Ethics and Auld Lang Syne

The beginning of a new year provides an opportunity to reflect on the challenges and successes of years past in an effort to better guide the present. This year, NAPA members have particularly good occasion to reflect on our Ethical Guidelines for Practitioners. The guidelines, which were designed to acknowledge common ethical practice for all anthropologists while highlighting challenges for anthropologists working in “problem solving related to human welfare and human activities,” turn 30 years old this year.

Our expanding disciplinary influence has led to complicated questions of competing stakeholder roles, human subjects research approval, collaboration, and the implications of our work.

At the risk of understatement, a lot has changed in 30 years. Increased training opportunities in anthropology have led to expanded employment opportunities in work that has come to routinely include administration, advocacy, policy, organizational leadership, and consulting, in addition to research. Our MA and PhD graduates (to say nothing of our undergrads) are more likely today to obtain jobs outside of the academy, and more and more training programs are undertaking efforts to prepare students for this work. The digital revolution brings enhanced opportunity to communicate and exciting new realms of study. The value of the anthropological skill set is increasingly recognized throughout the public, private, and non-profit sectors, leading to additional opportunities for collaboration, discovery, and change. Our expanding disciplinary influence has led to complicated questions of competing stakeholder roles, human subjects research approval, collaboration, and the implications of our work.

In early 2015, the NAPA Governing Council decided that the time was right to take a look at NAPA’s ethical guidelines in light of three decades of disciplinary change. The council approved the creation of a NAPA Ethics Subcommittee on Revision to the Ethics Statement, chaired by Niel Tashima. Niel brought valuable institutional memory to the table as part of the group that crafted the 1988 NAPA ethical guidelines as well as membership on the committee that crafted the current (2012) American Anthropological Association Statement on Ethics. Subcommittee members represented a particularly diverse cross-section of domains of anthropological practice, and included Elizabeth Briody, Christina Marisa Getrich, Dawn Lehman, Sarah Ono, Tracy Meerwarth Pester, Lauren S. Penney, and Joe Watkins. The group determined early in its work that a new ethics statement would be in the best interests of the membership.

The last couple of verses of Robert Burns’s song inscribed on the Scottish side of the Border Stane in Newcastleton Forest. Jim Barton/Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

With an impressively voluminous series of emails and conference calls over a two-year period, the subcommittee authored a new ethics statement designed to guide us through the next decade (or three). The statement has been amended and approved by the NAPA Ethics Committee and by the NAPA Governing Council. As such, it will be presented to NAPA members on the AAA/NAPA spring ballot this year.

The proposed statement is intended to be supplemental to the AAA Principles of Professional Responsibility. It is thorough and carefully attentive to multiple domains of practice and diverse work environments, and includes guidance that reifies the central tenet of “do no harm” while suggesting, where possible, an additional aspiration to “do some good.” The guidelines themselves consist of seven principles deemed to be critical components of ethical anthropological practice:

  • acknowledge biases
  • consistently consider the implications of our work
  • connect with our anthropological colleagues
  • ensure transparency
  • establish clear research protocols
  • apply ethical guidelines to all aspects of practice
  • communicate inclusively and effectively

Each of these principles is described in detail in the statement. This also includes a background section that acknowledges the diversity of stakeholders and ambiguity of cultural contexts alongside the “do no harm” and “do some good” ideals that serve as the foundation for the document. The full text of both the current and proposed statements can be accessed for your review on the NAPA website.

 Such a statement is charged with providing guidance to safeguard stakeholders, practitioners, and science, to be sure, but also provides a critical sense of disciplinary unity in our work.

Throughout the intellectually challenging and beautifully collaborative process of arriving at the proposed new statement, I’ve come to consider an ethics statement as occupying two important roles for an association. Such a statement is charged with providing guidance to safeguard stakeholders, practitioners, and science, to be sure, but also provides a critical sense of disciplinary unity in our work. Given the new domains in which anthropologists have expanded their influence over the past 30 years, it feels especially appropriate to pay attention to central tenets that we share in common as anthropologists and that differentiate us from collaborators in other disciplines. In anthropology, a willingness to embrace the complexity of human nature has always been part of our ethos. We are all members of a diverse and complicated discipline working in abundantly diverse and complicated situations toward the AAA’s goal of “Advancing Knowledge, Solving Human Problems.”

On behalf of the subcommittee, the Ethics Committee and the Governing Council, we are hopeful that you will find the proposed ethics statement worthy of your approval and helpful to your own efforts to advance knowledge and solve human problems. We have tried to strike an appropriate balance between shared tradition emergent from “auld lang syne” and the contemporary challenges and opportunities of expanding anthropological influence, thus preserving our identity and safeguarding ourselves, our discipline, and those with whom we work. If you have questions about the statement or the process, feel free to reach out to me at [email protected].

 

Chad Morris is associate professor of anthropology and director of the Honors Program at Roanoke College. He serves as chair of the NAPA Ethics Committee and as the elected ethics representative to the AAA Members’ Programmatic, Advisory and Advocacy Committee (MPAAC).

To submit contributions to NAPA Section News, please contact contributing editor Briana Nichols ([email protected]).

Cite as: Morris, Chad. 2018. “Ethics and Auld Lang Syne.” Anthropology News website, February 22, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.773

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