In this online activity, you will learn about how to conduct ethical research. Anthropologists often face moral and ethical dilemmas while conducting fieldwork. In fact, they expect such dilemmas to arise, because participant observation takes them so deeply into the real-world contexts where people develop relationships, make choices, and experience injustices such as poverty, hunger, and political neglect or repression.
Ethical dilemmas require anthropologists to make choices that may affect the quality of their research and the people they study. Moral and ethical implications of anthropological research and writing are of deep concern within the discipline and have been particularly hot topics at various times in its history. In the time of Margaret Mead’s fieldwork, anthropologists faced ethical dilemmas surrounding colonialism, a global phenomenon that both devastated local cultures and, at the same time, opened access for anthropologists to learn about indigenous cultures around the world. Today, that challenge remains, and new ones emerge, as globalization transforms ethnographic fieldwork in both process and content.
From the beginning of the discipline and still today, anthropologists must consider the well-being of their research subjects. Anthropologists strive to do no harm, and often also promote the interests and goals of their research subjects and their communities.
Read: Lila Abu-Lughod
Lila Abu-Lughod is the Joseph L. Buttenwieser Professor of Social Science in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University. She works in anthropology and gender studies. She has invested decades in conducting ethnography in the Arab world, exploring various themes and issues. In this excerpt from “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others,” Abu-Lughod examines the ways in which the “War on Terror” and the United States’ military involvement in Afghanistan have been justified as ways to liberate Afghan women. In the article, Abu-Lughod draws on her ethnographic experience to call attention to issues of power, history, and global connection that are central to engagement with cultural diversity in a global age.
Finally, I need to make a crucial point about veiling. Not only are there many forms of covering, which themselves have different meanings in the communities in which they are used, but also veiling itself must not be confused with, or made to stand for, lack of agency. As I have argued in my ethnography of a Bedouin community in Egypt in the late 1970s and 1980s, pulling the black head cloth over the face in front of older respected men is considered a voluntary act by women who are deeply committed to being moral and have a sense of honor tied to family. One of the ways they show their standing is by covering their faces in certain contexts. They decide for whom they feel it is appropriate to veil. …
My point is to remind us to be aware of differences, respectful of other paths toward social change that might give women better lives. Can there be a liberation that is Islamic? And, beyond this, is liberation even a goal for which all women or people strive? Are emancipation, equality, and rights part of a universal language we must use? …
In other words, might other desires be more meaningful for different groups of people? Living in close families? Living in a godly way? Living without war? I have done fieldwork in Egypt over more than 20 years and I cannot think of a single woman I know, from the poorest rural to the most educated cosmopolitan, who has ever expressed envy of U.S. women, women they tend to perceive as bereft of community, vulnerable to sexual violence and social anomie, driven by individual success rather than morality, or strangely disrespectful of God.
Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.” American Anthropologist 104, no. 3 (September 2002): 783–790, https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.2002.104.3.783.
The American Anthropological Association has developed a code of ethics that guides ethnographic research. It addresses the full span of professional activity, including teaching, publishing, and working on behalf of the communities we study. It provides general guidelines, understanding that ethical dilemmas need to be navigated in the specific contexts within which they emerge.
Our focus is on ethical concerns that emerge during ethnographic fieldwork. The American Anthropological Association offers three ethical principles that are particularly relevant for fieldwork: 1) do no harm; 2) obtain informed consent; and 3) ensure anonymity.
This section focuses on the first principle: do no harm. Even though as anthropologists we seek to contribute to human knowledge, and perhaps shed light on an important social problem, we must not do so at the expense of the people we study.
This may sound simple as a general principle, but it can be difficult to apply. During the Vietnam War, for example, some anthropologists were criticized for collaborating with the U.S. military occupation and counterinsurgency efforts. More recently, controversy surrounds the U.S. military’s Human Terrain Systems program, which recruited anthropologists to help troops understand local culture.
1. Explain the meaning of the principle “do no harm.” Identify the statement that describes the harm Abu-Lughod is most concerned with in the excerpt.
One of the key principles for protecting research subjects involves obtaining informed consent. It is imperative that those whom we study agree to participate in the project. To do so, they must understand clearly what the project involves and the fact that they have the right to refuse to participate.
The anthropologist’s hallmark research strategy is participant observation, which requires establishing rapport—that is, building relationships of trust over time. To develop rapport, the subjects of our studies must be clearly informed about the goals and scope of our projects and must willingly consent to being a part of them.
Informed consent often involves participants signing a document, though when the situation warrants it, consent is sometimes conveyed verbally. Documentation of informed consent does not typically appear in ethnographic writing. Along with language learning, geographical study, and library research, informed consent is a foundational part of ethnographic research that lies behind ethnographic writing. Abu-Lughod’s excerpt conveys expert research that relied on solid rapport with research participants. Informed consent is a vital part of ethical research, and it also strengthens rapport.
2. If you were to conduct fieldwork with a Bedouin community in the Middle East, how might you go about obtaining informed consent?
Anthropologists take precautions to ensure the privacy and safety of the people they study by providing anonymity in research notes and in publications. They frequently change the names and disguise the identities of individuals or, at times, whole communities.
Anonymity provides protection for the people in our studies who may be quite vulnerable and whose lives we describe in intimate detail. This consideration becomes particularly important and sometimes controversial in situations in which research involves illegal activities. Claire Sterk conducted an ethnography about prostitution, and Philippe Bourgois conducted fieldwork with drug dealers in New York City. They each had to make decisions about how to report on what they learned without compromising the safety of their research participants.
Abu-Lughod studied Muslims in various contexts. She uses insights from her ethnographic fieldwork with Bedouins in Egypt to comment on the American war in Afghanistan and on American views of Muslims. She draws attention to a volatile, active situation of military engagement and cross-cultural misunderstandings, and her criticisms may challenge and even offend some people. By using anonymity in her ethnographic writing, she protects the individuals who contributed to her study, while also offering accurate, real-world description and analysis of veiling.
3. What harm could possibly come to Abu-Lughod’s fieldwork participants if they were identified by name?
The American Anthropological Association (AAA) provides a code of ethics and many other resources related to ethical behavior in project planning, ethnographic fieldwork, writing ethnography, and disseminating research findings. Ethnography is a social endeavor, always involving others. When we engage in relationships of any kind, there is potential to benefit others or to harm them. A research relationship is a specific type of relationship, and anthropologists must be attentive to dilemmas that emerge.
The AAA’s code of ethics explains, “Anthropologists must be sensitive to the power differentials, constraints, interests and expectations characteristic of all relationships. In a field of such complex rights, responsibilities, and involvements, it is inevitable that misunderstandings, conflicts, and the need to make difficult choices will arise. Anthropologists are responsible for grappling with such difficulties and struggling to resolve them in ways compatible with the principles stated here.”
In this online activity, you considered three of those principles: do no harm, obtain informed consent, and ensure anonymity. You may apply these principles in a study you conduct for a social science course or in a professional setting where you are conducting research. In all areas of life, however, it is important to be attentive to the dynamics of relationships and the inevitable conundrums, disagreements, and impasses that emerge. This is true in the intimate sphere of life, like friendship and family, and also in the public sphere of life, such as politics, education, and everyday life in a city, town, or rural area.
4. Choose one of the three ethical principles covered in this online activity: do no harm, obtain informed consent, ensure anonymity. In 2–3 sentences, describe a scenario in everyday life where you could apply this principle.