Inside the Ethics Query Process: A Case Study from the Corporate Sector

Inside the Ethics Query Process: A Case Study from the Corporate Sector 

By Jayne Howell and Lise Dobrin

As the Ethics Seats on MPAAC, we thought it would be helpful to give an example of what happens when anthropologists submit to the AAA an inquiry about an ethical issue they are grappling with.  We provide below a recent inquiry, with all identifiers removed, to illustrate the steps that occur once we receive a query.  This case also speaks to the reality that similar concerns arise whether one is conducting research in the private sector or a public university.

We recently received a query from an anthropologist (given the pseudonym Morgan here) who works for a private financial enterprise. Morgan asked, “Does the ‘Do No Harm’ ethic suggest that researchers refrain from asking ‘tough’ questions that could lead to negative responses or unintended outcomes?”  Morgan described supervising a multidisciplinary team that was charged with understanding customers’ expectations and needs from their firm using the information gathered to design and develop products and services.  In the interest of following best practices, Morgan introduced her team to the concept of research ethics, drawing on different organizations’ ethics statements to create guidelines for their research. For models they looked at statements by AAA, Society for Applied Anthropology, American Psychological Association, and the Hippocratic Oath.  No one else on the team besides Morgan had training in anthropology or another social science.

Morgan’s inquiry to aaa.ethics.feedback@gmail.com concerned her team members’ response to this training, specifically with respect to the notion that researchers should “do not harm.”  Although they appreciated the importance of treating participants with respect and integrity, avoiding harm to “dignity and well-being” and mitigating risk led them to ask a set of specific questions.  Members of the MPAAC Ethics Subcommittee and the AAA Ethics Advisory Group (composed of former chairs of the AAA Ethics Committee) provided feedback in response to two questions that Morgan posed:

  1. “Does [the imperative to Do No Harm] mean we should avoid questions that might cause someone to feel anything other than happy or neutral? Our work involves talking about money, and that is often emotional and fraught.”
  2. “Does [the Do No Harm] principle mean that it is our ethical responsibility to avoid the hard questions because we cannot predict what effect thinking about these questions might have on a person’s state of mind or down-the-road behavior? Our work asks us to use sometimes difficult questions in order to uncover a person’s context, perspective, and lived experience in ways that surveys cannot.”

The AAA Ethics commenters were supportive of Morgan’s desire to define what ethical research would look like in the corporate setting.  The feedback her query elicited fell into three overlapping areas: (1) Whether it is even possible to apply anthropological ethics when conducting research in the financial sector, (2) the meaning and nuances of the AAA “do no harm” guideline, and (3) the provision of adequate information during the consent process. Here is what they said in response to these questions:

(1) Is it possible to conduct ethical research for a capitalist venture?

The nature of this type of applied research, which is ultimately profit-driven, has different objectives than much academic research.  “[Morgan] most likely … has little to no control over the ends to which [the] team’s work is put.”  Moreover, engaging in one-off interviews is “a very different scenario from much anthropological research where you build rapport through long-term open-ended involvement.”  This is at odds with many anthropologists’ “aim for something like a collaborative relationship with one’s interlocutors – [this] is so *not* a best practice elsewhere in social science that it often gets lost.”

A related point that arose is the seeming contradiction inherent in an attempt to conduct ethical surveys and interviews “when the whole point of the research enterprise is to … more efficiently extract people’s $$.” One solution a commenter suggested in light of this “ethical quagmire … is to offer the participants a reward for helping the [firm] make money.”  Nevertheless, ethical responsibilities are present even when the intent of the research is “extractive,” because all researchers “operate within the constraints of the same neoliberal/capitalist structural frameworks and constraints.” Thus, one committee member suggested, the team should be sure to “compensate participants fairly for their time and opinion.“