Briefing Paper on Consideration of the Potentially
Negative Impact of the Publication of Factual Data
about a Study Population on Such Population
AAA Committee on Ethics
Prepared by Joe Watkins
Preface: In November 2000 the Committee on Ethics was asked to draft guidelines to address the potentially negative impact of factual data about a study population on such population. Members of the Committee on Ethics have taken this charge to relate to the actual publication of factual data rather than the mere consideration or collection of such data by the anthropological researcher.
Official Sources of Guidelines: The Committee on Ethics recognizes the need for the anthropological researcher to be aware of the need to temper anthropological research with the rights and concerns of human populations. As such, the Committee recommends that anthropological researchers read and become increasingly familiar with various codes of ethics as they relate to the study of human populations, particularly the Ethical Guidelines for Practitioners of the National Association for the Practice of Anthropology (on-line version at http://www.aaanet.org/napa/code.htm); the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers (on-line version at http://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/code.htm), and the AAA Code of Ethics (on-line version at http://www.aaanet.org/committees/ethics/ethcode.htm).
Background Information on the Impact of Anthropological Fieldwork and the Collection and Publication of Data: The AAA Code of Ethics provides the practitioner general guidance regarding this issue. In the Introduction (Section II), it states that "... the generation of anthropological knowledge is a dynamic process using many different and evolving approaches; and that for moral and practical reasons, the generation and utilization of knowledge should be achieved in an ethical manner". In Research (Section III), it notes that anthropological researchers should be open about the "... potential impacts ... (of) research projects with funders, colleagues, persons studied or providing information, and with relevant parties affected by the research." Under III(A)(1), the Code notes that researchers have primary ethical responsibilities to those studied and that those obligations "... can supersede the goal of seeking new knowledge, and can lead to decisions not to undertake or to discontinue a research project when the primary obligation conflicts with other responsibilities...". While the following subsection warns the researcher "To avoid harm or wrong, understanding that the development of knowledge can lead to change which may be positive or negative for the people or animals worked with or studied", it perhaps does not go far enough in warning the researcher to consider the possibility of harm that the presentation of factual data may have on a population. For example, because of the social stigma attached to cannibalism by Western society, a researcher might wish to consider the ways that such a statement concerning the practices of a marginal culture might be used to further marginalize that culture. Section III(B) of the Code of Ethics speaks to the anthropologist's responsibility to scholarship and science, noting that anthropologists "should utilize the results of their work in an appropriate fashion, and whenever possible disseminate their findings to the scientific and scholarly community."
Finally, under III(C)(1), anthropologists are reminded "... they are not only responsible for the factual content of their statements but also must consider carefully the social and political implications of the information they disseminate. They must do everything in their power to insure that such information is well understood, properly contextualized, and responsibly utilized. ... At the same time, they must be alert to the possible harm their information may cause people with whom they work of colleagues."
How should the anthropologist consider the potentially negative impact of the publication of factual data about a study population on such population? The anthropological enterprise is one that involves the collection of data relating to the study of human cultures. As such, it is imperative that the anthropological researcher understand that the presentation of information, even if scientifically factual, might have an impact on the population under study. Therefore, the possibility exists that the researcher may be placed in an ethical dilemma concerning the question of publishing or not publishing such data. Of additional importance, however, is the realization that any self-censorship by the researcher might be harmful both to the discipline and to the population under study and might amount to a misrepresentation by omission. Often the anthropologist is the only researcher qualified to understand the complexity of the social structures of the population under study and to present the information in such a way to facilitate its comprehension by the society at large. It is perhaps more important that the anthropologist be aware that the sensationalized presentation of factual data usually has more of an impact on the population under study than the mere presentation of the data.
Therefore, anthropological researchers should consider the potentially negative impact of the publication of factual data about a study population on such population prior to beginning a project by attempting to:
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