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

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

Anthropology Ethics
Leslie E. Sponsel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0043


Professional ethics in anthropology reflects general moral principles regarding what one should not do and what one should do. However, in practice the emphasis is mostly on the negative; trying to avoid causing harm, and most of all to research subjects. Often concern with ethics within anthropology is more reactive than proactive. Also, it tends to be more a matter of defensive maneuvering to save face in public for the individuals and organizations involved, rather than grappling with issues let alone resolving them constructively and conclusively. Ethical concerns intensify during periods when scandals and/or controversies erupt, especially if they reach the general public to embarrass the profession. In the history of anthropology during the twentieth century into the present, many of the ethical controversies erupted about research associated with war, especially secret and/or clandestine activities. Politics is usually involved too, aggravating the difficulty and heat. However, there are also numerous and diverse cases beyond war because ethical challenges, dilemmas, and choices are inevitable. Yet when all is said and done, the ethical conduct of an anthropologist ultimately remains mostly a matter of personal morality, conscience, and integrity as well as adherence to ethical codes. Whole courses on professional ethics are rarely offered in departments of anthropology at universities and colleges for undergraduate or even for graduate majors as an elective, let alone requirement. Yet an abundance of literature and ethics codes are readily available for individuals to read, contemplate, discuss, and debate. Since the 1990s, and especially during the 2000s, there has been a marked increase in attention to professional ethics in anthropology. Much of this is one of the positive results of the controversy ignited by investigative journalist Patrick Tierney’s book Darkness in El Dorado, although there were also many negative consequences. Subsequently, the Human Terrain System, wherein anthropologists were embedded with the US military during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, ignited further controversy. This article focuses on professional ethics in cultural anthropology in the United States because of limited space. The emphasis is on books, rather than on journal articles, because the accumulating literature is enormous and books contain bibliographies for further research. Also, for journal articles and other sources, search Abstracts in Anthropology, Academic Search Complete, Annual Review of Anthropology, Anthropology Index Online, AnthroSource, Google Scholar, JSTOR, and ProQuest.

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 1998, Fluehr-Lobban 2002). Diversity of views on ethics in anthropology is apparent in the very useful Ethical Currents and subsequent Ethics Forum columns of Anthropology News since 2009, published by the American Anthropological Association (AAA). Key questions are especially helpful to stimulate and guide thinking, discussion, and debate about ethical issues (Glazer 1996, 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. Serious violations of professional ethics have sometimes led to public scandals as well as heated controversies, some transforming aspects of the profession (Robin 2004, Spencer 1996, Weston and Djohari 2020).

  • 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 the subject. Glazer asserts that any anthropologist genuinely concerned with professional ethics must inquire about the ethics of power, reciprocity, respect, and accountability.

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520938151

    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: Mead and Freeman in Samoa, Napoleon Chagnon and Darkness in El Dorado, and Rigoberta Menchú 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.

  • Weston, Gavin, and Natalie Djohari, eds. 2020. Anthropological controversies: The “crimes” and misdemeanors that shaped a discipline. New York: Routledge.

    A fascinating exploration of the origins, ethics, key events, and personages in the history of anthropology. Various cases encompass complicity in “human zoos,” Bronislaw Malinowski’s diaries, Darkness in El Dorado, and the Human Terrain System. Demonstrate ways in which controversies generate change within the discipline. Specific examples can stimulate student discussion and debate about research practices and ethics in fieldwork and beyond.

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