Teaching Professional Ethics in Anthropology

Authored by Leslie E. Sponsel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References Cited:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


About the Author

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


Interdisciplinary Ethical Role-Playing

by Catharina Laporte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


About the Author: 

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

Violence Isn’t An Easy Subject – We Need to Approach It and Teach It With Nuance and Context

By Anna J. Osterholtz, Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures, Mississippi State University

I was asked recently at a dinner party, “What is violence?” I honestly had no soundbite-worthy response except to quote Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, “I know it when I see it.” I went on to explain that what I think of as violent is not what someone in 8th Century Colorado might think is violent or what someone living in modern-day Syria might think is violent. This illustrates a common problem of studying violence. Violence is intrinsic, but it is also difficult to define and sometimes difficult to identify. Merriam-Webster defines violence as “the use of physical force as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy” with secondary definitions of “injury as if by distortion, infringement, or profanation” and “intense, turbulent, or furious ad often destructive action or force.” The primary definition calls for physical force of one person on another person or thing, it is an action. Within our own society, it is easy to identify examples of violent acts, but a holistic definition encompassing everything that violence is and does in all times and all places is difficult for us, particularly in anthropology where we are trained to be relativistic. What we consider violence will vary based on our cultural perspective, as well as our experience with violence on intersectional levels (e.g., class, race, and gender-based violence). In line with Whitehead (2004, 2007) I argue that violence serves social functions related to the construction and negotiation of cultural identities. As a larger process, it is de-structive and con-structive, de-generative and re-generative. Our understanding of violence is both culturally and historically constructed, rife with meaning. Violent acts give meaning and support to social structure, creating and reinforcing social relationships and allowing for changes in social status. It is important to teach this nuance and relativism to our students. Understanding cultural differences with respect to violence will allow for a better and richer understanding of lived experience, even if that lived experience isn’t our own. It might just facilitate communication between groups.

Oversimplified Popularized Notions of Violence

Numerous researchers in other disciplines have examined the social role of violence, but they are lacking the relativist approach that we bring. The drive to understand how violence works within particular societies is important. This desire to understand how violence is used to create social capitol and status allows for the integration of violence into a larger understanding of lived experience both in the present and in the past. A recent study published in Nature, Watts and colleagues (2016) examined the evolution of human sacrifice (a practice most would agree is violent) They tested the idea that human sacrifice was used by the elites as a form of social control over those governed (the social control hypothesis) using Bayesian phylogenetic analysis of 93 Austronesian cultures. They state that they were able to account for common cultural ancestry, patterns of co-evolution and “infer the direction of causality based on the order that traits evolve in” (Watts et al. 2016, 228). Their statistical analysis confirmed that human sacrifice co-evolved with social stratification. While this may occur, a statistical analysis that simply measures the degree of social stratification using what amounts to a band/tribe/state unilineal model of complexity and hierarchy is somewhat simplistic to our understanding of cultural processes. The analysis lacks anthropological nuance, lacks an understanding of culture change and the impact of colonialism (and its inherent violence). The approach is scientific, though, and therefore seems to provide a finite and distinct answer. It gives a posterior probability for cultural evolution, but lacks the understanding of those cultures. All 93 of these developed along different lines with different pressures (both environmental and social), and had different culturally specific methods of dealing with those pressures–some of which may have been violent. They were likely violent in different ways from each other as well, something that does not show itself in this statistical analysis.

Steven Pinker (2012) has had great success in his book on violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why violence has Declined. He presents what may best be described as franken-data to argue that violence as an action has decreased with time since our early ancestors. Amongst other problems, his approach is a-historical and non-contextualized, and his idea of violence centers primarily on war. He examines the overall deaths in combat as a percentage of the overall population as a way to argue that we have become less violent over time. In doing this, he neglects the deaths of non-combatants and secondary causes of war such as famine, displacement and disease (all of which still kill many individuals). But he also presents information as simple to understand. He gives graphs that seem to show a steady decline in violence through time. He makes it seem that violence is a universal concept that can easily be understood.

Yeah, But… One Man’s Freedom Fighter is Another Man’s Terrorist 

The anthropological study of violence is important for its nuance and its relativism. First and foremost, we don’t seek to find easy or universal answers. There will always be things that we cannot know or cannot ask. There will not be a posterior probability that allows us to understand the complete lived experience of every individual within a given society. We don’t seek to find a universal understanding for all violence in all places. Increasingly, there is an understanding and a push toward a nuanced approach that examines the overall role that violence plays within a specific and particular society (e.g., Whitehead 2007, Martin, Harrod, and Pérez 2012, Martin 2016). How do we begin to understand ISIL’s publicized executions and narco-terrorism on the US-Mexico border? Decrying the violence of the actions and saying that we cannot possibly understand them doesn’t explain their presence nor does it address the underlying purpose they serve within their own societies or to the larger world. It does, however, create distance between ourselves and those perpetrators of violence. Understanding the emic value of violence and the role it plays in society allows for a better understanding of the social goals and aims of that violence and might allow for an appropriate response or mitigation of that violence. We need to seek to understand other cultures’ systems, not simply use their displays of what we consider violence as a way to define ourselves as better or more understanding. Essentially, we use social constructs of violence to other social movements or cultural groups. To us, acts such as public execution are violent, and they might be intrinsically violent to them as well. But the violence serves a real function, it has a real importance to the construction of social standing and social relationships that is important for us to understand. Unless we begin to look for those underlying social roles of violence, we cannot begin to mitigate the impacts of those acts of violence.

Teaching Nuance in a Violent World

As instructors, we owe our students a more nuanced approach to the study of violence. Saying that an act is just violent and that we as Americans could never condone such a thing creates a distance between us as peaceful people and others as violent and less deserving of understanding. If we don’t see the cultural importance of violent acts, how do we begin to talk to others that perform those violent acts? And how do we begin to understand the cultural systems of violence? It must begin with nuanced instruction in the classroom. It is the ethical choice for us as instructors to approach violence with a nuanced, historical understanding that the concept of violence is one that we should seek to understand with an insider’s perspective.


Martin, Debra L. 2016. “Hard Times in Dry Lands: Making Meaning of Violence in the Ancient Southwest.”  Journal of Anthropological Research 72 (1):1-23.

Martin, Debra L., Ryan P. Harrod, and Ventura R. Pérez. 2012. “Introduction: Bioarchaeology and the study of violence.” In The Bioarchaeology of Violence, edited by Debra L. Martin, Ryan P. Harrod and Ventura R. Pérez, 1-10. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.

Pinker, Steven. 2012. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why violence has declined. New York: Viking.

Watts, Joseph, Oliver Sheehan, Quentin Atkinson, Joseph Bulbulia, and Russell D.  Gray. 2016. “Ritual human sacrifice promoted and sustained the evolution of stratified societies.”  Nature 532 (14 April 2016):228-231.

Whitehead, Neil L. 2004. “On the Poetics of Violence.” In Violence, edited by Neil L. Whitehead, 55-78. Santa Fe: SAR Press.

Whitehead, Neil L. 2007. “Violence & the Cultural Order.”  Daedalus 136 (1):40-50. doi: 10.2307/20028088.

Fighting Academia’s Contingency Crisis Together

Fighting Academia’s Contingency Crisis Together

Work is a virtue. It is how we contribute and give back to our society. It is a source of self-worth and pride. Justice demands that those doing the same job be compensated fairly and equitably. When a gap between individuals doing the same work develops in society, that disparity is a source of injustice. When the size of that gap becomes immense, that injustice becomes a crisis. Academia is experiencing just such a crisis with regard to contingent or adjunct faculty and the crisis is growing rapidly.

Historically, the number of contingents in our colleges and universities was low, representing less than 10% of most faculties. Traditional adjuncts were primarily full-time employees in jobs outside of the school who essentially volunteered their time for a small honorarium. They could do so because they had salaries and benefits provided by their outside employers. They were generally not people who saw teaching as their primary career. The vast majority of professors who saw themselves as educators first and foremost had access to full-time jobs with fair compensation and benefits provided by our educational institutions. That model worked for centuries because it properly valued academic professionals.

Over the past 20 years, college administrators around the country have adopted a new, neoliberal model for higher education predicated on transferring a larger and larger proportion of the teaching responsibilities to part-time contingent faculty paid these same small volunteer honorariums. Administrators saw contingents as a cheap alternative to full-time, tenure track professors. The growth in contingents has been explosive over the past 20 years. In short order, the number of full-time positions fell so far that contingent faculty began to exceed tenured and tenure track faculty. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) estimates that nationwide contingent faculty now make up 73% of those teaching in higher education. Contingency is an attack on tenure. Meanwhile, the number and pay of administrators ballooned on the savings.

As administrations rapidly transformed the make-up of faculties, full-time lines were steadily cut through attrition. Today, young scholars who consider teaching a primary career path find it all but impossible to find tenure track jobs in academia. Many well educated academic professionals have little choice but to leave the field altogether, depriving students of their considerable talents. Those of who stay in academia find ourselves in a situation where we work as little more than part-time volunteers. A whole generation of academics has been left with the Sophie’s choice of either abandoning careers in education entirely or working unstable jobs for poverty wages with no benefits. This is not acceptable.

The new model is also unacceptable for our students. Students deserve the best talent in the classroom. They merit professors that have the stability and pay required to deliver the highest quality educations possible. They do not deserve faculty who are stressed, exhausted and desperately trying to hang on through public aid. They require better than professors who are running from school to school and working excessive hours at a mix of poorly compensated part-time positions just to keep basic needs met. While most contingents work above and beyond to deliver a top quality education even under these difficult circumstances, our students should be entitled to better.

The contingency model has failed. It has devalued academic professionals, led to a de-professionalization of higher education and made teaching a dead end career for many talented academics. Despite this, it has become clear that administrations are addicted to this exploitative labor model. They will never voluntarily choose to fairly compensate skilled and well-educated contingent academics. They have little financial incentive to restore traditional, tenure track jobs. The system is broken and those who broke it were not going to fix it on their own.

Seeing no alternative, contingents and adjuncts are taking it upon ourselves to organize, unionize and force colleges and universities to give us a seat at the negotiating table. We are fighting for a decent wage, job security and basic benefits. We are here to reaffirm the value of academic careers and to provide the best possible education to our students. Contingents at more and more schools are seeing the value of organizing for collective bargaining rights. Newly formed unions around the country are coming out of negotiations with first contract that are significantly improving both teaching and learning conditions at our nation’s institutions of higher education. Those of us involved in this effort can point to many significant wins. However, there is so much more than needs to be done.

This struggle is being waged by the most precarious workers in academia. We are facing opposition from the most powerful figures on our campuses. But, we need not do it alone. The AAUP has been very actively promoting the “One Faculty” concept. They emphasize that all members of the teaching community must work together to “improve working conditions, shared governance, economic security, and academic freedom for all those who teach and do research in our universities and colleges.” Full-time, tenure track academics should be working actively on their campuses to support contingent organizing, resist the expansion of contingency, include contingent faculty in shared governance and treat contingent faculty members as equals. Contingents should be doing their level best to do the same for their full-time colleagues. We are one faculty and we all benefit when we act accordingly. We are in this together.

It is now time for college administrators to ask themselves what value they put on teaching. Contingents are well qualified and hardworking academic professionals. We deserve that our work be fairly and equitably compensated. We deserve a living wage. We deserve equal pay for equal work. We deserve jobs with some measure of stability and security. We deserve careers with a future. We are people not numbers. We insist on policy that is fair, equitable and humane. We will not stop fighting for change until administrations around the country live up to that standard.
Bradley W. Russell, Ph.D.
Chair of the Adjunct Faculty Union
The College of Saint Rose
SEIU Local 200United

Class Struggle is the Name of the Game at Universities. It’s the Ethical Elephant in the Room

Brian McKenna

Picture this. You have a Ph.D. in anthropology and are hired, as an adjunct, to teach an anthropology course on “colonialism, economic crisis, peasant struggles, nationalism, indigenous rights, independence movements, and struggles over development and underdevelopment.” That’s an actual job posting. The salary for the position is $3,413.

A tenured faculty member may receive about $10,000 to teach the same course.

Now answer this. How can you NOT talk about your own struggles when the subjects you are hired to teach on – oppression and struggle – apply to you? You are a flesh and blood native of Nacirema (“America” spelt backwards) standing before the students. You can provide insider testimony, as a key informant, about “the other.” And you are “the other.” You are a Ph.D. anthropologist who is actually working in the field.

Many adjunct professors are afraid to speak about the elephant in the classroom. They are being monitored. They are under constant surveillance from customers (student smartphones and course evaluations), middle managers (teaching observations by Chairs), technicians (email monitoring by IT), executive officers (annual reviews read by Deans), and CEOs (Provosts and Presidents). They must be careful. They need that paycheck for food, housing, health care, even burial. At one university where I worked I was informed that, before I arrived, the department had to take up a collection for the funds to bury an adjunct professor after he died from a massive heart attack in his office.

The contradictions within the university are enormous. Self-censorship is the rule for any precarious worker, especially in a factory or fast food job. But for an educator? Surely those educated in the threatening science (Price 2004) and dangerous art (McKenna and Darder 2011) of anthropology would be at the forefront of resistance. Here is a troublesome irony: many of the adjunct’s superiors in the academic hierarchy are other anthropologists. They are often Deans, Provosts or Presidents, academics who have crossed over into administration. Here is another irony, those Deans and Presidents can erode tenured faculty pay, over time, in response to the existence of the dual labor market. Is their primary loyalty to the neoliberal institution or is it to their fellow anthropologists? Are they complicit in the deplorable pay and working conditions?

Of course this is an old, old story. I shared my thoughts with a veteran adjunct, a social activist who once worked as a housing organizer in the 1960s. He asked, “Why precarity now? Where was the association for the past 30 years? I’m sorry; nobody expressed adjunct precarity as an ethical or social justice concern. It was always I got mine, now get yours. There must be something wrong with you, It’s always been competitive; not everyone with a Ph.D. gets a job. The victim-blaming, stigmatization of adjuncts as invisible and ‘other,’ together with the adjunct’s feelings of self-blame, and self-doubt compound the sense of alienation and often even social paralysis. it’s about time that the discipline woke up; however, the train left the station decades ago, and that train has made thousands of round trips.”

Why Precarity now? One reason is because the United States is in its “end times.” The AAA itself recognized this with the title of its 2009 annual conference. America is now a post-Orwellian culture of permanent war, bulwarked by the “terror of neoliberalism” at home (Giroux 2004, 2007). Why precarity now? Because most of us are now treated like adjuncts. “There’s a lot of fear in academia,” explained noted anthropologist and labor organizer Paul Durrenberger in his 2014 Malinowski speech at the SfAA (see his “Living up to Our Words” 2014; See also his “Anthropology of Labor Unions” 2010). Indeed, class struggle is everywhere in the authoritarian university. It’s in the debt peonage of students, new corporate alignments, suppression of dissent, student push-out (drop-out) rates, elimination of humanities programs, and workplace bullying of dissenters. It’s in its focus on STEM for capital not ROOT for people: Revolutionary history, Ontology and ethics, Organizing skills and Transformational humanities.

Class struggle is deeply embedded in the digital revolution as well. E-learning, distance education, and Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)s have come of age. They are said to expand democracy. Some faculties question this. On April 29, 2013 the philosophy faculty of San Jose State University wrote a letter protesting the way in which a Harvard professor’s lecture was taped and disseminated widely for classroom use. The professors refused to teach that philosophy course developed by edX, “saying they do not want to enable what they see as a push to ‘replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities’” (Kolowich 2013). It’s not just MOOCS but e-learning systems like CANVAS and Blackboard too (McKenna 2013).

With their aggressive entry into higher education, the corporate state is consolidating its power in the third leg of Eisenhower’s feared trifecta: “the military-industrial-ACADEMIC complex.” In 2012 major industry officials announced their study showing the “enormous potential for the future of the e-learning market.” IBIS Capital and the Edxus Group, said that “While education as a whole is triple the size of the media and entertainment industry at $4.2 trillion, digital education is currently only 20% of the size of the digital media market. They expect to see fifteen fold growth in the e-learning market in the next 10 years to represent 30% of the total education market,” reported Pippa Cottrell in Realwire (Cottrell 2013). Educators have not yet had adequate time to theorize the darker side of the digital earthquake in their midst (McKenna 2013). It is one thing for computers to be freely chosen by faculty for their creative pedagogical ends (Jandric and Boras 2015); it is quite another for computers to be foisted on them, in authoritarian fashion, as a tool that faculty have to adapt to for fear of losing their jobs. There are few “Teach-Ins” over this ethical dilemma.

In their illuminating article on this blog in March 2015, “Professional Precarity, Ethics and Social Justice,” Avineri and Black noted that Principle seven of the AAA Ethics Statement “is impractical or even impossible” to satisfy at this juncture. They draw attention to the imperative that “Anthropologists should at all times work to ensure that no exclusionary practices be perpetrated. . .” Bev Davenport added, in the comments section, that one way out of this ethical dilemma (of excluding precarious professors) is to offer a “full time lecturer with a multi-year contract . . . an avenue for promotion” into the tenure track. I wholeheartedly agree.

We all know adjunct anthropologists who have worked in departments for 20 years or more, teaching full loads and making poverty wages. Once over the age of 50 they often become permanent adjuncts. They hope to retire with that job. In my estimation you have about five years after getting a Ph.D. to land a tenure track job. Competing against 150 applicants for the same tenure track position, people know the odds are against them. Some reassure themselves that it’s a level playing field, even after reapplying for twenty years straight. I’ve even heard it be said that “It’s a lottery.” Not so. The tenure track jobs tend to go to new Ph.D. graduates from a select group of universities.

Muhammed Ali was mercilessly pummeled for seven rounds by George Forman in the “Rumble in the Jungle,” but was miraculously able to spring back from the “rope-a-dope” and win. Can we? The class struggle in higher education demands a holistic analysis and an insurgent response. We must investigate the political economy, preserve teacher autonomy and bring the precariat into the tenure track where they can gain the dignity and respect they deserve. As applied anthropologists we need to teach organizing skills in our classrooms. As civically engaged activists we need to organize unions throughout academia. Remember, an injury to one is an injury to all. Take back higher education.


Avineri, Netta and Black, Stephen (2015) “Professional Precarity, Ethics and Social Justice,” AAA Ethics Blog, March 27. https://ethics.americananthro.org/professional-precarity-ethics-and-social-justice/

Cottrall, Pippa (2013) “Digitalisation of Education Will Result in Fifteen Fold Growth for E-Learning Market Over the Next Decade.” Realwire. May 14.

Durrenberger, Paul and Reichart, Karaleah (eds.) (2010) “The Anthropology of Labor Unions,” Boulder:University of Colorado.

Durrenberger, Paul (2014) “Living up to Our Words” Human Organization: Winter 2014, Vol. 73, No. 4, pp. 299-304.

Giroux, Henry (2004) Take Back Higher Education. Basingstoke, UK:Palgrave.

Giroux, Henry (2004) The Terror of Neoliberalism. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Giroux, Henry (2007) The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Jandric, Petar and Boras, Damir, eds. (2015) Critical Learning in Digital Networks. Switzerland:Springer.

Kolowich, Steve (2013) “Why Professors at San Jose State Won’t Use a Harvard Professor’s MOOC.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. May 2. http://chronicle.com/article/Why-Professors-at-San-Jose/138941/

McKenna, Brian. 2008a. “Ted Downing and Troublemaker Anthropology: How ‘Yes, Sir,’ Necessarily Becomes ‘No sir,’” CounterPunch, Petrolia, CA, December 30.

McKenna, Brian and Antonia Darder, eds. 2011. “The Art of Public Pedagogy, Should ‘the truth’ Dazzle Gradually or Thunder Mightily?” Special Edition, Policy Futures in Education 9:6: 670-685.

McKenna, Brian. 2013. “The Predatory Pedagogy of On-Line Learning,” CounterPunch, Petrolia, CA, June 3. http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/06/03/the-predatory-pedagogy-of-on-line-education/

Price, D. (2004), Threatening Anthropology McCarthyism and the FBI’s Surveillance of Activist Anthropologists (Durham, NC: Duke University Press).

Beyond Preservation: Expanding the Ethical Responsibilities of Archaeologists

Beyond Preservation: Expanding the Ethical Responsibilities of Archaeologists

M. Jay Stottman
University of Kentucky
Kentucky Archaeological Survey

In this blog post I will examine how the use of archaeology within the education of primary and secondary students challenges our notion of preservation-focused ethics and compels us to expand our ethical responsibilities. In particular, I will discuss the example of allowing school children to participate in real archaeological excavations. Traditionally, ethics in archaeology and anthropology have been focused on preservation in one form or another, and more recently, interactions with stakeholders. Ethics policies and statements have, rightly I believe, placed an emphasis on the preservation and protection of cultural resources and research with the prime directive of causing “no harm”. Our colonial past necessitated preservation-minded ethics to prevent misguided research and to differentiate scholarly pursuits from treasure hunting. Although we have modified our ethics policies over the years, as applications of anthropology and archaeology have increased interactions with communities and stakeholders, they still privilege our control over and responsibility for the preservation of cultural resources and research. A consequence of such policies has been the limiting of public access to and interaction with cultural resources, which has presented an ethical dilemma for those interested in advocacy and activism, as noted by several other blog postings. This consequence is perhaps less an issue for applied anthropologists than it is for archaeologists, as the former have a more established tradition of activism and advocacy. Recent iterations of the AAA ethics statement reflect ethical responsibilities to communities and stakeholders. However, most AAA ethics principles do not seem to be aimed at archaeologists, as cultural resource protection and stewardship is foremost in archaeology. Since interactions with or research on present-day living communities within archaeology is seen as limited, such principles tend to be absent or understated in archaeology ethics policies. Thus, activist archaeologists wrestle with the dilemma of negotiating between our preservation ethics and the desire to use archaeological processes and information to benefit and advocate for present-day communities.

Many activist projects engage with and educate the public by using archaeology to develop educational curricula and to provide hands on learning experiences for primary and secondary students. When we typically think of archaeology and education, we tend to think of training our students in academia to become archaeologists or educating the public about our preservation ethics. However, many public and activist archaeologists have found that teaching archaeological skills and perspectives to primary and secondary students is an engaging and effective way to benefit communities. Students not only learn about history and culture, they also learn math, science, language arts, technology, and art by participating in real research. By doing real research, students not only can learn skills and concepts, they also can understand larger cultural contexts and examine issues of social justice. Thus, some projects have educational goals which are just as important as our traditional research and preservation goals. Such projects force us outside of our comfort zone and invariably challenge our notion of preservation ethics.

My experiences in archaeology-based education programs have at times been at odds with preservation ethics and certainly have drawn criticism from some who feel that such programs are unethical. For example, I have allowed children to participate in all aspects of real archaeological research from research design to dissemination, including excavation. No sandbox or fake digs here. Some might feel that I am sending the wrong message to kids which can encourage them to loot. Others may feel that having untrained children digging could cause irreparable harm to the archaeological record. I would argue that with proper supervision students can participate in excavations with little to no risk to the quality of the archaeological research. Through the experience of doing archaeology, students gain a better understanding of and respect for archaeology and thus are more likely to accept our preservation message. Additionally, through archaeology we have helped students learn important curricula concepts, such as the scientific method, historical inquiry, grids and coordinates, measurements, and yes, ethics.

However, when we do such projects, we are confronted not only by our ethical values, but also many additional ethical concerns and responsibilities not unlike those faced by applied anthropologists. We have additional responsibilities with our foray into education, such as to the safety of students, to the curricula of teachers, to assessing the effectiveness of programs, and toward collaborating with and respecting the field of education. These considerations should be a part of our ethical values, as much as our preservation rhetoric. How do we balance our traditional ethical values with our desires to make our field more relevant to the public and advocate for communities? How do we incorporate new ethical responsibilities into our policies? How do we reconcile the inherent tensions between our traditional ethics and our responsibilities to the people for whom we advocate? Our ethics should not only be derived from the fear of our colonial past or a looter’s shovel, they also should be derived from archaeology’s articulation with present-day communities. We are now beginning to address our ethical responsibilities related to educational projects. The work of the recent AIA outreach and educator’s conference on heritage education ethics stands as an example. The development of additional ethics principles has drawn and should draw from our applied and cultural colleagues, because what has traditionally been seen as diverging interests among the subfields of anthropology, public, activist, and educational archaeology demonstrates that when it comes to ethics, archaeologists have much more in common with our anthropological brethren than we may think.

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.