Saturday, December 14, 2013

Professional Ethics or Gamesmanship?

What are some of the beat examples of ethical codes? I think of the Ten Commandments in the Bible or Jesus' "Love the Lord God Almighty with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself" These are short, simple, statements which serve as personal guidelines for one's actions.

 For anthropology the initial concern about professional ethics was two fold. First was to insure that the field ethnographer would have access to their subjects by requiring him/her to behave in a manner that would not prejudice the situation for the next field worker. The second concern was to uphold the scientific integrity of the research product produced from the field work, i.e. be honest and objective in your analysis and share it with colleagues. Two very simple principles.

Religions and philosophies take these statements and then build complex fishnets out of them. So full of  knots to trap you and so many loop holes to allow you to wiggle through, the ethical code becomes a game instead of guide. It becomes a legalistic pastime for those with nothing better to do but to write more specific interpretation of the principle to trap and more subtle distinctions to escape the intent. Anthropological codes put forward over the past 50 years have tended to follow the same course.

As I have seen it, the profession has fail to come to grips with three major problems anthropology faces to achieve these simple goals by writing a code of ethics.

First is a failure to understand the difference between the sub-disciplines and what this means in terms of the ethical challenges one faces. Academic cultural anthropologist assume that cultural academic anthropology is Anthropology and demand an ethical code that represents that point of view. Its rules become too complex and specific for themselves and irrelevant for others such as the applied, administrative, policy or clinical roles or for those who work primarily with material culture, linguistic, or biological subjects or materials.

Second is the failure to distinguish the individual's position in life as a whole person and his/her "professional" role as an "anthropologist." As anthropologist, the individual is representing the tribe of anthropologists. As an individual, he/she is representing themself. As a result of this lack of distinction, codes have been proposed seeking to control the whole range of personal activity under the umbrella of anthropological ethics. Anthropology is a "profession" not a religion.

Third, a professional code and a personal code are very different. A professional code is a door or gate through which the profession (tribe) admits and judges members. It requires an individual to accept the tenets as a condition of acceptance into and by the profession. AND once admitted, it requires the members to adhere to the principles under penalty of ostracism and loss of professional privilege and status if the ethics are breached. Neither major anthropological association, AAA or SfAA, requires acceptance nor imposes punishment of what is called their principles, thus they have unenforceable codes. Such unenforceable codes actually defeat the original purpose for such codes.

In the past fifty years that I have participated, thought about, and written about ethics in anthropology I have yet to see a draft, much less an approved version, of the AAA Code or the SfAA code that addresses the issues outline above in a way that one could actually point to as an ANTHROPOLOGICAL ETHICS CODE.

In the age of Twitter, an ethical principle < 140 characters + (Specific = to define + general = to be understood by all ) might be the best example of what an code of ethics for anthropologist should be.

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