Handbook on Ethical Issues

Some Issues and Sources on Ethics in Anthropology

Chapter 1

Murray L. Wax



From its emergence as a distinct discipline, anthropology has been oriented toward ethics and social policy. Edward B. Tylor concluded his survey of human culture with the remark that "the science of culture is essentially a reformer's science" (1958[1871]:539). A. R. Radcliffe-Brown would claim that he was moved to initiate his studies of simpler peoples on the advice of the celebrated Russian anarchist, Prince Peter Kropotkin, for whom such peoples manifested a system of organization which could prove an exemplar in a world dominated by autocracy and nationalism (Srinivas 1958:xviii). In the period pre-World War I, this ideal of anthropology as an ethical calling above the petty rivalries of nationalism inspired Franz Boas to moral outrage when he suspected that the disciplinary role had been used to cloak espionage (1919:797).

Until World War II, much of the anthropological literature on "morals" or "ethics" was directed from ethnology toward philosophy. The latter discipline was dominated by linguistic formalism in the service of a positivistic worldview, and philosophical ethics inquired as to the possible meanings of propositions such as "X is good" (MacIntyre 1981:Chapter 2). In this situation, it was a helpful contribution for MacBeath (1952) to use anthropological data to exhibit the varieties of ethical systems in natural societies. Brandt, a professional philosopher, studied Hopi ethics (1954), while Ladd studied Navajo ethics (1957), and Abraham Edel, the philosopher, collaborated with May Edel, the anthropologist, in interdisciplinary efforts (1955, 1959). Bidney, a professor of both anthropology and philosophy, labored to clarify the notion of "value" (1962).

Insofar as "ethics" were topics of serious concern among fieldworking anthropologists, the central issues were relativism and intervention. Since the history of relativism within anthropology has recently been neatly summarized by Hatch (1983), there is little need for me to repeat the review, except to note that the issue did and does provoke considerable discussion among professional philosophers (e.g., Krausz and Meiland 1982; Wellman 1963). It is sufficient to note the exchanges between the humanistic student of civilization, Redfield (1953), and the "orthodox" defender of cultural relativism, Herskovits (1973). On "intervention" the issue was whether or not, or how, to assist the people with whom one was involved as a fieldworker. Typically, such peoples were subjects of a Western colonial power, whose administration an anthropologist might hope to influence. For many fieldworkers the problem was intensified because of the notion that each culture was an integrated whole whose harmony might be damaged by casual intervention. Likewise, many felt constrained by the methodological ideal of the natural scientist, who was intrinsically detached from the objects of study.

These concerns were rendered nugatory by the rise of Nazism, fascism, and totalitarianism, regimes which conquered, enslaved, or massacred many peoples. In the ensuing war, anthropologists found themselves encouraged to serve in a variety of capacities. Faced with the threats of fascism and Nazism, most did so with great willingness, and, in this context, "ethics" became defined as the willingness to sacrifice professional career, or even life and limb, in the cause of "the Free World," of which the U.S. appeared to be the military and spiritual leader. Because of their cross-cultural training, a number of anthropologists were recruited into military intelligence, including the Office of Strategic Services (which was to be the forerunner of the CIA); others were commissioned as officers. Some were also involved in the complex processes after World War II, which involved peoples who had been enslaved, decimated, or displaced and were now liberated from brutal regimes. In accepting these roles, anthropologists could regard their conduct as simply the logical extension of their earlier benevolent roles acting as cultural broker or mediator, assisting peoples with simpler technology in their encounter with the civilized world.

After World War II, a polar fission of political worldviews erupted within the discipline. Federal agencies and private foundations were encouraging the growth of anthropology to match the responsibilities that the U.S. government now saw itself shouldering. A generation of dedicated and educated young people were studying anthropology and conducting fieldwork in the far comers of the earth. They returned with a sober and disenchanted view; they perceived great misery and continued oppression; projects that were publicly rationalized as benefiting tribal peoples were in fact actually benefiting members or strata of the ruling powers. Most important, the new anthropologists were encountering political rebelliousness guided by a sophisticated elite. Where, in an earlier age, fieldworkers had dealt with nonliterate peoples isolated from modern communications, now they were encountering leaders familiar with the rhetoric of Western political discourse, including its nationalism, populism, and Marxism. (Asad 1975 contains critical appraisals of the roles that anthropologists had played in the earlier colonial context.)

In North America, the witty satire and sage intercultural critique of Vine Deloria, Jr., (Sioux) heralded a new age in which anthropologists were to be called to account by Indian representatives. While he is known among the public for his ridicule of fieldworkers, in collegial communication he urges anthropologists to reflect seriously about the effects of their work and to assume a helpful role in relation to the abundant problems of Indian peoples (1980). Other Native American leaders have unfurled the banner of "Red Power" and provoked a series of dramatic confrontations with federal authorities (e.g., the occupations of Alcatraz, Wounded Knee, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices in Washington, D.C.). These became exciting events for the media but troublesome cases for anthropologists, because it was not clear what was desired by--or desirable for--the larger aggregate of Indian communities (Washburn 1985).

Where the pre-World War II generation of anthropologists had regarded their national military and intelligence services with an ethically neutral (or, in some cases, beneficent) eye, the following generations developed the suspicious and antagonistic view of Third World leaders. From this perspective, employment with these national agencies was a prostitution of valuable professional talents for monies and prestige; it was a betrayal of the peoples whose welfare anthropology had claimed to cherish. "Ethics" were now defined as a conscientious refusal to accept such monies or employment. Nevertheless, many of the older generation continued to have faith in the difference between a democratic United States and its (past or present) totalitarian rivals (Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Imperial Japan, Stalinist Soviet Union). Where one group was impressed with the exploitation of peoples struggling under colonial or imperialist rule, the other was impressed with the miseries under fascist and Bolshevik-Leninist regimes. These differences erupted with the case of Project Camelot.

Emerging out of the intricate infighting within the federal government, and reflecting the goal of the Department of Defense to outmaneuver the Department of State, the Project was inherently self-contradictory. On the one hand, it was to be staffed by academicians and its data were to be publicly available; on the other hand, it was to be of service to the military in stabilizing friendly regimes and inhibiting their overthrow. On the one hand, its orientation was to protect democracy; on the other hand, to safeguard the allies of the United States, regardless of the shape of their regime. Such an intermixture had led to successful projects during the Second World War, when the target peoples had been either enemies or the passive subjects of one or another military hegemony. But, in the post-World War II era, it encountered the strenuous opposition of the intellectual and political leadership of the Third World. U.S. social scientists found themselves accused of being tools of Yanqui imperialism, or, at the least, unforgivably naive. Meanwhile, in Washington, the rivals of the military used the embarrassment as an opportunity to restrain its abilities at sponsorship within limits that excluded much of the comparative studies that were the province of anthropology. The military could sponsor research in high technology, but not in culture, social organization, and political stability. To the older generation of anthropologists, this signified that the military was to remain encapsulated within a technical worldview, and this was a source for regret and concern; to the younger generation, this was a step in restraining a military service that had become the instrument of overt imperialism (Beals 1969; Deitchman 1976; Horowitz et al. 1967; Wax and Cassell 1979).

By the time that the United States had become militarily involved in the conflict in Southeast Asia, the pendulum had thus swung far in the direction where "ethics" were defined as a refusal to have any dealings with the military side of government, or with any aspect of government that seemed to sustain an imperialistic orientation. While the political rhetoric was heated, the literature dealt with important and difficult issues. (See the essays by Berreman et al. in "The Social Responsibilities Symposium," 1968.)

In the revulsion following the Nuremberg trials, there emerged a powerful social movement emphasizing the notion of individual moral responsibility, regardless of the dictates of the officials of the state or of other organized bodies. Correlatively, there emerged the notion of monitoring the conduct of physicians and biomedical researchers, so that they did not abuse or exploit their patients in the name of science or any other ideological principle. The regulatory system thus instituted spread to include any scientific discipline that could be regarded as having "human subjects" who were subjected to procedures that imposed risks, or that might, without their consent, be inflictive of harm. The resultant biomedical literature is now considerable, and while it is diverse and uneven, at its core are essays of depth which illuminate the critical social issues (see National Commission 1978). If there is a weakness to the literature it derives from the predispositions of mainstream U.S. culture, namely its individualism, its reluctance to accept the notion that there may be values more significant than life (brute existence), and its inability to face the dilemmas that ensue when social resources are finite.

As this movement (Wulff 1979) gained momentum, anthropological fieldworkers found themselves confronting Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), whose existence was mandated by the federal government as a condition of institutional eligibility for participation in the economy of grants, fellowships, and contracts. Since the relevant commissions had taken no testimony from anthropologists about the moral issues of their research, the regulations were framed to control the activities of biomedical researchers, and so applied but clumsily to the process of fieldwork. Meanwhile, university administrators were using the regulatory system as a device to regulate or even suppress such activities as public opinion polls conducted by student newspapers. The resulting institutional friction generated not only movements of protest but of inquiry and research that have helped to illuminate the ethical issues in anthropological fieldwork (Wax and Cassell 1979). In this process, "ethics" for anthropologists became redefined as having to do with the nature of interaction between fieldworker and hosts, and, in particular, with such issues as "informed consent" and with whether or not benefit (or harm) might issue from the project (Cassell and Wax 1980). The morality of covert field research remains a key issue; it is noteworthy that this issue could not and cannot arise in many traditional anthropological contexts (e.g., Raymond Firth in Tikopia; Jean Briggs among the Utku of Chantrey Inlet), but it can and does arise when fieldwork is attempted among modern urban populations (Bulmer 1982).

The ferment among social scientists led the federal government to revise its regulations (Thomson et al. 1981 appraises the new regulations from the perspective of the American Association of University Professors). Despite these revisions, some researchers have continued to be critical of the very premises of the regulatory effort (Douglas 1979; for a critical British view, note Punch 1986). Critics such as Warwick (1982) assert that social researchers have wrought much harm; opponents such as Galliher (1980) respond that the regulatory system serves to protect malefactors from exposure.

An incidental consequence has been that a number of philosophers have moved from the linguistic analysis of moral statements to an engagement with social policy. Others have reviewed the history of ethical deliberation from a standpoint that is influenced by the sociology and anthropology of knowledge. Particularly outstanding has been the work of Alasdair Maclntyre (1966, 1981), a professional philosopher who has an excellent familiarity with the social sciences.

Summary Recommendations

Barnes (1979) is oriented historically, viewing social research as having first begun within a "natural science paradigm" where ethical considerations were minimal. Moving beyond that paradigm, one realizes that social inquiry initiates dealings with fellow scientists, citizens (hosts, informants, respondents), project sponsors, and gatekeepers. From each, one may anticipate criticism and either assistance or restrictions. Familiar with a wide range of literature, and knowledgeable about the criticisms that inquiry has provoked, Barnes has performed an anthropological critique that is of great value.

Barnes (1977) contains the texts of three lectures delivered in Bangalore, India, and so is especially sensitive to the concerns of non-Western peoples. In illuminating fashion, he reviews a number of instances of research, including the Wichita Jury Study, the Glacier Project (study of a London factory by a team from Tavistock), Kashmiri Pandits, Zuni, and Camelot. The issues include deception, and knowledge as power and as property.

Appell has been a pioneer in the modern concern over fieldwork ethics. For those who are interested in case materials, his 1978 volume contains a large variety solicited from a number of working anthropologists.

Sieber (1982) and Beauchamp et al. (1982) grow out of the same project, sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and attempting to bring social research within the orbit of discussion of protection of human subjects. The essays in the Beauchamp volume focus mainly on psychological and sociological research, with the notable exception of an essay by Cassell. By publishing her collection as two volumes, Sieber has managed to make of the one listed here a collection of especial interest to anthropologists, with essays by Cassell, Glazer, Johnson, and Wax.

Cassell and Wax (1980) is the product of a series of conferences of fieldworkers. A special issue of the journal Social Problems, it contains contributions by the philosopher-theologian William F. May, the American Indian spokesman Vine Deloria, Jr., anthropologists Appell, Chambers, Jacobs, Schensul, Trend, and the team of Hessler, New, and May, as well as sociologists Galliher and Thome.

Rynkiewich and Spradley (1976) contains a variety of cases focusing predominantly on the issues created for subordinated peoples (and fieldworkers) by powerful bureaucracies. While the cases may be dated, the issues remain vital.

Green (1984) is a special issue of The Wisconsin Sociologist featuring essays by anthropologists Barnes, Montandon, and Wax.

Warwick is experienced in cross-cultural research in the South Pacific. In his 1980 essay he effectively communicates the criticisms that such research has provoked, and this makes it of value for cautioning those who hope to conduct overseas projects. Perhaps because he is himself so critical (1982) of the ethical practices of social researchers, he does not always take pains to differentiate the rhetorical flailings of Third World gatekeepers from the actual failings of Western researchers.

Many of the formal textbooks on the protection of human subjects in social research have concentrated on psychological experimentation and sociological surveys. Depending on their projects, anthropologists may find value in some of them (e.g., Diener and Crandall 1978; Bower and de Gasparis 1978). Reynolds (1979) has a useful set of appendices containing such items as "The Nuremberg Code" (1946), "The Declaration of Helsinki (1964), and "a composite code; use of human subjects in research."

In this review, I have focused on issues as they have been posed for North American anthropologists, but I have tried to cite some other literature. In addition to the works of Barnes, Bulmer, and Punch, already cited, I should mention Akeroyd (1984) and Kloos (1985).

References Cited

Akeroyd, Anne
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Asad, Talal, ed.
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Barnes, J. A.
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Beals, Ralph L.
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Beauchamp, Tom L., et al., eds.
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Brandt, Richard B.
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Cassell, Joan, and Murray L. Wax, eds.
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Deitchman, Seymour J.
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Diener, Edward, and Rick Crandall
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Punch, Maurice
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Redfield, Robert
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Warwick, Donald P.
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Washburn, Wilcomb E.
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Wax, Murray, L., and Joan Cassell, eds.
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