Ethical dilemmas in professional practice in anthropology

Policy - environment - development


Many anthropologists make use of their professional training to carry out research in non-academic settings. This work can present complex ethical dilemmas for the discipline. This section of the site provides a series of readings, exercises and case studies on such dilemmas faced by anthropologists working in these contexts.  It is loosely based on training courses annually offered by the ASA to those planning a non-academic career, and addresses the skills needed to work in applied multi-disciplinary research and consultancy teams.  Details of the next course will be made available here when it becomes available. It also includes examples of the ethical and practical issues new postgraduate researchers are facing in their fieldwork and ways of addressing those issues.

The ASA courses, provide essential training for postgraduates not currently sufficiently available in Departments. Positive feedback from participants has underlined the usefulness of this training and the need to make the insights gained more widely available. This section of the website is sponsored by C-SAP - the Centre for Learning and Teaching for Sociology, Anthropology and Politics.

Dealing with ethical dilemmas requires the researcher to take certain practical steps to clarify the issues at stake. Often, this involves carrying out an organisational or stakeholder analysis as a requisite methodological step. These are introduced in the ASA course, and in this site. But even this sort of analysis can carry with it ethical problems, and the case-study materials included exemplify this. Indeed, the best way to think about ethical issues is through specific case-studies, and so you are encouraged to look at the recent debates within the AAA about the 'El Dorado' affair (see Links)

Who it is for?

This material is primarily aimed at postgraduate anthropology students who are working in - or contemplating research in - the policy, development or environmental fields. However, as anthropologists are increasingly having to work in complex organisational settings and find themselves negotiating relationships with individuals and organisations of widely differing interests and political clout, the policy setting in any ethnographic research is difficult to ignore. One student on this year's ASA course put it succinctly: 'a must for postgrads generally, since the policy context can hardly be avoided'. To see other student comments about whom this is for, click here.

In particular, this site addresses the concern over the number of times researchers find themselves in ethically difficult positions, find their relationships with collaborators and 'subjects' compromised, and on occasion face serious legal, social and economic consequences for their activities. While the material presented here does not provide a pre-packaged set of answers, it does give examples of how practicing anthropologists have attempted to solve their ethical dilemmas. It also presents techniques that researchers might use to anticipate, understand and manage situations that have the potential for serious consequences. Postgraduates who attended the ASA course on which this material is based, noted that for those preparing up-grading proposals the questions raised in effect helped them write their 'ethics' sections. For those who had returned from the field, sometimes with difficult ethical and methodological dilemmas still to address, the support provided by other anthropologists who had faced similarly difficult situations was invaluable.

What are the aims?

  • To provide a web-based forum to discuss the ethical dilemmas facing students studying and writing about development, conservation and policy organisations.
  • To examine case studies when social science research has the potential of resulting in a destructive relationship rather than constructive criticism.
  • To explore the ethical and practical constraints of the institutional context when pursuing policy orientated research.
  • To develop practical procedures, guidelines and skills for students working independently, but engaging with organisations.

How it works

Each web page starts with an outline of its contents. Starting from this page there are a number of ways to work through the material but we suggest you start by looking at the student case studies or the short paper 'Real ethical dilemmas'. As you read through the material you will come across 'activities' which ask you to carry out specific tasks. These are modelled on the tasks students were asked to complete on the ASA course and are there specifically to help your own learning. 'Think points' ask you to stop and consider a particular point, concept or issue. They are an attempt to create key points of debate and echo those questions, observations and discussions that students initiated during the course. In order for the site to be more dynamic, there are options to upload your own case studies, questions, observations and feedback.

Comments and feedback
Before attending the ASA course participants were asked to work through a preparation task. This gave them an opportunity to reflect on and jot down the key issues they felt they faced in their research.
Want to see what other postgraduate made of this course? This page is has comments and feedback from students about bits they liked and which bits they felt less relevant.

Ethical dilemmas
This short paper provides an outline of the key issues addressed in this website and brief introductions to the case studies.

A list of other published resources many of which are available on the web. Worth a look.

About the authors

The information for these web pages was collated by Andrew Garner (Oxford Brookes). Material sourced from elsewhere is acknowledged on the relevant page. Authors of individual papers are acknowledged. Thanks are also due to the postgraduates who took part in the ASA/SOAS course Professional Practice in Anthropology: methodological and ethical dilemmas in the Anthropology of Policy whose questions, comments and feedback have significantly shaped this material.