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Ethics Task Force – Draft Principle: Balance the Responsibility

Below you will find another draft principle for your review and comment.

As you’re aware, the task force has adopted an iterative approach soliciting comments/suggestions/feedback from the entire membership, comments to which we do pay serious attention.  There was one comment posted on the second principle which we want to take a moment to address now:  “It would be helpful if the Task Force would articulate why the current code is deficient.”

Our reformulation of the current code isn’t meant to imply that the current code is necessarily deficient. We do think, however, that any effective and meaningful code needs to be periodically revised and restated to keep current with the ways in which ethical issues, however timeless, are encountered, discussed and debated by the field.  Our intent has not been to suggest a completely new code which will stand without further revision, but to revise the current code in ways that make it more immediately relevant with the expectation that it will be revisited and revised again with frequency, and not just in the event of a crisis in the discipline, and with member input in that revising.

We believe that there is value in the task of presenting many of the same ideas in different ways.  Doing so helps anthropologists of all kinds focus on core concepts and see problems in new ways.  To that end, we are seeking to identify from both the current code and the earlier Principles of Professional Responsibility broad statements or principles applicable to all anthropologists.  We are asking for your help in doing so.

We think an important addition to re-stating these core concepts will be the supporting layers of additional resources–explanatory text, alternative interpretations, examples from different contexts or areas of practice, case studies, and resources from other disciplines.  We are also asking for your help in collecting those kinds of resources.  The goal is to provide a resource which will be useful in real-world situations by real world anthropologists.

We do not address the issues of sanctions or enforcement; a wide range of opinions on such issues are held not only by the members of the Association but by members of the task force as well.  Regardless of viewpoint, however, the members of the task force agreed that a workable and appropriate code must be established before determining how it may be implemented or enforced.

As you read through our blog postings over the next several months, please:
1.carefully read each principle as it is posted to the blog, paying attention to the content  and thinking about its relevance to your practice
2.make relevant comments and suggestions on the blog site in a timely manner.  Feel free to share personal stories, case examples, competing interpretations, etc.
3.pay attention to the ongoing conversations about the principles and do background reading if you are late to join the discussion of a particular topic. You will be able to make comments on all the principles, not just the most recent one.

Thank you all for your help in this important task.

-The Task Force


Here is another principle for your review:

Balance the  responsibility to disseminate with its potential consequences

The results of anthropological research are complex, subject to multiple interpretations and susceptible to differing and unintended uses. Anthropologists conduct research in order to expand our understanding of lives, histories, cultures, and communities. Thus a general goal is communication of new knowledge in a timely fashion. However, anthropologists have an ethical obligation to consider the potential impact of both their research and the communication or dissemination of the results of their research. Anthropologists should consider this issue prior to beginning research and throughout the research process. Explicit negotiation about dissemination and data access with sponsors/clients may be necessary before deciding whether to begin research.

Anthropologists should not normally withhold research results from research participants when those results are shared with others. There are circumstances, however, where restrictions on disclosure may be appropriate and ethical, such as where participants have been fully informed and have freely agreed to limited dissemination.  In some situations  other kinds of limited dissemination may be appropriate where such restrictions will protect the safety, dignity, or privacy of participants; or protect cultural heritage and/or tangible or intangible cultural or intellectual property.  Proprietary, classified or other research with limited distribution raises complex ethical questions which must be resolved using these ethical principles. Anthropologists must weigh the intended uses of their research and work to evaluate potential uses of their research and the impact of its dissemination now and in the future.

Limited dissemination poses significant risks.  There may be equally great risks associated with dissemination itself.  Once information is disseminated, even in a limited sphere, there is great likelihood that it will become widely available. Thus, anthropologists should consider situations where preventing dissemination may be the most ethical step.

8 Responses

  1. […] a response to previous comments and has included new information in the introductory paragraphs. Click here to view this new information and the latest draft principle. Refer to the “Ethics Task […]

  2. Balance of ethical obligations among stakeholders, including research participants, is an important advance. This balance requires careful consideration and consultation with affected parties in advance of the commencing of research. Adding advanced plannng to the principle advises users of the code that they need to think about and make decisions regarding issues of dissemination well in advance of their field work.
    The default position should be dissemination. Whenever withholding dissemination is determined to be the preferred strategy, it needs to be justified as it can elide to or give the appearance of deception.

  3. I am a little nervous about the statement in the preamble paragraphs that the code “will be revisited and revised again with frequency.” I would only caution that, with new revisions, old versions of the code should remain on the AAA website and within our organizational memory, and the reasons for issuing a revised version of the code should be stated and should remain with any new version of the code. If you come up with a code that has to be constantly tweaked and revised, then it probably means you did not identify the most broad and basic principles around which wide consensus can be found.

    as for Principle No. 4 – the statement of it is straightforward and seems to be broad enough to attract wide consensus; but the discussion underneath it muddies the waters a bit. I saw this a bit with the previous principle as well. The writer(s) of these comments seem to have certain kinds of anthropological research circumstances in mind, but are not making this clear, and so the reader – whatever sort of research she is engaged in – must try to locate herself in the comments, since they are presented as general principles. But they are not: the circumstances of anthropological research done for corporate or marketing purposes is going to involve a slightly different set of ethical issues than anthropological research done for the purpose of discovering new knowledge about human beings and their lived experience, and sharing that knowledge in venues such as teaching, scholarly publications and academic conferences, popular communication (non-academic writing, public lectures, etc.). If you try to mix together these rather different “flavours”, you are just going to get a mess that no one can swallow. I would rather see you serve them all up with their own individual integrity and let their nuances show through. And by comparing and contrasting the different “flavours” of anthropology, I think it would actually be easier to determine ways of stating ethical principles that are basic and broad enough that consensus can be found regardless of where you are coming from.

  4. The question of dissemination is an ethical and a legal question.
    The ethical question rests in the priority of the stakeholders to which the anthropologist is accountable, e.g Science/discipline; subject(s) (individual and/or collective); Students; Funding source(s); Clients; etc. The interests of these stakeholders will vary based on the specific circumstance the anthropologist finds him/herself.

    The legal question is one of control and ownership. Who owns the data? And, what rights does the anthropologist have to the use the data beyond the original purpose for which it was collected and paid for?

    Any ethical code that ignores the legal dimension is not an ethical code. If the profession or its authorized representative which imposes the code on its members is unwilling to enforce the code and/or to back its members by defending them in court if necessary to uphold the code, then the ethical code is a sham. Such a code creates a situation where the individual and society are left confused about the rules and the commitment of profession to be self policing..

  5. “There was one comment posted on the second principle which we want to take a moment to address now: “It would be helpful if the Task Force would articulate why the current code is deficient.”

    There is one problem with the current code as stated in the way these principles are stated. Too much detail and verbiage!

    It might be better to use the Ten Commandments format (simple principle) than the IRS Income Tax Code format (which attempts to cover every contingency).

    The former promotes a moral code encouraging the individual to aspire to a high standard. The latter is a legal document that invites the individual to look for and find loopholes. A professional ethical code should inspire us to aspire to a high standard of service, and not look for a way out of our responsibilities.

  6. I think that the statement included in the discussion following this principle contains a very important caveat. If this principle is to be adopted, then researchers must by all means ensure that there is an “explicit negotiation about dissemination and data access with sponsors/clients”, as noted in the statement above. This negotiation prior to commencing a project is vital in order for this principle to be effective. It will also ensure that the researcher has some clear guidance if concerns about the dissemination of results arise during the course of the research. In Canada, the practice of drafting a community research agreement prior to beginning research with First Nations communities is very common, and these agreements often include explicit and detailed descriptions of how, when, and with whom research results will be shared. It is also common for researchers negotiating with research partners (ie: the community) prior to beginning a project to frame ways in which participants may withdraw certain sensitive data from the record (ie: such as the issues of cultural heritage, intellectual property, etc…noted in the statement following the draft principle). In these cases, the participants have the agency and right to determine which details may be damaging to themselves, and the negotiation ensures that both the researcher and the participant have discussed the risks and benefits of disseminating certain information. Ultimately the researcher is not forced to make well-intended (but potentially misguided) decisions for people as the research agreement gives the researcher guidance on how to approach these situations.

    My main concern in considering this proposed principle is that it could be misconstrued to allow anthropologists who have done sloppy work, and who are scared about a backlash from the community as a result, to hide behind the principle by claiming that disseminating the results may ‘harm’ the community. In essence this could close down debate between the research participants and the researcher regarding their differing views of the project and its results. In turn this could also limit the potentially rich and informative discourse between the community and the researcher regarding differing interpretations of the data and its potential harm.

    This principle has more weight when considered along side draft principle three (“Be open and honest regarding your work. Make your results accessible.”) Taken together these principles lay the groundwork for research that is transparent, respectful of potential harm to participants, and allows participants to make informed decisions about whether or not to become involved in the project.

    Barry R. Bainton’s point about the legal and ethical dimensions of dissemination of results is also important. There may be circumstances where a community is concerned about the legal ownership of data, and in turn how the researcher disseminates the results within that legal/ownership framework. I think that this principle should spur researchers to discuss these issues at the outset. Should a conflict arise whereby participants feel that the sharing of results with stakeholders (ie: funders) may negatively impact them, the researcher should weigh these considerations carefully. Hopefully, if the researcher has discussed the potential outcomes of the research prior to beginning the project, these types of conflicts will be easier to resolve. However, I think that this principle does give the researcher the ability to consider what to do should there be a case for limited or no dissemination. That being said, I tend to agree with Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban’s statement that dissemination should be the default (given my previously stated concerns about researchers using this principle to obscure sloppy work).

  7. Your style is really unique compared to other people I have read stuff from.
    Many thanks for posting when you’ve got the opportunity, Guess I’ll just bookmark this web site.

  8. I wahted to thank you for this fantastic read!! I definitely loved every little bit of
    it. Ihave you book-marked to check out new things you post…

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