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

Thursday, October 30, 2014

What is the legacy of an anthropologist -- Edward H. and Rosamont B. Spicer Foundation

Anthropology is the study of humanity. It is carried out by individual men and women which is the legacy of all those who have, those who are, and those who will add to the discoveries and traditions that are the basis and core of our discipline, our science, our profession, and our passion. That is, today's anthropology is the legacy we, as the intellectual heirs of our founders, have been entrusted with to honor, to build upon and to apply for the benefit of humanity. Have you made plans for preserving and passing on your legacy?

One such legacy is that of the late Edward H. Spicer and his wife, Rosamond.

The Edward H. and Rosamont B. Spicer Foundation is a non-profit foundation incorporated in the state of Arizona. Its mission is to honor and further the legacy and life works of Edward H. and Rosamond B. Spicer in the fields of anthropology, community development, and social justice. The foundation was founded by Scott Spicer, Ned's grandson and Lawson Spicer and several of Ned's former colleagues and students to honor the memory and further the work of the Spicers

In Edward Spicer'and his wife Rosomond's case, their legacy is to be found in the combination of his body of work, the depth of which has just been scratched.  And second in the students he trained with his unique perspective of anthropology as both a science in the pursuit of knowledge about the human condition and a body of knowledge about that condition that could and should be used to bring about a better world

The body of work

A listing of Spicer's major works can be found first in James Officer's Spicer biography published in the National Academy of Sciences  Biographical Memoirs V.68 (1995) and second his papers located in the Edward H. and Rosamond B. Spicer Archive at the Arizona State Museum Library. It is from these resources that the legacy is to be found, picked up, and carried forward by all who hold these values.
Ned Spicer was invited to participate in a symposium, organized by Thomas Weaver of the University of Arizona, entitled  "Anthropology in the 1990's: Conditions, Needs, and Prospects." The symposium was held in conjunction with the American Association for the Advancement of Science meetings in San Francisco in the winter of 1974. The subheading of the symposium was, "Suppose They Began the Twenty-First Century and Forgot to Invite Anthropology!!!"

Ned presented his paper entitled, "Anthropology in the society of the 1990s", on February 28, 1974.
Twenty years later, in 1994, the paper was republished in Human Organization with a forward by his widow, Rosamond Spicer, under the title, "Reassessing Edward Spicer's Views on Anthropology in the Society of the 1990s: How and Why This Paper by Edward H. Spicer Was Written" (Spicer, Rosamond 1994 Human Organization, Vol. 53. No. 4, pp. 388 - 395). From her forward, we can gain an insight into Ned's thinking and approach to the future.
Rosamond observed that

"In preparing this paper on the future of cultural anthropology, Ned apparently gave it a great deal of thought. As was his habit, he wrote down voluminous notes and lists of ideas. He also made a number of starts, each different from the last.”

“At one point he wrote, 'I react strongly against nineteenth century economic-determinism, that technology and physical environmental conditions are the essential factors to consider in forecasting. I rather look to the future in terms of the adaptation of social structures and cultural orientations to one another in the context of the influence of firm cultural products. I shall therefore take off from consideration of the probable alternative trends which we may expect in the form and functions of societal structures and cultural value orientations.'  “

“Such a point of view was always the basis of his thinking and writing." (p. 388)

In describing Ned, Rosamond says,

"His interests, reading, and studies ranged through drama, literature, economics, city planning, philosophy, history, poetry, the environment, and all the fields of anthropology. All of this vast array of information and understanding he brought to bear in some way or another on any project he undertook, on any subject on which he wrote.”

“Perhaps one of his outstanding characteristics was his ability to synthesize, as was so evident in his Cycles of Conquest. I have long thought that the practice of that art of synthesis was connected with another, the appreciation and writing of poetry. I mention all these aspects of Ned because they seem to be contained in the following paper." (p.388).

It was his global interests and ability to synthesize vast amounts of material that I remember from my first graduate classes with Ned.  I was drawn to his Community Development Seminar where  he challenged us to look at the problem at hand from multiple points of view. He asked us, “What are the “felt needs” of the various parties in this change situation?” He encouraged us to seek a synthesis of these views as a way toward understanding the issues and their complexities. As community developers, he taught us that our job was to help the parties to synthesize their shared interests. Our job was to facilitate, not impose, problem resolution.

Ned was a humanist who understood and taught the connection between a people’s past, present and how these shaped their future. In his paper on the February day in 1974, he outlined 5 trends in the social and cultural environment that he felt would shape the next 20 years for anthropology.

The five trends that Ned chose to characterize the society he envisioned for the 1990s were the following:
(1) increasing intercommunication among the peoples of the world;
(2) increasing occupational specialization with accompanying organic differentiation within societies;
(3) increasing failure of technological solutions for the resolution of human problems in acceptable ways;
(4) increasing assertion and self-expression of ethnic groups within nation-states; and
(5) increasing reaction against centralization in political and administrative structures.

He stated "In general, continuation of these trends will, I believe, result in a society more heterogeneous than it was in the 19th or any previous century, more aware of its heterogeneity, with stronger than ever tendencies to compartmentalization, with increased awareness of and interest in non-technological and non-economic factors affecting human life, and with a growing tendency to view the nation-state in a wholly new light, especially with reference to its ethnic components and its political and administrative units." (p. 389)
Now. nearly 40 years later, it might be worth considering just how prescient Ned’s predictions were for the 1990s and for the 21st Century. It is time to evaluate the predictions and further the legacy

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Why do we need to think about our Legacy!

According to the Merriam Webster dictionary a legacy is 
  “1. something (such as property or money) that is received from someone who has died and  2.  something that happened in the past or that comes from someone in the past.”
A legacy can be envisioned as a “cultural atom.” It is initially the symbolic remains of the life of a once living and breathing human being. It is the material evidence of that person’s existence, the biological continuity of his/her presence, and the psychological impression left on one’s contemporaries and successors. The legacy, like “culture”, exists in the corporate memory or tradition of the “group(s)” impacted by an individual’s action and activities during a specific time and in a specific place. What that legacy is, its meaning and impact on the future, are a mixture of the desire by the deceased to influence the future and the futures evaluation of the deceased’s life. A legacy is where personality and culture meet for better or worse. It sets the stage for the next generation being both the source of wisdom and the curse that comes from the “sins of the fathers”.
As professional anthropologist, trained in a tradition passed on to us by those who came before us and as the ones who will be passing on that tradition, we should be both personally and collectively concerned about our legacy.  As knowledge producers and members of the knowledge industry, i.e. researchers, scholars, teachers, and advisers, we have a duty to insure that our work products are made available to our heirs.

Buried on page 4 of the 2009 version of the AAA ethics code, under the major heading III Research, subsection, B. Responsibility to Scholarship and Science is the following item:

6. Anthropological researchers should seriously consider all reasonable requests for access to their data and other research materials for purposes of research. They should also make every effort to insure preservation of their fieldwork data for use by posterity.

Like so many of the “ethical principles” of the AAA, this provision is a wish that has never been truly addressed by the profession in terms of an actionable item. It is offered only as a suggestion with little thought of the important role it might play in the future development and management of the profession and the science.

This is a very important observation. If you read the various versions and note the changes that have taken place in the AAA ethics statements, you would see that there is considerable concern about how one's work will be received, first, by those studied and, then later, with the human subjects issues imposed by sponsors on how the research and data will be managed. Research is made even more complex by the technology for digitally recording field observations and now digitally archiving research documents in their original form. This technology makes public’s access and data retrieval, through legitimate or illegitimate means, easier. It also places the access and use of such data beyond the researcher’s control. Today, the ethical issues involved in human subject research are more complex and challenging.

Concern over one's legacy is not restricted to cultural or social anthropology. It applies to all the sub-disciplines in ways that are both shared across anthropology and which are specific to the sub-discipline. 

Another reason for the original question is that these data are, to the extent you have ownership and control of the data, your responsibility. If you are concerned about how your material might be received, then you have to be concerned about the disposition of your material after your death. Once you are no longer alive, you will have no control over what is saved or how it will be used. Thus, planning and executing a Legacy Plan for the disposition of your materials -- planning for your legacy -- at some point of your career is crucial. This might mean physically destroying material that you don't want to be passed on, or assigning it to a trustee with an embargo on the release of the material to the "public" for some period of time, or you can just leave it to chance.

The challenge we face today is a black or white ethical choice. Remember, one can never expect to satisfy everyone. The choices are: What value do you feel your data might have for the future of the science vs. What harm do you feel that public release of your data  might have do to the individuals and society you studied? 

Do you have a Legacy Plan? Will your legacy be used by the future anthropologists for the benefit of the science? How can the AAA make actionable the ethical concerns of members for safe keeping their legacy?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What will be your Legacy to Anthropology

What will your or mine legacy be for future anthropology students and the profession? As a member of the 4th generation (1960s - 1980s) of  American anthropology now transitioning into retirement, I ponder these questions:
  • What do I do with my files and data accumulated over 50 years of academic and applied work?  
  • Should I just throw it all away or should I donate it to some archive for "lost" or "gray" anthropology? And where will that be?
  • Is there any "auto-ethnographic" value in these files that might contribute to the present or future development of anthropology and the profession? 
 Why ask such questions, you might ask? As a graduate student I ran across a copy of a dissertation written by Panchanan Mitra, a student of Clark Wissler at Yale in the 1920s, who later became an early founder of Indian (the country) anthropology. He observed as far back as1933 that anthropology is a sub-culture of Western culture. As he states:   
Anthropology ... is the science of man, but it is also a trait of European civilization and its point of the view is that of the European observing the rest of mankind. So the growth of the science is intimately bound to the knowledge and outlook of Europe (1933:1)

  American anthropology is a sub-set of that tradition. As Mitra (1933) stated:

Our regional study of science in America has shown the rise of anthropology here from the science of the America Indian, beginning with the discovery of the New World in 1492, and the theological speculation arising there from. Thus it has been eminently objective and regional from its very start. Philology, Geology, Prehistoric Archaeology and still later evolutionary Biology only modified its outlook. Its museum methods, its German geographical lead, and its close association with the remarkable development of Experimental Psychology and Social Science, mark America Anthropology by the history of its experience as distinct from the anthropology of Europe. (Mitra 1933: 211)

One can conclude that anthropology, like every other scholarly or scientific discipline produced by Western Civilization, is worthy of study in itself. Further, it can be subjected to the same anthropological treatment one might apply to any other intellectual or cultural tradition. As such, anthropology must become reflexive, and the anthropologist must include him or herself  as actors as well as observers in their studies. This applies to all anthropologists, but especially to the ethnographer. As a participant in the society one studies, the ethnographer comes an accomplice to the event she/he reports in the ethnographic context. It is the subjective role which provides both a depth of emotional response to the event and a narrower focus on its meaning than one obtains from the observer role.

In recent years, one new research avenue in ethnographic research is auto-ethnography. This is a reflexive approach which raises some very interesting and challenging issue for the discipline of anthropology and the ethnographer. Auto-ethnography is a process that formalizes the process of including the field worker as “an accomplice” to the events taking place in the society and culture at the time and place being studied. Chang (2009) in her AUTOETHNOGRAPHY AS METHOD Developing Qualitative Inquiry  includes a range of techniques and products from journaling and diaries, to personal essays and presentations as methods for recording one's reflections on one’s experience in the field, both as the observer and as the participant. These sources can then be used to study the role of the professional anthropologist in context and evaluate their impact on anthropology and the profession. It is here where the anthropologist describes and reflects candidly upon the role of Self (the ethnographer's individual Self) in their role as observer as the witness to and the recording instrument for the social and cultural behavior of the Other.

Over the last 50 years, there has emerged a split in American anthropology between those who pursue the traditional academic teacher and sometimes researcher roles, and the social activist/practitioner and sometimes policy researcher roles. The former has adopted the institutional incentive system of the academy which rewards those who pursue the academic career of research, teaching and service, They are expected to contribute to the academic, or basic research literature, through an institutional structure designed to promote research and publication. At the same time, it punishes the latter who opt for the practitioner role which is based on a reward system of client service, policy research and evaluation and consulting.

As a result of the institutional structure, academic anthropology has become nothing more than another academic discipline, limiting itself to the fads and fashion of the academy and research funding communities. Its institutional focus on basic research and publication has created an elitism reflecting the structure of the American post-secondary system as a whole of which it is a part. In the process, it condemns thousands of students and graduates to a professional caste system.Through this internal status system, an informal, mandated path to professional acceptance and recognition has evolved. Those who fail to follow the path are shuts out of the opportunity to do meaningful research and/or to publish it. Here the clientele for the academic product is the disciplinary elite who through a peer review process impose standards designed to defend the prevailing theoretical paradigm(s). The system of academic hierarchy prevents many from ever making a meaningful contribution to the discipline through the traditional hierarchy of affiliation (e.g. Hurlbert, Beverley McElligott  1976,   Rogge, 1976, Roose, Kenneth D., and C.J. Anderson   1970 )

This situation was made worse for those who choose to apply their insights drawn from anthropology to the development of policy solutions to social problems or to actively seek out and find innovative products that are solutions to a need in the marketplace. Here the incentive system is oriented toward the production of practical applications for a non-academic clientele. The rewards are not based on publications nor academic status, but rather on career advancement within the institutional structure, increased income and one's reputation as a problem solver and effective administrator of people and programs. Often what is produced is the proprietary product of the client, and not the practitioner. The lessons learned and made available to future generations from these experiences are rarely available to the discipline and fall into the category of the discipline’s gray literature,

Gray literature, in anthropology, is that vast body of information and observation made by anthropologically trained individuals that has been produced to achieve a specific, often limited or proprietary purpose, for a non-academic public, private client or specific audience. Such materials are often time sensitive, contextually limited, problem specific, and politically or subjectively biased to reflect the employer's interests. Yet, they also can provide an insightful glimpse into our understanding of the institutions that produced them.(e.g. Nader, Laura 1972)

In the tradition of anthropology, these materials are as valuable as the oral histories collected by the 19th and early 20th century ethnographers. Those oral histories attempted to “salvage” what was left of the “native” or “indigenous” cultures that were undergoing rapid acculturation, assimilation and/or extinction brought on by Western cultural expansion and imperialism. Today, these records are a valuable resource for the ethnohistorian and our understanding of cultural change.

In the academic debate between the proponents of scientific vs. humanistic anthropology, history has played and does play a crucial role. A historical dimension is a necessary condition in the development of an anthropological theory of cultural dynamics. Unlike most other subject that mankind seeks to understand, human events are always unique on the individual human level. Such events happen once and only once. They can’t be replicated in the experimental sense that physics, chemistry, or biology can repeat events.  Human cultural events can only be recorded by witnesses to the event at the time and place of the event. 

In the Western tradition, ethically, morally and legally, the researcher should not and cannot experiment on another human being without that the subject’s permission. This does not mean that humans do not use other human beings as guinea pigs. Such research must respect the limitations that the rule of “informed consent” imposes upon the researcher. Another way such research can take place is when the researcher and authorities dehumanize their subjects, such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiments using American Blacks or the Nazi WWII experiments on Jews as subjects, so that the subject’s humanity is passively ignored or formally denied.

Ethnography is even more restrictive regarding experimentation on moral, philosophical, and practical grounds. The ethnographer is ethically bound by the profession to leave the subject community in a state that would, as much as reasonably possible, not prejudice a future researcher's chances of coming back and be welcomed to study the same group. On a practical basis, this ethic makes the reflections and recordings of the field ethnographer’s personal experience even more valuable to the interpretation of the field data he/she has gathered and for preparation of others to go into the field. 

The field experience can be treated as the observation of a natural experiment. The ethnographer’s observations become the record of the natural experiment that takes place when the Stranger (the ethnographer) comes to live and study the Other  (the subject). The auto-ethnography is the record of the context in which the Stranger is transformed from the status of Stranger to the status of “not quite One of US” as seen from the Other’s point of view.

The challenge as a practitioner is that we are defined initially by the Other’s status structure. We are hired or engaged for a position in an established status network. That network exists in the institution(s) that our client controls and interacts with. This is a reversal of the tradition observer/participant role of the academic researcher. 

The academic researcher starts from the position of observer. Beginning by studying the literature on the topic, the culture, and context of the proposed research, the researcher arrives at the site as the Outsider/ Observer and Stranger. He or she becomes, to the extent permitted by the subject, a participant in the society and experiences the culture only after being accepted by the Other. The ethnographer experiences this acceptance from the point of view of the status position assigned to him/her by the Other. In order to better observe the natural experiment that is his/her focus of study the ethnographer must play the role expected of one assigned to that status. Mead’s study of adolescent girls in Micronesia reflect the interaction between the Observer and the Participant status and role as seen from the researcher and subject points of view

On the other hand, the practitioner becomes the participant first by taking a job (a status) with an employer or client. He or she must do so if they wish to apply their anthropological insight to the job in order to become a better and more effective observer in the institution. Before he/she can become the observer, the practitioner must begin by demonstrating the skills called for in the job. One’s success as a practitioner anthropologist begins with his/her technical skills and are expanded by how these are informed by a holistic integration of these with the observations and understanding of system in which the job is a part.  The observer role is a means for establishing the legitimacy for an observer or advisory status within the client social network.

As an anthropologically trained observer, the practitioner is prepared to evaluate his/her role in a holistic sense. He or she is able to reflect more deeply on the meaning of his/her place in the institution as well as the institution’s mission. Such reflections when recorded and documented become part of the gray literature that constitutes the corpus of autoethnography. Unlike the literature search done by the academic prior to entering the field, the auto-ethnographic process begins when one enters in the field and is completed only after leaving the field, if done at all. It is the personalized 'administrative" record of the field work prepared by the field worker.

As a product of the participant role, these internal observations by the practitioner can be incorporated into the preparation of future anthropologists working with the Other. They can form a basis for the later literature review by the academic before going into the field. The gray literature can also be treated as part of the data used in evaluating the natural experiments that are used as the basis of a scientific anthropology. 

The problem we face today is that much of this data is being lost to the discipline. It is being lost because there is no formal organized structure for acquiring, evaluating, archiving and retrieving these data. The proliferation of the practitioner role has opened up tremendous opportunities for anthropology. But these opportunities exist only as theoretical and pedagogical potentials. Unless the profession recognizes and addresses that potential in time, these data will lost forever. 

So the question facing both the profession and the practitioners is, 

What will be your legacy?”


Hurlbert, Beverley McElligott  1976  "Status and Exchange in the Profession of Anthropology"  American Anthropologist Vol 78, no.2 p. 272 - 284

Mitra, Panchanan  1933  A History of American Anthropology. Calcutta, University of Calcutta

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