August 02, 2005
Retrospection: AAA rescinds acceptance of the El Dorado Task Force Report
I am publishing the following perhaps a bit prematurely, given its potential for generating flash mob responses. I am not trying to incite but to begin a discourse on how we might use this episode to create a fruitful way forward in developing anthropologists' professional ethics.
Following the announcement of the results of the Referendum to Rescind the AAA's Acceptance of the El Dorado Task Force Report a month ago little comment has appeared other than that in the article by David Glenn in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and to a lessor extent in a piece by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed, though there was a bit of a rumble at SavageMinds.
I voted for the referendum to rescind, was an active discussant during the period that the Task Force sat, opposed setting up the Task Force, and wrote two guest editorials critiquing Turner and Sponsel’s ‘memo’ and Tierney’s book before and after publication (which were suppressed by the editors for being too controversial).
My reasons for these positions and actions were based on ethical grounds. My explanation for how this situation arose was political. In other words, I came to believe that that Turner and Sponsel were motivated by political reasons, not ethical ones when they wrote the memo, and assisted Tierney in writing the book (at least Turner - Sponsel denies this), and that Turner, Sponsel and Tierney apparently abandoned all consideration of ethical behaviour in their actions. It was political because they were trying to mobilise support by manipulating circumstances and appealing to political solutions. This is not to say that they did not believe that Neel and Chagnon had behaved unethically by their standards. But the fact that they were willing to create and promote an ethical cesspool in order to prosecute their belief does not bode well for ethical standards overall.
Ethics must to be approached from the high ground - otherwise there is no point, and certainly the result will be without conviction. This is why I think the referendum to rescind acceptance of the Task Force report succeeded. It was not because, as suggested in some of the SavageMinds commentary, that people were weary of the issue, or that there was a vast conspiracy of ‘Neel and Chagnon supporters’ who stuffed the ballot-box to continue with their evil ways. It was for the reasons stated in the referendum. The process appeared to have been unfair and there was no reasonable case put to counter this conclusion. This referendum was the first real opportunity for the process to be evaluated by a more general cross-section of the Association (at least those willing to cast a ballot). They cared about ethics, and the ethical ramifications of the ‘El Dorado’ process were more than they could stomach.
I don't think that rescinding acceptance of the report moves us back to square one in the development of our disciplinary ethical framework. It does highlight that those who believe that change is required cannot simply make up standards of ethics as they go along, supporting gross ethical violations on the one hand, and on the other promoting as yet unestablished principles as if these had been established for all time. Perhaps we do need venues for ethical enforcement beyond the institutional base of individual researchers (which is a robust system), but this need has yet to be established. We almost certainly need more substantial guidelines as a discipline, but it is not the sole preserve of the AAA to establish these ... there are anthropologists who live outside the USA. But for an ethical framework to succeed in anthropology or in any activity, it must grow and develop by consensus, not combat.