12 June 2017

Anthropological Ethics Outside Anthropology Classrooms

In line with Monday's post on alt-ac careers for anthropologists, I wanted to further explore the role of Anthropology (its knowledge, methods, approach, etc.) outside its home discipline. If you follow the blog, you'll know that Rhiannon and I attended the most recent Annual Conference of the Canadian Anthropology Society. We got too caught up in blogging and tweeting about the release of our joint article and we were missed out writing about our presentations.

In my paper, I reflected on the ways in which the anthropological lens could illuminate ideas and meanings between different academic disciplines and broader publics. To do this, I asked, how does my current program (McMaster's Bachelor of Technology Program) prepare its students to work with community members (as supposedly work-ready graduates in the Faculty of Engineering)?

This struck me as an interesting topic because I believed there to be an opportunity to create a shared language around ethics and ethical conduct in classrooms of anthropology and engineering. One which focused on context and seeking representative perspectives.

I'm interested to learn how instructors, students, and professionals who advise the curriculum teach and learn about ethics in engineering classrooms.

I was not the first person to look at the application of anthropological ethics in other disciplines, let alone Engineering. Mustafa Babiker compared engineering & anthropological codes in 2011. Unfortunately, his conference presentation is no longer available online; however, here are my notes outlining his comparison:
  • Babiker compared anthropological ethical codes of conduct (AAA 1998 version of the code of ethics & Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and the Commonwealth 1999) to engineering codes (US Society of Professional Engineers and International Federation of Consulting Engineers) 
  • He found that these codes originated through different motivations – for engineering it was a reaction to disasters and scandals versus anthropology – reaction to work during imperialism and issues of deception (among other things)
  • Regarding avoidance of harm: (1) Engineering codes focused on avoiding harm through physical development and not data collection; (2) anthropological codes concerned with effects of knowledge collection and dissemination or data misuse
  • Regarding informed consent: Informed consent was all but absent in the Engineering code. Further, lack of awareness concerning unequal impact(s) of their work against vulnerable peoples, important especially when projects call for public consultation
  • Regarding confidentiality: Babiker found evidence of the differences between accountability to stakeholders; Anthropologists often prioritize (theoretically/ideally) rights of the marginalized whereas Engineers prioritize many stakeholders (clients, professional engineers, and the public good). The definition of the public good includes descriptors such as humanity’s cultural, historical and archaeological heritage; health and well being of current and future generations, environment.
  • Similar to codes found on our PEO (Professional Engineers of Ontario – licencing body where I work) in which a practitioner is called to “regard the practitioner's duty to public welfare as paramount” (Code of Ethics 2013)   
Babiker wrote about the important similarities and difference between codes as an opportunity to integrate codes and practices.

In an educational setting -- where by we might prepare future engineering students for ethical challenges in the workplace -- I argued that those teaching ethics might also be interested to add the following to Babiker’s list:
  • The importance of using a holistic perspective to understand how one's work may impact the greater community 
  • It is important to consider as well, how some people might be uniquely and/or adversely affected due to their social location or historic inequalities and systemic exclusion (or inclusion). I suggested that engineering students do not receive training on systemic inequality couched in terms of social justice or learn how systems thinking as it applies to human experiences, more often machines.
  • Self-reflection to understand the power and privilege of their role and how that role is perceived with the community.
  • I asked about the potential role engineers could play in seeking out, what anthropologists see as “representative and representational voices” of a community. Asking who is not here, what voices have we not yet heard from, in public consultation
  • I also thought engineers could question one’s relationship with that community, what is the legacy of engineering work beyond a professional code of conduct? This opens up questions of advocacy and answering the question: why and for whom when participating as a consultant.
I've just come back from my first Engineering Conference. I will write more about the paper I gave here, in the next post.

Quick links and further reading: