Beyond Ethics: Anthropological Moralities on the Boundaries of the Public and the Professional


Mar 1-7, 2002

Organized by

Lynn Meskell and Peter Pels


Hotel Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur, Mexico


Embedding Ethics (Lynn Meskell and Peter Pels, Eds.), Berg, Oxford, 2005.


  • Nadia Abu El-Haj University of Chicago, USA, [Contributed Paper]
  • Don Brenneis University of California, Santa Cruz, USA
  • Richard Fox Wenner-Gren Foundation, USA
  • Faye Ginsburg New York University, USA
  • Martin Hall University of Cape Town, South Africa
  • Craig Howe Oglala Lakota College, USA, [Contributed Paper]
  • Pradeep Jeganathan University of Minnesota, USA
  • Rosemary Joyce University of California, Berkeley, USA
  • Joel Kahn La Trobe University, Australia
  • Marisa Lazzari Columbia University, USA
  • Ian Lilley University of Queensland, Australia
  • Susan Lindee University of Pennsylvania, USA
  • Jonathan Marks University of North Carolina, Charlotte, USA
  • Lynn Meskell Columbia University, USA
  • Peter Pels University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  • Glenn Stone Washington University, USA
  • Alison Wylie Washington University, USA

ORGANIZER’S STATEMENT: The conference “Beyond Ethics” arose from the feeling that existing ethical consciousness among anthropologists was no longer sufficient to deal with a world in which both the audiences and the professional definitions of anthropology were undergoing rapid change at both local, national and global levels. The conference aimed to explore ethical dimensions of everyday scientific practice that were usually left unstudied by scientists who defined their primary responsibility as being towards the generation of proper evidence from objects studied, perhaps enhanced by supplementary guidelines that this activity should not harm anyone. Four sessions of paper presentations were meant to move beyond these narrow concerns: one questioned the possibilities and limits of modern ethical practice (Joel Kahn, Glenn Stone, Alison Wylie) and a second whether “postmodernity” signifies changes in these practices (Don Brenneis, Rosemary Joyce, Martin Hall). A third and fourth set of papers questioned the moral economy of science itself (Peter Pels, Pradeep Jeganathan, Jonathan Marks) and the ethical consequences of new regimes of identity and the research practices that are involved with them (Lynn Meskell, Craig Howe, Nadia Abu El-Haj). These were followed by intense and highly productive discussions, triggered by specially appointed discussants from different (sub-) disciplines (Ian Lilley, Susan Lindee, Faye Ginsburg). This format pushed the discussion into directions that exceeded any expectation.

For one, the conference title “beyond ethics” turned out to be somewhat misleading the more our discussions recognized the embeddedness of ethics in everyday practice. This was the result of an extraordinarily successful juxtaposition of disciplinary perspectives: whereas, from an ethnographic point of view, the ethical code drawn up by the professional association was long perceived as remote from the (mostly individual) everyday practice of research, archaeologists’ more recent engagements with the drawing up of research principles evinced a far closer correspondence between these principles and a public practice of negotiating interests between different stakeholders in the research situation. Yet another example was provided by bio-anthropological and genomic research, where the general absence of ethical codification was perceived as a problem. Thus, the different disciplinary views combined in discussion, with the general agreement that ethical codification was necessary and valuable, but also problematic because of its potentially legalistic language and effects, which might prevent people from constantly renegotiating principles in practice, and occlude the importance of moral practices – negotiation, (self-) discipline, storytelling – where ethical responsibility is realized without recourse to explicit principles.

A crucial set of issues arose from considering the ethical transformations of the mundane practice of fieldwork. In archaeology, in particular, the public responsibility of researchers to answer to numerous stakeholders at the site or in the museum allowed for a discussion of the transformation of or increase in the audiences researchers need to address. Such a loss of “scientific innocence,” which occurs when research results are adopted or transformed in the name of “heritage,” “intellectual property,” nationalism, tourism, religion and so on, can be treated as an external incursion into the production of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but it can also be seen as a monitoring tactic that is internal to research, necessary not just for a constant re-evaluation of research ethics but for the reassessment of the adequacy of the knowledge produced as well. Many of the dilemmas in which anthropologists find themselves today occur because they hold on to an image of the scientist as the adjudicator of the true, the good and the worthwhile in research. In practice, however, we have always been negotiators, and despite the fact that it was often more profitable to listen to the demands of sponsors rather than to the less powerful audiences encountered during research, we have always felt responsible towards the latter as well.

This move from an attitude of adjudication to one of negotiation can be regarded as a major result of the conference’s proceedings, and provides ways to engage with and criticize novel developments. The recent Yanomami scandal, for example, seems largely the result of a problem of adjudication – of determining who has harmed the Yanomami – but paid remarkably little attention to negotiating some form of alleviation with Yanomami themselves until recently. Another negative development might be the increase in a bureaucracy adjudicatory power that results from the global spread of auditing techniques and ethical codification, a process that might be countered by considering how these forms remain negotiable and embedded in the practices being monitored. On the positive side, ethnography might provide a research routine that, when used to study audit culture and codification, uncovers practices of the negotiation of ethics in modern or postcolonial circumstances. Ethnography’s tendency to rely on an isolated researcher can be contrasted to the more public accountability that characterizes archaeological and museum work, where recent developments suggest alternative ways of negotiating research practice. Biological anthropology and genomics show that major social transformations – such as the privatization of the gene-pool – may occur surreptitiously if the ethics of research are not a matter of public negotiation. The discussions brought out that this cannot mean that social relevance replaces the value of expertise; rather, that intellectuals who are conscious of their (potential) audiences can better defend the value of independent expertise – of knowledge for knowledge’s sake – because they know its relevance.

Thus, the move towards a more negotiated ethics suggests a different point of departure for critique as well as for positive engagement in the present. That comes out particularly well in the resolve by the conference participants to produce not only a collection of essays that publicizes the arguments sketched above – arguments that, in all subdisciplines concerned, outline a significant and urgently needed departure from earlier practice – but also to work on an outline for an anthropological ethics curriculum that emphasizes that there is an inherent ethical practice to every stage of research, from the original definition of the object of research, through preliminary framing, proposal writing, funding, negotiating access to the field and fieldwork itself, and writing up; and to make this outline of a curriculum teaching the embedding of ethics available to professional associations, university departments and other professionals and publics concerned.

Wenner-Gren Symposium #130

L to R: R. Fox, L. Obbink, P. Pels, M. B. Moss, M. Lazzari, F. Ginsburg, D. Brenneis, J. Kahn, R. Joyce, S. Lindee, J. Marks, P. Jeganathan, A. Wylie, L. Meskell, G. Stone, I. Lilley, M. Hall.