Negotiating human research ethics: Case notes from anthropologists in the field (Respond to this article at


  • Richard Chenhall,

    1. Senior Lecturer in Medical Anthropology at the Centre for Health and Society, Melbourne School of Population Health, University of Melbourne. He focuses on the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and researches alcoholism and self-help groups in Japan. Email:
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  • Kate Senior,

    1. Medical anthropologist at the Menzies School of Health Research, Australia. Her research explores people's understandings of health and illness. Email:
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  • Suzanne Belton

    1. Teaches the Professional Doctorate in Public Health at Menzies School of Health Research, Australia. She is a medical anthropologist and a midwife. Her research focuses on domestic violence and indigenous views of the maternal health system in the Northern Territory, and healthcare in Asia. Email:
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The human ethics issues surrounding the conduct of health science research have been the subject of increasing debate among biomedical and social science researchers in recent years. Ethics procedures in health-science research are typically concerned with protecting anonymity and confidentiality, and are tailored to work that primarily uses quantitative methodologies. For qualitative research in the health social sciences, a different set of ethical issues often arises in the research process. This article examines three case studies of qualitative researchers working with Indigenous Australian communities, focusing on the researchers’ experiences with ethics committees and how they approached a range of ethical issues arising in the course of their research. Key issues include: obtaining informed consent for participant observation; the evolving nature of qualitative research; the difficulties in foreseeing changes in approach; and the distinction between the research team and the researched in participatory action research.