Interdisciplinary Ethical Role-Playing

by Catharina Laporte

I am a cultural anthropologist. For the last two years, I have been immersed in developing and facilitating a class that specifically fulfills the ethics and professionalism component of the ABET (Accreditation Board of Engineering & Technology education) criterion.  Towards this end, I introduced the concept of role-playing in the class room — and it has taken off like wildfire!  I have never felt so invigorated about the application of anthropological thinking in the real world.  Why? … and what can an anthropologist teach an engineer?   

On the surface, anthropology and many of the STEM disciplines share professional and ethical values: do no harm (public welfare); follow the Code of Ethics of the discipline; respect fellow professionals; avoid conflicts of interest; avoid bribery and corruption etc. — but I feel the lessons and connection between the two lie deeper than that.  Ultimately, ethical and critical thinking require many of the basic tenants of all anthropology:  thinking holistically, the importance of building rapport and communication, recognizing ethnocentrism (it its many guises), and focusing on the influence that cultural diversity has in problem solving.

At the onset of this project, I started with a pilot group of 25 students. We’ve added more students every semester and experimented with different activities and case studies. Now we have a highly interactive, writing intensive, innovative, interdisciplinary class, ANTH370: Cultural Diversity and Ethics, that reaches 750+ STEM and anthropology students each year.   Students clamor to get in to the class and sections fill within minutes of being opened.  Every week I leave the class invigorated and inspired to do more.

Our primary objective was to provide an alternative to existing lecture-based engineering ethics curriculum and incorporate modern pedagogical theory: active, inclusive learning.  We also wanted to create an enduring interdisciplinary learning community that gave students a safe place to experiment, reflect, make mistakes, bring their own perspectives and research, and voice their concerns, experiences and opinions.  My TAs and I  quickly realized that just focusing on normative ethical stances and epic engineering failure case studies (e.g. Columbia Shuttle disaster or Gulf of Mexico Macondo blowout) was not the way forward.  Students felt little affinity with these tales.  We needed to move beyond traditional philosophical teaching to encompass fundamental anthropology concepts overlaid by the influence of culture and cultural construction of normalcy.  This task was twofold.  Firstly, we needed to synthesize real world ethical problems with the Code of Ethics of corporations and professional associations, together with individual worldviews, to view (and teach) ethics holistically. And secondly, we also needed to identify and holistically analyze opportunities to ‘do good’ — these opportunities are often embedded in the minutia of everyday life.

Role playing is an innovative activity that we introduced into the class to encompass these objectives. A caveat: don’t try this alone!  Without the 110% support of my Administration this huge interdisciplinary endeavor would not have been possible. 

This is no easy task.  Active learning? Role playing?  What is that? …and how do you manage 25/50/100 students in the classroom all having conversations at once?  From faculty detractors, we heard: “Where’s the lecture?”; “…and where are the readings on your syllabus?”; and “What?!? No textbook or exams?!?”  Engineering students, in particular, came to class with rigid conceptions of normalcy. Most are preconditioned to expect ‘lecturing’ and exams; after 3-4 years of being lectured and quizzed on black/white and right/wrong answers, they assume their engineering culture, their way of thinking, and their way of knowing, is the ‘right’ or ‘only’ way to think.  Anthropologists often turn to an old but good article to illustrate the concept of an etic perspective and alternate viewpoints — Body Ritual among the Nacirema (Horace Miner, 1956). However, in my experience, reading and discussing this article does not make much of an impact beyond superficial understanding.  Student do not creatively synthesize, utilize, analyze or evaluate the concept (hitting the upper levels of Bloom’s taxonomy) until they experience something themselves and get to ‘walk a few miles in another’s shoes.’

Role playing is an impactful classroom activity that enables students to ‘walk in another’s shoes’. Through the role play, debrief and subsequent reflections, students actively solve problems, work collaboratively in a community of peers, experience real-world application of knowledge, and reflect on their learning processes. Scholars from many disciplines assert that role playing is particularly good in many dimensions of skill acquisition: personal, interpersonal, cultural, cognitive and professional.

In our class, we initially introduced a role-playing exercise (called the ‘water boiling exercise’) in the second week of the semester.  We identified a real world case study of failed innovation((Rogers, Everett M. Diffusion of innovations. 5th ed. Everett M. Rogers. n.p.: New York : Free Press, 2003., 2003. Texas A&M University General Libraries, EBSCOhost (accessed September 7, 2017).)) that had ethical consequence, required critical thinking, was multi-dimensional and had multiple disparate perspectives.  Our primary objectives were to illustrate the fundamental concept of ethnocentrism and introduce STEM students to alternate epistemologies (ways of knowing), axiologies (what is valued) and methodologies.  We were sure that most of the STEM students, given the opportunity, would cling fiercely to a positivist, quantitatively driven, predict and control paradigm.  It took a lot of preparation and we were extremely nervous going in to the exercise. To our delight, the majority (~90%) of students embraced the idea and really got into it – it was clear they more than simply understood the objectives and concepts – they lived them!  We expected that this would be an impactful class, but what we did not expect was that it would evolve into a semester long discussion revisiting and expounding upon the lessons learned in the water boiling exercise in nearly every subsequent class of the semester.

In the role-play, students were grouped into characters or perspectives.  Each group was given their character attributes, their objectives and clues that they had to ‘divulge’ during the course of the role play — much like a murder mystery dinner.  The students worked through the role play, with very little guidance from myself or the TAs, exactly as anticipated: some demonstrating ethnocentric assumptions and asserting that their way of ‘doing things’ was the best and only way of thinking.  Some failed to acknowledge that there could possibly be other ways of thinking while others got angry and/or frustrated, or felt belittled or marginalized. They were actively engaged — just like the real world of problem solving and ethical decision making.  Weeks into the semester and they were still talking about and referencing the role play.  As the class progressed and their exposure to ethical considerations broadened, they often commented that if they were to do it again, they would tackle the role play entirely differently.  Not only did this exercise and its subsequent dialogue meet our university core curriculum objectives (critical thinking, communication and social responsibility), it also met many of the ABET criterion, and course learning objectives.

Over time we have developed multiple role-play scenarios based on real world, sometimes failed, engineering activities to illustrate other concepts such as the impact of culture on human decision making, fractious problems, differing ethical stances, bribery and corruption, and the importance of communication and rapport building.  We have found that the key to success of a role-playing scenario comes from ensuring there is opportunities for diverse opinions, worldviews and expertise to be brought to the table and debated.  With diversity comes insight into other worldviews and ultimately better solutions.

What I have personally learned from this exercise is that if we look beyond the superficial there are many parallels between what outwardly appear to be incongruent disciplines, their theoretical perspectives and what they value.  I learned that active learning can transcend disciplinary boundaries, and that ultimately, we all want to ‘do good’.  By teaching the fundamental anthropological concepts in a STEM classroom, we can not only help teach critical thinking and ethical decision making, but we can also improve the overall quality and longevity of STEM projects in the real world.


About the Author: 

Catharina Laporte is an Instructional Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M University. As a cultural anthropologist with a passion for quality education and a pragmatic theoretical perspective, she is specifically interested in how applied anthropology, and an appreciation for cultural diversity, can provide different perspectives on real-world phenomenon, projects and problems. Having extensive international experience in multinational corporations, her current work focuses on improving the education experience by emphasizing the importance on incorporating diverse perspectives into the STEM ethics and professionalism curriculum.   Email:  claporte@tamu.edi  Personal website:  or Faculty website:

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.

Ethical Responsibility in the Face of the Incoming Administration

By Kurt E. Dongoske

For most people, the beginning of a new year offers a renewed sense of hope, happiness, and prosperity for the future. For me, as the Zuni Tribal Historic Preservation Officer and an archaeologist working in cultural resource management in the Southwest for 40 years, the dawning of 2017 brought anxiety; anxiety born out of a feeling of foreboding that our future, the future of our careers in cultural resource management, and the future of our environment are in imminent danger. Normally, I’m a pretty optimistic fellow, but the results of the recent presidential election left me feeling more than pessimistic. My sense of foreboding is based, in part, on the campaign platform of the President-elect in which he promised to diminish or abolish regulations, underscored by his anti-science, anti-climate change and fact denying rhetoric. Moreover, his recent announcements of identified individuals for key administrative positions heighten my apprehension.

Once the President-elect is in office, I fully expect an executive and legislative branch assault on all environmental and historic preservation legislation and regulation that industry currently views as being unnecessary impediments to so-called ‘development.’ The incoming administration most likely will move quickly to effectively promote and encourage gas, oil, and coal extraction on federal lands and couple this with a move toward seriously reducing compliance with environmental protection legislation and strong arm tactics to any push back by environmental or professional organizations.

Closer to home, I anticipate that the incoming administration will act to fundamentally undermine the preservation community’s commitment to protect, preserve, and interpret historical properties and cultural resources. Now more than ever, as the natural resource extraction industry is afforded unique privileging by the federal government, archaeological sites, sacred sites, traditional cultural properties and landscapes may be threatened with destruction without the current appropriate consideration or treatment. Efforts by the new administration to exempt categories of development projects from Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review, including reforming NEPA and the Section 106 process (e.g., diminishing or exempting compliance for privileged projects), will have a deleterious effect on cultural resource management.

But it is not just archaeological sites, historic properties, places, landscapes and the environment that will be threatened. The Republican Congress may entertain bills that seek to change what types of research are funded under the National Science Foundation (NSF). Republicans have already introduced legislation to remove archaeology, anthropology, and other social sciences research from NSF funding. If the attempts to eliminate NSF funding for these fields of research are successful, it will have a profound impact on academic-based anthropological and archaeological research for professors, graduate students, and the communities with which they work. This will cause negative reverberations throughout the academy and, even more importantly, historically and geographically marginalized communities that rely on the academy to make their voice, concerns, and struggles more public and responsible entities more accountable.

While the new Republican held Congress is anticipated to work toward diminishing environmental and historic preservation regulations, they may concomitantly attempt to curtail federally required Tribal consultation by reversing previous Executive Orders on tribal consultation. Should this occur, it will have a profoundly negative effect on the ability of Tribal Nations to put forth meaningful and effective voices in the protection of their places of sacred and traditional cultural importance. One need only look at the Dakota Access Pipeline, the resistance by the Standing Rock Sioux and the militarized response by the oil industry as an example of what may be in store for Native people. The “other”-izing of immigrant Mexicans and Muslims by the President-elect can be anticipated to extend to Native Americans as a form of delegitimizing and dismissing their claims of primacy of association to the landscape and to natural and cultural resources. If all of this occurs, not only will archaeological sites, traditional cultural properties and landscapes be threatened, if not completely disregarded, but also it will result in the violation of basic human rights for Native Americans to express a meaningful voice in the protection of their sacred places, cultural identities and living heritage.

As anthropologists and archaeologists, we should be deeply troubled with the President-elect’s past and current turgidity toward dismantling or decreasing legislation that provides for the consideration and protection of clean air, clean water, and healthy ecosystems. We have a professional ethical responsibility to work collaboratively and effectively to advocate for and protect the archaeological and cultural resources record and to speak out and work against any and all efforts that threaten these important places. Moreover, as anthropologists we have a profound ethical responsibility to advocate on behalf of indigenous people when they are being disenfranchised from a regulatory process that has been altered to privilege oil, gas, and coal extraction efforts on their ancestral lands.

The American Anthropological Association (AAA), the Society for American Archaeology, and the Register of Professional Archaeologists all have ethical principals or codes of conduct that define our responsibilities to the archaeological record. For example, the Society for American Archaeology’s ethical principle No. 1 calls upon all members of the Society to be "both caretakers of and advocates for the archaeological record for the benefit of all people," and "to use the specialized knowledge they gain to promote public understanding and support for its long-term preservation." Recently, the Society for American Archaeology’s Board of Directors issued direction to the membership (Our Ethical Principles, Our Actions: Member Responsibilities in a Time of Change) in response to what is viewed as a pending time of change. They added the following directions to the membership regarding ethical principle No. 1:

As members, we will therefore oppose any initiatives to weaken the present legal protections of archaeological sites and materials, be these through legislative process, rewriting of agency regulations, or other means. Moreover, our stewardship responsibilities require that we support and defend initiatives aimed at mitigating the impacts on cultural heritage of accelerating climate disruptions.

The AAA’s code of ethics speaks to our professional responsibilities to support and defend the rights of indigenous peoples and this is important for us, as anthropologists, to never forget and always act on. The AAA represents all anthropologists and archaeologists working in the United States and our collective economic viability and our ability to secure federal funding for academic research and cultural resource management projects will be under assault. It seems to me that every archaeological, anthropological, historic preservation and environmental professional organization has a dog in this fight and must be willing to speak out and lobby against any efforts to abolish or decrease environmental protection and historic preservation legislation.

As members of professional organizations we should encourage and support our organizations to establish strong lobbying coalitions with fellow environmental organizations in order to actively and effectively thwart any legislative or executive efforts to weaken current legal protections for the environment and historic properties, places, and landscapes. As individuals, I encourage each and every one of us to act locally, at the state level and nationally by contacting your congressional representatives and senators and expressing your concerns regarding the movement to rollback regulations, for those regulations not only help protect our collective cultural heritage and a healthy environment for generations to come, but are the backbone of providing appropriate consideration for and attention to various places that are central for the identity and ongoing traditional practices and benefits of countless indigenous and traditional communities.

Joining Someone Else’s Research Project? Check Their Ethics Protocol!

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

This post is a reflection on the role that IRBs and other institutional gatekeepers can play in protecting informants and researchers from unethical actions committed in the course of large research projects. It tells the (highly condensed) true story of a team project focused on helping refugees resettled in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, a project with such progressive, socially ambitious goals attracted researchers from several subfields of anthropology, including a couple of graduate students from the department where the project was hosted. A recently arrived refugee worked as a research assistant on the project to liaison with the refugee population.

As an anthropologist hired in as a postdoc to work on the project, I began to feel that some things were “off” when I observed that the refugee who worked for the project was never invited to the team meetings or given a key to the office. After getting to know the person working in this role, I learned that s/he was being paid hourly, barely above minimum wage, and had no health insurance or benefits of any kind. Soon, the uncomfortable feeling of finding myself working for a project that was “all talk and no show” turned into something much worse when researchers on the team were asked by the project director to do things that we felt were serious violations of anthropological ethics. Highly sensitive personal data were being collected, handled, and stored in the most careless way. Informed consent was barely an afterthought. During the months I worked for the project, I witnessed how disrespectfully the project director treated the one refugee employed on the project. In the employee’s own words, s/he felt better and freer at the refugee camp than working for this project! I also noticed that the observations we had made were manipulated at community events and professional meetings. The project director once admitted knowing that the project was “way out of compliance”. But all that seemed to matter to the director was that we appeared to be making progress so the grant could be renewed.

While I worried about the unprofessional and unethical ways in which we were being pushed to conduct research, I also feared being fired. Like others working on the project, my contract was “at will,” and everyone who expressed the slightest difference of opinion to the project director was threatened with being let go. To complicate things even further, the project was being conducted at the same institution where the project director had received their PhD, which made me, as a relative newcomer, wonder if such practices were supported (if not fostered) by that department. Hence I had to ask myself: who can I report to in this institution that will not automatically disregard my testimony?

My first instinct was to take these matters directly to the project’s advisory board. I was extremely lucky to get guidance from my mentors at my alma mater, whom I asked for help. They advised me not to go to the advisory board, as they may have had conflicting interests (for example, the project director’s dissertation advisor was a member of that board). So I contacted the university’s office of research compliance and IRB instead. Upon reviewing the documentation presented, the compliance director and the IRB immediately opened an investigation on the project. After interviewing several team members, the IRB decided to shut down the project until further notice. In addition to the problematic way in which the research was being carried out, I learned that no researchers (other than the project director) were even mentioned in the IRB protocol; hence none of us were technically authorized to be doing this research in the first place. In retrospect, I am shocked at how naive I was, not asking to see copies of the IRB protocol before starting to work on the project. A few months later our contracts were up. Needless to say, the grant was not renewed.

In this situation, the refugees we were working with were vulnerable, but so were the researchers, who found themselves with their backs against the wall: doing research the project director’s way, or “the highway.” What I would like to underscore is that it was the IRB and the university’s research compliance office, not the anthropology department, who were the ones to tell the project director that research could not be conducted in that way. By suspending the project and seizing all the data collected by the team, the IRB not only effectively protected participants’ rights, it also protected the researchers from being pushed to engage in unethical practices. Ironically, it also protected us from having to publish the data that we had collected. As bad as it is for a postdoc not having any publications to show for a year’s work—especially while on the job market—it is better than publishing something that would later have to be retracted.

We sometimes think of anthropologists as sympathetic saints who know more than their IRBs about “research with human subjects” and who would not, by the very nature of their professional commitments, violate the rights of participants in their research. But the fact is that such violations have happened in the past and continue to happen today. It is good and necessary, if at times tedious, to have to show someone that our work complies with federal regulations and the ethical guidelines those regulations aim to implement. Finally, a word of caution to anthropologists moving into postdoctoral positions: never embark on a project without first checking with the project director about their approach to research ethics. Ask to see the ethics protocol. It may be an awkward thing to ask at the time, but it is better than finding out later that you are implicated in an unethical project that renders all your professional efforts totally worthless.

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

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.

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.