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August 27, 2015


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Jeff Rice

Paul Stoller seems to resent the intrusion of law professors into the critique of AG. Some might call this circling the wagon but i would like to call it operating a guild. Only people legitimated by guild membership can tender criticisms of any member of the guild. This is quite ironic because over the last few decades anthropology has itself spread out and incorporated the methodologies of other disciplines and has itself been coopted by many disciplines ranging from history and political science to epidemiology and human biology. Does this mean that public health doctors cannot or at least, should not weigh in on any anthropological writings on public health issues in (name your country or region0. Obviously, the robust intersection of many fields and methodologies has enriched the pursuit of knowledge. Stoller finds a dark side in this, the idea and reality that people in one field might critique those in another. As researchers and scholars and teachers we should embrace this widespread admixture of critiques in the hopes that we all become smarter.

Alabaster Jones

Stoller's point in discussing the ethics statement of the AAA is that ethnographers have been discussing ethical issues surrounding fieldwork for a long time. Those discussions are not obscure, and tend to be brought up even in introductory level college courses. If you're going to critique the ethics of ethnographic fieldwork, it might be useful to have some familiarity with those conversations. If you're not going to take the time to familiarize yourself with the field you're critiquing, don't expect members of that field to take you seriously.


Hey Alabaster Jones --

Do you see that thing, over there, near the top? Yes. That's it. It's called the point, and you clearly missed it the first time.


"has a cover blurb from Cornel West, whose doctorate is in theology."

A small point that's hardly relevant to the main issues, but Cornel West's Ph.D. is in philosophy (from Princeton), not theology, even though a lot of his teaching has been in religious studies and theology departments or schools.

Steve L.

Thanks, Matt. Fixed it.


"Did no one notice that armed vigilantism violates the command of the AAA Ethics Code to “do no harm”?"

If they didn't end up shooting someone, nobody was harmed. As I've pointed out before to near-universal derision, yet will point out again, criminalization of inchoate actions is a quirk of American law that is certainly not a universal norm and would seem bizarre to a lot of people ("punishment for something you didn't actually do? how strange.")



"What you actually did do" was miss.

The intended victim was oblivious and unaware.

"Nobody harmed?"

No crime?


Under a lot of ethical systems yes, no crime.



So what? Under a lot of systems it is ok to do a lot of horrible stuff. Pointing to someone else's system is completely meaningless.

There is a normative value in punishing attempts. What is the normative value in allowing attempted crime that does not succeed?

(Again, saying someone else believes in this value is not an argument.)


Because that's not what's happening here; the assumption is that Goffman going out in the car is so clearly wrong under every possible moral code that it must obviously violate ethical rules. The AAA ethics guidelines do not incorporate the Maryland Criminal Code; anthropologists have been working in communities on the edge of the law for 100+ years and debating the ethics of such for the same amount of time, so all the lawyers jumping suddenly into the fray lecturing anthropologists on how they should govern their own field.

Let's put it this way; the ethical rules for lawyers allow some pretty morally reprehensible actions (and a lot less ambiguously immoral than inchoate "crimes"). Lawyers justify it under things like rules of confidentiality with the argument that maintaining the integrity of the overall system is worth allowing repulsive individual actions. That's the kind of thing that's happening here, only since it's not lawyers making that decision it's suddenly "clearly" terrible and should be policed.

Jeff Rice

Something worth noting is that anthropologists have indeed been debating ethics for some time now. In fact, by the late 60s and early 70s the field's collaboration with colonialism came under self-critique and in the last decade the failed attempt by the DOD to incorporate anthropologists into the war in Iraq (Human Terrain Project) has been widely criticized and condemned both within and outside of the profession. AG is not an anthropologist, she is a sociologist and i am wondering if that profession has had the same impetus to consider the ethical implications of fieldwork etc. And as for AAA ethics (or ASA ethics for that matter) not incorporating the Maryland Criminal Code it strikes me that it needn't since i presume these codes of ethics discourage law breaking etc. Studying murderers should not require the scholar to commit a murder, for example.



YOur response is not responsive at all.

Under a lot of systems it is ok to do a lot of horrible stuff. Pointing to someone else's system is completely meaningless. Letting us know what you think of lawyers is as meaningless as saying that "American law that is certainly not a universal norm." Agreed, but, so what?

I say: "There is a normative value in punishing attempts. What is the normative value in allowing attempted crime that does not succeed?"

You respond: "the assumption is that Goffman going out in the car is so clearly wrong under every possible moral code that it must obviously violate ethical rules."

This is not a response. I am not commenting on Goffman in particular, and let's put her specific instance aside for a moment.

There would seem to be normative value in proscribing attempts to commit crime. "If they didn't end up shooting someone, nobody was harmed" seems to assert that if an actual shot had been fired and missed (again, I don't contend that that happened, of course, and this isn't directed to Goffman's example in particular), that would have been ok and not punishable. Am I misunderstanding you? What would be the value in NOT prescribing such conduct, even if committed by an "ethnographer"?

And, what authority would provide a better answer than the legal system?

Michelle Meyer


The Am. Soc. Ass'n created a committee for professional ethics in 1961, and in 1969 the ASA approved a code of ethics--around the same time that other social sciences were doing the same thing. Sociologist Myron Glazer's The Research Adventure: Promise and Problems of Field Work (1972) explored, among other themes, the value of reciprocity and trust in ethical field research. Then there was considerable discussion and debate, both inside and outside of the sociology community, around the publication of excerpts of The Tearoom Trade beginning in 1970 about the ethics of that study, which involved the relatively novel/unusual method of covert and deceptive field work. Two sociologists wrote (somewhat disagreeing) background papers for the National Commission (from whence the Common Rule comes) on sociology methods and their ethics. And the only social scientist who played a major role on the National Commission was a sociologist. So I think it's fair to say that there is a history in sociology about as long as other social sciences of reflecting on the ethical implications of that work.

In general, Zach Schrag's Ethical Imperialism (2010) is your bible for the history of research ethics and the various social sciences.

Steve L.

Schrag's book is excellent.


I'd love to hear the principles described applied to recent "covert and deceptive field work."

In any event, once again, "ethnographers" (what a pitifully telling label!) are not entitled to live by different rules that they choose. Their deliberations on ethics are fine; their opinions on the law are sort of irrelevant.

The legal system applies to them, and there is no privilege afforded to elites who conduct "research" ...

Jeff Rice

MIchelle Meyer, i am aware that the ASA has a code of ethics. My points were that anthropology has had at least two intellectual crises over their own ethical past and present (which have generated volumes of debates and sections of courses cover the relationship between anthro as a field and colonialism) and that Goffman is not an anthropologist in the first place. Thus, the comments that preceded mine invoking AAA policy were not all that helpful. I certainly would not claim that sociology is a field without an ethical code. Sorry for the confusion.

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