How I Nearly Lost My First Staff Position as a Practicing Anthropologist: Ethical Issues and Anthropological Practice

By Laurie Krieger

Anthropological ethics generally do not change depending upon whether the anthropologist works in academia or in practicing settings. Nevertheless, ethical decisions of anthropologists inside the university and those who practice are made in different environments; the issues that must be decided and the frequency that major ethical quandaries occur may be quite different.

The chief dissimilarity is that many of us who practice outside the academy are not primarily researchers. A second difference is that practitioners must sometimes daily make choices and take stands based on anthropological ethics even when not engaged in research. Third, the organization the anthropologist works for often does not have an IRB; even if one exists, it only addresses research ethics. But the practitioner is making ethical decisions on parts of her/his job that may have little to do with research. Fourth, practicing anthropologists make ethical decisions in settings and among colleagues who may not sympathize with or even understand our ethical positions. A fifth big difference is that practitioners seldom own their own work: whether a research report or manual, ownership generally resides with our employer and/or the contract holder and the client/donor. And there are other differences.

The AAA ethical statement assumes that all anthropologists are researchers, but many of us are not researchers, or not primarily researchers. This does not mean that we are entitled to behave unethically—we remain anthropologists committed to the values of our discipline. What it does mean is that many practitioners are left to decide ethical issues on their own, based on a general anthropological approach to ethics. Some NGOs have IRBs, but they advise on research, and not all of us work for NGOs.

The only times I have worked with IRBs outside university settings are when our prime contractor was a university. The navigation of ethical dilemmas is very different outside of the academy. For example, in a current project, in which my role is primarily applied researcher, I have had ethical issues with two of the client’s contractual clauses. Ideally the client would have had to pass the contract through an IRB. But I doubt that the client has an IRB. The following example illustrates a thorny issue in anthropological practice that does not involve research which I, then a recent Ph.D., had to decide on my own.

I was ecstatic in 1988 when I landed my first position as a full-time staff member of an international health NGO. Research constituted part, but not the majority, of my job. I provided technical assistance in health promotion for family planning and reproductive health, the topic of my dissertation research. My tasks included developing and conducting training, helping to develop health promotion and counseling materials, and providing advice and training on research. The training curricula and health promotion materials that I developed and my contribution to assisting developing world colleagues to develop these were based on anthropological theory and ethics. I had had a graduate seminar in anthropological ethics, taught by a giant in public health anthropology who had first practiced for a decade outside the university, and I felt prepared.

Nevertheless, the more I saw of international public health, the more alienated I grew. This set the stage for a major showdown that taught me two things: (1) It is important to stand up for ethical issues as an anthropologist; and (2) it is important to do this in a strategic way which often needs to be informed by great diplomacy. Both apply to anthropological work in any setting.

I was based in the U.S., but mostly worked in the country where I had conducted my dissertation research. I spoke the language and felt comfortable collaborating with local colleagues in the country. I occasionally worked elsewhere and struggled to read the relevant scholarship in the short time that I had to prepare for trips.

When I was asked to prepare a dialogue for condom counselors in Jamaica that they would use as the template for their counseling with clients, I balked. Here was a country I had never visited and a subject I was not very familiar with. It was early in the AIDS epidemic and I had never seen condom counseling for HIV. The deadline was extremely tight and I was told to write an illustrative counseling session that Jamaican condom counselors would memorize so that they could duplicate it in condom counseling.

“You want me to write a counseling script for a country I’ve never been to and know little about on condom counseling, which I’ve never seen?” I asked. I was told that I was perfectly capable and just to do it. “Since I have no knowledge of the subject or the country and virtually no time to read about either, the only basis I can think of that anyone would want me to do it is that I’m from the developed world, so the assumption is that I must know more. Please get someone else,” I said.

This resulted in a reprimand in my personnel file. Even if my organization had possessed an IRB, my task had nothing to do with research participants. Furthermore, I was the only anthropologist in the organization. Had there been an IRB, there was no guarantee that the members would proceed from the same ethical assumptions as an anthropologist. I was on my own. Based on what I now know, I would have refused in a more strategic, diplomatic way, but I would still have refused for the same reasons.

While some of the principles of the AAA Ethics Statement are helpful to practitioners in research and non-research situations, e.g., maintaining professional and ethical personal relations and doing no harm, others are primarily applicable to research. More than half of our profession practices outside universities. It’s time for us to reexamine and broaden our ethics statement to reflect the work that most of us do and perhaps to create a AAA ethics body that can respond quickly and knowledgeably to practitioners’ ethical dilemmas.

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