In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • American Anthropological Association
  • Cultural and Moral Relativism
  • Intellectual Property Rights
  • Mead and Freeman on Samoa
  • Applied and Advocacy Anthropology
  • Training
  • Centrality

Anthropology Ethics
Leslie E. Sponsel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0043


Ethics in anthropology basically reflects general moral principles of what is bad and what is good in terms of what one should not do and what one should do as a professional in the discipline. However, in practice the emphasis is mostly on the negative; that is, in essence to avoid harm, and most of all to research subjects. Often concern with professional ethics within anthropology has been more reactive than proactive, and more a matter of defensive maneuvering to save face in public on the part of the individuals and organizations involved, rather than grappling with the issues head on let alone resolving them constructively and conclusively. Ethical concerns, and sometimes even actions such as new codes or revision of a previous one, intensify during periods when controversies and scandals erupt, especially if they reach the general public to threaten the image of the profession. Throughout the history of anthropology during the 20th century and into the present one, many of the ethical controversies, and some scandals as well, have erupted in connection with research associated with war, especially secret or clandestine work. Politics is usually involved as well, aggravating the difficulty and heat in issues. But there are numerous and diverse cases of ethical problems beyond the association with war as well because ethical dilemmas and choices are inevitable in many different kinds of situations. Most anthropologists try to be ethical in their own work even if they do not become engaged in controversies. Courses on professional ethics are rarely offered in departments of anthropology at universities and colleges for undergraduate and even graduate majors as an elective let alone as a requirement. However, a surprising abundance of useful literature and various codes of professional ethics are readily available for those individuals who are personally concerned to read, contemplate, and discuss them with others. Since the 1990s, and especially during the 2000s, there has been a measurable, marked increase in attention to professional ethics in anthropology in publications, conferences, and other venues. Much of this increased attention is obviously one of the positive results of the El Dorado Controversy, although there were also many negative results as well. However, when all is said and done, the ethical conduct of an anthropologist ultimately remains almost entirely a matter of personal morality and conscience in becoming familiar with and following the institutional codes and guidelines. This bibliography focuses on professional ethics in cultural anthropology in the United States for the most part because of limited space and other constraints.

General Overviews

A most useful survey of ethics in anthropology is provided by the foremost authority on the subject, who also published a concise chronology of historical developments (Fluehr-Lobban 1993, Fluehr-Lobban 1998, Fluehr-Lobban 2002). Earlier explorations of the subject remain useful and illustrate the diversity of opinion in some aspects of ethical matters (Cassell 1980). This diversity is also apparent in the Ethical Currents column of the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) Anthropology News since 2009. Key questions are especially helpful to stimulate and guide thinking, discussion, and debate about ethical issues (Glazer 1996, Hoeyer and Hogle 2014, Kingsolver 2004, Pels 1999, Simpson 2011). At universities and elsewhere, institutional review boards or human subject research committees may present difficulties for anthropologists because their framework and guidelines are often based on rather different kinds of research such as psychological and biomedical experimentation (Marshall 2003). Filmmakers have become increasingly concerned with professional ethics in recent years (Perry and Marion 2010). Serious violations of professional ethics have sometimes led to public scandals as well as heated controversies (Robin 2004, Spencer 1996).

  • Cassell, Joan. 1980. Ethical principles for conducting fieldwork. American Anthropologist 82.1: 28–41.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.1980.82.1.02a00020

    Because the risk of harm to subjects in most anthropological fieldwork is relatively low and the methods are usually very different than biomedical experimentation, federal regulations to protect human subjects are not always applicable or effective. The Kantian categorical imperative with its principle of respect for human autonomy might be more appropriate.

  • Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn. 1993. An ethically conscious anthropology. Anthropology News 34.7: 1–4.

    DOI: 10.1111/an.1993.

    In spite of growing concerns for the development of professional ethics since the 1960s, an ethically conscious anthropology remains elusive.

  • Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn. 1998. Ethics. In Handbook of methods in cultural anthropology. Edited by H. Russell Bernard, 173–202. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira.

    This chapter is a detailed survey of the subject by the foremost authority on it.

  • Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn. 2002. A century of ethics and professional anthropology. AAA Anthropology News 43.3: 20.

    DOI: 10.1111/an.2002.43.3.20

    This is an especially useful one-page chronological list of the major issues in the history of the development of professional ethics in American anthropology beginning with the controversy surrounding its founder, Franz Boas.

  • Glazer, Myron Perez. 1996. Ethics. In Encyclopedia of cultural anthropology. Vol. 2. Edited by David Levinson and Melvin Ember, 389–393. New York: Henry Holt.

    This is the best concise overview on this subject. Glazer asserts that any anthropologist genuinely concerned with professional ethics must inquire about the ethics of power, reciprocity, respect, and accountability.

  • Hoeyer, Klaus, and Linda F. Hogle. 2014. Informed consent: The politics of intent and practice in medical research ethics. Annual Review of Anthropology 43:347–362.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-anthro-102313-030413

    Explores the history of the consent requirement and its diversity.

  • Kingsolver, Ann. 2004. Thinking and acting ethically in anthropology. In Thinking anthropologically: A practical guide for students. Edited by Philip Carl Salzman and Patricia C. Rice, 71–79. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    This brief chapter stimulates thinking about many major ethical issues in anthropology by posing penetrating questions about them.

  • Marshall, Patricia A. 2003. Human subjects protections, institutional review boards, and cultural anthropological research. Anthropological Quarterly 76.2: 269–285.

    DOI: 10.1353/anq.2003.0028

    Institutional committees that review research proposals by anthropologists may not always be sufficiently informed about the nature of such fieldwork. Recommendations are offered to improve the review process.

  • Pels, Peter. 1999. Professions of duplexity: A prehistory of ethical codes in anthropology. Current Anthropology 40.2: 101–136.

    DOI: 10.1086/200001

    Critical review of different ways that morals are conceptualized and institutionalized in ethical codes in anthropology.

  • Perry, Sara, and Jonathan S. Marion. 2010. State of ethics in visual anthropology. Visual Anthropology Review 26.2: 96–104.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-7458.2010.01070.x

    Reflecting on the Society for Visual Anthropology, this article discusses the why, how, and for whom visual ethics matter.

  • Robin, Ron. 2004. Scandals and scoundrels: Seven cases that shook the academy. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    An absorbing and penetrating narrative of cases of alleged intellectual dishonesty and lack of professional integrity that exploded in public sensationalism to embarrass the academy and particular professions. Three of the seven controversies involve anthropology: Freeman-Mead, Napoleon Chagnon and Darkness in El Dorado, and Rigoberta Menchu and the Mayan holocaust.

  • Simpson, Bob. 2011. Ethical moments: Future directions for ethical review and ethnography. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (New Series) 17.2: 377–393.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9655.2011.01685.x

    Explores the relationships between ethnographic research and ethics reviews as well as the tensions that emerge between them. Views research as a series of ethical movements.

  • Spencer, Jonathan. 1996. Anthropological scandals. In Encyclopedia of social and cultural anthropology. Edited by Alan Barnard and Jonathan Spencer, 501–503. New York: Routledge.

    A brief discussion of recurrent anxieties that arise among anthropologists in response to scandals, including concern about the integrity of an ethnographer’s fieldwork, ethical implications, and the image of traditional cultures.

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