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.

Laying the Foundations for Collaboration in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Laying the Foundations for Collaboration in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Gavin Davies

University of Kentucky

Although the goals of the collaborative archaeology paradigm are clearly something that we should all aspire to, I think it is important to note that for many early career archaeologists, particularly those beginning projects abroad, “true collaboration,” i.e. collaboration from a project’s inception, may simply not be possible. This is because archaeologists at early stages in their research will likely not yet have received the funding required to spend the time building the necessary partnerships. In such cases, should we simply ignore the heartbreaking destruction of cultural heritage in the area we have become so passionate about? My response to this question was “decidedly not”, and I argue here that with the aid of a community-insider, simply being open and honest (see statement 2), and putting community interests first, can go a long way towards allaying indigenous people’s fears and concerns about archaeologists and their practices.
In my research area, the Lake Atitlán Basin of highland Guatemala, I was acutely aware that several previous archaeological projects, had been prematurely terminated for incurring the suspicions and mistrust of the indigenous Tz’utujil Maya. Beginning with the ejection of the Carnegie Institution’s Samuel Lothrop from the site of Chuitinamit in the 1930s and extending up until the recent expulsion of the Samabaj crew by the leaders of Santiago Atitlán , the Tz’utujil have repeatedly declared their refusal to be overlooked in matters pertaining to their cultural heritage. Given this checkered history and the cautionary warnings of regional experts such as Barbara Arroyo, concerns about causing no harm (see statement 1) were at the forefront of my mind as I embarked on my investigations. Fears that I would not be able to identify, let alone appease, all of the relevant stakeholders, or that I would inadvertently anger one or more landowners, however, led me to expend considerable effort, in the months leading up to the project, soliciting public opinion via a project Facebook page and searching for a local advisor who could help me negotiate the complexities of the local politics and permissions processes.

My search for an appropriately qualified advisor eventually led me to contact a mathematics professor named Domingo who had lived in the area all his life and had recently self-funded the construction of a community center dedicated to the promotion of science, culture and the arts. Domingo quickly committed himself to the project, scheduling a meeting with the mayor of San Pedro Atitlan on my second day in town and arranging an opportunity to explain our mission in an interview on a popular local TV station. Domingo played a crucial role, helping us to arrange all of our official meetings and ensuring that we followed established local protocols. This extended to making sure that all of our important meetings were conducted on propitious days in the Mayan calendar and that our first day of fieldwork was preceded by a blessing from a respected local aj kij (daykeeper). And while Domingo’s powers to influence the decisions of individual landowners were more limited, his insider community-knowledge quickly helped us to deduce why some land-owners had refused us access, thereby helping us to refine our permission strategies as we went forward.
As the project progressed, we adopted a simple ethos based on three basic principles: respect, communication and transparency (see statement 2). These principles reminded us to always put the community’s needs before our own or those of the archaeology by: a) restricting our investigations to where we had permission, b) clearly explaining our mission to the public whenever we had the opportunity and, c) inviting landowners and the public to visit our laboratory to see how we processed and analyzed the recovered artifacts. Armed with these guiding principles, Domingo’s insider knowledge, and our workers’ ability to communicate our mission in the local dialect we found that the majority of the landowners we encountered were not only accommodating but openly appreciative of the interest we were taking in the history of their community. And although, we fell short of achieving the desired full-coverage survey, the resultant random sample survey covered portions of all of the major sites in the project area and generated over 30,000 ceramics, covering the entire prehispanic sequence. More importantly, however, the project achieved the far more valuable goal of laying a stable foundation for long-term collaboration and research in the area.
My experiences directing the Proyecto Arqueológico Lago de Atitlán taught me that when collaborative partnerships are not forthcoming at the inception of a project, it may not only be acceptable, but desirable for western archaeologists to take the lead. This is certainly true of highland Guatemala, where the Maya themselves simply do not have the luxury of worrying about their own cultural heritage, being forced by dire economic circumstances to devote themselves entirely to the unending task of providing for their families. Early career archaeologists should be aware, however, that even with a local advisor on board, gaining the trust of a community and acquiring all of the required permissions takes time (two months in our case) and needs to be taken into account at the budgeting stage. Archaeologists should be heartened, however, that while often tedious and frustrating, these slow-moving administrative processes nevertheless force us to engage with the community on their own terms and learn the culturally appropriate ways of doing things. Attempting to circumvent such processes by using clandestine survey strategies, on the other hand not only risks alienating the local community but sealing the fate of the cultural heritage we so desperately seek to preserve. As discussed in statement 2, such practices are simply no longer ethical or acceptable.

Fieldwork Safety and IRB Detachment

Emily Channell

Doctoral Candidate at CUNY

[email protected]edu

In the fall of 2014, three months after returning from fieldwork in Ukraine, I was required to submit a “Continuing Review Form” for my university’s IRB. After spending several months the year before arguing with the IRB about what forms needed to include participants’ acceptance of being photographed and what an “official” translation would mean before they would approve my research, I was frustrated to read the questions on the Continuing Review.

“Have there been any unanticipated events, protocol violations, adverse events, subject complaints and/or DSMB reports since the last continuing review that have not already been reported to the IRB?” “Has any new information come to light that might affect the risk/benefit ratio of the study?”

These questions seemed absurd in the context of what I experienced during my fieldwork. About two months into my stay in Ukraine, mass mobilizations of hundreds of thousands of people began in Kyiv, the capital and my research base. The mobilizations and a protest camp continued until my research ended in June of the next year. In January 2014, people began to be killed and to disappear from hospital beds. In February, nearly 100 people were shot and killed by militarized police forces, whose provenance is still uncertain. Representatives from the US Embassy met with me and other state-funded grantees, attempting to convince us to leave the country (admitting only in March that they could not require us to evacuate under any circumstances). My fieldwork — and whether I would finish with enough legitimate “data” to write something at the end of it — was rife with uncertainties that mirrored the feelings of my local friends who participated in my research project. At home, those in my program watching from afar sent comments like, “How exciting!” and “I wish something like that would happen in my field site, it’s not that interesting here.”

My experience forced me to consider ethics in research in ways that I never anticipated. I spent months trying to figure out my relationship with the protests in Ukraine themselves and whether it was possible to engage with protesters in a critical way without endangering myself and others around me. This included attempts to obtain “research materials” in a way that did not put participants in and supporters of my research at risk. As an American citizen, I was forced to consider leaving the country under the guise of a relatively official evacuation, leaving my friends behind to face whatever came their way — and I was lucky to have the privilege to make the choice to stay despite my government’s recommendations. When I did return to the US at the end of my grant period, I was asked to sum up my experience to others who had peripherally observed what had happened. In this context, when I received the IRB’s request for a Continuing Review that was so detached from everything I had experienced, I was angry. If they cared so much about whether someone wanted to have their photo taken, couldn’t they at least bother to ask if all the people who helped me with my research were still alive?

The realities of ethnographic research — which, I suspect, most practitioners know — is that what happens on the ground often looks completely different than what was proposed in a grant or IRB application. Before I left the US, my advisor told me to keep my eyes open for everything, and that my final project would look nothing like what I thought (I don’t think even she knew how right she would be). Knowing this, it was extremely hard to take seriously the details expected in my IRB application, because “risk” and “benefit” are terms that are contextually fluid in ways that IRBs do not recognize. In my application, I presented my research in what I felt was an extremely detached and even falsified way, knowing that my field experience would not fit the stagnant outlines expected from the IRB.

When the protests in Kyiv began, I quickly dove into the mobilizations with my Ukrainian friends, who are largely leftist and feminist activists. From the beginning, these people were attacked and harassed during the protests, which were being touted by Western media either as the true representation of democracy in Ukraine or as a neo-fascist takeover. Of course, the reality was infinitely more complex. As days and weeks went by, it became very unclear to me what might happen next not only to my research but also to my friends, who ensured my safety throughout the protests while also constantly helping me find ways to continue my research in the context of uncertainty. While other Western observers and participants posted constant updates on social media, I felt it was more important for me to keep quiet. In this way, I felt I could continue doing research without calling attention to myself or to my friends, who faced danger not only from the governing regime (which targeted all protesters) but from the growing presence of radical right-wing nationalists (who found this a convenient opportunity to continue targeting leftist and feminist activists with attacks and harassment).

When I returned, transitioning back into academic life while the country I had been living in went to war was extremely challenging, a feeling that was exacerbated when I received the IRB’s request for Continuing Review. I didn’t know how to answer questions like whether anything had happened to impact the “risks” and “benefits” of my research. I had just spent eight months terrified that every person I knew in Ukraine would die or be kidnapped. I didn’t know how to translate this into Review Board language when “risk” meant death or bodily harm and “benefit” was meaningless. Even now, as I am writing my dissertation, I find every person who reads any part of it asking about my relationship with my “informants.” I was unable to remain detached or “objective” in this context; I came to love the people in Ukraine who participated in my research not just because they were kind enough to help me. They took me in, offered me escape from the city center, explained things I couldn’t understand, sent me away from the mayhem when they knew it was getting too dangerous, and called me when something significant happened. Our relationships were not framed by “risk” and “benefit” but by sharing an experience that I hope happens only once in our lifetimes.

As anthropologists, the circumstances of our research are largely out of our control, and in part, this is what makes our research so essential. We should be able to respond to rapidly changing contexts in order to understand them better and to help others comprehend them. After my experience, I firmly believe that my research is better than it would have been if I had not allowed my relationships with my interlocutors to cross over into friendship. I began to frame my research and writing around the goal of presenting the mobilizations honestly (rather than with some sort of pretense of objectivity). They were complicated, as I observed as many ugly interactions as I participated in beautiful, positive actions and initiatives. Only by placing my trust in people who were willing to treat me as a friend was I able to engage with this complexity. Ultimately, this is reciprocity. Portraying these events in an honest way is all my friends have asked of me in return for their ensuring my well-being.

I am still unsure if I behaved “ethically” according to the IRB’s standards. When I submitted my Continuing Review form, I glossed over their questions because I did not feel the IRB was concerned about my personal quandaries, only if I had done research in a “safe” way (“safe” here in terms of IRB-established “risks” and “benefits,” not concerning the personal safety of my friends). The IRB isn’t concerned with whether my research actually contributes to a better understanding of a complex situation (a point which is reflected throughout the AAA Statement of Ethics), which leaves me questioning how the IRB helps us do better research if it can’t understand why we are doing research in the first place. While I was lucky that my department and my advisor were fully supportive of the ways my research changed and my responses to those changes in the field, structures like the IRB do not equip researchers at all for the realities of ethnographic fieldwork, which can lead us into a false sense of preparedness. I recognize that IRB approval is a requirement for research among humans, but I propose that methods courses and other pre-research requirements in doctoral programs focus more on the AAA Statement of Ethics, a more flexible and appropriate guideline for anthropology.

Ultimately, these forms and approvals remove us from what is really important about ethics and anthropological research: people on the ground who make it happen. As anthropologists, we should know that our first concern has to be the safety and well-being of those generous people, both in the field and when we leave it. Only when we are honest with ourselves about the nature of our relationships with those people can we truly understand our own investment in our research and what it will mean for those who supported us.