Crossing the line with ‘intimate truths’: Can we do ethical research on sensitive topics?

By Scott Maher

Researchers are often asked to investigate sensitive topics — things that are very private, personal, embarrassing, or even incriminating to research participants. This is an ethical minefield.

I’d like to share a story about something that happened at UX Australia’s Design Research 2017 conference this afternoon, as a way in to talking about the ethical challenges of doing research on sensitive topics. (Side note: the conference was fantastic. You missed out if you weren’t there, but you can catch up when they post audio and slide decks of all the presentations soon!)

A funny (and not “ha-ha”) thing happened at the conference

In the second last talk of the day, Mary Landrak* from ThinkPlace presented some examples and reflections from research in and outside of Australia. One of the questions she raised was about methods and truth, captured here in a tweet:

To demonstrate this challenge, Mary then showed us two slides. The first contained the title “Ice (un)breaker.” And she gave us instructions for the activity: stand up, find someone next to you, ideally a stranger, and then, follow the instructions on the next slide. The instructions were:

Discuss with the stranger next to you:

When was the last time you engaged in risky sexual behaviour.

Here’s how that went for me.

When we were asked to stand, one of a group of three young women sitting in the row in front of me volunteered to be my icebreaker partner. Very kind. The only other person in my row was four or five seats away.

When the icebreaker prompt was shown on screen, a lot of chatter broke out in the room. We looked at each other and both began to blush.

Me: Well, this is awkward…

Her: [silence, looks at the screen, then at me, then at the screen]

Me (and this is my first big mistake): Uh, [nervous laughter] you go first.

Her: [silence, looks toward the other women in her row, looks at feet, looks back at me]

Me: No, you don’t have to…

Her: Well, last…[quickly tells me an answer to the prompt, then looks away, then looks back at me with what appears to be a fair bit of anxiety on her face]

Me: Oh, wow… uh, um [thinks ‘oh crap, what do I do now?!?’]. Oh, time’s up. [nervous laughter, sits down, feels shame for several minutes]

It was a visceral experience of just how uncomfortable it can be to talk about something very intimate with a stranger.

The prompt is loaded with layers of meaning: it asks participants to not just discuss a sexual experience, but specifically to talk about “risky sexual behaviour.” That’s even more loaded with moral baggage. Framing sexual behaviour as “risky” already positions it as morally wrong and irresponsible. And risky sexual behaviour may or may not be consensual: being a victim of sexual assault could easily be construed as “engaging in risky sexual behaviour.” In terms of ‘intimate truths,’ this is heavy stuff.

Let me pause here to do what I should have done in the moment:

I apologize to the anonymous stranger who volunteered to join me in an icebreaker activity and who may feel embarrassed, intimidated, or worse as a result of the interaction. I wish I had been more aware in the moment of just how bad it was for me to say: “you go first.” I regretted it almost instantly, and am sorry.

In our society, an older male telling (not asking) a younger female stranger to “go first” in divulging private, intimate information is not cool. I don’t think I need to explain here how it reflects male privilege and patriarchy.

The ethics of the ice (un)breaker

I can see both sides of an argument about whether this activity was appropriate for a conference.**

On one hand, I appreciate the chance to experience first-hand the discomfort and stress that research participants might feel. I’m a big fan of experiential learning, and given that researchers are often more privileged in general than participants (and as I’ll discuss below are almost always so in the context of research), intellectually discussing the discomfort a participant might feel is not likely to be as effective. I hope all of those present will remember this experience and use it to have more empathy for the research participants we depend on for our livelihoods.

On the other hand, we were given no advance warning that we might face a difficult situation during the talk. None of us could have consented to the activity, because none of us had any prior information it was coming, and the context and manner in which it was presented gave little opportunity to opt-out.

Further, what active teaching might have accompanied this moment was lost in the din of a crowd of researchers chattering awkwardly (and for some, with mild outrage). This could have been executed much better than it was — and even with prior information and a reminder that we could opt-out, it may have been an effective active learning experience.

I do appreciate that this experience gives me an opportunity to reflect on the ethical challenges raised in researching sensitive issues, and to write something that may be useful to other researchers.

Making this meaningful

Taking today’s experience and applying it to research on sensitive topics in general, I think there are three key things to cover: informed consent, privilege and power, and the risk of harm to participants.

Informed consent

As far as I’m aware at the moment, it’s virtually universal that research involving humans requires participants to give informed consent before the research begins. People must never be compelled to participate in research activities (so, research with prisoners and other marginalised people is particularly high risk in ethical terms).

They must have sufficient capacity and information to freely agree to participate in the research (so research with children requires more careful scrutiny, and deception about the purpose, process, or topic should be avoided unless it is absolutely necessary and the benefits outweigh the risks).

Researchers must also always recognise and respect the right of research participants to not answer a question, to not participate in part of the research, or to end the interaction altogether. No means no, and stop means stop. And we must not penalise participants for exercising this right.

Privilege and power

As researchers in businesses, governments, non-profits, or academic institutions, we often feel less-than-powerful. We’re typically small (underfunded, underappreciated) fish in a big pond.

In interactions with research participants, things are different. Where participants are promised incentives, we may appear to hold the power over whether they receive the incentive — thus making people feel compelled to continue through discomfort or distress, even if we don’t intend it.

As representatives of corporations, governments, universities, or other institutions, we may also carry the air of authority and power by association. In those instances, we are the institution, and the participant is often much smaller and less powerful — they are patients, customers, citizens, employees; Davids to our (implied) Goliath.

We must always remember — as I obviously forgot in today’s icebreaker — the role of gender, age, race, status, education, position, ethnicity, etc, etc, in shaping the relationships, even (especially?) fleeting ones between researcher and participant. Are there social and/or cultural forces in play that disempower participants and empower researchers when it comes to the information produced in our interactions? Yes, always! And be careful you don’t exploit those.

We must remember that as researchers, we are not extracting confessions like the CIA or the Spanish Inquisition. We must behave in ways that realise the inherent human dignity of research participants. We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard in the context of research than we do even in our day to day lives.

Do no harm

The Do No Harm principle is huge and complex in itself. It’s the first of the seven Principles of Professional Responsibility of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) for good reason. It’s also an area of significant ambiguity, which allows for debate and should guide deep consideration for any human research project. I would argue it should also be a guiding principle of business and innovation, but that’s a bit out of scope for today.

For the AAA, researchers must carefully consider what harm might come of a project before starting any research, and they must continually assess whether the risk of harm changes during the course of a project. They also recommend that “anthropologists should not only avoid causing direct and immediate harm but also should weigh carefully the potential consequences and inadvertent impacts of their work.” This holds whether the research is a purely academic endeavour, or intended to bring about some sort of positive change in the world. Unintended consequences can be just as — if not more — harmful as intended outcomes.

Harm can be understood and measured in many different ways — physical harm like inflicting temporary pain or doing longer term physical damage are the easy ones. Much more difficult are cases where social, emotional, or psychological harm may be involved. Are you discussing things that a participant would be embarrassed if other people found out about them? Then you need to be extra careful with confidentiality, at the very least. Are you asking people to tell you about traumatic experiences from the recent or more distant past? Red flags here!

Even when research is intended to support outcomes that improve participants’ and other people’s well-being, researchers and our sponsors/clients must weigh the potential benefits of a research project against the risk of harm to participants. Academic research ethics boards often do this very conservatively, and in that setting research is most likely intended to produce social good. In business settings, we should be weighing the risk of potential harm to research participants and customers (heavily) against the potential benefits to society and the business.

So what do we do about ‘intimate truths’?

Getting back to the methodological and ethical question at hand — we know that there are many reasons to conduct research about topics or experiences that might be sensitive, uncomfortable, or inherently risky to discuss. So how do we go about it, ethically?

Can we get intimate truths in an exploratory interview? Maybe. Can we do it without imposing our privilege and exploiting participants, however subtle that may be? Hmmm.

We must respect the dignity of participants, and their right to informed consent and to withdraw from research at any time. We must also be prepared to mitigate harm done by the research we undertake — and not just in terms of liability to ourselves, our clients, or our institutions.

Where researchers need to uncover intimate truths about people’s behaviours, attitudes, and experiences, we must be prepared to invest time and energy in developing trust. Trust is what makes it possible for people to share accurate information with us about their intimate lives, their secrets, their insecurities. Trust — not power — helps us get at truth.

To develop trust, we almost always need to develop relationships and engage in reciprocity, with patience, sensitivity, humility, and most of all respect for the people whose lives we enter.

Fortunately, several of the talks at today’s conference highlighted these points. It’s a good start.


*When I first published this essay, I also wrote to Mary directly to thank her for her presentation and tell her about my mixed feelings with the activity she used. I also wanted to send her a link so she could read what I had written.

Mary’s reply was thoughtful and professional, and she both clarified her intention and owned her misjudgement of the audience’s response. She acknowledged that the exercise had gone very differently for some of us than she had expected when planning it, and that she regrets the offence it caused.

She also explained that her intention was to highlight the complex challenges we face as researchers when we need to elicit and explore deeply personal experiences and behaviours. This activity was meant to be an engaging moment for the audience at the conference and a means to open up discussion.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can all say that this situation could have been constructed differently to achieve those goals.

**UX Australia, in their event wrap-up email, apologised to attendees for any discomfort caused by the activity. They noted in the email that they have processes in place to prevent this sort of thing, including asking “all speakers to discuss with us anything that might be sensitive or cause discomfort for attendees.”

They also wrote that “We have spoken to the speaker about it and she is not welcome to speak at one of our events again.”

This post originally appeared on

More Still To Do: Combatting Sexual Harassment in Academia

By Julie Lesnik and Aaron Sams


Julie Lesnik is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Wayne State University. Aaron Sams is a Research Scientist at Embark Veterinary, Inc., a start-up focused on providing genetic health insights to dog owners, veterinarians, and breeders. The views presented here were written solely by the authors and have not been reviewed or approved by their employers.


Sexual harassment in academia is a serious issue and anthropologists have played a critical role in highlighting the scale of this problem. For example, in 2014, a survey of academic field experiences (SAFE) conducted by biological anthropologists gauged “gendered experiences, sexual harassment, and sexual assault” in scientific fieldwork. The authors found that harassment and assault were commonly experienced by respondents during trainee career stage. These incidences occurred most frequently to women targeted by senior scholars on their research teams. Since the SAFE study, several employees (including students and postdocs) made accusations of sexual harassment/misconduct against high-profile scholars in several fields. Examples of high-profile cases include UCLA faculty and students protesting the return of an accused sexual harasser to campus, the quandary of when the accused is a professor of ethics, and a case where a professor under investigation at one school leaves and takes a different job across the country. The SAFE study also brought heightened awareness of these power dynamics to the field of Biological Anthropology. For example, at the 2015 annual meetings of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA), reports of sexual harassment occurring at the conference site were exposed via social media. The increased attention to these problems prompted the AAPA to write an open letter on sexual harassment, include a registration Statement of Ethical Conduct during the 2016 annual meetings, and update their Code of Ethics to specifically speak to sexual harassment.
Despite these recent efforts the field of Biological Anthropology has not been immune to scandal. Early in 2016, Michael Balter exposed “the sexual misconduct case that has rocked anthropology,” in an expose in the journal Science. This article detailed the charge made by an American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) research assistant that her boss, noted paleoanthropologist and the museum’s curator of human origins, Brian Richmond, had sexually assaulted her in his hotel room during an academic conference in Italy. To our knowledge, this case is still being investigated, and Balter, as a free-lance writer, is still committed to following the story.


Similar ethics statements, like that issued by the AAPA, have recently been crafted by other academic disciplines. For example, the recent meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) included a Statement of Ethical Conduct in the front matter of their conference program. Yet, cases of harassment were still reported, leading to the question – is a statement enough? As the AAA meetings approach, it is important for us to learn from these incidents. Like field research, academic meetings provide the perfect storm of sociality, alcohol, power differences, and distance from academic departments that can lead to sexual harassment and coercion. We would be remiss to think that our meetings are an exception. Sociologist Eric Anthony Grollman strongly urges for the bystander intervention approach. The AAPA statement on sexual harassment specifically mentions bystander awareness, but how do we make it second nature to all of us while in these settings?


We think that we need to keep doing what we are doing, but do more of it. As we worked on this piece, it was difficult for us to keep track of all of the relevant blog posts on the topic. That is a good sign, a very good sign. Scholars in privileged positions, which include the security of tenure but also fitting into any of the following categories: straight, white, cis, male, should especially consider speaking out as advocates and allies. This piece and this piece are particularly salient examples. But we also think that in addition to writing, we must do more. We must speak up. Although it is difficult to stand up to someone as the bystander, especially when these power dynamics are in play, we can speak up in other ways. We can all make a commitment to have these conversations with our peers and to point it out to someone we know when they might be exhibiting problematic behavior. We need to be good role models for the next generation, through our behavior and more. We can include Title IX statements in our syllabi, have conversations with our grad students about how they are to treat undergraduates and assistants, and let them know that we are there to help in case they find themselves the victim of harassment. Lastly, don’t be silent if something happens to you. The AAA does not adjudicate assertions of unethical behavior, but we do have a Committee on Ethics who are there to provide advice to AAA members facing ethical dilemmas. If you find yourself in a position where you need advice, contact the committee here. No issue is too big or too small.


It’s Time for a Stronger Commitment with Our International Colleagues

Leila Rodriguez Associate Professor of Anthropology

University of Cincinnati

The American Anthropological Association lists knowledge dissemination as one of its guiding ethical principles. In particular, it discourages withholding findings from research participants. But anthropologists who conduct fieldwork internationally have three additional and related ethical obligations: to participate in the academic conferences of the countries and regions in which they conduct research, to publish their findings in the academic journals of those countries and regions, and to cite the scholarship of local anthropologists. Failure to do so results in the continued colonization of knowledge and imposition of Western theory and epistemology as the true representation of social reality.

Why do so many U.S. anthropologists fail to fulfill these responsibilities? Diminishing funds in U.S. universities force academics to choose in which conferences to participate, and those closer to home may be more affordable. While funding is a legitimate concern, it is not an excuse for not publishing in local journals or knowing and citing local scholars. There is growing recognition about the importance of this kind of international academic engagement. The Wenner-Gren Foundation, for example, offers an Engaged Anthropology Grant for its grantees to return to their research site and share results with the community in which the research was conducted or the academic community in the country or region of research.

Increasingly strict tenure requirements often value U.S. conferences and journals more highly. The decreasing availability of tenured positions further pressures academics to focus their energy only on activities that will be most valued in tenure evaluations. Still, academic propriety is not reason enough to disregard ethical responsibilities. Most top universities list internationalization as an important value and departments have leeway in determining their tenure requirements: we can make a case for valuing the kind of international academic engagement I propose. More importantly, an occasional international presentation or publication, and the citation of international scholars in U.S.-based publications will not make excessive demands on the time nor diminish the rest of the scholarly output of researchers.

Some anthropologists may simply be unaware of the academic community in the countries in which they work. While problematic in itself, this is perhaps the most easily resolved. The World Council of Anthropological Associations lists almost 50 national and regional anthropological associations. Many others are missing from the list, and can be found using a quick Google search: Anthropology Southern Africa, Central American Anthropology Network, Latin American Biological Anthropology Association, to name a few. Technology further enables us to locate the existence of international anthropology journals. For example, Redalyc and Latindex provide a directory and catalog of most academic journals in Latin America, the Caribbean, Spain and Portugal.

Many anthropologists contribute to local communities and share their work with research subjects in other ways. Those efforts are absolutely necessary. Recently, a Chilean colleague lamented that local anthropologists’ access to some Mapuche communities has

been hindered by negative views of the discipline, a fact they attribute in large part to primarily U.S. and European graduate students not sharing their findings and publications with their Mapuche research participants. While sharing information with research subjects is crucial, it is not enough. The three tasks that I propose are aimed at something else that directly involves academic communities: they are necessary steps in the decolonization of knowledge.

My call to decolonize knowledge is by no means new. Anthropologists have been calling for it for several decades, and the publications on the topic are numerous and impossible to summarize here. Twenty years ago Mexican anthropologist Esteban Krotz (1997) remarked that “[i]t is ironic that the establishment within the North Atlantic civilization of an ever more prosperous and successful scientific discipline, dedicated particularly to cultural diversity, has come hand in hand with a strong and sustained tendency of the same civilization to silence that diversity.” The predominance of English language in academia contributes to that silencing, but it is not the sole culprit. To quote Harrison (2012) “there is a problematic tendency for southern anthropologists to be treated as high-level informants or over-qualified fieldwork assistants […] at best local anthropologists are relegated to the role of minor-stream scholars, rather than being regarded as significant sources of theoretically-nuanced mainstream knowledge.” This sentiment was echoed by a Central American colleague who complained that in some instances local archaeologists, who collected the assemblages or published reports with raw data that are analyzed by U.S. archaeologists, are at best cited in the bibliography with no real consideration of their contributions and perspectives. Countries like Costa Rica and Guatemala have enacted laws that require foreign archaeologists to collaborate with, hire or otherwise involve local scholars in their work. Cultural anthropologists are not subjected to the same requirements.

It is unlikely that any U.S. anthropologist today will admit to placing little value on international colleagues and their theory making. Elsewhere, anthropologists have called for the revision of anthropological curricula to include more diverse and so-called peripheral scholarship (see further readings list below). Moving forward on this issue, however, requires more steps, and I propose this one: include in the AAA’s Principles of Professional Responsibility the commitment to share knowledge with –and incorporate the knowledge of – local anthropologists by the three means I outlined above: participate in the academic conferences of the countries and regions in which they conduct research, publish findings in the academic journals of those countries and regions, and cite the scholarship of anthropologists from those countries and regions. Addressing these responsibilities in the ethics statement advances the narrative about decolonizing anthropological knowledge as an issue of ethics, or a “reexamination of one’s own taken for granted moral stances, respect and consideration for other cultural traditions of morality, and reflection on how to resolve the juxtaposition of sometimes disparate moral discourses” (Black 2016). Engagement with international scholars IS an ethical issue. As a scholarly community and as a professional association, we have the choice to continue to suppress local scholarship, or to learn it, spread it, critique it, and value it as much as U.S. scholarship.

References Cited:

Black, Steven P. 2016. Ethics, Anthropology and Adjudication. Available at:

Harrison, Faye V. 2012. Dismantling Anthropology’s Domestic and International Peripheries. World Anthropologies Network 6:87-110

Krotz, Esteban. 1997. Anthropologies of the South. Their Rise, Their Silencing, Their Characteristics. Critique of Anthropology 17(3)237-251

Further Reading:

Appadurai, Arjun. 1986. Theory in Anthropology: Center and Periphery. Comparative Studies in Society and History 28(2)356-361

Comaroff, Jean and John L. Comaroff. 2012. Theory from the South or, How Euro-America is Evolving toward Africa. London: Paradigm Publishers

Connell, Raewyn. 2007. Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. Cambridge:Polity

Dominguez, Virginia. 1994. A Taste for the “Other”: Intellectual Complicity in Racialized Practices. Current Anthropology 35(4)333-348

Harrison, Faye (Ed.) 2010. Decolonizing Anthropology: Moving Further toward an Anthropology for Liberation. 3rd edition. Arlington: American Anthropological Association

Mignolo, Walter. 2007. Introduction. Cultural Studies, 21(2-3)155-167

Mignolo, Walter. 2011. The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Durham: Duke UP.

Ntarangwi, Mwenda, David Mills and Mustafa Babiker (Eds). 2006. African Anthropologies: History, Critique and Practice. Dakar:CODESRIA-Zed Books

Ortiz, Renato. 2006. Social Sciences and the English Language. Revista Brasileira de Ciências Sociais 2(SE)0-0

Quijano, Aníbal. 2000. Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America. Nepantla: Views from South 1(3)533-580

Ribeiro, Gustavo Lins and Arturo Escobar (Eds). 2006. World Anthropologies: Disciplinary Transformations within Systems of Power. Oxford:Berg

Said, Edward. 1981. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 2012. Decolonizing Methodologies. 2nd edition. London: Zed Books

Wolf, Eric. 1999. Anthropology among the Powers. Social anthropology 7(2)121-134

Joining Someone Else’s Research Project? Check Their Ethics Protocol!

Posted confidentially on the author’s behalf by the ethics blog editors

This post is a reflection on the role that IRBs and other institutional gatekeepers can play in protecting informants and researchers from unethical actions committed in the course of large research projects. It tells the (highly condensed) true story of a team project focused on helping refugees resettled in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, a project with such progressive, socially ambitious goals attracted researchers from several subfields of anthropology, including a couple of graduate students from the department where the project was hosted. A recently arrived refugee worked as a research assistant on the project to liaison with the refugee population.

As an anthropologist hired in as a postdoc to work on the project, I began to feel that some things were “off” when I observed that the refugee who worked for the project was never invited to the team meetings or given a key to the office. After getting to know the person working in this role, I learned that s/he was being paid hourly, barely above minimum wage, and had no health insurance or benefits of any kind. Soon, the uncomfortable feeling of finding myself working for a project that was “all talk and no show” turned into something much worse when researchers on the team were asked by the project director to do things that we felt were serious violations of anthropological ethics. Highly sensitive personal data were being collected, handled, and stored in the most careless way. Informed consent was barely an afterthought. During the months I worked for the project, I witnessed how disrespectfully the project director treated the one refugee employed on the project. In the employee’s own words, s/he felt better and freer at the refugee camp than working for this project! I also noticed that the observations we had made were manipulated at community events and professional meetings. The project director once admitted knowing that the project was “way out of compliance”. But all that seemed to matter to the director was that we appeared to be making progress so the grant could be renewed.

While I worried about the unprofessional and unethical ways in which we were being pushed to conduct research, I also feared being fired. Like others working on the project, my contract was “at will,” and everyone who expressed the slightest difference of opinion to the project director was threatened with being let go. To complicate things even further, the project was being conducted at the same institution where the project director had received their PhD, which made me, as a relative newcomer, wonder if such practices were supported (if not fostered) by that department. Hence I had to ask myself: who can I report to in this institution that will not automatically disregard my testimony?

My first instinct was to take these matters directly to the project’s advisory board. I was extremely lucky to get guidance from my mentors at my alma mater, whom I asked for help. They advised me not to go to the advisory board, as they may have had conflicting interests (for example, the project director’s dissertation advisor was a member of that board). So I contacted the university’s office of research compliance and IRB instead. Upon reviewing the documentation presented, the compliance director and the IRB immediately opened an investigation on the project. After interviewing several team members, the IRB decided to shut down the project until further notice. In addition to the problematic way in which the research was being carried out, I learned that no researchers (other than the project director) were even mentioned in the IRB protocol; hence none of us were technically authorized to be doing this research in the first place. In retrospect, I am shocked at how naive I was, not asking to see copies of the IRB protocol before starting to work on the project. A few months later our contracts were up. Needless to say, the grant was not renewed.

In this situation, the refugees we were working with were vulnerable, but so were the researchers, who found themselves with their backs against the wall: doing research the project director’s way, or “the highway.” What I would like to underscore is that it was the IRB and the university’s research compliance office, not the anthropology department, who were the ones to tell the project director that research could not be conducted in that way. By suspending the project and seizing all the data collected by the team, the IRB not only effectively protected participants’ rights, it also protected the researchers from being pushed to engage in unethical practices. Ironically, it also protected us from having to publish the data that we had collected. As bad as it is for a postdoc not having any publications to show for a year’s work—especially while on the job market—it is better than publishing something that would later have to be retracted.

We sometimes think of anthropologists as sympathetic saints who know more than their IRBs about “research with human subjects” and who would not, by the very nature of their professional commitments, violate the rights of participants in their research. But the fact is that such violations have happened in the past and continue to happen today. It is good and necessary, if at times tedious, to have to show someone that our work complies with federal regulations and the ethical guidelines those regulations aim to implement. Finally, a word of caution to anthropologists moving into postdoctoral positions: never embark on a project without first checking with the project director about their approach to research ethics. Ask to see the ethics protocol. It may be an awkward thing to ask at the time, but it is better than finding out later that you are implicated in an unethical project that renders all your professional efforts totally worthless.

Multispecies Ethics

Multispecies Ethics

Kate McClellan, Mississippi State University

Animals, plants, and other non-human actors have increasingly become subjects of anthropological inquiry as multispecies ethnography, posthumanist theory, and animal studies have gained disciplinary ground. Much of this effort has produced important work that explores how the human condition – and, indeed, very notions of humanness – are produced through relationships with non-human species. As anthropologists engage more actively with non-humans in their fieldwork, ethical considerations of how to behave towards, interact with, and think about non-human actors inevitably emerge. What are the ethical responsibilities of anthropologists towards animals and other species they encounter during research? How should different cultural understandings of animal abuse and cruelty be weighed against calls for universal animal rights? Though animals are mentioned in the AAA statement on ethics, should anthropologists’ ethical codes expand more to encompass to the non-human realm and, if so, how?

During my own fieldwork on animal welfare and protection movements in Jordan, I myself often grappled with ethical questions about the animals I encountered on a daily basis – both in the streets of Amman and at the clinics and shelters of the animal welfare groups where I conducted fieldwork. The mostly transnational animal NGOs working in Jordan promoted practices, attitudes, and behaviors towards animals that sometimes clashed with understandings of animal ethics held by many Jordanians. For instance, though stray animal problems abound throughout the country and animal welfare groups strongly promote sterilization or trap-neuter-release programs as responsible actions, many Jordanians disagree with the ethical arguments for such practices. Some saw spaying or neutering stray cats and dogs as a sacrilegious practice that altered animals that God had made in perfect form; others argued that it denied the basic right of all creatures to experience parenthood. For many Jordanians, it was unethical for humans to make decisions about animals’ rights to reproduce freely, even if such a stance meant more stray animals on the street. Euthanasia is viewed similarly. When I came across a dying kitten on a residential street in Amman, a man who lived nearby discouraged me from calling a veterinarian to euthanize the animal, arguing that it was unethical for humans to interfere with the natural death of an animal and noting that only God was able to make those decisions. When my response (and my feeling of responsibility) was to put the kitten ‘to sleep,’ his was to let it die in its own time as the appropriate ethical decision. To be clear, these beliefs are not more or less ethical than one another; rather, they signify the cultural contingency of moral and ethical codes anthropologists are bound to encounter in their work. Whether or not there should exist a universal code of animal rights (or human rights) is, I think, a different question.

Ethical responses and reactions to care and suffering – be it human or animal – are of course variable and, as global human and animal aid movements grow, are inevitably political. But as multispecies ethnography and similar anthropological inquiries continue to provoke important questions about human-animal relationships, discussions about the roles anthropologists take in their encounters with non-human species – and not just animals – are particularly salient. Several anthropologists have begun to address these issues, and it is an area that will continue to benefit from greater anthropological discussion on a larger disciplinary level. As we become increasingly aware of the ways in which our relationships, encounters, and engagements with other species shape our own lives, we need also to attend to how we as anthropologists respond to those encounters, and how we allow space for different cultural interpretations of multispecies ethics.

Medical Volunteering Abroad

* Note: This is the first of a new type of ethics blog post—a short description of an ethics issue related to anthropology that is appearing in the news and other online media, accompanied by links to original source material. Students and scholars interested in submitting a piece should send their work to the Chair of the Committee on Ethics, Steven Black ([email protected])

Medical Volunteering Abroad
Gabriela Alvarado, MD, MPH
Georgia State University

Many people assume that poor countries with little access to health care and lack of health care providers benefit from international volunteers. However, this may not be the case. In the United States you cannot perform any type of health care related act if you are not a licensed professional. It is deemed unethical. So why is it appropriate for unlicensed people to provide these services in other countries? In addition to untrained people administrating medications, providing sutures, and even performing pelvic examinations there are another set of ethical issues that should also be examined. Developing countries have limited staff as it is, and sending in armies of unqualified volunteers means that the staff has to divert time away from actually caring for patients and tend to the international volunteers. Furthermore, medical student volunteers often want to learn procedures they might not be able to do in the United States, may will focus on experiences for personal benefit instead of what is actually needed in the community.

As a medical doctor, I volunteered in my home country (Costa Rica), in an area of the country called Talamanca. Talamanca is the region of the country where most of the indigenous communities are located; these communities tend to have very poor infrastructure and limited access to healthcare. As a medical intern I spent two weeks volunteering in Talamanca, and quite honestly, I never stopped to consider the ethical implications of me being there. The local doctor had to make time to accommodate three interns, show us around, and figure out things to keep us ‘entertained.’ Now, as a graduate student with an interest in medical anthropology, I wonder: was it really necessary for us to be there? Who gained the most from the whole exchange?

While these issues have been overlooked in the past in public discourses, they are now starting to be considered and there is a call to reexamine the role of volunteers abroad and how to really benefit local communities:

Where We Draw the Lines: Weighing Commitments to Community and Heritage

Steve Kosiba
University of Alabama


The AAA Statement of Ethics asks anthropologists to “do no harm,” an injunction that is deceptively simple. After all, anthropologists can rarely foresee or influence the potential consequences and unintentional impacts of their research. The AAA’s injunction therefore introduces thorny issues pertaining to the long-term effects of data—the maps, village boundaries, and ethnographic interpretations—that emerge from anthropological research. We could ask: Who defines harm, both immediate and potential? And perhaps more importantly, how might we recognize the ways our data and our work can cause harm to the collaborators or communities with whom we work?


Such questions often trouble archaeologists, who typically must weigh competing obligations to living communities, cultural heritage institutions, and academia (see AAA Ethics Principle 3; Bria and Cruzado 2015; Silverman 2011). When conducting fieldwork, archaeologists frequently find themselves in tense conversations, informing farmers that their fields contain important ruins. In countries such as Peru or Mexico, this information is not just terminological. It implies a shift in value that can cause harm. By recording cultural remains on field forms, archaeologists draw “sites” on lands of semi-autonomous collectives (comunidades campesinas in Peru or ejidos in Mexico), then submit these maps to national institutions, such as a Ministry of Culture. In doing so, archaeologists convert the land and its attributes to cartographic representations, whereby places become coordinates and distributions of pottery sherds become polygons. Federal institutions use these representations to reclassify select sites as national cultural patrimony, a designation that converts landholdings into a general register of value (“heritage”), but divests communities of land (see also McCoy 2011).



Image 1: The ruins of Huanacauri before our 2014 excavations, Cusco in the background. 

This conversion from community landholding to national heritage, and its implications, became clear to me during my 2014 archaeological and ethnographic fieldwork at Huanacauri, an important Inca temple atop a peak that towers above the former Inca imperial capital of Cusco, Peru. Huanacauri is both a sacred mountain and a small temple complex (one-hectare), both of which have long been essential to Inca and Andean religious beliefs. According to legend, one of the first Incas became a god at Huanacauri. The Incas built a temple on the mountain’s summit where, in ceremonies held during the height of Inca rule, young boys became elites and emperors affirmed their sovereignty. Today, both farmers from Cusco and travelers seeking “mystical” experiences leave offerings for the mountain in hopes of gaining its favor and drawing on its power. Our archaeological and ethnographic research sought to uncover evidence of Inca ritual practices at Huanacauri. We collaborated with both the Peruvian Ministry of Culture (MC) and Kircas, a village of indigenous farmers (campesinos) who live below the peak.



Image 2: Huanacauri, a temple and mountain that embodied Inca imperial power, now Peruvian national cultural patrimony.

All of these parties—our research team, the MC, and the people of Kircas—were interested in protecting the ruins at Huanacauri. But the MC and Kircas simply could not agree on what the site was. The Peruvian government has established that the site lies within Kircas community land and the District of San Sebastián, Cusco. Kircas community members have protected the site from looters, and defined their community boundary by creating stacks of stones (mojones) above the ruins. But in 2007, the MC proposed a national patrimony site boundary within the community’s land, and suggested that the campesinos could not build, dig, or plant within the boundary. To draw the boundary, the MC registered archaeological features with GPS units, and marked a 2.11 square kilometer polygon around the 1ha of temple ruins (this boundary is still the subject of negotiation, hence I do not provide a map because such data might be implicated in a legal dispute). Importantly, the MC referred to anthropological research, which suggests that the Inca temple of Huanacauri was an extensive “sacred landscape” comprising the temple and environmental features such as springs, ravines, or boulders. The people of Kircas questioned how the MC could draw such an expansive boundary, divesting them of community lands to protect terrain without visible ruins. What is more, they stated that protecting the ruins did not preclude their use of adjacent land, which they and their forbears had long modified by digging small water reservoirs with retention walls. This kind of disagreement is not uncommon in Peru. Indeed, a similar negotiation occurred during the process of delimiting the Inca monumental site of Sacsayhuaman, above Cusco.



Image 3: Oblique aerial photograph showing the peak and ruins of Huanacauri and the village of Kircas. The proposed site delimitation would include much of the land between the peak and the village, as well as adjoining lands. The city of Cusco is visible in the upper right hand corner.


When we initiated the project at Huanacauri, our research team thought that we should maintain neutrality regarding the site boundary in order to maintain ideal collaborative relationships with both parties. Then, the president of Kircas approached me about the issue. He wanted a map. More precisely, he wanted to know how to read and explain a map. I realized that, though we archaeologists often seek neutrality in such situations, our actions and their consequences not only favor one side in these disagreements, but also reproduce power asymmetries between federal institutions and farming communities. This is because our data are largely restricted to academic and institutional spaces and audiences. Moreover, these data are rarely translatable to the people with whom we work. Without access to such data and the knowledge to read them, the people of Kircas had no means to argue against the MC’s definition of a “sacred landscape.” They could not voice their disagreement in the same language as the MC—a cartographic language of contours, coordinates, and quadrants. In conversations with the community, our team realized that our work had to not only map, and share maps, but also teach the process of mapping.

As other blog posts here have suggested, it is often difficult for archaeologists to draw a line that neatly separates community and federal claims to cultural heritage, largely because these definitions pivot on different understandings of “harm.” Here, I shifted focus from the issue of defining harm to the problem of drawing lines—the very literal consequences of drawing lines (as well as coordinates and polygons) on maps. In producing maps, we create data that will outlast current federal regulations and community interests. These data might support claims to land, and do harm, in ways that we cannot currently imagine. We may not be able to prevent this potential harm. But our work requires responsible data dissemination (see AAA Ethics Principle 5), which means that we should seek to share, translate, and teach the process by which we construct knowledge. By doing this, we can help to position a range of actors—local communities, federal institutions, archaeologists—on the same playing field.

Bria, R.E. and E.K. Cruzado Carranza. 2015. Co-creative approaches to heritage preservation and community development at Hualcayán, Ancash, Peru. Advances in Archaeological Practice 3(3): 208-222.

McCoy, E. 2011. Disputed worlds: Performances of heritage in Cusco’s tourism economy. Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities 3(3): 419-425.

Silverman, H. 2011. Contested cultural heritage: A selective historiography. In Contested Cultural Heritage, H. Silverman (ed.), pp. 1-49. New York: Springer.


Problematic Ventures in Interdisciplinary Field Projects

Joseph Brooks

University of California, Santa Barbara


I am a PhD student in Linguistics. Early on in my program, I volunteered to assist at a workshop held at a university in Papua New Guinea that was supposed to teach the local participants how to document their own languages. There I witnessed what I considered to be at best misguided and at worst unethical behavior on the part of the foreign organizers of the workshop vis-à-vis the Papua New Guinean attendees, most of whom were poor villagers. There were many problems with the way in which the workshop was managed. It was conducted in English rather than the language all the participants spoke, Tok Pisin. Instead of making audio recordings, the standard practice in language documentation, participants were directed to produce written texts. This is because the organizers sought to amass a corpus of texts in the participants’ languages that would be useful for machine translation research, and it was claimed this would help document the participants’ languages by automatizing parts of the documentation process. Those who did not speak English were at a disadvantage, and those who were illiterate could hardly participate at all. The participants spent two weeks unwittingly producing data for the organizers’ research in computational linguistics, with no real benefit to themselves. In my conversations with participants as well as faculty at the university, there was a great deal of discontent with the workshop for these and other reasons.

When an article extolling the success of the workshop appeared in the Journal of Language Documentation and Conservation a year later, I was appalled. There was a great chasm between what I had witnessed and how the article represented the workshop. The article described it as an outstanding success that contributed to language preservation and was a real hit with the participants. To my mind, this was dishonest and unethical.

I struggled to decide whether and how to respond. The prospect of a conflict with a senior researcher worried me; nor did I want to earn a reputation for being a troublemaker. I also felt uncomfortable speaking for others. However, I did have a strong sense of how negatively the participants I had interacted with experienced the workshop, and some had even expressed their discontent to me directly. It was my correspondence with a faculty member at the Papua New Guinean university that finally convinced me that I should speak up. When I expressed my moral concerns about speaking on behalf of the villagers I was told that not only was I in the perfect position to do so, but I was in fact the only one who possibly could. The local Papua New Guinean faculty had given up and ceased attending after the first few days of the workshop, whereas I had been there the whole time and was informed enough to comment. The power difference between universities in PNG and those in the United States and Australia surely also played a role. Local faculty were not well positioned to criticize outside researchers who were bringing prestige and funding to their university.

It seemed there were two main avenues I could pursue. One would be to lodge a complaint of ethical misconduct with the sponsors of the research, the funders and/or the PI’s own university. The other would be to submit a response piece to the journal where the article had been published. I sought advice from my friends and family. I consulted with representatives of multiple IRBs. I even met with someone in my town who has a degree in ethics to get another perspective. I discussed the issue with my adviser and with another professor in my department. There was no unanimous support for any course of action. Some strongly supported my intention to respond in some way, while others urged extreme caution lest I irreparably damage my nascent career.

I finally decided to submit a response to the journal. The response genre is one that is established and respected in academia. Whereas an ethics misconduct claim would be behind the scenes and might in the end have no effect, a published response would bring the story to the awareness of the readership of the journal. Submitting a manuscript to review would mean that, if published, my perspective had been vetted by a panel of respected scholars in my field. And submitting a response would require me to forge my concerns into something that was at once scholarly and productive. My response could help positively shape future research, and might even raise the ethical bar for linguists working with marginalized communities. However, I would have to focus my argument and leave out some details I felt were critical. I would have to remove anything that came too close to conjecture, anything I did not directly perceive, or anything that came too close to ad hominem criticism. I would not be able to tell the full story.

In the end, I submitted my response, and it was published. So far, I have received only positive feedback from colleagues. In retrospect, it seems obvious that I should have done exactly what I did, but there were many points along the way where I considered different paths or where I nearly chose inaction over action. I hope that in writing my response as well as this blog post that I have provided the beginnings of a roadmap for other young or unestablished scholars who find themselves in similar difficult positions and are afraid to speak up.

I would like to conclude with a few thoughts about the broader context in which the workshop occurred, and what I think it means for research ethics in interdisciplinary fieldwork. Within linguistics, the last few decades have seen an increased emphasis on the need to document and describe endangered languages because they have a great deal to teach us about things like the range of possible linguistic structures and what happens when languages come into contact. But one effect of this has been to bring endangered languages to the attention of linguists and others who work outside the area of traditional field-based language description, and who see a way to connect themselves to this “hot topic”. The workshop I assisted with in Papua New Guinea was born out of this trend: computational linguists wanted to see if their methods might be used to help speed up the task of documenting endangered languages. This is a reasonable question to want to ask, but in my assessment, the workshop it resulted in was ethically questionable because the organizers were taking an experiment-based approach to research and had little awareness of research as a social process. Those who have been trained in another discipline’s ethics run the risk of engaging in extractive if not exploitative practices when they bring those ethics to local, often marginal, communities. Funders and collaborators have a responsibility to help educate such researchers, so more response articles like mine will not need to be written.