Monday, September 3, 2018

Professional Ethics equals Professional Responsibility

Any reader/follower of this Blog knows, I have two major concerns -- Ethics and the Profession, and the application of anthropology.

My Awakening

These concerns have a long history which began with a very simple question that came up when, as an undergraduate in the early 1960s, I read "Nomads of the Long Bow", Allen Holmberg's dissertation about his research among a very "primitive" band living in the Amazon region of Bolivia. At one point he tells of an experiment he conducted.


One case deserves special mention. Enia (Knee)
was the brother-in-law of Chief Eantandu. He 
had had some contact with the outside, but 
because of maltreatment had run away from his 
patron and returned to native life. He was an 
intelligent man with an unusual ability (for a 
Siriono) to adjust to white civilization. He was 
a hard worker and reliable, and he knew consider- 
able Spanish. His one weakness was that he 
could not hunt as well as his countrymen. Time 
after time I saw him leave with his bow and 
arrows, and time after time I watched him return 
empty-handed, while his fellow tribesmen left 
after him on the same trail and returned with 
game. He was generally referred to as "not 
knowing how to hunt." He was openly insulted 
at drinking feasts for his inability to hunt. He 
had lost at least one wife to better men. His 
status was low; his anxiety about hunting, high. 
He had, however, made some kind of readjustment 
to native life by planting more crops and collecting 
more forest products than the others and trading 
some of his vegetable products for meat. But 
still he was not satisfied. Noting this condition, I 
set out to raise his status. First he accompanied 
me with his bow and arrows on hunting trips. He 
carried in game which I shot, part of which was 
given to him and which we told others was shot 
by him. His status began to improve. Shortly 
thereafter I taught him to use a shotgun, and he 
brought in game of his own. Needless to say, when 
I left Tibaera he was enjoying the highest status, 
had acquired several new sex partners, and was 
insulting others, instead of being insulted by them.  (Italics added p. 58 )
My question, at the time, was "What happened to the shotgun when Holmberg left, or when Tibaera ran out of shotgun shells?  

Maybe a dumb question at the time, "human subjects" was not a real issue in research ethics at the time. But I find myself always returning to it when I consider, "What is our professional responsibility?"

Academic vs Applied Biases

My position has always been as a representative of the applied point of view. As a result of these concerns I actively participated in the discussions of professional ethics and profession as represented by the AAA, SfAA, and NAPA throughout the 1970s and 1980s. This included service on committees and task forces set up by the AAA Ethics Committee to explore and revise the Standards of Professional Responsibility.

As part of my dissertation on the professionalization of anthropology, the history of the ethical movement within the profession became a major issue. One of the discoveries in my research was  what the ethical concerns were emotional and there existed a profound ignorance of the implications of such concerns had for the anthropologists and their organizational institutions. Specifically, it centered around the question of "responsibility" vs "taking responsibility." The difference is critical and one we have yet to accept. The former is ideational and based on moral beliefs and biases. "What should you do?" The latter is behavioral and based on social norms of expected and accepted role performance based on social status. "What can you do?"

 Since writing my dissertation I have found that the decade of the 1970s was a watershed in the discussion of ethics in anthropology. We still struggle with the issue. y_and_Business

Ethics as Action, not Belief:
I have addressed this issue since then as it relates to applied anthropology and business.
Ethics, as opposed to mortality, is a question of behavior, not principle. How should one behave in a given context? Unlike etiquette, which asks how should one act properly in a given situation, ethics is a question of proper role behavior associated with a socially defined status in a social network/structure. Ethics is based on the reciprocal relationships between statuses within the social matrix that the individual operates. It is a compromise between one's "personal" moral code and the expectations that others have for someone's performance. Ethics are socially defined and sanctioned status. That is, "ethics" implies responsibility for one's action as a social agent.

Professional ethics implies taking on responsibilities for what one professes to be based on the principle beliefs and standards espoused by the institution they represent. It means accepting that you can be and will be held personally accountable for your actions in the role as a "professional" and agent of the institution you represent.

To be professional requires that there is a clear understanding of "who is a professional." The public expects that the "professional institutions" that claim to represent their members will develop a code of conduct (behavior) and enforce such a code. To develop a code of conduct (behavior) in the vacuum of the clear definition of professional status is an exercise in futility. Without the institution taking responsibility for certifying who is and who is not a professional is also futile. Unfortunately this has been the history of the ethical discussion within anthropology throughout the post 1970 period.

Academic Mentality vs Social Reality toward Research

In 1979, and recently revised and published, I attempted to point out the connection between ethics and the law and their implications for the "profession", especially as it refines itself as a research discipline. I did this with a discussion based on US Government's requirements and regulations covering federal support of Human Subjects research at the Workshop on Regulation of Applied Social Research: Legal and Ethical Issues, at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Applied Anthropology, Philadelphia, PA. (see SfAA reference above).

The Law, in the form of regulations, took the responsibility away from the individual researcher, especially the academic researcher, for determining what was ethical or not in their research. And the government placed it in the hands of Institution for whom the researcher works or is employed. It established the requirement for Informed Consent by the subjects of such research, and it required the establishment of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to over see the evaluation and monitoring of proposals issued by the Institution. 


Law represents the social expression of society's morality on the one hand when to defines principles of justice, and ethics when it proscribes the ritual or procedures that are required and expected in achieving justice. Under the regulations described above and under the Law itself, there is considerable individual latitude granted to the institutions and to professions to proscribe policies that define and restrict behavior in specific roles that form the basis of the status of the professional. Where these standards exceed the reasonable authority of the institution, the more general laws of society apply.


What does this have to do with anthropological ethics?  A quick look at the "ethics" codes of the SfAA. the AAA, and NAPA point to the aversion these institutions have toward accepting responsibility for their members' actions as professionals. These codes are advisory only. They apply only to dues paying members who achieved their status by paying their annual dues. This allows the dues paying member to publicly present him/herself as an "anthropologist."


Meanwhile the codes address multiple issues associated with the individual's anthropologist's role not necessarily under the control of the academic institution and which may be covered, more effectively, by the regulations and ethics associated with the individual's other roles associated with their other social statuses. For example, the treatment of  students is an issue that arises not from being an anthropologist but from being teacher/faculty member and covered by the policies and procedures of the institution and laws under which they are permitted to operate. On human subject  research, the role of researcher is defined by the IRB, the federal regulation, and the moral authority that these impose on human subjects research in general. In an applied setting, well, there are no rules except the general and specific criminal and torts law apply to the situation and behavior.


The point here is that if we are to be truly recognized as a profession and discipline, worthy of public recognition and respect, we need to accept the responsibility that come with it. We need to develop a professional ethical structure which focuses on the role we claim to play in society.  That role must be tied to the statuses we claim as our specialty within the social matrix in which we operate. We must claim the right and ownership of that specialty and, institutionally, accept the responsibilities that such a claim imposes upon us collectively and individually. Our code must be explicit, required, and enforceable.

How else can we answer the question that I still find myself asking of Holmberg's ghost,  for future generations?


No comments: