The Touchy Ethics Of Corporate Anthropology

Anthropologists in companies serve two masters. The employ er is paying them to gather information on its workers. But these cultural snoops have an obligation to the employees, too. The science's code of ethics, established and policed by the American Anthropological Assn. (AAA), requires that the people being studied be kept from physical, mental, or social harm. As more anthropologists end up working in business, it may be hard to guarantee that.

The question of ethics in anthropology came to a head nearly 30 years ago. In 1964, the U. S. Army sent letters to scholars worldwide, recruiting them for something called Project Camelot. If they signed on, the Army said, it would use their observations to help "predict and influence politically significant aspects of social change in developing nations." One specific goal it mentioned was assisting "friendly governments in dealing with insurgency problems." None too subtly, in other words, the Army was recruiting scientists to spy--in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

The project became public before it got far and was canceled in 1965. But the fallout affected U. S. business for 25 years. In 1970, the AAA declared that an anthropologist's primary responsibility is to those being studied and decreed that research subjects have to be protected. To put teeth in its pledge, the AAA banned research that couldn't be made public. Violators could be kicked out of the AAA--rendering them unemployable as anthropologists.

CLEAR-CUT? This largely put a stop to corporate studies, since most companies naturally wanted to keep those proprietary. Then, in the 1980s, as federal funding for anthropology research waned, academic departments looked to industry for money. That started a 10-year debate over the ban on private studies. Finally, in 1989, the AAA revised its rule: Proprietary research is now O. K.--as long as keeping it secret doesn't harm the people being studied.

On the surface, this seems clear-cut. If the greatest harm that can come to informants is losing their jobs, the solution is to protect their anonymity. But as anthropologists gain more say in how work is structured, what constitutes harm will become less clear. If the scientists help raise productivity, have they hurt the people whose jobs are lost? If they help change a job's content, have they harmed employees who can't adjust? The AAA hasn't delved into such questions yet. And no complaints have come in from employees, who may not even know when they're affected by an anthropologist's work. But sooner or later, the question will surface: When a recommendation becomes part of a company policy that employees feel hurts them, whose side should the anthropologist be on?

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