Chapter 2: The Committee on Ethics: Past, Present, and Future

by James N. Hill

This article sets a brief historical context for a consideration of the future of the Committee on Ethics (COE) of the American Anthropological Association, a future which is very much open to debate at this time.

Should the COE continue to exist? If so, what should it be doing? For example, should the Committee continue to try to handle individual grievance cases involving tenure, plagiarism, and the like, or should it be concerned only with ethical problems that might damage the reputation of the Association or the profession? Equally important, should the Committee on Ethics evaluate and recommend action to the Board of Directors (the former Executive Board) on cases involving only members of the Association, or on cases involving anthropologists who are nonmembers as well? Finally, should the COE be investigating cases at all? Perhaps it should simply continue its role of educating the membership on ethical matters, by writing columns in the Anthropology Newsletter, by writing books, by organizing panels and symposia on ethical issues, and so forth.

Before discussing these and other questions, let me review briefly the history of the COE. Why was it considered necessary to have an ethics committee, and are these reasons (or others) still important today? To set the context, we must go back to the beginning, before the COE existed as a formal entity.

This takes us back to 1965, when the Association's Executive Board received expressions of concern over the U.S. government's support of social science research in foreign countries. It was alleged that the Department of Defense, and other governmental institutions, were using anthropologists to gather data to help them in their insurgency and counterinsurgency activities. The most notorious instance was Project Camelot in Chile, where the army had a contract with American University to study sociopolitical factors that could lead to internal warfare in that country. The army, it was believed, was directly and indirectly funding clandestine social science research, the results of which were to be used to prevent "the natives from getting restless" and revolting against the Chilean government. Public protests over this alleged perversion of professional research goals led to the project's cancellation by the Department of Defense, but the matter hit the presses worldwide, and a result was that many legitimate social science research projects in Chile were forced to suspend operations (Beals 1967:2).

Since that time, evidence has been presented which suggests that these allegations greatly exaggerated and oversimplified the actual situation with respect to Project Camelot. In fact it now seems, to some at least, that the allegations of clandestine anthropological research (which are still believed by many) represent myth rather than fact (cf. especially Horowitz 1967; Deitchman 1976; Wax 1978).

It is not a concern of this paper to resolve this or related issues. What is important is that because of Project Camelot, and later conflicts (especially the Vietnam War), it was widely believed that various U.S. government agencies (such as the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and the CIA) had large-scale involvement in contracting with universities, private agencies, and probably individual anthropologists, in order to gather mission-oriented intelligence data under the guise of legitimate anthropological research. The fear was that anthropologists were, wittingly or unwittingly, serving as spies for the United States and other so-called friendly governments. Questions were raised concerning the ethics of this, especially given that the research was allegedly clandestine, and the results were believed to be secret and not subject to free publication (Beals 1967)./1/ Government funding of all social science research became suspect: these activities were seen as posing a threat to the integrity of the universities sponsoring social research, to the social sciences themselves, and to the individuals allegedly involved in the research (Beals 1967:4). While the story was far more complex than I can convey here, the major fears of many anthropologists were twofold: (1) that anthropology's resultant bad reputation would close off future field opportunities abroad, and (2) that the information being gathered would be used by our government or others to control, enslave, and even annihilate many of the "Third World" communities that were being studied. This was the era of the Vietnam War, and it is well known that such atrocities were in fact taking place.

If the war had not been so unpopular, the ethical dilemmas involving government-funded research would probably not have surfaced; but they did, and in November 1965, the Executive Board of the AAA presented a report on the matter to the Council of Fellows, which in turn resolved that the Board should investigate the situation in detail. The Board then constituted itself as a special "Committee on Research Problems and Ethics," headed by Ralph L. Beals (UCLA). The subsequent "Beals Report" was presented at a plenary session of the AAA in November 1966, and later published in the Fellow Newsletter (Beals 1967); it claimed to substantiate the existence and gravity of the situation I just described, and led the Executive Board to prepare a "Statement on Problems of Anthropological Research and Ethics" which was adopted by the Council of Fellows in 1967. This was and is a code of ethical conduct for anthropologists. In the meantime, there were more reports of alleged unethical conduct, and a great deal of controversy was generated.

In 1968, the Executive Board appointed an official "Interim Committee on Ethics," which met once in 1969 to deal with its twofold assignment: (1) to plan the nature of a standing committee on ethics, including its tasks, authority, scope, membership, relationship to the Executive Board, and so on, and (2) to make recommendations on issues involving the nature of ethical relationships anthropologists should have with one another, with students, with host peoples, host governments, host scientific societies, research sponsors, funders, their own government, their universities, and their employers. The committee was also asked to explore means by which any standards of ethics could be enforced (a problem which has never been resolved).

The committee report (Aberle and Schneider 1969) proposed an elected standing "Committee on Ethics," responsive to the membership and independent of the Executive Board; it also presented a draft code of ethics. The report was highly controversial (see, for example, Leeds 1969), some anthropologists charging that "such a committee is not needed and won't work" and "a committee on ethics is itself unethical."

Nevertheless, a nine-member standing COE was elected in 1970 (see AAA 1971a), its first charge being to recommend to the Executive Board what its role and functions should be. The main caveat was that the COE was constrained to work through the Executive Board, never independently; it could do virtually nothing without Board approval. This is still true today. (Although the "Executive Board" became the "Board of Directors" in 1983.)

In March 1970 (still during the Vietnam War) the issue of clandestine research surfaced again, this time with respect to social science research in Thailand. Some documents allegedly implicating a number of Thai experts in unethical complicity in U.S. counterinsurgency programs in Thailand were stolen from a university professor's unlocked files, given to the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, and published in The Student Mobilizer(Chis et al. 1970: most of this was written by Alan Myers). The documents were also sent to the chair of the COE who, with another member of the COE, proceeded to condemn publicly the actions of numerous Thai experts without first informing them of the charges.

The essence of the accusation was that these anthropologists (and others) were being funded by, and were contracting with, agencies of the Departments of Defense and State, and were (wittingly and unwittingly) gathering data useful to the counterinsurgency programs of the United States and the Royal Thai government. They were allegedly gathering data on tribal villages that would be used to help ensure that the villages would remain loyal to the Thai government in the face of Communist incursions. These data would either be used to "aid" or "develop" these villages so that they would not want to join the insurgents, or they would be used to police or annihilate disloyal villages (Chis et al. 1970). Moreover, it was alleged that some of these data were secret, and not subject to freedom of publication and peer examination.

The essence of the defense in this situation was that the anthropologists were certainly not consciously aiding governmental counterinsurgency policies and practices; on the contrary, they claimed to have been using their expertise in a conscious effort to educate the government agencies to ensure that agency activities would be helpful rather than damaging to the Thai villages. It thus appears that many of the anthropologists were aware of the counterinsurgency activities, and felt that their best recourse was to remain associated with the agencies in an effort to "put them straight" or make them "see the light," so to speak (Beals 1970; Moerman 1971:9-11; Davenport et al. 1971:2). They also claimed that none of their research or contracts were secret. They did, however, continue for a time to receive research support from these agencies--especially the Agency for International Development, the Academic Advisory Council on Thailand, and the Southeast Asia Development Advisory Group (Beals 1970; Davenport et al. 1971:2).

The result of the initial charges made by the two members of the COE (and later by all but two of its members) was that the AAA Executive Board reprimanded the two accusing members, and the COE as a whole, for irresponsibly going beyond its mandated duties. The Board said that the charges were premature, unfair, and unjustified. While it agreed that if clandestine research were going on, such research was unethical, it also slapped the wrists of the accusers and instructed the COE "to limit itself to its specific charge, narrowly interpreted, namely to present to the Board recommendations on its future role and functions, and to fulfill this charge without further collection of case materials or by any quasi-investigative activities" (AAA 1969, reprinted in Weaver 1973:54 /2/).

The COE objected (Committee on Ethics 1970a), but did carry on with its assigned duties. it proceeded to develop its revised code of ethics called the Principles of Professional Responsibility, as well as a document called Role and Function of the Committee on Ethics (Committee on Ethics 1970b). Both were adopted by the Council of the Association (formerly the Council of Fellows) in 1971, and later distributed to all members of the Association.

Nonetheless, there was heated debate, and two factions developed within the AAA: (1) those who believed the activities in Thailand to be unethical and punishable, and (2) those who did not agree. The latter were accused by the former of engaging in a "cover-up" in order to protect anthropological harmony and maintain the good reputation of the Association (Weaver 1973:53; Isaacs 1971). Each faction was calling the other unethical!

As a result, in November 1970 the Executive Board established a three-member ad hoc committee headed by Margaret Mead to investigate the entire affair (AAA 1971b). This committee gathered and analyzed 6,000 pages of documents. It concluded that it was "very likely that secret and clandestine intelligence work among Thai people has been conducted at the instigation of special U.S. military and government intelligence units," but that it could find no conclusive evidence of it (Davenport et al. 1971:3). It also said, among other things, that the controversy was "conspiratorial," and that the accusations against the Thai specialists were not warranted by the data. It concluded that "no civilian members of the American Anthropological Association had contravened the principles laid down in the 1967 Statement on Problems of Anthropological Research and Ethics in his or her work in Thailand" (Davenport et al. 1971:4). The committee report (commonly known as "The Mead Report") also maintained that some members of the COE had behaved unethically in making unfair and unsubstantiated charges, and in not allowing the accused the benefit of due process (Davenport et al. 1971:4).

The Committee's report was presented at the Association's annual meeting in New York in 1971, where it was emotionally and overwhelmingly rejected by the membership as a whitewash of the Association. Many still believe this today. The controversy did not end; it did, however, lead to the adoption by the Association in April 1973 of a clear-cut set of grievance procedures, so that the concerns of "due process" could be met in future cases of alleged unethical behavior.

The Thailand issue, and the entire issue of secret and clandestine research, passed (temporarily?) into history by 1972, essentially with the ending of the Vietnam War. Since that time, the cases and inquiries presented to the COE have been quite different and varied. The Committee receives roughly three to six cases per year, the most common of which involve grievances concerning collegial relationships. The most frequent of these have concerned plagiarism, followed distantly by a variety of cases involving faculty-student relations (including faculty exploitation of graduate students). These kinds of grievances, between and among individuals, are increasingly the most common ones lodged with the COE.

Next in frequency, after cases of collegial relationships, have been cases and queries involving alleged unfairness in promotion and tenure decisions; these appear to be increasing in number.

Such grievances seem to be tied in frequency with disputes over the ownership, confidentiality, public accessibility, and rights of publication of data derived in connection with contract research. These cases often involve ethical problems encountered by anthropologists working for or consulting with government and private corporations, where the ownership of data may be unclear; or, more commonly, they arise where the data are owned by an agency which has control over the accessibility and dissemination of the information, and may keep it secret or use it in unethical ways (whether the anthropologist, the researcher's informants, or the peoples studied like it or not).

Following these in frequency have been cases involving the relationships between anthropologists and their informants or host groups. These ethical problems have involved such things as protection of human subjects, informed consent, anonymity of informants and communities, payment of informants, exploitation of informants, and the failure to foresee the repercussions of one's research on the peoples being studied.

Other kinds of cases and queries since 1972 include discrimination of one sort or another in various contexts, misleading advertising in jobs, misleading public statements by anthropologists, misrepresentation by anthropologists (of themselves and others), illegal traffic in prehistoric artifacts, the desecration of Indian graves, and so forth. (A complete listing is neither possible nor desirable here.)

The point is, the kinds of cases and queries have changed since the Vietnam War. This appears to have been caused by four things: (1) the termination of that unpopular war; (2) the increasing number of anthropologists and the variety of contexts in which they work, especially in applied areas; (3) the inevitable increase in economic and political involvement by anthropologists; and (4) the increased competition for jobs and security of employment, and the competition for contract funds.

The old issues have not gone away entirely, however, and perhaps never will; the problems posed by clandestine research, for example, are still with us, in connection with anthropological research in Third World countries in general, and more specifically in connection with the current U.S. military and CIA involvement in Central America (see, for example, AAA 1983:4). There is also increasing debate over whether or not anthropological consultants/contractors to private firms should engage in confidential research that is not for public view.

Overall, however, there has been a clear shift in emphasis within the COE since 1972, from cases dealing primarily with general ethical issues (such as the ethics involved in accepting government funding) to an emphasis on interpersonal and intergroup disputes--i.e., grievance cases.

But what, specifically, are the difficulties facing the COE today? First, with regard to grievance cases it is clear that the Committee is largely ineffectual. Frequently it cannot deal with cases submitted because not all parties to the cases are members of the AAA, and thus are in no sense under AAA "jurisdiction." Moreover, when the Committee does accept cases, either the COE or the Board of Directors (to which it makes recommendations on cases) operate so slowly that the cases "pass into history" before effective AAA action can be taken; the parties usually settle (or not) their own grievances in one way or another.

This delay is caused by, among other things, a complicated, cumbersome and time-consuming set of case review and investigation procedures, and by the fact that there is a turnover of 40% in the memberships of both the COE and Board of Directors each year. The latter creates continuity and communication problems, making it difficult to coordinate action on cases either within the COE or between the COE and the Board of Directors. The delays are exacerbated by the fact that roughly one-third to one-half of the Committee work is done by mail and/or telephone, both of which can be awkward and slow. There are also delays caused by parties to the grievances.

Such delay in action suggests that the COE is itself being unethical (or at least unfair) in misleading the membership into thinking that it can resolve their grievances (i.e., dispense some form of justice).

A related problem is that the COE and Board of Directors have no "teeth." The AAA does not license its members or have quality control over them; hence it lacks the authority to punish members for unethical conduct, even if it had the investigative resources to prove allegations of such conduct (which it usually does not). Furthermore, it is clear historically that both the COE and Board of Directors are loath to disrupt collegiality by publicly denouncing the activities of colleagues; they would also be risking lawsuits by said colleagues. Thus, no teeth, no bite. The only definitive AAA sanction of a member I am aware of was in 1919 when Franz Boas was censured, stripped of his membership in the Association's governing Council, and threatened with expulsion from the AAA (because of his publication in The Nation of a statement alleging that he had proof that some anthropologists were acting as spies for the U.S. government in foreign countries) (Boas 1919; Stocking 1968:273 passim).

Most cases are simply terminated somewhere along the line. At least one anthropologist has suggested that the COE was actually originated as a convenient device for ensuring that serious cases of unethical behavior would be dumped before they could reach public attention and create problems for the reputation of the Association (Anonymous, personal communication). While this is unlikely, it is certainly true that the complex sets of procedures by which cases must be handled serve to prevent timely action.

Another major problem is that the Association's Principles of Professional Responsibility (our current code of ethics) grew out of the climate of a very unpopular war, and it is directed more to the ethical problems of that era than to those of today. While it is adequate for some purposes, it is woefully inadequate for dealing with the many diverse ethical problems that confront anthropologists working in the wide variety of nonacademic contexts they do today. I doubt that any single code can address all these "special context" problems.

I estimate that since its inception in 1969, the COE has spent at least half of its time developing and continually revising the Principles of Professional Responsibility, the Role and Function of the Committee on Ethics, and the Rules and Procedures under which the committee operates. This appears to be a never-ending process, as it probably should be.

This, as well as the matters discussed earlier, raises the serious question of what the COE's role and function should be (if anything). Should it handle grievance cases at all, or should it confine itself to activities and publications designed to educate anthropologists on matters of ethics?

There is, however, another more fundamental question: who does or should the COE represent and serve? Should it serve only members of the Association as at present, or all anthropologists (many or most of whom are not members of the Association)? For that matter, who should the Association itself serve? Peter Hammond raised this issue eloquently in the October 1980 Anthropology Newsletter (Hammond 1980).

With regard to the COE (and AAA) my own recommendation is that they should represent and serve all anthropologists, in whatever specific professions they happen to be; if they don't, the COE and AAA may shrivel away of their own accord. I think, in this light, that the AAA should develop a new, very general, code of ethics that is relevant to all professional anthropologists; it should set general guidelines for anthropological ethics, and not get bogged down in attempting to deal with the ever-increasing myriad of special context problems. It seems appropriate that these latter problems be addressed in more specialized codes of ethics that may be adopted by more specialized anthropological organizations to suit their specific needs. I think this is a recognition of reality.

I also believe that the COE should continue to receive grievance cases; however, it should not do so with the intent or understanding that it will in any way resolve the issue(s) involved. It should be made clear to all that neither the COE nor the Board of Directors can effectively pretend to be judicial bodies, nor can they impose discipline on anyone (cf. Colson 1985).

Then why receive cases? One important reason is that when cases go before the COE, peer pressure is presumably exerted on the parties involved, and this may be very useful in helping them to resolve the issue(s) in contention. Such pressure might be exerted, at least minimally, by simply notifying all relevant parties that the COE is discussing the case internally in order to gain increased understanding of current issues in anthropological ethics, and that the parties are encouraged to send the COE their viewpoints on the issue(s). (COE publication of such cases might be politically and/or legally impossible in the short run, but could be done after the passage of an appropriate amount of time if sufficiently disguised with regard to names, dates, places, and so on).

A second reason for reviewing grievance cases is that anthropologists, like everyone else, often have need of a forum in which to air their grievances; this is a psychological need that the AAA should not ignore. Those who consider themselves first and foremost as anthropologists may strongly desire such a national forum, even though they will usually have other forums in which to vent their grievances as well. In short, it seems to me that the AAA has a responsibility to at least listen to those who consider themselves to be anthropologists, whether they are members of the AAA or not.

A third reason for considering cases is that it may, under some circumstances, be possible for the COE to give either formal or informal advice to the parties involved. While in many cases the giving of advice on ethics could incur lawsuits against the AAA, this is not always the case; there are at least a few cases in which advice is all that is wanted or needed. Requests for advice will presumably come to the COE prior to whatever action is taken by the person requesting the advice, and therefore giving such advice can be very helpful (as was the case in an inquiry to the COE in 1981).

The giving of advice could be a major and important function of the COE (or its individual members) if ways can be worked out to protect the AAA from lawsuit; this is because anthropologists often do not know where to turn for reasonable advice and discussion on ethical matters, and they would like to be able to turn to a respected body that has some experience in such matters. Surely it should be legally safe to provide advice that is clearly labeled as "informal, nonauthoritative, and without suggestion that it should necessarily be taken." Advice given a priori may often prevent the occurrence of ethical problems arising a posteriori.

A fourth, and very important reason that the COE should receive cases, is that this is a good way for the AAA to gather information and keep abreast of the current state of ethical issues in anthropology. This information can be used by the COE to help raise the awareness of all anthropologists about the kinds of ethical dilemmas they may sometimes expect to encounter, and to offer advice on how the dilemmas might be avoided or resolved.

This educational function of the COE is almost certainly its most important task (see Colson 1985). Moreover, the feasibility of performing this task has already been demonstrated, in part, by the regularly published "Ethical Dilemmas" column in the Anthropology Newsletter. Other kinds of contributions can be made in the educational arena as well.


Acknowledgments. I gratefully acknowledge the members of the Committee on Ethics with whom I served in 1980-81 for their contributions of ideas, references, and editorial suggestions: Asen Balikci, Judith T. Irvine, Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Larissa Lomnitz, June Macklin, Benjamin D. Paul, Louise M. Robbins, and James W. VanStone. I also received helpful information and suggestions from several previous COE members: David F. Aberle, Gerald D. Berreman, David M. Schneider, Louise E. Sweet, and Eric R. Wolfe. Other significant contributors were Joan Cassell and June Helm. I am especially grateful to Michael Moerrnan for giving me material and insights regarding the Thailand controversy.

This paper was originally written in 1980 when I was a member of the Committee on Ethics; it was written for, and at the request of, the COE, and was delivered at the 79th Annual Meeting of the AAA (December 1980) but not published. This revised version, while somewhat updated, has not been changed dramatically. I have attempted to provide a brief historical outline rather than a thorough scholarly history of the COE.

/1/ Deitchman (1976) and Wax (1978) deny that Project Camelot involved secret research, and claim that all research documents were in the public domain.

/2/ See especially Section 1: "The Social Responsibility of the Anthropologist," edited by Gerald D. Berreman, pp. 5-62, in To See Ourselves: Anthropology and Modern Social Issues, edited by Thomas Weaver (Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1973).

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American Anthropological Association
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