Anthropology Newsletter,
October 1994: vol. 35, no. 7, p. 37.

Ethical Dilemmas

Studying Up: Amending the First Principles of Anthropological Ethics

Janine R. Wedel (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars/ George Washington University) and
David A. Kideckel (Central Connecticut State University)

The ethical principle that our "first responsibility is to those whose lives and cultures we study" is as sacred to anthropologists as the Hippocratic Oath is to physicians. At the time anthropology focused largely on the study of "traditional societies" - the dispossessed and marginalized peoples of the so-called Third World - this principle made eminent sense. It sought to protect those studied from exploitation or manipulation by researchers and by the consumers of that research, usually other powerful institutions and individuals from the societies to which anthropologists themselves belonged. Now that anthropologists increasingly "study up" - analyzing those same powerful institutions and individuals of complex societies for purposes of understanding and even contributing to public policy choices - the anthropological ethic ought to be reexamined.

We must build guidelines into our ethical principles for dealing with the great differences in power between the institutions setting and carrying out policies and the groups who are often the target of these policies and with whom we, as anthropologists, deal on a daily basis. We also must enable opportunities for such target populations to be heard in a politically effective manner without ethically compromising their own lives and social conditions.

At Both Ends of the Aid Chain

Our experience and concern about this issue comes from two decades of fieldwork in Eastern Europe and an ongoing study of Western aid to East Europe underwritten by the National Science Foundation. In this project we examine both donors (those with the purse strings and presumably the power) and recipients (presumably the disenfranchised) and the diverse interrelationships that connect the two. Such interrelationships encompass donor ideologies, policies and organization of aid programs, as well as the social and political responses of aid recipients.

Through studying both the ends and linkages of this aid chain we are faced with a number of ethical dilemmas. First is the question of maintaining equal responsibility to both sides of the power relationship (e.g., donors vs. recipients or recipient government institutions vs. local organizations). These groups have differential access to power and can come into conflict with one another over foreign assistance issues. Bureaucratic organizations of complex society are quite capable of defending themselves from exploitation, while the targets of bureaucracies often lack avenues to publicize their opinions. For example, when Western criticism mounts as foreign assistance fails to accomplish its goals, - or when the aid-related policies of recipient governments and bureaucracies have unintended local consequences, East European farmers, factory workers and lower-level managers typically have fewer resources to make their interests known or to defend them in either the West or to their own governments. In contrast, the aid institutions of the developed world and sometimes the ministries of post-socialist states can ably defend themselves and their policies with batteries of public relations specialists, lawyers and access to policymakers in the former and the organs of state power and media control in the latter. Such a defense will often allow benighted practices to continue uninterrupted despite the better judgment of specific individuals in donor and recipient governmental agencies or of others at the local level.

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Defining Responsibility

Given asymmetrical power to protect their own interests, is it appropriate to ethically relate to such organizations and their agents in a similar fashion as to those on the receiving end of foreign assistance programs and policies? Must we assure that our activities pose no threat to the well-being of these institutions? Are we ethically bound to a neutral position when we work with groups at both ends of the power relation?

To resolve this dilemma we sought answers from the most recent joint statement on ethics of the Society for Applied Anthropology and from the National Association of Practicing Anthropologists, organizations we assumed to be most attuned to questions of disparate power. Each of these sources, however, inadequately addresses the issue of power and access in anthropological research regarding institutions of complex society. Each echoes the current AAA statement on ethics with respect to the "dignity, integrity and worth" of communities, adding a statement on the need to prevent distortion or suppression of research results or policy recommendations by concerned agencies. They do not reflect any principled statement about how to bring issues of power into the open or how to ensure equitability in the collection and presentation of data about such circumstances.

Although the first responsibility of anthropologists is to those whose lives and cultures they study, the nature of anthropological responsibilities should differ when "studying up." We suggest that different principles and practices should be employed in this case, notably that it is necessary to distinguish between individual informants and an entire culture or society. Thus, in our research on donors of foreign aid in Eastern Europe, individual informants are representatives of donor agencies while the donor agency is equivalent of the culture or society. It is only by making such a distinction that potential ethical principles can be elaborated and defined.

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The Journalist’s Approach

Like the AAA statement on ethics, we suggest that the first responsibility of anthropologists working at this level is to protect individual informants. At the same time, however, the confidentiality demanded by the statement sometimes runs counter to the need to shed daylight on the activities and policies of the agencies that employ them. To resolve this contradiction, we suggest that anthropologists adopt some basic principles from journalism. (In fact anthropologists engaged in research in government agencies on potentially sensitive issues will find it difficult to operate without doing so because it will be expected of them by their informants.)

Adopting the journalist's code means that we must first represent ourselves accurately to our informants; for example, that we are anthropologists and what that means, who we work for and in what capacity and the ends for which our information is gathered. We must also come to an agreement with our informants ("sources" to a journalist) at the beginning of interviews whether the information they are providing is Mon "on background," off the record," or "on the record," and never confuse these in publication. Information "on background" can only be used without attribution to specific individuals. Information "off the record" is never for attribution. It can only be used to enhance the researcher's understanding of the issues though it often enables one to identify and ask other sources to go on the record, confirming the same information. Information gathered "on the record" can be used explicitly with informants quoted by name.

Anthropological Truth

What of the anthropologist's respon­sibility to the culture or society in the case of studying up? The image of a lone anthropologist with notebook in hand, defending an agency that has teams of PR specialists armed with press kits and briefing materials and media access to counter any nuance judged unfavorable to the agency is ludicrous indeed. In agencies equipped with full-time PR units for spinning the "truth," we believe that an anthropologist's responsibility to the agency need not be the same as to a tribal group in subordinated political economic cir­cumstances. We therefore suggest that, rather than a vague responsibility to protect the "culture," our responsibility should be to discover and analyze anthropological truths. This is why we are present in such settings after all; our work may hopefully spark public debate and encourage the translation of anthropological research into more effective public policy.

We have made two suggestions for studying up in the context of complex societies. First, anthropologists should retain primary responsibility to individual informants, including protecting them by using the journalist's code. Second, harming the culture or society should be of less concern because it is capable of protecting itself and should, in any case, be more open to public critique. Although these suggestions do not resolve all dilemmas raised by such research, we hope that they will provide a start.

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