Thursday, September 20, 2012

Where are the Ethics and What is a Code?

The Question is: Where are the Ethics and What is a Code?

Once again the American Anthropological Association is going to vote on an Ethics Code. The link here points to a posting on inviting AAA members to cast their vote in reference to a "new"(?) version of the profession's 'code' of ethics. So much time and thought has been spent over the past half century on the question of what is "ethical" anthropology and still we don't know who or what should be subject to a AAA ethical position.

Anthropologists play many professional roles -- most have nothing to do with being an anthropologist -- and are subject to formal and informal codes, standards, and regulations that impact their performance in those roles. Among these roles are: teacher, employee, researcher, consultant, mentor, writer, counselor, administrator, business person, etc.

As a product of the Viet Nam Era, I have followed and been involved in this search for a unique and common ground where being a professional anthropologist creates a moral or ethic obligation that is not covered by the ethical standards already imposed by one or more these roles.

The Society for Applied Anthropology was the first professional association to be seriously concerned about professional ethics. This was stimulated by concern about the role(s) played by American anthropologists in the World War II effort. Today, the SfAA has replaced the ethics code with a procedure for dealing with Conflicts of Interest on the part of members.

Meanwhile, the AAA presented its first concern about ethics in a 1948 resolution on the Freedom of Publication which ran 5 short one sentence paragraphs. The statement basically reenforced the traditional values of academic freedom and scientific inquiry. The Viet Nam era and Cold War politicized the profession. In 1967, the AAA shifted to a more dogmatic debate over professional ethics. The debate aimed at limiting the anthropologist's professional involvement and conduct, especially as it applied to research. At that point in time to be an anthropologist was to be an academic, a researcher and a member of the AAA. This concentration of roles may have justified attempts to circumscribe professionally accepted behavior at the time. Today this is no longer true.

As the AAA has expanded and been transformed from a professional to a membership organization, its claim to be the moral and ethic center for the discipline has been deluded. Today, there are many conflicting interests collected under the AAA tent. Meanwhile the attempt to "codify" its ethic position has ballooned from 5 simple sentences to the present 9 pages of Do's and Don't's. A visit to the AAA Ethics website will show you the evolution of such thinking within the AAA.

While the intend may be honorable, the biggest problem with these codes and the efforts to regulate behavior is that they are without teeth. And, therefore, as a Code of Behavior, they are without purpose. This position is reinforced in the preamble to the current draft where the document does everything it can to deny that it is a code of ethics. Instead, it is presented as an educational tool.

Elsewhere I have been critical of the AAA and its attempt to be both the ethical guru/spokesman for all anthropologist and a disengaged bystander overseeing the behavior of its members' behavior.

So the questions, I ask are: "Why is the current document titled a 'Code of Ethics'?" And, "Is the AAA the right organization to set the moral and/or ethical rules for what it means to be an anthropologist today?"


Alex Barker said...

Thanks for your thoughtful review and comment of the background to the current draft. In this case, I believe the document open for vote is not called a "Code of Ethics," in part for the reasons you cite.

Barry R. Bainton, PhD, MBA said...

Thank you for your comment Alex. If you click through the link "Ethics Code" you will land on the blog page entitled "Cast Your Vote, AAA Members, on the Code of Ethics." As I try to explain here, that title is misleading for members, others, and the public.