Discussions from the early ASA blog
Open discussion on ethics in anthropology, ASA Conference, Keele
Wednesday 12th April 2006.
Chairs: Ian Harper and Alberto Corsin-Jiminez
At a well attended session, Ian Harper started the proceedings by highlighting a recent article published in Anthropology Today which followed the last open meeting at the ASA conference in Durham1. Questioning the rise of audit culture as reflected in the prescriptive nature of ethical guidelines – particularly some difficulties with overly prescriptive “informed consent” – the idea was to create an interactive site on the ASA website where a more “ethnographic ethics” and case studies could be articulated2. The idea was to open up anthropological ethics to further discussion and dialogue, particularly from the ASA membership. Unfortunately this blog remains all but unused, and so feedback as to the ideas, and of ways to increase its use were sought.
Secondly, a brief overview of the new ESRC rules were presented3. In short the ESRC now insists that all ESRC funded research – including that of postgraduates – goes through a vigorous ethical review. Research funds will not be released until ethical approval has been obtained. While this suggestion is not in itself problematic, indeed is welcomed, Harper presented a number of issues arising from this “living” document, which is open to a “range of interpretations”. The context for the document is one of research governance, and reflects changes in social science research and research methods, including interdisciplinary research; globalisation and associated advances in data sharing methods etc.; changes in policy context, particularly that related to health research and UK government; the development of new procedures for ethics review in the NHS; and changes in public attitudes towards transparency. Specifically the following issues were highlighted in the presentation:
- a) Full ethical review has to be obtained for all research with more than minimal risk. This includes all research on “ethnic” or “cultural groups”, which is likely to be all anthropology.
- b) Approval is to be by institutional ethics committee, the constitution of which is clearly prescribed. Firstly there has to be representation from outside the discipline (one’s not aligned too closely with the interests of the discipline) and secondly representation from “appropriately trained lay members”.
- c) A particular issue of the possible constraints of the UK data protection act of 1998 arose. The document clearly states that data may only be kept for the period of research and only used for the specified purpose. After this time the data should “not be kept for longer”.
- d) The section on informed consent suggests this must be obtained in writing, and that if it cannot be done this has to be detailed in writing by the researchers. There is, however, a caveat that international research raises certain issues around how this places primacy on the individual, and may be “meaningless” or inappropriate in some contexts.
The following issues were raised in discussion following the presentation, and in which opinion was divided on the importance and interpretation of aspects of it:
- The prescriptive nature of the panel members as suggested by the ESRC, and that this is not discipline responsible could create potential for clashes.
- It is also not clear what the occasional concessions throughout the document to “cultural” considerations might mean in practice
- It is odd that at one point the document suggests that covert research is reasonable
- There is possibly some scope for interpretations within the document; but as ethics is also about publicity and branding, they are likely to be closely scrutinised.
- Does the document imply that fieldnotes should be destroyed following the period of fieldwork? And how does that resonate with an earlier suggestion of the ESRC that fieldnotes be archived? In relation to this more needs to be found out about the legal issues in relation to data storage as well.
- To what extent will this and the dominance of ESRC rules dominate non-ESRC funded research and work? Is the tail wagging the dog?
- A specific question arose with regards to research with partners in different countries, and the extent to which they would (or should) submit themselves to these stipulations?
- A particular issue at one institution was raised in relation to police disclosure, and the question of police records for those students and researchers wishing to work with children. Were there any other instances of how ethnographers adhered to the child protection act?
The final part of the session focused on the way forward, with the following suggestions muted and discussed:
- Gather evidence and case studies so that more support can be garnered for colleagues having particular problems
- A database of precedents can be established; and evidence and case studies of what has gone well. An instrument is required that doesn’t have to wait for annual meetings and updates
- Highlight successes of how ethical guidelines are negotiated in practice in different institutions.
- Examples could be put on the web of how the ESRC and other ethics forms are filled out
- The blog needs to be advertised more widely – via anthropologymatters and the ASA e-mail lists – so that a conversation can be set up on the web. Specific examples and case studies can be advertised, and responses solicited
- Link up with other qualitative researchers who are also concerned with the issues, like colleagues in sociology
- The blog could be particularly useful for postgraduate experiences (if appropriately anonymised)
- It would be good to solicit examples of how institutions have historically, and currently, deal with variations in ethical codes. How are generic codes, that can be dominated by other disciplinary sensibilities dealt with?
- A list of references for ethics papers could be developed on the ASA website
- Links to other sites
Ian Harper, ASA Ethics Officer, 18th April 2006.
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