Amending the ASA ethical guidelines
Amendments to the ASA ethics guidelines were proposed and emphatically endorsed at an Extraordinary AGM held at the ASA2011 conference in Lampeter on 15th September 2011. We hope the code will be a valuable teaching and research tool. Members are urged to bring to the attention of the ASA ethics officer (email ethics(at)theasa.org ) any amendments that they would like to make to the ethics guidelines and suggested amendments can be added annually to the Guidelines as Addenda, on approval at the ASA AGM.
- Read about the ‘Ethics of Apology’ open meeting at ASA 2008, Auckland
- Contribute to discussions on Ethics discussion by visiting the ASA's new blog
- Read contributions and comments made on the early ASA ethics blog
- Read the minutes of an open meeting (word file) discussing ethics
- AAA website on ethics; including a number of ethical case studies as well
- Position paper presented at ASA05 conference offering a fuller discussion and explanation of this initiative by Ian Harper and Alberto Corsin Jimnez - available here
- Report from a Dec 04 meeting on Ethical and Methodological Issues In Researching International Aid Organisations held at IDS - here (word file)
- Click here to see the ASA's Ethical guidelines
- Click here to see apply's ethics pages
A statement on ethics from the Chair
Although all research on human subjects and their social and cultural life raises ethical issues, those posed by anthropological studies are especially wide ranging and profound. The intimate nature of the information produced by ethnographic research is only one aspect of the ethical dilemmas anthropologists habitually face, wherever they work. Our comparative, anti-ethnocentric stance is relevant to any kind of enquiry into human social life, as our subjects range from the (relatively) powerless to the (apparently extremely) powerful, and our "sites" now range from the command and control centres of transnational corporations and multilateral agencies to the most fragile of human populations in geographically and socially marginal situations, with a very great deal of our attention focused on the no less ethically demanding terrain of social lives lived in between these poles. In a world in which "places" are increasingly seen as something that human beings construct within networks of flows and relations that often transcend national frontiers, the structure and dynamics of the power relations that make up our world and the way we talk about it have become increasingly central to anthropological concerns. With this concern comes a heightened sensitivity to the ethics of what anthropologists are trying to accomplish when they address controversial issues - be they, for example, the social impacts of science and technology or the roots of conflict, social discrimination, violence and displacement.
The ASA is the custodian of a set of Ethical Guidelines for the Conduct of Anthropological Research, but the Association does not and will not act as a tribunal for judging whether individuals have committed some infraction of our codes. We will continue to speak out publicly about any developments that threaten to compromise the ethical foundations of the discipline, as we did recently in arguing that the covert funding offered by the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program in the United States to students who would subsequently work for national security agencies should be discontinued, but our mission is not to castigate, much less to promote witch-hunts. By speaking out on PRISP, we aimed to stimulate further reflection about risks and possible unintended consequences, which in this particular case appear to have ample historical precedents. Yet the Association can and should do much more than react to particular problems as they arise.
What the ASA seeks to do is to encourage anthropologists to think about the ethical implications of their work in a broader, more profound and continuous way. One aspect of an ethical approach is certainly to avoid causing harm to our subjects by what we do in the field or write about them. This requires much more than ticking off a check-list of dos and don'ts: risk assessment and assessment of areas of absolute uncertainty about consequences must be ongoing and relevant to context, a context that we need to think about as something that might change in the future. Ethical scrutiny after the event is hardly of much practical benefit to the people concerned when lasting damage is done to a particular group, as has sometimes happened when, for example, anthropologists have acted to support the geopolitical interests of their nation of origin and its government decides to walk away from erstwhile allies who have become an embarrassment. Yet as Ian Harper and Alberto Corsin Jimnez point out in the position paper that follows, this is only one of the dimensions that we need to consider in seeking to practice an ethically engaged anthropology in the "intellectually holistic sense" proposed by one of our former Chairs, Pat Caplan.
Codes of practice and guidelines are of necessity succinct documents, couched in abstract and general terms. They serve as a baseline for starting to think about ethical issues, but cannot of their nature encompass the complexities of concrete situations and the dilemmas of choice and positioning that anthropologists routinely face as they navigate through a variety of intersecting fields of power and responsibility and start to consider how their own work both reflects and affects power relations. If ethics is seen simply as a question of avoiding a lawsuit and our codes are simply a list of restrictions on conduct designed to protect us from interference, our ethical purpose will simply be a matter of self-serving professional interest.
The new initiative on ethics that we are now launching aims to promote a quite different kind of enterprise: case-based, ethnographically grounded, debate that is not simply about our professional practice but about our contributions to public debates about ethical principles and practice in the world. Our vision is not one framed by a fixed code, periodically updated and revised by a few individuals, but of a far broader and constantly evolving dialogue that will address changing scenarios and new dilemmas as they arise. The results will no doubt be unpredictable and at times messy, but we are confident that they will be productive.
Prof John Gledhill, Chair of the ASA