Informed Consent

Article excerpt

A muckraking book spotlights the ethics of anthropological fieldwork.

Early last September, an ominous message addressed to the president of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) began making the rounds of the e-mail grapevine. "We write to inform you," it began, "of an impending scandal that will affect the American anthropological profession as a whole in the eyes of the public, and arouse intense indignation and calls for action among members of the Association." Prompting this warning was the imminent publication of Darkness in El Dorado: How Scientists and Journalists Devastated the Amazon (W W Norton). The book's author, freelance journalist Patrick Tierney, was charging anthropologists and other outsiders who worked in Amazonia in the 1960s with a wide range of misdeeds and ethical violations, the most horrifying of which was that they had intentionally introduced a devastating measles epidemic among the Yanomami. One of those singled out was Napoleon A. Chagnon, who published a vivid account of his fieldwork, "Yanomamo-The Fierce People," in Natural History way back in January 1967.

When news of the book first hit, the reaction of many anthropologists was a quiet dread that it represented only the start of an unpleasant airing of the profession's less defensible acts and practices in the past. Anthropology emerged late in the nineteenth century, when many traditional societies were vanishing or being forever changed by colonial expansion and modernization. Anthropologists felt it was their mission to record what remained of the languages, knowledge, and worldviews of disintegrating cultures. They did not necessarily pause to consider that their presence in the field or the dissemination of the knowledge they gained might harm the people they studied. In fact, their work often aided colonial administrators and occasionally served as a cover for espionage.

By the 1960s, anthropologists had begun to agonize over their ability to be impartial observers. With the social upheavals of the Vietnam War, the belief that science was politically neutral came sharply into question. When some social scientists provided cultural information in support of the U. …