Rage and Despair, in Response to Trump’s Executive Orders

By Marnie Thomson

I share this Facebook post with the permission of Berhanu Gurach, an Ethiopian refugee who lives in Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania. He posted this six days after Trump signed his first executive order banning citizens of specific Muslim countries and all refugees entry to the U.S.

Berhanu’s post represents the despair of refugees who endure in UN camps, clinging to the hopes of resettlement in the U.S. It expresses the dismay of those for whom promises of resettlement have now been reneged. His picture captures his raw emotion in the immediate wake of the first ban. Berhanu posted this before the first stay, and the ban had taken effect immediately, even in remote refugee camps like Nyarugusu.

During this time, refugees from Nyarugusu camp began asking me questions. “Why does Trump hate us?” “Why did Obama like us?” “What about the 30,000 that the U.S. promised to take from Tanzania?” “What is going to happen to us now?” Refugees who had already been resettled in the U.S. also had questions. “How does this order affect those of us who are already here?” “Will Trump issue an order about us?” The one question that refugees in the camp and those already in the US both asked me was: “What can we do?”

This is the ethical question I have been asking myself too. It stems from a place of dismay and distress. As Bianca Williams contends, emotion shapes not only how we embrace and understand social theory but also how we anthropologists position ourselves as allies and take action.

After the first Muslim/immigration ban, many anthropologists also took to social media.

Some joined the airport protests or started contributing to the ACLU and other organizations. The AAA called for the immediate reversal of the executive order. AES endorsed the AAA stance and contributed additional points in their own statement against the order. APLA/PoLAR issued a three-part response to the ban called Speaking Justice to Power. Six of us spoke out as anthropologists. In our classrooms, we spoke with our students about the implications of the ban. 

Do anthropological ethics need to change in this new Trump era? In many ways, no. As Ruth Benedict said, anthropology’s purpose is to make the world safe for human differences. Yet as we work against racism, xenophobia, nationalism, white supremacy, and many other social injustices, we also need to take seriously anthropology’s complicity in creating today’s political landscape. In the special issue of American Ethnologist on the 2016 Brexit referendum and Trump election, Yarimar Bonilla and Jonathan Rosa urge anthropologists to unsettle our field, including recognizing the ways in which this political moment is not exceptional, but rather is consistent with both domestic and global political currents.

As part of unsettling anthropology, we need to ask: how should our ethical engagements change? How should they stay the same?

In a time where public anthropology may no longer suffice, Carole McGranahan suggests we take cues from the National Park Service and other governmental institutions and consider what going rogue would mean for anthropology. In her words, “Public anthropology is to be engaged. It is to communicate anthropological knowledge in a way that will be useful. Rogue anthropology is to be enraged. It is to communicate anthropological knowledge in a way that will disrupt, stop, resist, refuse.”

Rage, as Glen Couthard shows in Red Skins, White Masks, fuels the communal fire of resistance. By refusing and resisting Trump’s first immigration ban and seeking to disrupt and stop it, the anthropological responses mentioned above are the makings of a rogue or an enraged anthropology. What else might collective outrage mean for anthropology? Anthropologists should continue along the lines of producing swifter responses to more urgent matters. Anthropologists are well-positioned to respond quickly and incisively thanks to our longitudinal research, or what can at times seem like the field’s “unbearable slowness.” Our sustained commitments to specific communities also means that we can maintain the momentum of going rogue.

The federal court has overturned both of Trump’s executive orders. In some ways, however, the bans are still working. For example, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has not been back to Tanzania since Trump signed the first order on January 27. This means that no new cases can be approved for resettlement in the U.S. Moreover, refugee resettlement quotas have historically been determined by executive order so there is no telling what that means for the future of refugee entry to the U.S.

Furthermore, where does this leave refugee hosting states and aid organizations? In Tanzania, for example, an entire aid apparatus has been built around resettlement in Nyarugusu camp during the past three years. The Tanzanian government, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and its partnering organizations are now trying to figure out what to do with the infrastructure, funds, and staff they had designated for U.S. resettlement purposes.

Even overturned, the Muslim ban/immigration ban reverberates. Certainly, there are other communities of refugees, immigrants, and Muslims, as well as humanitarian organizations and state governments feeling its effects. This is not to mention the other executive orders and policy changes of the new administration. Anthropologists take their cues from the reactions of affected communities. Ethics, emotions, anthropology, and action are all entangled.

Just yesterday, another Nyarugusu resident messaged me to ask about the status of Trump’s order on refugees. He wanted all the details. I explained that a few days earlier I had corresponded with a UNHCR representative in Tanzania, who said that they were still waiting to hear if interviews for resettlement in the U.S. will resume. He was disillusioned to learn that there had been no new developments. As Renato Rosaldo has taught us, rage seethes with devastation and loss. This occurs even as emotional subjugation accompanies political subjugation, as Frantz Fanon has illustrated. Refugees’ disappointment, the UNHCR representative’s dismay, Berhanu’s despair: this is how we stay engaged and enraged. We stay tuned in—emotionally, ethically, anthropologically, and actively.

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: https://ethics.americananthro.org/ethics-anthropology-and-adjudication/

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

Medical Volunteering Abroad

* Note: This is the first of a new type of ethics blog post—a short description of an ethics issue related to anthropology that is appearing in the news and other online media, accompanied by links to original source material. Students and scholars interested in submitting a piece should send their work to the Chair of the Committee on Ethics, Steven Black (sblack@gsu.edu)

Medical Volunteering Abroad
Gabriela Alvarado, MD, MPH
Georgia State University

Many people assume that poor countries with little access to health care and lack of health care providers benefit from international volunteers. However, this may not be the case. In the United States you cannot perform any type of health care related act if you are not a licensed professional. It is deemed unethical. So why is it appropriate for unlicensed people to provide these services in other countries? In addition to untrained people administrating medications, providing sutures, and even performing pelvic examinations there are another set of ethical issues that should also be examined. Developing countries have limited staff as it is, and sending in armies of unqualified volunteers means that the staff has to divert time away from actually caring for patients and tend to the international volunteers. Furthermore, medical student volunteers often want to learn procedures they might not be able to do in the United States, may will focus on experiences for personal benefit instead of what is actually needed in the community.

As a medical doctor, I volunteered in my home country (Costa Rica), in an area of the country called Talamanca. Talamanca is the region of the country where most of the indigenous communities are located; these communities tend to have very poor infrastructure and limited access to healthcare. As a medical intern I spent two weeks volunteering in Talamanca, and quite honestly, I never stopped to consider the ethical implications of me being there. The local doctor had to make time to accommodate three interns, show us around, and figure out things to keep us ‘entertained.’ Now, as a graduate student with an interest in medical anthropology, I wonder: was it really necessary for us to be there? Who gained the most from the whole exchange?

While these issues have been overlooked in the past in public discourses, they are now starting to be considered and there is a call to reexamine the role of volunteers abroad and how to really benefit local communities:


AAA Comments on Notice of Proposed Rule Making for IRBs

Post authored by Lise Dobrin (University of Virginia)


Below are some excerpts from the 18-page comment submitted by the AAA to the Office of Human Research Protections on January 6, 2016, in response to the proposed changes in the “Common Rule”, the federal regulations that motivate the system of research ethics review that is implemented by IRBs. The AAA comment was authored on the AAA’s behalf by Rena Lederman (Princeton University) and Lise Dobrin (University of Virginia). An overview of the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) and the full text of the AAA’s response can be found here.


On the NPRM’s proposal to expand the definition of “human subject” to include even non-identified biospecimens:

The American Anthropological Association is in general accord with the principle of “autonomy” (or “respect for persons”) underlying this NPRM proposal to change the definition of Human Subject. Anthropologists and their study participants have objected to the reduction of biospecimens to “data” (i.e., values detachable from their sources); they have pointed out that blood, tissue samples and the like can come to stand for persons and be invested with specific social, cultural, and ritual values.


On the problematic omission of sociocultural anthropology’s signature methods from both the Common Rule and the proposed rule change:

 Our first and most important general comment is that several of the proposed changes will deepen, rather than alleviate, ambiguity. This is especially true with respect to sociocultural anthropologists’ most characteristic research activity – “participant observation” (also referred to as “ethnographic fieldwork”, “fieldwork”, and similar terms) – which finds no place within the existing Common Rule at all. Insofar as the proposed changes likewise make no mention of participant observation, anthropologists and others who employ this approach—along with their IRBs—are left entirely in the dark. This situation promises to keep ethnographic field projects that rely on participant observation in “expedited” or “full board” categories when according to the logic behind the NPRM they should be “exempt” or “excluded”.

[A]nthropologists preparing to undertake “participant observation” do not understand themselves as conducting “interviews”. Instead, they are trained to appreciate that interviewing and participant observation are distinct (indeed methodologically opposed) activities: the former is an investigator-controlled interaction (the researcher asks a more or less predetermined set of questions keyed to his/her relatively well-defined research agenda) while the latter is basically a participant-controlled interaction (the researcher is responsive to his/her hosts’ agendas of activities, topics, and the like). This means that fieldworkers’ honest answers in response to [questions intended to establish exemption] would not enable them to meet the regulatory criteria for the exemption. This runs counter to the spirit of the NPRM proposal as we read it. We therefore ask that if the proposal to exempt low-risk research through interactions is adopted as described in the NPRM, “participant observation” be specifically listed among the activities that count as “low risk” for purposes of the exemption.


On the notion of “generalizability” as establishing a need for ethical oversight:

Reference to “generalizability” points to the heart of the problems inhering in the Common Rule definition of “research”. “Generalization” raises distinctive ethical problems within biomedicine as a result of the slippage between a doctor’s commitment to provide individual patients with personal care and the doctor-researcher’s commitment to socially-beneficial generalizing research. But it does not usefully diagnose a need for regulation across the board.


On the likelihood and severity of risk not greater than what is “ordinarily encountered in daily life” as a regulatory criterion:

Because researchers engaged in participant observation and ethnographic fieldwork interact with participants in the course of daily life on those persons’ own terms as a matter of methodological principle and because researchers do so without deception as a matter of ethical principle – that is, because they do not remove participants from their daily lives in order to engage in research or otherwise engage in research manipulations – these standard anthropological methods are consistent with the spirit of “minimal risk”, that is, they involve a “probability and magnitude of harm or discomfort” that is not greater that what is “ordinarily encountered in daily life”. Indeed, participant observation and ethnographic fieldwork more nearly approximate daily life than do any of the other activities currently listed on the OHRP expedited list, such as “surveys”, “interviews”, and “focus groups”. For that reason, we favor “excluding” participant observation/ethnographic fieldwork from the Common Rule.


On the need to determine confidentiality requirements on a case-by-case basis:

[W]hile anthropologists appreciate the importance of keeping data confidential when appropriate, it is not the case that information (e.g., stories or recorded texts) shared with investigators by participants in anthropological research should always be kept confidential along the lines of protected health information. To the contrary, one important purpose of anthropological research is to document knowledge for future use, whether by members of the community being investigated or by future researchers. The insistence on adherence to any privacy safeguards irrespective of the situation of research (including the wishes of the participants) runs counter to the context-sensitivity required for the ethical conduct of anthropological research, and in fact contradicts the AAA Statement on Ethics, which calls upon anthropologists to balance the protection of research participants and their communities with the careful preservation and judicious dissemination of their research records.


On the NPRM proposal to exempt low-risk research from IRB oversight:

We believe that anthropology’s most distinctive method of research, participant observation – if it does not fall completely within categories of “excluded” activity – falls within [the category of activities deemed “exempt”]: it involves the collection of information through open-ended interactions with participants in ways that are, as a matter of methodological principle, not under the researcher’s control but responsive to constraints imposed by study participants in their own daily life contexts. Because this exemption would support anthropologists’ ability to apply their professionally- and experientially-honed ethical judgment in an active, responsive, and situation-specific way as their research unfolds, the AAA supports this proposal, which decreases the burden on researchers to seek administrative review from those who have less knowledge about the risks to participants than they themselves do, while simultaneously diminishing (or at least not increasing) the risks associated with the research.


In response to the NPRM proposals about obtaining and documenting informed consent:

Among the proposals made in this section is one that would allow “a waiver of the requirement for a signed consent form if the subjects are members of a distinct cultural group or community for whom signing documents is not the norm” (FR 53977, 54055). The AAA supports this provision enthusiastically. Consent needs to be tailored to the social and cultural context of the research community if it is to be meaningfully informed. Yet despite the diversity of cultural settings in which anthropological work takes place, anthropologists frequently find themselves called upon by their IRBs to document consent in ways that make no sense to their study participants. In such situations signing consent forms offers the participants little in terms of protections, and unnecessarily burdens researchers who are caught between the expectations of their IRBs and the perspectives of their study populations. Moreover, the standard IRB-driven requirement for documentation of consent can interfere with rapport (that is, following local norms of relationship-building), a methodological prerequisite for effective ethnographic fieldwork.

We encourage Common Rule revisions to go even further, and explicitly recognize the need for “emergent” consent in the case of participant observation, where understandings of the research questions, and hence the potential risks and benefits of the research, develop dialogically (in culturally- appropriate encounters, usually by means of conversation) not only for participants but for researchers over the course of their interaction. For this reason, even when it is obtained orally, consent in anthropological fieldwork cannot be construed as an “event”, like listening to a script and agreeing to some or all of its terms.


On the awkwardness of continuing review for much anthropological research:

The NPRM proposes to eliminate the requirement of annual continuing reviews for “minimal risk” studies, i.e., those that qualify for expedited review. The NPRM also proposes to eliminate review of such minimal risk research once it has proceeded beyond data “collection” to data “analysis”, unless justification is given for why continuing review is called for. The AAA strongly supports these proposals, which help clarify the application of the Common Rule to anthropological research. It is standard practice for anthropologists to reflect on, analyze, and write about their field research experiences for years and even decades beyond the actual research encounters with study participants. This disciplinary norm makes it difficult or impossible for fieldworkers to identify a point at which their studies have ended.


On the category of “vulnerable populations”:

We applaud the NPRM’s proposal to clarify reference to “vulnerable populations” such that the consideration of relevance is specifically vulnerability to coercion. Categorizations of persons into a priori types cannot always be successfully applied across the board and apart from context; indeed, even reference to “children” must take into account local cultural conditions (e.g., the relevant distinction may be ritually initiated vs. uninitiated boys). The Common Rule specification of “vulnerable populations” may make sense in most situations in the U.S., but not in other settings where social categories may differ. Moreover, as is often emphasized by disability advocates, there is no reason to assume that being assigned to a given category of persons—those “physically disabled”, those “economically or educationally disadvantaged”, or any other group—necessarily puts individuals at risk of harm when those individuals engage in any area of life, research included. Indeed, the operative concerns—as the NPRM proposals attempt to acknowledge—are (1) the Belmont principle of Justice which calls for equitable opportunity to participate in research, and (2) the necessity for IRBs “to give consideration to [board] membership expertise” when they evaluate protocols involving study populations with which Americans are not generally familiar (CFR p.53989).

Hoffman Report Comments

Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban

The Hoffman Report is an independent investigation of actions by members of the American Psychological Association (APA) who collaborated with and profited from their direct involvement in ‘intensive interrogation’ at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. The report was initiated and funded by the APA in response to critics within the profession who had complained about this unethical and unprofessional application of Psychology by APA leaders and members. A workshop organized by key critics and activists within the APA who are keen to develop protocols for going forward, will take place September 18-20 at Boston University. As the only anthropologist asked to join this workshop Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban has been asked to post the Hoffman Report on the AAA Ethics Blog seeking comments from anthropologists in advance of the meeting. The AAA is seen as a positive example for its two proactive commissions (CEAUSSIC I and II) that explored and took clear positions on anthropologists’ engagement with defense, security and intelligence agencies.


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 http://loverholtzer.wordpress.com

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.


The Ethics of Collaborating with Artifact Collectors

Bonnie L. Pitblado

In October 2013, more than 1,100 people attended the well-publicized “Paleoamerican Odyssey” (PO) conference in Santa Fe.  Professional archaeologists constituted 46% of the attendees; non-professionals the other 54%.  The conference featured the usual array of scholarly presentations and posters, but it also offered secure space for 39 museums and universities and 11 organizer-vetted private individuals to showcase collections of Paleoamerican artifacts.

The collections room was packed much of the time with interested professionals and non-professionals alike.  However, some archaeologists—not a majority, but more than a few—vocalized their view that inviting private artifact collectors to share their finds at PO had violated archaeological ethics.  For most who expressed this perspective, the perceived ethical breach lay in the domain of commercialization, with the concern being that showcasing privately held material culture increased its monetary value and thereby facilitated, even promoted, its sale on the private market.

As well-meaning as they may have been, such views bothered me at the conference, and as time passed, my discomfort with what I had heard increased.  It took a bit of introspection to understand my strong feelings on the subject, but ultimately I realized that they were themselves rooted in the ethical precepts professional archaeologists have pledged to uphold.  By expressing blanket rejection for conference participants who shared Paleoamerican artifacts they legally owned, archaeologists themselves teetered perilously close to violating nearly all of our discipline’s ethical mandates.

In 1996, the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) established eight “Principles of Archaeological Ethics.”  Conference attendees concerned with the potential commercialization of the privately owned material were responding to the third of these.  However, their wholesale rejection of interaction with all private artifact collectors at PO held the very real potential to violate no fewer than six of the remaining seven principles:  stewardship, accountability, public education and outreach, intellectual property, and records and preservation.

Notably, even the “commercialization” principle that anchored the view of those who rejected the presence of private collectors is in reality quite nuanced, stating that “archaeologists should…carefully weigh the benefits to scholarship of a project against the costs of potentially enhancing the commercial value of archaeological objects.”  Rejecting the presence of all private individuals who own artifacts clearly fails to “weigh the benefits to scholarship” that accrued both to conference attendees who could view the collections and to the owners with an unparalleled opportunity to interact one-on-one with professionals.

American Anthropological Association “principles of professional responsibility” likewise cannot be construed to support rejecting an entire class of stakeholders in any anthropological realm, including the PO conference. AAA Principles 1, “Do No Harm” and 4, “Weigh Competing Ethical Obligations” were particularly imperiled by PO professionals who in failing to comply with Principle 4 also violated Principle 1.  Putting myself in the shoes of a private person who had accepted conference organizers’ invitation to share artifacts in my possession, I would have felt betrayed indeed to learn of my condemnation by a few professional archaeologists imposing a black-and-white sensibility on a gray world.

A short blog post does not permit me the space to elaborate on the ethical judgments I have expressed here.  However, my recent article in “American Antiquity” explores in much more depth the ethics of archaeologist – collector collaboration.  Readers can also access a follow-up piece published in “Advances in Archaeological Practice” that offers concrete suggestions for how professionals can collaborate with artifact collectors in ways that benefit both parties—and the archaeological record we all treasure.

I also invite interested readers going to the 80th SAA meeting in San Francisco later this month to attend an Ethics and Public Education Committee-sponsored forum organized by Michael Shott and me, called “Cons or Pros? Should Archaeologists Collaborate with Responsible Collectors?”   The 12-participant forum will run 1:00 – 3:00 on Friday, April 17, and we hope to facilitate extensive audience interaction.  We will cover subjects including ethical arguments for and against collaboration, how professionals might persuade indifferent collectors of the value of documenting and sharing their collections, the many motivations that cause people to start (and stop) collecting, and case studies documenting the effects of collecting.