I’m currently on a committee which has been tasked with developing a set of ethical guidelines for visual ethnography in Taiwan. While I agreed to take part in this process because ‘image ethics’ are something I take very seriously, I am also very skeptical about the application of a medical ethics model to anthropology. For this reason I was happy to come across a paper by Bill Simpson entitled “Ethical moments: future directions for ethical review and ethnography” which is a free (if not “open”) download from JRAI.
Simpson is focused on institutional review more than ethical guidelines, but since one exists largely to facilitate the other, it is worth looking at the problems Simpson argues emerge within the review process:
At the outset, there is a serious disjunction between the way in which research is thought about in the context of ethical review and the way in which ethnographic research unfolds according to its own temporality and logic: that is, following the contours of social life as these are revealed by the persons with whom one engages in the field.
I find particularly compelling his argument that the anthropological subject does not easily fit the notion of a “human subject” presumed by medical ethics (whether medical subjects do or not is another question):
However, whilst anthropologists engage with subjects who are indeed human, they would not normally think of themselves as studying ‘human subjects’ in the medical sense, or as part of the legacy of experimentation described above. The vocabulary of subjectivation used by anthropologists is far richer and ranges through informants, interlocutors, consociates, collaborators, consultants. and friends. All of these suggest a relationship with a person for which the reduction to a corporeal ethics is likely to be at odds. Fundamentally, selfhood is seen as a situationally defined project, rather than one to be defined essentially. In this vein, Battaglia has argued for an ‘ethics of the open subject’ and, drawing on Haraway, takes a position which questions the ‘skin-bound individual as the natural boundary of the total person’ (1999: 135). In this approach, there is a profound acknowledgement of the relationality of the human subject. Furthermore, to talk of the ‘field’ is to talk of an entity which is itself relational and not merely spatial. The anthropologist, to a greater or lesser extent, becomes part of this field as a moral agent who is subject to evaluation by those engaged with when in the ‘field’. Subjects, by means of their own processes of counter-subjectivation, locate the researcher in terms of motive, intent, and the level of threat or danger that his or her presence brings, now and in the future (Carrithers 2005; Simpson 2005).
In conclusion he suggests that there are a series of three ethical moments that emerge throughout the research process. This section was a bit confusing for me at first, but then I realized that it was only in the current model that these three moments exist as distinct points in time. Simpson’s critique is actually to challenge the notion that the planning, fieldwork, and writing stages of ethnography have clearly delineated ethical moments. With regard to ethical review at the start of the fieldwork process, Simpson emphasizes that ethical choices are an iterative process and that facing them requires a recognition of the “skill of the ethnographer as a moral being capable of reflexive awareness and an anticipation of the consequences of action and inaction.” Ethical dilemmas cannot be headed off at the outset by fiat.
With regard to the second moment, that of fieldwork, Simpson argues that “the possibilities for communication before, during, and after fieldwork are radically altering foundational tropes such as ‘field’, ‘immersion’, and ‘informant.’” As such, he sees ethics as something that should be the basis of continual dialog throughout the research process and advocates a process whereby ethnographers engage in an ongoing discussion of ethical issues with mentors rather than a one-time review.
The third moment is the writing process:
Confronted with this large and complex cloth, decisions must be made (alone or in consultation with informants) regarding what cuts to make: what goes into the text and what is to be left out; who gets named and who doesn’t; what it is legitimate to expose on ethical grounds and what must be concealed on ethical grounds. This is the moment at which an anthropologist’s judgements about just what is the appropriate relationship between informants, truths, and publics is laid open to challenge. Yet, just as fieldwork itself was once a ‘black box’, the ethics and politics of selection that underpin the writing of ethnography are rarely made explicit.
This last part is of particular interest to me, as I am currently writing a paper about how the process of collaborating on Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir! led to certain topics being left out of the film at the request of the community. In doing so, I argue that these ethical decisions can only be understood with the benefit of a historical and ethnographic analysis of the community (which I then proceed to provide in the paper). Thus an understanding of the ethical issues emerged as the result of the ethnographic process, not as something prior to it, although a commitment to a collaborative ethnographic process allowed for these issues to emerge in the first place.
Finally, to Simpsons argument that ethics are not something which can be followed programmatically, but a “skill of the ethnographer as a moral being” I would add that skill an ethnographer is also necessary. Creating a multivocal text (visual or written) is not easy and requires a degree of skill and training. A deep knowledge of the genre and the “tricks of the trade” is necessary to know how to handle ethical dilemmas in an elegant way rather than simply shying away from difficult topics. It is perhaps this, more than anything, which makes me wary of a formulaic review process, as I worry that they leave little room for creative solutions to ethical problems, preferring instead bureaucratic ones.
UPDATE: Edited for clarity.