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!”

Laying the Foundations for Collaboration in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Laying the Foundations for Collaboration in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Gavin Davies

University of Kentucky

Although the goals of the collaborative archaeology paradigm are clearly something that we should all aspire to, I think it is important to note that for many early career archaeologists, particularly those beginning projects abroad, “true collaboration,” i.e. collaboration from a project’s inception, may simply not be possible. This is because archaeologists at early stages in their research will likely not yet have received the funding required to spend the time building the necessary partnerships. In such cases, should we simply ignore the heartbreaking destruction of cultural heritage in the area we have become so passionate about? My response to this question was “decidedly not”, and I argue here that with the aid of a community-insider, simply being open and honest (see statement 2), and putting community interests first, can go a long way towards allaying indigenous people’s fears and concerns about archaeologists and their practices.
In my research area, the Lake Atitlán Basin of highland Guatemala, I was acutely aware that several previous archaeological projects, had been prematurely terminated for incurring the suspicions and mistrust of the indigenous Tz’utujil Maya. Beginning with the ejection of the Carnegie Institution’s Samuel Lothrop from the site of Chuitinamit in the 1930s and extending up until the recent expulsion of the Samabaj crew by the leaders of Santiago Atitlán , the Tz’utujil have repeatedly declared their refusal to be overlooked in matters pertaining to their cultural heritage. Given this checkered history and the cautionary warnings of regional experts such as Barbara Arroyo, concerns about causing no harm (see statement 1) were at the forefront of my mind as I embarked on my investigations. Fears that I would not be able to identify, let alone appease, all of the relevant stakeholders, or that I would inadvertently anger one or more landowners, however, led me to expend considerable effort, in the months leading up to the project, soliciting public opinion via a project Facebook page and searching for a local advisor who could help me negotiate the complexities of the local politics and permissions processes.

My search for an appropriately qualified advisor eventually led me to contact a mathematics professor named Domingo who had lived in the area all his life and had recently self-funded the construction of a community center dedicated to the promotion of science, culture and the arts. Domingo quickly committed himself to the project, scheduling a meeting with the mayor of San Pedro Atitlan on my second day in town and arranging an opportunity to explain our mission in an interview on a popular local TV station. Domingo played a crucial role, helping us to arrange all of our official meetings and ensuring that we followed established local protocols. This extended to making sure that all of our important meetings were conducted on propitious days in the Mayan calendar and that our first day of fieldwork was preceded by a blessing from a respected local aj kij (daykeeper). And while Domingo’s powers to influence the decisions of individual landowners were more limited, his insider community-knowledge quickly helped us to deduce why some land-owners had refused us access, thereby helping us to refine our permission strategies as we went forward.
As the project progressed, we adopted a simple ethos based on three basic principles: respect, communication and transparency (see statement 2). These principles reminded us to always put the community’s needs before our own or those of the archaeology by: a) restricting our investigations to where we had permission, b) clearly explaining our mission to the public whenever we had the opportunity and, c) inviting landowners and the public to visit our laboratory to see how we processed and analyzed the recovered artifacts. Armed with these guiding principles, Domingo’s insider knowledge, and our workers’ ability to communicate our mission in the local dialect we found that the majority of the landowners we encountered were not only accommodating but openly appreciative of the interest we were taking in the history of their community. And although, we fell short of achieving the desired full-coverage survey, the resultant random sample survey covered portions of all of the major sites in the project area and generated over 30,000 ceramics, covering the entire prehispanic sequence. More importantly, however, the project achieved the far more valuable goal of laying a stable foundation for long-term collaboration and research in the area.
My experiences directing the Proyecto Arqueológico Lago de Atitlán taught me that when collaborative partnerships are not forthcoming at the inception of a project, it may not only be acceptable, but desirable for western archaeologists to take the lead. This is certainly true of highland Guatemala, where the Maya themselves simply do not have the luxury of worrying about their own cultural heritage, being forced by dire economic circumstances to devote themselves entirely to the unending task of providing for their families. Early career archaeologists should be aware, however, that even with a local advisor on board, gaining the trust of a community and acquiring all of the required permissions takes time (two months in our case) and needs to be taken into account at the budgeting stage. Archaeologists should be heartened, however, that while often tedious and frustrating, these slow-moving administrative processes nevertheless force us to engage with the community on their own terms and learn the culturally appropriate ways of doing things. Attempting to circumvent such processes by using clandestine survey strategies, on the other hand not only risks alienating the local community but sealing the fate of the cultural heritage we so desperately seek to preserve. As discussed in statement 2, such practices are simply no longer ethical or acceptable.

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:

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.

Problematic Ventures in Interdisciplinary Field Projects

Joseph Brooks

University of California, Santa Barbara


I am a PhD student in Linguistics. Early on in my program, I volunteered to assist at a workshop held at a university in Papua New Guinea that was supposed to teach the local participants how to document their own languages. There I witnessed what I considered to be at best misguided and at worst unethical behavior on the part of the foreign organizers of the workshop vis-à-vis the Papua New Guinean attendees, most of whom were poor villagers. There were many problems with the way in which the workshop was managed. It was conducted in English rather than the language all the participants spoke, Tok Pisin. Instead of making audio recordings, the standard practice in language documentation, participants were directed to produce written texts. This is because the organizers sought to amass a corpus of texts in the participants’ languages that would be useful for machine translation research, and it was claimed this would help document the participants’ languages by automatizing parts of the documentation process. Those who did not speak English were at a disadvantage, and those who were illiterate could hardly participate at all. The participants spent two weeks unwittingly producing data for the organizers’ research in computational linguistics, with no real benefit to themselves. In my conversations with participants as well as faculty at the university, there was a great deal of discontent with the workshop for these and other reasons.

When an article extolling the success of the workshop appeared in the Journal of Language Documentation and Conservation a year later, I was appalled. There was a great chasm between what I had witnessed and how the article represented the workshop. The article described it as an outstanding success that contributed to language preservation and was a real hit with the participants. To my mind, this was dishonest and unethical.

I struggled to decide whether and how to respond. The prospect of a conflict with a senior researcher worried me; nor did I want to earn a reputation for being a troublemaker. I also felt uncomfortable speaking for others. However, I did have a strong sense of how negatively the participants I had interacted with experienced the workshop, and some had even expressed their discontent to me directly. It was my correspondence with a faculty member at the Papua New Guinean university that finally convinced me that I should speak up. When I expressed my moral concerns about speaking on behalf of the villagers I was told that not only was I in the perfect position to do so, but I was in fact the only one who possibly could. The local Papua New Guinean faculty had given up and ceased attending after the first few days of the workshop, whereas I had been there the whole time and was informed enough to comment. The power difference between universities in PNG and those in the United States and Australia surely also played a role. Local faculty were not well positioned to criticize outside researchers who were bringing prestige and funding to their university.

It seemed there were two main avenues I could pursue. One would be to lodge a complaint of ethical misconduct with the sponsors of the research, the funders and/or the PI’s own university. The other would be to submit a response piece to the journal where the article had been published. I sought advice from my friends and family. I consulted with representatives of multiple IRBs. I even met with someone in my town who has a degree in ethics to get another perspective. I discussed the issue with my adviser and with another professor in my department. There was no unanimous support for any course of action. Some strongly supported my intention to respond in some way, while others urged extreme caution lest I irreparably damage my nascent career.

I finally decided to submit a response to the journal. The response genre is one that is established and respected in academia. Whereas an ethics misconduct claim would be behind the scenes and might in the end have no effect, a published response would bring the story to the awareness of the readership of the journal. Submitting a manuscript to review would mean that, if published, my perspective had been vetted by a panel of respected scholars in my field. And submitting a response would require me to forge my concerns into something that was at once scholarly and productive. My response could help positively shape future research, and might even raise the ethical bar for linguists working with marginalized communities. However, I would have to focus my argument and leave out some details I felt were critical. I would have to remove anything that came too close to conjecture, anything I did not directly perceive, or anything that came too close to ad hominem criticism. I would not be able to tell the full story.

In the end, I submitted my response, and it was published. So far, I have received only positive feedback from colleagues. In retrospect, it seems obvious that I should have done exactly what I did, but there were many points along the way where I considered different paths or where I nearly chose inaction over action. I hope that in writing my response as well as this blog post that I have provided the beginnings of a roadmap for other young or unestablished scholars who find themselves in similar difficult positions and are afraid to speak up.

I would like to conclude with a few thoughts about the broader context in which the workshop occurred, and what I think it means for research ethics in interdisciplinary fieldwork. Within linguistics, the last few decades have seen an increased emphasis on the need to document and describe endangered languages because they have a great deal to teach us about things like the range of possible linguistic structures and what happens when languages come into contact. But one effect of this has been to bring endangered languages to the attention of linguists and others who work outside the area of traditional field-based language description, and who see a way to connect themselves to this “hot topic”. The workshop I assisted with in Papua New Guinea was born out of this trend: computational linguists wanted to see if their methods might be used to help speed up the task of documenting endangered languages. This is a reasonable question to want to ask, but in my assessment, the workshop it resulted in was ethically questionable because the organizers were taking an experiment-based approach to research and had little awareness of research as a social process. Those who have been trained in another discipline’s ethics run the risk of engaging in extractive if not exploitative practices when they bring those ethics to local, often marginal, communities. Funders and collaborators have a responsibility to help educate such researchers, so more response articles like mine will not need to be written.

Critical Reflection on Barriers to Ethical Archaeological Practice Based on a Collaborative Museum Project at Xaltocan, Mexico

Lisa Overholtzer

The American Anthropological Association’s fifth principle of professional responsibility is “Make Your Results Accessible.” Codes of ethics for archaeology, in particular, often emphasize public outreach to those groups who identify the archaeological remains as pertaining to their own cultural heritage (e.g. Principle of Archaeological Ethics No. 4 of the Society for American Archaeology). The Codes of Ethics of the World Archaeological Congress goes further in stipulating that archaeologists seek “to establish equitable partners and relationships between Members and indigenous peoples whose cultural heritage is being investigated.” These wide-ranging strategies—from communicating findings to descendant communities to inclusive, collaborative research—are situated on opposite ends of the collaborative spectrum, as defined by Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Ferguson (2008:1-2). In recent decades archaeologists around the world have worked to move their archaeological practice toward more inclusive practices that benefit descendant and other stakeholding communities (Atalay 2012, Colwell-Chanthaphonh and Ferguson 2008, Dongoske, Aldenderfer, and Doehner 2000, Marshall 2002, Silliman 2008, Stottman 2010, Swidler et al. 1997). In this short blog post I will discuss some of my own efforts to this end, reflect on the limitations of this project, and consider one of the primary barriers we still face in collaborative endeavors.

In 2009, I began the Proyecto Arqueológico Xaltocan (PAX) or Xaltocan Archaeological Project to investigate the Aztec imperial transition from the perspective of commoner households. Archaeological research had been conducted at Xaltocan by Elizabeth Brumfiel and her collaborators and students since 1987. These scholars have always made their results accessible to modern residents (Brumfiel 2000); I simply sought to move archaeological practice further along the collaborative spectrum and return to Xaltocan some of the control over and benefits of the archaeological research process. I began with my hired crew, engaging them in the interpretive process, building capacity through education in the context of excavations, and facilitating a public symposium at the end of the field season in which crew members presented their findings on a topic of their choice (Overholtzer in press). Before finishing my analyses, I worked with residents to determine the next stage in this collaborative project. They communicated that talks and symposia were great, but temporary. Archaeology could really benefit the descendant community and have a lasting impact through a permanent exposition in the new exhibit hall they had recently constructed in the community museum. We decided to install as a central exhibit feature an authentic replica of an excavated Postclassic period adobe house, complete with house mound and patio simulated with a wooden platform. Household objects would be recreated and displayed inside the house and on the patio, and since residents were particularly interested in displaying ancient human remains, the burials of family members would be visible under the platform patio through plexiglass panels. Finally, exhibit cases around the room would display excavated artifacts and tell how and why we do archaeology. This exhibit would disseminate the project findings, educate visitors about Xaltocan’s past and how we have reconstructed it archaeologically, and possibly promote tourism to the site—all goals shared by many members of the descendant community.

I returned in 2013 to complete the museum exhibit. Four Wichita State students, the director of the Holmes Museum, and I collaborated with a team of 16 local residents with expertise spanning adobe construction, the growing and weaving of reeds, carpentry, engineering, and cultural programming. We were fortunate to have the historical association’s help in mobilizing residents and the local museum staff’s assistance in registering artifacts with INAH, the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History. The exhibit opened in September 2013 to much fanfare, now regularly receives visits from schoolchildren throughout the region, and has inspired the renovation of other, older exhibits in the museum.

While this project was successful by most measures, critical reflection reveals how it could have been even more collaborative and participatory. Unfortunately, this limitation was due to a common barrier in such projects: a shoestring budget. While new programs funding outreach and community collaboration have been developed in recent years—the Engaged Anthropology grant from Wenner-Gren and the Indigenous Heritage Passed to Present (In-Herit, formerly MACHI) grants, for example—they are still rare and limited in scope. I cobbled together funding from four sources (the Wenner Gren Foundation [Engaged Anthropology grant #29], the David and Sally Jackman Foundation, the Lowell D. Holmes Museum of Anthropology, and Wichita State University), but still was only able to stay in Mexico to work on the project for four weeks in the summer and one week in the fall once the adobes in the exhibit house were dry. We were unfortunately restricted in the number of local residents we could compensate and include in the project, as well. This meant that we had to travel to Mexico with a basic proposal for the exhibit hall layout and overall message, in this case, how we can construct a narrative that reflects the agency of past commoner residents and how we can reconstruct past health, daily practices, household philosophies, and gender norms. We then discussed and modified these ideas with community leaders. However, fully brainstorming those details with the larger community from the beginning would have been more collaborative. Many archaeologists now agree that community archaeology projects such as these are vitally important in our profession for ethical reasons, but the financial resources needed for implementation are lagging behind. Collaborative and outreach project funding remains one of the greatest challenges to future ethical engagement with descendant and other stakeholding communities.


Figure 1. Planning the house substructure with the engineer and the adobe consultant

Figure 1. Planning the house substructure with the engineer and the adobe consultant


Figure 2. Replica house construction

Figure 2. Replica house construction


Figure 3. Exhibit hall ribbon cutting ceremony

Figure 3. Exhibit hall ribbon cutting ceremony


Figure 4. Exhibition opening guided tour

Figure 4. Exhibition opening guided tour


Figure 5. The completed exhibit hall

Figure 5. The completed exhibit hall


Figure 6. Interior view of the replica house

Figure 6. Interior view of the replica house


Figure 7. Exterior patio with burials

Figure 7. Exterior patio with burials


Figure 8. Exhibit case featuring stratigraphy, ceramic seriation, and changes in burial practices over time

Figure 8. Exhibit case featuring stratigraphy, ceramic seriation, and changes in burial practices over time

For additional photographs of the museum project, visit my research website at

References Cited

Atalay, Sonya. 2012. Community-based Archaeology: Research With, By, and For Indigenous and Local Communities. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Brumfiel, Elizabeth M. 2000. “Making History in Xaltocan.” In Working Together, edited by Kurt Dongoske, Mark Aldenderfer and Karen Doehner, 181-190. Washington, D.C.: Society for American Archaeology.
Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Chip, and T.J. Ferguson, eds. 2008. Collaboration in Archaeological Practice: Engaging Descendant Communities. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press.
Dongoske, Kurt E., Mark Aldenderfer, and Karen Doehner, eds. 2000. Working Together: Native Americans and Archaeologists. Washington, D.C.: Society for American Archaeology.
Marshall, Yvonne. 2002. “What is Community Archaeology?” World Archaeology 34 (2):211-219.
Overholtzer, Lisa. In press. “The Field Crew Symposium: A Model for Initial Implementation of a Collaborative Archaeology Project.” Advances in Archaeological Practice.
Silliman, Stephen W., ed. 2008. Collaborating at the Trowel’s Edge: Teaching and Learning in Indigenous Archaeology. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Stottman, M. Jay. 2010. Archaeologists as activists: Can archaeologists change the world? Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
Swidler, Nina, Kurt E. Dongoske, Roger Anyon, and Alan S. Downer, eds. 1997. Native Americans and Archaeologists. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.


Who Owns My Fieldnotes? Protecting Informants and “Intellectual Property”

Posted confidentially on the author’s behalf by the ethics blog editors

In order to minimize risks to informants, students setting out to conduct dissertation research submit human subjects protocols to be reviewed by their Institutional Review Board. But what happens when you find yourself working or consulting in non-academic settings, where there is no IRB to answer to, and the standards for work products and “intellectual property” are different from the standards surrounding research in academic settings? This is something most anthropologists don’t learn while they have their sights set on finding a job as a professor at a university. As anthropologists increasingly explore non-academic roles, we need to know how to protect ourselves, protect our informants, and avoid misunderstandings—and even lawsuits—in a business world that operates according to a different set of norms and cultural rules. I learned this lesson the hard way.

While working as an Executive Director for a non-profit organization, my training as an anthropologist specializing in gender, health, and the Middle East put me in a position not only to design and implement programs, but also to evaluate their successes and challenges. Our organization had several projects underway across the Middle East. I proposed to undertake an evaluation of a center we had helped fund in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The goal was to assess how well the services our center offered were meeting community needs.

With the customary assurances of confidentiality, I began to conduct audiorecorded interviews with people who used the center. At first I asked simple questions like: How far do you have to travel to reach the center? How could the center better meet your needs? But when women began telling me stories of their experiences of living under occupation—the impact of the wall on their lives and villages, the settlers who threatened their children and livestock at gunpoint, the soldiers’ harassment of their sons and daughters, their sickness due to Israeli settlement waste trickling down the hills into Palestinian fields causing outbreaks of E. Coli and other sewage-related diseases, the destruction of Palestinian orchards and homes, and the constant, unrelenting harassment on every level of life—I could not stick to simply asking how many times a week they used the center and which programs they found most useful. Clearly, there was no way to understand the center’s functioning apart from the entire context of life under occupation. As an anthropologist and as a human being who could see these people’s suffering, I couldn’t keep focused on the center alone when people had stories of trauma they were eager to share.

But much of the information I recorded could potentially put people in danger if their identities, or even locations, were ever revealed. I obtained informed consent but documented it only orally, as many informants were illiterate and, more importantly, I knew that having their names on paper could put them at risk if the information was seized by officials at the checkpoints or the airport. In fact, I didn’t even carry the tapes out of the country, but sent them by DHL instead, for the same reasons. I emailed my field notes to myself at a different email address and then deleted them from both my computer and my primary email address. In writing up my observations, I used only initials rather than the full names of anyone I spoke to. In short, I made an exerted effort to minimize risk to my informants. But I didn’t think about who actually owned the original materials. I just assumed I was being paid to provide a report, and the recordings and notes were mine.

While in the field, I understood my materials to be two separate sets of information: one set of interview data directly related to the center, from which I would redact people’s identities and use to write up the report for my employer. The other information, unrelated to the center and my employment, explored the experiences of Palestinians living under occupation. I planned to use this latter information to write separate articles, as every Palestinian I spoke to pleaded with me to share their stories with the outside world.

My employer was fine with this way of thinking at the time. But some months after my return, my position was phased out, and the organization ordered me to turn over all of the tapes and notes from the work I had conducted in Palestine. I refused, on the grounds that (1) I had collected the data, (2) it contained sensitive information, (3) people had placed their trust in me when they consented to be interviewed, and (4) I was the only one whose responsibility it was to protect the interviewees. I concluded that I could not in good conscience hand over any of it.

I then received a letter from an attorney informing me that the organization had initiated a lawsuit against me, maintaining that I had stolen trade secrets and that the material belonged to them since they had paid my salary and funded the research. My employer’s stance was that this was intellectual property belonging to the company. My stance was that this data was protected by an obligation to “do no harm” to human subjects, and that social scientists have an obligation to protect their consultants’ identities—particularly in this high-conflict, militarized zone where lives could be at risk if certain information got out. I also felt that my own basic rights were being threatened: some of these field notes were like private journal entries; they contained my personal observations and emotions.

I started researching laws surrounding protections of human subjects, privacy laws, and cases involving other social scientists who had faced similar unfortunate circumstances and how they handled their situations. I found I was not alone in this predicament.

Sheldon Zink spent 18 months conducting ethnographic fieldwork at University of Pennsylvania on patients who had received artificial hearts. When one of these patients died, the family sued the hospital, and the hospital’s legal defense team subpoenaed Zink’s field notes (2003)[1]. Although she was prepared to spend time in jail to protect her informant’s confidentiality, at the 11th hour she managed to strike a deal to redact the notes and turn over an analysis, rather than the raw data. Sociologist Rik Scarce conducted his field research on eco-terrorism.[2] In 1993, he spent 5 months in prison for contempt of court, and for refusing to divulge his sources, one of whom was under investigation for a 1972 murder. Zink and Scarce were employed in academic settings, yet they too did not have adequate protection for themselves or their informants. While it might seem logical that the protection of anthropological consultants be consistent with the privacy laws that protect the patients of medical professionals—or at least journalists’ informants—legally, this is not the case. But these cases were not exactly equivalent to the situation I was facing: who owns the data in a corporate/non-profit setting?

In most university settings, researchers are legally the ‘stewards’ of their data: while the researcher is the one responsible for ensuring that the research is conducted ethically, it is the university that technically owns the data. For anthropologists who do consulting work, or conduct anthropological research as employees of non-profit organizations or businesses, there isn’t usually an IRB to report to, and the employee or consultant is paid for the work they do on a particular project.

Anthropologists are increasingly bringing their skillset to other work terrains in corporate America and non-profit work. Whether we step into the Intels, Googles, Facebooks, or Relief Internationals and other foundations, we have to come to terms with the fact that the standards regarding research materials may be very different from how we’ve been trained to think about our data. We need to become adept at negotiating contracts that explicitly spell out who owns the data and what information is being paid for before we engage in fieldwork.  Every social scientist who conducts qualitative, ethnographic work with human subjects should legally establish (1) who owns the recordings, notes, and other data they produce, (2) to what degree they can or cannot use this data in their own publications, (3) that they are being paid to provide analyses and reports of their findings with all identifiers redacted, not the raw data, as part of our ethical guidelines to protect human subjects. We must consider proactively how far we would go to protect our informants: Destroy tapes? Spend time in jail?

If this case had gone to court, and I had won, it would have set a precedent for social scientists’ right to protect their data. If not, however, the outlook for the protection of our work, and human subjects, would not have been as rosy. Luckily for me, after a year of attorneys’ meetings, and significant financial and emotional costs, my former employer dropped the case, we reconciled our differences, and I was able to stand by what I believe in. But I also learned the hard way that naiveté is a luxury we cannot afford when it comes to anthropological “data security”. While we are very fortunate that companies and organizations now recognize the great value of qualitative anthropological work—and ethnography is becoming the new buzzword in much of corporate America—we also have to adapt to an entirely different set of cultural circumstances. Other people’s lives could very well be on the line if we venture into these arenas blindly.



“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,

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 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.