The Importance of Being Ethical
In recent days there has been quite a bit of hubbub about the use of anthropologists to support the American military in local involvement in Afghanistan (“Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones“, New York Times, November 5, 2007). Anthropologists, public policy experts, military experts, and even design anthropologists have weighed in on the ethics of using ethnography and anthropological insight to support military objectives.
Without getting into the debate about this specific instance, the discussion has reminded me of our call to be ethical in our dealings with research participants, and I wanted to say a few words about that.
Cheskin works hard to make sure that all interaction with clients, participants, and colleagues are ethical, and this is of particular interest when the encounter is characterized by the depth, intensity, and potential vulnerability of an ethnographic interview. We strive to live by four “laws” that govern such interactions. I thought I’d briefly outline them here.
Firstly, we have an ethical responsibility to maintain the dignity and integrity of those we interview. Each of us is empowered to determine for ourselves how we live our lives and how we choose to operate. As researchers, we have to affirm that right in those we encounter in research contexts. We must ensure that nothing impinges on this right, and that our biases and our behaviors (including words and attitudes) don’t imply otherwise. We strive to make sure that participants always know that they are free to say “yes” and “no” to discussing any area or performing any task, and that they can say ‘no’ without fear of judgment or condemnation from us. We’re not perfect, but we pledge to always do our part to maintain the dignity of research participants.
One important element of preserving dignity is being honest with consumers. While we can’t always divulge all the details of a research project (like the sponsor or the exact nature of the project), we feel it’s important to be as honest as possible with research participants. This means letting them know what we can and can’t tell them. It means not lying about how research is used (or being intentionally misleading about the nature of the research). This is a tricky area, and we work closely with clients to make sure we’re clear on what we’ll tell participants about the study. But intentionally misleading or dishonest is something we’re not.
Research often calls us to probe about thoughts, feelings, attitudes and behaviors that are private and personal. It’s incumbent upon the researcher to foster an environment of safety and trust where the participant feels OK sharing that information. It’s also incumbent upon us to make sure that that information is treated with respect and confidentiality. This may seem like a trivial point in research about purchase processes or cleaning behaviors, but it becomes very important where we need participants to discuss things that aren’t so straightforward – like tax reporting and financial matters, marital relationships, or potential illegal downloading of media. In order to get a true understanding of what consumers are doing, we have to maintain confidentiality about identity – especially if there’s a chance that names could get tied to addresses, phone numbers, or personal information. We pledge to always maintain participants’ confidentiality.
Finally, above all else, safety is crucial. This is just as important for clients and researchers as it is for participants. Research has taken us all over the globe and into all kinds of neighborhoods and environments. We strive to keep everyone’s safety as a top priority. For researchers (and clients who often accompany us), this means always being aware of surroundings and trusting instincts about how a situation feels. If it doesn’t feel safe, it probably isn’t, and we encourage researchers to always keep that in mind. For participants, it means that the people they let into their homes for research are safe people. They are credentialed and can be trusted. It also means that researchers, while always trying to maintain objectivity and be silent observers, will intervene if there is an emergency. Imagine a researcher in a participant’s home who sees a toddler wander into the kitchen with an open bottle of bleach. That researcher is obliged to break the “observer” stance and intervene to let the parent know that the child is in danger. This is done with respect, but it is done nonetheless.
Again – we’re not perfect. But these ethical obligations are taken seriously here. I feel like it helps us to be better researchers, have more integrity in the field, and to have deeper connections with our participants and our clients.