Ethical issues of anthropological research: community control over publishing of research results

© 2012 A.S.Kurlenkova 


Key words: bioethics, ethics of anthropological research, ethical expertise, vulnerable groups

Abstract: In the article the author asks the questions about the ethical feasibility of social and anthropological research, necessary and optimal level of involvement of enrolled subjects to the work of the researcher, up to the evaluation of its results. The point of departure for the author’s reflections is the experience of the anthropologist Alan F. Benjamin of his work with a Jewish community in Curacao. The author proposes a list of criteria to be met in order to make the involvement of enrolled subjects into the research effective and reasonable.


Anthropological research as any type of biomedical or social science research needs to be justified. “At the heart of the anthropological method is the practice of witnessing, which requires an engaged immersion over time in the lived worlds of our anthropological subjects”. Why do I or the communities studied need this type of ‘immersion’ in their lives? One of the answers was suggested by a famous anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, “We must study them before they disappear” (Scheper-Hughes, 2001, p. XXVII). Collecting anthropological data has traditionally helped scientists to be ‘just in time’ to take a snapshot of a culture before it vanishes – to record its language, traditions, economic, social, spiritual patterns of life. In the post-modern world, with fewer and fewer societies untouched by the sweeping effect of globalization, anthropologists would as willingly study the culture of urban skateboarders, or teachers of a New York high school as rituals of some isolated Amazon tribe. Anthropologists tend to explore different phenomena of modern life, and many new subfields, such as anthropology of childhood, anthropology of consciousness, medical, economic, ecological anthropology, etc., have emerged recently.

As in any other discipline, anthropological research may be conducted in a better or worse way. Traditionally, the conduct of social sciences’ and, in particular, anthropological, research was not subjected to the type of ethical review as biomedical trials were. It appears that in the US and Western Europe social and behavioral research has only recently started to be reviewed by IRBs, and most of times it goes through an expedited review procedure with the mark ‘minimal risk research’. In other countries (e.g., in Russia) it is not subjected to any type of ethical oversight, and the only ‘moral judge’ in these situations turns out to be the scientist him-/herself.

Any anthropological research is accompanied by a complex of moral choices that a researcher needs to make in the fieldwork and during the following publication process. I may say that in anthropological research one could encounter both ethical issues typical of clinical trials, as well as issues specific to this field. In accordance with 7 ethical requirements for clinical trials suggested by E. Emanuel, one needs to evaluate social and scientific value of anthropological research, scientific validity (how sound the research methods are), risk-and-benefit ratio, informed consent issues and respect for potential and enrolled subjects (Emanuel et al., 2000, p. 2703). On the other hand, “unlike biomedical research studies and clinical trials, in which the sources of risk may be more readily identifiable and quantifiable, risks associated with taking part in social and behavioral science research may be more ambiguous and less predictable, such as individual reactions to certain events or questions” (CITI,  2010). The CITI test authors categorize risks associated with social and behavioral research into three categories: invasion of privacy, breach of confidentiality and issues related to study procedures.

Some of the specific questions that an ethically-minded anthropologist needs to ask him-/herself are: how and from whom am I going to obtain consent for the research? How about consent from people during mass events (e.g., religious ceremonies, weddings, public holidays)? How am I going to approach vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, children, prisoners, sick individuals? There are also more general, almost rhetorical questions, related to research ethics that many anthropologists argue about. For example, is anthropological research more objective when conducted by an ‘insider’, or an ‘outsider’ to the community studied? Do anthropologists need to actively engage in the life of their research communities (e.g., if they see something unjust happening and could prevent it) or just be passive observers?1 All of these issues require special analysis, and will not be described in detail in this paper. In the next chapter I am going to focus on one of the ethical issues of anthropological research – namely, control over publishing of anthropological data.

Control over Publishing of Anthropological Findings

One of the most burning, and yet not fully acknowledged, issues of anthropological research is related to involvement of the research community into the process of publication. This question has been resolved differently by different researchers across the time – but it appears that traditionally anthropologists rarely sought opinion of their interviewees about publication of the field data. Anthropological findings put in scientific papers and books have rarely been revised or even seen by the population they were written about.

The Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association that is supposed to inform moral choices of the US anthropologists, unfortunately, does not say anything about researchers’ obligations to involve local populations into the process of publishing. On the other hand, it recognizes that “in conducting and publishing their research, or otherwise disseminating their research results, anthropological researchers must ensure that they do not harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people with whom they work, conduct research, or perform other professional activities, or who might reasonably be thought to be affected by their research” (American Anthropological Association, 2009). I believe that to uphold their obligations to the community studied, the researchers should consider what their informants see as ‘harm to safety, dignity, and privacy’, and, thus, need to collaborate with them on what is going to be published.

The research described by Alan F. Benjamin in his article “Contract and Covenant in Curacao” shows an illustrative example of the anthropologist who “attempts to comply with the needs, concerns and desires of those gracious enough to consent to participate in our research” (Benjamin, 1999, p. 49). Particularly, before embarking on a research A. Benjamin draws a contract with the community studied that requires the written approval of the congregational board for all materials planned for publishing. Failure to receive this approval would subject him to the fine of $2,800 per day from the date of circulation until all copies are withdrawn from circulation. The researcher states that the contract would help him prevent exploitation of the community, as well as would help correct inaccuracies of his writings.

This approach acknowledges that in small communities “reputations – of individuals, kin groups, and ethnic groups – are crucial in every facet of one’s life. They affect, for example, business affairs, prestige, potential marriage partners, and self-esteem” (Benjamin, 1999, p. 53). Life of small communities with its inner rules and public and tacit codes of behavior is a very delicate and fragile subject, and these communities have a right to close for ‘outsiders’ all or parts of its traditional knowledge and ways of living. An anthropologist may be allowed to passively observe or even take part in the community life, he/she may also be (or become) one of the community members. In all cases the corresponding obligations of researchers is to treat with great respect knowledge and experience that he accessed by the right of birth (for ‘insiders’) or by the favor of the community (for ‘outsiders’). An insider’s moral duty to his/her countrymen, as well as an outsider’s professional responsibility to the community that helped him/her answer research questions should play a decisive role in translation of information to a larger circle of people.

Benjamin notes that community involvement into research does not always need to have the character of a strict contract to review publications that he and the Jewish population of Curacao formulated. He asserts, though, that it is important to ask those under study ‘what they want’. “Those studied may wish, for example, for a contract such as mine, for medical services, for a report on research findings” (Benjamin, 1999, p. 63). The researchers’ responsibility is to hear these ‘voices’ and start to ‘plough around’ the middle ground where both sides – a researcher and research subjects – are satisfied.

The other aspect of this problem is the community’s level of awareness, education and ability to protect its own interests when approached by a researcher. In many cases in these relations I see an inherent power imbalance, as potential research populations are unlikely to have the researcher’s knowledge about his/her research goals and methodology, as well as connections with academic circles and publishing houses. Non-English speaking people (as well as English-speaking people removed from academia) sometimes do not know what is written in academic articles or said in classrooms about them. As N. Scheper-Hughes notices, “we have traditionally worked in what were until recently ‘exotic’ cultures and among preliterate peoples… The anthropologist might, as a professional courtesy, send a village headman or a mestizo mayordomo a copy of the published ethnography, which was often proudly displayed in the village. Its contents, however, normally remained as mysterious as the private life of the ‘masked’ white man, that professional lone stranger, who would periodically reappear (sometimes bearing gifts) and then just as inexplicably vanish (not infrequently at the start of the rainy season)” (Scheper-Hughes, 2001, p. XV). On the other hand, Alan F. Benjamin notices that nowadays “people everywhere are increasingly anxious to control the information that is being released about them” (Benjamin, 1999, p. 57). Modern anthropology, therefore, should reevaluate traditional publishing practices and pay a tribute to people who share with scientists food, shelter and knowledge, as well as contribute to their career promotions and academic recognition.

In Curacao the Jewish population that Benjamin studied was “elite, modern and literate, with prior experience as research subjects” (Benjamin,1999, p. 48). Moreover, members of the congregational board were well educated and aware of the history of research abuses involving Jews in general – so, they knew effective mechanisms of self-protection and insisted on their right to review Benjamin’s publications. Unlike the Jewish community in Curacao, the overwhelming majority of subjects of anthropological research still remain voiceless. One of the notorious stories when the community under study expressed strong resentment about the book that, in their opinion, harmed their public image happened to Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a medical anthropologist from University of California (Berkeley). Scheper-Hughes interpreted the data that she collected during her fieldwork in rural Ireland through the prism of theories of Michel Foucault, Sigmund Freud, Pierre Bourdieu and other famous scientists of the XXth century. The conclusions that were made related a high prevalence of mentally ill people in the west of rural Ireland to decaying farming economy, strict morals of the Irish Catholic Church and the family upbringing of younger sons who were kept from leaving the village for a ‘better fate’, and were led to believe that they are only good for taking care of their aging parents and inheriting the farm. Many local villagers did not like the image of themselves portrayed in the book. Although the author (in her later rebutment of critique) noted that she didn’t disclose any of the private secrets of the villagers, her opponents asserted that the book is unethical as it violates privacy of the community and its right to maintain its ‘community secrets’. In the later editions of the book, as well as in her ‘post-scriptum’ article “Ire in Ireland” (Scheper-Hughes, 2000), the author acted with real courage and wrote honestly about the reaction of locals to the book; she admitted that she intruded into the “commonsense world” of the local population with an alternative and shattering vision. The author did not involve research participants in any type of review of the research data; neither did she tell them that she was planning to put these data in a large-circulation book. The locals argued: “Why could not you have left it a dusty dissertation on a library shelf that no one would read?” (Scheper-Hughes, 2001, p. XVII). Unlike the population of Curacao, the villagers of An Clochan, although literate and ‘reflective’, did not know (or did not use) mechanisms of ‘community self-protection’ – and they had to face a ‘shattering vision’ of their life suggested by a foreign researcher, instead of working with this researcher on what may be called a trade-off of an ‘outsider’ vs. ‘insider’ perspective.


Although in this paper I argue that in anthropological research it is crucial to take into account the community’s opinion while publishing research findings, I also acknowledge potential issues that may occur if the community is given control over ‘representations of their lives’.

Here are, in my opinion, some of the questions that an anthropologist needs to address when he/she decides to delegate some power over his/her writings to the research subjects. I will also try to point out how these issues may be overcome by a researcher (some of these issues were successfully addressed by Benjamin in Curacao research).

1) Doesn’t involvement of community compromise objectivity of anthropological research?

Apparently, any external oversight of scientific papers, as well as any financial, professional or other types of pressure on a scientist could lead to a bias in his/her research outcomes. On the other hand, as was noted by N. Scheper-Hughes, “ethnography is an act of translation, and the kind of ‘truth’ that it produced is necessarily deeply subjective”.

Some of the most prominent social scientists already stated that any type of scientific research is necessarily rooted in an existing scientific paradigm (see, e.g., Kuhn, 1996), and that it is very hard to draw a line between factual and interpretational information (see, e.g., Barnes and Bloor, 1982). This means that in scientific research and, especially, social sciences – one could hardly distinguish between ‘objective’ knowledge and ‘subjective’ opinions. And this makes the task of a social scientist extremely challenging. I believe that a helpful instrument in this case would be to hold an image of your informants before your eyes and try to be honest to them – while trying to sincerely make your point and generalize the findings through a theoretical framework that you found and proved to serve best your purposes. Even if complete objectivity of an anthropological paper is often hardly reachable (complete objectivity, by the way, may ‘wipe off’ all the reflexive work and leave only a naked  outline of facts), holding this image and feeling responsibility before the community can help decrease subjectivity that is inserted into the process. As N.Scheper-Hughes put it, the golden standard of anthropological work consists in reaching “a highly disciplined subjectivity” (Scheper-Hughes, 2000, p. 132).

2) How to decide who exactly in the community should be members of a consulting group?

Selecting an appropriate ‘consulting body’ among the local population may be a hard task too. For example, if a researcher conducts fieldwork in a medical clinic, asking the director or other top executives for a consultation may lead to understatement of voices of patients and doctors, and bring to the front the “official”, often highly ideologized, administrative position. This could lead to reification of existing power structures, and not help the researcher to be more objective.

Asking certain members of the community to help the researcher with his/her work often times reflects personal preferences of the researcher, as he/she may tend to select people he/she gets along with, or finds suitable for other personal reasons.  If a researcher decides to bring local scientists in the discussion, or people otherwise knowledgeable about the type of research questions that he/she asks, there is always the potential that they carry with them their own biases, which may sometimes be even far greater or embedded than those of the investigator.

3) How deep the local consulting group is supposed to understand the research contents?

Creating a local ‘consulting group’ inside the research group implies that they need to have a ‘common language’ with the researcher. Modern anthropology is rich in terms, theories and concepts specific for the field that local population may find hard to understand and evaluate. As A. Benjamin wrote: “I thought that members of the board would not and should not be expected to understand the research and writing process with which I expected to be engaged. They were not familiar with contemporary anthropological scholarship and its processes” (Benjamin, 1999, p. 56).

I believe that if an anthropological paper turns out to be hardly understandable by the local consulting group, the burden should be on the researcher to introduce and explain the key concepts of his/her paper to the group. This educational part, therefore, will not be different from any informed consent process when a researcher simplifies complicated scientific terms to get their overall meaning across to research subjects.

4)     Will not publishing a research paper turn into a lengthy and cumbersome process if I involve a local consulting group?

Of course, limitations related to time, space and funding exist in all research fields. And I acknowledge the fact that the review process by local population may double the time and efforts needed from an anthropologist, as he/she will engage into lengthy two-sided communication with the research group on all types of questions related to his/her paper or book. I think, however, that anthropologists could address these issues by planning publishing activities ahead of time, and designating more time/efforts for working with local consulting group. ­­­

Thus, my point is that ethics of anthropological research requires some sort of reflection over the community involvement to the process of publication. As was asserted in the AAA Code of Ethics: “Anthropological researchers have primary ethical obligations to the people, species, and materials they study and to the people with whom they work. These obligations can supersede the goal of seeking new knowledge, and can lead to decisions not to undertake or to discontinue a research project when the primary obligation conflicts with other responsibilities, such as those owed to sponsors or clients” (American Anthropological Association, 2009).

I believe that research, even the one with scientifically valid design, does not have an absolute value for the humanity. The most famous argument against absolutizing research and scientific knowledge refers to potential negative uses of its results (such as, e.g., creating weapons). In biomedical research – although it made the life of a post-modern person much safer and more comfortable, many public debates turn around implications of high technologies, chronic diseases, new personality and ‘empty self’disorders prevalent in industrialized societies – that came into place of old problems ‘overcome’ by scientific break-throughs.

In anthropological research for every given population there may be things more important than research and new scientific knowledge. That’s why the common argument that involving a local consulting group into publication of anthropological data will ‘inhibit research’ should not be counted, unless it is proven that this research has the greatest value for this particular population at this point in time and space. In other cases, the burden is on researchers to convince the community that the research is important, and carefully work their way together with the locals to pay due attention to their wishes, fears and doubts.




  1. The Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association states that “active contribution and leadership in seeking to shape public or private sector actions and policies may be as ethically justifiable as inaction, detachment, or noncooperation, depending on circumstances” (American Anthropological Association, 2009).
  2. “The empty self” was described by Cushman as the phenomenon of post-Second World War individuals in the Western society who feel alienation, fragmentation, and a sense of confusion and meaninglessness of their lives (Cushman,1990). There is a compulsion to fill up this emptiness, reflected in various ailments of our society: eating disorders, consumers’ buying sprees, and the perceived need for mind-altering substances.


American Anthropological Association (2009), Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association, available at: (accessed 20  April, 2011).

Barnes, B. and Bloor, D. (1982),  Relativism, Rationalism and the Sociology of Knowledge, Rationality and Relativism, Vol. 63, Issue 3, MIT Press, pp. 21–47.

Benjamin, A.F. (1999), Contract and Covenant in Curacao  in King, N. M. P., Henderson G., and Stein J. (Ed.),  Beyond regulations: ethics in human subjects research, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC.

Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI) (2010), CITI test, The CITI Program, University of Miami, available at: (accessed 20  April, 2011).

Cushma, P. (1990), “Why the self is empty: Toward a historically situated psychology”, American Psychology, 45(5), pp. 599–611.

Emanuel, E., Wendler, D. and Grady, C. (2000), “What makes clinical research ethical?”, JAMA, Vol. 283, No. 20.

Kuhn, T.S. (1996), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

Scheper-Hughes, N. (2000), “Ire in Ireland”, Ethnography, Vol. 1 (1), SAGE Publications, London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi, pp. 117–140.

Scheper-Hughes, N. (2001), Saints, scholars, and schizophrenics: mental illness in rural Ireland, University of California Press.

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