Monday, September 19, 2016

Why I voted NO on SAA ethics principle 9

The Society for American Archaeology has an election right now on whether or not to add a ninth principle to the society's list of principles of ethics. I just voted no. Here's why.

This is the text, from the ballot site:

First, these are not archaeological principles. They do not concern sites or artifacts or fieldwork or the archaeological record.

Second, these are broader principles that affect far more than archaeology, yet they are written only for archaeology and archaeologists. In fact, their application to my lab would be discriminatory. Suppose I am nasty and I exploit students in an unsafe university lab, and I also discriminate and harass students inappropriately. If this were an official ethical principle of the SAA, it looks like my actions would be condemned for archaeology students working on one of my archaeology projects, but NOT for other students working on other projects (I also work on various projects on urbanism that are not archaeological). Or maybe I will obey the SAA and be fair and nice to my archaeology students, but I will be nasty and harassing to my non-archaeology students. Would I be violating this principle? Does the SAA want to regulate non-archaeological activities?

Third, the SAA has no enforcement procedure for its ethics principles. If I am bad and violate all these precepts, what is the SAA going to do about it? Sanction me? Sue me? Berate me in public?

Fourth, many of these actions violate my university policies and rules. If I discriminate against some students or harass others, or if my lab is truly unsafe, I can be investigated and disciplined by my university. The employer has the legal teeth to enforce these things, but the SAA does not.

The SAA should stick to archaeology. Just because these are positive principles that most of us probably agree with does not mean they should be part of the SAA's official policy.


Scott Ortman said...

Mike, I'm pretty sure SAA Ethics Principle 9 (not rule or policy) follows from the recently published study by Karen Clancy et al. ( which found that sexual harassment and discrimination occurs in the majority of archaeological field projects, even today. So I think the spirit of Principle 9 is that the SAA acknowledges this is a problem to be addressed. I think it also emphasizes that professional archaeologists are not excused from the responsibility to provide a safe environment for all who participate in their projects. It seems pretty straightforward that we should all aspire to run field projects that are free from discrimination and harassment, regardless of the details you quibble over. For my project I developed a Goals and Expectations document and a Field Safety Reference Guide, following the excellent model provided by Penn State (, in an attempt to nip this sort of behavior in the bud. So IMHO I think you're missing the forest for the trees with regard to this issue and don't think its one to argue about.

Michael E. Smith said...

@Scott - I guess I have skeptical views of two things: (1) ethics principles that are not backed up by sanctions or enforcement; and (2) the SAA trying to regulate things outside of archaeology. I understand the problems with harassment recently identified for archaeology and other field- and lab-based research, but I don't see how adding principles to the SAA code will make any difference. If I am a jerk who harasses students, having this statement in the SAA principles is not going to stop me. But if a suit were to be brought by my university, that could have a real effect. The Penn State guidelines are great; they come from a university unit, and they pertain to research and domains part of that university. These are positive and appropriate. If I thought this principle, as part of the SAA ethics code, would make any difference to actions by archaeologists, then I would favor the motion. But I just don't see it.

Anonymous said...

Clancy et al is widely cited as saying roughly what you suggest and may have great social value for combating harassment. However, as a piece of science it is widely misinterpreted. Basically, its survey methodology and likely biased sample do not allow it's survey responses to be generalizable. For a taste of the problems see:

uncertainarchaeologist said...

To argue your third point of the blog post and your comment reply: what sanctioning methods does the SAA have for ANY of its ethical principles? What would the SAA do if someone were documented as a poor steward of the archaeological record or performed archaeology without adequate training? Or, for that matter, was found directly responsible for selling artifacts?

Archaeology is not a closed shop union, the SAA is not a Bar Association. Thus you could either say that all of these ethical principles are empty words OR you could use them as a starting point for personal codes of ethics, the development of project- or lab-specific ethical codes (where you could put repercussions on them), or at least as a list of topics to discuss with faculty and students (both graduate and undergraduate).

Including language about Safe Educational and Workplace Environments brings the concept into those discussions and guidelines, where they may have been left out as something "unthinkable" or because we know that we aren't a "jerk who harasses students" so it's a no-brainer that my work environments will be safe. But by that logic, isn't the idea of supporting looting and sending out untrained archaeologists also something "unthinkable" and a no-brainer that we wouldn't do in our own projects?

It's true, ethics guidelines are largely toothless statements about a group's greater goals. But default language matters. If we adopt the SAA ethics proposal 9, then future lab leaders, project directors, and ethics class instructors will have to actively ignore this provision if they don't want to discuss it because it's unpleasant; greater discussion of these issues in people's archaeological education and career makes it clearer that "jerks who do harass students" are not welcome within the archaeological community, in a similar fashion to how the current ethics proposals make it clear that the archaeological community should be opposed to markets for antiquities. That's how proposal 9 would change the actions of future archaeologists.

Also, for what it's worth: the guideline does not state that this is intended only for archaeologists interacting with other archaeologists, but archaeologists with any other "students and trainees". While you could quibble that this excludes direct employees, I think that the wording would apply to your other projects (unless you decide that you are not an archaeologist in those projects).

To your first/second point: who do you think does archaeology, performing fieldwork and analyzing artifacts and digging sites? Or science for that matter? PEOPLE! Glorious, complicated people with full personalities and internal monologues and all that jazz. Thus it makes sense that most archaeology (and science in general) cannot be separated from the fact that it's done by humans. The state of research in our field suffers if we systematically limit who feels comfortable working in archaeology. If we turn a blind eye to harassment and unsafe working environments, labeling it as the one-off actions of a few "jerks", then we maintain a culture that shelters and supports abusers by mitigating those actions as something "outside" of the research they do. As if someone who sells antiquities but does good research would be given the same credence by their colleagues because "hey I only heard one side of the story, I'm sure there's more to it" or "well, it's not like archaeology has a systematic issue with selling antiquities, people bringing this to our attention have just found some examples".

While you're right that the SAA itself will not be what goes after violators (their university or other agencies will), the SAA's principles are not empty words but instead frame how archaeologists approach their work. That is why I am gladly voting YES on SAA ethics proposal 9.

Michael E. Smith said...

@uncertainarchaeologist - Your post was delayed - Blogger put in the spam category for some reason. I did receive it as an email when I got online in Mexico tonight, but it wasn't listed as a posted comment so I looked in the spam area and retrieved it. Sorry about the delay.

Anyway, I agree with most of what you say. I did vote "no" on the proposal, but it was not a very strongly felt no. I do think the lack of any enforce-ability is a liability for SAA ethics, but perhaps there would be too much red tape to try to change that.

I do disagree strongly with the implication that rejecting this principle for the SAA ethnics guidelines is equivalent to turning "a blind eye to harassment and dunsave working environment, labeling it as the one-off actions of a few jerks." In the very few cases over my career where I have had to intervene because a student or project member was behaving in a harassing manner, I never once had any kind of thought that I was doing something related to archaeological ethics. I was acting according my values and my concept of basic human decency, with potential university implications in the back of my mind. When discussing the issue with the person in question, I never said or implied that they were going against any kind of archaeological ethical precepts or guidelines. I used the language of decent human behavior and respect for others, and I used the language of rules I enforce in my professional sphere. Having this new entry in the SAA ethics guidelines would not change anything I would do.

Also, I am not sure I see the logical difference between the SAA adding guidelines about harassment, and adding guidelines about other legal issues, such as theft or assault. We should not tolerate such things in our labs, fieldwork sites, and such, but do we need the SAA to tell us this?

I guess an argument for the new guideline would be that in spite of university and other rules against harassment, such behavior does indeed take place in archaeological settings. The recent spate of cases of harassment in science is appalling. It could be important to deal with this kind of behavior through an SAA principle because it lowers the quality of the archaeology that gets done. If qualified people leave the field because they are harassed by senior scholars, then this is a professional problem that goes beyond simple university sanctions of individuals.

And as long as I seem to be talking myself into supporting this measure (thanks in part to the comments posted above), I also see the benefit of including the new principle for purposes of teaching and education. When I teach about archaeological ethics, I usually start with the SAA principles. If the new principle is added, it could potentially encourage someone being harassed to speak up and rectify the position, which would be a positive thing.

Archaeological ethics can be complex issues, and this proposal is no exception. I see both positive and negative consequences of adding the new principle. I think it is important to discuss such issues and view all sides, rather than just jump on the bandwagon: "We all hate harassment, so let's support the amendment."

Maureen Meyers said...

I think you identify a key reason to support this principle--qualified people are leaving the field because of harassment and assault. The SAFE survey examined all field scientists. The Southeastern Archaeological Conference Sexual Harassment Survey, linked here: (preliminary results in poster form) as well as an extensive write-up in the SEAC newsletter April 2015 issue, shows that harassment is widespread in Southeastern archaeology (around 60%) and 12% of respondents report assault. In addition, they also report little recourse for these behaviors--indeed, some women were let go, while their harassers and assailants retained their jobs.

The survey also showed that women are leaving the profession or changing careers in the profession (i.e., lab work instead of fieldwork) to avoid harassment and assault. This is the reason I suggested the survey to the SEAC Board, and why I undertook it. I noticed that many women were leaving archaeology, and no one was noticing. That is, the women I started with in SEAC in 1993 were gone twenty years later, but the same men were there. Having been harassed multiple times in multiple venues in archaeology (museum, CRM, academia) I wanted to gather data to see if I was an outlier; apparently, my experiences were more common than even I anticipated. Within 48 hours of posting the survey, we had over 200 respondents. Presenting the preliminary data at the 2014 SEAC meeting, I and the rest of my committee heard horrendous first-hand accounts of harassment and assault, primarily against women, from people of all ages, employment, and rank, and working all across the Southeast.

This is also, I would argue, pertinent especially to archaeology and as such should be part of our principles. Fieldwork is essential to archaeology, and much of that fieldwork takes place in remote, rural areas. Women do not feel safe in the field. They leave the field. I think it is SAA's duty to state that such behavior will not be tolerated and to recognize the consequences of ignoring such behavior.

We need to ask hard questions--how tolerant are we of such practices? How should we handle this in the field and lab? What recourses can SAA and other archaeological organizations offer for victims? How are our LGBTQ colleagues harassed and assaulted (something our survey did not adequately address). But also, how has this adversely impacted our research and theories? That is, by making it clear to women they aren't welcome in the field, how has our interpretation of the past been biased? We can wring our hands and wonder why there are so few full female professors in archaeology, or in the upper ranks of CRM and government jobs; we can assume that women left to raise children or because they "just weren't cut out for it" (reasons I was told repeatedly) or we can use the data to acknowledge we as a profession have failed these women and we need to do better. This principle is a first step.

I appreciate you rethinking the issue based on these comments, and if nothing else, by putting this principle up for a vote, we have started and widened the conversation.

Maureen Meyers
Chair, SEAC Sexual Harassment Survey Committee
University of Mississippi

Michael E. Smith said...

@Maureen - Thanks for this information. The situation is both outrageous and depressing. Perhaps a change to the SAA ethics principles may help, but I think a larger effort is needed, something to jolt people out of their complacency.

Anonymous said...

Maureen--Thank you for your efforts. The SAFE survey and Southeastern Archaeological Conference Sexual Harassment Survey both seem to have been powerful catalyzing forces in pushing for more awareness and actions to combat these serious issues.

Nonetheless, as a scientist, I find myself bothered by the misleading use of these survey data. There seems to be no acknowledgement of the problems of how representative these samples are of the larger population we hope to infer knowledge about. There is a large body of scholarship (including in archaeology of course) of trying to deal with selection effects which can make our samples biased compared to the larger population, but neither the SAFE survey or Southeastern Archaeological Conference Sexual Harassment Survey seems to show awareness of or desire to engage with these methods. Instead, these statistics tend to be thrown around as if they are representative (especially for SAFE) and those who point out the errors painted as promoters of sexual harassment. It's good politics, and I hope will result in positive changes and make our disciplines safer and more inclusive, but not good science.

Michael E. Smith said...

This is the kind of thing that happens when science mixes with politics. One or both sides will suffer. I am not saying that science can be done in a political or social vacuum (it can't). But without efforts to keep the two separate, or at least transparent and clear, the result can be problematic for one side or the other.