Anthropology has the highest regard for rigorous and honest research. Most anthropologists respect the internal, culturally defined explanations of truth of the people they study (emic) while doing scientific research (edic). Both types of research are part of cultural anthropology. In both cases, social facts are determined by observation; this requires actual field research. Both types of anthropology follow similar types of observation: by carefully recording the native worldview, attempts to understand another culture are undertaken. The anthropologist’s carefully constructed analysis of any aspect of a culture studied is taken from an objective point of view, and must be pursued with equal qualified fairness and honesty. Anthropologists have a professional commitment to record what has, in fact, been observed, and those conclusions must honestly reflect what they claim to be studying through their observations. It is also important that other anthropologists could, if not replicate those studies, at least use the studies as valuable background for further research.
As in all social sciences, there is a code of conduct in Anthropology on how to do research. Anthropologists generate hypotheses that are to be internally consistent so that they do not create incongruous conclusions. The social scientist has an obligation to others in the profession as to their talent to make available truthful, however tentatively, calculations of what was observed in the field. These truthful observations are always helpful to other anthropologists, and making sure of the availability of these observations is seen as being a true professional. Even research in areas carried out in studies that are not only geographically distant, but that also have a certain theoretical distance as well from the original hypothesis, is appreciated by other anthropologists. In cultural anthropology, as a branch of learning in which use of the scientific methods are sometimes less than clear-cut, a good hypothesis can be even more important. As in the early days of anthropological explorations, the hypothesis should be able to combine contrasting observations recorded in the field notes of the anthropologists. This rigorous recording is still seen as a virtue within the profession. Also sympathetically appreciated among anthropologists is the use of simplicity of research design and sophistication of theory. The truly learned among this field show a strong appreciation for elegance in the study; like any science, honesty within the research and its resultant findings is first and foremost.
Today most anthropologists believe they have an obligation to the people they study. A social scientist with conflicting allegiances cannot always be relied upon to act in the public interest of those people being studied. In the field of anthropology today, it is acknowledged that enticements often exist that may tempt the field researchers to betray the trust of the people they are studying. To do this, it is important to remove as many conflicting interests as possible, including the often conflicting interests between the loyalties to those who pay the anthropologist, the loyalty to the discipline of anthropology, and the loyalty to the people anthropologists study.
This must be the first concern of professional anthropologists: to respect the integrity, anonymity, and the culture of the people they study. These concerns take priority over all other considerations. A close secondary issue is the need to be concerned with the contribution to the overall body of knowledge of culture, and the development of anthropological theory.
Finally, in the ethical value system of the social scientist, there is an applied legal responsibility to the organization funding the research. The anthropologist must be concerned with what possible uses will come out of the research, and how this may affect the people being studied. Policy issues are always a concern before the anthropologist ventures out into the field. Who decides the fate of the people being studied is a major concern to be taken into account.
Two primary issues that are of concern for anthropologists are cultural relativism and value-free research. Cultural relativism is the thesis that all cultures are unique and, therefore, can be evaluated only in accordance with their own principles, values, standards, and morals. Ethnocentrism is the belief that one’s own culture is superior to others. For an anthropologist, to be ethnocentric is deadly. The use of cultural relativism prevents the anthropologist’s ethnocentrism from corrupting the results of any anthropological research.
Herskovits states that the use of cultural relativism does not mean that one can abdicate moral responsibility for the injustice within the dominant society toward tribal and peasant populations. Herskovits takes the position that to use cultural relativism in a self-serving way to further one’s career is unethical. This means that the term cannot be used in objective anthropological research in order for the dominant culture to gain access to the resources of tribal people. The concept of cultural relativism was originally an answer to Western ethnocentrism. Western ethnocentrism has done more harm to many cultures than any other type of ethnocentrism. The forced assimilation of American Indians in North America through the boarding school system of the late 1800s and early 1900s is only one example of this.
Culture determines the shared values of any people. All cultures are ethnocentric, but science helps researchers to suspend their moral judgments while studying other people.
Ethics are not scientific; ethics look at how things should be. The anthropologist develops a set of professional ethics, those of tolerance and nonintervention. Western values, taken as absolute, have justified policies that have seriously harmed other peoples. This is why Herskovits promotes a type of scientific research in which anthropologists can suspend their own culturally defined values and observe other cultures in a more sympathetic way. The researcher learns not only how things are done, but also the local values of why they are done that way. Herskovits pointed out that cultural relativism is not ethical relativism, but pluralism. Most criticisms of cultural relativism have come from outside of anthropology; critics often claim that, following cultural relativism to its logical conclusion, one would have to support Nazi and Fascist extremes. Herskovits points out that Nazi and Fascist extremes were part of European ethnocentrism.
The idea of value-free research is that the researcher must remain detached from what is being observed. Objectivity is a primary virtue in any research. The values and prejudices of the social scientist must be suspended while carrying out the research. The social scientist must use measurements and data that any researcher can easily duplicate with the same results, meaning that what is being measured is what the researcher is actually studying. Thus, personal values need to be put to one side so as not to corrupt one’s results.
It is understandable that such notions lead to passionate disputes, and are very contentious in anthropology. Rational discourse is another name for value-free. Central to this perspective is the idea that there exists an objective world that is independent of the observer. This world can be known through careful observation. Through rational empirical observation, and through using the scientific method, a commonly shared body of knowledge is expanded. All social scientists should share this set of information. Truth does exist independently of interpretations. Social science must remain free and neutral of political interests and cultural biases. Social reality must first be observed without moral interpretation to gain an understanding of the social world. Categories must not only be quantifiable but also mutually exclusive, with a strong preference for mathematical exactitude. Tools that are used in social science are those of objective measurements, standardized particulars, quantifiable information, and controlled statistics.
Rational discourse devotees claim that only by understanding the determined nature of what researchers are studying can they hope to make rational choices about the world in which they choose to live. Societies and nature follow lawful processes, operating beyond our control. Determinism operates behind our backs because we do not understand these lawful processes. Whatever choices we make have long-term consequences. To control these lawful processes we must first understand them objectively.
Not all anthropologists agree with the concept of value-free social science; the research values of rational discourse have been attacked on many levels. Many anthropologists assert that it is hypocritical to maintain any claim of objectivity. The topic chosen for doing research, the theoretical models used, and even types of studies, all reflect the preconceived notions of the social scientist. Statistical analysts begin with assumptions about which data is relevant. Other conjectures about how to categorize the data are always highly subjective. Subjective choices are made about which statistical techniques to use and how to interpret the results, and thus subjectivity is unavoidable.
There exist heated political debates about why anthropology is even studied. Always, it is claimed, all research reflects not only individual biases but individual political agendas as well. The researchers must admit to their agenda because, as anthropologists, they study people. Another question often asked is if it is even ethical to attempt objectivity. It is claimed that politics is central to all science. Science evolved along with the evolution of a market economy. Science has served capitalism well by creating this worldview of objectivity in which truth is independent of ethics. The Industrial Revolution and the continuing revolution in technology could never have happened without embracing this worldview.
The all-encompassing reliance of scientific research on private or government funding has created a give-and-take pecuniary support. This type of dependence creates its own definition of professionalism. Because most studies are carried out either within a university setting or through research institutions, bureaucratic control becomes necessary for continued funding. Anthropology, being more exotic than, say, chemistry, is generally less rigidly controlled by administrators. This is a major reason why the very ethics of science has been called into question by anthropologists. It has been argued by a growing group of dissident anthropologists, or critical anthropologists, that all science, social or otherwise, has a political agenda. Practically speaking, this debate leads to three types of applied anthropology: the realists, the critical anthropologists, and the purely intellectual anthropologists.
A small group of realists (those who are often seen as “mainstream” applied anthropologists) work cooperatively with neoconservative groups to attack issues of sovereignty and social benefits going to the poor. Critical anthropologists (radicals) see themselves as advocates to empower the powerless, at least until these powerless groups become powerful enough to be their own advocates. Those advocates of intellectual autonomy (intellectual anthropologists), value-free science, and objectivity, criticize both realists and radicals.
Critical anthropologists claim science helps legitimate existing power relations, by accepting funding to do research. The university remains dependent upon this funding, and thus seriously limits any possible impartiality or academic freedom. Peer review keeps the dissident in line.
The critical anthropologists further challenge the discipline by claiming that anthropologists, like all professionals, have their own class interests to maintain. Critical anthropologists claim that the majority of anthropologists seek to develop a professional world-view, language, culture, and body of knowledge; they use these to market their own individual power within the profession and with those who control promotion, tenure, and research opportunities and funding.
This view claims that anthropologists exploit the people they study in order to develop professionally. Autonomy is maintained because the type of research being done supports the capitalists and government agencies; it is said that Anthropologists are like all scientists in this regard. The “ivory tower” syndrome is possible because collaboration with the non-science elite is brokered by the university administration and granting bodies. The discursive fads and unethical practices of social science are highly centralized. As in all science polemics, the aggressive attacks on each other are embedded within the essential consensus on professional ethics.
Internal politics within individual anthropology departments, and serious competition with sociology departments, have all too often linked individual anthropologists to government and business interests. Tenure, promotion, professional rivalry, and peer review often reflect these influences. Competition for professional recognition often influences choices of research topics.
Competition for funding has a direct influence on the direction in which the discipline itself goes. These competitive wars also artificially separate academic departments. All of the above tends to restrict individual anthropologists, limiting the success of any innovative practices. Funding provides a check on innovation while maintaining “epistemological orthodoxy.” This conformist commonsense approach maintains artificial boundaries by defining legitimate research.
Anthropologists have long had to deal with the fact that what they do has a real impact on the people they study, and that their responsibility does not stop with publishing their articles. The traditional view of anthropologists is one of “realism.” The global spread of an industrial market economy cannot be stopped. Development needs to be regulated to lessen the injury and distress of modernizations on traditional rural communities. Science can be used to integrate people into a global market economy while helping those impacted people adjust to the disruptions to their lives. Anthropology as advocacy has grown increasingly popular since the late 1960s. Many anthropologists have increasingly come to believe their first responsibility is not to the discipline of anthropology, but to the people they study. Some anthropologists will state that people have a right not to be integrated into the global economy, to have their own history on their own lands, and to make their own mistakes. More and more, anthropologists are forming joint advocacy groups with the leaders of the groups of people they study, going beyond cultural relativism to social activism, using academic credentials to defend less powerful people against “colonialism,” not as leaders, but as advocates. Groups such as Cultural Survival Inc. have formed to help endangered groups struggle for cultural and political sovereignty. Self-determination and indigenous control over their own lands, resources, and communities are replacing protection of impacted groups as a major theme in applied anthropology. Though there are still many anthropologists who work with government and private development plans, there is now at least an open debate on the moral responsibility of anthropologists.
A small group of anthropologists openly embrace the title “romantic.” They feel that indigenous people have a lot more to teach than to learn from industrial nations. Western society is seen as inferior in its ability to adapt to the natural environment while providing for the material needs of all its citizens. Marshal Sahlins calls tribal society the “original affluent society.”
There has now developed from these new groups of dissident anthropologists a set of ethics, used as a check on potentially unethical anthropology. To begin with, there needs to be a way to create a standard for a way of thinking, for choices of research topics and methodologies that will do no harm to the people studied. Freedom for the pursuit of truth as social scientists means the second concern is to protect anthropologists from their employers in government, university administration, or private funding agencies from influencing the results of their studies.
The political end of any research remains an important consideration. Self-restraint in research is a must at all times, to prevent the establishment of bureaucratic watchdog agencies that may not understand the issues involved.
Funding is a particularly difficult ethical problem. The researchers must ask to what purpose the results of their research will be used. If the potential for harm is instigated by the funding agency, then the research should be terminated.
In conclusion, the values of the anthropologist reflect three separate issues. First there is a professional commitment to carry out the best possible research. Anthropologists must use the highest professional standards in carrying out that research, if they are to be accepted as professionals. Second, anthropologists of all theoretical schools must accept responsibility toward the people they study. Third, anthropologists need to understand the legal contract carried with the employer or funding agency. Beyond that there is little agreement. Even the degree to which anthropology is a social science is highly debated. Issues such as the desirability of objectivity or value-free observation has come under attack since the late 1960s. The controversy is a long way from being settled. This brings up the closely related issue of cultural relativism and to what degree the anthropologist’s responsibility is to the people being studied. Increasingly, a larger number of anthropologists come to strongly identify with people other than those in centers of power. If the anthropologists closely identify with people seen as oppressed, exploited, and powerless, this puts them in conflict with the funding agencies, which pay for research. There is little agreement as to what the role of anthropologists will be in the future.
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