“Do Some Good” and Other Lessons from Practice for a New AAA Code of Ethics

Elizabeth K. Briody and Tracy Meerwarth Pester

What do you do if you don’t see yourself or your work represented in the AAA ethics code?

Maybe you do what we did. First, we asked ourselves, how strongly connected were we to the discipline of anthropology? We took stock of our ties and here is what we found. Both of us

  • Hold advanced anthropology degrees
  • Became AAA members well over a decade ago
  • Have served in AAA leadership positions
  • Have received AAA awards
  • Have produced a AAA video and/or published in AAA journals.

Our AAA experiences indicated we were engaged in the discipline’s mission, services, and products.

Second, we thought, why don’t we examine the degree of fit between our anthropological work and the current ethics code? That way we could see the extent to which our impressions of the code were valid. Since we both spent much of our professional careers as researchers at General Motors R&D, we decided to compare our actions on four GM R&D projects to the AAA’s 2012 Principles of Professional Responsibility. Our analysis became a friendly test of the AAA ethics code (see Journal of Business Anthropology, 2014, Special Issue 1, http://ej.lib.cbs.dk/index.php/jba/article/view/4260).

We learned that the current code does not “reflect core principles shared across subfields and contexts of practice” as the preamble reads. Instead, the code has a far narrower focus. It is written for those who conduct research – with the word “research” or its cognates appearing 65 times – and not for other types of anthropological work. Moreover, even though we were researchers at a premier industrial lab, terms that we used to describe our anthropological activities and impact did not appear in the code: “problem solving,” “change,” “intervention,” “management,” “recommendations,” “tools,” “applications,” and “training.” Anthropological practice includes a significant implementation component. In our case, implementation was an extension of our research. For other professional anthropologists, implementation, management, or administration may be their primary job element.

The AAA ethics code also ignored our dual identities: anthropologists – yes, but employed by GM. The AAA code and GM’s corporate code of conduct were complementary because they emphasized different domains. We believe guidance from both codes contributed to our mindful practice.

But, what really surprised us about the code was the preoccupation with the concept of “harm” with no corresponding emphasis on the concept of “help.” Professional anthropologists work inside some cultural system – whether as employees, consultants, contractors, or volunteers – and typically work toward a more effective system. Their focus incorporates the “Do No Harm” principle, but accentuates the “Do Some Good” principle. The ethics code left us wondering:

  • Why doesn’t the code value the use of anthropological theories and methods to help improve the human condition?
  • How can anthropologists adhere to an ethical code if it ignores the prospects of change as well as the role of professional anthropologists in that process?

Third, we asked ourselves, were we outliers? Could it be that our type of anthropological work was an exception to the rule? No, we concluded. We knew that we were not alone in the arena of practice and that the discipline had been evolving into a mixed model of academic and professional anthropologists. One indicator of this shift was the rise in the number of applied programs (see http://www.copaa.info/programs_in_aa/list.htm). A second and related indicator was the increasing number of graduating MA and PhD anthropologists moving into professional careers.

We understand that the AAA ethics code is expected to be a living document, revamped as conditions internal and external to the discipline change. We believe that the time for creating an inclusive anthropological code of ethics is now. So, where do we go from here?

We recommend that the AAA Committee on Ethics convene two working groups – one of professional anthropologists and the other of academically-based anthropologists. The two groups should work together to create a common framework pertaining to the relationship between anthropological work and ethics; the framework might include such elements as motivation, tasks, relationships, work environments, learning, and impact. Then separately, the two groups identify core features of the framework using their own work-related experiences and the literature to guide them. Finally, the two groups reassemble to integrate the ethical dimensions of professional and academic work into a cohesive whole.

We anticipate the creation of a new code, rather than a revision of the existing one – a code that represents the evolving discipline of anthropology holistically, accurately, and effectively. This process would be an important and relevant way to “Do Some Good!”

Elizabeth K. Briody currently serves on the AAA Executive Board in the Practicing/Professional Seat. Tracy Meerwarth Pester currently serves on the NAPA Ethics Committee.

16 Responses to ““Do Some Good” and Other Lessons from Practice for a New AAA Code of Ethics”

  1. Elizabeth and Tracy, thank you for your contribution to this important discussion. I hope the AAA acts on your recommendation in the interest of creating a new and more inclusive code of ethics.

  2. The article sums up the division between research anthropology and applied anthropology, while focusing on the AAA code of ethics. Briody and Pester call for amended ethical codes, which foster notions of helping rather then simply not hurting the populations we work with. Like I mention previously, if a recent MD graduate was faced with academic ridicule for wanting to practice medicine it would be absurd. Research anthropology does provide absolutely necessary information via studies, but how much good does a study do if it only stays within the realm of academia? the vast majority of the population has no idea about what anthropologist do and how they can contribute, further anthropology as a whole needs to recognize that research and research findings exist in a world that a vast majority of the population do not have access to. Anthropological findings which can have immediate impacts on peoples lives need to be broadcasted and applied anthropologist can be the conduit for such information. Applied anthropologists like Briody can play key roles in corporate and public settings by applying knowledge and mediating between populations and not just ethnic or demographic populations, but rather populations that shape the dynamics of employment, such as workers vs. upper management.

  3. Elizabeth and Tracy, Your comments are particularly a propos as well as ironic, given that the Executive Director of the Association spent his entire career as an applied anthropologist. I particularly like your emphasis on solutions (2 new committees) but regret that the original ethics committee appears to have been lopsided in its representation of all aspects of anthropology, protestations to the contrary.

  4. Thank you, Elizabeth and Tracy, for continuing to bring this issue to the forefront of our attention. I applaud your attitude of activism on this, when it is much easier sometimes to just chalk it up to being “outliers.” I sincerely hope AAA accepts your recommendation. I encourage young practitioners to take note of your example of speaking out so that efforts such as this continue to evolve as our discipline and practice evolves, making AAA a home for all (ethical) anthropologists regardless of labels (e.g. Academic, Applied).

  5. As an anthropologist in business practice, I’ve found the AAA code to have limited relevance to my working life. I’ve written about it’s shortcomings in Advertising and Anthropology (2012, Berg/Bloomsbury, Pp. 133-134, with T. De Waal Malefyt), and I am pleased to see that Elizabeth and Tracy are doing more than framing an argument; they are advocating for long overdue change.

  6. Well done and well overdue. I hope AAA can mimic the authors’ own self reflection and see the need to better represent all branches of the discipline. If AAA responds positively, I may become a member again.

  7. Thanks Elizabeth and Tracy for such a great articulation of an issue that I have felt to be important and perplexing. If you need help with working groups (volunteers – and assuming AAA adopts your recommendations), I would be happy to work on a new code of ethics.

    Great to have you two on the side of practicing anthropology.

  8. I applaud Elizabeth and Tracy for getting into the details of the AAA ethics code and comparing it to their daily work as applied anthropologists. I have not found relevance or practical guidance in the code and so I have ignored it, although ethical issues are daily considerations! As the director of a nonprofit anthropological consulting firm, I can tell you that less than a fourth of my professional time is spent in research. Our strength is describing how an existing community functions and then working within existing cultural systems of communication and support to facilitate change that is valued locally. We tell our government and corporate clients to “learn community first” and then seek to optimize the social, economic and environmental benefits of the change initiative–whether it be a new project, program or policy. The research focus of the code of ethics is not very relevant in this context. I am especially glad that Elizabeth and Tracy addressed the value of “help” which should be addressed in detail!
    You have touched a chord with me. Thank you so much for a significant contribution.

  9. It is remarkable is that the concerns raised by Briody and Meerwarth are still urgently needed. Anthropology has included an applied dimension since Boas, one that has been strongly present in the profession for decades. Yet there are still many among our academically based colleagues who presume a “pure science” definition of our professional community. Academia,the principal wellspring of the “pure science” self-image, employs only a fraction of each year’s class of new anthropologists. We need to, we must, embrace the full range of our professional landscape. The AAA Ethics statement is one place to begin.

  10. Jo – You make a very important comment about the need for the younger generation to become involved. Anthropology and the AAA have changed dramatically since the original formation of the Ethics Committee. Unfortunately, it has also remained the same in the AAA where one might expect to look for ethnical guidance. Much the fervor over ethnics within the AAA arose from the Beals’ Report in 1967 reference to the “Thai case”. An Ad Hoc committee with Margaret Mead as Chair was established to look into the allegations of anthropologists engaged in clandestine research. This was the Viet Nam War era.

    The Ad Hoc Committee issued its report on September 27th 1971 It had two parts: Part I: Anthropological Activities in Thailand; and Part II: Guidelines on Future Policy

    The former address the basic issue and concluded that the real issue was in the nature and classification of the funding by the US government for social science research, especially overseas. USAID funding for “community development” activities became DOD funding under the “Counterinsurgency” rubric. There was no essential change in the type of activities funded only in the accounting rules and definitions that funded “community” studies. The report recommended that a new ethnical imperative was discovered having to do with the identity of the community studied in conjunction with the anonymity of informants. It also faulted the Association for its response. Today, the rational for the “new” ethical imperative is hollow given advances in technology and Google maps.

    Part II: Guidelines for Future Policy the Ad Hoc Committee recommended (page 5 col 2 line 104 – 107)
    “Area of Responsibility of the Ethics Committee: We believe that the Ethics Committee’s activities should be confined to the questions where anthropologists as scholars and scientists, can be held responsible. It should not enter the field of applied anthropology, in which particular competence and acceptance of a more specialized professional ethics are necessary.”

    The AAA membership voted to reject the Ad Hoc Committee report (AAA Newsletter, Association Affairs, January, 1972. Pp. 1, 9). Later, I served on several committees that addressed the development of the AAA Code of Conduct, aka Principles of Professional Responsibility, aka Statement on Ethics in the early 1980’s during the AAA’s reorganization. Back in the early 1980s, I represented the applied interest on a committee established by the AAA to look into a revision of the Code. Later I made recommendations to NAPA relating to the problems of the Code as it was being developed to include the practitioners. In neither case did I find that the “profession” recognized or respect the role responsibilities and demands placed on practitioners. (see http://thesuperorganic.blogspot.com/2013/12/professional-ethics-or-gamesmanship.html )

    As Chris points out — Applied anthropology has been the bastard child of the profession since the end of World War II. But it came under fire especially during the 1960-early 1970s. Yet it is the area where employment would be growing while the traditional academic market was shrinking – in part due to Baby Bomber demographic curve and the civil rights movement.

    If we reexamine the Ad Hoc Committee’s report, we will find that just as they found part of the problem (the Thai case) revolved around the “accounting definitions” for funding of a particular type of research that under one definition was totally acceptable to the profession but under another “accounting” definition was “unethical.”
    I have found that the profession, dominated by academic scholars and researchers, still perceives “applied anthropology” as the fifth wheel or discipline within anthropology.
    http://thesuperorganic.blogspot.com/2013/07/applied-anthropology-second-branch.html and http://thesuperorganic.blogspot.com/2013/11/applied-anthropology-second-branch-2.html . I argue that applied work represents is a separate branch of anthropology, just as medicine is a separate branch of biology. This is an argue made by Laura Thompson and Alexander Leighton back when applied anthropology emerged during the post WWII period and the SfAA was the focus of such activity. Most recently, I have argued for fan applied ethics in the business context https://www.academia.edu/2610961/Applied_Ethics_Anthropology_and_Business.

    This is the point I believe Elizabeth and Tracy are trying to make. They have my support and respect in their efforts.

  11. This issue also relates to the broader issue raised by the AAA in the recent resolution on Contingent and Part-time Academic Labor see http://blog.americananthro.org/resolution-review/#comment-51797

  12. Barry,

    You raise some very important points and give those of us reading this blog important historical background. I think there is some respect for