Ethics in Anthropology: Public Presentation of Anthropological Material

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Ethics in Anthropology: Public Presentation of Anthropological Material

Professor L. Belote Senior Seminar, Spring 2001


  • Anne Erickson
  • Molly Hayes
  • Stephan Sabatke
  • Rebecca Vargo
  • Jennifer Wall


What shapes the public perception of anthropology, and how do the ethical choices made by individual anthropologists affect this perception? There is a mythical quality to the tales of the inevitable Indiana Jones questions that arise when one announces an association with anthropology, and almost every anthropologist tells them, with a greater or lesser degree of exaggeration. The Leakeys are well known in the general public, due perhaps as much to their dynastic qualities and connection to primatologists Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey as to a popular understanding of their works. Margaret Mead was the anthropologist who took anthropology out of academia and fixed it in the view of the American public, and her work in this role has not been surpassed to this day. Most Americans, however, are first exposed to anthropology in a setting they do not necessarily associate with anthropology: museums, in particular historical museums, but also art museums and collections maintained at national parks and historic sites.

Our project set out to examine the ethical issues involved in the presentation of anthropological material to the public, and to consider the role of public activism by anthropologists. We began with the American Anthropological Association’s Code of Ethics, which, along with other ethical codes, has been the focus of discussions of ethics in anthropology during the 1990s, culminating in 2000 with the publication of Darkness in El Dorado and the accompanying debates. Our research included literature on the history of public anthropology, historical examinations of ethics in anthropology, the role of ethical codes in museums, and considerations of individual anthropologist’s presentation of their work. We also interviewed professors of anthropology and practicing anthropologists about their views on, and experiences with, ethics in the presentation of their work to the public. As a group and in class we discussed specific ethical dilemmas, and the reasoning behind the choices we believe we would make if faced with such ethical choices.

Historical Perspective on Anthropology and the Public

Making materials accessible and popular has been essential throughout the history of anthropology. Tyler, Malinowski, Frazer, Levi-Strauss and others sought to express their political, social and theoretical views to a popular audience, and saw this as a means to ensure the survival of the discipline. Anthropology’s beginnings in France, Great Britain and America were similar in that there was a gathering of professionals who were not anthropologists per se, but who studied anthropological themes. The discipline’s first “professionals” emerged from these intellectuals and the curators of ethnographic collections (MacClancy 1996: 7). From the early 1800s through the 1940s, British and American work was commonly written for literary weeklies and monthlies. Disseminating material in this manner can be viewed as a method of popularizing anthropology within the academy, since the main audience was the educated public (MacClancy 1996: 40). In France, material was written for a general audience, not just the educated minority. In his essay, “Popularizing Anthropology,” Jeremy MacClancy gives the example of the popular “Terre Humaine” collection from the 1950s:

We were the first to put top people and supposedly lower-rank people on the same literary level...We have taken rural thought out of the university museum and folklore studies in which it was bogged down. Le Cheval d’Orgueil...the autobiography of a Breton peasant...showed townspeople that peasants were not the idiots they though them to be, but bearers of complex thought. And then, every Frenchman discovered that he had in his father or grandfather some peasant ancestry. The French intelligentsia discovered its own mental, religious and mythic substrate in European peasant civilization...” (in Benthal 1987: 8-9).

Wendy James’ essay, “Anthropology’s dramatis personae,” states that the public presentation of anthropological material allows for “Western self-reflection” when presented as an Us/Them or We/The Other type of theme. For example: Malinowski’s writing on the Trobrianders reflected Freudian theory; Evans-Pritchard’s book on Zande magic challenged the European rationale; and Turnbull’s work on the Ik questioned “the reader’s conscience and the fragility of all culture” (1996: 85). However, space and time constraints may require primary ethnographic material to be edited, removing much of the content and context. According to James, such abridgement meant “not only sacrificing a lot of detail, it meant sacrificing a good deal of the internal dialectic of interpretation” (1996: 89). Even personal interpretations of scholarly work is limited to the understanding of the reader, as MacClancy demonstrates with a quote: “Ever read The Golden Bough? No, too long for you. Shorter version though. Ought to read it. Proves our sexual habits are pure convention -- like wearing a black tie with a dinner jacket” (Chandler 1953: 212-213).

In the late 19th century, the National Museum, America’s first anthropological institution, displayed exotic exhibits at the World’s Fairs in order to demonstrate evolution and diversity. Barnum & Baily’s, from 1893 to 1895, displayed the The Great Ethnological Congress as 74 non-Western people (MacClancy 1996: 17). Evolution was a hot topic in the late 1800s, and anthropological debates filled lecture halls and promoted book sales. James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, was both famous and financially successful, and his work influenced such literary elites as Joseph Conrad, Ezra Pound, Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer (MacClancy 1996: 10). Malinowski shamelessly promoted his ethnographic and theoretical material. He held seminars, wrote forwards for a variety of books, sat on editorial boards for progressive journals and debated popular topics in public lectures (MacClancy 1996: 13).

Alan Campbell wrote in his essay “Tricky Tropes” that there are preconceived notions about “popular” and “scholarly” writing. Popular writing is for those who want to promote themselves rather than their ideas, whereas scholarly writing is for those who wish to promote their ideas and consider it a bonus if fame follows. If fame was not achieved in the general public, the scholastic anthropologist could rest comfortably with the idea that their work was probably too complex and sophisticated for a wider, popular audience to understand (1996: 59-60). However, an anthropological presentation that reaches a wide audience, both within and without academia -- for example, Eric Hobsbawn’s trilogy on the Long Century -- without being “esoteric, obscure, specialized, jargon-laden...It’s a magnificent achievement. It’s the result of scholarship at its best” (1996: 73)

Ethical Responsibilities in Museums

One of the most common ways that anthropology reaches a public audience is through museums. Merriam-Webster's collegiate dictionary defines a museum as "An institution devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value." A museum is a place where the public can be educated about diverse peoples, cultures, and time periods. For many people this is their only exposure to this information. For this reason the museum has a great responsibility to be accurate. The responsibility of representing diverse peoples and cultures can bring into question many ethical dilemmas.

Peter van Mensch, in his thesis "Ethics in Museology," lists seven main ethical responsibilities upon which all museum codes of ethics agree. They are as follows:

  1. Responsibility to the maker (and first user) of the object and his or her society.
  2. Responsibility to the preservation of the information value (including the aesthetic and emotional values) of the object and its physical and intellectual accessibility
  3. Responsibility to the institute with which the official is associated, regardless of whether this association is temporary or permanent, paid or unpaid, or whether the official is employed by the institute or has volunteered his or her services.
  4. Responsibility to those who made the activities possible by financial support
  5. Responsibility to colleagues inside and outside the institute concerned, including professionals associated with non-museum institutes such as academic researchers.
  6. Responsibility to the visitors to permanent and temporary exhibitions and to participants in other activities.
  7. Responsibility to the community as a whole, now and in the future. Many of these responsibilities are interrelated we will look at a few and give some examples of how they can be applied (1992: 5).

The first ethical responsibility acknowledges that museums need to take into consideration the maker and or the people that the object originated from. Any time an item is obtained or is going to be displayed the museum has an obligation to consult the ethnic group or maker and respect their wishes on its exhibition. At Glensheen museum, a historic mansion in Duluth, the director, William Miller, acknowledges the importance of keeping up a good relationship with the family that lived there. Legally there is no obligation, but ethically he feels that this is important. Before the house was donated to the University of Minnesota in Duluth, the family took all items of sentimental value. Therefore, anything that remained was intended to be displayed. The museum is also careful about issues that are sensitive to the family and chooses not to disclose some of this information on their tours (Personal Communication April 2001).

When asked whether museums have an obligation to current Native Americans, Sharon Fodness, an anthropology professor at Central Lakes College involved in the creation of a museum on campus, answered:

Certainly, the trend has been strongly focused on including, and in fact, giving priority to, native voices. Given the difficult history of anthropology, I find it essential that the museum take the role of providing a situation in which people can tell their own stories, rather than have their lives interpreted by an outsider who may not know the whole story, or who may skew the story to match her own cultural assumptions. Additionally, museums must take much greater care in honoring native beliefs and values (Personal Communication April 2001).

Fodness gives the example of eagle feathers, which are sacred to the Ojibwe. When the Mille Lacs Indian museum, which is under Minnesota Historical Society ownership, reopened after remodeling, the band decided not to display sacred eagle feathers to the public. They instead keep them in a special “sacred room” available only to certain elders. Fodness remarks, “Though not under any legal obligation” the museum at Central Lakes college will follow this policy as well “because it respects cultural values” (Personal Communication April 2001).

The second responsibility involves the value of an object. Postmodernist anthropologist James Clifford asserts that removing objects from their ethnographic contexts distorts the meaning of the objects. He believes that museums that display objects need to represent the background of the object in its entirety. He says, "to locate ‘tribal’ peoples in a nonhistorical time and ourselves in a different, historical time is clearly tendentious and no longer credible" (Clifford 1988: 322). Museums need to represent the value of an object in relation to its past as well as its present in order to understand it. An example he uses is an indigenous piece of art in a modern art museum. Here it is seen only for its aesthetic beauty, leaving out the emotional or spiritual ties that could be connected to it. Anthropologist Denis Dutton gives the example of African art. He says it is "indigenous intentions, values, descriptions, and constructions which must be awarded theoretical primacy." If an African carving is intended by its maker to embody a spirit this is an ascertainable fact about it (Dutton 1995: 334). A museum has the responsibility to preserve not only the object but also its aesthetic and emotional values, whatever that may entail.

The fourth responsibility is to the people who give financial support to the museum. In the case of Glensheen, Miller acknowledges the obligations to the donors. The museum has to make sure they honor the preferences of where the donors want the funds applied. They are also obligated to use the money as intended and be honest about where it goes. (Personal Communication April 2001).

The last two responsibilities have to do with the museum’s direct relationship to the public. They have the responsibility of keeping exhibitions up, as well as a responsibility to educate and inform the public. Miller says the educational component is key at Glensheen. To Miller there is no distinction between preservation and education. It is important to preserve, but the reason you preserve is to educate. He remarks that there is not much value in keeping thing locked up; the value comes in the educational use. On the tour, people learn about the construction, decorations and adornments of the house and how it was influenced by the mining and early economic development in Duluth. The museum recognizes the need and obligation to be honest and portray the house, family, historical period and politics accurately. As a result of this honesty, the public is not misinformed.

Ethics: Personal, Public and Professional

The section on Responsibility to the Public may be the only section of the revised AAA Code of Ethics that imposes fewer duties than its predecessor, the Statement on Ethics-Principles of Professional Responsibility. The following excerpt is from the 1971 version:

Anthropologists are also responsible to the public--all presumed consumers of their professional efforts. To them they owe a commitment to candor and to truth in the dissemination of their research results and in the statement of their opinions as students of humanity.

a. Anthropologists should not communicate findings secretly to some and withhold them from others.

c. In providing professional opinions, anthropologists are responsible not only for their content but also for integrity in explaining both these opinions and their bases.

d. As people who devote their professional lives to understanding people, anthropologists bear a positive responsibility to speak out publicly, both individually and collectively, on what they know and what they believe as a result of their professional expertise gained in the study of human beings. That is, they bear a professional responsibility to contribute to an "adequate definition of reality" upon which public opinion and public policy may be based (AAA 1971, emphasis added).

Compare this to the full text of the section on Responsibility to the Public in the 1998 Code of Ethics:
1. Anthropological researchers should make the results of their research appropriately available to sponsors, students, decision makers, and other non anthropologists. In so doing, they must be truthful; they are not only responsible for the factual content of their statements but also must consider carefully the social and political implications of the information they disseminate. They must do everything in their power to insure that such information is well understood, properly contextualized, and responsibly utilized. They should make clear the empirical bases upon which their reports stand, be candid about their qualifications and philosophical or political biases, and recognize and make clear the limits of anthropological expertise. At the same time, they must be alert to possible harm their information may cause people with whom they work or colleagues.

2. Anthropologists may choose to move beyond disseminating research results to a position of advocacy. This is an individual decision, but not an ethical responsibility (AAA 1998, emphasis added).

Two things changed: emphasis was placed on particular groups within the general public, rather than “the public” as a whole, and; public advocacy became an individual choice, not an ethical obligation. Clearly, the idea of what constitutes ethical behavior in the presentation of anthropological materials is subject to variation over time.

We spoke with only one anthropologist who would proffer a simple answer to the question of how ethics is defined: Dr. Mitra Emad, who told us that ethics is “right and wrong” (Class Lecture April 2001). During her visit to our class, however, Dr. Emad answered many questions in ways that were pointedly ironic, indicating that these are complicated issues that cannot be answered succinctly and universally.2 Most of the anthropologists we spoke with believe that ethics are personal and, like the discipline, holistic. Ethics are not something to be taken out of context and defined, as ethical decisions are made almost constantly, and the choices one might make are dependent on many variables. Another UMD professor, Dr. Tim Roufs, responded that ethics are “beliefs (including values) and behaviors, and that acting ethically involves living in accordance with commonly accepted beliefs of the group(s) of which one is a member” (Personal Communication April 2001). This was in keeping with description of ethics given to us by Dr. Bob Evans from the UMD Philosophy department, in which he included such social conventions as sitting on chairs rather than standing on tables in a classroom (Class Lecture April 2001), raising the importance of knowing the accepted behaviors for whatever group one may find oneself in. Of course, when one is a member of many different groups (for example, an anthropologist who is also a citizen of a country and has a religious affiliation) there may be ethical conflicts. This is not a question we addressed in our interviews specifically, but it came up indirectly in other contexts. One person pointed out that with ethics, there is always an “except.” “Society has standards and those are close to the ‘big E,’ like thou shalt not kill, ‘except...’ There is always an ‘except,’ like war or someone who had the wrong religious belief.” (Steve Mulholland, Personal Communication April 2001). So, while ethics may be a personal decision between right and wrong, no one we spoke with expressed the conviction that there are cut-and-dried answers, knowable in advance, with which one can arm oneself before undertaking anthropological work. The various codes of ethics for anthropologists can be a jumping-off point from which to explore the realm of possible ethical issues which may arise in the field and beyond. One way to know one’s own ethics is to explore the ethics of personal relationships, and then, as Dr. Dave Smith said, “treat your informants with even more respect” (Personal Communication April 2001).

The idea of professional codes of ethics in anthropology may stem from a need to have some sort of script to follow in interpersonal communications. A conflict of ethical considerations is inherent when the intention to carry out objective research meets the intersubjective nature of anthropology. Professional codes are used in many other fields with the intent to assure clients of the technical and moral quality of the service provided. However, Franz Boas’ denunciation of anthropologists spying for the U.S. government during World War I3 is just one example of the ethical worries that were apparent in anthropology long before any attempt was made to codify ethical standards in the discipline (Pels 1999). In Mobilizing Culture and Personality for World War II, Virginia Yans-McLaughlin writes of Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Ruth Benedict and others who worked for the government during World War II: “They thought of themselves as objective scientists committed to free expression of ideas; but now they found themselves faced with the dilemma of whether they would play a part in the manipulation of ideas” (1986: 207). Nevertheless, it was not until the outrage over Project Camelot4 in the mid-1960s that there was an attempt to create the “first ethical code in the field” (Pels 1999: 15), and the American Anthropological Association drafted its 1971 Statement on Ethics-Principles of Professional Responsibility. The idea that a code of ethics is necessary is not held universally within the field of anthropology, nor do anthropologists agree on what a code should contain. George Appell has argued for a case method of instruction in ethics, on the principle that a code is “inert knowledge” which fails to teach students the skills needed to choose between conflicting principles (in Pels 1999: 15). Peter Pels (in a paper that emerged from a discussion over the adoption of a new ethical code for the Dutch Association of Anthropologists) argues that the three main functions of an ethical discussion in anthropology -- “the critical intervention in discussions affected by anthropology’s presentation of facts, the education of practitioners and non practitioners in proper attitudes and behavior towards cultural differences, and the guaranteeing of standards of adequate representation of societies perceived as culturally different” (1999:20) -- all “arose before there was any idea of codifying them” (1999: 20). Herman Amborn, responding to Pels in Current Anthropology, states that ethical codes imply moral unambiguity, and that “Where there is no ambiguity there is no conflict, and ethical decisions are needless” (1999). Jeffrey Sluka adapted the AAA Code of Ethics for use in Australia and New Zealand, but views current codes of professional ethics as part of the “corporatization” of anthropology and argues for:

...a whole new range of “alternative” codes that can compete in the arena of public debate about ethics in the discipline...What would an ethics code based on a “bottom-up” perspective look like?...What would a subaltern, “black,” women’s, Fourth World, or “public interest” code of ethics look like? And what about local codes of ethics...? (1999)

Sluka’s position is that codification can be used to protect those who are oppressed, and that there should be different codes of ethics for those on each side of power relations (1999). Others argue against codes precisely because they codify all relations, and favor instead the ethics of interpersonal negotiations. Still others argue against the assumption that ethical dilemmas can be resolved according to a code, independent of context.

Ethical Dilemmas

Not every anthropologist we interviewed had been confronted with an ethical dilemma in anthropological work, and few had made significant ethical choices pertaining to the public presentation of their work. Those who had faced ethical challenges in presenting their work were not blind-sided by dilemmas, but were able to engage in thoughtful decision-making processes. An archaeologist who frequently invites the public to dig sites has found himself in the position of challenging people’s religious beliefs.

You’ll get someone who comes in from a very conservative religious background who takes the date of Bishop Usher5 in the Bible as literal truth. And you start explaining a site, a Paleo-Indian or archaic site that definitely predates Usher’s date and they argue adamantly, quoting verse, scripture and everything else that it can’t be true. Basically, the only thing I can suggest to do is to agree to disagree (Steve Mulholland, Personal Communication April 2001).

He also points out that all field notes from work carried out by the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Transportation are their property, and courts have upheld the exemption of this information from the Freedom of Information Act. An archaeologist who has worked on many of the same sites stated that site information is not given out without valid reasons in order to protect the sites from looting or vandalism, although volunteers and the public are invited to the sites (Sue Mulholland, Personal Communication March 2001). This is a risky situation, and one archaeologist believes that on at least one occasion, bringing the public to a dig site resulted in looting and compromising the site’s integrity. However, he also said that he believes that when the general public is given the opportunity to understand the information derived through archaeological research, it serves to protect sites from looting and vandalism (Woodward, Personal Communication March 2001). Steve Mulholland, a lithic analyst at the UMD Archaeometry Lab, told us this about government-funded dig sites: I believe that the public is entitled to know almost everything, they paid for it. I think we've demonstrated over the last fifteen years that the more the public knows, the more conscious they are of the importance of the history of an area. All of a sudden it isn’t just the European occupation, it becomes 10,000 years or more of history. Once they’re aware, then the issues of protection and preservation are much easier addressed because the public is coming to committee meetings demanding that sites be protected, and that speaks louder than most archaeologists (Personal Communication April 2001).

A writer who received his PhD in anthropology told us that he made a decision not to use material that he had included in his dissertation when he prepared the work for publication. The materials in question were the notes and stories of an old storyteller which were good examples of his research. But because he was unable to get in touch with the original author to ask permission to use the notes and stories, he did not include them in his book (Syring, Personal Communication April 2001). An ethnographer and professor of anthropology did extensive work with an American subculture. When the time came to write his work for publication, he made the decision not to do so based on a personal bond that had been established between him and his informants, and the way this had given him an understanding of their jargon and behavior that an outsider would not get. “I liked the guys...Many people do not realize that these subcultures exist” (Anonymous, Personal Communication April 2001).

An anthropologist who did a study of a very powerful group in America, with the specific intention of writing a book for the general public, made a decision to go against the AAA principle of always identifying oneself as an anthropologist and making clear the purpose of one’s investigation. He came to the conclusion that the research he wanted to carry out would not be possible if he provided full disclosure, but compensated for this by using only publicly verifiable material in his book. Any information obtained in personal communication he considered aberrant unless it could be verified in a public way. He has been in two other fieldwork situations where he has made the decision not to identify himself as an anthropologist because to do so would compromise his personal safety. For this anthropologist, it was important that all of his information be verifiable. Changing names of people and places can be a good way to protect informants, but it can also be a “smoke screen to cover sloppy fieldwork,” because the work is not verifiable. He also goes to great lengths to ensure that his work is first published in the place it was done, and in the language of the people he has worked with, in the interest of obtaining criticism before the work is published in the U.S. (Anonymous, Personal Communication April 2001).

Laura Nader coined the term “studying up” in the 1960s, as part of an attempt to encourage anthropologists to broaden their channels of study to include cultures in positions of power, not just those who are oppressed. She has maintained that the first article of the Principles of Professional Responsibility, that “the anthropologist’s paramount responsibility is to those he studies,” should not apply to this type of work, favoring instead the idea of “unambiguous commitment to public duty rather than private interest” (Nader 1999). We asked Dr. Emad if she believes that anthropology has a different ethical standard when studying up, and her response was that there is an openness with informants that anthropologists are motivated to sustain. The disagreement within anthropology is apparent from the two interviews described previously: one anthropologist who conducted his research openly and chose not to use the material, one whose research was covert and served its intended purpose of providing a published account of what he learned. On the subject of responsibility to those studied versus the commitment to public duty, Maurice Punch writes:

This codification presents a number of dilemmas, particularly for researchers who engage in fieldwork. For instance, the concept of consent would seem to rule out covert research, but how “honest” do you actually have to be about your research purpose? The conflict orientation of some scholars -- in terms of Becker’s call to take sides or Douglas’ demand that we deceive the establishment in order to expose it -- seems to force moral choice upon us (1998: 168).

Activism, Advocacy and “Giving Back”

Do anthropologists “bear a positive responsibility to speak out contribute to an ‘adequate definition of reality’ upon which public opinion and public policy may be based” (AAA 1971), or is advocacy “an individual decision, but not an ethical responsibility”? (AAA 1998) There is some indication that the differentiation is semantic, based upon what individual anthropologists understand the construction of “speak out publicly” and “advocacy” to be. Dr. John Bower, a biological anthropologist at UMD stated unequivocally that, “It would be unethical for bioanthropologists to sit on the sidelines while people who don’t know what they are talking about are creating the lore that the public hears, and believes because they hear it so often. There is an obligation to be active” (Class Lecture March 2001). An archaeologist told us that more likely than not, activism will not be in the best interests of a community. But he followed this up by saying:

Missionaries in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries believed they were doing good. Whether they were or not is a subjective observation depending on who is doing the observation...any time you have an interaction between two different cultural groups, you are going to have changes taking place. It may be very small, such as a seed of any idea placed in someone’s mind. You can’t judge right or wrong, or place moral value on it, it simply is going to happen (Steve Mulholland, Personal Communication April 2001).

The anthropology professor who had made a decision not to publish one of his ethnographic projects told us that while he had taken the role of advocate before, he dislikes the style of most advocacy. It is political, and worse, “Half of anthropology is religion. It’s like talking to a creationist.” The solution to this, he said, is to describe what is there, and avoid reflexivity, because as soon as you start interpreting you get into trouble. For him, the real ethical choices are made in the field: Do you give people medical help? He chose to do so, providing what medicine and medical help he could, when asked (Anonymous, Personal Communication April 2001).

Dr. Smith gave a similar response, saying, “It’s fine to want to help people, but you need to wait to be asked.” In his experience, the people he was working with were “politically more astute” than he was. But he said that anthropologists can help by developing a good working relationship with Native Americans, and by talking with the elders. When Dr. Smith was asked to return to the place where he had done his fieldwork to gather information for a land use mapping project, and to testify before a commission on the same subject, he went (Class Lecture April 2001). An anthropologist who has written a number of books on Native American contributions to contemporary American culture sees his books as what he gets out of his work with a community. He strongly believes in giving back to the community, and that they should decide what form that will take. For one community, he raised funds to build a library; for another, he is sending young people for training as archaeologists in their own country, so that they may become mediators of their own heritage (Anonymous, Personal Communication April 2001).

As humans working with other humans, or any other living beings, the personal ethics of anthropologists will guide choices made about fieldwork. Giving back to the community that provided one with a dissertation or a book seems to many anthropologists to be the right thing to do, because it grows from interpersonal relationships. Activism, when treated as a priority in anthropological work, may actually interfere with the original intent of the discipline. Paul Rabinow told the New York Times: "The idea of someone going to the most technologically simple societies and trying to learn lessons about human nature by studying them, that's been refuted" (Zalewski 2000). In the same article, Nancy Scheper-Hughes is quoted on anthropology’s modern propensity toward "critiquing globalization" rather than studying cultures: "A graduate student here at Berkeley recently turned in a classic and beautiful ethnography about this village in Sierra Leone, about domestic rituals and notions of secrecy," she says. "But a lot of my colleagues found it wanting, because it wasn't going to help those people getting their arms chopped off. So she has to go back and rewrite it" (Zalewski 2000).

Ethics of Public Presentation

“When it comes to the ethics and politics of their discipline,” Margaret Mead wrote in 1978, “anthropologists have shown themselves to be extraordinarily incapable of applying the principles of their own discipline to themselves” (1978: 438). According to friends and critics alike, Mead had first-hand experience on the subject of ethical double-standards. One of Mead’s great accomplishments was to show that the findings of anthropologists were not just an academic pursuit fixated on exotic peoples, but a subject highly relevant to the daily concerns of Americans in their own society (Worseley 1992: x). Elenor Leacock, one of Mead’s strong defenders against Derek Freeman’s posthumous attacks, agreed that Mead’s popular works were intended to show the variations possible in societies and the way in which understanding this can aid us in finding solutions to social problems. But she failed to confront the legacy of colonialism (1992: 19-20). Despite her cultural relativist orientation, she did not understand the existing systems of law in New Guinea, and believed that they could not govern themselves without Western intervention (Foerstel 1992: 69). More recently, anthropologists have alleged that she created Manus culture for an American audience by combining her perceptions, based on her cultural upbringing, and the presentation that her culture demanded (Iamo 1992: 83). Today, anthropological works are examined not just by Western scholars, but by people from the communities that have been studied, who believe that the works of Mead and others imposed their Western models and were coconspirators with colonialism (Foerstel 1992: 72). And Mead, the anthropologist who introduced U.S. popular culture to cultural relativism, has been criticized for the “impressionistic and often dubious nature of the evidence she used in these popular works” (Worseley 1992: x). Worseley further states that while Mead was capable of rigorous work and thorough evidence when writing for her colleagues, she did not use the same standards when writing popular works (xi).

What are the standards for popular works, and do they differ from those for academic works? One anthropologists told us that he writes for a general audience only, and that if he had to write for academia, “I would not write” (Anonymous, Personal Communication April 2001). Dr. Smith said that anthropology should be doing a lot more writing for public consumption, and used the example of Margaret Mead’s Redbook articles:6 “She was engaged” (Class Lecture April 2001). David Syring told us that he was taught how to do alternative ethnographies, and had in mind from the beginning that he would be writing for more than one specific group: “I just tried to be broader, but still be relevant to what I wanted to say” (Personal Communication April 2001). Dr. Emad was asked if a choice must be made between writing for a popular or an academic audience, or if the two can be combined. She told us she does not know, but in writing her own work now, “That’s right where I’m at” (Class Lecture April 2001).

On the subject of how to write for a popular audience, everyone we spoke with agreed that jargon should be avoided, although Dr. Mulholland added that jargon can be used if it is adequately explained (Personal Communication April 2000). And the use of certain words of phrases that have negative associations, it was agreed, should be avoided in any type of writing. In the interest of determining what the public’s understanding of some common anthropological terms actually is, we conducted a small survey. We asked for definitions of five words, with one set being: primitive, civilization, tribe, magic, and shaman. The second set of word was: progress, evolution, myth, native, and race. Our conclusion was that more than 60% of the definitions given did not correctly or acceptably correlate to the dictionary definitions of the words. This would seem to indicate that there are more words requiring explicit or contextual definition than anthropologists might think there are. Decisions about what to present are complicated by the knowledge that there is always the possibility that people will misconstrue information, or use it out of context. An anthropologist who has appeared on television told us that he has found that invariably, from a thirty-minute interview, the only thing he did not want to by quoted on is what will be used. He has accepted that he cannot control what is done with the interviews he does for television or other media. He believes it is worth it, however, because of the need to bring an “anthropological perspective to issues” (Anonymous, Personal Communication April 2001). We were also told about an anthropologist who is studying Nuer immigrants in the U.S. They come to this country as victims of oppression and refugees in need of help, so they receive charity from church groups. But they are, by their heritage, nomadic people. When they move on, and are asked about all the things they have been given, they reply that they will be given more things in the next place they go. If this is published, it could insult the sensibilities of the people who are acting charitably. The same anthropologist, when interviewing a Nuer woman about Nuer history and culture, was asked, Why don’t you just read that book over there? The book she was indicating was Evans-Pritchard’s The Nuer. The law of unintended consequences applies no less to anthropology than to any other field (Anonymous, Personal Communication April 2001).

Dr. Smith told us that one should always check back with sources about what is presented, and other anthropologists agreed with this principle (Class Lecture April 2001). But one person pointed out that when the standard is to allow informants to review what has been written about them, people are always trying to shape and control how they are perceived (Anonymous, Personal Communication April 2001). The postmodernist belief is that representation is in and of itself an ethical dilemma, and that anthropologists should question whether or not they are even able to represent an other. But, as one anthropologist told us, tourists and journalists create representations of cultures all the time, “at least anthropologists are trained” (Anonymous, Personal Communication April 2001).

All of this leads us back to the impetus for this year’s senior seminar focus on ethics: Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado, and the questions that have been raised about anthropological ethics and the public perception of anthropology as a discipline. While Tierney is an investigative journalist, not an anthropologist, the book has affected the light in which at least some in the general public view anthropology, and there is at least circumstantial evidence indicating that Tierney was a mouthpiece for anthropologists Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel (Zalewski 2000; Cantor 2000). Unfortunately, using Darkness in El Dorado to generate a discourse on ethics is akin to using the works of Carlos Casteneda7 to talk about shamanism: when the discussion ends, we still do not know what is truth and what is fabrication (Tooby 2000; Cantor 2000). Although the AAA appointed a committee to review the book’s allegations, the book itself is so unethical that it has done less to stimulate ethical discussions than it has to deepen the rift between already existing factions in anthropology. Debate over Tierney’s book has been divided along political lines, with sociobiologists on one side and cultural determinists on the other (Zalewski 2000; Cantor 2000). Had he been an anthropologist, Tierney might have chosen to write the book he went to the Amazon intending to write.8 Mining and disease are killing the Yanomami now, and it is possible that if the public were aware of their circumstances, the government could be forced to take protective action. Instead of writing about the conditions that exist, he chose to write an indictment of what might have been, over thirty years ago. Anthropologists whose work is shaped in part through a discourse on ethics have a foundation for understanding the importance of honest information obtained with integrity. Personal relationships in the field are vital to this cause, because it is difficult to see your informants as only “human subjects” when you know them as neighbors, friends and elders. Only by maintaining honesty and integrity can the credibility of anthropology be established in the eyes of the public.

  1. We have chosen to avoid the term “Public Anthropology,” which is becoming a recognized category within the discipline, and was the theme of the 2000 meetings of the AAA. Although it the idea is not fully defined, and there are disagreements on what it means to be a “Public Anthropologist,” the term is generally used in association with what many would consider to be Applied Anthropology. Our project has been concerned with anthropological material as it is presented to an audience wider than that found in academic or applied circles, but not with whether the material was conceived for applied or academic purposes.
  2. On a separate issue, Dr. Emad gave a lengthy description of “militant particularism,” and all the personal biases and cultural assumptions that an anthropologist must recognize and understand in herself before she will be able to do good work. Moments later, she commented that “objectivity is not part of my toolbox.” Ethics and the ability of anthropology to provide reliable and accurate accounts of cultural activities are very serious issues. But if anthropologists cannot laugh at themselves from time to time, and recognize the irony inherent in the discipline, these issues become a quagmire of righteousness.
  3. Boas expressed a fear that “in consequence of their acts every nation will look with distrust upon the visiting foreign investigator who wants to do honest work, suspecting sinister designs” (quoted in Pels 1999: 15).
  4. Project Camelot was a social science research project, under the auspices of the CIA, which supported the U.S. Defense Department’s counterinsurgency program in Latin America. It was canceled due to protest (Pels 1999).
  5. Bishop Usher used Biblical material to calculate the date that God created Adam as 4040 B.C.
  6. Mead, with Rhoda Metraux, wrote a monthly advice column for women in Redbook from 1961 to 1978.
  7. Casteneda was granted a PhD in anthropology for his third book on the teachings of a Yacqui shaman he called Don Juan. Critics have alleged that his books are fiction, while Casteneda, and those on his dissertation committee, maintain otherwise.
  8. Leslie Sponsel’s biography contains a reference to a “forthcoming” book by P. Tierney, Last Tribes of El Dorado: The Gold Wars in the Amazon Rain Forest (Cantor 2000). A Library of Congress record was created for a book of the same title, scheduled for publication in 1995 by Viking Press, but never appeared in print for unspecified reasons (Grossman 2000).

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