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.
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?