Ethical Guidelines for Ethnographic Research from the AAA

This blog post is taken from Principles of Professional Responsibility by the American Anthropological Association (AAA). It covers a range of guidelines the association put together to address the particular issues related to anthropological study. The list of key guidelines is below.

 1. Do not harm

Among the most serious harms that anthropologists should seek to avoid are harm to dignity, and to bodily and material well-being, especially when research is conducted among vulnerable populations.”

The primary obligation for those undertaking research involving human subjects is to ‘do no harm’. Although your projects are not likely to cause harm to participants, it is important to think about the ways in which research could affect the people you are studying (part of the process of reflexivity). This process¬†relates¬†especially¬†to¬†participants’ rights to anonymity, informed consent and their right to withdraw.

2. Be open and honest regarding your work

You should make your status as a researcher clear to all those involved during the process. This can be difficult as participants float in and out of environments, and ideas and interests change as the project progresses. It may become difficult to negotiate how much of your research you can share without participants altering what they say because that’s what they think you want to hear! However, it is always the best course of action to be as open and honest as possible about your research – as a part of the reflexive process you will already be thinking¬†about how your status as a researcher has affected the data collected.

Participants’ data must not be fabricated, falsified, or plagiarised, except when they are altered to show pseudonyms for data protection purposes.

3. Obtain Informed Consent and Necessary Permissions

You must always obtain informed consent from any participants – preferably before they take part (it may happen after research has started but it is not at all advisable to leave asking for consent any longer than necessary). Consent should be on-going and negotiated, meaning that the participant is kept aware of any major project developments which affect their involvement in the study. Observation (e.g. the writing of field notes) in fully public spaces does not require consent.

You must outline the aims and scope of your research, and let the participant know if there are any risks associated with¬†taking part (there shouldn’t be many for the type of research¬†you will be conducting, but this is¬†a necessary and important step when writing your participant consent forms and information sheets).

4. Weigh Competing Ethical Obligations, Due Collaborators and Affected Parties

As a researcher, you have obligations towards your university (to submit your project!) and towards your research participants (to inform them of your research and to do no harm). Obligations to research participants are primary, and you may find for example that a participant wants to pull out of a project before you have submitted it (although this is very unlikely). In this case, it would be recommended that you speak with your supervisor about how to proceed.

5. Protect and Preserve your Records

You are responsible for keeping your data safe and confidential, and for informing your participants about where and for how long your data will be stored (this information forms part of the participant information sheet). This means storing hard copies in a secure place (somewhere only you have access to) and soft copies in a password protected folder or storage device.

6. Maintain Respectful and Ethical Professional Relationships

There is an ethical dimension to all professional relationships. Whether working in academic or applied settings, anthropologists have a responsibility to maintain respectful relationships with others. It is important to keep evaluating your own research methods and ethical practices, to address situations which seem unclear or difficult. Do remember that your supervisor is there to guide you throughout your research, and this includes ethical dilemmas. Please do get in contact with them if you have any doubts!

The full version of these guidelines, published by the AAA (American Anthropological Association) can be found on the AAA Ethics Blog. The blog also contains much more  general information about conducting anthropological research and the ethical dilemmas which arise as part of that.