In recent months, prompted by media coverage of research by sociologist Alice Goffman, a number of law professors have stumbled upon a longstanding set of questions surrounding social science ethics. These questions, which I first encountered during my Anthropology 101 class in the 1970s, are obvious concomitants of any form of deep, long-term observational research. Anthropology has long been a leader in a form of that research known as participant observation, the results of which are generally reported in ethnographic writing. One of the most striking aspects of the current exchanges — to this anthropologist/law professor’s ear — is the assumption made by some that a superficial glance at one high-profile case suffices to identify where key problems lie (see, for example, some of the exchanges on a well-respected law professors’ blog, The Faculty Lounge.) My esteemed former colleague Stephen Lubet even went so far as to comment that: “It seems that the field of ethnography ethics is seriously undertheorized,” without any citation to the voluminous literature involved, let alone any consultation with the many scholarly experts in this area.
He further promised to spend the summer researching this, in his view, previously untrod ground. This led me to once again contemplate differences in research strategy between some (not all) trained in law, and most (not all) trained in social science. My own training, and that of most I know who are trained social scientists, is to begin with an assumption that there is much to learn. This assumption also carries with it a form of humility that is part of stringent method: I don’t assume that I can quickly grasp a complex area. In keeping with this approach, if I were going to study the ethics of ethnographers, I would not focus on the unusual high-profile case that grabbed media attention, but rather on standard practices. I’d want to know about common ethical dilemmas facing all kinds of field researchers, and the history of how disciplines had dealt with them. Of course, since observational researchers tend not to trust self-reports, I’d want to spend some time actually observing ethnographers over substantial periods of time. I’d want to learn about ethics training for incipient fieldworkers. And I’d excavate thoroughly what is already known, talking with experts from the field in question who know far more than I do about the current state of affairs.
The situation, mentioned above, that was described by my introductory anthropology course professor (all too many years ago now!), involved a mother about to give birth to twins in the village where my professor was conducting long-term ethnography. The practice in that village, as she described it, was to kill one of the twins immediately after birth. The villagers knew that this was frowned on in the Western-style colonial legal system that could formally be enforced against them. My teacher described the dilemma she faced in deciding whether to intervene or not — a dilemma that was resolved when the family opted not to follow traditional practices (possibly because she was present as a potential witness).