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 shifted the responsibility to the students to plan and implement it.

The success of UVA Anthropology’s FEEW RCR program is evident from its full integration into the life of the department and the enthusiasm with which graduate students have embraced it. The students are aware that the program fulfills an NSF requirement, but the “compliance” motivation is by now so backgrounded that students say they would continue to run it and attend even if the requirement were dropped. Students continue to attend workshops and agree to present in them long after their 8-hour obligation has been fulfilled. They proudly describe the FEEW program to prospective students during admission events and to fellow students from other institutions when they meet at conferences. There are several roles for student volunteers in the Anthropology department, and the FEEW student leader positions are among the most coveted. They enjoy hearing their professors and fellow students speak in an open-ended way about ethically challenging experiences they have had and how they have dealt with them. Faculty receive the FEEW workshop email announcements, and a handful typically show up to each workshop simply out of interest in the topic or to listen to particular presenters. But some faculty involvement is always ensured by the regular inclusion of faculty serving as panelists.

The FEEW requires a faculty member to agree to serve as the FEEW adviser and compliance coordinator, and it requires two rotating volunteer student leaders. These aren’t very big jobs. Most importantly, what it requires is a flexible administration: UVA’s VP for Research had to agree to let us experiment with this program and trust us to keep records for use in compliance reporting. We are fortunate that we were allowed to develop this important and meaningful program instead of being required to do CITI modules.

Please feel free to reach out to me at dobrin@virginia.edu if you are interested in learning more about the program or would like to consult about how you might implement a similar program on your campus.