Handbook on Ethical Issues in Anthropology


by Joan Cassell and Sue-Ellen Jacobs

Many anthropologists perceive ethics as an abstract and, on occasion, intimidating set of injunctions. Discussions of moral principles--such as autonomy, nonmaleficence, beneficence, and justice--seem to have little relation to our daily activities as researchers, teachers, students, and practitioners.

On occasion, the concept of "ethics" is used as a weapon: my beliefs differ from yours, therefore you are unethical. Anthropologists who speak of ethics in this sense wish to improve or, at the least, reprove the behavior of others. A "Code of Ethics" in their view is a mechanism to help regulate the behavior of those with whom they disagree. Unfortunately, as historians and ethnographers have documented, the attempt to control others in the name of morality is more likely to lead to confrontation than moral improvement.

Many anthropologists were moved to enter the discipline because of a strong concern for the peoples of the world. During their fieldwork, most have developed a strong empathy for the peoples they have studied and have felt a sense of personal responsibility for their welfare. Hence, when they use, hurt, or endanger others, it is usually not because of a vicious disposition, but because they are under strong pressures, some of which are conflicting or difficult to reconcile, and they may then drift into an expedient course of action that proves unwise.

The cross-pressures of modern fieldwork are severe, and they can easily induce an investigator to treat the host people as "subjects," rather than as fellow human beings whose autonomy must be respected. While completing a graduate degree, or submitting a prompt report to an employer or client, or resolving an intense emotional relationship, we may neglect to consider other factors in the situation or the consequences our actions will have for others. Convictions, leading presumably to the abstract and universal benefit of humanity, can be used to justify the violation of agreements entered into with good faith on both sides. Awareness that others are acting exploitatively or immorally can seductively encourage us to adopt a similar orientation. In the field especially, situations may be so complex, involve so many parties and so much factionalism, that it becomes difficult to decide what must be done.

We do not wish to make ethics seem merely a matter of isolated choices in crucial situations. Much of our lives proceeds undramatically, and often our decisions are almost imperceptible, so that only with hindsight are we aware that our course of action had consequences that we had not foreseen and now regret.

To improve the ethical adequacy of anthropological practice, we must consider not only exceptional cases but everyday decisions, and reflect not only upon the conduct of others but also upon our own actions.

Despite difficulties in writing a code specific enough to use as a mechanism of social control, a code of ethics can help improve anthropological practice. When it is conceived as a way of reflecting upon our own practices and attempting to improve them, as well as a method for regulating behavior, a code can heighten sensitivity to professional conduct. In this twofold approach, a code is concerned with aspirations as well as avoidances; it represents our desire and attempt to respect the rights of others, fulfill obligations, avoid harm, and augment benefits to those we interact with as anthropologists. Such a code is less a set of categorical prohibitions engraved in stone, than a series of aspirations, admonitions, and injunctions to be considered, discussed, and periodically altered by the community of anthropologists. The process here is as valuable as the product.

Case studies offer another way to heighten sensitivity and improve anthropological practice. An ethical dilemma may be difficult to recognize when encountered; "practical" decisions frequently turn out to have ethical ramifications. Reading and thinking about situations faced by other anthropologists can help us to recognize our own ethical dilemmas and to make sensitive and informed decisions.

We hope this handbook, sponsored by the Committee on Ethics of the American Anthropological Association, will stimulate discussion and reflection on ethical issues. Chapter 1 contains a brief review essay and an annotated bibliography by Murray L. Wax. In Chapter 2, James Hill, a past chair of the AAA Committee on Ethics, presents the background to the formation of that Committee and the writing of the AAA's first code of ethics, the Principles of Professional Responsibility. This code, still in effect, has been revised substantially over a period of ten years.

Chapters 3 and 4 contain a series of ethical dilemmas, first published in the Anthropology Newsletter. The column on ethical dilemmas, first called "Ethics and the Anthropologist," was originated by James Spradley in 1976, when he was a member of the Committee on Ethics. Spradley presented fictional dilemmas, providing possible solutions the following month; responses from members were invited.

When Sue-Ellen Jacobs was elected to the Committee on Ethics, she reinstituted the column, drawing on dilemmas that had been posed to her or to the Committee as a whole. All were actual dilemmas. The solutions used by the anthropologists who provided the dilemmas were published the following month, with readers asked to comment on dilemmas and solutions. Chapter 3 contains dilemmas presented by Jacobs, with the anthropologists' solutions and additional comments by readers of the Anthropology Newsletter.

Joan Cassell began to edit the column in 1982, when she was elected to the Committee on Ethics. She followed a slightly different formula, recruiting dilemmas from colleagues and Newsletter readers, and printing each dilemma with two comments solicited from anthropologists and ethicists. Chapter 4 contains the dilemmas and comments edited by Cassell. The cases are presented in the order in which they were published, with a title assigned to each case.

In Chapter 5, Jacobs briefly describes how she has used the Principles of Professional Responsibility and other materials to introduce issues of ethical responsibility in a traditional course on kinship and in a fieldwork course on methods in life history research.

In Chapter 6, Cassell offers guidelines on how to hold a workshop on ethical problems in fieldwork. These were developed and tested over a two and a half year period by Murray L. Wax and Joan Cassell, under a grant from the Ethics and Values in Science and Technology (EVIST) program of the National Science Foundation, to investigate the ethical problems of fieldwork.

We have designed this Handbook on Ethical Issues in Anthropology to help social science faculty introduce discussions of ethics in their courses. Such discussions, we believe, are an essential part of the teaching of anthropological theory and methods. "The moral sciences" is the way the scholars of the British Enlightenment described the research that led to contemporary social science. We would like to think that the term still characterizes our discipline.

Note: At the 1985 AAA Annual Meeting, a coin was tossed to see whose name would go first because we felt that our contributions were equal and there was no "senior" or "junior" author.