Today's anthropologists are apt to work far away from the unspoiled villages that brought fame to the discipline's early practitioners.
Instead, they might be in a hospital room observing patients, at a construction site gauging its archaeological significance, or in a corporate office examining organizational behavior, among other scenarios.
Those diverse contexts may explain why it has proved to be no easy job for anthropologists to create a new set of ethical guidelines. After three years spent seeking opinion and working on new guidelines, the American Anthropological Association is moving toward changes that some in the discipline fear will water down anthropologists' obligations to the people they study.
"Dealing with ethics codes is complicated," said David H. Price, a member of the committee charged with revising the guidelines. The word was echoed last week by fellow committee members at a panel on ethics at the association's annual meeting here. Basic ethical principles might seem clear at the outset, but then point to different courses of action depending on the context, said Mr. Price, a professor at Saint Martin's University, in Washington. "You can start with something simple, like 'Do no harm,'" he said, and then find yourself hamstrung if those guidelines are written too specifically — or lost at sea if they are too vague.
One of the most notable changes in the proposed new code was to remove what many anthropologists call the "prime directive."
The previous code, which dates to 1998 (though incremental changes have been made since then), told anthropologists that they "have primary ethical obligations to the people, species, and materials they study and to the people with whom they work."
By many accounts, that directive has meant that an anthropologist's obligation to his or her research subject can eclipse the goal of acquiring new knowledge. In other words, if research goes against the interests of subjects, then that research ought to be stopped.
The newer version, which the association's executive board accepted for review at this year's meeting but did not formally adopt, is more nuanced. It explains that the primary ethical obligation is "to avoid doing harm to the lives, communities, or environments" that anthropologists study.
The shift struck some as important. At other sessions during the annual meeting, several speakers and audience members said they held themselves to a different standard. It was not enough to keep from hurting their subjects. They should advocate for them.
The new code may do little to change that sense of obligation. It persists, in part, because of the assumption that an anthropologist is still that lone researcher closely observing a vulnerable tribe in a remote area, some on the committee said.
"That pure anthropology maybe never existed," said Dena K. Plemmons, chair of the committee and a research ethicist at the University of California at San Diego. "Our subjects are tremendously diverse and we have diverse responsibilities."
For example, Simon J. Craddock Lee, an assistant professor of medical anthropology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, said his subjects are "well-paid cancer surgeons who give care to disenfranchised people."
He has obligations to both groups, he said. "If my subjects are doctors, how do I balance my obligations to the people who are truly vulnerable?"
One audience member suggested that his chief loyalty should be to the person or group who is most at risk of harm among those being studied.
While that might seem straightforward, Mr. Lee replied, everyone—including the poor and vulnerable—has an agenda.
"We can't assume there's a David-and-Goliath relationship," he said. "It's not clean enough to say you can sort the good sheep from the goats."
Ethics, or Politics?
The question of clandestine research offered another case in which a seemingly simple principle can become complicated when applied to field work. To some, discouraging clandestine research meant that an anthropologist should never deceive subjects and should always share his or her work publicly.
But Laura A. McNamara, an anthropologist who works for the U.S. Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories, disagreed, saying that some anthropologists study classified information; they cannot make their findings public.
Even deceit can have its place, she added. Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a professor of medical anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, for example, did research that exposed the organ-trafficking trade. Her work never would have been made public if she had believed that her primary obligation was to her subjects, who were, after all, organ traffickers.
The real problem, Ms. McNamara and her fellow committee members agreed, is not when research is clandestine, but when it is "compartmentalized," which means a researcher may not know who is using or financing the research, or what the implications will be.
"There is no way you can communicate an informed perspective," she said.
How anthropologists wield ethical guidelines also came up for scrutiny. Anthropologists push most fervently to revise their ethics when they disagree with the politics underlying controversial research, several speakers noted.
"We go to high Sturm und Drang" about ethics, Ms. McNamara said, when political objections arise about who is doing anthropological research for whom—especially when it's for the government, corporations, or the rich and powerful. "Ethics becomes conflated with politics in ways that I find profoundly distressing," she said.
Some anthropologists pushed to revise the ethics code in 2007, said Ms. Plemmons, when a controversy erupted over the Human Terrain System, a program that embedded anthropologists with United States military units. The association's executive board disapproved of anthropologists' involvement in the act of making war, calling it "an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise" which should, instead, serve "the humane causes of global peace and social justice."
Education and Punishment
Committee members said they also heard from anthropologists who wanted an ethics code that could be enforced. That way, anthropologists who act badly could be punished or cast out of the discipline.
The association once held the power to adjudicate claims of ethical breaches, Mr. Price said. But when he reviewed records of the association's work from that period, he saw that most claims involved what he called "sleaziness," or cases in which professors harassed students or took credit for their research. While unethical, those breaches were not specific to anthropology and needed no separate code beyond those that already exist, he said.
Assuming responsibility for adjudicating ethical disputes presented another set of problems, said several speakers. It would mean a new mission and structure for the association, which would have to hire investigators to police wrongdoing and claim the power to credential who gets to call him- or herself an anthropologist. Many times, such complaints can be handled through an institutional review board or a university.
The association has seen first-hand how difficult such investigations can be. In 2001 and 2002, it probed claims of wrongdoing and ethical malpractice against anthropologists and geneticists in the Amazon in the 1960s. The association later published a report finding fault with some of the scholars' conduct in what became known as the Darkness in El Dorado controversy (after a journalist's account by that name), only to rescind its own report in 2005.
Besides, the ethics committee surveyed members and learned that most anthropologists are not all that interested in using ethical guidelines as a means to punish each other. What most anthropologists wanted, they said, was some form of general guidance, an educational tool to train future anthropologists.