Darkness in El Dorado Controversy - Archived Document

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Roundtable Forum: Ethical Issues Raised by Patrick Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado


August 30, 2001

Dear Colleagues,

This is an open letter addressed to the American Anthropological Association's El Dorado Task Force by the members of this Roundtable Forum. Despite our clear disagreements regarding Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado - disagreements which reflect the arguments the book has provoked within the profession as a whole - we collectively affirm it raises important ethical issues which are central to the current discussion. These call for a renewed discussion of general principles of research ethics and the responsibilities of anthropologists to the peoples they study. We would draw the El Dorado Task Force’s attention to several points in this regard.

First, the American Anthropological Association has to date proved ineffective - by its own admission - in adjudicating ethical issues relating to the behaviors of its members. As the 1996 "Final Report of the Commission to Review the AAA Statements on Ethics" states: "To be useful a[n] adjudication system must: [a] Ensure due process, which involves collection of data, interviews, hearings, etc, [b] have the ability to impose meaningful sanctions, [c] have moral, if not legal standing, [d] be willing and able to take on all appropriate claims, [and e] be able to deliver what it promises. The Commission found that the AAA adjudication process failed to meet all of these tests" (Anthropology Newsletter, April 1996:13). Yet if the AAA is to be a self-regulating profession - rather than an organization regulated by outside authorities - it needs to make effective ethical assessments of its members behaviors during and following fieldwork. Certain issues raised by Tierney had been brought before the AAA in the late 1980s and early 1990s, well before to the book’s publication in the fall of 2000. But the AAA proved unable or unwilling at that time to address them in a fair and open manner. While Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado contains clear errors, the public uproar his book caused has proved critical in forcing the AAA to address a set of ethical issues it should have addressed on its own well prior to the book’s publication.

Second, the dynamics of fieldwork often reinforce a broader political/economic asymmetrical relationship between First and Third World peoples. Anthropologists travel abroad, collect socially significant information through the good will of informants, return to write papers and/or books based on this information, and through such writing gain a professional position with, often, a professional salary. The informants, who provided the information, tend to remain in the same political/economic subordinate condition as before. Simply offering gifts during fieldwork does not compensate for the asymmetrical advantages that accrue to the anthropologist from the fieldworker-informant relationship.

Related to this problem is another: Researchers commonly face conflicts between meeting personal research objectives and addressing the needs of the people studied. Researchers should attempt to balance these demands as far as possible so as, on the one hand, to keep faith with the sponsors of their research and, on the other, to acknowledge their ethical responsibilities to the people they work with - particularly recognizing and respecting their human rights.

Building on this point, we would note anthropologists collecting biological samples often explain these collections as benefitting the people involved. This may hold true in an abstract sense, since in collecting such biological samples we may learn more about the health of human beings. Clearly, however, this is not the same thing as providing medical assistance to the actual people who are asked to donate the samples. One might well argue that framing benefits in these abstract terms - as helping humanity rather than helping the particular people involved - constitutes another case of the political/economic asymmetry noted above: Researchers advance their careers through fieldwork; informants do not. The principle that should regulate informed consent and ethical practice alike in the collection of biological samples is that the health and welfare of the study population must always take precedence over any academic or scientific goal.

Central to providing both balance and justice, within this context, is a negotiated contract among the parties involved regarding the benefits accruing to each as a result of their relationship. Whether interpreted within the framework of gifts or exchanges, there needs to be clearly defined rewards. Yet because of the noted political/economic asymmetry, anthropologists often are at an advantage in such negotiations - having a clearer sense of the value gained in relation to the rewards returned. As a rule of thumb, one might follow John Rawls’ "veil of ignorance" in which anthropologists consider what constitutes a just balance without presuming to know which side - informant or anthropologist - they are on. As Rawls phrases it, with the veil of ignorance, "the parties are not allowed to know the social positions . . . of the parties they represent." What would anthropologists claim to be fair - under these circumstances - for all parties concerned?

We would offer the following as guidelines for answering this question:

(a) A mutually agreed upon equitable division of all royalties that accrue to an anthropologist through the publication of works relating to the people involved. Such remuneration might take a range of forms: In the case of the Yanomami, for example, it could involve reimbursing individuals and groups or using the funds to support projects directed by Venezeulan and Brazilian Yanomami and non-Yanomami specialized NGOs to improve present medical, economic, educational, and environmental conditions.

(b) A mutually agreed upon equitable division of all royalties drawn from biological specimens - either from the indigenous group itself or from flora and fauna in the area where the group resides - in a manner similar to that noted above.

(c) Given that most anthropologists gain little in the way of royalties they might share with their communities of study, there are still a variety of ways they might redress the basic asymmetries of research. The key here is working with informants and their communities to address their collective needs as they stipulate them - not as an anthropologist stipulates them. For example, informants may be eligible for governmental assistance but, for a variety of reasons, are unable to gain access to it. Informants may request anthropologists, given their skills in dealing with bureaucracies, to lobby on behalf of their communities. Likewise, communities may be short of medicines, such as anti-malarial drugs, which the anthropologist can purchase. The anthropologist can, then, offer these medicines to the people themselves and/or restock local dispensaries. The essential point is that anthropologists must provide help in terms that the people, themselves, directly perceive and directly appreciate.

Third, anthropologists should take care to avoid constructing gratuitously, damaging images or accounts of their subjects in their publications and media contacts to prevent possible harm to the dignity and welfare of the individuals and groups they study. Having taken such care, anthropologists cannot be held responsible for the diverse and, particularly abusive, use of their publications. Simply as a matter of free speech, they should be able to speak out whatever use others may, or may not, put their work to. But, by the same token, anthropologists are morally responsible to counter abusive uses of their work when it is made known to them by local officials and/or anthropologists. They need speak out in clear and public ways in the countries involved that they oppose the implications others draw from their work particularly when such implications harm informants in ways the anthropologist never intended.

While the American Anthropological Association and the El Dorado Task Force need investigate accusations of past improprieties in this regard, just as - if not more - critical to the Yanomami today is opposing a serious possible wrong unfolding in the present. The Brazilian Minister of Defense, Geraldo Quintão, has publicly asserted the 1991 demarcation of the Yanomami reserve was a "mistake" and suggested the reserve’s shape and size be "reconsidered." The American Anthropological Association should craft a letter, with all deliberate speed, supporting the retention of the Yanomami Reserve in its present form. The letter should be sent to (a) the Brazilian Government, (b) the Brazilian Embassy in the United States, and (c) the Brazilian Anthropological Association. If the Association fails to act at a critical time such as this, what moral standing will it have among the Yanomami, among Brazilian and Venezuelan anthropologists, among its own members?

Fourth, there are a variety of reasons why the American Anthropological Association should maintain collegial relations with other national anthropological associations: as a sign of professional respect, to facilitate international cooperation among anthropologists, and to gain these associations support for fieldwork in their countries. It is, therefore, critical that the Association treat these other associations concerns and complaints, regarding American anthropologists and American anthropology, in a formal and professional manner. The American Anthropological Association failed to do this in respect to the complaint lodged by the Brazilian Anthropological Association in 1988 concerning Napoleon Chagnon’s writing. Specifically, it did not have a structure in place by which to deal with the Brazilian Anthropological Association’s complaint at an organization to organizational level. The American Anthropological Association should now (a) establish a means for addressing such organizational complaints in the future and (b) write a formal letter of apology to the Brazilian Anthropological Association regarding A.A.A.’s failure to address their earlier complaint that will be published in both associations’ newsletters.

Fifth, the American Anthropological Association needs to more vigorously pursue its own self-proclaimed educational efforts in the field of ethics. The American Anthropological Association’s Executive Board accepted the Commission to Review the AAA Statements on Ethics "recommendation that the AAA focus on an ethics education program American Anthropological Association and no longer seek to adjudicate claims of unethical behavior" (Anthropology Newsletter April 1996:14). What is certainly disturbing is such educational efforts, if they exist, are barely recognizable by Association members. The commission listed as the "objectives of the ethics education program . . . (1) to increase the number of candidates for all degrees in anthropology receiving training in ethics before graduating; (2) to provide ongoing education in ethical issues for all AAA members, and (3) to provide advice to AAA members facing/raising ethical dilemmas." To support this program, the Commission offered the following suggestions:

The AAA should produce and periodically update a publication of case studies of ethical dilemmas anthropological researchers, teachers and practitioners might face, suitable for use in graduate training, postdoctorate training, and continuing education. [We would stress, the only publications widely familiar to the profession on ethics were published well before the Commission’s report. The publication listed on the Association’s website, Cassell and Jacobs’ Handbook on Ethical Issues in Anthropology, was published in 1987. Fluehr-Lobban’s Ethics and the Profession of Anthropology was published in 1991.]

The AAA should provide departments technical assistance in establishing educational offerings in ethics.

The AAA should conduct ethics training workshops at annual meetings and during the year.

The AAA should seek a joint grant with one or more other social science organizations to develop a basic ethics teaching module, which could be used by all social sciences, calling on resources from across the campus, and which would be supplemented with department training specific to the discipline.

The AAA should develop broad guidelines to help departments determine the appropriate minimum of ethics training which should be offered to different levels of students (Anthropology Newsletter April 1996:14-15).

Clearly, this has not occurred. The American Anthropological Association should therefore - in line with its own recommendations - now invest both time and energy in encouraging American graduate programs to include a substantive course in ethics prior to fieldwork. Further, the schools that conduct such courses should be placed publicly on the Association’s website. Certificates of completion might be issued to students who have performed satisfactorily in such courses. These certificates can then be presented to the relevant authorities, anthropological associations, and/or indigenous associations, if requested, in the countries of proposed research.

Finally, given the American Anthropological Association, by its own admission, has proven ineffective in adjudicating ethical cases relating to the behaviors of its members, it should encourage the wider participation of its membership in its ethical deliberations. The open, public discussion of specific ethical problems - as has occurred in our Roundtable Forum - allows Association members to personally grapple with serious ethical issues in ways that abstract reports from the Association do not. The experience is far more empowering, far more educational.

But to do this, the American Anthropological Association needs to make the materials used in its deliberations more public. The secrecy that presently shrouds the Association’s Inquiry into Tierney’s Death in El Dorado contradicts the insistence enshrined in fundamental American democratic principles that (a) the presentation of evidence should occur in open court and (b) the "Sunshine Laws" of many states that require important government committees, boards, and council meetings be open to the public. This openness fits with the Association’s own code of ethics:

III.B.5. Anthropological researchers should seriously consider all reasonable requests for access to their data and other research materials . . .

III.C. 1. Anthropological researchers should make the results of their research appropriately available to sponsors, students, decision makers, and other nonanthropologists.

The El Dorado Task Force should (A) make available for public release, at the earliest possible moment, an annotated bibliography of all the documents used in their deliberations. (B) Documents that can be released for general consumption, should be. (C) In respect to documents which, because of their personal nature, need remain private, the Inquiry should provide a clear, written justification for such action in each case. The deliberations themselves may remain private but the materials used in arriving at decisions should be a matter of public record.

It would be a disservice to AAA members and to anthropology, more broadly, if the Association - which, by its own admission, has proven ineffective in such matters to date - should now take upon itself sole responsibility for making judgements, in complete secrecy, on such a heated subject. To repeat, the process needs to be a shared, educational one for AAA members. The Association cannot produce future ethical guidelines from on high. The Association’s members need to collectively participate in the deliberations. And to do this, the membership needs the documents the El Dorado Task Force uses to draw its conclusions. A formal report - without an annotated bibliography of all the evidence collected, without a chance to ponder the evidence before being requested to vote on accepting the Inquiry’s report - simply will not do. The inquiry needs to be a collective process in which, through our shared wisdom as anthropologists, we shape our shared future as a profession.

Our letter, drafted by Robert Borofsky (the convener of the Roundtable Forum), represents clear agreement - whatever other intellectual differences we may have - on critical ethical issues we feel the El Dorado Task Force must now promptly and effectively take action on:

Bruce Albert (Research Institute for Development, Sãn Paulo)

Ray Hames (University of Nebraska)

Kim Hill (University of New Mexico)

Lêda Leitão Martins (Cornell University)

John Peters (Wilfrid Laurier University)

Terence Turner (Cornell University)

Robert Borofsky (Hawaii Pacific University)