Teaching Professional Ethics in Anthropology

Authored by Leslie E. Sponsel

In the late 1960s when I was a graduate student in anthropology at Indiana University, and again in the early 1970s at Cornell University, not only was no separate course offered on professional ethics in anthropology, but no class even raised the subject. However, during the Vietnam War increasing concern about the subject gradually emerged in the American Anthropological Association, eventually leading to the establishment of its Committee on Ethics in 1969. Early collections of case studies and commentaries appeared in the late 1970s (Appell 1978, Rynkiewich and Spradley 1978). During subsequent decades, occasional textbooks and anthologies were published (e.g., Fluehr-Lobban 1991).

Then, suddenly since 2000, there has been a marked increased of attention to professional ethics, perhaps in response to the publication of Patrick Tierney’s (2000) controversial book Darkness in El Dorado. This marked increase is clear from the number of the citations for articles on ethics in the Anthropology Index Online from around 200 in the 1990s to over 1,500 in the first decade of the 21st century. There are other indicators as well, such as a count of the year of publication among the citations on ethics in the Oxford Bibliographies Online (Sponsel 2016). There were twice as many citations in the two decades of 2000-2020, compared to the previous four decades of 1960-1999. Furthermore, a survey of the index of the program guide for the annual conventions of the AAA using ethics as the key word reveals only a few sessions with ethics during the 1990s, whereas during the 2000s some years have a dozen or more sessions which often lead to publications. In short, now there is a wealth of material for an entire course on professional ethics in anthropology, even one focused solely on the subfield of cultural anthropology.

In what follows I describe the Ethics in Anthropology course I have been teaching at the University of Hawai`i during the last two decades that takes advantage of this accumulating material, and that considers recurrent ethical scandals and controversies in the field.

The course pursues the subject historically in relation to American wars because they often generate controversy within anthropology. Indeed, the exposure of anthropologists working in Central America not only as field researchers, but also as spies for the U.S. government, by Franz Boas (1919) is often cited as the earliest instance of ethical controversy (Fluehr-Lobban 2002).

For each decade in the history of American anthropology, four primary questions are analyzed following Mark Glazier’s (1996) superb overview of the subject: Are researchers invariably exploiting the people they study, and if so, how can this be minimized? Do the subjects benefit from the research in ways that they themselves consider meaningful and fair? Does the researcher adequately respect the integrity of the subjects’ culture, avoid undue interference, and minimize disturbance? How are anthropologists held accountable for their behavior, research, and publications?

Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban (2002) asserts that “The development of an ethically conscious culture that promotes discussion of ethically responsible decision-making still eludes us as a profession.” Nevertheless, as Pat Caplan (2003:3) profoundly observes: “Yet the ethics of anthropology is clearly not just about obeying a set of guidelines; it actually goes to the heart of the discipline; the premises on which its practitioners operate, its epistemology, theory and praxis. In other words, what is anthropology for? Who is it for?” These two questions are repeatedly discussed throughout my course.

The central pivotal goal of professional ethics has long been to try to avoid causing harm to research subjects. However, Laura Graham (2006) argues that anthropologists as humanistic scientists are also obligated to do good, especially when working with marginal and vulnerable populations like indigenes and minorities, and most of all when there are human rights violations. Fluehr-Lobban (2006) claims that this is a matter of personal choice, not an ethical obligation. Yet in 1979 the Belmont Report of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research identified in detail three basic ethical principles as respect for persons, beneficence, and justice. In other words, it affirms that responsible research benefits the subjects as well as the researcher and science (Ryan et al., 1979).

A concern with professional ethics in anthropology has customarily been more reactive than proactive (Fluehr-Lobban 2003:1, Whiteford and Trotter 2008:8). When serious ethical scandals and/or controversies erupt (Robin 2004, Spencer 1996), the typical response is defensive maneuvering to try to save face in public on the part of the individuals and organizations directly involved, rather than squarely dealing with challenges to use them as learning opportunities, let alone resolving them in a civil, sensitive, constructive professional and scholarly manner. It is uncommon for parties directly involved in an ethical scandal and/or controversy to transcend particulars by elevating the discussion and debate to focus on general principles.

Teaching professional ethics as an overt part of the curriculum has an especially important role to play. Ethics needs to become a far more conscious and routine consideration in both research and teaching. Ideally, this should also include civil and constructive discussion and debate on ethical matters within the anthropological community at various levels from that of particular departments to that of annual conventions of the AAA and other venues, rather than the accused and partisans resorting to ad hominem attacks and smokescreens that divert attention from the real issues. When there is a deficiency in the approach to ethical matters they remain unresolved and keep erupting in controversy.

If the community of anthropologists is better informed and more concerned with ethics, then it is very likely that fewer scandals and controversies would arise to the embarrassment of the profession and its public image. Clearly in some previous episodes those responsible were either ignorant of professional ethics or simply chose to ignore them. Professional ethics in anthropology merits far more attention, including a separate course, at least as an option, if not a requirement. A session or two on professional ethics in any course is surely progressive, but not the same as an entire course focused on the subject. There is now a wealth of important material to develop such a course, unlike in the 1960s. Moreover, it would even seem to be an ethical imperative for the profession.


References Cited:

Appell, George N. 1978. Ethical Dilemmas in Anthropological Inquiry: A Case Book. Waltham: Crossroads.

Boas, Franz. 1919. “Scientists as Spies.” The Nation 109:729.

Caplan, Pat, ed. 2003. The Ethics of Anthropology: Debates and Dilemmas. New York: Routledge.

Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn, ed. 1991. Ethics and the Profession of Anthropology: Dialogue for a New Era. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

_____. 2002 (March). “A Century of Ethics and Professional Anthropology.” Anthropology News43(3):20.

_____, ed. 2003. Ethics and the Profession of Anthropology: Dialogue for Ethically Conscious Practice. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.

_____. 2006 (October). “Advocacy is a Moral Choice of “doing some good”: But not a Professional Ethical Responsibility.” Anthropology News 47(7):5-6.

Glazier, Myron Perez. 1996. “Ethics” in Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology. David Levinson and Melvin Ember, eds. New York: Henry Holt and Co. 2:389-393.

Graham, Laura. 2006 (October). “Anthropologists Are Obligated to Promote Human Rights and Social Justice Especially Among Vulnerable Communities.” Anthropology News 47(7):4-5.

Robin, Ron. 2004. Scandals and Scoundrels: Seven Cases That Shook the Academy. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ryan, Kenneth John, et al. 1979. The Belmont Report: Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects. Washington, D.C.: Department of Health, Education and Welfare/The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research.

Rynkiewich, Michael A., and James A. Spradley. 1976. Ethics and Anthropology: Dilemmas in Fieldwork. New York, NY: Wiley.

Spencer, Jonathan. 1996. “Anthropological Scandals” in Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Alan Barnard and Jonathan Spencer, eds. New York: Routledge, pp. 501-503.

Sponsel, Leslie E. 2016. “Ethics in Anthropology.” Oxford Bibliographies Online.

Tierney, Patrick. 2000. Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Whiteford, Linda M., and Robert T. Trotter II. 2008. Ethics for Anthropological Research and Practice. Long Grove: Waveland Press.


About the Author

Leslie E. Sponsel is a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Hawai`i. He has been concerned with professional ethics since 1974 when he included an appendix on his responsibility to the host community for his doctoral research in his proposal to the National Science Foundation. That appendix was reprinted in his dissertation at Cornell University in 1981: The Hunter and the Hunted in the Amazon: An Integrated Biological and Cultural Approach to the Behavioral Ecology of Human Predation. As one example of his ongoing concern for professional ethics, Sponsel was a founding member and the first chair of the AAA Commission for Human Rights (1991-95) and the subsequent Committee for Human Rights (1995-96). His faculty homepage is: https://anthropology.manoa.hawaii.edu/leslie-sponsel/. His email is: sponsel@hawaii.edu.