Ethical dilemmas in professional practice in anthropology

Policy - environment - development

Ethical dilemmas in anthropological research
by Andrew Garner

This page provides an overview of the emergent methodological and ethical issues that face anthropologists working in the policy field. A number of new directions in anthropology led to different pressures on researchers, particularly in terms of partnership working, which in turn have important methodology and ethical implications. The paper outlines the issues, highlighting areas under tension such as collaboration in research, questions of accountability, the difficulties of increasingly complex organisational settings, and the connection between ethics and methodology.

The initial impetus for this course was the number of new researchers who were having less than positive research experiences in the environmental/ development/ policy fields. Cases that have come to the attention of the organisers include:

  • instances where relationships with partner organisations had broken down to such an extent that new research was commissioned to challenge the initial findings;
  • an example where a paper critical of a government environmental organisation resulted in the researcher being banned from visiting the country again;
  • an anthropologists being called in as legal witnesses because of research undertaken in areas now subject to legal challenge;
  • to a case where research revealed an internationally funded health development programme to be failing and the consequences of revealing this for collaborators employed by the programme.

None of these examples are easily solved and most have quite profound personal implications for the anthropologists concerned as they often predicate a breakdown of relationships in the research field.

While more anthropologists find themselves working in partnerships, as is increasingly the case under growing pressures to find research funding, the risks of a division between professional standards of independence and loyalty to partners and funders also rises. Indeed, some anthropologists have found themselves with results that are antithetical to the agencies interest, resulting in restrictions on publications and leaving anthropologists with dilemmas about what to say. In many of these cases there are contradictions between their research work and what others felt they were doing. The more anthropologists find themselves working in multi-agency and multi-interest arenas, the more research is at risk of becoming subject to political necessity, and the realities of the need to communicate and market the research to stakeholders.

The broader background to this has been the expansion of Anthropology into a wide range of new fields and arenas. No longer can the discipline claim the stamping ground of the 'small-scale society' as its defining feature - even if it ever could. Anthropology has extended its scope into new arenas and into new collaborative relationships.

Development issues

Given the history of British anthropology this is not perhaps so much of a new area as an old area with new focus. There has been somewhat of an impasse in development theory in the last decade with no single model dominating the field. Large scale development projects are fewer and attract greater levels of criticism. Hence anthropologists find themselves working on smaller projects but often with media savvy organisations and interest groups that represent a larger constituency. More anthropologists are working with government and private organisations especially in impact assessments of development projects. While some multi-nationals are becoming better at recognising and complying with the need for social impact assessments, others simply do it for form's sake. As a result, anthropologists can find themselves in untenable positions with either the communities they research, or the agencies they work for.

Research between organisations

On a broader front, and echoing what has happened in the development field, more and more anthropological research has to take into account the impact of commercial enterprise, public organisations and international companies on the lives of the people they study. 'Going global' for anthropology has meant working with and between a range of organisations and interests. As has been the case for medical and technical fields, there is a growing awareness among organisations employing anthropologists of the implications of written/published research and a drive by them to protect their interests.

Multi-sited research

Linked to the above points is the recognition of the relevance of multi-sited research. Marcus (1995) argues that "multi-sited" ethnography has developed in response to the increasing complexities of the world system. The most common approach to these changes has been the continuation of traditional single-site ethnography, whilst using other methods to provide the data on global processes that play an increasingly important role in local socio-cultural forms. Marcus argues that multi-sited ethnography attempts to track these changes not just in a single locale but as they themselves are constituted in new connections and relationships with disparate places - "a differently configured spatial canvas" (Marcus 1995:98, cf. Burroway et al 2001). In weaving a path which keeps sight of the local within global processes, Marcus proposes research designed around:

chains, paths, threads, conjectures, or juxtapositions of locations in which the ethnographer establishes some form of literal, physical presence, with an explicit posited logic of association or connection among sites that in fact defines the argument of the ethnography.
(Marcus 1995:105)

In Vered Amit's book, Constructing the Field: Ethnographic fieldwork in the contemporary world the peculiar magic of 'fieldwork' is dissected. Quoting Kirsten Hastrup, Amit says that 'in the face of the mobility and displacement of peoples worldwide, anthropologists are being forced to relinquish the conflation of place with collective and cultural production'. That is to say the valued methodology of the discipline admired for its open-endedness is in turn legitimated by being spatially and socially encapsulated (2000:5).

Think point
What are the organisations that structure or impinge on your chosen area of research? How are you constructing the notion of your 'field' area and what are the ethical implications of doing it in this way?

Areas of tension

There are a number of other tensions within social anthropology that reveal the close relationship between theory, methodology and ethics. More often than not, ethical dilemmas are inherent to the tensions within the discipline itself.

The messy experience of 'immersion' vs professional status and textual production
Fieldwork, however much one plans, tends to be a messy experience. Doing ethnography requires participation, risks, mistakes and plain luck (both good and bad). What you think you will be doing gives way to the realities of life alongside a new set of people. While there is no doubt of the value of being a disciplined observer, ethnography after ethnography also give testament to the fact that it is often the unexpected and unlikely that proves most revealing. In tension with the uncontrollable aspects of anthropology's key methodology, are the highly controlled end products, the books and articles upon which professional status rests.

'Change the world' - anthropology as direct action vs 'understand the world' - anthropology as analysis
Reference here is to a continuing debate, certainly within British anthropology. For many anthropologists it is important that their work has some direct outcomes or benefit and they would feel uncomfortable working on anything without that intended end. Often they return to the inequalities highlighted by the privilege of their education and economic ability to do research in comparison to the society where that research is conducted. There is an incumbent ethical demand to at least try to gain more than personal benefit from ethnographic research. Weighing against this is an ethos of not disturbing, of minimising impacts on the researched. (I've sometimes heard this called the 'prime directive' by anthropologists who watch far too much Star Trek). Getting practically involved makes an already messy and unequal relationship muddier. Far better to focus on understanding the world, to maintain a degree of objectivity and concentrate on making sense of data. Anthropology as analysis.

Whom you work with (organisations and groups) vs to whom do you owe your allegiance.
You could put it this way: once anthropology has left the relative safety of the 'village' and set out into the diffuse political field of multi-sited ethnography how do you make decisions about allegiance when who the 'good guys' are is not clear? In a number of the student examples this tension is very clear, particularly when there is an often-admirable commitment to 'changing the world'.

Think point
Can you identify/anticipate these tensions in your own work? Where do you stand on the anthropology-as-action versus anthropology-as-analysis debate? How do you distinguish between the two in your chosen subject area?

In my view these tensions underpin many, if not all, the ethical dilemmas that anthropologists find themselves facing. And there may well be no easy way of solving these dilemmas.

Let us now turn to consider the specific subject areas of this site; policy, development and environment. While admittedly broad, they are united by highly visible, usually contested, fields of political influence. Development, environment and policy are things that people hold strong views over, that in turn have considerable influence of the realities of people's lives. If anything, it is the policy element that should stand above the other two, as it is a term that better describes the political and discursive nature of arenas particularly prone to ethical tensions.

Policy arenas usually need some form of collaboration to gain access. This collaboration may well be for good reasons:

  • for personal security. Ethnographic research takes place all over the world and, unfortunately, this is not without risks. In many cases it is only by becoming connected with an existing organisation that anthropologists can reduce risks to personal security. The organisation concerned may act mainly as gatekeeper, but in many instances it is the investment (in terms of personal relationships, time spent, and economic commitment) of the organisation in the region that affords the researcher a degree of security. Of course this collaboration may also turn out to be a liability for the research.
  • because of a positive drive to make a difference which means becoming involved with the people who live in the area, people who may well become our readers.
  • because it grows out of our methodological and theoretical concerns. Simply put ethnography requires that we focus on the actual people and groups we encounter. Cutting out specific groups or categories as 'not relevant' runs the risk of a sanitised idealised take. If there is a moral pressure to represent/present those we encounter in less powerful positions in society, doing that without engaging in the realities of relations of power is to do them a disservice. But who occupies powerful and less powerful positions in society is not always clear.


(Drawn from a presentation by James Fairhead of research undertaken with Melissa Leach)

This example is based on research that took place in Guinea in West Africa in 1991. The assumption driving the research was that there was a loss of forest cover due to local usage. The resulting and ongoing degradation of the environment was putting livelihoods at risk. This, briefly, was the given state of knowledge leading up to the research programme.

Researchers contacted government and international organisations, and national and international development programmes specifically to help with the national re-forestation programme. They wrote a research proposal aimed at gathering information on the social aspects of deforestation. If you understand the social processes at work, they argued, you are better able to target your interventions to increase forest cover. They planned to link village-based research with satellite mapping information. In the event what they found was a startling fact: rather than the forest cover decreasing as a result of the wood and timber demands of human settlement, it had actually increased. Therefore, the implication was, why have a national reforestry programme at all?

This went down like a ton of bricks with both the national and international agencies - essentially flying in the face of the agendas set by the international environment and development community. The results led to an undermining of the basis of collaboration with the various 'stakeholders'. Indeed it deteriorated so much that the collaborators commissioned their own study with the hope of refuting the findings. Eventually this new study came to similar conclusions.

Effectively, what the team ended up doing was an ethnography of the policy community which was both multi-agency and multi-sited. This community had created its own problematic. The identified 'problem' - deforestation - had gathered so much steam that agencies were committed to the given policy direction. To change direction had major implications for the organisations and resulted in employment problems for those who were their collaborators.

What can we learn from this example and others like it? Inevitably research needs to address issues of power, politics and policy - it cannot and should not do otherwise. Indeed, when multinationals have bigger budgets than many governments, and governments can resort to legal and military coercion, organisations are often more powerful than those they affect. What we are doing as anthropologists is revealing different realities to the organisations because we are looking at how power structures this reality.

What this alerts us to are the different modes and processes of participation. Power and the ability to influence outcomes is a strange and many faceted beast. Hence a small NGO dealing with aspects of local economic development may not have much apparent political influence, but its policies, shared with an international community, might carry far more weight than expected. A currently fashionable process of 'consultation' with 'stakeholders' may have highly variable degrees of participation. To a large extent this depends on how those 'stakeholders' are defined, who does the defining, and how they access the process. This points us to our selection of methodology and its ethical implications.

Following this line of critique we should also address questions of our own role as anthropologists. We are engaged - but how are we aware of our own power (and, let's be honest here, powerlessness)? The critique of the 'writing culture' school, that the production of knowledge is inevitably enmeshed in inequalities of relations of power between those doing the representing and those represented, has led some to positions of what I think of as disengaged extreme postmodernism. A solipsistic spiral which in the robust process of revealing certain blindspots of our discipline, has had the less useful effect of blunting the critical edge that anthropology has been able to present outwards to other organisations. We are inevitably engaged, but let us also be sure of the strengths of our discipline.

Think point
Do you agree or disagree with the proposal that an over-emphasis on reflexivity has blunted the critical edge of anthropology? How should anthropology be presented in outward-facing situations? How do you present your skills to other agencies?

In terms of professional practice where does this leave us? Outlining tensions within the discipline should alert us to arenas of 'ethical risk', and allow researchers to advance their projects with a degree of anticipation that might help stop dilemmas becoming disasters. The recognition of pragmatic and theoretical reasons for collaboration, and the unequal relations that are isomorphic to that collaboration, also helps. But there is more that can be done.

Examine the organisational setting

In the example above, Fairhead and Leach ended up doing an ethnography of the policy community. Indeed, there will be very few instances where the organisational setting is not relevant. Hence, anthropologists should probably undertake 'stakeholder and organisational' analysis as a matter of course. (You can jump to an exercise on how to do stakeholder and organisational analysis). Organisations want to look good, they may well attempt to manage their image - and control the impacts of the research as much as possible. There should also be an awareness of complexities of organisations. There might be a strong corporate culture, but idiosyncratic parts to it. What sort of organisation it is needs recognising, as well as the diffuseness of the political field in which they operate.

Clarify accountability

Many researchers would want to render organisations accountable but find this jeopardises subsequent research access. How we deal with issues of confidentiality and anonymity, particularly when moving between individuals and organisations, is not easy. While there is an ideal of seeking informed consent from collaborators, what counts as being sufficiently informed is not always easy to decide. At what point does the researcher's responsibility to inform end and the respondent's responsibility as an adult (usually) member of society start? Indeed sometimes simply by being there the anthropologist shows up the difference between what people say and do.

Use ethical guidelines. pragmatically

A number of previous participants on this course have noted that the ASA guidelines do not necessarily help solve the real world dilemmas they face. As one student pointed out, 'The codes seem to be written for small-scale undifferentiated community'. Apart from laying out an ideal for professional practice in anthropology, the ethical guidelines point us to a key principle underpinning ethnographic research: how do we avoid situations which would result in a betrayal of identification and trust?

One thing I hope is clear from the discussion above. Theory, methodology and ethics are thoroughly entwined. It is not possible to consider one aspect in isolation to the others - particularly in the realities enforced by long-term ethnographic research that is the particular strength of the discipline of anthropology.

Indicative Bibliography

Hastrup, K and Olwig, KF 1997 'Introduction' to Olwig, KF and Hastrup, K (eds.) Siting culture: The Shifting Anthropological Object, London: Routledge.

Amit, V (ed.) 2000 Constructing the Field: Ethnographic Fieldwork in the Contemporary World, London: Routledge.

Fairhead, J and Leach, M 1998 'Representation of the Past: Trees in Historical Dispute and Socialised Ecology in the Forest Zone of the Republic of Guinea, West Africa', in Rival, L (ed.) The Social Life of Trees, Oxford: Berg.

Marcus, G E 1995 'Ethnography In/Of the World system: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography, Annual Review of Anthropology 24:95-117.

Wright and Shore, 1997 Anthropology and Policy