Sunday, March 29, 2015

Professional Ethics 1: The Boogeyman in the Anthropological Closet

Today, there is a need for the younger generation of anthropologists to become involved in the development of an ethical context for the anthropologically trained professionals who practice the profession outside the academy. It is only by doing so that the academic and applied branches will be able to work together.

The questions of ethics has been a shadow lurking in the closet from the beginning of the concept of a scientific discipline focusing on the study of humanity. Anthropology, as a recognized discipline, was one of the first such disciplines incorporated in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in 1859 and has remained a member, as Section H, ever since. It brought together the material and ideational elements of human activity as found throughout the world and throughout time. It continues to do so, integrating and breaking down those elements which make us "human."

Anthropology, as represented, by the American Anthropological Association, has evolved in a similar manner as the AAAS. That is, as a breeding ground for specialization under the general rubric of "science." In the case of anthropology, "the science of mankind". Initially, when the AAA first emerged from the AAAS at the turn of the century (1902), it was one a several specialized societies. In fact. it was a late comer compared to the American Ethnological Society, founded in 1842, and the Anthropological Society of Washington (1879) which began publishing a journal, American Anthropologist. and the Women's Anthropological Society (1885)

The Emergence of a Discipline:

For decades the AAA was the forum for the small group of "professional" and serious amateur devotees to "anthropological" subjects who made up the American anthropological establishment.  Over time it would incorporated three other major associations that came to comprise the four basic fields of anthropology (or the science of humanity), e.g. ethnology, archaeology, physical anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. The central focus was humanity, its origins and diversity. It was united by the concept of culture as the driving force for human and societal existence.

In the early days, ethical questions were not a big issue. Except maybe, the censure of Boas for publicly questioning the role of certain anthropologists during the First World War, the AAA did not take a stand on such issues. When it did, the charge was made against Boas, the whistle blower, based on his public accusation about spying on the part of fellow members. It was not the spying action by the members but Boas's public disclosure of those actions that was considered "unethical." The lesson was, "don't 'dis' your colleagues in public." Later, the AAA would retract the censorship.

The questions of ethics really became an issue at the end of World War II. In 1946, a Committee on Professional Standards was created within the AAA which issued a report entitled, "Suggested Requirements for Professional Status in the Field of Anthropology" (American Anthropological Association 1946:690-91).

While the report sets basic general standards for qualification as a professional anthropologist, it also recognized the distinct nature of the sub-disciplines and their need for additional and different preparation and performance. The report was advisory and carried no official sanction. Ethical judgement was left to the individual and in effect, the definition of what constituted "anthropological" behavior.

As Edward Spicer (AAA President elect) observed in 1973, “I was always dissatisfied in my student days [ late 1930s] when I heard it said that ‘anthropology is what anthropologists do'." I had heard the same thing in the 1960s and 1970s as a student and later as a "professional." This "libertarian" attitude has been the underlying ethic among those who practice academic anthropology throughout its history. The problem is that this kind of ethic is an invitation to anarchy under the guise of discipline.

The Professional Closet:

The 1946 statement attempted to overcome the problem by distinguishing between the amateur and the professional practitioner of anthropology. It attempted to create a "professional" discipline by recognizing a basic difference between an intellectual interest in a body of knowledge and a personal commitment to pursue and contribute to the collection of that knowledge in a disciplined way. The distinction between "member" and "fellow" represented just such a compromise. It also followed in the long established tradition of learned societies, which the AAA saw itself being.

Fellowship is an achievable status, not an ascribable one. As its guide, Fellowship adopts the academic rules of tenure. It requires a conscious effort and desire on the part of the individual to achieve that status and a recognition by peers of one's worthiness to it. Fellowship means observing the rules of the "profession" and having ones performance under the "rules," as defined by the group, evaluated by peers. The fellowship model imposes a degree of control and standards on a member's behavior. The focus, however, is not ethical performance, but rather the performance of the scientific/scholarly role of "researcher." Note, this did not include the "teaching" role which is specifically associated with the academy. How one related to the many other constituencies that make up the real world in which one  practices anthropology was left up to the individual.

Practical Experience vs Academic Ideals:

The Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) was founded in 1941 by anthropologists and other social scientist in response to their involvement in the WWII war effort. Dominated by anthropologists, the SfAA was the first anthropological organization to develop, in 1948,  a Code of Ethics . This was something that would take the AAA almost 20 years to catch-up.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s and later World War II, anthropologists, based on their training and specialities, found employment in wide variety of practical and non-academic venues. Some became administrators, policy advisers, government bureaucrats for such agencies as the Department of Agriculture (DOA), Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Works Progress Administration (WPA), etc. They found roles as extension agents, administrators, consultants, etc.

During the war they enlisted in the various service branches, and helped to design and implement crash wartime programs, such as the War Relocation Authority (WRA), Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the State and Interior Departments, among others. Some took full time jobs, others served as part-time or temporary consultants focusing on real problem solving activities and not on abstract academic interests. After the war, most returned to the academic world. Meanwhile, those who remained in public and private service were treated as the black sheep of the discipline.

Laura Thompson tells of a conversation with Clyde Kluckhohn about life during that period,
"Shortly before his death [in 1960], Clyde Kluckhohn told me that he found it virtually impossible to interest his best students in a career in applied anthropology. They simply did not regard this sub-division of the discipline as one worthy of their attention. Several very good government jobs went begging, he said, because these students could not be persuaded to accept them."  ("Is Applied Anthropology Helping to Develop a Science of Man", Human Organization, 1965. Vol. 24 No.4, pp. 277 -287)

At this time the SfAA, itself, was morphing from a group of social scientists engaged in policy development, implementation and/or evaluation to just another academically oriented "professional" organization. It journal, Applied Anthropology, which carried articles by practitioners based on case histories and methodologies, gave way to Human Organization, journal with a more academic editorial focus. Throughout this period, the SfAA has had an "on again" and "off again" affiliation with the AAA. Should it be the applied branch of the anthropological establishment, or should it be a competitor unifying the social sciences?  In the late 1970s it took on the independent publication, Practicing Anthropology, to fill the gap left when Human Organization changed its editorial style.  Membership in the SfAA conforms to structure the AAA adopted in 1946.

Ethical Watershed:

The watershed for the ethical debate within the anthropological establishment came in 1965. This was precipitated by the Viet Nam War and when allegations of certain "unethical" behavior by anthropologist were exposed. These allegations involved anthropologists who were engaged in community studies research activities in Thailand. These added to the disclosures about the role of social scientists in  Project Camelot. Much of the fervor over ethics within the AAA arose from the Beals’ Report in 1967 reference to the “Thai case”. An Ad Hoc committee was named with Margaret Mead as Chair. The Ad Hoc Committee was charged to look into the allegations of anthropologists engaged in clandestine research.

THAILAND CONTROVERSY: Response to the Board's Response to the Discussion - See more at:
THAILAND CONTROVERSY: Response to the Board's Response to the Discussion - See more at:
AAA Response to Crisis:

The Ad hoc Committee issued its report on September 27th 1971 (Davenport, William, David Olmsted, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Freed, 1971 Report of the Ad Hoc Committee to Evaluate the Controversy concerning Anthropological Activities in Relation to Thailand, to the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association). The report had two parts: Part I: Anthropological Activities in Thailand; and Part II: Guidelines on Future Policy.
THAILAND CONTROVERSY: Response to the Board's Response to the Discussion - See more at:

The former, Part I: Anthropological Activities in Thailand, addressed the basic issue of clandestine research. It concluded that the real issue was not in the anthropologists' activity but in the nature and classification of the funding by the US government for social science research, especially overseas. USAID funding for “community development” activities rubric which supported this research, 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 committee did find that a new ethical imperative was needed for protecting research subjects. This had to do with the identity of the community studied in conjunction with the anonymity of informants. Today, the rational for the “new” ethical imperative is hollow given advances in technology and Google maps.  It also faulted the Association for its knee jerk response and reaction to the complaint that initiated the response.

In Part II: Guidelines for Future Policy, the Ad Hoc Committee recommended  recognized a fundamental difference between academic and applied anthropology. And it recommended a clearer distinction between the two as they related to the responsibilities of the AAA and its Ethic Committee. They stated:
“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.”(page 5 col 2 line 104 – 107)

The AAA membership voted to reject the Ad Hoc Committee report. And in the process refused to recognize applied anthropology as a separate professional role subject to different ethical challenges and in need of different standards.

Personal Observations

 As a co-founder of the Society of Professional Anthropologist (SOPA) and a member of the AAA, I was asked to served on a committee that was formed to review and address the need to  revise and develop the AAA Code of Conduct, aka Principles of Professional Responsibility, aka Statement on Ethics. In my role, I represented the applied interests. My qualifications were based on my experience as an applied anthropologist and with the ethical issues non-academic anthropologists confront in the course of their employment in nontraditional roles.

This assignment led to a set of recommendations to NAPA, the National Association of Practicing Anthropologists. Founded in 1983, NAPA represented a national response to SOPA (1974-75) and its sister organizations. During this period, we found that the existing Code did not address the problems confronted by the non-academic anthropologist in their daily professional lives. More important, there was no "official" code that they could refer to to justify and protect them if and when they might refuse to carry out an act that an employer or client might demand but which violated an implicit anthropological ethical principle. The PPR, as established by the AAA was not being developed to include the practitioners or their needs.

I found that the “profession” failed to recognized or respect the role responsibilities and demands placed on practitioners. In fact, they would not admit that the practitioner role called for a different set of practical responsibilities and loyalties from the academic. Further, they did not seem to understand what an ethics code is supposed to do in terms of protecting members and insuring the public of a certain minimal level of quality assurance.

I came away from this experience realizing that we were asking the wrong questions. Spicer had asked the right question in 1973.

The question is: Who is the anthropologist and who is not?

Left unanswered, this is the boogeyman in the closet
Professional Ethics 2: Opening the Closet will look at the Period from 1970 to 1990

No comments: