Do the right thing: ethics in anthropological practice

Terence Wright

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionpeer-review


    The paper focuses on visual ethnography in situations of conflict. For the purposes of the discussion ‘conflict’ may be defined loosely - as an intense rivalry between groups or as open warfare. It will investigate the responsibility of photographers, filmmakers, ethnographers to present a ‘balanced’ representation of the conflict. Is there an obligation to present points of view from both sides? Or does this depend on the nature of the conflict itself? For example, while one might consider it important to give accounts from both Republican and Loyalist perspectives in the Northern Ireland conflict, it may not be considered so important where repression appears quite obvious, as in the struggle for democracy in Burma/Myanmar. In such instances, is it necessary for the ethnographer to state his/her own position with regard to the conflict? Or remain aloof, aiming for a standpoint of ‘objective’ research and reporting? Or do we rely on the anthropologist to provide the ‘alternative voice’? How do we avoid, or come to terms with, imposing our own ethical or cultural values on such situations? We might also consider some of the conflicts that the anthropologist may encounter. What are the dangers of ‘embedded ethnography’: getting assistance from (or working with) the police, military, NGOs or other interest groups who might be operating to agendas that conflict with those of the ethnographer? Furthermore, do conflicts arise out of the photographic or the filmmaking process itself? The formal qualities of the medium can be used to slant the argument to favour one side over another. What are the dangers of this occurring subconsciously on the part of the ethnographer?
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationUnknown Host Publication
    EditorsTerence Wright, Iise Dobrin
    Number of pages0
    Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 23 Nov 2013
    EventAmerican Anthropological Association - Chicago, USA
    Duration: 23 Nov 2013 → …


    ConferenceAmerican Anthropological Association
    Period23/11/13 → …

    Bibliographical note

    Organizers: Lise Dobrin (University of Virginia) and Terence Wright (University of Ulster)

    In this roundtable, co-sponsored and facilitated by the Committee on Ethics, the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology, and the Society for Visual Anthropology, four anthropologists address challenging ethical questions across a range of sub-disciplines and types of anthropological practice (research, contract employment, training). Audience members will be actively encouraged to join in the discussion, weighing possible stances and exploring their implications. One case, presented by Terence Wright, focuses on visual ethnography in situations of conflict. While one might consider it important to provide balanced images of a conflict, doing so may seem unethical in cases of systematic repression, as in the struggle for democracy in Burma/Myanmar; and in embedded ethnography, objective presentation may be impossible. What principles can be used to guide ethical representation in such situations? Another case, presented by Terry Redding, raises questions about the influence of sponsors on anthropological research, especially when protocols are vague or slanted toward the sponsor's needs. In the case discussed, an aid agency funded an evaluation of an international health project, but then rejected the anthropologists' report because it failed to present the project in an attractive light. How can anthropologists maintain their integrity in contracted research? A third case considers the problem of cultural stereotypes that can give rise to ethical quandaries in research. While working in the southern Ryukyus, Yoshinobu Ota was viewed by the local people as someone from “Yamato,” a person originating from the main islands of Japan. This assessment carried with it a long memory of colonization and exploitation by the Japanese. Ota will discuss the ethical conflicts that resulted from Okinawans' perceptions of him as a historical subject. The final case, presented by Elisa Gordon, recipient of the Committee on Ethics 2012 Ethics Curriculum Development Grant, seeks to foster discussion of the currently available models of ethics education for ethnographic research. The most widely utilized forms of ethics training are internet-based; yet these resources are structured in a click-through mode that relies upon memorization and regurgitation of facts rather than critical thinking. How might we pursue web 2.0 principles of participant engagement and interactivity when designing and implementing online education for anthropology, a discipline in which the emergent nature of knowledge production makes special demands on practitioners to constantly rethink and reevaluate options in context? This question comes at a critical moment when the AAA is preparing its Principles of Professional Responsibility for presentation online.


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