1. Do No Harm

A primary ethical obligation shared by anthropologists is to do no harm. It is imperative that, before any anthropological work be undertaken — in communities, with non-human primates or other animals, at archaeological and paleoanthropological sites — each researcher think through the possible ways that the research might cause harm. Among the most serious harms that anthropologists should seek to avoid are harm to dignity, and to bodily and material well-being, especially when research is conducted among vulnerable populations. Anthropologists should not only avoid causing direct and immediate harm but also should weigh carefully the potential consequences and inadvertent impacts of their work.  When it conflicts with other responsibilities, this primary obligation can supersede the goal of seeking new knowledge and can lead to decisions to not undertake or to discontinue a project. In addition, given the irreplaceable nature of the archaeological record, the conservation, protection and stewardship of that record is the principal ethical obligation of archaeologists. Determining harms and their avoidance in any given situation is ongoing and must be sustained throughout the course of any project.

Anthropologists may choose to link their research to the promotion of well-being, social critique or advocacy. As with all anthropological work, determinations regarding what is in the best interests of others or what kinds of efforts are appropriate to increase well-being are value- laden and should reflect sustained discussion with others concerned. Anthropological work must similarly reflect deliberate and thoughtful consideration of potential unintended consequences and long-term impacts on individuals, communities, identities, tangible intangible heritage and environments.

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Supporting Resources

AAA Ethics Committee. 2014. “Institutional Review Boards and Anthropology.”

Chenhall, Richard, Kate Senior, and Suzanne Belton. 2011. “Negotiating Human Research Ethics: Case Notes from Anthropologists in the Field.” Anthropology Today 27(5):13-17.

Dobrin, Lise, and Rena Lederman. 2011. Comments on Proposed Changes to the Common Rule (76 FR 44512). (A report from the AAA Ethics Committee submitted to the Department of Health and Human Services by the President of the AAA.)

Jacobs, Sue-Ellen. 1987. “Case 3: Witness to Murder.” In Handbook on Ethical Issues in Anthropology. Joan Cassell and Sue-Ellen Jacobs, eds. Special Publication of the American Anthropological Association 23. Washington, D.C.: American Anthropological Association.

Jacobs, Sue-Ellen. 1987. “Case 4: Hiding a Suspect.” In Handbook on Ethical Issues in Anthropology. Joan Cassell and Sue-Ellen Jacobs, eds. Special Publication of the American Anthropological Association 23. Washington, D.C.: American Anthropological Association.

University of Alabama Office for Research Compliance. 2007. “Brief History.” (“A brief history of the events that contributed to the development of research regulations and ethics rules.”)

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