Inside the Ethics Query Process: A Case Study from the Corporate Sector

Inside the Ethics Query Process: A Case Study from the Corporate Sector 

By Jayne Howell and Lise Dobrin

As the Ethics Seats on MPAAC, we thought it would be helpful to give an example of what happens when anthropologists submit to the AAA an inquiry about an ethical issue they are grappling with.  We provide below a recent inquiry, with all identifiers removed, to illustrate the steps that occur once we receive a query.  This case also speaks to the reality that similar concerns arise whether one is conducting research in the private sector or a public university.

We recently received a query from an anthropologist (given the pseudonym Morgan here) who works for a private financial enterprise. Morgan asked, “Does the ‘Do No Harm’ ethic suggest that researchers refrain from asking ‘tough’ questions that could lead to negative responses or unintended outcomes?”  Morgan described supervising a multidisciplinary team that was charged with understanding customers’ expectations and needs from their firm using the information gathered to design and develop products and services.  In the interest of following best practices, Morgan introduced her team to the concept of research ethics, drawing on different organizations’ ethics statements to create guidelines for their research. For models they looked at statements by AAA, Society for Applied Anthropology, American Psychological Association, and the Hippocratic Oath.  No one else on the team besides Morgan had training in anthropology or another social science.

Morgan’s inquiry to concerned her team members’ response to this training, specifically with respect to the notion that researchers should “do not harm.”  Although they appreciated the importance of treating participants with respect and integrity, avoiding harm to “dignity and well-being” and mitigating risk led them to ask a set of specific questions.  Members of the MPAAC Ethics Subcommittee and the AAA Ethics Advisory Group (composed of former chairs of the AAA Ethics Committee) provided feedback in response to two questions that Morgan posed:

  1. “Does [the imperative to Do No Harm] mean we should avoid questions that might cause someone to feel anything other than happy or neutral? Our work involves talking about money, and that is often emotional and fraught.”
  2. “Does [the Do No Harm] principle mean that it is our ethical responsibility to avoid the hard questions because we cannot predict what effect thinking about these questions might have on a person’s state of mind or down-the-road behavior? Our work asks us to use sometimes difficult questions in order to uncover a person’s context, perspective, and lived experience in ways that surveys cannot.”

The AAA Ethics commenters were supportive of Morgan’s desire to define what ethical research would look like in the corporate setting.  The feedback her query elicited fell into three overlapping areas: (1) Whether it is even possible to apply anthropological ethics when conducting research in the financial sector, (2) the meaning and nuances of the AAA “do no harm” guideline, and (3) the provision of adequate information during the consent process. Here is what they said in response to these questions:

(1) Is it possible to conduct ethical research for a capitalist venture?

The nature of this type of applied research, which is ultimately profit-driven, has different objectives than much academic research.  “[Morgan] most likely … has little to no control over the ends to which [the] team’s work is put.”  Moreover, engaging in one-off interviews is “a very different scenario from much anthropological research where you build rapport through long-term open-ended involvement.”  This is at odds with many anthropologists’ “aim for something like a collaborative relationship with one’s interlocutors – [this] is so *not* a best practice elsewhere in social science that it often gets lost.”

A related point that arose is the seeming contradiction inherent in an attempt to conduct ethical surveys and interviews “when the whole point of the research enterprise is to … more efficiently extract people’s $$.” One solution a commenter suggested in light of this “ethical quagmire … is to offer the participants a reward for helping the [firm] make money.”  Nevertheless, ethical responsibilities are present even when the intent of the research is “extractive,” because all researchers “operate within the constraints of the same neoliberal/capitalist structural frameworks and constraints.” Thus, one committee member suggested, the team should be sure to “compensate participants fairly for their time and opinion.“

(2) “Do No harm”

Morgan’s core question concerned how to avoid “doing harm,” including when asking potentially “harmful” question.  There was general consensus that the IRB guidelines that shape much of our thinking about ethics are not always applicable to qualitative or market research.  As we are well aware, the reality is that “research nearly always includes some form of risk, no matter how carefully designed it is,” especially because it is not always possible to determine what constitutes “harmful” questions that “are likely to be triggers.”  Indeed, as one committee member noted, “What ‘harms’ one person may be absolutely nothing to another,” meaning that at times “no amount of preparation can be enough.”  Given this, one commenter reminded, “The [do no harm] principle asks researchers to avoid reasonably foreseeable harms, not avoid difficult questions.”  In the AAA’s response to the recent revision of the Common Rule, there was awareness that “psychological harms [are] inherently slippery and hard to regulate around.” Although asking about financial experiences and situations can be sensitive, one can try to mitigate the possibility of distress by structuring the research in such a way that each participant has control over what they reveal.

Ultimately, as one commenter put it, “This conversation shows how hard it is to untangle the various threads of anthropological ethics in practice.”  Thus, no matter how carefully we design our research to avoid doing “harm,” it is not always possible to ‘fully inform,’ much less protect” our participants.

(3) “The devil is in the detail of the consent process.”

We learned from Morgan that the team was particularly helped by suggestions about the informed consent process, which emphasized providing as much information as reasonably possible about the purpose and nature of the research.  Participants should also be advised of their right to withhold information or withdraw.  As one commenter noted, if participants are “advised who’s doing the research and why, and if they understand they can withdraw at any point—basically then I don’t think it matters whether the purpose is academic or commercial.”  Another said, “Say in plain English (not hide in a wall of text that no one will read) what is going to happen. Then you will very rarely find yourself in a situation in which you are actually putting people in a distressing situation.”

Morgan explained to us afterward that these suggestions helped her team move forward with their research by revisiting their consent guidelines:

“After reviewing the suggestions and perspectives of the committee, my team decided to focus in on our research participant consent process. Focusing on this point in the research journey will enable us to adhere to an ethical principle centered on preventing, mitigating, and transparently addressing potential harms to our participants that might arise through our work.  Without the expanded point of view gained through this request, we would have instead attempted to solely address the questionnaire design part of our work.  Doing so would have been a narrow take on how to embrace this ethic; now, we are in the position to strengthen our ethical base throughout the research journey within our organization.”

Morgan shared these thoughts about ways the subcommittee’s feedback led her to reflect more generally about what it means to be an anthropologist conducting research in the for-profit sector.  Her thoughtful response references the importance she places on retaining integrity in her research:

“The reflection wasn’t so much regarding the ethics of doing research with profit in mind as it was about asking me to look past where I would typically ‘solve’ this type of problem and expand my thinking.  While I understand that the notion of ‘for profit’ causes a lot of discussion in the Anthro community, I understand that this is a part of what comes with being a researcher in the corporate space. I’m thankful for the opportunity to do what I do and tell the stories of people so that the business can design with more awareness of the lived experience.  I also operate with a baseline ethic of not skewing my research outcomes to meet the demand of the business I am serving, but to represent our user accurately and hold up a mirror for the business to challenge themselves.”

Morgan’s inquiry was an opportunity to consider anew what the AAA ethics statement and encouragement to “do no harm” mean.  It was an important reminder that in actual practice, research is far more nuanced than either IRB guidelines and the AAA statement on ethics can convey, as it is open to interpretation by researchers and research interlocutors alike.  Since one can’t ever truly anticipate the “harm” that interview questions may cause, Morgan and her team chose to prioritize the one thing they could control by emphasizing transparency in the consent process. We hope that this example helps to illustrate the query process, while simultaneously offering suggestions for how general principles of anthropological ethics can be applied in the corporate sector.



Ethical Questions about Who Counts as an “Anthropologist” in Military Organizations

Ethical Questions about Who Counts as an “Anthropologist” in Military Organizations

by Kerry Fosher[i]

When I first started working with the U.S. military in 2006, military organizations were desperate to hire anthropologists. Leaders in these organization had a very basic sense that anthropologists understood culture and could help their personnel interact with people in areas of operation, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan. Ethical questions about military anthropology have been extensively examined elsewhere.[ii] Here, I want to examine some ethical questions that have arisen for me in relation to anthropological identity—who counts as an anthropologist—in the U.S. military context.

The Department of Defense is a large organization, comprising more than three million people. Military personnel often stay in a short time before going on to second careers. The perceptions they develop during their military service get carried into other parts of government, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and, on occasion, even academia. So, the way military personnel perceive anthropology has implications not only for how the military thinks about the discipline, but also for how we are perceived in other sectors.

In traditional academic settings, you are an anthropologist by consensus of your peers. Your credentials matter, but not every person teaching in an anthropology department has a PhD in anthropology. Some come from other disciplines but use anthropological theories and methods and are generally accepted as members of our discipline. Conversely, somebody with a PhD in anthropology who has spent the last 20 years working as realtor or chef might not be considered an anthropologist by university faculty. In short, in academic circles we maintain fuzzy boundaries around our disciplinary identity, but we self-police by both subtle and overt means.

In other settings, your identity as an anthropologist may come from your position, or even simply by assertion, rather than from the perception of academic peers. In the most common U.S. federal government hiring plan, the official position description for an anthropologist at any level requires only that they have 24 undergraduate credits in anthropology or a related field.[iii] So, somebody with an undergraduate minor in psychology and a few language classes could be hired as a senior level anthropologist. Likewise, many government contracts prohibit organizations from specifying the credentials they want. They can say only that they need an anthropological capability. So, the company can choose to provide the capability with somebody who has only an MA in international relations or some other field. Hiring managers rarely have the expertise needed to understand or value disciplinary education, and in military organizations social scientists tend to work in multi-disciplinary settings where leaders are unlikely to focus on the credentials of individual employees. So once hired, someone can come to be considered an anthropologist by position regardless of credentials or experience.

In my experience, it is common for people to simply assert an anthropological identity in this context. Especially when the military was focused on recruiting anthropologists, many people presented themselves that way whether or not their backgrounds supported the claim. I would hear somebody say, “I’m a degreed anthropologist” when all they had was a bachelor’s degree in anthropology, or even a bachelor’s degree in something else but had taken one or two anthropology classes 15 years ago. I even encountered “anthropologists” who had never had any formal anthropological education, but who felt the label fit because they were widely traveled. A few times I met somebody with a PhD in another field who was hoping to cash in on the military anthropology boom and assumed, often correctly, that government officials would not review their credentials. I encountered this appropriation of anthropological identity at least weekly in meetings and correspondence across the Department of Defense from 2006 through 2012, when the demand signal for anthropology started to taper off.

This combination of bureaucratic factors, lack of knowledge of academic credentials on the part of military officials, and opportunism created situations in which ethical questions arose for me.

For example, at one point, one military service decided it wanted to hire cultural anthropologists into senior level positions in all its schools to integrate culture-related material into the curricula. I believe this decision was well-intended, but it was driven by a senior official’s somewhat hazy sense of what anthropologists do. So there was little guidance about what these faculty were supposed to accomplish, the hiring process did not specify the sorts of credentials they should have, and the people hired had a broad range of backgrounds. The consequences were predictable. Some of the people hired had backgrounds with little relevance to the task at hand. But their manager routinely referred to them all as anthropologists and, as became clear rather quickly, was either unable or unwilling to assess the quality of their work. The program only lasted a few years, but in that time, these faculty influenced how anthropology was perceived by thousands of military students, other civilian faculty, and government officials.

My concern about these matters did not come from a desire to protect my own disciplinary turf. Anthropology was not the only field with something to offer in integrating social science and culture-related curricula, and some of these other voices provided useful ideas, such as the emphasis on cross-cultural skills brought by intercultural communication scholars. However, most of the time, what the anthropologists-by-assertion/position were saying bore little resemblance to anthropology, or even to social science at all. When it did, it most closely matched long-discarded theory from the 1940s-1960s, such as structural functionalism.[iv] The issue was not about whether or not valid anthropology was being presented but about how the ideas being promoted might affect policy and educational programs for military personnel. I also was concerned that, when it turned out the ideas did not match reality, military personnel would assume that anthropology was to blame, carrying this negative perception with them through their military careers and into other sectors when they left.

Although military personnel routinely critique one another’s ideas, there is no pattern of open collegial critique among government civilian social scientists. Any effort to get people to correct faux anthropological (or just generally unsound) pronouncements in classrooms and meetings was routinely dismissed by officials as academic bickering. Sometimes they seemed to be protecting their own expert employee. Other times the dismissal was linked to a broader pattern of anti-intellectualism that is still widespread in the Department of Defense. Even constructive criticism could be seen as defensiveness or quibbling rather than careful scrutiny of ideas. If you engaged in critique or correction too often, you risked losing your ability to exert influence within the community. You could be marginalized as “not a team player.”

And so it was that I found myself in an ethically challenging “wild west” of social science where I often was the only person present with the legitimate knowledge to say what anthropology was and was not, to clarify what different disciplines could bring to bear on a problem, and to point out when an organization was being sold a bill of goods. Maybe I could have ignored it all, but there are only so many times you can hear your field described completely incorrectly before you feel the urge to speak up. Also, my time serving on the AAA’s Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC) had me thinking deeply about the complex ethical situations that arise when anthropologists work outside traditional academia, in particular how anthropological work in the military may influence or reflect on the discipline.[v]

What was my responsibility in such situations? If I corrected every false claim of anthropological expertise, I would come to be seen as a turf protector and lose my influence in the organization, ceding it to the very people I was hoping to counter. Yet, I felt I had ethical responsibilities to ensure that the anthropological information provided was sound and accurate and to be a good steward of how the discipline was perceived in such a large organization with such a fraught relationship with our field.

Ultimately, I had to choose my battles. Sometimes I could quietly undo whatever mess had been created and set the organization on a better course. In situations where I had ongoing contact with an individual misrepresenting credentials or promoting bad ideas, I could play a longer game of collegiality and lead them to change course. Sometimes I simply had to let things go. Doing this long, quiet work was sometimes frustrating, but preferable in many cases, as it allowed me to save my social capital for particularly egregious cases. As a result, I was usually (although not always) taken seriously by civilian and military organizational leaders when I brought a concern to them. To give one example, when a proposed program was planning to conduct supposedly anthropological research overseas without going through a human subjects protection process or using any kind of informed consent, I was successful in preventing it from getting funded.

I also have ethical questions about my responsibility to be fully transparent about these matters with my anthropological colleagues. As mentioned above, there were times when it was more effective to act quietly over long periods, making it challenging to talk or publish about some of the issues. My time with the AAA CEAUSSIC reinforced my sense that those of us working in unusual or controversial settings have an enhanced responsibility to ensure that our colleagues understand what we are doing both to clarify our ethical decision-making and to improve the discipline’s understanding of the communities or organizations in which we work.  I have discussed the issues occasionally in conference presentations or talks. However, I never wrote an article or book capturing the full scope of the appropriation of anthropology or anthropological identity and, based on discussions I have had with editors over the years, I doubt I could have gotten such a manuscript published. Anthropologists are very interested in other aspects of my ethical decision-making, primarily the decision to work with the military at all, and I have spoken and published on such issues regularly. But anthropologists do not seem particularly interested in how the perception of anthropology was being shaped for the three million people in Department of Defense or how that perception might be harmful. Perhaps I could have found ways to be more transparent with my colleagues that would have allowed them to assess and contribute to my ethical decision-making. Perhaps this post is a small first step.

[i] Kerry Fosher is the Director of Research at Marine Corps University. She began speaking on anthropological ethics while still in graduate school at Syracuse University, but it’s place as a major part of her professional life began with her work on the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the U.S. Security and Intelligence Communities from 2006-2010. Since 2006, she has spoken and published regularly about the complexities of ethics in practicing and applied anthropology with a particular focus on work in the national security sector. Fosher is a member of the AAA MPAAC Ethics subcommittee. Her LinkedIn profile is at Her email is

[ii] See for example:

Albro, Robert, George Marcus, McNamara Laura A., and Monica Schoch-Spana. 2012. Anthropologists in the securityscape: ethics, practice, and professional identity. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc.; Albro, Robert, James Peacock, Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Kerry Fosher, Laura McNamara, George Marcus, David Price, Laurie Rush, Jean Jackson, Monica Schoch-Spana, and Setha Low. October 14, 2009. AAA Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC). Final Report on The Army’s Human Terrain System Proof of Concept Program. American Anthropological Association.; Gonzalez, Roberto J. 2009. American counterinsurgency: human science and the human terrain. Chicago, IL: Prickly Paradigm Press.; McNamara, Laura A., and Robert A. Rubinstein. 2011. Dangerous liaisons: anthropologists and the national security state. School for Advanced Research advanced seminar series. Santa Fe, N.M.: School for Advanced Research Press.; Peacock, James, Robert Albro, Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, Kerry Fosher, Laura McNamara, Monica Heller, George Marcus, David Price, and Alan Goodman. November 4, 2007. AAA Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities Final Report. American Anthropological Association.  Price, David H. 2011. Weaponizing anthropology: social science in the service of the militarized state. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

[iii] Office of Personnel Management. (2009). General Anthropology Series, 0190. Classification & qualifications: General schedule qualification standards (Online detail from OPM site. As of access date, the linked Handbook of Occupational Groups and Families is the May 2009 edition). Retrieved 6 Apr 2014 from qualifications/general-schedule-qualification-standards/0100/general-anthropology-series- 0190/.

[iv] A handful of PhD anthropologists were also promoting these outdated theories. It was not that they believed they were using current material. Rather, they correctly assumed that the older, simplistic theories would be more readily accepted by the military and believed that getting something into use was better than engaging in a long and possibly fruitless fight to integrate more contemporary approaches.

[v] A description of the commission’s charter and its reports can be found at

Ethical Questions in Post-impeachment Brazil

By Rafael Estrada Mejía (São Paulo State University)

Last year, Brazil was in the world’s spotlight due to political turmoil and to its appeal as a tourism destination giant.  The global media followed with ferocity both former President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment with its accompanying massive protests for and against it, and the 2016 Olympic Games, when for the first time in history, ten refugee athletes from four countries competed together as the Refugee Olympic Team.  The great irony is that, in the same time period, almost sixty thousand people were displaced because of sports mega-events such as the World Cup and the Rio Olympic Games.  This occurred to make space for sports venues, tourism projects and transport, and to improve the international image of the host cities by eliminating slums from areas exposed to visitors and television audiences.

Two main concerns motivated me to write this piece.  The first one is the unrest I felt because, for the most part, the Brazilian elite and middle classes (many of whom are white, intellectuals and university professors) paid no attention to the forced displacements, and later enthusiastically supported the coup d’état against Rousseff.  Although outraged, I was not surprised. This scene is repeated in Brazil’s history. Disdain for democracy is the common denominator of both the coups of 1964 and of 2016.  The difference is that this most recent coup follows the rules of financial capitalism, thus requiring the neoliberalization of the state and making both dictatorial and social welfare regimes anachronistic.   

The second concern has to do with questioning the ethical implications of my own practice as an anthropologist and the role of social scientists at large in today’s political conjuncture. This reflection was fueled by my experiences as a postdoctoral researcher conducting studies of the elite.  I am the only anthropologist in a research team formed by a group of renowned geographers who study the production of urban space in mid-size cities in the states of São Paulo and Paraná.

One of the research lines of the project is the real estate sector and the role of closed condominiums (the Brazilian version of US gated communities) in the context of public space

Operarios (Tarsila do Amaral, 1933)

production. My contribution to the the study of the processes of subjectivation of the emergent Brazilian elites who live in these spaces. I also study how closed condominiums have become one of the most desired living arrangements for all Brazilians. The project aims to overcome the dominant macropolitical framework used to understand closed condominiums to move the focus to a micropolitical approach.  My understanding of these frameworks is based on the French thinkers Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, for whom both macropolitics and micropolitics are inherently political, public and private, and operate simultaneously from small to large levels so the distinction is based on the scale of the components interacting in a network, and not the scale of the network itself.

The Brazilian version of the 1% is not composed of millionaires, but by those who earn more than 30 times the monthly base salary (currently at R/.880 or approximately 244 dollars). The 1% in Brazil are people we see walking down the streets every day. It includes university professors, many of whom chose to live in closed condominiums.  For the record, I am not part of that elite and do not live in in a closed condominium.  But many of the professors I have interviewed for my research are part of this elite; some of them are social scientists and shared with me the belief that our role as researchers should be strictly confined to the analytical space.  These remarks have made me wonder about the role of academics and intellectuals in Brazil.  What are the implications of being progressive, analytic, and critical only within the confines of academic walls, and once the daily labor ends, comfortably returning to an individual paradise inside the walls of the closed condominium?  What are the mechanisms that allow us to ignore the criminalized alterity that the media and institutional powers have constituted and reconstituted? What are the ethical and political challenges of anthropologists and social scientists in the Brazilian context? 

The discipline of anthropology in Brazil tends to look at applied anthropology with disdain. This contrasts with other Latin American countries where there is a seamless flow between anthropological reflection, university life and applied projects.  Except for the committed work of anthropologists with indigenous peoples and peoples of African descent, Brazilian anthropology has tended to be restricted to university life.   

Studying Brazilian elites as an anthropologist and from a micropolitical perspective suggests a framework applicable beyond academia, as a map to navigate this complex world. By looking at the mode of existence of privileged groups who choose to isolate themselves from public life, we see that we cannot be committed and engaged at the macropolitical level, while remaining complacent at the micropolitical level.  We need to find a way to eliminate microfascism from our discourse, our acts, our heart and our pleasures. By microfascism, I mean the desire that individuals have that others follow their own personal rules, which ultimate enable fascism at the state level. This kind of totalitarian view operates in both the public and private spheres.

It is important to suspend common sense or what Brazilian scholar Renato Ortiz calls the “a-critic consensus.”  It is important to stop using the concepts of ethics and morality interchangeably.  Morality deals with a series of external coercive norms, assumed to be universal and based on punishment.  Ethics, on the contrary, deals with a series of facultative rules through which individuals constitute themselves as subjects, problematize their own actions, and create new modes of existence. Brazil is in dire need of ethically committed and engaged scholars.

Studying the elites is indeed a way to combat inequality in a country considered among the most unequal in the world.  However, this is certainly not enough.  It is essential to overcome the paralysis that sometimes accompanies the social sciences, to go beyond the academic sphere and reach a truly ethical dimension. It is essential to demonstrate acts of resistance in our lives, and to oppose all the established forms of fascism to impede that more be erected. As Brazilian scholar Suely Rolnik once said, “It is time for micropolitics to guide us!”

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.

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 (

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:

The Missing Ethics of Heritage


Bonnie J. Clark
Associate Professor, Anthropology
Curator for Archaeology, Museum of Anthropology
University of Denver


Ethics codes should play a key role in the education of future professionals.  Indeed, in teaching a capstone course for graduating seniors, I justify our multi-day exploration of ethics in part by referencing the Society for Applied Anthropology’s ethics code, which states in its principle 4 that “Our training should inform students as to their ethical responsibilities.”  But beyond ethical obligations, such training provides discrete touchstones to students who are learning how to behave in the world as anthropologists.


One way that I find codes pedagogically useful is that they provide benchmarks with which students can measure their own practice and that of others in the field.  And it was during just such a recent exercise in my Applied Heritage Management course that the students found the current AAA code of ethics lacking.  As part of an analysis of heritage management websites, students were asked whether sites failed, met, or exceeded the ethics codes of the AAA or the Society for American Archaeology (SAA).


It was revealing that few of my students found the AAA ethical principles salient for this exercise.  Despite the fact that the first principle in both the AAA and the SAA codes mentions stewardship of archaeological resources, students tended to choose the SAA “Stewardship” principle instead of the AAA’s “Do No Harm.” I suspect subdisciplinary position had some role to play (many of the students identify as archaeologists and so defaulted to the SAA principles).  However, I also believe that students looking to support advocacy skip over a principle whose title implies it is only about avoiding harm, despite later prose to the contrary.  In pointing this out, my experience aligns with others who find the code lacking when it comes to advocacy work (e.g. Rob Borovsky’s recent blog for this column).


Even more troubling was that students who chose case studies related to areas of heritage other than archaeological sites found little in either code to assist them.  They needed to translate the codes to cover the preservation of historic buildings or cultural landscapes.  In such cases students mostly substituted “historic resource” for “archaeological site.”  However, those who were interested in the preservation of culturally-important natural resources really had few places to turn.  Making the AAA statement on ethics relevant in this case requires a rather convoluted route, using principle 4 to identify natural resources as “affected parties” or perhaps “vulnerable populations.”


The management of heritage continues to be a robust and growing sector of our discipline as evidenced both by theoretical engagement and applied practice.  Many anthropologists contribute to the heritage fields, whether through social impact studies, museum work, or cultural resources management.  Such practitioners do have resources regarding ethics to which they can turn.  For example there are a number of other ethical codes more geared to heritage (e.g. those of the International Council on Monuments and Sites or ICOMOS. And there are also public discussions of heritage ethics, such as those supported by the Leiden-Stanford ethics lab.


Yet it is clear that the legal mandates for preservation from the local to the international level are not matched by our disciplinary ethical codes.  That makes for awkward class discussions, but even worse, it fails our students and those already in the field.  There are many good reasons why anthropologists should help people preserve their heritage, but we must turn to other benchmarks to support that position.

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.