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4.4: Ethics

No matter the technique and ethnographic approach, it is obligatory that cultural anthropologists conduct ethical research. This includes getting informed consent, which means that the group/person under study agree to take part in research. It will probably include seeking the permission of national government, local government, and individuals. Cultural anthropologists must always put the welfare and interests of research subjects before their own research.

Part of the challenge in making ethical decisions is the fact that anthropology has always been an activist discipline. E. B. Tylor claimed that, “the science of culture is essentially a reformer’s science” and Ruth Benedict said that the “purpose of anthropology was to make the world safe for human difference.” John Bodley has been quoted saying that anthropology is a subversive science. So where do anthropologists draw the line between cultural relativism and intervention? Cultural relativism is the idea that traits can only be understood within their cultural context. If we consider cultural relativism on a spectrum, then one extreme holds that all traits good within their cultural context…as stated by Conrad Kottak in Mirror for Humanity…Nazi Germany would be evaluated as nonjudgmentally as Athenian Greece using this extreme. On the other end there is the idea that there is no way to be truly culturally relative because we are all human beings with cultural baggage—have ideas about what are right and wrong. Robert Reed, a former professor at The Ohio State University once said that we can be culturally relative and still disagree with a behavior if, and this is an important if, if you try to understand why that behavior exists in the group. In other words, why do people practice the behavior.

A big question that every cultural anthropologist has to think about is this: What do you do if intervention could change the culture? Is that our role as researchers? Most anthropologists would say that it isn’t our job to change things; however that doesn’t mean we can’t give people information that they can use as they will.

Another question that cultural anthropologists face is what to do when a cultural trait interferes with an individual’s human rights? Where is the ethical line in that situation? Recently in anthropology there was a heated debate about anthropologists working for the US government in Iraq (click here to read the New York Times article). Since WWII there has been mistrust in the anthropological community regarding governments and especially the military. In WWII, the military wanted to use anthropological studies to help develop military strategy against the Axis powers. Many anthropologists had trouble with that as the information would be used in a manner that did not advance the welfare of the people studied. It’s the same situation today with the Iraq war.

Perhaps one of the most critical ethical debates in anthropology in general is that of informed consent. Informed consent includes the “…full disclosure of research goals, research methods, types of analyses, and reporting procedures” (Bonvillain 2010: 62). In April 2010, the New York Times ran an article about alleged misuse of DNA samples collected from the Havasupi tribe in 1990. This article highlights the issue of informed consent.

The American Anthropological Association has a number of real ethical dilemmas posted on their web site. These posts also include comments by other anthropologists— sometimes agreeing with the researchers decision and sometimes not. It’s interesting information and I urge you to take a look at a couple of the cases.

AAA Code of Ethics


Bonvillain, Nancy. 2010. Cultural Anthropology, 2nd edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Kottak, Conrad Phillip. 2008. Mirror for Humanity, 6th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.