African American Heritage & Ethnography Ethnographic Research Center: Ethics In Ethnographic Research

Ethics in Ethnographic Research

Ethnographers, like others in a profession or community, follow a code of ethics. With the many challenges that an anthropologist may face, having a code of ethics as a guideline is useful in the collection, dissemination, and utilization of information collected while in the field. The Code of Ethics as presented by the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) are used as primary guides for ethnographers, including those within the National Park Service.

The American Anthropological Association Code of Ethics states that anthropologists “…have a duty to be informed about ethical codes relating to their work, and ought periodically to receive training on current research activities and ethical issues” (AAA 1996). It is expected that researchers reveal their purpose for study, potential impacts and sources of support as well as utilize information gained in an appropriate fashion. Anthropologists are also to disseminate the results of their research in a timely manner. Furthermore, there are responsibilities that anthropologists ought to be aware of including responsibilities to:

The SfAA’s Code of Ethics is similar to that of the AAA. The SfAA expresses that people who participate in research activities should do so voluntarily and be provided with a means of confidentiality. Communities in which research is done are to be respected and all action potentially harmful to the community should be avoided. Anthropologists are not to impede the professional activities of others. Students and interns are to be trained and acknowledged publicly if they contribute to research. Employers and sponsors are to receive accurate reports, and knowledge gained from research is to be disseminated to society as a whole. Read the full text of the code of Ethics.

With regards to the National Park Service, those engaging in scientific research must conduct “all scientific activities with honesty, accuracy and integrity” (Draft 305 DM 3). Those conducting research must do so in a timely manner and without conflict of interest or intentional manipulation. There is a responsibility to resources including funds, time and people as well as a responsibility to disclose all research methods, data, final reports and publications. It is expected that scientists will not intentionally hinder the scientific activity of others through misconduct and that there will be a differentiation between facts, opinions, hypotheses and professional judgment in the dissemination of research. Issues of confidentiality are to be respected, whenever possible, although under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), confidentiality may not be guaranteed. Read one ethnographer's comments on ethnographic research and FOIA.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows anyone, with the exception of a fugitive from justice, the right to access federal agency records (information collected with public funds) unless the records are protected from one of nine exemptions. Those exemptions include records that are a matter of national defense/security; internal personnel rules and practices; information exempted by other statutes; trade secrets, commercial or financial information; privileged intra or interagency memoranda or letters; personal information affecting an individuals privacy; records complied for law enforcement purposes; records of financial institutions; and geological and geophysical information concerning wells. Learn more about FOIA.

Anthropologists working for governmental agencies like the National Park Service should be aware that information collected with public funds technically belongs to those agencies. The legal maze surrounding anthropological data and its dissemination in relation to federal agencies has been examined by Muriel Crespi and Carla Matix. To learn more, see “Negotiating Ethical and Legal Mazes in the Federal Workplace.”