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Fieldwork Ethics Forum

Doing research in human communities touches on issues of fairness, power, control, inequality, privilege, and competing purposes. Chapter 3 examines fieldwork ethics in some detail, and throughout the book common ethical quandaries are presented, giving students the opportunity to reason through them in light of the discipline’s ethical principles. Here we offer a number of other scenarios involving ethical dilemmas to help you strengthen your fieldwork ethics IQ.

Since 2012, the American Anthropological Association’s Principles of Professional Responsibility state:

  • Do no harm
  • Be open and honest regarding your own work
  • Obtain informed consent and necessary permissions
  • Weigh competing obligations due collaborators and affected parties
  • Make your results accessible
  • Protect and preserve your records
  • Maintain respectful and ethical professional relationships

For elaboration on what is involved in these principles, consult the inside front cover of the book.

In crafting an ethical position on the following scenarios, you should strive to achieve:

  1. Intelligibility—Have you stated and defended your position in a way that is logically consistent? Have you expressed your response with enough clarity and precision that it can be understood by others?
  1. Depth—To what extent does your statement and defense of its position indicate an awareness and understanding of the issues that are ethically central to the case? Do you show evidence of understanding the background to the issue?
  1. Focus—To what extent does your statement and defense of its position avoid issues that are ethically irrelevant to the case?
  1. Judgment—To what extent have you made a careful and reasonable comparative assessment of considerations ethically relevant to the case?

Useful Fieldwork Ethics Resources on the Web

“Principles of Professional Responsibility.” American Anthropological Association.

“Handbook on Ethical Issues in Anthropology.” American Anthropological Association.

“Ethics blog.” American Anthropological Association.

“Ethical Dilemmas.” Smithsonian Institution, Anthropology Outreach Office.

“The Ethics of Openness: How informed is ‘informed consent’?” Ethnography Matters.

For an international perspective on anthropological ethics, see the ethics page of Association of
Social Anthropologists (United Kingdom).

Scenarios for Ethical Consideration

Here you will find three themes around which issues of fieldwork ethics are commonly associated—fieldworker responsibilities, controlling knowledge, and doing no harm—providing a few scenarios under each for you to consider. These are all realistic scenarios. [1]

Fieldworker’s Responsibilities: To whom and to what are anthropological fieldworkers responsible?

Rejecting anonymity
You are conducting research in a religious community that is viewed with suspicion by the broader society because its beliefs and rituals are considered strange and extreme. While securing informed consent you explain to your interviewees and research collaborators that you will maintain the anonymity of the community, as well as anonymity of individuals you interview, in any publications that result from your fieldwork. Individuals in the community are dismayed by this, explaining that they want your research to be open and honest about who they are because not only it is against their beliefs to participate in deception, they want to build trust with the broader community by showing transparency about who they are. They insist that you publish their actual community’s name and the individual names of interviewees. What do you do?

Witness to illegal activities
You are conducting fieldwork on the relationship between academic success and social life among American college students. During your fieldwork you attend parties and other social events where you witness illegal activities, including drug use and drug dealing, underage drinking, and even a sexual assault. How would you handle these situations as an ethical fieldworker?

Protecting a key research collaborator
Your fieldwork has brought you into regular and sustained contact with an individual with whom you’ve created a strong and trusting relationship. You might even say you’ve become friends. You count on that person heavily for your research, including getting his help to set up interviews and invitations to events where you can conduct participant-observation. You have heard grumblings from other community members that this person can be dishonest and untrustworthy, but you have never seen it first-hand. One day some money is stolen in the community, and people immediately blame that individual. That same day, he tells you he is leaving the community for a few months and asks for your assistance getting a ride to the bus station. The police show up asking questions, especially wanting to question your research collaborator. How do you handle this situation? Do you take him to the bus station? What do you tell the police about his whereabouts?

Controlling Knowledge: Who should control anthropological research, findings, and knowledge?

Who should have access to the field notes?
You have been commissioned by your city’s economic development office to conduct an assessment of the possible social impacts of a new luxury housing development on a neighborhood that has been occupied for decades by low-income African Americans. Over the course of six months in the neighborhood, you conduct participant-observation and in-depth personal interviews, producing 1,000 pages of field notes. You have also taken over 500 photographs of the people there living their daily lives, some of them in intimate settings. Your report explains that this housing development would adversely impact the neighborhood, and that if the development proceeds, the community will be forever altered and its people marginalized even further. Because of these findings, the development office asks you to turn over all your field notes and research materials, to solicit another opinion. There is no stipulation in the contract over who owns the materials you produce in that research. Should you turn over your field notes, interviews, and photographs?

Giving credit
In an anthropology course, you have been assigned a research project that requires you to conduct interviews and participant-observation. Your professor periodically collects your field notes and research reports to grade them, and you write a final research paper based on your fieldwork. You get a good grade in the course, something that especially pleases you because your professor’s research focuses on the same general topic area, and she knows a lot about it. The next semester, you take another course with the same professor, and during the semester your class is assigned to read a draft of a conference paper she has written. As you read it you realize, with shock, that it includes statements and descriptions of social action taken directly from your field notes and research reports, with no credit given to you anywhere. How would you handle this situation?

Who owns the knowledge?
You are researching the lives of a community that has not been studied and is hardly known to social science. The community is very reluctant to share with you many aspects of their beliefs and practices, but over time you learn many things about their community that nobody else from the outside knows. They ask you to not publish your research about them, to protect their privacy, and yet you have many detailed field notes about this community. How would you manage this situation? Do the wishes of the community override your own commitment to publishing social science research?

Doing No Harm: How can and should fieldworkers ensure that their work does not cause harm to their research collaborators and the communities in which they work?

Harmful representations

You are researching a minority community about which many negative stereotypes exist in the broader society. Members of the community organize a display for a local cultural heritage festival, which reproduces a lot of those stereotypes, but they take great pride in the display they have created. Your perspective is at odds with the community because you see these representations as perpetuating negative and harmful stereotypes. Do you have any obligation to communicate your perspective with members of the community? Should any writings you publish withhold your critical perspective on this situation?

Studying up

You are studying the everyday lives of people with a lot of wealth, political access, and social privilege. You find them socially-insulated, condescending, entitled, and uncurious about the effects of their lifestyles and decisions on others. You hear them say many negative things about people of lower social class, and see them do abusive things to the people who work for them. If you report these things in your writings, you could make these people look very bad. Are you under any obligation to avoid harmful representations of them?

The rough draft

(This is an actual situation experienced by author Luis Vivanco, and is a bit longer than the others.)

Luis conducted 20 months of ethnographic fieldwork for his Ph.D. dissertation in rural Costa Rica on the culture and politics of environmental activism, sustainable development, and ecotourism. During that time, he built strong relationships with a wide range of people in the community who were otherwise sometimes in tension with each other. Luis could circulate easily among peasant farmers or tourism entrepreneurs, and at the same time develop good relations with scientists and environmental activists who held totally opposed ideas. He interviewed people from all of these categories in depth and on multiple occasions.

With one American ecologist and environmentalist in particular, a man named “Joe,” Luis had an especially strong relationship. Joe was a North American ecology professor who lived in the community and was a leader in a major environmental organization Luis was studying. Not only was Joe an “informant” who was interviewed on many occasions, but also Luis’s friend and collaborator on various projects in which Joe had invited Luis to get involved. After leaving the field, Luis kept in touch with Joe through periodic emails.

A year and a half passed after Luis left the field, and Luis was close to finishing his dissertation when Joe sent him an email, asking Luis to send a draft of the dissertation so that Joe and his collaborators in the environmental organization could review the dissertation for “accuracy.”

When he set out to research the environmental organization Joe was involved in, Luis was never asked to submit any drafts for review or organizational approval previous to its publication, nor did he offer to do it. He was worried that if he didn’t agree to this request it might upset the positive relations with both Joe and the organization he had built over the past several years. Yet his dissertation gets into locally controversial matters in which Joe and his organization were involved, and Luis knew that they were sensitive to the images circulating about them internationally that made them look bad, especially their sometimes hostile relations with local peasant farmers. Luis feared that Joe and his organization might claim those descriptions and images were “inaccurate” and seek to prevent their publication, which could undermine or delay his receiving his degree.

What should Luis do?

More Case Studies

Each fieldwork situation is unique, and you will have to think through the ethics and potential consequences of your actions for yourself. However, it can be helpful to see how other ethnographers have handled similar situations:

[1] Some of these scenarios are inspired by, but different in details from, situations found in Chapter 3 of the American Anthropological Association’s Ethics Handbook.http://www.americananthro.org/LearnAndTeach/Content.aspx?

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