Anthropology and Ethics


When conducting research as an anthropologist you will be expected to follow a set of rules and guidelines that are referred to as a “code of ethics”, but what does that mean in relation to anthropology? To put it simply: by following a set of ethical guidelines you can try to avoid causing harm to the people you study. Historically, anthropologists weren’t usually interested in how their work impacted the people they studied, but over the past few decades the concern for anthropologists to conduct ethical research has grown. Now ethics is an essential part of every anthropologist’s training, so gaining a firm understanding of the topic is extremely important. This article will outline some of the reasons why anthropologists should follow a code of ethics, and how to actually do this in real situations (including some examples to make the whole thing easier to understand since it can be pretty confusing!).

Why do Anthropologists Need Ethics?

The first thing to think about when considering this question is the relationship between the anthropologist, their research and the people being studied. All research, and in particular fieldwork, has some sort of impact on the research subjects which can be either positive or negative. Ethical guidelines are put in place to make sure that researchers can avoid causing a negative impact, and do not profit from a community without making sure they also benefit. In order to understand this in action let’s think about a couple of examples of anthropological research and consider why it needs ethical guidelines:

Example 1:

Sam has decided to study the LGBTQ community in Edinburgh. In order to answer her research question she plans out questions to ask participants in interviews and submits the outline of her study to her University’s ethics review committee. The committee approves the study, so Sam gets the ball rolling by posting an advert on the LGBTQ community Edinburgh Facebook page. Soon she receives some responses from enthusiastic volunteers who are keen to help her in her study, so she organises a date and time to meet up with her first participant David. On the day of the interview Sam arrives, greets David and after a quick chat they get started on the interview, but a few minutes in David is asked a question that makes them quite uncomfortable. However, since they aren’t sure of their obligation to stay they force themselves to complete the interview to avoid confrontation. David is unhappy about the data that has been collected and feels uncomfortable being part of the study but they aren’t sure what can be done since they feel this is official scientific research. Fast-forward to the end of the study and Sam has written their paper about the community, and has included quotations and responses from David who is distressed that they are mentioned by name.

In this example the researcher has failed to follow certain ethical guidelines and has therefore caused distress to her participants, even though her study was initially approved by an ethics committee. First she failed to provide information about the study to her potential participants, this is the process of getting prior informed consent. What she should have done is contacted her participants with an outline of the study and its aims, a list of questions/themes that would be explored in the interview, and information on the participant’s right to stop the interview or have their data removed from the study at any time. This would have been sent with a consent form which the participant would sign, and Sam would have submitted alongside her project. This would have given the participant enough information prior to the study to decide whether they actually wanted to take part, and could have avoided causing any distress. She also failed to find out whether the participant wanted to be referred to by name or a pseudonym, which many researchers decide to do anyway to avoid unwanted impact on individuals included in the study. In reality the ethics committee would have picked up on the lack of consent forms and this study wouldn’t have been accepted, but it is an example of how a lack of ethical guidelines can impact individuals in anthropological research.

Example 2:

Jeff is studying the use of medicinal plants by a community in Northern Vietnam. After years of research and working with the local community, Jeff discovers that the use of a certain plant only found in the local area contains compounds that can be used to treat depression effectively. He finds this out because the women in the community feel they can trust him after all the time he has spent in the village, and so they reveal the information on the medicinal plant, its uses and preparation that has been passed down among the women for many generations. However because this information is so valuable, Jeff decides to immediately write up his findings and publish them as soon as possible. Soon after his findings are published pharmaceutical companies become extremely interested in the area and it’s not long before samples of the plant have been taken to be studied further in preparation for mass production of cheap anti-depressants. Land in the area is also sold to American companies, and soon there are huge areas cleared to make way for retreat centres for Westerners to briefly escape their stressful lives and indulge in ‘authentic’ local treatments. The community receives nothing for the information that was passed down and refined for generations, and the new retreat centres have not only seriously impacted their lives and land, but have also depleted the local population of the medicinal plant to the point where there is non left in the area.

This is an (admittedly extreme) example of research negatively impacting a whole community. The issue here is that the researcher failed to consider the local community when writing up their findings; the village women had trusted him with very personal and locally valuable information and he had broken their trust. If he were following ethical guidelines he would have asked the women whether they wanted the information distributed or kept secret, and then respected their wishes. If the women had said the information was to be kept in the community then that would be as far as it could go, he simply wouldn’t have been able to write about it. However they may have decided that the whole world could benefit from their knowledge and allowed the information to be shared, but even then there are ethical implications to consider. If they did want to share the knowledge then care should be taken to ensure that the community controls how it is used, and is allowed to decide how their information be used, this could avoid negative impacts on the community and even have positive benefits. As you can see though, these examples simply highlight some of the responsibilities held by anthropologists to avoid causing harm to individuals or communities.

How to follow ethical guidelines

Now you should hopefully have a better understanding of why ethics are important for anthropologists, but there still remains the question of how exactly we are supposed to follow them. Anthropologists usually conduct research under the guidance of an institution such as a university, and these institutions have set up ways for researchers to follow these guidelines, usually by having the research considered by an ethics review committee. This means that before a study is conducted a researcher,  usually under supervision, puts forward a proposal with all the information about their study (the aims, the kind of questions that may be asked, etc.) and the committee decides whether the study is in line with current ethical guidelines.

The researcher is then obliged to follow their institution’s ethics guidelines, including the submission of any paperwork such as participant signed consent forms (example below). This may include filling out additional forms such as risk assessment, of which the institution will provide instructions (see the UCL research ethics page for an example). Different institutions may have slight variations on the guidelines, but you can get a general idea from those set by larger anthropological groups such as the ASA, which you can read by clicking the image below.

I hope this information has been useful, please leave a comment if you think it was, or if you think I have missed something out. Don’t forget to like and subscribe to HJA for more!

ASA Ethics Guidelines:
Sample Consent Form:

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