3. Obtain Informed Consent and Necessary Permissions

Anthropological researchers working with living human communities must obtain the voluntary and informed consent of research participants. Ordinarily such consent is given prior to the research, but it may also be obtained retroactively if so warranted by the research context, process, and relations. The consent process should be a part of project design and continue through implementation as an ongoing dialogue and negotiation with research participants. Normally, the observation of activities and events in fully public spaces is not subject to prior consent.

Minimally, informed consent includes sharing with potential participants the research goals, methods, funding sources or sponsors, expected outcomes, anticipated impacts of the research, and the rights and responsibilities of research participants. It must also include establishing expectations regarding anonymity((Sue-Ellen Jacobs, “Case 6: Anonymity Revisited,” in Handbook on Ethical Issues in Anthropology, ed. Joan Cassell and Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Special Publication of the American Anthropological Association 23 (Washington, D.C.: American Anthropological Association, 1987).)) and credit((

Sue-Ellen Jacobs, “Case 5: Anonymity Declined,” in Handbook on Ethical Issues in Anthropology, ed. Joan Cassell and Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Special Publication of the American Anthropological Association 23 (Washington, D.C.: American Anthropological Association, 1987).)). Researchers must present to research participants the possible impacts of participation, and make clear that despite their best efforts, confidentiality may be compromised or outcomes may differ from those anticipated. These expectations apply to all field data, regardless of medium. Visual media in particular, because of their nature, must be carefully used, referenced, and contextualized.

Anthropologists have an obligation to ensure that research participants have freely granted consent, and must avoid conducting research in circumstances in which consent may not be truly voluntary or informed. In the event that the research changes in ways that will directly affect the participants, anthropologists must revisit and renegotiate consent. The informed consent process is necessarily dynamic, continuous and reflexive. Informed consent does not necessarily imply or require a particular written or signed form. It is the quality of the consent, not its format, which is relevant.

Anthropologists working with biological communities or cultural resources have an obligation to ensure that they have secured appropriate permissions or permits prior to the conduct of research. Consultation with groups or communities affected by this or any other type of research should be an important element of the design of such projects and should continue as work progresses or circumstances change. It is explicitly understood that defining what constitutes an affected community is a dynamic and necessary process.

Previous Page: Be Open and Honest Regarding Your Work | Next Page: Weigh Competing Ethical Obligations and Affected Parties

Supporting Resources

AAA. 2004. AAA Statement on Ethnography and Institutional Review Boards.

AAA Committee on Ethics. 2000. Briefing Paper on Informed Consent.

Archaeology Data Service. N.d. “Guidance on the Deposition of Sensitive Digital Data.”

Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences. 2002. International Ethical Guidelines for Biomedical Research Involving Human Subjects. Geneva: CIOMS.

Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn. 2003. “Informed Consent in Anthropological Research: We Are Not Exempt.” In Ethics and the Profession of Anthropology. 2nd ed. Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, ed. Pp. 159-177. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira.

Freedman, Benjamin. 1975. “A moral theory of informed consent.” Hastings Center Report 5(4): 32–39.

Golub, Alex. 2007. “Using Informed Consent Forms in Fieldwork.” Savage Minds.

Marshall, Anne, and Suzanne Batten. 2004. “Researching Across Cultures: Issues of Ethics and Power.” Forum: Qualitative Social Research 5(3):39.

Marshall, Patricia A. 2003. “Human Subjects Protections, Institutional Review Boards, and Cultural Anthropological Research.” Anthropological Quarterly 76(2):269-285.

Marshall, Patricia A. 2007. Ethical Challenges in Study Design and Informed Consent for Health Research in Resource-Poor Settings. Special Topics in Social, Economic, and Behavioural Research 5. Geneva: World Health Organization Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases.

Meskell, Lynn, and Peter Pels, eds. 2005. Embedding Ethics. Oxford: Berg. (Based on the 2002 Wenner-Gren symposium “Beyond Ethics: Anthropological Moralities on the Boundaries of the Public and Professional.”)

Molyneux, C. S., D. R. Wassenaar, N. Peshu, and K. Marsh. 2005. “‘Even if they ask you to stand by a tree all day, you will have to do it (laughter)…!’: Community voices on the notion and practice of informed consent for biomedical research in developing countries.” Social Science and Medicine 61(2):443-54.

National Institutes of Health. N.d. “Regulations, Policies, and Guidance: Ethical Guidelines and Regulations.”

Parker, Michael. 2007. “Ethnography/Ethics.” Social Science and Medicine 65(11): 2248-59.

Scarre, Christopher, and Geoffrey Scarre. 2006. The Ethics of Archaeology: Philosophical Perspectives on Archaeological Practice. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Schrag, Brian, ed. 2001. “Crossing Cultural Barriers-Informed Consent in Developing Countries.” In Graduate Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries. Vol. 5. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Engineering, Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science. (See also commentary on this case by participants at the 2001 workshop on Graduate Research Ethics Education at Indiana University, Bloomington, and by Karen Muskavitch.)

Society for Medical Anthropology. 2009. “Past Policy Statements: Clinical Drug Trials.”

Strathern, Marilyn. 2000. “Afterword: Accountability…and Ethnography.” In Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics and the Academy. Marilyn Strathern, ed. Pp. 279-304. London: Routledge.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. N.d. “Informed Consent.” (General HHS information on informed consent.)

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. N.d. “Informed Consent – FAQs.” (HHS frequently asked questions about informed consent; includes references to relevant sections of CFR 45.46.)

Watkins, Joe. 2000. Indigenous Archaeology: American Indian Values and Scientific Practice. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira.

Zhai, Xiaomei. 2009. “Informed Consent in the Non-Western Cultural Context and the Implementation of Universal Declaration of Bioethics and Human Rights.” Asian Bioethics Review 1(1):5-16.