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Steps to a Successful Ethics Code Update
CENTER ONLINE, 02/11/2013

Have you given your members the best possible guidance for ethical conduct in your industry or profession? Even organizations that have ethics codes on the books need to update them periodically to keep them relevant. The American Anthropological Association's recent ethics code revision is a model of successful collaboration.

Because of the way anthropologists conduct research, they often form extended relationships with the people they study. As a result, anthropologists have long been leaders among social scientists in placing ethics at the forefront of their disciplinary discourse and practice.

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) first adopted a statement of professional ethics in 1967, and it has undergone intense discussion and periodic revision ever since. The most recent revision may serve as a helpful example of how to successfully review and update an organization's ethics code.

From debates in the mid-1960s over covert research sponsored by the U.S. military in Vietnam and elsewhere to more recent allegations that a research team mistreated members of an indigenous South American group (the Darkness in El Dorado controversy), anthropologists have struggled to come to terms with difficult questions: For example, is covert research ever acceptable? Must researchers' primary ethical allegiance always be to the people they study?

In 2009, argument erupted over anthropologists' participation in the U.S. military's Human Terrain System program, in which anthropologists helped the military study and understand the culture of local populations in areas of Iraq and Afghanistan where American troops were deployed. That controversy—over whether anthropologists may ethically conduct studies that may not be in the best interests of participants—spurred minor amendments to AAA's ethics code, after which the association formed a task force to review and revise its code more systematically.

The task forced construed its assignment broadly: to gain a deeper understanding of the contexts in which anthropologists currently work and to consider the implications for the role an ethics statement can play in anthropologists' professional lives.

With that goal in mind, the task force began a three-year process of review and revision that led to the AAA's adoption of a new set of "Principles of Professional Responsibility" in November 2012. The process the task force used offers guidance for other associations seeking to create a practical, accessible, and up-to-date ethics code for members.

Gathering Input

Although the task force members were selected to represent a broad range of perspectives, anthropology is a large and diverse discipline, including work ranging from archeological projects undertaken in collaboration with communities to laboratory research on biological specimens. For this reason, the task force felt it was critical to solicit input from a wide range of stakeholders. These included standing committees and the numerous AAA sections that represent anthropologists' various scholarly interests; relevant outside groups such as the World Health Organization, the American Psychological Association, and the Linguistic Society of America; and the AAA membership at large.

The task force administered an association-wide survey to assess the perceived purpose and utility of ethics codes as well as the expectations members had of AAA's code. Task force members hosted panels and discussion sessions at AAA annual meetings, and they sought input from students. In the final year of the review, the draft code was posted segment by segment to an open blog on the AAA website and revised in light of incoming public comment before being submitted to the AAA Executive Board for review. The membership as a whole voted on the final version.

The document that resulted from this process is organized differently from previous AAA ethics statements. Previous statements were more akin to legal codes, but the newly adopted Principles of Professional Responsibility [PDF] takes the form of a living document in a simple, user-friendly format. It consists of seven basic principles (such as "Do no harm" and "Obtain informed consent and necessary permissions"), each followed by several paragraphs of exposition. Embedded in the text are links to case studies and other resources inviting readers to explore the ethical complexities that arise in actual practice.

The document will be maintained online and the links regularly updated by AAA's Committee on Ethics.

Keys to Success

Several features of AAA's review and revision process contributed to its success and may guide other ethics-code development efforts:

  • The process was consultative in nature. The task force spared no effort in seeking input from key constituencies to promote community-wide awareness and involvement.
  • The task force remained conscious of the discipline's history. Keeping the anthropological community's hot-button issues always in mind prepared the task force to channel and defuse the differences of opinion that the review process inevitably triggered (for example, there has been a long-standing debate over whether AAA should adjudicate claims of unethical behavior; at present it does not).
  • Face-to-face meetings played an important role. In-person meetings of task force members helped enormously in bridging the individual differences among them.
  • The process was not rushed. Although the revision was originally meant to take only two years, AAA granted the task force additional time to lay all the groundwork it felt was necessary before it began drafting the text of the new code.

It is never easy to reach consensus about what belongs in a profession's formal ethics code. But, by listening to practitioners in the field along with other stakeholders, relying on a collaborative process, and taking the time needed to ensure that all relevant viewpoints have been carefully considered, associations can determine what will be most helpful in enabling their members to practice their discipline in accordance with the highest ethical standards.

Lise M. Dobrin is current chair of the American Anthropological Association Committee on Ethics. Dena Plemmons chaired the AAA's Code Review Task Force. Email: ld4n@cms.mail.virginia.edu; dplemmons@ucsd.edu

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