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Anthropologists Approve Comprehensive Overhaul of Ethics Code

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November 7, 2012

Contact Name: Anne Kelsey
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Anthropologists Approve Comprehensive Overhaul of Ethics Code

After a five-year review process, members of the American Anthropological Association have approved a rigorous overhaul of their ethics code.  The code offers guidance to anthropologists as to how they should conduct themselves in professional and academic settings, in collecting and disseminating research data, and in their relationships with research subjects, colleagues and students.  The new document, titled “Statement on Ethics: Principles of Professional Responsibility,” strengthens the previous ethics code, adapts it to the digital age, and makes use of a fundamentally new format.  Members were given six weeks to vote on the code, which was approved by an overwhelming 93 percent of those who voted.

The first AAA ethics code was written in 1971, in response to controversies over the Vietnam War. Where previous AAA ethics codes resembled straightforward legal codes, the new Principles of Professional Responsibility take the form of a hyperlinked living document in a simple, user-friendly format.  While still offering guidance for ethical conduct in the form of general principles, the new document features embedded hypertext links to pertinent case study materials, reference documents, websites and articles. The Statement has a series of references after each defining principle to allow the readers to find further sources of information and data.  These resources give readers a richer sense of the context of the ethics code and of specific dilemmas anthropologists have faced in their work.

The Principles of Professional Responsibility are built around seven basic organizing principles: do no harm, be open and honest regarding your work, obtain informed consent and necessary permissions, weigh competing ethical obligations due collaborators and affected parties, make your results accessible, protect and preserve your records, and maintain respectful and ethical professional relationships.  

This revision of the ethics code has its origins in the controversy over U.S. Army human terrain teams five years ago.  In response to that controversy the AAA convened a Task Force on Comprehensive Ethics Review, chaired by Dena Plemmons (UCSD).  The membership of that Task Force was carefully chosen to represent the different sub-disciplines of anthropology as well as a range of opinions on anthropological work for the military.  The recommendations of the Task Force were passed forward to the AAA Executive Board, which created a separate review group led by Hugh Gusterson (George Mason U) and Monica Heller (U Toronto). This committee finalized the version accepted by the Executive Board in April and approved by the membership in October.

“The effort to revise our ethics code, undertaken over several years, involved   outreach  to the entire membership and negotiation with our many different subdisciplines, communities and interests to produce a document that would be useful for teaching and practice,” AAA President Leith Mullings said in a statement released today. “This document is the result of intense discussion between biological anthropologists, archaeologists, linguistic anthropologists, cultural anthropologists and applied anthropologists. I look forward to the stewardship of this document by our Committee on Ethics, which will facilitate discussion and update the hyperlinked resources as conditions change”.

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