Inside Higher Ed Social Sciences And Human Decency

Inside Higher Ed Social Sciences And Human Decency Image
This article is interesting in an ethical sense - at what point do the "needs" of science - in this case preserving as much information as possible about a previous un-researched group of native peoples - get trumped by the socio-cultural needs of those same people?

Being able to see both sides of this leaves me unable to choose, intellectually - but my gut instinct is that if we do not preserve the knowledge these people hold about their traditions, those traditions will be gone in a few generations. Everything possible should be done to prevent that from happening.

However, the Prime Directive of cultural anthropology is Do No Harm - so it's not likely this culture will be preserved.

I'm posting the exchange between the young anthropologist and the two responses - from the Handbook on Ethical Issues in Anthropology - below the article.


November 22, 2010

- Dan Berrett

NEW ORLEANS -- A researcher doing fieldwork in the southwestern U.S. happened upon something close to the anthropological Holy Grail: a small group of Native Americans who had never been exhaustively studied. While master's-level research conducted decades ago had made some inroads with the group, this work reflected the long-held, and mistaken, view that this group was the same as another, larger one nearby. Not so. The researcher amassed a trove of ethnographic notes and could see that the group's distinctive culture was rapidly disappearing after waves of westernization. She (the gender of the researcher is not clear in the anonymous account, but "Inside Higher Ed" had to pick a pronoun) hoped her scholarship would preserve the record of a civilization that was about to vanish.

But, then, a hitch emerged: the group objected strongly to her publishing an account of certain beliefs and practices -- how they worshiped and related to the supernatural -- because they said such things do not rightly belong to non-natives.

The researcher abandoned writing an article on the group, but she remained torn. "My question is this," she wrote to the "Anthropology News", as described in a collection of 25 case studies assembled in "Handbook on Ethical Issues in Anthropology". "Do the wishes of my consultants override the need of science for an ethnographic description of a little-known culture that is becoming westernized?"

The quandary described in this real-life case is, at its root, the same ethical dilemma that more than 1,100 practicing and student anthropologists identified in a recent survey as the one they confront most: How does one work with human subjects in a way that honors their traditions and wishes while also fulfilling the duties of scientific inquiry?

It might seem easy to honor each imperative, when considered individually. "The tough part is when, in real life, those core values conflict with each other," said Janet Levy, a longtime member of the association's task force on ethics, and an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

That conflict is one among many that members of the American Anthropological Association were grappling with here during several sessions of their annual meeting last week. The association is working on its first large-scale revision of its code of ethics in a decade, though some adjustments have been made in the interim, said Dena Plemmons, chair of the task force and a research ethicist at the University of California at San Diego. A new ethics statement is likely to come up for a vote among members in spring 2012.


The notion of ethical behavior and treatment of subjects is crucial to the discipline's sense of itself, perhaps because of the kinds of people who go into it in the first place. "Many anthropologists were moved to enter the discipline because of a strong concern for the peoples of the world," Joan Cassell and Sue-Ellen Jacobs wrote in their introduction to the handbook. "During their fieldwork, most have developed a strong empathy for the peoples they have studied and have felt a sense of personal responsibility for their welfare."

The existing code bears out this tendency. "Anthropological researchers have primary ethical obligations to the people, species, and materials they study and to the people with whom they work," it states.

The dilemma articulated by the researcher in the southwest U.S. seems benign compared to controversies in the discipline that have surrounded the Human Terrain System, in which anthropology was deployed toward military ends, or a 40-year-old scandal about the conduct of western anthropologists studying a tribe in South America that is the subject of this year's film "Secrets of the Tribe" (which some lauded for casting a much-needed critical eye on the discipline, but which Laura Graham of the University of Iowa derided Wednesday as "anthropological smut"). Nonetheless, the dilemma described in the case study touches deeply on the basic practice of anthropology.

Guidance on that question is needed in a field that, by definition, submerses its practitioners in the knotty, complicated world of other human beings. The task is made even more important, several association members argued, because not every college program even teaches ethics to its students.

Some noted that any guidelines the association puts forth may eventually have wider impact on other disciplines. "Anthropology is leaps and bounds ahead of other social sciences in this regard," a member of the code of ethics task force said Friday, asking that her name not be used because she was not allowed to speak publicly without clearance from the agency for which she works.


Several hurdles complicate the task of writing a new ethics code. Anthropology encompasses a field with some three dozen subspecialties, each of which carries its own nuances and obsessions. "There's too many of us and we're too different," one anthropologist said Wednesday. Archaeologists may not be as worried as cultural anthropologists when it comes to chronicling, and staying out of, the longstanding blood feuds of subjects. A medical anthropologist need not preoccupy him- or herself with the question of who truly owns a sacred artifact.

The field's cherished diversity also can veer easily into the fractious, several anthropologists noted. "If you get three archaeologists in a room you'll get five opinions," Alex Barker, adjunct associate professor and director of the Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Missouri-Columbia, joked Wednesday.

In addition, many in the discipline differed strongly on what the point of a code was in the first place. Some said they wanted ethical guidance in practicing their craft when it was never taught to them in college; others wanted a tool to punish colleagues whose work was, in their view, ethically shady.

Once the code -- or set of guidelines, as some wanted to call it -- emerges, it will not be the only document to set out how anthropologists should do their work. Other pressures can come from the institutional review boards of sponsoring colleges, which can be tricky all on their own. Staffed by scholars from a range of disciplines, including hard science, these review boards can block anthropological research, several scholars complained Wednesday. Some members of these boards don't believe that what anthropologists do qualifies as science because it can't be replicated. Others ask anthropologists to hew to standards -- how to handle dead animals, for example -- that are impractical or inapplicable in, say, the jungle, where animals die and become food for other species. "It's as if they never imagined that research never took place outside of a laboratory," Levy said Friday.

On top of that are the strictures put in place by government agencies or foundations that pay for the research an anthropologist is doing. And ultimately, of course, there is one's own conscience. "How do I be a professional in this very social context?" Plemmons said Friday, summing up the tension between the interpersonal and the scholarly. "It's the overlap between being an ethical person and working as an ethical professional."


Several anthropologists cited Hippocrates as their guide. The notion of doing no harm is embodied in the idea that an anthropologist's first and greatest obligation is to the community you work with, said Levy. But she said that fulfilling this vision is seldom clear cut. "It implies that you know what might happen 10 years down the road," she said. "It also implies there's only one good kind of anthropology or anthropologist."

Several scholars pushed for an even more vigorous standard: research must not only avoid hurting its subjects, it ought to help them, too. Richa Dhanju, a graduate student at Texas A">


The following case was sent by a reader of the "Anthropology Newsletter":

"In my research on the language of the "a small group of Indians dwelling in the Southwest, I obtained a good deal of ethnographic information as windfall from my intensive linguistic study. There has been only one ethnography written about the "a master's thesis written in the 1930s. Not only is this work difficult of access, it is also incomplete. Because no major ethnographic work has been done on the group, it is generally assumed in the literature that their culture is identical to a larger group with whom they were associated in the 18th century. I have found out that this is not so, and that they have (or had, as their culture is rapidly westernizing) a distinctive culture, especially in the areas of religion, ritual, and the supernatural. "My dilemma is this: Although the group does not object to descriptions of their former material culture, they are strongly opposed to any discussion of their nonmaterial culture. I was told outright that these beliefs and practices were not the property of non-Indians, and that I had been told about them only because I had found out about certain aspects of these ideas, and they did not want me to be in error about them. In conclusion, I was told that these things should not be published."

"Because of the opposition of my consultants, I have done little with my ethnographic notes. At one point I had begun to write an article on their culture, but abandoned it because I felt moral qualms about going against the expressed desires of my consultants. "My question is this: Do the wishes of my consultants override the need of science for an ethnographic description of a little-known culture that is becoming westernized? Would it be ethical to produce a work that would appear only after all of my consultants are dead, which could be 20 or 30 years? Or does the right to privacy, which my consultants insisted on, have to be observed as long as the "people maintain their independent existence?"


"Nancy Lurie, Milwaukee Public Museum:"

The dilemma as posed is a choice between responsibility to one's discipline and responsibility to the people one works with. This narrow interpretation allows only one choice. Confidentiality is confidentiality.

Concern for the interests of the "people in general rather than concentrating solely on one issue of special interest to the researcher opens up new potentialities for finding common ground. Has the researcher pointed out to these people that they are misrepresented in the literature about them and, if so, does it bother them that outsiders have an incorrect view of them? Assuming the researcher has followed this course or can return to determine their reaction, and it does bother them, it would seem that mutual agreement could be reached as to how much could be included in a general ethnography of their traditional culture to demonstrate their distinctiveness. The account indicates the people are concerned about accuracy and states that they have no objection to publication on their former material culture (it would be helpful to know if they are actively interested in preserving this information as many groups are). They just are opposed to any discussion of their nonmaterial culture which, in the statement of the case, is equated exclusively with "religion, ritual, and the supernatural."

Their distinctiveness, however, is described as relating "especially" but, one must assume, not entirely to sacred matters. Nonmaterial culture includes a lot more than sacred matters. Would it not be possible to straighten out the ethnographic record (which is an important, but not the only, consideration) by reference to distinctiveness in less sensitive areas such as economic activities, social organization, kinship, and perhaps even material culture? It might even be possible to refer to the clincher evidence of sacred data in mutually agreeable terms as suggested without revealing what people do not want revealed. The researcher certainly could make clear that the presentation is less than complete in deference to the "people. There is not enough information provided to know what kind of rapport exists between the researcher and the "people, and whether the situation is one where they could or would want to be involved in the scholarly enterprise of describing their own traditional culture for publication. The possibility certainly should be pursued.

We all have a responsibility to make explicit provision for archiving our field notes. Field notes always contain information which for various reasons never gets included in researchers' publications but might be useful to other scholars, or might indicate new or additional interpretation than the published form in light of new data unavailable to the researcher. Notes placed in an appropriate depository either during one's lifetime or as a bequest can include restrictions. Since the "people are becoming rapidly "westernized," it should be easier than in some cases to arrive at appropriate safeguards of confidentiality with them which would preserve information for their descendents, if they find this desirable on careful thought about the matter.

Given the necessarily brief background information, the only possible recommendation is an ethical course of action: striving to discern the overall interests of the people one works with, leveling with them, and involving them as much as possible in presenting their own story. We must be prepared to accept that sometimes their interests will not mesh with ours and their interests must be respected, but probably more often than not a researcher's sincerity and candidness works to the benefit of all concerned.


"Keith Basso, Yale University:"

The wishes of the people with whom this ethnographer has worked must be honored at all costs. Native Americans are already wary of the motives of anthropologists (as well they have reason to be), and failure to abide by this simple request not to publish religious materials would only make the situation worse. But that is probably a selfish concern. Ethnographers are guests among the people whose cultures they study, and grateful guests (as this ethnographer gives every indication of being) should be certain to behave accordingly. Grateful guests should display sensitivity and respect--and sensitivity and respect are the fundamental issues here. Science must take a back seat. The controversial materials should not be published.

Despite their strong feelings against publication, the people involved in this case would appear to have accorded the ethnographer a measure of confidence and trust. In doing so, they may also have accorded the ethnographer a handsome opportunity to participate more actively in their affairs and to work with them on projects aimed at improving the immediate conditions of native life. I refer, of course, to projects in areas such as nutrition and health care, education and legal assistance, economic development and the management of human and natural resources, and others.

The extent to which anthropologists can be of service in areas such as these cannot be determined a priori. Every situation will in some ways be different from every other. But whatever the nature of the specific situation may be, confidence and trust are essential if true cooperation is to flourish and develop. And whenever it does--whenever the anthropologist can work with local people to bring about desired forms of change--the personal rewards are apt to be substantial. In the long run, I expect, these rewards are more deeply satisfying and permanently enriching than any which may result from professional publication. But that, of course, is a matter of opinion.

And who knows? Much later on, after the people have come to know the ethnographer well, after their confidence in him (or her) has been increased, a responsible member of the local community may step forth with an unanticipated proposal. "You remember those things we didn't want you to put in a book? Remember them? Well, we've been talking about it, and maybe, if you still want to... "

This sort of thing has happened before. People change their minds. But until they do--and until the ethnographer can be reasonably certain that they will not change them back again--publication must be postponed. Science must wait. God knows--and so do Native Americans--that there are dozens of other worthwhile things to do.

Tags: Inside Higher Ed, Social Sciences and Human Decency, Handbook on Ethical Issues in Anthropology, Dan Berrett, ethics, culture, beliefs, Spirituality, cultural anthropology, American Anthropological Association, fieldwork, nonmaterial culture, Secrets of the Tribe, do no harm

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