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Ethics in Research

The establishment of a Code of Ethics by the American Anthropological Association demonstrates that the members of the anthropological community are aware that their object of study is the human being, and as such, research and teaching must include an ethical dimension in order to safeguard against possible negative consequences of the profession. Thus, the AAA Code of Ethics concisely recapitulates what anthropologists consider to be the meaning of ethics itself, according to the specific ethical issues that are highlighted in this document. In an examination of the AAA Code, it becomes apparent that the latter above all emphasizes the dignity of the human subject, to the extent that one could say the underlying message of this code is that the object of anthropological discourse must first and foremost always be considered a subject.

The Code begins its understanding of ethics by stating that anthropological researchers are essentially confronted by two forms of obligations. The first is an obligation that does not differ from those of “members of other groups, such as the family, religion, and community” thus indicating that anthropologists have a basic social commitment and responsibility. At the same time however, there is an obligation to the “scholarly discipline”. The Code of the AAA can be read as attempt to sort through these “complex involvements and obligations” insofar as they conflict with each other: how may the necessary obligation to being part of a community and the social responsibilities that this carries, be reconciled with the scientific approach to the anthropological field?

In light of this question, the Code specifically delineates relevant issues to help the anthropological reconcile these different obligations. The Code intends to provide “guidelines for making ethical choices in the conduct of their anthropological work.” These guidelines are structured around the two main areas of anthropological research and anthropological teaching. Within the context of research, the primary emphasis is on the obligations to individuals who partake in the research process, as opposed to obligations to the project itself: Essentially, ethical commitments are given greater pertinence than anthropological projects. Hence, specific issues relating to participants in the process are underscored: For example, their physical safety; the maintenance of their anonymity if they so desire; and their general awareness of the stakes of the project are all necessary conditions for properly ethical research. In addition, further research obligations exist towards the anthropological community and the general public. Data and research are to be openly available, whereas efforts must be made to transmit clearly the “empirical bases upon which their reports stand” This emphasis on a transparency of research indicates that a scientific rigor is inseparable from ethical commitments, as clearly articulating the grounds and implications of research leads to the better understanding of this same research. In terms of teaching, the integrity of the didactic relationship is of the utmost importance, as anthropologists have obligations to their students: for example, their education must be prioritized, whereas acknowledgments of their potential contributions to research are to be made. This once again stresses the notion that the anthropologist works in an environment constituted by diverse social relationships: maintaining the health of these relationships is the crucial ethical dimension of the anthropologist’s labor.

Accordingly, the Ethical Code can be said to acknowledge the overall effect of social science research. The latter does not occur in a vacuum, but occurs within the very social milieu being studied, and therefore is a part of it. The establishment of an ethical code helps the social scientist and anthropologist create priorities within their work, which is the simultaneous acknowledgment of their place within this greater community. Such an approach helps engender a position of integrity from which to perform tasks, as the social scientist understands that their research also bears an ethical obligation. Because of the complex network of inter-relationships that constitute the activities of the social scientist and anthropologist, an ethical framework helps them understand how to orient themselves within this context.

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