What Ethical Issues Does Ethnography Raise How Might We Deal with These?

Ethics can be defined as a “set of moral principles and beliefs that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity” with its main principle of doing ‘good’ and preventing harm (Oxford Dictionaries: 2011). However Orb et al (2002:93) states that Ethical issues can best be described or expressed as the “tension between the aims of research to make generalizations for the good of others, and the rights of participants to maintain privacy. Ethical issues and moral dilemmas are seen to arise in almost any type of research concerning human participants; in quantitative, biomedical, psychological, anthropological and sociological research. The infringement of some ethical issues which arise are considered to be more serious than others; however in order to minimise these ethical dilemmas, researchers must follow and obey a strict set of ethical guidelines in order to protect and minimise harm caused to participants or research subjects.
Urie Bronfenbrenner suggests that there is no way of conducting research without breaching the principles of professional ethics, and that the only way of avoiding such dilemmas is to cease the conduct of any research (Fine 1993:267). Clearly there a variety of differing ethical dilemmas which occur in research, however those which arise in ethnographic research are in complete contrast to those ethical dilemmas raised in biomedical or quantitative research, where some might suggest that ethical problems are greater (Alder et al 1986).
Punch (1994) goes further in suggesting that qualitative studies such as ethnography rarely, if ever, raise ethical issues (Orb 2000:93); however this statement is heavily debated. This essay aspires to discuss and analyse the ethical issues which arise in ethnography and discuss how valid and harmful these issues really are. The paper will also seek to discuss how researchers may overcome these ethical dilemmas and as to whether they are really effective means to dealing with the issue.

However, firstly this essay will commence by giving a brief history of ethics, draw upon problems concerning the ethical review board guidelines and outline two contrasting dimensions of ethics. Today ethics are seen to be used as a tool to guide and direct research studies, however it seems that before the mid 1950’s research studies gave little regard to ethical guidelines or their research subjects causing a great deal of harm and distress to individuals and cultures (Akeroyd 008:133). An extreme example of this happened in America, from 1932 to 1972, many African American people where deliberately left untreated for syphilis as researchers wanted to find out what would happen if the illness was left (Orb 2002:93). Questions are today raised as to whether these studies should be disregarded as so many ethical issues and dilemmas were raised in pioneering research.
However, today research studies are under strict regulation and scrutiny from ethical review boards, that have developed guidelines and controls which must be obeyed during any type of research. In the US, the Institutional review board (IRB) review all federally funded projects and require the researchers to follow a strict set of rules whilst conducting their studies, such as informing their participants of the objectives of research, obtaining consent from participants, protecting them from harm and so forth (Murphy and Dingwall 2007:340).
However the ethical guidelines set by Institutional Review Boards have been criticized greatly by many social scientists claiming that the codes set have been designed around biological or quantitative models of research which are totally inapplicable nor relevant to social research and in particular ethnographic studies (Akeroyd 2008:147). Social scientists argue that the ethical guidelines set are not sensitive to ethnographic research and due to this may cause harm to individuals or groups studied; further they argue that the guidelines are liable to constrict research unnecessarily (Murphy and Dingwall 2007).
In ethnographic research it would seem that ethical dilemmas are strongly correlated to the ontological and epistemological foundations of the research. However there seem to be two differing dimensions in explaining ethical issues, firstly is the concequentialist approaches and secondly there is the deontological approaches and in order to accomplish good quality research both approaches must be regarded. The consequentialist approaches are primarily concerned with the outcomes of the research and as too whether the participant is harmed during the study, and if they were, did the ends justified the means?
The deontological approaches are on the other hand concerned with the participant’s rights, such as were they treated with respect, informed consent and did were their rights to privacy and autonomy attained (Murphy and Dingwall 2007:340). Many presume that these approaches are in competition however they are not because in actual fact these two contrasting approaches work in sync in order to protect participants from harm whilst also respecting the rights of participants.
Beaucamp et al (1982) were one of the first to consider the consequentialist and deontological approaches and devised a list of ethical principles to be complied with when conducting research (Murphy and Dingwall 2007:340). In their list of principles BeauChamp et al noted Non-maleficience, Beneficence, self-determination and justice. They noted that Non-maleficience, requires the researcher to protect participant from harm and Beneficence suggests that the research must discover and obtain something of significance from the research for it to be ethical; these two approaches fall under the consequentialist approach.
The deontological approaches outlined by Beaucamp et al are Self-determination, where the researcher must respect participant’s views and beliefs and Justice where the researcher is required to treat participants as an equal to themselves. Here firstly the consequentialist approaches to ethics will be discussed. Unlike in biomedical research, if harm occurs within ethnographic fieldwork it is likely to be indirect rather than direct.
When biological scientists are testing new drugs or surgery they directly put the research participant under risk of harm and the harm will occur during the procedure; however in ethnography the harm which occurs is not so obvious, visible or direct. It would be foolish to think that ethnographic field work was free from the problem of endangering participants; as it can harm individuals, but just not in the same way as biomedical research. In ethnographic field work if harm has taken place, then the participant will most probably not feel the effects until after the study has ended.
In ethnography, if participants are ever harmed, they are usually harmed when the research studies they have participated in have been published or publicized (Murphy and Dingwall 2007:341). The reasons which lie behind this are due to the fact that once the work of an ethnographer has been published they have no control over how individuals read or interpret their work and how other people will use their work in the future (Akeroyd 2008). Through the publication of the researchers work research subjects can be put under a great deal of stress, apprehension and embarrassment and through this their confidence and self-worth can become damaged.
Participants may become embarrassed about views they hold if they sense that the researcher disagrees with their outlook or if the researcher makes it apparent that they are surprised that they hold such views. Furthermore this embarrassment and anxiousness caused by research may be likely to increase if the media hype the publication of the study, even in cases where the participant’s identity remains anonymous (Murphy and Dingwall 2007:347). An example of a study where the research subject was embarrassed and harmed through the publication of research is ‘Whyte’s Street corner society study’.
Richardson (1992:114) writes about ‘Docs’ reaction after reading what was said about him in the study, he suggests that Doc was embarrassed about what was said about him and his sense of pride and self respect was damaged. After the publication of the study ‘Doc’ pleaded with Whyte never to reveal to anyone who he was and to keep his identity anonymous. Boelen writes how ‘Docs’ sons believed that the Street Corner study ruined their father’s life (Richardson 1992:115).
In response to this criticism some social scientists have suggested that ethnographers and their participants should work in partnership when producing reports (Murphy and Dingwall 2007). Others have suggested that too deal with such problem, all studies should present their participants with the right to reply. Some research subjects have sent letters to their local papers in response to publications they have taken part in. (Slack 2011) Another way in which ethnography is seen to cause harm is through offering ‘tools’ to those in power.
Governments and army’s have been seen to use ethnographers in order to manipulate communities and cultures for both economic and political gains. These bodies of power have used ethnography to control those who are weak and powerless. Burgess (1985) suggests that “ethnographic studies increase knowledge of the adaptive behaviours that actors use of their feelings” (Murphy and Dingwall 2007:341), and we see examples of this happening today. The American department of defence have invested $40 million into a programme they consider to be a “Crucial new weapon” in their war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. They have hired ocial scientists and anthropologists so that they can grasp an understanding of tribal relations; and as this is seen to be working they are now looking to expand this ‘human terrain team’ (Rohde 2007). The head of the human terrain team see’s the work conducted as vital and defines it as a “scholar warrior” and as “rare work of applied scholarship” (Times Higher education 2010). However although it would seem that many anthropologists are happy for their work to play a vital role in shaping military and foreign policy a great number are in firm opposition and are against the militarization of anthropology.
Some believe this program is unethical, dangerous and ineffective. They believe it to be unethical as it breaches many ethical codes of practice such as no informed consent and can cause great harm to the research subjects (Network of concerned anthropologists). As previously noted, ethical guidelines state that research should only be authorized and carried out, and is only deemed as ethical if the study has some significant anticipated benefits. However in ethnography this is a problem. Predicting and anticipating the outcomes and potential benefits prior to research studies is proven to be extremely difficult.
In biomedical studies these are much easier to predict and more obvious. However in favour of ethnographic research the risks are not as likely to be as damaging as those displayed in biomedical research (Arskey 2008). It would seem that many would consider that the emotional harm as a result of ethnographic research is far less damaging that that of physical harm such as the testing of new surgery seen in biomedical research; however ultimately the researcher has less control over the participant (Thorne 1980).
Harm could also be said to occur in ethnography due to the difficulty in preserving anonymity, as it is clear that no ethnographer can guarantee this. This is due to the fact there is a possibility that field notes transcripts might be read (Murphy and Dingwall 2007). However a suggestion to counteract this problem would be that once researchers have finished with such documents they should destroy them at the earliest possible point they can so that no prying eyes see the information.
Furthermore it would seem that there is only ever a small number of qualitative ethnographic research studies ever carried out, and when research is conducted in an overt manner participants will know that the study has taken place and therefore when the work is published will be able to easily identify themselves or their society in the published work. It could also be argued that the close emotional relationships which are formed during ethnographic studies are harmful to research subjects.
Unlike in quantitative and biological research, qualitative ethnographic research offers the opportunity for participants and researchers to form close relationships during the period of the study (Richardson 1992). However, when the study finishes and is completed, usually more often than not, the relationship and friendship between the participant and the observer also end. This in turn is harming the participant as they are experiencing a loss. Again an example of this can be drawn from the Street Corner Society study conducted by Whyte. Many wonder how ‘Doc’ must have felt after Whyte left, after spending so much time with him.
Did ‘Doc’ feel hurt? Because we know that one of the most important thing in ‘Docs’ life was friendships (Richardson 1992:116). Researchers must be careful of the cathartic effects of ethnographic research as the process of legitimise deviant behaviour can be damaging to society, as people may begin to think it is okay to act in such a way. Fine (1993) states that the research conducted on the extremely racist group of the Ku Klux Klan were guilty in doing this. He suggests that the researcher in this study “dehumanized their informants placing them outside our moral community in the guise of justice” (Fine 1993:272).
The researcher adopted a sympathetic stance to the views of group, and this is clearly not always a positive characteristic, and can be considered to be unethical. In contrast to biological and statistical research, ethnographic work is based on observations and interpretations of what they see. Clearly the researchers own beliefs and values may influence what they write, and what they chose not to write about in their reports. There is much evidence supporting this notion. Fine (1993:227) suggests that readers who believe what they see in quotations marks are foolish because how do they know that is what actually was said or happened.
He suggests that maybe what we sometimes see put in quotation marks are lies and misunderstood interpretations. This can be damaging to research subjects or communities under study as they may be portrayed as people they’re not e. g. racist. A programme on Channel 4 called “Love thy neighbour” is a prime example. In this reality TV show, the village people partake in choosing who gets to live in their village, and as a black family were voted out, these individuals are now portrayed as being racist.
However in response to this criticism it could be said that this type of research is ‘conscious raising’, and may get individuals to think twice about their actions and behaviour (Hammersley and Atkinson 1995). The Deontological approaches and dimensions of looking at ethics usually take in to consideration the participant’s rights to privacy respect and self determination that may be infringed. The discussion about privacy and rights within research has been bought to the fore front after the antagonistic response from some previously studied communities, participants and native anthropologists (Murphy and Dingwall 2007:343).
Some make the assertion that the rights of the participants are not always regarded just because they have signed a consent form (Akeroyd 2008). Others go further in saying that consent forms don’t really protect participants; they are devised primarily to protect the researcher in an event of law action, and in many cases after signing consent forms participants will still be unaware of what the research is about and what their rights are. It is suggested that these consent forms will just reinforce the unequal relationship between the research and their subjects (Homan 1980).
Furthermore Price (1996) believes that “consent forms risk jeopardizing anonymity making people more identifiable” (Murphy and Dingwall 2008:343). Ultimately consent don’t guarantee the total protection of participants identities (Akeroyd 2008). However Bulmer (1980) is a great believer in informed consent, and believes it to be an essential part of any research. Bulmer (1980) is a critic of covert research and argues that this method of research can cause a great deal of harm to participants whilst also violating their rights and autonomy; he sees this type of research as a betrayal of trust.
Edward Shills goes further and suggests that this invasion of privacy is a nuisance as it interferes with individual’s lives and cultures (Homan 1980:52). Furthermore critics argue that those who carry out covert research are reinforcing the idea that all social scientists are devious and untrustworthy. However although ethical review boards guidelines and some critics believe that covert research is unethical and breaching the rights of participants, Homan and other supporters of covert research believe that in some cases this research method is acceptable to use, for example a study on secretive communities.
Several researchers have adopted the covert role and Laud Humphreys and his ‘Tea Room’ study is one of the most notable; however this study was subject to much scrutiny once it was published as it was seen to be breaching a tremendous amount of ethical guidelines. Questions are raised as to whether it is ethically right to deceive participants’ but also is it ethically right that research subjects don’t get to know anything about their researchers background as they know so much about theirs. Researchers rarely disclose personal information and if they do some lie.
Diane Wolf (1996) claims that many ethnographers have lied about marital status, national identities or religious beliefs; and she is one of those, as during research she lied about her marital status to her research subjects (Denzin & Lincoln 2003). Moral and ethical questions are raised asking whether it is right and proper for the researchers to have all the power in shaping, designing and undertaking studies; researchers are portrayed to be more competent due to this. It is queried whether this is really appropriate? (Denzin & Lincoln 2003).
However feminist argue that to evade such a problem the research subjects should be involved in the planning stages of research and have a say in the types of questions asked. However the practicality and sensibility of this idea is questioned, is this really an appropriate way of dealing with the problem? Many argue not. Some suggest that this would be impractical and some participants might not want to contribute. It has further been suggested that this is an obscene idea because at the end of the day it is the researcher who has the final word on what is going to be researched (Murphy and Dingwall 2007).
Although it would seem the power status between the researcher and research subjects is less reinforced and not so clear within ethnographic research in comparison to other kinds of research; there are some concerns raised about the way that ethnographers can objectify, manipulate and take advantage of research subjects either during the period of the study or in published work. However some argue that the researcher controls are not in fact a breach of the research subjects’ independence and rights, and is not manipulative in anyway (Hammersley & Atkinson 1995).
On the other hand Fine (1993:284) proposes that it is sometimes the case where female ethnographers are objectified rather than the research subjects, due to the fact we live in a sexist world. Moreover Murphy and Dingwall (2007) argue that in some cases it would seem that the research subjects manipulate and exert power over the researchers conducting ethnographic studies. They propose that this happens through refuting the researcher the privilege of conducting research on themselves or their community or through manipulating what they study and not allowing the researcher to have full responsibility and say over the research.
However, although it is questionable whether there is a problem of power imbalance between the research and their research subjects, feminists have suggested ways of dealing with this. They attempt to readdress power imbalances in relationships between the researched and researcher, by not enforcing the power the researcher has and balancing relationship statuses, making relationships more intimate and authentic (Murphy and Dingwall 2007).
However, other critics have replied to this suggesting that the development of closer, sympathetic relationships are far more unethical and dangerous as manipulation on the researchers behalf becomes far easier as participants are more likely disclose thoughts and feeling to whom they feel close to. Furthermore participants may not wish for a relationship with an individual who is researching them (Akeroyd 2008) Once the researcher has published their research findings they usually gain scholarly recognition and financial benefits, whereas the studied groups or individuals gain nothing on this level.
As Richardson (1992: 116) points out Whyte is recognised as the single author to the Street Corner Society and “received all the fame and fortune”, but questions are raised queering if the publication of the study would have been possible at all without ‘Docs’ help . The fortune made in the Street Corner study could have improved ‘Docs’ life a great deal, and a small percentage of the financial could have changed his life. However once the study ended ‘Docs’ fortune did not change, as he remained jobless for practically the rest of his life and living on the bread line.
However it would seem that some researchers believe that through giving participants feedback and insight to the research moral dilemma of their financial and scholarly gains are resolved. On the other hand other ethnographic researchers may not feel that this enough and share the royalties from their published work (Slack 2011). Finally a further ethical dilemma concerning ethnographic research methods is that all the data and publications are based primarily on the interpretations made by the researcher, but it is queried whether the researcher has the right to do so (Hammersley & Atkinson 1995).
As Calvino (1998:257) states, communities or subjects can become ‘confrontational’ if they feel that the interpretations made of them are inaccurate and mistaken. Murphy and Dingwall (2007) claim that for research to be ethical they must produce accounts that convey the research subjects standpoints and views. However it is argued that ethnographers can and do sometimes take advantage of their empowered roles and construct their own versions of events and interpret data in ways they wish to display such groups.
However in order to overcome this dilemma, it has been recommended that researchers should back their analysis and understanding with proof and verification that what was said and done did really happen (Akeroyd 2008). Therefore in conclusion, it is evident that ethnography can and does raise some ethical dilemmas causing harm and infringes the rights of many participants; however it is the duty and obligation of researchers to minimise these effects, even if they hold negative views and dislike the research subjects.
Furthermore it is somewhat clear that ethnography can give valuable insights in to unexplored cultures and individuals, however on the negative side it is also seen as a damaging ‘tool’ used by those in power . It is obvious that today, unlike in the past, practically all research abides by ethical guidelines, set by ethical review boards and if they don’t researchers are held liable. Nevertheless, in the near future it is imperative that ethical guidelines should be amended so that they are specific to the issues surrounding ethnography. It is clear that this is the only way that ethnography will be almost fully ethical.

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