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Making ethics training ethnography-friendly

23 April, 2009

I’ve been meaning to write about an ethics project I’ve been working on, and now someone else has beaten me to it! Serves me right for neglecting poor Culture Matters for three weeks. I’ll tell you about the project and then I’ll tell you who has scooped me with a critique of my own website.

It all started out because I teach a couple of methods classes and I ask my students to do their own independent research projects. This requires a bit of careful work to secure ethics clearance with our Human Research Ethics Committee. Another time I’ll write about that what that entails. Here I want to describe my solution for giving the students training in research ethics. It became apparent to me that our ethics committee would be more comfortable about the idea of undergraduate students launching into their own fieldwork if they were sure that they’d been trained in research ethics, so I had the idea that I could develop a set curricula to use with every class that I want to send “into the field.”

My inspiration, and nemesis, was the U.S. NIH ethics training module. I had to take it when I was a graduate student, and so I had only dim recollections of what it covered. My first thought was that I could use it as a starting point for my students, but when I went back to look at it, I was shocked at how inappropriate it was for training anthropologists in the ethical dilemmas of ethnographic fieldwork. Like most international ethics codes, its basic assumptions about research are grounded in a model of a clinical (mostly biomedical) encounter. Plus it was full of U.S. regulatory code. Ad nauseum.

A screen capture from the NIH training module covering the concept of "equipoise."  I gotta say, I never heard of this word before.
A screen capture from the NIH training module covering the concept of “equipoise.” I gotta say, I never heard of this word before.

So at first I thought, OK, it’s a government document so they would probably give me permission to adapt it for my own non-profit, educational use. I’ll just change a few things around, drop every mention of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and replace it with a reference to the Australian National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research, mention “ethnography” a few times, and add some stuff about Australian research.

But the more I played around with the idea, the more I thought it needed something completely new. I wrote an application for funding from a Macquarie University Learning and Teaching Fellowship and got money to support a one-year project with funding for some teaching relief and money to pay a research assistant and web programmers (thanks, Macquarie!). And I recruited two co-authors: Paul Mason, a PhD student here at Macquarie, and Kristina Everett, an anthropologist in Macquarie’s Department of Indigenous Studies / Warawara who helped develop the material on research in Indigenous Australian communities. Then the Macquarie Learning and Teaching Centre got involved and created the website and programmed it to offer an optional online quiz afterwards to assess comprehension of content, in case people wanted to use it in a class.

I won’t describe the entire module. It’s freely accessible so if you’re curious you can go have a look at it yourself ( It is licensed under Creative Commons, meaning that anyone can use it or adapt it for their own purposes, as long as these are non-profit and attributed. So people can use it in their own classes, or use some of it as lecture slides, or they can take it and re-jig the entire thing according to their own perspective on research ethics.

Here I’ll just list some of the ethics issues that we decided to cover, some of the unique ethical dilemmas that can arise in ethnographic research but that rarely come up in clinical research.

Sex in the field

For the section on the ethics of sex in the field, Paul Mason produced a video interview with Julienne Corboz, an anthropologist who has researched BDSM communities

For the section on the ethics of sex in the field, Paul Mason produced a video interview with Julienne Corboz, an anthropologist who has researched BDSM communities

Here’s a classic dilemma that many fieldworkers face but which is unthinkable in clinical research. Paul drafted most of this section. Before going into the field, one of his research supervisors had given him this advice: “Don’t sleep with the locals.” At the same time, he was hearing from other staff in our department (ahem – I mean from me) that “everyone has sex in the field and half of anthropologists end up marrying ‘natives’.” (Of my cohort of 6 PhD students at Princeton, two married “natives” – and are still happily married, one came back with a long-term girlfriend, and another married no one but happily confesses to shagging through fieldwork!) So Paul was curious to explore this issue from the perspective of research ethics.

Oral vs written consent

A screenshot from the section of the module on oral vs. written consent

A screenshot from the section of the module on oral vs. written consent

During participant observation, when should informed consent be written and when should it be oral? Anthropologists have often complained about ethics committees insisting on signed informed consent, even when it is entirely inappropriate, so I was delighted to find both disciplinary and national ethics codes that say clearly that written consent is not always possible or appropriate, even when your informants are literate.

Maintaining informed consent over years of fieldwork

A screenshot from the section on maintaining informed consent over time

A screenshot from the section on maintaining informed consent over time

How do you maintain informed consent over a long period of time? I illustrated this with an example from my own research: gossip, a small community, and I was pretty certain that when people told me about X’s affair with Y’s husband, they weren’t talking to me as an anthropologist but rather as a friend, and my own decision to not publish on this because it wasn’t clear to me that I was told such information under conditions of truly informed consent.  (Plus I couldn’t adequately disguise people’s identities in such a small community.)

elenore-smith-bowen-return-to-laughterProtecting informant identities in small communities

How do you protect informant identities without changing their identifying details so much that you have created fictional characters? This is a dilemma that many anthropologists have grappled with, and indeed, some have dealt with this problem by writing ethnographic fiction (like Laura Bohannan who published an “anthropological novel” under the nom de plume Elenore Smith Bowen, to protect her informants’ identities).

Researching people who commit crimes

Illustrations from the case studies

Illustrations from the case studies

What are the ethical choices that you have to make when your research informants are engaged in felonies? I used examples from ethnographic sociologists: Sudhir Venkatesh, who wrote Gang Leader for a Day, and Laud Humphreys’ Tearoom Trade study.

The ethics of applied research / Human Terrain System

Applied anthropology: readers of Culture Matters will be familiar with my interest in controversy over the Human Terrain System, which has prompted the AAA to debate revising its code of ethics, particularly around the issue of applied anthropological research and the extent to which the results of commissioned research data are proprietary or should be in the public domain. It’s a perfect case study, in part because it’s so controversial – so much so that it’s prompting an entire national disciplinary association to redo its whole ethics code – and in part because it’s so recent, which serves as a reminder that ethics controversies aren’t just things that happened in the past (which is the impression you might get from reading some surveys of the history of ethics regulation).

Teaching ethics as debate, not consensus

When I first started this project, I had the idea that, since I was writing for an undergraduate audience, I needed to provide concrete advice and unambiguous solutions. The more I wrote and researched ethics, the more I realized that not only was this impossible, but it was an intellectually barren goal to set. Instead what I ended up doing was showing how much research ethics are contested, both within and across disciplines. That researchers come to completely different conclusions about whether it’s OK to be deceptive in your research, about what research collaboration should look like, and about whether anthropologists should deploy with an occupying army. That researchers had made grave ethics mistakes and yet had gone on to major academic careers because the insights gained through ethically dubious research were so important. In sum, that there was no triumphant, linear narrative of ethical enlightenment – that despite the international “creep” of ethics regulatory regimes and surveillance, research ethics scandals and controversies are unfolding as we speak.

Yet even as I described controversies and lack of consensus, each issue and case study raised is far more complicated than I could ever convey. Virtually every case study I provide gets simplified for the sake of narrative coherence. And even if I could, in a short training module, satisfy myself that I’d covered these issues thoroughly and with enough attention to the ethical complexities raised, I could never satisfy others. Just about everyone who has reviewed this site has pointed out key issues that are missing and should have been covered. In many areas, I see no consensus in how the issues should be covered. Here are some examples from when I asked people to review the section on research in Indigenous communities.

An illustration from the section of the module on research with Indigenous communities

An illustration from the section of the module on research with Indigenous communities

Their critiques:

(1) Not enough Indigenous voices are represented.

(2) But if a non-Indigenous person adds Indigenous voices, it would only be coopting them to authorize colonial methodologies.

(3) We should show examples of research that is truly “decolonising” and collaborative, so that students have a positive model to work towards, rather than only negative models to work against.

(4) But if we present examples of research that is supposedly decolonising and collaborative, then we are reinscribing the enlightenment narrative that conveys the message that we are all marching triumphantly on the path towards egalitarian, ethical research; yet hierarchies and inequalities between researcher and researched – particularly when the researched are Aboriginal – are not going away anytime soon.

(5) We should include a discussion of the recent Howard government Intervention as a crisis that’s fundamentally generated by the ways that politicians uses and twists social science research to advance its own agendas. In so doing, we could avoid giving the impression that unethical interpretations and applications of research only happened in the past and show that this is in fact an ongoing dynamic that links contemporary research agendas with those that led to the Stolen Generation in the last century.

(6) We shouldn’t, as three white academics, think that we can criticize the Howard government Intervention to advance our own academic agendas – a lot of Aboriginal people are happy with the initial outcomes of the Intervention and we need to be patient before assessing its overall impact.

The simple (not to mention simplistic) point is that research ethics are and will always be contested. Of course, that’s not the impression given by ethics codes, which make the issues appear to be settled, even though the codes get revised every few years. To quote Tess Lea (whose 2008 ethnography Bureaucrats and Bleeding Hearts is fabulous – I’m going to review it here when I get the chance), “policy artefacts” are

fetish objects or magical relics that travel through time and space, often referring to each other and just as often ghost-written, that are attributed great expressive power and controlling capacities; a power acquired through ritualistic production efforts, including the careful addition of special words and consecration by anointed reviewers…. Well-worded strategies and well-formulated plans become talismans against an ever-present threat of intervention failure (2008:20).

Lea pushes the magic metaphor, but maybe a better analogy is between ethics codes and scripture. That’s mixing metaphors, but perhaps we’re being too cruel to magic – which is, after all, mysteriously efficacious – and we might do well to implicate religious faith and catechism as well. After all, religions are bureaucracies. Thinking of policy artefacts as scripture or formal documentation of sect doctrine, rather than just magical talismans, gives fuller meaning to another point that Lea makes, namely that ethics codes as policy artefacts are also scoreboards of relations of influence (Lea 2008:37, citing David Mosse). Perhaps that’s why we see both ethics codes and the NIH ethics training module organized primarily around clinical research contexts rather than ethnographic methods: we anthropologists are not powerful enough to shift their clinical orientation.

There is a handful of anthropologists and historians, including Rena Lederman, Jack Katz, Daniel Bradburd, Richard Shweder, and Zachary Schrag, who have recently started the important work of closely examining research ethics protocols and bureaucracies from ethnographic and historical perspectives, which is showing just how much variation there is in what is considered ethical and how differently it is applied and policed across countries, institutions, and disciplines.

It is Professor Schrag, in fact, who has scooped me with a critique of our ethics training module. He reviewed it at length on his Institutional Review Blog. He has some really nice things to say about it, and some potent critiques, too. Have a look and see what you think, and if you have your own feedback on the site, post a comment here or on the IRBlog or send it to lisa.wynn(/@/)

Next up, I’m going to post on my new idea for a research project on ethics…

–L.L. Wynn

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 27 April, 2009 2:22 pm

    I’m posting a comment from Maureen Fitzgerald, who sent it to the blog contact info. She writes:

    “I have not looked at the program. I have read Zachary Schrag’s blog. Now I would like to congratulate you on trying to develop a relevant form of teaching for work involving ethnography. This is a big task, but a necessary one to attempt given the amazing problems with so many other training programs.

    “You might want to mention in your blog that quite a number of people (in addition to the ones you mentioned) are (or have been) involved in research
    on research ethics and the ethics review system. This includes anthropologists, me included. Granted in the world of ethics review my stuff may be a bit dated, but the issues that took me into the project are just the same and have been picked up by quite a few others since then.

    “Keep plugging away and as you point out there is no single right answer to any of this.”


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