The Ethics of Anthropology: Debates and Dilemmas


Edited by Pat Caplan
London and New York: Routledge 2003

From the inception of their discipline, anthropologists have studied virtually every conceivable aspect of other peoples' morality - religion, social control, sin, virtue, evil, duty, purity and pollution. But what of the examination of anthropology itself, and of its agendas, epistemes, theories and practices? In 1991, Raymond Firth spoke of social anthropology as an essentially moral discipline. Is such a view outmoded in a postmodern era? Do anthropological ethics have to be rethought each generation as the conditions of the discipline change, and as choices collide with moral alternatives?

The Ethics of Anthropology looks at some of these crucial issues as they reflect on researcher relations, privacy, authority, secrecy, and ownership of knowledge. The book combines theoretical papers and case studies from eminent scholars including Lisette Josephides, Steven Nugent, Marilyn Silverman, Andrew Spiegel and Veronica Strang. Showing how the topic of ethics goes to the heart of anthropology, it raises the controversial question of why - and for whom - the anthropological discipline functions.

Four events coincided to suggest to me that the ethics of anthropological practice was a subject which might well be re-aired. The first was the decision in 1999 of the Committee of the Association of Social Anthropologists, of which I was then a member, to revise its ethical guidelines originally formulated in1988. The revision was prompted in part by the remark of one member that the guidelines appeared 'somewhat dated', but also by a complaint from another member that the Ethics Committee in his institution was not only demanding to scrutinise all research by academics, but that by students too. It prompted me to wonder if ethical guidelines had to be regularly revised to suit new conditions.

The second was the furore which erupted, even before it had been published, over the recent book by Patrick Tierney (2001) about anthropological research carried out over several decades on the Yanomami Indians of Venezuela, a topic which is the subject of Nugent's chapter in this book. As an office-holder of the ASA, I was jointly responsible with the Director of the RAI for drafting a press release about the position of the two major British anthropology associations on this matter. How do such associations discuss the ethics of anthropologists who are not even their members - and is it ethical to do so?

The third was an invitation to an international meeting of European social scientists in July 2000 held with a view to drafting an ethical code applicable to all social science disciplines. Although the meeting lasted for two intensive days, it rapidly became apparent that the task set us was nigh impossible. Anthropologists, lawyers, experimental psychologists, philosophers, sociologists - finding a common language, even establishing our basic premises, was problematic. So are there different ethics for different disciplines?

Finally, around the same time I was confronted with the necessity to make statements on the ethical implications of my own proposed research by a number of the funding bodies for social science in Britain to which I was applying . I found myself invoking the ASA guidelines, even appending copies with my application forms. Does this suggest that such codes are more for our own protection and to satisfy committees rather than ensuring that anthropologists think through the ethical implications of their research?

In the spring term of 2001, I convened a seminar at Goldsmiths College to discuss some of these issues. Ten people gave papers, of whom seven went on to contribute to this volume, while a further three (Silverman, Spiegel and Eltringham) were recruited subsequently to the project and deserve particular thanks for producing papers at short notice.

Chapter 1. Introduction: anthropologists and ethics Pat Caplan

Part 1: Debates
Chapter 2. 'Like a Horse in Blinkers': A Political History of Anthropology's Research Ethics David Mills
Chapter 3. 'Being There': The magic of presence or the metaphysics of morality? Lisette Josephides
Chapter 4. 'Clubbed to Death': Anthropology, the Yanomami, Science and Ethics Stephen Nugent
Chapter 5. 'The Blind Men and the Elephant': the Challenge of Representing the Rwandan Genocide Nigel Eltringham

Part 2: Dilemmas
Chapter 6. Everyday Ethics: a Personal Journey in Rural Ireland, 1980-2001 Marilyn Silverman
Chapter 7. 'To Tell or Not to Tell': Ethics and Secrecy in Anthropology and Childbearing in Rural Malawi Gill Barber
Chapter 8. The Construction of Otherness in Modern Greece: the State, the Church and the Study of Religious Minorities Vassilikki Kravva
Chapter 9. An Appropriate Question? The Propriety of Anthropological Analysis in the Australian Political Arena Veronica Strang
Chapter 10. 'A Spectrum of Grey': Some Reflections on Morality from Inside and Outside the British Magical Subculture Susan Greenwood
Chapter 11. Revealing a Popular South African Deceit: the Ethical Challenges of an Etymological Exercise Andrew Spiegel

Other publications on ethics, reflexivity and methodology

  • 1988: "Engendering knowledge: the politics of ethnography" Anthropology Today 4: 8-12 & 5:14-17 (also published as 1992 "Engendering Knowledge" in The Persons and Powers of Women, ed. S. Ardener, Berg Press: 65-87)
  • 1993a "Introduction II" to Gendered Fields ed. D. Bell, P. Caplan and W. Karim. Routledge: 19-27
  • 1993b "Learning Gender: field work in a Tanzanian coastal village, l965 85" Gendered Fields ed. D. Bell, P. Caplan and W. Karim. Routledge: 168-81
  • 1994: "Distanciation or differentiation what difference does it make?" Critique of Anthropology 14, 2, l994: 99-115.
  • 2002. 'Joke Shrijvers: an Appreciation' in E. Lammers and L. Nencel. Making Waves: inspiring critical and feminist research: a tribute to Joke Schrijvers Amsterdam, Aksant, 32-5.
  • 2001. 'Risky Business: The Changing Landscapes of Anthropology' Paul Stirling Memorial Lecture, University of Kent UKC, 14th Feb.