tell if it is because of their adjunct status or their ethnic and gender status, if not both. Thus, as Crenshaw reminds us, when we help the most disenfranchised–who often are the most difficult to design new practices of inclusion for because of their intersectional status–everyone gains. So this is the position from which this is addressed, especially since these intersectional beings tend be silenced both in anthropology and in the contingent faculty movement through various micro-aggressions that often reproduce their dual stigmatization. To continue to speak of contingent faculty in general, non-intersectional terms contributes dangerously to the assumption that academic and socioeconomic disenfranchisement is equally felt the same by all and has the same consequences when it does not. Thus, my remarks below come from my position as an intersectional contingent faculty involved in both circles that, in my perspective, have not done nearly enough in creating alliances in the contingent movement due to ‘divide and conquer’ mentalities that pervade academic structural practices.

 

Principle #1: Do No Harm (You Can’t Hurt the Anthropologist and Not Hurt the Field Communities)

In anthropology, interconnectedness is not just a fancy abstract concept–it is the crux of how we do our work. This is echoed in many sentiments that locate anthropological enterprises as embodied and inscribed onto bodies of researchers. When the anthropologist is embedded in and socialized to be dependent on working conditions that do not allow them to disseminate their findings, we hurt field communities by decreasing the possibility of their stories and concepts being told. Every time a contingent faculty person is denied adequate living wages, affordable health care, has health problems that are exacerbated by working conditions that dehumanize them, discriminated against implicitly in tenure-track job searches because they are contingent, and so on, writing and dissemination become distant if not impossible goals. Conference papers do not get written, much less presented live at conferences due to employer-imposed travel restrictions, and journal articles do not get drafted. In short, research findings that could very well do more good than harm to communities–especially critical perspectives from underrepresented communities that push forward and challenge paradigms rather than stagnate knowledge production–end up on the cutting room floor. The (ab)use of the contingent market places scholars, especially persons of color and women, in a position that unintentionally causes harm through silence. Thus, when we speak of doing no harm, it might be best for the AAA to move away from seeing it as an individual, interpersonal aspect and understand it is a structural aspect, like sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva contends about race no longer needing ‘racists’ because it is in the structures we live and reproduce everyday. In this way, we can see that our daily reproduction of the contingent market structure through everyday practice, whereby faculty are not supported to disseminate their research but solely ‘teach,’ creates harm to many underserved field communities.

 

Principle #2: Be Open and Honest Regarding Your Work (Let’s Get Real About Working Conditions That Produce the Work across All Stages)

When this principle is invoked, it tends to focus primarily again at the level of the anthropologist at an interpersonal, micro arena. In contrast, it does not usually concern the honesty of the ways in which academic labor is often not based on meritocracy but on a labor system that rationalizes disenfranchisement in the name of a good cause. We rarely ever disclose that the production of our work by tenured/tenure track faculty relies on the use of contingent faculty who are typically underpaid. For instance, when the money to hire contingent faculty is officially written into research grants and the same contingent faculty is not provided adequate pay, this remains hidden from all of our accounts of how the work was produced. How many times do we see contingent faculty thanked by scholars in books and articles, those faculty who have used the time and skills of a fellow anthropologist at a discount cost? How many times have many said faculty come to observe their contingent faculty counterparts and write letters of recommendation for future teaching and research opportunities? In essence, maybe it should not even be about sponsors but about stakeholders who also help get much anthropological scholarship done and rarely are acknowledged because of their invisible labor, a term coined by one of my colleagues. I wonder, if we were to put this practice into action, how many of us and the general public would see the ethnographic enterprise much differently beyond its claims of deep human understanding when we learn at what cost these understandings are produced.

 

Principle #3: Obtain Informed Consent and Necessary Permissions (I Hereby Consent to Let You Tell My Story at the Expense of Another Human Being’s Well-Being)

In conventional musings on consent, this discussion typically focuses on the consent for prospective research participants to interact with us for our own research to proceed. This often gets to how much to tell them so that we can enter into and sustain research in these communities so as not to impact the findings. What if we were to tell our participants (especially those in vulnerable communities of color) that, in the production of this work, this may (and probably will) involve the use and abuse of another vulnerable population: contingent faculty (including and most often disproportionately women and scholars of color), who will be underpaid and underserved when many of us take our sabbaticals to turn our dissertation findings into book-length projects. If our participants knew about this (just as people rallied to tell others of the harmful side effects of other products we consume in the US), how many would actually agree to the way we produce work in many top institutions? By not telling them each and every time that we make use of the contingency market for the production and dissemination of some stories and not others, do we ultimately deceive them about our own complicity and participation in structures that allow for the simultaneous reproduction of knowledge and socioeconomic and racial/ethnic inequity in academia?

 

Principle #4: Weigh Competing Ethical Obligations Due Collaborators and Affected Parties (And Yes, Contingent Faculty Are Affected Parties of Research)

To think of contingent faculty in the broader research game must include a key discussion of how they are affected parties in research, as listed in the AAA Ethics Statement. Contingent faculty are professional colleagues, since they are often anthropologists with PhDs, and also stakeholders in the research process. By stakeholders, I mean that they are brought in to teach courses when a faculty member at a research institution needs to go on leave to delve further into research or, in some cases, cheaply fill a retirement gap so other faculty do not have to compromise their own productivity. By releasing colleagues from their teaching commitments, contingent faculty are affected parties because they contribute to the production of knowledge, many times at the expense of their own and their field communities’ well-being due to contingent working conditions. Yet our ethical concerns around equity and just treatment toward contingent faculty are often ignored or not given strong thought. For instance, how many of us actually ask ourselves what our ethical obligations are to our contingent colleagues who support us with their invisible and marginalized labor? They are not just teaching, but they are also teaching in support of someone else’s research, if not more, for the structure permits this to be so.

 

Concluding Thoughts

This blog has aimed to show how, as we anthropologists continue to engage in the contingent market, we enter into some dangerously murky ethical waters. I often think to myself if this were any other industry happening in our own fieldsites, we would waste no time passing resolutions and creating actionable steps. And yet, we find ourselves often times dangerously silent because, for many of us, we reap many material and personal gains through this structurally-licensed disenfranchisement. This is often because, even in academia, there is a greater incentive to turn activism outward rather than engage in a reflexive, inwardly-turned academic activism. In this light, I encourage us all to act on behalf of the contingent faculty movement not because it is the ‘right thing to do,’ but to show that we as anthropologists can actually live up to our Code of Ethics in order to create quality learning and research conditions for our students and ourselves. As Crenshaw reminds us, when the most marginalized win, we all win. When we short-change even one group, we short-change all of our students and ourselves. So I ask us to be anthropologists not just in name only or in research, but also in academic activism turned inward. Our undergraduates, graduate advisees, colleagues, and field participants from the world over are depending on us. Let us not be slow to act but to actually use the academic freedom many of us possess to leave a more just and sustainable academic footprint that doesn’t come at the expense of harmful silencing of communities and research. It is time for us to use this critical discussion of our ethics as a springboard to create new practices around contingent faculty that support, rather than contradict, our professional ethical stances.

 

Encountering Racism while ‘Doing No Harm’

Raymond Scupin

In my 1994 ethnographic research on Muslim communities in Thailand I confronted an ethical dilemma that has never been resolved to my satisfaction. In 1976-77, I conducted dissertation research with Thai-speaking descendants of Malay, Iranian, Indonesian, Pathan, Indian, Cham, and Chinese (Yunnanese) Muslims who had migrated to Bangkok and other areas of Central Thailand. Most were Sunni, but some of the Iranian and Indian descendants were Shia. The mid-1970s was the height of the Islamic Awakening throughout the Muslim world, with the embryonic Iranian revolution developing alongside other forms of religious assertiveness. In my dissertation I discussed the different types of Islamic movements that were taking place — reformist, fundamentalist, and secular — along with the ongoing changes in ritual practices and beliefs within these various Muslim communities. Despite the assimilation or accommodation of many Muslims to the majority Thai Buddhist cultural environment, I witnessed an increase in ethnic and religious assertiveness that is still prevalent today.

I was not able to do follow-up research during the 1980s despite being awarded a Fulbright grant, because the Thai government would not approve clearances for Westerners wanting to work among Muslims. But finally, in 1994, through my Muslim academic contacts in Thailand, I was able to return. While conducting interviews with various informants, including Muslim university professors, I discovered that some of them were involved in translating Henry Ford’s “The International Jew” and the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in order to promote anti-Semitic views within the Thai-speaking Muslim communities. When I questioned them about their rationales, they answered that they wanted to demonstrate the true nature of the Zionist and World Jewry for the Muslim populace. Of course, I knew that these portrayals were widespread throughout the Middle East, but I was shocked that they had become an aspect of these Muslim activities in Thailand. I argued vociferously with the individuals who were involved in these translations and tried to reason with them about the negative portrayals of Jews that they intended to promote. Some did have second thoughts when I pointed out how the translation project violated the norms regarding the Islamic acceptance of Jews as “People of the Book.” Nevertheless, the project was completed.

I found the matter very troubling. While the majority of Muslims in Thailand played no role in translating the anti-Semitic documents, some of the Muslims involved were my close informants and friends. I viewed their activity as immoral, harmful, and a violation of basic human rights. However, while I considered reporting their activities to the Thai Buddhist authorities, I worried about the potential consequences. The Thai authorities tend to have negative essentialist stereotypes about Muslims, so the possibility of political repression or other repercussions for Muslims as a result of such a disclosure was very real. At the time I decided not to report. Since then, however, I have been haunted by the thought that I might have been able to prevent the distribution of these anti-Semitic documents had I tried. Recently, I wrote a chapter for a volume dealing with Buddhist-Muslim relations in Thailand that mentions the translation of the anti-Semitic texts. I reasoned that the Thai authorities were unlikely to ever read this academic research and so the publication would not have negative consequences for the Muslims in Thailand. Would reporting to Thai authorities when I saw what was happening in the 1990s have violated the principle that anthropologists should “Do No Harm”? Am I violating the “Do No Harm” principle by describing the Muslims’ activities in my chapter? Am I violating it by writing this blog post now? While I know no ethical principle can be absolute, this one seems to be a pervasive aspect of anthropological ethics. I just don’t know how to it apply it in this case.

Raymond Scupin, Director, Center for International and Global Studies, Lindenwood University. [email protected]

The Ethics of Collaborating with Artifact Collectors

Bonnie L. Pitblado

In October 2013, more than 1,100 people attended the well-publicized “Paleoamerican Odyssey” (PO) conference in Santa Fe.  Professional archaeologists constituted 46% of the attendees; non-professionals the other 54%.  The conference featured the usual array of scholarly presentations and posters, but it also offered secure space for 39 museums and universities and 11 organizer-vetted private individuals to showcase collections of Paleoamerican artifacts.

The collections room was packed much of the time with interested professionals and non-professionals alike.  However, some archaeologists—not a majority, but more than a few—vocalized their view that inviting private artifact collectors to share their finds at PO had violated archaeological ethics.  For most who expressed this perspective, the perceived ethical breach lay in the domain of commercialization, with the concern being that showcasing privately held material culture increased its monetary value and thereby facilitated, even promoted, its sale on the private market.

As well-meaning as they may have been, such views bothered me at the conference, and as time passed, my discomfort with what I had heard increased.  It took a bit of introspection to understand my strong feelings on the subject, but ultimately I realized that they were themselves rooted in the ethical precepts professional archaeologists have pledged to uphold.  By expressing blanket rejection for conference participants who shared Paleoamerican artifacts they legally owned, archaeologists themselves teetered perilously close to violating nearly all of our discipline’s ethical mandates.

In 1996, the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) established eight “Principles of Archaeological Ethics.”  Conference attendees concerned with the potential commercialization of the privately owned material were responding to the third of these.  However, their wholesale rejection of interaction with all private artifact collectors at PO held the very real potential to violate no fewer than six of the remaining seven principles:  stewardship, accountability, public education and outreach, intellectual property, and records and preservation.

Notably, even the “commercialization” principle that anchored the view of those who rejected the presence of private collectors is in reality quite nuanced, stating that “archaeologists should…carefully weigh the benefits to scholarship of a project against the costs of potentially enhancing the commercial value of archaeological objects.”  Rejecting the presence of all private individuals who own artifacts clearly fails to “weigh the benefits to scholarship” that accrued both to conference attendees who could view the collections and to the owners with an unparalleled opportunity to interact one-on-one with professionals.

American Anthropological Association “principles of professional responsibility” likewise cannot be construed to support rejecting an entire class of stakeholders in any anthropological realm, including the PO conference. AAA Principles 1, “Do No Harm” and 4, “Weigh Competing Ethical Obligations” were particularly imperiled by PO professionals who in failing to comply with Principle 4 also violated Principle 1.  Putting myself in the shoes of a private person who had accepted conference organizers’ invitation to share artifacts in my possession, I would have felt betrayed indeed to learn of my condemnation by a few professional archaeologists imposing a black-and-white sensibility on a gray world.

A short blog post does not permit me the space to elaborate on the ethical judgments I have expressed here.  However, my recent article in “American Antiquity” explores in much more depth the ethics of archaeologist – collector collaboration.  Readers can also access a follow-up piece published in “Advances in Archaeological Practice” that offers concrete suggestions for how professionals can collaborate with artifact collectors in ways that benefit both parties—and the archaeological record we all treasure.

I also invite interested readers going to the 80th SAA meeting in San Francisco later this month to attend an Ethics and Public Education Committee-sponsored forum organized by Michael Shott and me, called “Cons or Pros? Should Archaeologists Collaborate with Responsible Collectors?”   The 12-participant forum will run 1:00 – 3:00 on Friday, April 17, and we hope to facilitate extensive audience interaction.  We will cover subjects including ethical arguments for and against collaboration, how professionals might persuade indifferent collectors of the value of documenting and sharing their collections, the many motivations that cause people to start (and stop) collecting, and case studies documenting the effects of collecting.

 

Abandoning informed consent?

Editor’s Note: Kirsten Bell was invited to contribute this post based on her recent American Anthropologist article, “Resisting Commensurability: Against Informed Consent as an Anthropological Virtue.”

Kirsten Bell

Department of Anthropology

University of British Columbia

 

There’s a courtroom scene in Rob Reiner’s film A Few Good Men (no, not “you can’t handle the truth”) where a physician has just provided damning testimony against the clients of Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), Lieutenant Commander JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) and Lieutenant Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollack).  Kaffee lodges his objection to the physician’s testimony and the judge overrules it.  Galloway then “strenuously objects”, which merely causes the judge to dig in his heels.  Afterwards, an annoyed Weinberg says to Galloway: “I strenuously object?  Is that how it works?  Hmm?  ‘Objection’.  ‘Overruled’.  ‘Oh no, no, no.  I strenuously object’.  ‘Oh, well, if you strenuously object then I should take some time to reconsider’”.  His point is that the formulation is both redundant and absurd.

In this post I want to consider another absurd redundancy, namely “fully informed consent”.  However, while “strenuously objecting” has never caught on as a legal strategy, “fully informed consent” makes an appearance in everything from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to the AAA Code of Ethics (see “be open and honest regarding your work”).  Surely, consent is either informed or it isn’t, so why the qualifier?  In my view, its addition reveals the central problem with the concept itself, namely, that while it seems self-evident and straightforward, the more deeply you look, the murkier it becomes.  That vapid adverbs have been piled on in the hopes of clarifying its meaning (what’s next? “Really, truly informed consent”?) suggests that we are dealing with the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

It’s worth bearing in mind that “informed consent” is a hypothetical construct.  Even the Belmont Report, the document responsible for enshrining the doctrine as part of a Holy Trinity of universal ethical principles, was hedging its bets on whether it was, in fact, possible.  As others before me have noted, it becomes especially meaningless when applied to anthropological research.  What on earth does it mean to state that, “Anthropologists have an obligation to ensure that research participants have freely granted consent”?  Freely granted consent to what?  To be studied?  To be written about?  (These are not the same thing.)  And how can one share “the expected outcomes [and] anticipated impacts of the research” when these are unknown at the outset?  Again, statements like these might seem self-evident, but upon closer inspection appear to be rather empty.

These are not new concerns.  What is relatively new is the AAA’s embrace of the informed consent doctrine 16 years ago and the lack of debate the concept engendered in the recent online discussions about the proposed revisions to the Code of Ethics.  All this would suggest that despite its problems, it has reached the status of an unassailable value.  After all, how can one be against informed consent?  That this has become our default response to critics of the doctrine suggests that it has become a totalizing frame, one that crowds out more a complex reading of the distinct issues it currently collapses, from community permissions to conduct fieldwork, to communication about one’s research on the ground, to the politics of writing and representation.  My suspicion is that untethering discussions about anthropological research ethics from the stranglehold of “informed consent” will allow us to talk in a more meaningful way about the complexities of communication about our research, which are far from the self-evident, straightforward, primarily technical transaction the doctrine implies.

In sum, despite its apparent unassailability, there are good reasons to take stock of our ethical equipment to ensure it does what think it does and what we want it to, otherwise we are in danger of ending up like misguided Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) in The Princess Bride, another Rob Reiner film.  After he misuses the term “inconceivable” for the dozenth time, Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), his hired swordsman, remarks: “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means”.

“Do Some Good” and Other Lessons from Practice for a New AAA Code of Ethics

Elizabeth K. Briody and Tracy Meerwarth Pester

What do you do if you don’t see yourself or your work represented in the AAA ethics code?

Maybe you do what we did. First, we asked ourselves, how strongly connected were we to the discipline of anthropology? We took stock of our ties and here is what we found. Both of us

  • Hold advanced anthropology degrees
  • Became AAA members well over a decade ago
  • Have served in AAA leadership positions
  • Have received AAA awards
  • Have produced a AAA video and/or published in AAA journals.

Our AAA experiences indicated we were engaged in the discipline’s mission, services, and products.

Second, we thought, why don’t we examine the degree of fit between our anthropological work and the current ethics code? That way we could see the extent to which our impressions of the code were valid. Since we both spent much of our professional careers as researchers at General Motors R&D, we decided to compare our actions on four GM R&D projects to the AAA’s 2012 Principles of Professional Responsibility. Our analysis became a friendly test of the AAA ethics code (see Journal of Business Anthropology, 2014, Special Issue 1, http://ej.lib.cbs.dk/index.php/jba/article/view/4260).

We learned that the current code does not “reflect core principles shared across subfields and contexts of practice” as the preamble reads. Instead, the code has a far narrower focus. It is written for those who conduct research – with the word “research” or its cognates appearing 65 times – and not for other types of anthropological work. Moreover, even though we were researchers at a premier industrial lab, terms that we used to describe our anthropological activities and impact did not appear in the code: “problem solving,” “change,” “intervention,” “management,” “recommendations,” “tools,” “applications,” and “training.” Anthropological practice includes a significant implementation component. In our case, implementation was an extension of our research. For other professional anthropologists, implementation, management, or administration may be their primary job element.

The AAA ethics code also ignored our dual identities: anthropologists – yes, but employed by GM. The AAA code and GM’s corporate code of conduct were complementary because they emphasized different domains. We believe guidance from both codes contributed to our mindful practice.

But, what really surprised us about the code was the preoccupation with the concept of “harm” with no corresponding emphasis on the concept of “help.” Professional anthropologists work inside some cultural system – whether as employees, consultants, contractors, or volunteers – and typically work toward a more effective system. Their focus incorporates the “Do No Harm” principle, but accentuates the “Do Some Good” principle. The ethics code left us wondering:

  • Why doesn’t the code value the use of anthropological theories and methods to help improve the human condition?
  • How can anthropologists adhere to an ethical code if it ignores the prospects of change as well as the role of professional anthropologists in that process?

Third, we asked ourselves, were we outliers? Could it be that our type of anthropological work was an exception to the rule? No, we concluded. We knew that we were not alone in the arena of practice and that the discipline had been evolving into a mixed model of academic and professional anthropologists. One indicator of this shift was the rise in the number of applied programs (see http://www.copaa.info/programs_in_aa/list.htm). A second and related indicator was the increasing number of graduating MA and PhD anthropologists moving into professional careers.

We understand that the AAA ethics code is expected to be a living document, revamped as conditions internal and external to the discipline change. We believe that the time for creating an inclusive anthropological code of ethics is now. So, where do we go from here?

We recommend that the AAA Committee on Ethics convene two working groups – one of professional anthropologists and the other of academically-based anthropologists. The two groups should work together to create a common framework pertaining to the relationship between anthropological work and ethics; the framework might include such elements as motivation, tasks, relationships, work environments, learning, and impact. Then separately, the two groups identify core features of the framework using their own work-related experiences and the literature to guide them. Finally, the two groups reassemble to integrate the ethical dimensions of professional and academic work into a cohesive whole.

We anticipate the creation of a new code, rather than a revision of the existing one – a code that represents the evolving discipline of anthropology holistically, accurately, and effectively. This process would be an important and relevant way to “Do Some Good!”

Elizabeth K. Briody currently serves on the AAA Executive Board in the Practicing/Professional Seat. Tracy Meerwarth Pester currently serves on the NAPA Ethics Committee.