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Internet Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 28, 2000
Source URL: http://chronicle.com/colloquylive/transcripts/2000/09/20000928watkins.htm


September 28, 2000

Anthropology Confronts Misconduct Allegations

Thursday, September 28, at noon, U.S. Eastern time

How serious are the new allegations about misconduct by anthropologists who studied the Yanomami, an Amazon tribe? How should anthropologists respond to these allegations? How can anthropologists ensure that they do not harm the people they study?

This is a transcript of a live discussion on Thursday, September 28.


A transcript of the chat follows.
David Miller (Moderator) :
    Hello, I'm David Miller, a reporter with The Chronicle of Higher Education, and I'd like to welcome you to The Chronicle's online discussion with Joe Watkins.

Today we look at the scholarly fall-out from a book called Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon , written by journalist Patrick Tierney and due to be published soon by W.W. Norton. [ How to buy this book ]

Among other things, the book alleges that scholars studying the Yanomami people of South America since the 1960's may have done them serious harm. Some anthropologists fear that these charges will undermine both public trust in their integrity and their future access to indigenous groups. The professional association for anthropology has said that the allegations, if true, "would constitute a serious violation of Yanomami human rights and our code of ethics."

Today, we are fortunate to have with us Joe Watkins, a practicing anthropologist with the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in Oklahoma and a scholar affiliated with Indiana University at Bloomington. Mr. Watkins is an expert on scholarly ethics issues and the chairman of the American Anthropological Association's ethics committee. Speaking from his personal perspective, he has agreed to field questions and comments about ethics and anthropology.

Mr. Watkins, welcome and thank you for joining us.


Joe Watkins :
    Thank you, David. I'm glad to be here, although I may not be too happy with the reason that we're here.


Question from David Miller :
    Mr. Watkins, what exactly are the ethical obligations of anthropological researchers toward the people they study? Are those obligations sometimes difficult to observe?

Joe Watkins :
    The American Anthropological Association feels the primary ethical responsibility of the practicing anthropologist is to the people they study -- not to their sponsors, employers, or colleagues. That is, anthropologists should avoid harming the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people with whom they work, as much as possible, not only in the field but also in the way they represent their subjects in their writing and publication. And, yes, sometimes it does get difficult to observe those obligations, especially since we can't always foresee the impact our research might have on a local population. And that's why the AAA felt it important that its Committee on Ethics move from adjudicating claims of unethical behavior to trying to develop a program designed to educate anthropologists more about ethics.


Question from Douglas Hanson, The Forsyth Institute :
    Could you briefly outline the procedures by which the American Anthropological Association is likely to investigate these allegations?

Joe Watkins :
    I cannot speak for the American Anthropological Association on the procedures it will initiate regarding the allegations that have been brought forward by Tierney's book, but expect that the Association will try to involve an outside organization, perhaps something like the National Academy of Sciences or the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in whatever process it deems necessary. It is important that the public be made aware that the discipline will not try to "whitewash" the issues brought about by this volume, but the allegations are just that, allegations, and should be treated as such. The most important thing here is to realize that both the author of the book and the anthropologists mentioned in the allegations have legal rights in these issues, and the Association can not override any of those rights. I would imagine that any examination of these issues will be conducted in an unbiased and open manner, possibly involving the AAA's Committee on Ethics and its Committee for Human Rights as participants in one form or another.


Question from Jessa Netting, Nature Magazine :
    1. In the past, how have the AAA or individual anthropologists responded to what they considered to be breaches of ethics?

2. Is there a need for a single official body for the ethical review of projects? How frequent are ethical questions of this severity raised?

Joe Watkins :
    In the past the AAA, through their committee on ethics, has responded to cases about ethical misconduct through a review and an adjudication process. However, the committee found that the process was often unwieldy and rarely led to satisfaction on the part of all parties involved. And that was one of the reasons why the committee decided to revamp its code of ethics in the 1990s.

I do not think that there's a need for a single body to review questions of ethics. Various organizations -- such as the Society for Applied Anthropology, the Society for American Archaeology, and the National Association of Practicing Anthropologists -- since their members deal with specifics and since their members deal with various subdisciplines of anthropology are better served by providing codes of ethics which relate specifically to their issues. Therefore there are so many areas where research -- say biomedical anthropology, for example -- are so different and deal with entirely different sets of ethical questions that one body could not apply the same sets of ethics to another discipline such as archaeology.


Question from Joanne Passaro, Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry, NY :
    How have the professional organizations of other disciplines responded to similar accusations? And, who should do the investigating--the AAA or a government agency?

Joe Watkins :
    I'm not certain that other organizations have responded to allegations of this sort. I realize that the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association are able to censure and remove from their rolls professionals in their organizations who are found to be guilty of breaches of the sort that we are discussing. However, the American Anthropological Association, since it does not license anthropologists, nor provide certificates for their practice, cannot do anything beyond merely censuring individuals who are found to have violated its codes of ethics. I'm not certain that a government organization should be involved in issues of the sort that have been raised because, at least until more information is available, I'm not certain that the allegations indicate any illegal activity of the sort that might be actionable in a court.


Question from David Miller :
    I'd like to follow up on your answer about the AAA ethics committee. Now that the committee doesn't investigate possible ethical violations anymore, doesn't the profession risk letting violations go unpunished?

Joe Watkins :
    I don't believe the AAA runs the risk of letting ethical violations go unpunished, per se. The AAA has never truly been able to "punish" anyone for ethical violations. Realistically the AAA can only ask that an offending person's name be removed from the association's membership, and that action has no real impact on an anthropologist's career. The association is only able to issue sternly worded "thou shalt nots" and then publish the names of the offending people. Currently the committee on ethics is hoping to expand its educational programs so that the undergraduate and graduate students in anthropology will be more aware of the types of questions they must consider before undertaking any sort of fieldwork.


Question from Jay Christensen, CA State Univ, Northridge :
    Are we hurting these native tribes, including the Yanomami, by constantly contacting them?

Joe Watkins :
    "Hurting" is a subjective and loaded term.

Hurting their culture? We have changed the trajectory their culture has followed and will follow from now on. We can't take them back to their precontact state and expect them to carry on as if we never contacted them. We have infected them with some of our diseases, and have, on more than one occasion, replaced their economies with our own ideas of wealth and status.

In those regards, yes, we have "hurt" them. But we've also helped increase the life spans of some groups of natives, we have raised standards of living for many individuals, and we have increased the likelihood of cultural survival of other groups.

As with anything we do, there are both positive and negative sides to all of our involvement with nonindustrial peoples. Our best bet is to try to understand the impact of our contact with such groups and to try to minimize that impact.


Question from Anonymous :
    Can you give an example of a situation where study of a group by anthropologists did not ultimately lead to physical or cultural devastation of the group being studied? Isn't the discussion of 'ethics' just a little bit empty and self-serving when the ultimate objective is more grant money and advancement of academic careers?

Joe Watkins :
    In regards to the first portion of your question, I can't think of an example where contact between two cultures of different levels of attainment did not lead to physical and cultural devastation, but let's not limit this to anthropologists. The fact that anthropologists may have been some of the earliest academics to come into contact with a group does not mean that the anthropologist is at fault. The devastation of American Indian culture was done far better by the railroad and the military than by the anthropologist.

Secondly, I don't think the discussion of "ethics" is anywhere near empty and self-serving. It's important that students and practicing professional anthropologists recognize that their actions will impact those with whom they work, that they are the ones responsible for their actions, and that they should at least think about the effects their actions are likely to have on those they study. I don't feel that the advancement of an academic career is an unworthy goal, any more than I think attaining the highest possible position within any career is an unworthy goal. But I do feel that such a career must be built on strong ethics and personal honor.


Question from Dorene, a large community college :
    If the allegations are true, how is this any different from the actions of the early American colonists who gave the Indians blankets infected with small pox in the misguided belief that America was theirs based on a concept of "manifest destiny"? As American Indian people, we know that this is about taking land: If you destroy the people and the culture, it's much easier to take the land, isn't it?

Joe Watkins :
    If the allegations are true, then this does sound frighteningly familiar. However, since the information on this publication has been made available on the Internet, numerous anthropologists have come forward with information which appears to refute some of the author's statements. I'm not certain that we can truly equate the intent with the result.


Question from Susan Howard, Duke University :
    Please address the obligation of anthropologists to have projects involving research on living human beings reviewed by their institution's review board (IRB) for research on human subjects. As administrators, we find ourselves in a great deal of conflict with our ethnologists over this: while they recognize the need to treat their subjects with respect, they do not always recognize the authority of the IRB (or any other outside party) to oversee their research.

Joe Watkins :
    I think it is important that researchers understand that the IRB is not intended to prevent a project, but rather to provide an administrative review of the academic, social, and legal impacts of that project on the community involved. The IRB is not intended to stand in lieu of a code of ethics, but rather as an administrative mechanism for insuring that everyone taking part in a research project involving human subjects is protected legally and ethically -- including the sponsoring institution, the researcher, and the subjects. Many researchers might view the IRB as an intrusion on the practice of science, but, in reality, it serves to act as a buffer between the institution and the community.


Question from David Miller, The Chronicle :
    Another question on Institutional Review Boards: The IRB's are seen at universities as primarily responsible for biomedical research. Do you think they are as well equipped as they should be to protect human subjects in social science research? Does it make sense to have the same group evaluate an experimental cancer treatment, and also to look at how sociologists or anthropologists might study a group of people?

Joe Watkins :
    Good question. No, I don't think an IRB established for biomedical research can adequately address research in other social sciences. However, I do think that such boards should serve as a model or perhaps even a parent organization for IRB's whose functions revolve specifically around social-science projects. I do see the utility of IRB's and am aware of the frustration that some researchers feel in dealing with them. However, they do serve to protect all parties involved in many different areas.


Question from Dan Jorgensen, U. of Western Ontario :
    If the memo on Tierney's book that was circulated by professors Terence Turner and Leslie Sponsel is anything to go by, the allegations involve criminal wrongdoing. What's stopping a criminal investigation?

Joe Watkins :
    I believe that the Venezuelan and/or Brazilian authorities, if THEY see it in their best interests, should initiate criminal proceedings. However, at this point, I believe it is important that anthropology examine the allegations as they have been raised in order to defuse any fallout that this might have on anthropologists who practice their craft in foreign countries. I would hesitate to recommend criminal proceedings based solely on the information that I have seen and believe that such a trial would serve to paint all anthropologists with a broad brush.


David Miller (Moderator) :
    We're about halfway through our discussion, so don't hold back on your questions.


Question from David Miller, The Chronicle :
    Some of the allegations about mistreatment of the Yanomami appear to have been known -- at least in some circles -- for years. Does it worry you that it's taken a book and press interest for these allegations to get the attention they have now received? Shouldn't the anthropology association have been doing some serious investigating of this research a long time ago?

Joe Watkins :
    I would agree that the AAA should have investigated such allegations, if they had been brought specifically to the attention of the committee on ethics or the committee for human rights. However, as an anthropologist I am well aware of numerous attempts to injure the reputation of anthropologists with unsubstantiated and unsubstantiatable rumors and innuendo. The association cannot and should not on its own initiate investigations which might be perceived to be a witchhunt regarding its members unless specific complaints are made.


Question from Teri Brewer, University of Glamorgan, Wales :
    So what about the Yanomami? The profession risks looking a little hysterical and the collective concern is in danger of becoming more about research reputations than about the people who may have been materially harmed, collectively libelled, and physically threatened by the alleged professional misconduct. Surely the welfare of communities and individuals affected should be paramount here.

Joe Watkins :
    Yes, I agree. The welfare of the people studied is of the utmost importance. That is what the AAA's code of ethics addresses. However, the AAA itself cannot and should not delude itself into thinking that it knows best how to handle the affairs of the Yanomami. If the allegations turn out to be true, then the Yanomami, the Venezuelan government, and all other parties involved should push for some sort of compensation to mitigate the impacts of the actions against the Yanomami.


Question from Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation :
    Would survivors of a similar experiment be able to bring charges or a civil suit against the university or the state of California?

(Moderator's note: Napoleon Chagnon, one of the researchers criticized in Tierney's book, worked at the University of California at Santa Barbara.)

Joe Watkins :
    I'm afraid that's a question I cannot answer. I don't have legal training. That would be something that a university lawyer would have to answer.


Question from Julie Hendon, Gettysburg College :
    Mr. Watkins, have you read the manuscript of Tierney's book? Do you think Tierney supports his allegations?

Joe Watkins :
    I have read the galleys of Tierney's book and believe that he has presented his allegations in a well-thought and methodical style. That said, I have received numerous e-mails from self-described supporters and self-described non-supporters of the people mentioned in the book which conflict directly with some of Tierney's allegations. At this point, I would hesitate to believe either set of authors until I would be able to do my own research on the information provided.


Question from David Miller, The Chronicle :
    How does the concept of "informed consent" work when you are studying a group of people like the Yanomami? You could explain the health consequences of doing something, but could you ever explain to a group like that the impact of having their culture written about in journals, or what it would be like to have their activities viewed on film, or what it would do to their image to be described as violent?

Joe Watkins :
    That's an interesting question. The question of informed consent is one that continues to be discussed. When anthropologists deal with people from any population, even a population from an industrial country like the United States, we run the risk of having our explanations misunderstood. I feel the best that we can do is to try to explain in the native language, using as much as possible native concepts and ideas, exactly what we are trying to do. We can never truly recognize every impact that our research will have, but we should at least try to determine the major impacts that we might have on the population. Many of our effects on a group do not manifest themselves until much later in time and, most likely, could not have been foreseen at the time a project was initiated. However, we should make the best attempt possible to explain everything about our project at the beginning of the project to those involved in it.


Question from Rodney C. Kirk, Central Mich. U. :
    James V. Neel, who is accused of infecting Yanomami with a measles vaccine, is a human geneticist, not an anthropologist. Why are the accusations a particular problem for anthropology and anthropologists and apparently raise no questions of import to human biology or human geneticists? Have they no ethical investment in these charges?

Joe Watkins :
    I cannot speak for the human geneticists. I do think that if the publication had been aimed at Dr. Neel then perhaps they would be as involved in this discussion as anthropologists are.


Question from Sondra Smolek, St. Mary's College of Maryland :
    As an undergraduate anthropology student, I was wondering what forms of educational programs the AAA committee on ethics is hoping to introduce at colleges and universities?

Joe Watkins :
    The AAA committee on ethics is hoping to develop programs which can be applied across the undergraduate and graduate curriculum. We hope to be able to develop course syllabi, readings, and lists of guest speakers who can address or lead discussions regarding ethical issues in all the major subdisciplines of anthropology. Currently there are far too few courses which mention ethics, let alone deal with or try to teach ethical issues. We are hoping to change that.


Question from Dan Jorgensen, U. of Western Ontario :
    A follow-up on the history of the AAA ethics committee. Is it indeed the case, as rumored, that the majority of the ethics cases brought forward involved allegations of anthropologists against colleagues for offenses against them, as opposed to complaints about harm inflicted on those anthropologists study?

Joe Watkins :
    Yes, that is true, and that is one of the reasons why the committee on ethics decided to move from adjudicating such complaints and more toward developing the education program to try to prevent such things from happening. Historically the AAA's first involvement with ethics was in 1919 and dealt with a claim that anthropologists had served as spies for the United States. Such issues arose again in the 1960s regarding anthropologists' work in Southeast Asia. Because such complaints led to great internal conflict about the roles of the Principles of Professional Responsibility, the AAA decided to refocus its ethical considerations more on the people we study rather than on collegial issues and complaints.


David Miller (Moderator) :
    Larry Pitts just wrote in with a comment:

He says, "I would think that it would at least be fair to have posted here a link to Napoleon Chagnon's statement of 9/20 and that of measles expert, Dr. Katz, on 9/24. Isn't that also a matter of 'ethics'?" The URL is: http://www.anth.ucsb.edu/chagnon.html


Question from Ray Winbush, Fisk University :
    Is what happened to the Yanomami any different than what happened to the Aborigines in Australia, the Lakota in this country, or the Arawak people in Jamaica? Isn't it all just a reflection of "western science's" white supremacist view of indigenous people? Cultural anthropology has its roots in white supremacy, and this latest revelation merely reveals its proclivity for viewing persons of color as a little better than animals.

Joe Watkins :
    The colonialist attitudes of many industrial societies have been rooted in the idea that their culture, because of its advanced state of development, had the "right" to take the land that it needed in order to strengthen its own culture. That type of action is represented throughout history and is easily a result of the time in which it happened. Part of the problem with comparing the Yanomami with the other peoples you mentioned, at least in terms of this discussion, is that we have immediate access to documentation, and it is happening now as we speak. In fact, the immediacy of information leads more to a perceived urgency in trying to resolve this issue.


Question from Belinda Blinkoff, Context-Based Research Group :
    In response to the question posted by Anonymous, I find it hard to believe that you can't think of any instances in which an anthropologist studied a group and this didn't lead to devastation. I conducted research in Papua New Guinea in the Mianmin region in 1996-97 and based on letters from my Mianmin friends as well as two visiting biologists, there has been no cultural or physical devastation. Anthropologists do research everyday that causes no harm. Were you perhaps referring to "first contact," historical situations?

Joe Watkins :
    In my responses to the questions asked here, I chose more to respond to the implication that anthropologists are some sort of inherently evil group of people intent on describing and then decimating a population. As you mention, there are definite examples in which anthropologists have worked with local people and helped them establish better schools, better health systems, more local control over their lives.


Question from Charles Hannon, Gettysburg College :
    In your opinion, would it be unethical for an anthropologist to use Chagnon's or Neel's research, if that anthropologist concluded that these allegations are true?

Joe Watkins :
    Well, if the allegations were proven to be true, I would think it would bring into question the validity of Neel's and Chagnon's research. All ethical questions aside, I would think that a researcher would be hesitant to include data thought to have been fabricated or collected in an unethical manner. In relation to ethics, I would agree that data collected in such a manner that is alleged to have occurred are not data that would be scientifically acceptable, and we have examples of data that have been collected by scientists in the past which the scientific community has agreed it will not use. One example, and no comparisons are implied, are the studies conducted by Nazi scientists during World War II.


David Miller (Moderator) :
    That's all we have time for today. I'm sorry we couldn't get to every question, but we thank you for participating. Mr. Watkins, we appreciate your comments.


Joe Watkins :
    Closing comments: I have enjoyed discussing these issues with you and realize that the discipline is not provincial in its viewpoints regarding such issues. I urge everyone who has submitted questions to follow the process of these allegations as they wind their way through the maze of the discipline. Hopefully anthropology will be able to provide a closure to this incident that will be beneficial, not only to the discipline, but to all parties involved. Thank you.