NAPA AAA Ethics Position 2008

This statement was developed by members of the NAPA Governing Council and distributed to NAPA members in the July 15, 2008 NAPA eNewsletter.

By Dennis Wiedman, NAPA President
Florida International University

A motion now before the AAA Executive Board may have a major harmful impact on practicing anthropologists. At the General Business meeting in November, AAA members concerned about anthropologists’ involvement with the military made the motion which the Executive Board now needs to respond to. This motion calls for the reinstatement of phrases from the 1971 AAA Ethics Statement prohibiting “secret research” into the current ethics statement. Here is an example of the kind of phrases that NAPA finds problematic: “In accordance with the Association’s general position on clandestine and secret research, no reports should be provided to sponsors that are not also available to the general public and, where practicable, to the population studied.”

NAPA, with its mission to support practicing and professional anthropologists, considers the addition of the 1971 secrecy language to be outdated and antithetical to a publicly engaged practice of anthropology and the working world of most anthropologists employed outside of academic teaching departments.

A month ago, when the AAA Ethics Committee was considering this motion, NAPA distributed a position statement that strongly objected to the motion and to related efforts to erode the revised 1998 ethics statement. Since that time, the AAA Ethics Committee forwarded their report to the AAA Executive Board. AAA President Setha Low has now appointed a subcommittee of the Executive Board to consider the report. Their decision is expected by August 15th. The current AAA Code of Ethics can be viewed at:  NAPA’s position is that the proposed additions restoring the 1971 anti-secrecy clauses do not reflect the wide array of careers and occupations in which anthropologists have been employed for the past three and a half decades. Many Anthropologists have devoted their careers to working for companies, government agencies, tribal governments, non-profits organizations and even university administrations where the knowledge they generated using their anthropological skills was used to pursue the mission and goals of the organizations. Much of this information was requested and used by decision makers, policy makers and product developers in the everyday operation of their organizations.

Our ethical standards must reflect the new ways that anthropologists work. Who gets to see what and when and in what format is part of every single conversation surrounding research and service. In this globalized world there is now an expectation to honor the need for privacy; protection, or in some cases privileged access to information is given to some and not to others. If passed as policy, the return to 1971 notions of secret research jeopardizes the future of anthropology as a profession and the AAA as a professional association. These additions are very problematic to the work of professional, applied and practicing anthropologists who are now the majority of anthropologists with advanced degrees. The hundreds of Ph.D. and MA graduates each year who will not seek or attain jobs in academia will be penalized. These disenfranchised anthropologists will find other professional organizations to associate with, as many have already done.

This is not just an “us” vs. “them” issue within the discipline – the ethical conduct of research by all anthropologists calls for a thoughtful consideration of the individual circumstances that dictate how our findings are circulated. We need to prevent an absolutist dictate that provides no flexibility for us to ensure that we benefit the people with whom we work, those who sponsor our work, and the general pool of knowledge about human behavior to which we all aim to contribute.

We recommend that members attend the AAA Business Meeting in San Francisco in great numbers to address this issue and ensure that the opinions and voices of practicing anthropologists are heard.