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I wish I could give you a list of criteria against which you could measure the ‘‘ethicalness’’ of every research idea you ever come up with. Unfortunately, it’s not so simple. What’s popularly ethical today may become popularly unethical tomorrow, and vice versa. (This does not mean that all ethics are relative. But more on that later.) During World War II, lots of anthropologists worked for what would today be called the Department of Defense, and they were applauded as patriots for lending their expertise to the war effort (Mead 1979). In the 1960s, anthropologists took part in Project Camelot, a project by the U.S. Army to study counterinsurgency in Latin America (Horowitz 1965). This caused a huge outpouring of criticism, and the American Anthropological Association (AAA) produced its first statement on ethics—not a formal code, but a statement—in 1967, rejecting quite specifically the use of the word “anthropology” as a disguise for spying (Fluehr-Lobban 1998:175).

During the Vietnam War, some anthropologists did clandestine work for the Department of Defense. There was a strong reaction against this behavior, and in 1971 the AAA promulgated a formal code of ethics, titled Principles of Professional Responsibility (American Anthropological Association 1991). That document specifically forbade anthropologists from doing any secret research and asserted the AAA’s right to investigate allegations of behavior by anthropologists that hurts people who are studied, students, or colleagues (Fluehr-Lobban 1998:177). More recently, anthropologists have participated in U.S. military programs for studying local culture in battle zones and this, too, has produced intense debate within the discipline about the proper role, if any, of anthropologists in military and intelligence operations (Rohde 2007) (Further Reading: anthropology in the military and in intelligence).

Despite the rhetoric, though, no anthropologists have been expelled from the AAA because of unethical conduct. One reason is that, when push comes to shove, everyone recognizes that there are conflicting, legitimate interests. In applied anthropology, for example, you have a serious obligation to those who pay for research. This obligation may conflict with your obligation to those whom you are studying. And when this happens, where do you stand? The Society for Applied Anthropology has maintained that the first obligation is to those whom we study. But the National Association of Practicing Anthropologists has promulgated a statement of professional responsibilities that recognizes how complex this issue can be ( -guidelines).

We are a long, long way from finding the answers to these questions (Caplan 2003; Fluehr-Lobban 2002). Today, anthropologists are once again working for the Department of Defense. Is this simply because that’s where the jobs are? (box 3.1).

Perhaps. Times and popular ethics change. Whether you are subject to those changes is a matter for your own conscience, but it's because popular ethics change that Stanley Milgram was able to conduct his famous experiment on obedience in the 1960s.

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