More pondering about ethics

Over at the Anthrodesign list they have been talking about anthro’s in the military quite a bit. If you have any interest in applied anthropology, this is a very active discussion forum

It has me thinking, so here is an e-mail I sent the list today.


Most people that know me know that I want to see anthropologists working in the widest possible breadth of areas: non-profit, academics, industry, military. Personally you wont find me doing work for the tobacco industry or Wal-Mart anytime soon, but thats a personal choice. I didn’t resent my uncle, the tobacco executive, and I don’t have an issue with an anthropologist working for people I would not care to. For a time the AAA code of ethics forbid anthropologist from doing any kind of research that could not be made public. I solved the problem by not rejoining the AAA for a time until the statement changed. If it changes in a way that conflicts with my professional life or personal opinions again, then I will drop out again. Its not like the AAA is going to miss me!

But this does not mean that I don’t think about ethics often and deeper than some of my writing on might suggest. I do, but its much like other aspects of my life: Ethics are a “normal” concern for lack of a better word. I have faced more than a few and learned to make peace with most of those issues. When it crops up in professional conversations, I am more frustrated that it feels like the first time some people have really thought about this. I was lucky, at the University of South Carolina we were required to take an ethics class before we were allowed to start fieldwork. My graduate work in a state prison was full of ethical problems (for and example of just one of the many, please see my post on a situation I encountered during my fieldwork in a state prison) as you might imagine when working with an incarcerated population who’s rights were limited and the system was designed to prevent privacy or anonymity. What I learned while a naive graduate student is that you have to choose a lot. Roboticly following a code of ethics can be just as bad as ignoring them. I am OK without absolute informed consent, but that is also a very contextual choice. For example, I was acquainted with an anthropologist studying issues related to law enforcement (if I am remembering the focus correctly). In order to get as close as possible he trained and became a full time police officer. He wrote about what he saw, heard and learned but as he stated to me once, when the wife is waving a butcher knife at you and her husband, stopping and requesting a consent form is not a very realistic option.

Even now in the work I do which is fairly benign, people don’t have 100% informed consent. They don’t know who I am working for or the specific purpose of the research. It could be a company or organization they hate. But, on the other hand, they do agree up front to participate even though they know that information will not be forthcoming. Some would argue that my participants should be told regardless, thats an argument I find too paternalistic for my taste. I think people are generally smart enough to make their own choices in that regard.

The part the actually causes me the most concern, and I don’t have an answer for it yet, is what happens when people question who an anthropologist is really working for, as happened to Laura’s friend. I cant yet articulate why I am on the side I am, but all I can say for now it that its not enough to outweigh the benefits of anthropologists in military organizations. Part of it is being a realist, if not a particularly hopeful one. War, oppression, abuse are all part and parcel of our deeply flawed selves. I don’t believe the philosophy that if people just chose to not participate it would all go away. I also believe very strongly that I since I see war and threat as a constant inevitable, I would prefer to have people like us working on the problem rather than someone that believes that the US is the center of the universe.

How to square that with the danger of anthologists in the field, I just don’t know. I only know at this moment is that its still not enough to sway me and is a source of internal conflict when I think about the issue.

Of course, its all an academic question for me. The biggest threat I face these days is a nasty paper cut or a participants dog chewing up my field equipment.

One thought on “More pondering about ethics

  1. Tony Waters

    The state prison example is a good one. I once put together a proposal to evaluate a “Behavioral Modification Unit,” which was really just a juiced up version of what used to be called solitary confinement, or “the hole.” But because it was being funded by the state, it had to be evaluated. Had we gotten the grant (we didn’t) it would have meant IRB review.

    In the old days before evaluations, the warden would have just adopted the policy, and implemented. No social scientists involved, and no assessment beyond the gut level about whether “the program” in fact modified behavior. In my mind, persisting with such a program which didn’t work (or went unevaluated, so you really didn’t know) is also an ethical lapse, albeit not one by the researchers.

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