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.


Teaching Professional Ethics in Anthropology

Authored by Leslie E. Sponsel

In the late 1960s when I was a graduate student in anthropology at Indiana University, and again in the early 1970s at Cornell University, not only was no separate course offered on professional ethics in anthropology, but no class even raised the subject. However, during the Vietnam War increasing concern about the subject gradually emerged in the American Anthropological Association, eventually leading to the establishment of its Committee on Ethics in 1969. Early collections of case studies and commentaries appeared in the late 1970s (Appell 1978, Rynkiewich and Spradley 1978). During subsequent decades, occasional textbooks and anthologies were published (e.g., Fluehr-Lobban 1991).

Then, suddenly since 2000, there has been a marked increased of attention to professional ethics, perhaps in response to the publication of Patrick Tierney’s (2000) controversial book Darkness in El Dorado. This marked increase is clear from the number of the citations for articles on ethics in the Anthropology Index Online from around 200 in the 1990s to over 1,500 in the first decade of the 21st century. There are other indicators as well, such as a count of the year of publication among the citations on ethics in the Oxford Bibliographies Online (Sponsel 2016). There were twice as many citations in the two decades of 2000-2020, compared to the previous four decades of 1960-1999. Furthermore, a survey of the index of the program guide for the annual conventions of the AAA using ethics as the key word reveals only a few sessions with ethics during the 1990s, whereas during the 2000s some years have a dozen or more sessions which often lead to publications. In short, now there is a wealth of material for an entire course on professional ethics in anthropology, even one focused solely on the subfield of cultural anthropology.

In what follows I describe the Ethics in Anthropology course I have been teaching at the University of Hawai`i during the last two decades that takes advantage of this accumulating material, and that considers recurrent ethical scandals and controversies in the field.

The course pursues the subject historically in relation to American wars because they often generate controversy within anthropology. Indeed, the exposure of anthropologists working in Central America not only as field researchers, but also as spies for the U.S. government, by Franz Boas (1919) is often cited as the earliest instance of ethical controversy (Fluehr-Lobban 2002).

For each decade in the history of American anthropology, four primary questions are analyzed following Mark Glazier’s (1996) superb overview of the subject: Are researchers invariably exploiting the people they study, and if so, how can this be minimized? Do the subjects benefit from the research in ways that they themselves consider meaningful and fair? Does the researcher adequately respect the integrity of the subjects’ culture, avoid undue interference, and minimize disturbance? How are anthropologists held accountable for their behavior, research, and publications?

Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban (2002) asserts that “The development of an ethically conscious culture that promotes discussion of ethically responsible decision-making still eludes us as a profession.” Nevertheless, as Pat Caplan (2003:3) profoundly observes: “Yet the ethics of anthropology is clearly not just about obeying a set of guidelines; it actually goes to the heart of the discipline; the premises on which its practitioners operate, its epistemology, theory and praxis. In other words, what is anthropology for? Who is it for?” These two questions are repeatedly discussed throughout my course.

The central pivotal goal of professional ethics has long been to try to avoid causing harm to research subjects. However, Laura Graham (2006) argues that anthropologists as humanistic scientists are also obligated to do good, especially when working with marginal and vulnerable populations like indigenes and minorities, and most of all when there are human rights violations. Fluehr-Lobban (2006) claims that this is a matter of personal choice, not an ethical obligation. Yet in 1979 the Belmont Report of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research identified in detail three basic ethical principles as respect for persons, beneficence, and justice. In other words, it affirms that responsible research benefits the subjects as well as the researcher and science (Ryan et al., 1979).

A concern with professional ethics in anthropology has customarily been more reactive than proactive (Fluehr-Lobban 2003:1, Whiteford and Trotter 2008:8). When serious ethical scandals and/or controversies erupt (Robin 2004, Spencer 1996), the typical response is defensive maneuvering to try to save face in public on the part of the individuals and organizations directly involved, rather than squarely dealing with challenges to use them as learning opportunities, let alone resolving them in a civil, sensitive, constructive professional and scholarly manner. It is uncommon for parties directly involved in an ethical scandal and/or controversy to transcend particulars by elevating the discussion and debate to focus on general principles.

Teaching professional ethics as an overt part of the curriculum has an especially important role to play. Ethics needs to become a far more conscious and routine consideration in both research and teaching. Ideally, this should also include civil and constructive discussion and debate on ethical matters within the anthropological community at various levels from that of particular departments to that of annual conventions of the AAA and other venues, rather than the accused and partisans resorting to ad hominem attacks and smokescreens that divert attention from the real issues. When there is a deficiency in the approach to ethical matters they remain unresolved and keep erupting in controversy.

If the community of anthropologists is better informed and more concerned with ethics, then it is very likely that fewer scandals and controversies would arise to the embarrassment of the profession and its public image. Clearly in some previous episodes those responsible were either ignorant of professional ethics or simply chose to ignore them. Professional ethics in anthropology merits far more attention, including a separate course, at least as an option, if not a requirement. A session or two on professional ethics in any course is surely progressive, but not the same as an entire course focused on the subject. There is now a wealth of important material to develop such a course, unlike in the 1960s. Moreover, it would even seem to be an ethical imperative for the profession.


References Cited:

Appell, George N. 1978. Ethical Dilemmas in Anthropological Inquiry: A Case Book. Waltham: Crossroads.

Boas, Franz. 1919. “Scientists as Spies.” The Nation 109:729.

Caplan, Pat, ed. 2003. The Ethics of Anthropology: Debates and Dilemmas. New York: Routledge.

Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn, ed. 1991. Ethics and the Profession of Anthropology: Dialogue for a New Era. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

_____. 2002 (March). “A Century of Ethics and Professional Anthropology.” Anthropology