Principles of Professional Responsibility

Anthropology—that most humanistic of sciences and scientific of humanities—is an irreducibly social enterprise. Among our goals are the dissemination of anthropological knowledge and its use to solve human problems. Anthropologists work in the widest variety of contexts studying all aspects of the human experience, and face myriad ethical quandaries inflected in different ways by the contexts in which they work and the kinds of issues they address. What is presented here is intended to reflect core principles shared across subfields and contexts of practice.

These core principles are expressed as concise statements which can be easily remembered for use by anthropologists in their everyday professional lives. Each principle is accompanied by brief discussions placing that principle in a broader context, with more detailed examinations of how each affects or may be helpful to anthropologists in different subfields or work contexts. These examinations are accompanied by resources to assist anthropologists in tackling difficult ethical issues or the new situations that inevitably arise in the production of knowledge.

As a social enterprise, research and practice always involve others— colleagues, students, research participants, employers, clients, funders (whether institutional, community-based or individual) as well as non-human primates and other animals, among others (all usually referred to as ‘research participants’ in this document). Anthropologists must be sensitive to the power differentials, constraints, interests and expectations characteristic of all relationships. In a field  of such complex rights, responsibilities, and involvements, it is inevitable that misunderstandings, conflicts, and the need to make difficult choices will arise. Anthropologists are responsible for grappling with such difficulties and struggling to resolve them in ways compatible with the principles stated here. These principles provide anthropologists with tools to engage in developing and maintaining an ethical framework for all stages of anthropological practice – when making decisions prior to beginning projects, when in the field, and when communicating findings and preserving records.

These principles address general circumstances, priorities and relationships, and also provide helpful specific examples, that should be considered in anthropological work and ethical decision-making. The individual anthropologist must be willing to make carefully considered ethical choices and be prepared to make clear the assumptions, facts and considerations on which those choices are based.

Ethics and morals differ in important ways. The complex issues that anthropologists confront rarely admit to the simple wrongs and rights of moral dicta, and one of the prime ethical obligations of anthropologists is to carefully and deliberately weigh the consequences and ethical dimensions of the choices they make — by action or inaction. Similarly, ethical principles and political positions should not be conflated; their foci of concern are quite distinct. Finally, ethics and law differ in important ways, and care must always be taken in making these distinctions. Different processes are involved in making ethical versus legal decisions, and they are subject to different regulations. While moral, political, legal and regulatory issues are often important to anthropological practice and the discipline, they are not specifically considered here. These principles address ethical concerns.1

Although these principles are primarily intended for Association members, they also provide a structure for communicating ethical precepts in anthropology to students, other colleagues, and outside audiences, including sponsors, funders, and Institutional Review Boards or other review committees.

The American Anthropological Association does not adjudicate assertions of unethical behavior,2 and these principles are intended to foster discussion, guide anthropologists in making responsible decisions, and educate.

Next Page: Do No Harm


  1. Murray L. Wax, “Some Issues and Sources on Ethics in Anthropology,” in Handbook on Ethical Issues in Anthropology, ed. Joan Cassell and Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Special Publication of the American Anthropological Association 23 (Washington, D.C.: American Anthropological Association, 1987).  (back)
  2. Commission to Review the AAA Statements on Ethics, Final Report of the Commission to Review the AAA Statements on Ethics (1995); Janet E. Levy, “Life is Full of Hard Choices: A Grievance Procedure for the AAA?Anthropology News 50, no. 6 (2009):7–8; Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, “Guiding Principles over Enforceable Standards.” Anthropology News 50, no. 6 (2009):8–9.  (back)

5 Responses to “Principles of Professional Responsibility”

  1. The most important principle that Anthropologists must uphold is the respect of ‘Ethical code of conduct’. Anthropologists must conduct themselves properly, carry out their research in such a way that participants will have no cause to regret as a matter of hurt or infringement into their fundamental both human and animal rights as research and practice always involve others including animals.

  2. Everyone has the same responsibilities when it comes to anything similar to what I have participated in. One needs to be respectful of others and quite while others are talking. It’s all very simple really. Everyone should follow a basic set of etiquette rules when in a public place. So don’t be loud, rambunctious or rude and definitely don’t interrupt anyone. Now on a personal note, I was in an archeology class with a lot of people I didn’t know, so I did my best to keep my head down but also interact as well. One more thing, if I had any questions, there was no point in not asking. Without asking questions, I would have basically deprived the teacher. It’s her job to answer questions to the best of her ability.

  3. Warm greetings peers, and colleagues!
    I have long had a deep concern with regard to the functions and powers of the AAA, and the committee on Ethics specifically. All of the official statements released by the committee and other functioning bodies within the AAA place a great deal of emphasis on educational concerns, broad goals for promoting ethical guidelines, and well conceived policies, but unlike the governing bodies of other scientific disciplines, the AAA and its committees have no actual power to govern or enforce and of these principles with any degree of effectiveness. It is my belief, that moving forward, we are rapidly approaching a crucial turning point for the discipline that will demand a decidedly more broad, interdisciplinary approach. If we hope to triumph over the adversity that we are now facing, we must once again be successful at recreating anthropology in increasingly more creative ways. These will likely involve complexities far more challenging than those of the past, and without a strong governing body, with the power to enforce strict sets of guidelines in areas where they will no doubt become necessary, I fear the discipline itself may be headed toward a slippery slope into peril.
    I would appreciate your thoughts, and would further welcome the opportunity to voice some of my ideas more formally before the board so that they might be taken into consideration, and a realistic path toward implementation might be proposed.
    John Metts
    Student Anthropologist, psychologist, philosopher, and historian; Ashford University

  4. After completing a field project assignment in my anthropology class, I feel obligated and responsible for those I interviewed and came in contact with. I feel this way because I want to keep the culture sacred within a community. Of course, my field project was a high school basketball where I ingested myself within fans to engulf the complete experience of their culture. But it is still an event, even though it may be considered to some as a lost cause, it is still a culture and to some a way of life. That is why I feel responsible because I do not want to do anything to put that culture in harm or danger. I choose to keep the identity of the people I encounter anonymously in sake of their privacy and beliefs, so this small important culture can keep thriving in this world.

  5. I had an assignment which used they principles discussed. I had to review a cultural event in my city. I choose to do a church service. I respected everyone and was completely honest about my work. I described the place where I was, gave a description of the event, and interviewed 3 people. Through This assignment, I got to use the AAA Principles and learn more about archaeology and anthropology as well as these principles.

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