A Model for “Training” Anthropology Students in Responsible Conduct of Research

Lise M. Dobrin, University of Virginia

Ethics education is not about transferring to novices the rules and principles of ethical behavior. Rather, it’s about socializing students into habits of reflection and cultivating their sensitivity to the competing, often mutually contradictory needs and interests of multiple stakeholders. So it’s a shame to approach ethics education as “training” like one gets from the widely adopted CITI system, which allows ethics instruction to be administered in the form of short, discrete, conveniently auditable online modules that are too often perfunctorily completed and then forgotten.

In the discipline of anthropology, ethics education has an additional problem. Anthropologists tend to focus disproportionately on the treatment of fieldwork participants, even though professional practice in anthropology, as in all disciplines, presents ethical challenges across all domains of work.

When NSF announced in 2009 that it was requiring applicant institutions to “provide appropriate training and oversight in the responsible and ethical conduct of research”, the University of Virginia Department of Anthropology took it as an opportunity to develop its own departmental Responsible Conduct of Research program: a workshop series on topics in “Fieldwork, Ethics, and Ethnographic Writing” (FEEW) that runs parallel to the department speaker series. This experimental program has been more successful than we ever could have imagined when we started it.

Building on the primary guidance then available in regard to format1 (e.g. face to face discussion, faculty participation), subject matter (e.g., data management, authorship and publication, collaboration, human subjects protections), and duration/frequency (8 contact hours, early in a student’s career), we developed an 8-hour program that has by now been taken over by rotating pairs of enthusiastic and creative graduate student leaders. It is now primarily student-run, though with guidance and input from a faculty adviser.

Rather than aiming for coverage, which would in any case be incomplete, the workshop aims for relevance and interest. In addition to a 2-hour IRB tutorial, program organizers run three 2-hour group discussions annually on varying topics collaboratively planned by the students and the faculty adviser. Group size is generally 10-20 people. Here is a sample of the workshop topics covered in recent years:

• fieldnotes and data management

• publishing

• intellectual property

• long-term relationships and field communities

• money in fieldwork

• plagiarism

• co-authoring

• politics in the classroom

• photographs and videorecording

• collaboration and team projects

• disagreement with consultants in the field

The format consists of short experience-based presentations by a handful of panelists followed by full group discussion. Panelists typically include both faculty and post-field grad students. Discussions are facilitated by the program’s student leaders. Occasionally we have invited outside presenters, e.g., the intellectual property workshop featured an attorney from our university’s General Counsel office, and the journal publishing workshop featured Q&A with the editor of a journal. In the days before covid, snacks and drinks were always served.

In designing the program, our overarching goal was to prepare the next generation of anthropologists we trained to be ethically sensitive in every aspect of the work they do. In anthropology, knowledge frequently emerges in an open-ended way from situations that are not rigorously controlled by the researcher. Students work in diverse settings, from tribal college offices in the US Northern Plains, to rural villages in Papua New Guinea, to online chat rooms. Multiple subfields of the discipline are represented in the department, with methods that include archaeological excavation, analysis of video-recorded interaction, and participant observation. Given this great diversity and open-endedness, there would be no way to effectively target “the right” set of topics and issues that need to be covered for every student. Instead, we thought the most basic lesson all students should learn was that ethics is everywhere and calls for ongoing alertness and engagement. We wanted to create an environment in which ethical reflection was explicit (so conscious), relevant (so rewarding to discuss), and systematically integrated into the professional life of the community into which students were being socialized. After establishing a program that had these qualities, we then shif