Saturday, July 2, 2011

The American Anthropological Association and Anthropological ethics?

Yesterday I opened my email and found the message about the American Anthropological Association's Final Draft Report of the Ethics Task Force. Having just finished a paper on Applied Ethics: Anthropology and Business I rushed to the site to see what was there. I managed to make note of this latest attempt to clarify the AAA's position and hopefully my editor will catch it. However, what I find most perplexing is that the AAA is playing the part of Lucy and I feel like Charlie Brown when it comes to trying to kick the ball

The American Anthropological Association has once again decided to look at "professional" ethics. This time it is a Draft Report from the Ethics Task Force which was released on June 30, 2011. While I know what a challenge this task is, I served from 1983 to 1986 on such a committee for the AAA and NAPA, it seems strange that only last February the AAA published a "new" revised and approved Code of Ethics.  What is going on here???
I want to commend the Task Force on its efforts.  I can empathize with the challenge they have been and will face going forward. However, my initial response and primary concern is that while the principles expounded here are an improvement over the 1970 Code and its offspring (1984, 1999, 2009, and the February 2011) they still miss the point. 

The topic headers make for a good start at a set of principles — stating what anthropology and the AAA stand for. However, since the AAA will not enforce the code and the COPE (Committee on Professional Ethics)' 2009 Annual Report has essential state as much, I wonder if the AAA has a need for a “Code.” .

In my experience, as an applied/practitioner, the value of a code of ethics is one of protection for the profession — protections against clients who would ask me to use my skills in an unethical way to further their objective; protection against colleagues competing against me by using unethical, inappropriate, or unprofessional practices; protection for the client and the public against the lack of a standard, reliable and valid way of knowing what is “anthropology” and who is qualified to practice as an anthropologist.
For more than a half century, the anthropological profession — as represented by the AAA — has seen ethics as being all about ME (the individual) — What can I do? What must I do? What can I get away with? 

I find that this ego-centric attitude (or should I say “anthropocentric”) fails to recognize that the AAA is a social institution which exists in a real world of human beings and social institutions who could care less about our personal fears, doubts, and biases. To the degree that they care, they want to be assured that there is some institution that will stand behind its members and guarantees the ethical quality of product it purports to represent .They are looking to the institution for quality control guidelines to reduce their risk of employing an unqualified member.

This is what a Code implies. It is a place to go to find the guarantee and to have that guarantee honored. It implies that the subject, the student, the colleague, the sponsor, and the client have recourse through the institution in the event of malpractice. Otherwise, the court system becomes the default.

If we drop the idea of a Code and simply follow the lead of the SfAA (Society for Applied Anthropology) that these will only be the principles that we expect members to follow, then we would be more honest in our presentation to the members and the public. 

The Principles can be stated in a 10 Commandment format without details and qualifications. " Thou shall or shall not." Since the AAA is not going to enforce them, there is little need to go into detail — that only invites more detail and a theological debate that goes nowhere. As principles, they are goals to aspire to and enforcement can done through rewarding outstanding examples of upholding the principles, rather than the time consuming and costly due process of punishment.
The AAA is NOT a professional society. Since the 1984 reorganization, it has become a consortium of clubs and voluntary associations. Unlike such professional association as the Bar Association, Medical Society, or American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, membership is voluntary and not required to practice the discipline in any of its manifestations (basic research, teaching, or practice) nor in any of the venues where anthropologists sell their service and making a living.

I feel that the Task Force should broaden the scope of its effort to consider the basic question — who and what is, or to be, served by an AAA code of ethics? 

Again, I want to commend the Task Force for it work. It is trying, challenging, and thankless job

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