Contingency in Conversational Consent and Turbulent Collaborations

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

This is the story of how my collaboration with a coauthor collapsed over ethical concerns. Neither of us violated any formal ethical protocols. And yet, our ethical sensibilities were divergent, premised upon different agreements and conversations with members of the community we both work with. The story shows that while taking an open-ended “conversational” rather than “regulatory adherence” approach to ethics might help researchers attend to the contextual specificity of particular ethnographic projects, conversations between co-authors about their respective ethical agreements need to happen early on in a collaboration, and even then might not solve every problem. Which conversations are had, by whom and with whom? How do these conversations change over time? What is left unsaid, and how do such things come to matter when researchers work together?

Early in my research, community leaders explained to me their worries about how my work could lead to harm. Their concerns mostly involved keeping out of the public eye: on at least one occasion, the publication of a news story about their small community had subjected them to a visit by ethno-nationalist vandals. I was urged not to do things that could potentially attract this kind of harassment.

As my research continued, I learned that individuals could differ greatly in their attitudes toward privacy. While preparing to publish my first academic paper, I included information about someone that she objected to. Fortunately, we discovered this before I submitted the final version, so I was able to take it out. Since then, I have asked community members to review my manuscripts before I submit them for publication. Interestingly, the community leader I am closest to objects to this practice. He thinks that some people have unreasonable privacy concerns and that I give them too much say over my work. Through my experience with these different perspectives over a period of years, I have become highly sensitive to the political nature of privacy concerns and the importance of handling them with care.

I brought this heightened sensitivity to the collaborative writing project that eventually broke down. I noticed that my colleague had included photographs of people in the community in some of his prior work. When I mentioned this to the people featured, they seemed unpleasantly surprised to learn that their photos had been used in this way. I knew my colleague had positive relationships in the community, so after bringing the matter to his attention I let it drop.

But in the context of our co-authorship, my concerns resurfaced when he wanted to cite his prior work with the photographs. I worried that readers could follow the citation trail to identifying information of a sort that I had promised to keep private. My colleague resisted removing the citation on the grounds that to do so was improper scholarship. He suggested that we go back to one of the leaders for advice, but for me this was not a solution, given the differences of opinion that I knew existed in the community. Later, my colleague assured me he had signed consent forms to publish the images in question. This surprised me, since it flew in the face of my own agreement with community leaders to keep such information private. I understood later that my colleague and I had begun our work at different times and that the stakes might have been described differently to each of us. Even individual persons’ concerns seemed to have changed over time. But by the point I understood this, my relationship with my collaborator had become too strained to be readily repaired.

What this case of collaboration-gone-awry shows is that the conversations in “conversational ethics” are subject to matters of power, temporality, and happenstance. My colleague and I had divergent ethical dispositions, senses of responsibility, and understandings of risk. In part these emerged out of the different conversations we had had at different times with different community members—and in some cases, even with the same individuals. We had different understandings of who speaks with authority, and even which moments of conversation we should hold ourselves accountable to. Because we simply took for granted that our perspectives would align, we had no consensus on the ethical issues at stake and no clear way to move forward. We were both blindsided and hurt when we found ourselves in a collaboration that could not be sustained.

Speaking with my colleague about our respective ethical assumptions early on in the collaboration might have helped us avoid this outcome. However, before such dialogues can even begin, researchers need to be able to imagine that there are a range of ethical issues, positions, and agreements at stake, even when working within the same community. I hope that sharing this story helps show how this can be so, and motivates others to recognize this difficult but potentially important aspect of professional collaboration.

More Still To Do: Combatting Sexual Harassment in Academia

By Julie Lesnik and Aaron Sams


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


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


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


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


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

Leila Rodriguez Associate Professor of Anthropology

University of Cincinnati

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References Cited:

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

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

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

Further Reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting Academia’s Contingency Crisis Together

Fighting Academia’s Contingency Crisis Together

Work is a virtue. It is how we contribute and give back to our society. It is a source of self-worth and pride. Justice demands that those doing the same job be compensated fairly and equitably. When a gap between individuals doing the same work develops in society, that disparity is a source of injustice. When the size of that gap becomes immense, that injustice becomes a crisis. Academia is experiencing just such a crisis with regard to contingent or adjunct faculty and the crisis is growing rapidly.

Historically, the number of contingents in our colleges and universities was low, representing less than 10% of most faculties. Traditional adjuncts were primarily full-time employees in jobs outside of the school who essentially volunteered their time for a small honorarium. They could do so because they had salaries and benefits provided by their outside employers. They were generally not people who saw teaching as their primary career. The vast majority of professors who saw themselves as educators first and foremost had access to full-time jobs with fair compensation and benefits provided by our educational institutions. That model worked for centuries because it properly valued academic professionals.

Over the past 20 years, college administrators around the country have adopted a new, neoliberal model for higher education predicated on transferring a larger and larger proportion of the teaching responsibilities to part-time contingent faculty paid these same small volunteer honorariums. Administrators saw contingents as a cheap alternative to full-time, tenure track professors. The growth in contingents has been explosive over the past 20 years. In short order, the number of full-time positions fell so far that contingent faculty began to exceed tenured and tenure track faculty. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) estimates that nationwide contingent faculty now make up 73% of those teaching in higher education. Contingency is an attack on tenure. Meanwhile, the number and pay of administrators ballooned on the savings.

As administrations rapidly transformed the make-up of faculties, full-time lines were steadily cut through attrition. Today, young scholars who consider teaching a primary career path find it all but impossible to find tenure track jobs in academia. Many well educated academic professionals have little choice but to leave the field altogether, depriving students of their considerable talents. Those of who stay in academia find ourselves in a situation where we work as little more than part-time volunteers. A whole generation of academics has been left with the Sophie’s choice of either abandoning careers in education entirely or working unstable jobs for poverty wages with no benefits. This is not acceptable.

The new model is also unacceptable for our students. Students deserve the best talent in the classroom. They merit professors that have the stability and pay required to deliver the highest quality educations possible. They do not deserve faculty who are stressed, exhausted and desperately trying to hang on through public aid. They require better than professors who are running from school to school and working excessive hours at a mix of poorly compensated part-time positions just to keep basic needs met. While most contingents work above and beyond to deliver a top quality education even under these difficult circumstances, our students should be entitled to better.

The contingency model has failed. It has devalued academic professionals, led to a de-professionalization of higher education and made teaching a dead end career for many talented academics. Despite this, it has become clear that administrations are addicted to this exploitative labor model. They will never voluntarily choose to fairly compensate skilled and well-educated contingent academics. They have little financial incentive to restore traditional, tenure track jobs. The system is broken and those who broke it were not going to fix it on their own.

Seeing no alternative, contingents and adjuncts are taking it upon ourselves to organize, unionize and force colleges and universities to give us a seat at the negotiating table. We are fighting for a decent wage, job security and basic benefits. We are here to reaffirm the value of academic careers and to provide the best possible education to our students. Contingents at more and more schools are seeing the value of organizing for collective bargaining rights. Newly formed unions around the country are coming out of negotiations with first contract that are significantly improving both teaching and learning conditions at our nation’s institutions of higher education. Those of us involved in this effort can point to many significant wins. However, there is so much more than needs to be done.

This struggle is being waged by the most precarious workers in academia. We are facing opposition from the most powerful figures on our campuses. But, we need not do it alone. The AAUP has been very actively promoting the “One Faculty” concept. They emphasize that all members of the teaching community must work together to “improve working conditions, shared governance, economic security, and academic freedom for all those who teach and do research in our universities and colleges.” Full-time, tenure track academics should be working actively on their campuses to support contingent organizing, resist the expansion of contingency, include contingent faculty in shared governance and treat contingent faculty members as equals. Contingents should be doing their level best to do the same for their full-time colleagues. We are one faculty and we all benefit when we act accordingly. We are in this together.

It is now time for college administrators to ask themselves what value they put on teaching. Contingents are well qualified and hardworking academic professionals. We deserve that our work be fairly and equitably compensated. We deserve a living wage. We deserve equal pay for equal work. We deserve jobs with some measure of stability and security. We deserve careers with a future. We are people not numbers. We insist on policy that is fair, equitable and humane. We will not stop fighting for change until administrations around the country live up to that standard.
Bradley W. Russell, Ph.D.
Chair of the Adjunct Faculty Union
The College of Saint Rose
SEIU Local 200United
[email protected]

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

Brian McKenna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

When a PI Plagiarizes

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

In the October 1, 2014 New York Times Magazine, celebrated author Marilynne Robinson paraphrases John Wycliffe as saying, “If you do not object strenuously to a superior’s bad behavior, you are as bad, as guilty as he is of what happens.” However, I can attest to the reasons why so few subordinates do this—or why you have not heard of them even though they may have tried. If you are not a Pulitzer Prize winning academic, things can go very badly for whistle-blowers and rarely badly for their superiors in the academy, protected as they are by university legal counsels whose job it is to prevent public disclosure and its consequences.

Based on my ethnographic research and publication history, I was hired as a research anthropologist on a large grant by a PI with a proven track record of co-authorship with prior junior colleagues in my position. Within six months of being hired to conduct research among a different population than that studied by the PI, I wrote my first article based on a paper I had given at a national anthropology conference. Since my paper described patterns that disagreed with the PI’s previous findings, she rightly asked for evidence, which I gave her from numerous examples in my research notes that I routinely uploaded to a shared folder online. As part of our employment agreement on co-authorship, I gave her multiple iterations of that first article and then other drafts with different emphases, but the PI never worked on them. She told me she was “burned out” from working for decades on this topic and was “having writer’s block.”

Yet, when I attended a university lecture given by the PI, I was taken aback that her talk incorporated without acknowledgement all of my new ideas. Perhaps a different person would have confronted her then. Instead, I excused her by imagining the pressure she must have been under to produce this talk, and by remembering the many high caliber co-authored papers she had written with previous junior colleagues. Yet the PI would never engage with my first authored draft articles I sent her, asking me instead to work on her draft articles where my name was prominently displayed as second author.

Fast forward three years spent working very happily with my research population while experiencing utter frustration that I had not been able to get a single one of my first-authored drafts onto the PI’s agenda for editing toward publication. She held me off by saying that my “ideas were brilliant, but [my] writing needed extensive editing” – precisely what co-authorship in research institutions is intended to help with. And, what I was doing for hers, I thought rather bitterly.

One day, while taking an EndNote workshop in the university library, I entered the PI’s name to get her previous publications into my grant reference section and was shocked to find that she had four recent publications that used my language word for word in some places, with paraphrases in others. In her publications, she claimed sole credit for my original findings and conceptual analyses taken from the draft articles I had given her, even though the data was from an entirely different population than she studied. Nowhere were my contributions cited or acknowledged in any way. I took my concerns to the dean, who contacted the PI. The PI immediately offered to contact the journals to give me first authorship on the first publication and second authorship on five others (as it happened, she had two more articles using my ideas under review). I agreed to these conditions.

But then the university’s chief counsel stepped in. Unfortunately, the scope of the ethical breach made it impossible for the dean to not involve the university’s legal team, given that it received numerous grants from the national funding agency that had sponsored the PI’s research. Six peer-reviewed articles published in as many journals would be far too much exposure: should the funders discover these “irregularities” the institution could be censured and its research programs jeopardized. The university’s senior counsel demanded that I sign a nondisclosure agreement with draconian consequences if I broke it, while stating that our previously brokered authorship agreement would not be legally binding. The PI, protected by the counsel, reneged on her proposal to transfer authorship. I requested “outside” mediation that would be legally binding on the PI, but it failed. I lost the authorship of my ideas as well as the possibility of continuing to work at this institution, along with the chance to receive a recommendation from anyone closely familiar with my contributions to the field from three and a half years of research and writing as a research faculty member there.

Because of past ethical breaches, anthropology has become attentive to the ethical protection of human subjects and the imperative to “cause no harm.” We teach our undergraduates how to cite the ideas of others to prevent plagiarism for which they may be expelled. However, graduate students and junior researchers have minimal or no protection when faculty superiors plagiarize their work. The enormous pressure on faculty to develop new ideas and innovative approaches makes creative and energetic graduate students and junior research associates vulnerable links in the professional chain. Given the hierarchical nature of the academy, the people who are dependent upon tenured faculty for their degrees and research employment have much in the way of intellectual and professional capital to lose. Yet, little or no institutional support exists to protect them against theft of their intellectual property or to ameliorate the professional consequences of its loss.