ASA Ethics

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.

Download the ethical guidelines (PDF)

Key links

  • 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

Ethics - an overview

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 in-depth nature of the information produced by ethnographic research often presents ethical dilemmas, wherever anthropologists work. Our comparative, anti-ethnocentric stance is relevant to any kind of enquiry into human social life, as the groups with whom we conduct research 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 vulnerable 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, whether these are, for example, the social impacts of science and technology or the roots of conflict, social discrimination, violence and displacement.

The ASA maintains a set of Ethical Guidelines for the Conduct of Anthropological Research and regards these are foundational to professional practice. It has a key role in speaking out publicly about developments that threaten to compromise the ethical foundations of the discipline, and has done so on regular occasions: for example, in addressing issues about covert funding for students intended to work with national security agencies in the USA. Its primary aim is to stimulate further reflection about risks and possible unintended consequences in such circumstances, and to provide a framework that maintains the integrity of professional anthropological practices.

The ASA also seeks to encourage anthropologists to think about the ethical implications of their work in a profound and continuous way. An ethical approach most centrally avoids causing harm to our subjects by what we do in the field or write about them, and ideally ensures a reciprocal exchange of benefits. This requires much more than ticking off a check-list of dos and don'ts: risk assessment and dealing with uncertainties about consequences must be ongoing and relevant to – often dynamic – contexts. As Ian Harper and Alberto Corsin Jimnez point out in the position paper that follows, there are multiple 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 encompass the complexities of specific 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 Association 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.