Ethical Principles for Conducting Fieldwork


  • Joan Cassell

    1. Center for Policy Research
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      JOAN CASSELL received her Ph.D. from Columbia in 1975 and subsequently studied symbolic anthropology as a Visiting Fellow at Princeton. Her book on the contemporary American women's movement was published in 1977. She is executive director of a project investigating the ethical problems of Fieldwork. A book on Federal Regulations: Ethical Issues and Social Research, edited by Murray L. Wax and Joan Cassell, has just been published by Westview Press for the AAAS.


Federal regulations to protect human subjects assume a particular relationship between experimenter and subject based upon biomedical research. Because this relationship is not found in every type of research, the regulations are not universally applicable. Relationships between those who study and those who are studied vary with the kind of research. Such variations depend on the relative power and control of the researcher, the direction of interaction, and the level of possible harms and benefits. Measured on these continua, fieldwork is at the opposite end of the spectrum from biomedical research. Consequently, the ethical system on which federal regulations are chiefly based—using utilitarian risk-benefit calculations—becomes ineffective and inappropriate when applied to proposed fieldwork. Here, investigators have relatively little power and less control of the setting and context of research, interaction flows in two directions, and calculable harms and benefits are comparatively low. Various models of fieldwork are described, each having differing relationships between investigators and subjects. It is suggested that the Kantian categorical imperative, with its principle of respect for human autonomy, might be useful in judging the ethical adequacy of these varieties of fieldwork. [fieldwork, ethical principles, research relationships, federal regulations, risk-benefit calculations]