Anthropological inquiry in India, like anywhere in the world, envelops a kaleidoscope of moral obligations, choices and responsibilities that a researcher needs to meet owing to the diversity and plurality encountered in ethnographic tradition. An anthropologist may inevitably face a complex of situations characterized by conflicts, misgivings, misunderstandings, etc. that raise the need for ethical considerations in order to facilitate making appropriate choices. Taking cognizance of such need of ethical considerations, Indian Anthropological Association (IAA) and its members have arrived a common understanding of the Code of Ethics in anthropological research based on certain principles and guidelines that provide the researcher with an ethical framework in anthropological enquiry.
India presents uniqueness owing to its very diversity presented in terms of people, language and culture. Anthropology itself has traversed various paths in the country from being a tool for establishing colonial hegemony to an emancipatory one in informing policy discourses. It continues to be a critical bridge between the public and private domains and creating a new kind of partnership. In addition to this, anthropology and its methods are being used by other disciplines in collaborative as well as adaptive form. Thus, anthropological researches and its know-hows are being operationalized in the society to attain different goals and objectives. In this scenario it becomes extremely significant to have broad ethical considerations in place as the responsibility of the discipline caters to a wide range of actors, agencies and social spaces. Different stakeholders include the researcher, research participants, clients, funders, co-workers, transnational corporations, law enforcement agencies, NGOs, etc. The myriad of complexities that these social realities present brings forth ethical dilemmas of variable dimensions. Dilemmas are faced at almost all stages of research including the selection of topic, anthropological universe, source of funding, negotiating with space, employing different tools of data collection during fieldwork, the interpretation of findings, analysis of data and the publication of research outcomes. Though there cannot be any one answer to these dilemmas it is essential that the question of ethics takes a forefront in any anthropological dialogue, and that some ground rules are established to pave the foundation of an ethical discourse in Anthropology especially in context of India.
The imponderables that anthropologists confront rarely admit to the simple wrongs and rights of moral dicta and one of the prime ethical obligations of anthropologists is to carefully and deliberately weigh the consequences and ethical dimensions of the choices they make, by action or inaction. Anthropological scholarship occurs within a variety of economic, cultural, legal and political settings that raise a plethora of ethical concerns and challenges which need to be dealt with using intellectual acuity, moral obligations and sense of responsibility in order to maintain the integrity of the discipline. Sensitivity and the power to empathize are as crucial to an anthropological research as any other methodological tool. It is imperative that Anthropologists remain sensitive to the power differentials, constraints, interests and expectations characteristic of different cultural contexts. The following set of guidelines or broad principles are not the answer to these complexities and responsibilities, but some pointers to be taken into consideration while dealing with ethical issues encountered in anthropological research. It is proposed not only for the members of this association but also for teachers in anthropology, students, other practitioners who collaborate with anthropologists to use anthropological methods for their understanding, funding agencies, academic as well as non-academic institutions, NGOs, etc.
Principles and Guidelines
Respect for People’s Rights, Dignity, and Diversity
Anthropologists must respect the rights, dignity and worth of all people. They should not exercise or promote any forms of discrimination based on age, gender, race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, health conditions and marital or parental status. They should be able to acknowledge and respect the rights of others to hold values, attitudes and opinions that differ from their own.
Responsibility towards the Research Participant
An anthropologist’s primary responsibility lies with the research participants and the community where the research is conducted for the professional judgments and actions taken by the anthropologist may affect the lives of others. Thus, the anthropologist should be alert to and guard against personal, financial, social, organizational or political factors that might lead to misuse of their knowledge, expertise or influence. A primary ethical obligation shared by anthropologists is to do no harm as each researcher needs to evaluate the potential consequences and inadvertent impacts of their work. While they need to be careful against harm, they also need to apply and make public their knowledge in order to contribute to the public good. Besides, a researcher should ensure fair return for the assistance availed from the respondents, informants, groups, local leaders, interpreters, etc. so that they do not feel any kind of economic loss by having participated in the research. Their help and services should be adequately and fairly returned either in kind or in cash. Here, the anthropologists are again faced with the dilemma of discerning whether payment in cash is suitable or appropriate in exchange of their intangible treasure of time and valuable information. In such situations, the researchers may rely on their sense of judgement conditioned by the nature of assistance, requirements of the subjects and relations with them and chose accordingly the most appropriate mode of return or payment.
Anthropologists should be clear and open regarding the objectives, methods, outcomes and sponsorship of their work. They should be forthright in clarifying their roles, rights and obligations with the funding or sponsoring agency and should be willing to share the same with their research participants and the communities where the research is conducted. Further, they should share their research findings with the research participants and take their feedback on the same before presenting it to the world at large. Though certain objectives, focus and methodological nuances do change in the course of research, explicit negotiation with research partners and participants about data ownership, access and dissemination of results may be necessary at the very beginning of the research. Intellectual Property Rights is an important consideration that should not be overlooked. This adopts a special focus and relevance in research with reference to cyber space research where one needs to remain sensitive to the possible implications of re-using those electronic texts, images and sounds, not only in terms of ethical responsibilities to the subjects but also in relation to or by those who created the images or recordings in the first place.
Obtaining Informed Consent
Anthropologists must ensure that the research participants have freely granted consent. The informed consent process is necessarily dynamic, continuous and reflexive. It does not necessarily imply or require a particular written or signed form. It is the quality of the consent, not its format, which is relevant, especially in the Indian context where the respondents might not be literate and/or face inhibitions from placing their signature on paper. However, it is imperative to also recognized that consent is often a prerogative of an individual in power or authority, thus this consent is often sought form administrative officers, village and household head and the rest of the participants often comply under the overt or covert pressure of this authoritative head. Consent needs to be sought from people at a more interpersonal level. Further, one needs to ere at the side of caution as at times silence itself may or may not be a sign of consent, anthropological understanding and expertise as well as integrity are of utmost importance in dealing with situations like this. Visual media in particular might need consent not only at the time of recording but also at the time of publicizing the research outcome because of their nature and it must be carefully used, referenced, and contextualized. Consent needs to be sought in both the private spaces and the public spaces of research. When information is being collected from proxies, care should be taken not to infringe the 'private space' of the subject or the relationship between subject and proxy. Further, in the event that the research changes in ways that will directly affect the participants, anthropologists must revisit and renegotiate consent. In continuation of this idea, long-term and open-ended research might require renegotiation over time and it is an issue to which the anthropologist should return periodically. Informed consent includes sharing with potential participants the research goals, methods, funding sources ,expected outcomes, anticipated impacts of the research, and the rights and responsibilities of research participants. However, it should also include establishing expectations regarding anonymity and credit.
Confidentiality and Anonymity of Research Participants
Anthropologists need to be extra careful in the field as they might inadvertently reveal the source of their information leading to internal problems and skirmishes. In addition to this they have the duty to protect all original records of their research from unauthorized access. They also have a duty to ensure that nothing that they publish or otherwise make public, through textual or audio-visual media that would permit identification of individuals putting their welfare or security at risk. Yet it is important to caution the respondents that confidentiality may be compromised or outcomes may differ from those anticipated.
Scholarly Obligations towards the Discipline and Colleagues
Anthropologists should particularly ensure that they do not alter the state of a research field in any manner that may obstruct access by other researchers in future or jeopardize future research in that area. Therefore, they should conform to general moral rules of scholarly conduct and refrain from any attempt of deceiving participants, fabricating data, misrepresenting evidence, etc. They need to dwell into their conscious and figure out how they might bridge the void they leave behind in the field considering the rapport and the interpersonal relations that they form in the course of their research. Additionally, anthropologists should be aware of the conflicts of interest between scholars that need to be given due respect especially in transnational research. In case of collaborative research such as team ethnography or team involving researchers from other disciplines, the professional obligations and ethical principles need to be made clear. It should be emphasized that there is clarity of roles, responsibilities and rights in terms of access to data, division of labour, publication, etc. Anthropologists need to be open to the feasible ways of sharing their research findings or data with the colleagues however, not to ignore, concurrently, the need to maintain privacy and anonymity. Research outcome needs to be made accessible so they can be used as well as critiqued and carried forward by other interested agencies or researchers. Therefore, records, data and information need to be stored cautiously so they can be accessed at a later date for a reflexive exercise or the proof of authenticity. Researchers also need to acknowledge any assistance availed from their colleagues, the contributions made by other researchers in terms of intellectual inputs and the guidance by the academic supervisor. Most importantly, while publishing the research findings one must absolutely abstain from plagiarism of information or data in any form and one must also quote all the references relied upon in the production of the data.
Abiding by the Laws and Relations with the Governments
While, as a citizen and as a researcher, one is aware of the laws and rules of one’s own government, in case of cross-national research, however, a researcher needs to be very well versed with the host governments. The legal norms and administrative rules may vary between countries and may even affect the conduct of research, data storage or publication rights. Therefore, one must be aware of the consequences of any misappropriation of rules or laws, intentional or unintentional, that may affect adversely the research. However, researchers may seek assurance, while acquiring research access, that while accessing research data in field, the researchers are not required to compromise their professional or scholarly autonomy and responsibilities.
Observance of Ethics while Teaching Anthropology
The teachers or mentors, while teaching anthropology at educational institutions are required to adhere to certain ethical considerations related particularly to sensitivity towards the diverse cultural contexts. Teachers need to be sensitive to the sensibilities of different ethnic groups and not observe any discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, sex, marital status, religion, disability, nationality and other such criteria. They should ensure that teaching is not done in the discourse of the dominant culture and that teaching pedagogy should choose examples from the margins. Moreover, the linguistic ability or disability should be respected. Teachers need to encourage discussions on ethical issues and prepare students or researchers to face and reflect upon various ethical challenges encountered throughout anthropological work. Regarding publication, teachers or research supervisors need to acknowledge the students for their assistance in research or projects and their efforts in making the research possible. They are expected to recompense the students for their participation in academic activities and also encourage them to publish their work or co-authorship in case of collaborative research.
Anthropological research invariably confronts the researchers with several situations of conflicts and dilemmas where they need to make appropriate choices and decisions for which the ethical responsibility and accountability is held absolutely with the researchers. Anthropologists as researchers, teachers, mentors and as members of various institutions are always required to take into account the ethical considerations put forth by this code and beyond. This Code of Ethics presents a set of guidelines and principles and not an edict and thus does not prescribe conformation to these ethics. Rather it is a framework of ethical guidelines that, Indian Anthropological Association believes, can encourage ethically responsible actions and decisions.
For comments and further suggestions contact:
Dr. Indrani Mukherjee
Indian Anthropological Association