Get access

The Problem with Ethics



A minimalist and deontological focus of anthropological ethics, and the current lack of consensus in the field about ethical and methodological rigor, produces conference presentations, monographs, and ethnographic essays of questionable quality. Research that fulfills its IRB-defined duties is ethically problematic if it reproduces colonial relationships, ignores community input into agenda and risk, offers no real possibility for improving human life, or uses so loose a methodology that it cannot be relied upon to produce scientifically valid data. Finally, the modernist fetish of “knowledge” – assumed in the Code to be a value in itself, detached from human wellbeing – grants legitimacy to research that has little purpose other than to further academics' careers.

In the following essay I reflect upon my experience conducting ethnographic research into the underground economies of marginalized youth in Havana, New York, and Hartford. What emerges are four principles, which together suggest a departure from the standard catalogue of deontological AAA Code of Ethics concerns toward greater methodological integrity and a more carefully delineated commitment toward the well-being of the communities with whom we work. An entirely detached and passive anthropology is not an ethical one, but our moral engagement must be based on a solid foundation of data that are analyzed according to sound principles. Thus, ethnographic practice that is methodologically sloppy is not ethical, even if deontological duties—prescribed by the AAA Code and the IRB—have been scrupulously upheld.

Get access to the full text of this article