Public Policy/Advocacy

Proposed Changes to the Ethics Code

The proposed changes are available here [pdf].
You may comment on these changes on our public affairs blog.

Dear AAA Member:

After a nine-month long process of review, consultation and outreach to a number of AAA members, groups, commissions and committees, the Executive Board recently voted to adopt changes to the association’s Code of Ethics and to forward these revisions to the membership at large for a vote. This complex process began a month after the AAA Business Meeting and was concluded last Friday during the third teleconference held by the Executive Board for this purpose.

I thought it was important to send you the details of this lengthy and complicated process; therefore, the full text of the original motions from the November 30, 2007 AAA Business Meeting that initiated this revision of the ethics code, a summary of the consultation process including the committees, subcommittees, commissions and appointed individuals who worked on various drafts and the text of the proposed revision finally passed by the Executive Board are attached. The next step is to circulate this proposed revision widely and provide adequate time for the Section Assembly, Sections, and all AAA members to discuss and debate the proposed new wording. I expect that this discussion will occupy much of the AAA website blog, the Business Meeting and panels and meetings in San Francisco. After the annual meeting and the aforementioned period of discussion and debate, an email ballot will be sent out asking you to vote yea or nay on this proposal.

As part of this process, the Executive Board became increasingly aware that trying to reword only one part of the Code of Ethics was difficult in terms of the whole document. Further, during the consultation process many people and groups suggested that a broad review and revision is necessary. The Executive Board, therefore, is currently working on a motion to establish a process to revise the entire Code of Ethics over a two year period to be completed by November 2010. I will share this motion with you as soon as it is complete.

As your President, I am pleased to have the opportunity to serve you and am also proud of the thoughtful, deliberate and profound input the Executive Board received during the course of this process. I very much look forward to serving you over the next year, and eagerly await seeing you in San Francisco this November.


Setha Low
American Anthropological Association


At the most recent AAA Annual Business Meeting, held in November of 2007, a resolution introduced by Terry Turner was passed by the membership. The resolution directed the AAA Executive Board to restore certain sections of the 1971 version of the code of ethics in order to, in the words of the sponsor, “[affirm] the importance of transparency and openness in anthropological research and the need for anthropological knowledge to circulate freely.” The full text of the resolution appears below:

WHEREAS the 1971 AAA Code of Ethics (“Principles of Professional Responsibility”) contained clear language affirming the importance of transparency and openness in anthropological research and the need for anthropological knowledge to circulate freely (including to those studied); and

WHEREAS this language was weakened in the 1998 AAA Code of Ethics; and

WHEREAS the heightened involvement of anthropologists with U.S. military and intelligence institutions increases the danger that anthropological knowledge will be used to harm those we study and to impede the free circulation of anthropological knowledge; and

WHEREAS the final report of the AAA Commission on the Engagement of U.S. Anthropology with the U.S. Security and Intelligence communities recommends that “the Ethics Committee or general membership should consider reinstating former language from the 1971 CoE (sections 1.g, 2.a, 3.a and 6)” (p.25);

Be it moved that the AAA restore sections 1.g, 2.a, 3.a and 6 from the 1971 ethics code, to wit:

1.g “In accordance with the Association's general position on clandestine and secret research, no reports should be provided to sponsors that are not also available to the general public and, where practicable, to the population studied.”

2.a “He should not communicate findings secretly to some and withhold them from others.”

3.a “He should undertake no secret research or any research whose results cannot be freely derived and publicly reported.”

6 “In relation with his own government and with host governments, the research anthropologists should be honest and candid. He should demand assurance that he will not be required to compromise his professional responsibilities and ethics as a condition of their permission to pursue research. Specifically, no secret research, no secret reports or debriefings of any kind should be agreed to or given. If these matters are clearly understood in advance, serious complications and misunderstandings can generally be avoided.”

A related motion, introduced by John Kelly, directed the Executive Board to report to the membership if a decision was not made to restore, in total, the language proposed in the Turner motion. The full text of that motion appears below:

Whereas we understand that the by-laws of our association do not require the Board of the AAA to respect our declared will in the matter of restoring the anti-secrecy clauses to our ethics code, as in other prior cases of motions without notice,

be it resolved first, that we resent and resist any and all efforts to transform the call into a mere invitation to discuss the secrecy clauses,

and second, that if the Executive Committee chooses any alterative to reinstating the 1971 secrecy language, we ask them to explain their anti-democratic decisions to us very carefully.

On January 20, 2008, the AAA Executive Board passed a resolution asking the Committee on Ethics to draft a revised version of the ethics code that “incorporates the principles of the Turner motion while stipulating principles…that identify when the ethical conduct of anthropology does and does not require specific forms of the public circulation of knowledge.” The relevant portions of the EB ballot appear below:

That the Committee on Ethics draft, for the consideration of the EB, a revised version of the Ethics Code that (I) incorporates the principle of the Turner motion while (ii) stipulating principles--themselves compatible with and/or following from the principles in Sections II and III in the existing Code of Ethics--that identify when the ethical conduct of anthropology does and does not require specific forms of the public circulation of knowledge.

The Executive Board further requests that the Committee on Ethics, in preparing these draft revisions, give due attention to the discussion of these issues in the report of the Ad Hoc Commission on Engagement of Anthropology in US Security and Intelligence Communities. The Executive Board further requests that the Committee on Ethics advise the EB on the effects of adopting such a proposal, with special focus on identifying for anthropologists what sorts of research and reporting practices would be considered unethical conduct if its draft proposal were incorporated into a revised Ethics Code. Finally, the Executive Board requests that the Ethics Committee prepare its response to this directive by April 1.

The Executive Board also passed a motion to add four invited guests to the Committee on Ethics to assist in the development of a revised version of the Code of Ethics; these four guests are Jeffrey Altschul, Agustin Fuentes, Merrill Singer, and David Price. Another three guests were invited after the first conference call, Inga Treitler, Nathaniel Tashima, and Noel Chrisman.

On March 7, the Committee on Ethics held its first teleconference to discuss how best to proceed on the Turner resolution and the subsequent charge from the Executive Board. Those participating from the Committee on Ethics included Alec Barker, Katie MacKinnon, Dena Plemmons, Dhooleka Raj, and those from the “ad hoc” advisory group of four included Jeff Altschul, Agustín Fuentes, Merrill Singer and David Price. A discussion of the process they agreed to follow in revising the Ethics Code was submitted to the Executive Board on May 3.

Subsequently, the group met by teleconference on two occasions after May 3, 2008 and extensively discussed, debated and revised the proposed language through a series of emails. The group then submitted June 16 proposed changes to the code, making several unanimous recommendations and offering majority and minority opinions surrounding issues around the dissemination of certain types of materials and findings.

On June 16 the Committee on Ethics issued its report to a newly formed subcommittee of the Executive Board created to deal with potential code revisions. The subcommittee (consisting of TJ Ferguson, Monica Heller, Tom Leatherman, Deborah Nichols, Gwen Mikell and Ed Liebow) examined the Committee on Ethics report and solicited the input of the Committee on Ethics; the Commission of the Engagement of Anthropology with the US Security and Intelligence Communities; the Committee on Practicing, Applied and Public Interest Anthropology; and the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, asking these groups to advise before making its own recommendations to the larger Executive Board. After examining the input of these groups, the EB subcommittee forwarded its recommendations to the entire Executive Board August 8.

Subsequent to these activities, AAA President Setha Low reached out to a number of stakeholders to solicit their input. The Executive Board met by telephone conference twice and after further consultation approved a final version of the Code of Ethics on September 19, 2008.