The AAA was formed "to promote the science of anthropology, to stimulate and coordinate the efforts of American anthropologists, to foster local and other societies devoted to anthropology, to serve as a bond among American anthropologists and anthropologic[al] organizations present and prospective, and to publish and encourage the publication of matter pertaining to anthropology. At its incorporation, the association assumed responsibility for the journal American Anthropologist, created in 1888 by the Anthropological Society of Washington (ASW). By 1905, the journal also served the American Ethnological Society, in addition to the AAA and ASW.
From an initial membership of 175, the AAA grew slowly during the first half of the 20th century. Annual meetings were held primarily in the Northeast and accommodated all attendees in a single room. Since 1950, the AAA’s membership has increased dramatically, now averaging around 11,000. Annual meetings frequently draw over 5,000 individuals, who attend over 500 sessions organized into a five-day program.
The AAA has been a democratic organization since its beginning. Although Franz Boas initially fought to restrict membership to an exclusive group of 40 "professional anthropologists," the AAA's first president, W. J. McGee, argued for a more inclusive membership embracing all those who expressed an interest in the discipline. McGee's vision still guides the association today. Business affairs are now conducted by a 41-member Section Assembly representing each of the association's constituent sections, and a 15-member Executive Board. This increase in representation reflects the growing diversity of the discipline, which is viewed by many as a source of strength for the association and for American anthropology as a whole. In Richard B. Woodbury's words, ". . .the AAA has remained the central society for the discipline, addressing with considerable success its increasingly varied interests and speaking for anthropology to other fields, the federal and state governments, and the public.
From its earliest years, the AAA has given serious attention to public issues involving anthropology. For example, the AAA supported the passage of the Antiquities Act of 1906, protested the discontinuance of anthropological research in the Philippines (1915), urged the teaching of anthropology in high schools (1927), spoke out for the preservation of archaeological materials when dams were built by the Tennessee Valley Authority (1935), passed a pre-WWII resolution against racism (1938), and expressed the need to “guard against the dangers, and utilize the promise, inherent in the use of atomic energy” (1945).
In the 1960s and early 1970s, the association examined the issues of government-sponsored classified research, use of anthropologists by the military in Vietnam, secret research in Thailand, and the general problem of a code of ethics for anthropological research, particularly for the protection of the rights of those studied. Other issues addressed from the 1970s through the 1980s include illegal antiquities trade, the insertion of religious beliefs into social science texts, the preservation of endangered nonhuman primates, and the religious significance of peyote to Native Americans. In the 1990s, in response to continued public confusion about the meaning of “race,” particularly public misconceptions about race and intelligence, the AAA Executive Board commissioned a position paper on race as a constructed social mechanism.
In 2004, in response to President George W. Bush’s call for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, the AAA issued a statement on marriage and the family. It states:
The results of more than a century of anthropological research on households, kinship relationships, and families, across cultures and through time, provide no support whatsoever for the view that either civilization or viable social orders depend upon marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution. Rather, anthropological research supports the conclusion that a vast array of family types, including families built upon same-sex partnerships, can contribute to stable and humane societies.The AAA also has adopted resolutions against the U.S. invasion of Iraq , against the use of anthropological knowledge as an element for physical or psychological torture , and against any covert or overt U.S. military action against Iran
A number of ideologically polarized debates within the discipline of anthropology have prompted the AAAS to conduct investigations. These include the dispute between Derek Freeman and defenders of Margaret Mead and also the controversy over the book Darkness in El Dorado.
A statement on "Principles of Professional Responsibility" adopted by the same Council in May 1971 stated: "In relation with their own government and with host governments, research anthropologists should be honest and candid. They should demand assurance that they will not be required to compromise their professional responsibilities and ethics as a condition of their permission to pursue research. Specifically, no secret research, no secret reports or debriefings of any kind should be agreed to or given.
Following a number of national news articles on HTS, anthropologists began to debate the project and related ethical issues. Proponents of the HTS program argued that anthropologists were providing much-needed cultural knowledge about local populations and helping to decrease violence in their areas of operation. Critics, however, argued that HTS anthropologists could not receive informed consent from their research subjects in a war zone and that information provided by anthropologists might put populations in danger. To address these issues, the AAA’s Executive Board released a statement on the HTS project on 31 October 2007. The statement cites, “sufficiently troubling and urgent ethical issues” raised by the HTS project, including the difficulties for HTS anthropologists to receive informed consent without coercion from their research subjects and to uphold their ethical mandate to “do no harm” to those they study . The AAA urges members to adhere to its code of ethics, which outlines principles and guidelines for ethical behavior. However, the association does not adjudicate cases involving charges of unethical behavior or bar members from participating in the HTS program.
In addition, the AAA’s Commission on the Engagement of Anthropology with US Security and Intelligence Communities (CEAUSSIC) issued a final report in November 2007, based on over a year of work on this subject. The report neither endorsed nor condemned anthropological work with military, intelligence and security organizations, but instead outlined the opportunities and challenges of working in these sectors. The report was released during the AAA's 2007 annual meeting and its contents were debated during several panel events.
Opposition to military cooperation was evident during the 2007 AAA annual meeting in Washington, DC. Some critics of the HTS program have suggested that scholars who perform classified work with the military be expelled from the organization. During an event organized by the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, a graduate student who had recently been expelled from the HTS program spoke out about her experiences with the program. She argued that the program was poorly run but was doing positive work in helping military officers with "nation-building" activities. She began crying when some scholars shouted criticisms about her finance for his continued participation in the HTS program. Another scholar came to her defense and urged the crowd to show her respect for sharing her views before a critical audience.
AnthroSource is the online repository of the journals of the American Anthropological Association. Launched in 2004, AnthroSource contains current issues for fifteen of the AAA's peer-reviewed publications, as well as an archive of the journals, newsletters, and bulletins published by the American Anthropological Association and its member sections. Members of the AAA are given access to AnthroSource as a benefit of membership, and institutions may receive access via paid subscription.
Until August 2007, AnthroSource was a collaboration between the University of California Press and the American Anthropological Association. It, along with all AAA journals, has since been pulled from the University of California Press by the AAA Board and given to Wiley-Blackwell, the new publisher created when John Wiley & Sons purchased Blackwell Publishing in February 2007. Commencing 2008, AnthroSource is to be hosted and managed by Wiley-Blackwell as part of the five-year publishing contract awarded.