Professional Ethics Codes
How can professional codes guide research? Professional associations, as the representative bodies of particular disciplines, have developed codes of ethics covering conduct, values and responsibilities. These documents tend to be high level and general in form rather than prescriptive but nonetheless provide an important compass when it comes to deciding where priorities might lie should dilemmas arise for the researcher. As these documents evolve, and do so within different country settings, it is essential that anthropologists at all levels of professional development are familiar with the content of their local codes, as well as the history which brought them about. It is also important to be aware of how requirements for oversight and regulation emerge from legislation, such as the EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation.
In recent years, much work has been undertaken in the UK to develop ethical codes in relation to the social sciences (see codes of ethics). These codes are often produced by professional associations and fulfil a number functions. Fundamentally, they provide focus for a disciplinary community when it comes to their shared professional and ethical responsibilities and duties. For example, the British and Commonwealth Association of Social Anthropologists’ Ethical Guidelines for Good Practice, gives broad indications of responsibilities towards five constituencies: research participants; sponsors, funders and employers; colleagues and the discipline; own and host governments and, finally, the wider society (ASA Guidelines 2006). Guidelines created by different anthropological associations in different countries show considerable convergence around core principles such as the ‘paramount obligation’ of the researcher to the research participant, protecting participants, avoiding undue intrusion and working in ways that are transparent. In attempts to identify common causes and concerns, the World Council of Anthropological Associations (WCAA) has created its own Ethics Taskforce which has produced an overview of ethics codes devised by different professional associations across the world (WCAA 2012).
Typically, these documents provide general and high level statements of principle regarding how an anthropologist should go about research. As a consequence, many of the professional codes and guidelines used by anthropologists state explicitly that they are not regulatory and directive but advisory and, at most, hortatory. To attempt to create the former kind of guidelines (that is, ones which are de facto rules) would be neither practical nor achievable given the extraordinarily wide range of settings and circumstances in which an anthropologist is likely to become embedded (see the Case Study on Tessa Verhallen’s work in the Netherlands for illustration of limitations of existing guidelines in practice). The regulatory approach would also be antithetical to disciplinary values which lean towards flat and democratic approaches rather than in the direction of hierarchies in which significant powers and authorities lie (see the Case Study on David Mosse, for an example of attempts to use codes to sanction the behaviour of an anthropologist). As such, anthropologists’ codes of conduct and ethical guidelines tend to place their emphasis on being educative and facilitating good decision making by individuals committed to professional integrity rather than because there are prohibitions and sanctions in play from outside. As the encapsulation of attitudes, values and approaches, ethical and professional codes have become important markers of professional and disciplinary identity and those of the anthropological community are no exception (Barnes 1979:159, Caplan 2003:5, Meskell and Pels 2005:2).
How do the anthropologist’s codes relate to other kinds of codes?
Having said that professional codes operate as important markers of professional and disciplinary identity, it is also important to consider some of the continuities that exist between codes and against which the effect of disciplinary separation from other disciplines is achieved. Codes have genealogies - the Nuremberg Code (1947) begat the Declaration of Helsinki on (1964) which begat the Belmont Report (1979) which begat a plethora of other guidelines and principles for the protection of human subjects in research (Macfarlane 2009). Not only have these been formulated for different national contexts they have also been formulated for different kinds of protection and categories of vulnerability. For example, people unable to give informed consent, such as children or those with learning difficulties, or people who have been displaced and may be at risk of coercion or those who lack the literacy skills needed to render their consent sufficiently ‘informed’ may all be deemed vulnerable.
The continuities between these regulatory genealogies are of interest for the way that they borrow from one another and make claims that they are made of the same stuff as some powerful antecedents. For example, the British and Commonwealth ASA Guidelines, in the section dealing with ‘negotiating informed consent’ states that it is: ‘Following the precedent set by the Nuremberg Trials and the constitutional laws of many countries …’ Such claims are a source of strength in that they locate anthropologists within, and as part of, a wider community of moral agents engaged in the business of researching human subjects. Yet, they are also problematic in that they commit an anthropological researcher to a conceptual heritage that, once signed up to, is then difficult to escape from. As we argued earlier, an approach which starts with the idea of ‘fieldwork among’ rather than ‘research upon’ is likely to be at odds with the ideas of power and personhood that inform a biomedically inspired version of research ethics (that is, one that is rooted in archetypes of atrocity, places as central human subjects that need to be protected, and proceeds with a presumption that researchers are not to be trusted).
The conceptual link to biomedical experimentation pervades much research ethics thinking. An epistemological continuity that is based on scientific procedure is believed to be underpinned by a corresponding ethical continuity. Moreover, these continuities are assumed to be capable of subsuming an ever-widening range of approaches to the study of humans. Suggesting that there are limits to these continuities, and that the paradigm of biomedical experimentation may not be the most helpful starting point for the conduct of ethnographic research, is to swim against a very strong tide. To suggest that things might be otherwise is to invite concerns about unethical and unregulated research carried out under a cloak of disciplinary exceptionalism. How can we be trusted not to repeat all the dreadful things that have been perpetrated in the name of research?
If the answer is indeed that social anthropologists (along with every other social scientist) can’t be trusted, then a number of things follow. We should expect to have external regulation and monitoring of all that we do; there will on occasion be questions we can ask but cannot answer and there will be places, people and situations that will be closed off to anthropological enquiry. Dingwall (2016) goes one step further in suggesting that these inquiries might then be taken up by what he refers to as ‘competitors’ - journalists, novelists, creative artists and filmmakers (also see Simpson and Coleman 2002). If the territories that responsible social research once occupied are indeed being colonised by other modes of inquiry, then one might ask what has happened to ethics beyond the reach of the biomedical model? Are “competitors’” alternative efforts to reveal the world we live in ethically bankrupt?
Let us try a brief thought experiment. Instead of claiming to operate under ASA guidelines, ethnographers hitched their wagon, so to speak, to the ethical codes of journalists. For example, the American Society of Professional Journalists has its own code and a series of position papers that justify and explain its higher level principles. Clearly ethnographers are not journalists but it is illuminating to substitute ‘ethnographer’ for ‘journalist’ and ‘ethnography’ for ‘journalism’.
Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity. The Society declares these four principles as the foundation of ethical journalism and encourages their use in its practice by all people in all media
1. Seek Truth and Report It
Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
- Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it. Use original sources whenever possible.
- Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.
- Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.
- Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.
- Be cautious when making promises, but keep the promises they make.
- Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.
- Consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.
- Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.
- Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.
- Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless.
- Support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.
- Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government. Seek to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open, and that public records are open to all.
- Provide access to source material when it is relevant and appropriate.
- Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear.
- Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting.
- Label advocacy and commentary.
- Never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information. Clearly label illustrations and re-enactments.
- Never plagiarize. Always attribute.
2. Minimize Harm
Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.
- Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.
- Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.
- Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.
- Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.
- Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.
- Balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to know. Consider the implications of identifying criminal suspects before they face legal charges.
- Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.
3. Act Independently
The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.
- Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
- Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.
- Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; do not pay for access to news. Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not.
- Deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage.
- Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two. Prominently label sponsored content.
4. Be Accountable and Transparent
Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.
- Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.
- Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.
- Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.
- Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.
- Abide by the same high standards they expect of others.
The SPJ Code of Ethics is a statement of abiding principles supported by additional explanations and position papers (at spj.org) that address changing journalistic practices. It is not a set of rules, rather a guide that encourages all who engage in journalism to take responsibility for the information they provide, regardless of medium. The code should be read as a whole; individual principles should not be taken out of context. It is not, nor can it be under the First Amendment, legally enforceable.
Some of the substitutions would obviously jar rather badly (for example: ‘Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing’ or ‘Distinguish news from advertising’). Others are not consistent with the expectation that an ethnographer would spend a lengthy period developing an engagement with a particular group of people. But, many of the items under: seeking truth, minimising harm, maintaining independence and being accountable, would, we maintain, be acceptable as a set of guiding principles for someone approaching the work of ethnography.
We would suggest that there are three fundamental differences between codes inspired by human experimentation and the one presented above:
- Freedom of speech and independence is central to the journalist’s/ ethnographer’s role
- Emphasis is on the integrity of the journalist/ ethnographer rather than on anticipatory controls (and integrity here encompasses protection of subjects, consent, respect for persons etc)
- The notion of a public is brought into focus as an audience for the journalist’s/ ethnographer’s output.
Significantly, at the time of writing, questions of how the relationship between social scientists and the wider public is mediated by ethics review regimes has been brought to the fore. Consideration of the similarities between qualitative research in the social sciences and some aspects of journalism has led to a more flexible approach with regard to ethical framing of research via new EU regulations for data protection due to come into play in 2018. In these regulations there is an attempt to balance freedom of speech, the independence of researchers and the public value of research with the need for ethics review of that research. As we describe below data protection may well reshape the scope and content ethics review in ways that have important implications for the practice of qualitative social science in general and ethnographic enquiry in particular.
The introduction of the new EU General Data Protection Regulation
From the enforcement of the new EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) on 25 May 2018 journalism and the social sciences will be treated very similarly in that they will both be viewed as activities in the public interest and deserving of protection. This new treatment reflects the realisation that formal research ethics review in the social sciences has been increasingly entangled with the ethics and risks of research, resulting in some research no longer being initiated and other research not receiving the ethical reflection it deserves. Although the GDPR is more prescriptive in its formulations than its forerunner, the Data Protection Regulation (DPR) (Council of the European Union, 1995), it also includes a number of provisions to prevent undue restrictions for humanities and the social sciences. An important change concerns the GDPR requirement to set out derogations or legitimate curtailments of the original regulation. Derogations make it possible to make adjustments to enable the socials sciences and humanities research to carry out their research with appropriate and proportionate regulatory oversight. Regulation can be taken from any part of the GDPR “as necessary to reconcile the right to protection of personal data with the freedom of expression and information”. The application of ‘derogations’ does not just pertain to “journalistic purposes” (together with literary and artistic expression) but also for the sake of “academic expression as an end in itself” (Article 85 (2)).
The introduction of this amendment has come about in part from a coordinated response by the British Academy, the ESRC and the Wellcome Trust to a UK government call for Views on the implementation of the EU GDPR 2016/679 in the UK (BA & ESRC 2017). According to a summary of the BA/ESRC submission the derogation is a mandatory derogation: ‘it is vital that it is fully reflected in UK implementing legislation, not least since it reflects the efforts of considerable UK-based advocacy’ (BA & ESRC 2017). In practice, this will mean that anthropology departments will need to use these derogations in negotiation with university administrators when implementing the GDPR. This and guidelines from the professional associations on the implementation of the GPDR will largely determine future conditions of ethnographic research.
Case Study: The AAA guidelines deconstructed
Tessa Verhallen undertook participant-observation research in the Netherlands into families where there were single-mothers who were also experiencing child-protection issues (Verhallen 2016). These were families where there was a complex and ongoing entanglement with a variety of state law enforcement and welfare agencies. Locating her study at the points of encounter between these families and the state, she was on the one hand ‘studying down’ with a focus on families labelled as ‘multi-problem’ and also ‘studying up’ with a focus on the role of social workers, police officers and other professional groups.
By way of an ethical meta-commentary on her work she provides a useful exploration of the limitations of ethical codes when applied they are in a research project that identifies vulnerable persons as its focus. The critique centres on the American Anthropological Association Principles of Professional Responsibility (first produced in 1971 and last revised in 2012). Along with a number of other commentators (Bell 2014; Hodge 2013), Verhallen draws attention to the limitations of the anticipatory presumptions that inform the AAA principles. Her critique is all the more penetrating given that her study did not go through ethics review at the outset, for the simple reason that in the Netherlands review machinery does not exist for social science projects. There is thus an important hiatus which emerges in the move from one country’s ethical framework to another. The AAA principles are crafted to be in harmony with the wider regulatory environment. For a researcher working across traditions, so to speak, the inadequacies of AAA guidelines in practice are rendered all the more stark.
Verhallen describes her ‘field’ and systematically works through the ways in which she experienced ‘incongruity’ between the AAA principles and the situations that she actually faced in her fieldwork and, of more concern, conflicts between the principles themselves. These conflicts are described under six headings: 1. epistemics and data quality; 2. the "do no harm" principle; 3. informed consent; 4. trust and rapport; 5. the form of engagement; and 6. transparency and data representation.
For example, in observing the ‘do no harm’ principle, a number of contradictions are apparent. The principle assumes that particular power gradients are in play and typically ones which run from researcher down to a clearly defined group of subjects. In this study, both the mothers and state officials are seen to have powers over the researcher and the locus of harm is not singular. Likewise, prior knowledge of what constitutes harm in the settings in which Verhallen worked is not always clear. There are harms that are unanticipated and about which the researcher only becomes aware when working in context. Finally, who is at risk of harm cannot be second guessed. Verhallen describes how the police officers who feature in her study occasionally ‘turned a blind eye’ to help families, yet this was behavior that, if revealed, could bring serious sanction upon them. Clearly, a major challenge in this research was to figure out who the research could harm and what the nature of these harms might be.
Verhallen also questions presumptions in the AAA principles that there is ‘data’ that can be lifted from the research setting. She describes a delicate process of gaining mothers’ trust. This process brings into question any simple injunction to exercise ‘neutrality and disengagement’. Against a backdrop of deep suspicion of anyone who smacks of authority and who might be in a position to exert unwanted power, Verhallen herself has to work to counter the tendency of mothers to identify her as part of the state apparatus. She describes the unfolding of multiple positionalities in which she is drawn into roles as: "confidante," "taxi driver," "babysitter," "friend" or "auntie," "counsellor," "mediator," "adviser," and "interpreter.” It is apparent from Verhallen’s account that, given the impossibility of neutrality, her identification is with the mothers (that is, her paramount obligation). At several points she describes assisting and advising informants in their dealings with police and social workers where these were acting in ways that were unjust or procedurally incorrect. She also arranged meetings with legal experts and social workers and otherwise slipped into the role of advocate.
Presumptions about consent as a transaction that can be completed prior to research commencing also proved to be problematic. As part of her immersion in the field, days were spent in the homes of mothers, during which a lot of people came and went and typically a lot of things happened. Verhallen describes the difficulty of getting written consent from everyone, given that she was present during a number of ‘live’ child protection encounters. During these she operated ‘semi-covertly’, that is, no one was actively deceived, but there were also people who did not necessarily know what her actual role was. Likewise, recordings were made of some encounters but, whilst the recording device was clearly displayed, not all parties had formally consented or even knew that it was running.
Finally, Verhallen interrogates the notion of transparency. Although the expectations are that data will be presented in ways that are transparent, it is clear that just what information is presented could be far more harmful than anything that occurred in the research encounter. The potential for harm to be done at the stage when accounts are formally made public is considerable.
To illustrate the way that these complexities occurred in practice, Verhallen shares with us the ‘The case of Kate’. During her fieldwork, Verhallen found herself in the midst of a crisis. A child, Martin, absconded from his care placement proceeded to make his way back to his mother, Kate, who was subject to a restraining order preventing her from having contact with Martin. In parsing her responses to the crisis, Verhallen provides a helpful analysis of the dilemmas she faced, how she responded and why. Her dilemmas revolved around whether her responsibilities were towards the authorities and the need to uphold laws which are about child welfare and protection, or whether they were towards a distressed mother concerned about the whereabouts of her son and what she would do if he were to appear on her doorstep. Verhallen is put squarely in the position of expert advisor by Kate and, moreover, her relationship with Kate is ‘tested’ in that she is asked to record Kate’s phone call to the authorities in case things became more problematic later on. Kate was concerned that she might be believed to have acted irresponsibly when faced with her son’s absconding behaviour and Verhallen was called upon as both witness and ally.
Case Study: Do professional codes have teeth?
David Mosse carried out fieldwork on a UK-funded development project in South India between 1990 and 2000. The project was supported by the UK’s Department for International Development who had an interest in gaining a better understanding of how aid money and expertise was used in practice (Mosse 2005). The form the work would take was an ethnography of the NGO, describing the workings of the organisation on a day-to-day basis. The evidence on which the study drew consisted of several methodological levels including a good deal of experience of the region and the role of UK-led development projects, documentary and policy ‘grey’ literature and interviews with people working on the project at all levels ranging from DfID officials, local consultants, project managers through to staff working in the field. A fourth methodological level was to be triggered by the circulation of draft chapters of the final publication with the aim of eliciting critical feedback. Crucially, Mosse argued, the document circulated was not meant to present an authoritative statement of how things ‘are’, but sought to elicit objection with the intention of using these perspectives to enrich his ethnographic account (Mosse 2006).
Far from enabling a more sophisticated account of the relationship between policy and practice to emerge, the sharing of drafts rebounded spectacularly. As Mosse describes it:
“Objections were made by my co-workers and informants to the publisher, to my university research ethics committee, my Department convenors, the Dean and the academic head of my university, as well as to my professional association the ASA (Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and the Commonwealth) on the grounds that the book was unfair, biased, contained statements that were defamatory and would seriously damage the professional reputation of individuals and institutions, and would harm work among poor tribals in India.” (Mosse 2006:935)
This scenario is a nightmare for any ethnographer. It is deeply damaging to relationships with people one has come to know well, and reflects badly on one’s intellectual credibility and academic reputation. Of particular concern was his interlocutors’ disagreement with the book’s main conclusions and a demand from senior staff associated with the aid project both in India and in the UK that it should be re-written.
The position that Mosse took in response to these concerns about his text was to stick by the veracity of his account and the evidence upon which it was based. Essentially, he refused the demand that his informants be allowed to ‘adjudicate’ on the contents of his work. What is of interest for our particular purposes is that the objectors, faced with a refusal by Mosse to submit to their demands, appealed to other authorities which included the proposed publisher, his academic managers at the School of Oriental and African Studies and the ASA, alleging that the study breached the ASA’s Ethical Guidelines. With regard to the latter, the assertion was that the study had violated the ASA’s guidelines regarding negotiated consent and that his work had proved harmful to participants in the research (Mosse 2006 ,p.947). When the ASA Committee formally considered the charges laid against Mosse in March 2004, their conclusion was that they had no remit to adjudicate on what were quite explicitly ‘guidelines’ and not rules governing research activity. The call for the ASA to play the role of a quasi-legalistic body capable of sanctioning its members was eschewed. This ruling is important in that it gave recognition to a fundamental distinction between ‘facts’ and interpretation. Whilst factual accuracy is an ethical imperative, the ASA upheld the anthropologist’s right to produce ethnographic accounts in which interpretation takes the reader beyond any simple recounting of facts and on into the dense texture of life as it is lived in any given context. It was this latter aspect of Mosse’s account that caused particular offense to his collaborators, as it smacked of a moral betrayal of trust and professional solidarity. (See Harper and Jimenez 2005 for further explication of the significance and broader implications of this case. Also see Ed Simpson 2016 for a reflection on the nature and role of objection in response to ethnographic description).
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