Ethics Task Force – Draft Principle: Balance the Responsibility

8 thoughts on “Ethics Task Force – Draft Principle: Balance the Responsibility”

  1. I think that the statement included in the discussion following this principle contains a very important caveat. If this principle is to be adopted, then researchers must by all means ensure that there is an “explicit negotiation about dissemination and data access with sponsors/clients”, as noted in the statement above. This negotiation prior to commencing a project is vital in order for this principle to be effective. It will also ensure that the researcher has some clear guidance if concerns about the dissemination of results arise during the course of the research. In Canada, the practice of drafting a community research agreement prior to beginning research with First Nations communities is very common, and these agreements often include explicit and detailed descriptions of how, when, and with whom research results will be shared. It is also common for researchers negotiating with research partners (ie: the community) prior to beginning a project to frame ways in which participants may withdraw certain sensitive data from the record (ie: such as the issues of cultural heritage, intellectual property, etc…noted in the statement following the draft principle). In these cases, the participants have the agency and right to determine which details may be damaging to themselves, and the negotiation ensures that both the researcher and the participant have discussed the risks and benefits of disseminating certain information. Ultimately the researcher is not forced to make well-intended (but potentially misguided) decisions for people as the research agreement gives the researcher guidance on how to approach these situations.

    My main concern in considering this proposed principle is that it could be misconstrued to allow anthropologists who have done sloppy work, and who are scared about a backlash from the community as a result, to hide behind the principle by claiming that disseminating the results may ‘harm’ the community. In essence this could close down debate between the research participants and the researcher regarding their differing views of the project and its results. In turn this could also limit the potentially rich and informative discourse between the community and the researcher regarding differing interpretations of the data and its potential harm.

    This principle has more weight when considered along side draft principle three (“Be open and honest regarding your work. Make your results accessible.”) Taken together these principles lay the groundwork for research that is transparent, respectful of potential harm to participants, and allows participants to make informed decisions about whether or not to become involved in the project.

    Barry R. Bainton’s point about the legal and ethical dimensions of dissemination of results is also important. There may be circumstances where a community is concerned about the legal ownership of data, and in turn how the researcher disseminates the results within that legal/ownership framework. I think that this principle should spur researchers to discuss these issues at the outset. Should a conflict arise whereby participants feel that the sharing of results with stakeholders (ie: funders) may negatively impact them, the researcher should weigh these considerations carefully. Hopefully, if the researcher has discussed the potential outcomes of the research prior to beginning the project, these types of conflicts will be easier to resolve. However, I think that this principle does give the researcher the ability to consider what to do should there be a case for limited or no dissemination. That being said, I tend to agree with Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban’s statement that dissemination should be the default (given my previously stated concerns about researchers using this principle to obscure sloppy work).

  2. “There was one comment posted on the second principle which we want to take a moment to address now: “It would be helpful if the Task Force would articulate why the current code is deficient.”

    There is one problem with the current code as stated in the way these principles are stated. Too much detail and verbiage!

    It might be better to use the Ten Commandments format (simple principle) than the IRS Income Tax Code format (which attempts to cover every contingency).

    The former promotes a moral code encouraging the individual to aspire to a high standard. The latter is a legal document that invites the individual to look for and find loopholes. A professional ethical code should inspire us to aspire to a high standard of service, and not look for a way out of our responsibilities.

  3. The question of dissemination is an ethical and a legal question.
    The ethical question rests in the priority of the stakeholders to which the anthropologist is accountable, e.g Science/discipline; subject(s) (individual and/or collective); Students; Funding source(s); Clients; etc. The interests of these stakeholders will vary based on the specific circumstance the anthropologist finds him/herself.

    The legal question is one of control and ownership. Who owns the data? And, what rights does the anthropologist have to the use the data beyond the original purpose for which it was collected and paid for?

    Any ethical code that ignores the legal dimension is not an ethical code. If the profession or its authorized representative which imposes the code on its members is unwilling to enforce the code and/or to back its members by defending them in court if necessary to uphold the code, then the ethical code is a sham. Such a code creates a situation where the individual and society are left confused about the rules and the commitment of profession to be self policing..

  4. I am a little nervous about the statement in the preamble paragraphs that the code “will be revisited and revised again with frequency.” I would only caution that, with new revisions, old versions of the code should remain on the AAA website and within our organizational memory, and the reasons for issuing a revised version of the code should be stated and should remain with any new version of the code. If you come up with a code that has to be constantly tweaked and revised, then it probably means you did not identify the most broad and basic principles around which wide consensus can be found.

    as for Principle No. 4 – the statement of it is straightforward and seems to be broad enough to attract wide consensus; but the discussion underneath it muddies the waters a bit. I saw this a bit with the previous principle as well. The writer(s) of these comments seem to have certain kinds of anthropological research circumstances in mind, but are not making this clear, and so the reader – whatever sort of research she is engaged in – must try to locate herself in the comments, since they are presented as general principles. But they are not: the circumstances of anthropological research done for corporate or marketing purposes is going to involve a slightly different set of ethical issues than anthropological research done for the purpose of discovering new knowledge about human beings and their lived experience, and sharing that knowledge in venues such as teaching, scholarly publications and academic conferences, popular communication (non-academic writing, public lectures, etc.). If you try to mix together these rather different “flavours”, you are just going to get a mess that no one can swallow. I would rather see you serve them all up with their own individual integrity and let their nuances show through. And by comparing and contrasting the different “flavours” of anthropology, I think it would actually be easier to determine ways of stating ethical principles that are basic and broad enough that consensus can be found regardless of where you are coming from.

  5. Balance of ethical obligations among stakeholders, including research participants, is an important advance. This balance requires careful consideration and consultation with affected parties in advance of the commencing of research. Adding advanced plannng to the principle advises users of the code that they need to think about and make decisions regarding issues of dissemination well in advance of their field work.
    The default position should be dissemination. Whenever withholding dissemination is determined to be the preferred strategy, it needs to be justified as it can elide to or give the appearance of deception.

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