American Anthropological Association (AAA) and Ethics

  • Janet E. Levy
  • Morag M. KerselEmail author
Living reference work entry


The American Anthropological Association (AAA), established in 1902 and currently with over 10,000 members, has a long and conflicted history of professional ethics. Originally comprised mainly of academic anthropologists, the organization now features members with employment both inside and outside of the academy. Anthropologists today can be found in the classroom, the boardroom examining organizational behavior, in a hospital room observing practitioners, or at a construction site assessing the significance of archaeology. Anthropologists undertake a particularly wide array of research methods, from physical measurements and blood draws by biological anthropologists to ethnographic interviewing and participant observation by cultural anthropologists, to the collection of artifacts and oral histories by archaeologists, and more. As a result, anthropologists encounter wide-ranging instances of ethical dilemmas and debates.

Key Issues

Since its founding, the AAA has grappled with what it means to be an ethical anthropologist, with significant debates on the subject continuing (Fluehr-Lobban 2003). In the AAA Code of Ethics (2009), the emphasis was on a “primary ethical obligation” to the “people, species, and materials they study and to the people with whom they work.” This statement was congruent with the description of an anthropologist’s primary obligation going back to the first comprehensive statement about ethics established by the AAA in 1971. Other responsibilities are to colleagues, students, employers, and to scholarship itself. The Principles of Professional Responsibility (PPR) established in 2012 state: “A primary ethical obligation shared by anthropologists is to do no harm” (available in AAA 2017). At the same time, the 2012 version emphasizes the complexity, fluidity, and potential internal conflicts of competing ethical considerations to be found in anthropological work. Because of the multiple ethical mandates with which anthropologists must engage, the AAA Code of Ethics attempts to provide suggested guidelines for best practice but rarely provides easy answers. The most recent version utilizes the capacities of the Internet to provide ongoing commentary, debate, and examples through lively blog exchanges and other means.

Development of the AAA Code of Ethics was not an immediate priority for the organization. In fact, the first formal code of ethics passed by an anthropological group was enacted in 1948 by the Society for Applied Anthropology. The concept of applied anthropology itself has engendered its own set of debates. In 1971 the AAA issued the Principles of Professional Responsibility, and in 1998, after much contentious discussion, a formal AAA Code of Ethics replaced this. That document was revised in 2009, resulting in a more nuanced version that is purposefully ambiguous on questions of classified research, leaving it up to the individual anthropologist to interpret. Intense deliberation over the AAA Code of Ethics continued for several years – this ongoing debate was prompted in part by highly publicized programs, like the Human Terrain System (HTS) in which some anthropologists have worked for the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the same time, there are growing numbers of scholars who have started doing proprietary research for public and private companies and institutions, another contentious ethical topic for the AAA. Central issues for anthropologists engaging in these types of action are those of transparency, consent, conflicting obligations (toward funders, employers, the AAA, etc.), and the dissemination of the research outcomes. The most current code, the 2012 Principles of Professional Responsibility, focuses on these issues.

Historically, conversations surrounding ethical issues within the AAA have been reactive rather than proactive, generated by moments of crisis like Vietnam, Cambodia, Project Camelot (the 1964–1965 US Army project to assess the sources of insurgency in Latin America using knowledge gained from anthropologists and other social scientists), and, most recently, the US Army’s Human Terrain System and the potential destruction of the archaeological record during uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Qatar, Syria, and the Yemen. Changes to the code in the 1990s were intended to address earlier failings, but events in Iraq and Afghanistan in the mid-2000s renewed calls for a more active policy on ethics. Throughout the AAA’s debate on ethics, critics have charged that the association has been too slow to respond to critical issues and that it has been unwilling to maintain a process for repudiating actions judged unethical. While a sanctioning process was established in 1971, it proved unworkable and was ended in the mid-1990s (Levy 2009).

Former chair of the AAA Committee on Ethics, Janet Levy, has suggested that earlier iterations of the ethical code provided no real guidance or direction for archaeologists and/or biological anthropologists to deal with issues such as the destruction of archaeological resources, the international trade in antiquities, or the bushmeat trade in nonhuman primates. For many years, ethics work by the AAA focused entirely on issues of cultural/linguistic anthropologists; the four-field nature of anthropology was not captured in ethics debates (Levy 1994). Since 1998, there have been limited attempts to speak to the issues encountered by archaeologists and biological anthropologists in the AAA’s ethical statements.

Anthropological archaeologists have duties to systematically excavate, analyze, and report on the archaeological record while collaborating with the local communities and governments where they work. There are overarching issues of control over the production of archaeological knowledge, custodianship of cultural heritage, the legacy of colonialism, and ongoing requests for the repatriation of artifacts and remains (Bruchac et al. 2010). The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (and its recent amendments) was passed to address the rights of lineal descendants, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations to Native American cultural items, including human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. This has encouraged both archaeologists and museums to reevaluate their practices in relation to Native American materials.

The relationship of archaeologists with the military also raises difficult issues. In 1919, Franz Boas, one of the founding members of the AAA, was censured by the organization for his critique in The Nation of anthropologists (including archaeologists) who acted as informants (spies) during WWI. Recently archaeologists who work with the military to protect archaeological sites in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria have faced condemnation by some anthropological colleagues for collusion and for implied support for military intervention. As it currently states, the AAA’s Principles of Professional Responsibility (2012) are intended to provide anthropologists with the tools needed to engage in the development and maintenance of an ethical framework, especially when faced with conflicting ethical obligations. Critics find the wording overly vague and not appropriately prescriptive.

The current PPR, while briefly incorporating mention of specifically archaeological issues (such as site protection), retains the historic AAA focus on relationships among people. However, this remains useful for archaeologists, especially as archaeological practice turns toward more collaborative and community-oriented projects, which involve the same complex human relationships as cultural anthropology (e.g., Little and Shackel 2007; Silliman 2008). Recognizing that issues related to cultural heritage are a persistent and an increasingly important element of anthropology, in 2013 the AAA empaneled the Task Force on Cultural Heritage to produce a series of recommendations, which would allow the organization to take a more proactive rather than reactive stance on threats to cultural heritage (broadly defined to include tangible and intangible aspects). The task force’s goal was to increase appreciation of cultural heritage issues in anthropological discourse and to assist the AAA Executive Board in developing effective positions and practices on cultural heritage issues in the USA and internationally. In response to the recommendations made by the Task Force in July 2016, the AAA Executive Board released a statement on Cultural Heritage Principles and Values (American Anthropological Association 2016), which includes some guiding principles and best practices for AAA members related to cultural heritage.

At best ethics in anthropology are situational and often contradictory. Arriving at a code of ethics for the practice of anthropology is a long, negotiated, ongoing process, which is greatly enhanced by education and the recognition that there are complex conversations involving the various scenarios that anthropologists from all areas of the discipline face. Just as there are often no truly right and wrong answers, anthropologists can in no way consider codes of ethics the last word on ethical practice. All ethical debates are ongoing projects.



  1. American Anthropological Association (AAA) 2016. AAA executive board: Cultural heritage principles and values, July 25, 2016. Accessed 13 Aug 2017.
  2. American Anthropological Association (AAA). 2017. Ethics resources. Accessed 5 Aug 2017.
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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Anthropology (emerita)University of North Carolina at CharlotteCharlotteUSA
  2. 2.DePaul UniversityChicagoUSA