This is an invited session sponsored by the Committee on Ethics of the American Anthropological Association for the 2006 annual convention of the AAA in San Jose, CA, November 15-19, 2006. The session is scheduled for November 18, Saturday, from 1:45-5:30 p.m. in Ballroom A4 Concourse - San Jose McEnery Convention Center.


Ethical Anthropology: Past, Present and Future

Session Abstract:

At the beginning of the 21st century American anthropology is still grappling with ethical concerns from nearly a century ago in the cases of Alfred Kroeber and Ishi at UC Berkeley and Franz Boas’ protest over clandestine research by anthropologists in Mexico during WWI. The Thailand controversy during the period of the Vietnam War never really reached closure. Most recently, after five years of discussion and debate as well as a special inquiry by an AAA Task Force, many ethical issues in the El Dorado controversy remain unresolved.

Accordingly, it is not surprising that recently Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban wrote: “The development of an ethically conscious culture that promotes discussion of ethically responsible decision-making still eludes us as a profession.” Moreover, Pat Caplan has written that “...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?” Such considerations once again raise perennial elemental questions such as: What are the sources of professional ethics in anthropology? What are the roles of ethics in anthropology? What are the best means to achieve these roles in the future? More specific questions have been raised as well. For example, Myron Perez Glazer asks if field researchers invariably exploit the people they study? Nancy Scheper-Hughes questions at what point does the anthropologist when witness to crimes against humanity such as ethnocide become a passive bystander or even an accomplice? The above and other related questions will be addressed in historical perspective, but with an emphasis on the current status of professional ethics in anthropology and possible new directions for the future.



Leslie E. Sponsel (U Hawai`i)


Poranee Natadecha-Sponsel (Chaminade U)


Paper Authors:

Chip Colwell Chanthaphohn (American Academy of Arts & Sciences) “The Archaeologist Gawasowaneh: The Life and Legacy of the First Native American Archaeologist Arthur C. Parker”

Rob Hancock (U Victoria) “Insights from the Archives: Debates on the Establishment and Application of Ethics Policies, 1965-1975"

G.G. Weix (U Montana) “Ethics, Anthropology and their Borders”

Mark Pedelty (U Minnesota) “After the Massacre: Expositional Ethics in Ethnography and Journalism”

Richard O. Clemmer (U Denver) “Fulfil, Obtrude, or Abjure? An Ethical Retrospective”

Gale Goodwin-Gomez (Rhode Island C) “When Ethical Practice Implies Collaboration”

Terry Turner (Cornell U) “Questions on the Relation of the AAA to its Own Code of Ethics”



Faye Ginsburg (NYU)

Gerald Berreman (UC Berkeley)

David Price (St. Martin’s College)

Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban (Rhode Island C)

Robin Wright (U Florida)

Leslie E. Sponsel (U Hawai`i)


Open Discussion (30 minutes)


Paper Abstracts:

Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh (American Academy of Arts and Sciences)

The Archaeologist Gawasowaneh: The Life and Legacy of the First Native American Archaeologist

The last decades has witnessed a burst of debates about the control and representation of Indigenous histories and heritages, ultimately challenging archaeology’s practices, theories, and aims. “Who owns the past?” is the common refrain in these dialogues, a phrase that belies the uncertain tension between archaeological inquiry and Indigenous self-determination. In this paper, however, I will argue that questions concerning the ownership of sacred artifacts and human remains, the “right” to dig ancient sites, the responsibilities to myriad publics, the commodification of antiquities, and the possibilities of Indigenous participation have been with the field since its establishment. These issues will be examined through the life and legacy of Arthur C. Parker (Gawasowaneh), widely recognized as the first Native American professional archaeologist. As a member of two disparate communities, Parker himself embodies the long and complex relationship between archaeologists and Native Americans. His experiences demonstrate that many of the ethical dilemmas scholars are grappling with today are the progeny of the unresolved conflicts that arose in archaeology’s beginning.


Robert Hancock (U Victoria)

Insights from the Archives: Debates on the Establishment and Application of Ethics Policies, 1965-1975

March 2007 will mark the 40th anniversary of the adoption of the “Statement on Problems of Anthropological Research and Ethics” by the American Anthropological Association. Since this time, concerns about ethical practices and attempts to define (and usually limit) the role of the AAA in ethical debates have continued, reaching their apex in the ongoing controversies surrounding revelations of improprieties in Latin American fieldwork during the 1960s and 1970s. In this paper, based on archival research in the AAA collection at the National Anthropological Archives, I will discuss the attempts to develop and codify an ethics framework in terms of the various and sometimes shifting positions taken by the main protagonists: the “radicals” who advocated a compulsory and meaningful engagement with ethical issues, the reactionaries who appealed to the “objectivity” of “science” and fought against any discussion of such matters at the Association, and the others who, thought not necessarily indifferent, fell somewhere in between the two camps. My hypothesis is that a clearer understanding of the debates and struggles around the establishment and early applications of the Association’s ethics process will provide crucial context for understanding the efforts on both sides of the current controversy.


Gretchen Weix (U Montana)

Ethics, Anthropology and their Borders

Ethics in Anthropology, a course created by Professor Emeritus Frank Bessac, has been taught at the University of Minnesota since 1974. It was inspired by his experience as a Fulbright student in 1949-50, crossing Chinese Turkestan into Tibet, a sojourn in which three people were shot by border guards. In his unpublished memoirs, Death on the Changtang: The Education of an Anthropologist, Frank and his wife, Suzanne, describe his experiences in China from 1943-1950, to rebut recently published accounts of those events. The borders of academic publication, memoir, and historical memory are as difficult to cross as those between China and India. Ethical anthropology involves not only global politics, as they impinge on individual researchers, but the comparison of ethnography, memoir, and archival documents as genres of accountability. Professor Bessac’s career shapes the course I now teach: Ethics and Anthropology, which positions the two fields of inquiry interrogating each other not as a discourse of dilemmas, but as a comparative project for the 21st century.


Mark Pedelty (U Minnesota)

After the Massacre: Expositional Ethics in Ethnography and Journalism

News is guided by the ethics of accuracy, clarity, and relevance. In ethnographic writing greater emphasis is placed on analytical depth, context, and meaning. This paper presents a comparative analysis of expositional ethics in both fields, using a case study approach. Ray Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto’s landmark exposes and Susan Meiselas’ compelling photography of the Salvadoran El Mozote massacre (1981) are the epitome of war correspondence. So too, Mark Danner’s summative account, The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of Cold War (1994), remains required reading in many journalism courses. As for ethnography, Leigh Binford’s The El Mozote massacre: Anthropology and Human Rights (1996) provides significant cultural context and analytical depth. It is one of the finest examples in the genre. This “best case” comparison demonstrates the relative merits of each genre. It is argued that these works succeed not only because they represent the ethical best of the two fields, but also because they are stylistic hybrids. The journalists’ narrative and images concerning El Mozote are unusually ethnographic. Likewise, Binford’s book is relatively journalistic, in the best sense of the term. Binford writes in clear prose, without sacrificing analytical depth. Rather than performing ritual displays of erudition and distance— common modes in contemporary ethnographic writing— his writing demonstrates a commitment to relevance, drawing connections between reader and subject. The paper concludes with a call for greater attention to expositional ethics, citing the potential for Public Anthropology and Ethnographic Journalism to transform writing in both professions.


Richard Clemmer-Smith (U Denver)

Fulfil, Obtrude, or Abjure? An Ethical Retrospective

Is it a matter of fulfilling an ethical duty to put anthropological self at the service of consultants, when doing so would counter the interests of other members of the same group? Should one get involved in what could be interpreted as “matters internal to the community” in pursuing that service? Or is it more ethical to decline collaboration with consultants in the interest of supporting true self-determination? Anthropological theory of the 1960s still conceptualized indigenous peoples in terms of “cultures” and “societies” that were treated as “wholes,” united by commonly shared symbols, functioning with different levels of “acculturation” among their members, which permitted rating them on a scale of “largely untouched” to “fragmented and disappearing.” Contemporary theory eschews labels that turn cultures into things and acknowledges the existence of tensions and contradictions, of discourses and the negotiation of hegemonies as much in indigenous societies as in Western ones. I revisit the above questions retrospectively in the light of post-1970 social scientific theories, especially those of Wolf, Appadurai, Foucault, and Comoroff and Comoroff, with respect to three situations with which I have had expedience: Hopis and Peabody Coal; the Hopi-Navajo land dispute; and Western Shoshones’ Tosawihi Quarry.


Gale Gomez (Rhode Island C)

When Ethical Practice Implies Collaboration

The Yanomami of northern Brazil have become partners in the development of projects coordinated by the Pro-Yanomami Commission, and field-based research has played an important role in the process. This paper focuses on one project— the Yanomami Intercultural Education Program— to illustrate how scientific research can be conducted unexploitatively when it is guided by an ongoing dialogue with the “subjects” themselves. This practice fosters ethical responsible decision-making through all stages of research; the passive injunction to “do no harm” can be transformed into positive action when specific needs of the host community are incorporated into the research design. From its inception in 1995 as a pilot project in basic literacy, the education program supported by the Pro-Yanomami Commission has grown dramatically and broadened in scope over the past decade. The program has overcome many challenges that accompany a long-term, collaborative effort; however, it has avoided one of the common pitfalls of field research— the lack of reciprocity between researcher and the group being studied. Ethical anthropological research brings with it an inherent responsibility to the host community, and it is the nature and extent of this responsibility that requires further debate within the discipline of anthropology. I suggest that ethical practice informed by collaborative research, such as the case of the Pro-Yanomami Commission, can provide a direction for future researchers who wish to attempt consciously-ethical work among vulnerable, especially indigenous, peoples.


Terence Turner (Cornell U)

Questions on the Relation of the AAA to its Own Code of Ethics

1. What should the AAA do when confronted by actions by members that breach the AAA Code of Ethics? 2. What should the AAA do when confronted with actions by non-members, either toward member anthropologists or others, that violate the Code of Ethics in ways that appear to concern anthropology or anthropological values? How should anthropological concerns and values be defined for this purpose? 3. Can the AAA or its constituted bodies (Committees, Task Forces, etc.) evaluate the conduct of non-members in terms of the Code of Ethics if it refuses to evaluate the conduct of its own members by the same standards? 4. Does the AAA’s policy of not engaging in ethics “adjudications” preclude Standing Committees or Task Forces of the Association from conducting inquiries into alleged breaches of ethics and announcing their conclusions? 5. Is the mission of “education” adopted by the AAA Committee on Ethics and also adopted by the Committee for Human Rights inconsistent with such inquiries into specific actions and cases involving alleged breaches? 6. Is the application of the Code of Ethics to the actions and statements of individual anthropologists or other scientists compatible with the status of anthropology as a science?