Anthropologist association revises code of ethics

by Cory Weinberg

Anthropology professor Frances Norwood challenged the ethics of euthanasia in 2009's 'The Maintenance of Life.'
Media Credit: Elise Apelian
Anthropology professor Frances Norwood challenged the ethics of euthanasia in 2009's 'The Maintenance of Life.'

Frances Norwood’s anthropological research over the past decade has brought her to bedsides in nursing homes and into ethical murkiness as she studied euthanasia in the Netherlands.

Norwood, an assistant research professor and lecturer, talked to doctors who admitted to breaking the Dutch ban on assisted suicide before it was lifted in 1984. She also witnessed a doctor administer enough morphine to kill a patient.

Her study of 14 patients who were considering assisted death shaped her award-winning book in 2009, but it also required her to resolve ethical questions.

“To have these tools and conversations whenever you’re nervous about something in the field is important,” Norwood said.

The problem, Norwood said, was that her main tool for ethical guidance – the American Anthropological Association's 13-year-old code of ethics – could not keep up with the expanding field.

The association looked to update that code in late November, creating new ethical guidelines for modern anthropologists – who are just as likely to study the culture of urban stockbrokers as they are to observe isolated tribes.

The proposed changes recognize the web of power roles that has developed as anthropologists expand beyond studying vulnerable populations, Damon Dozier, the association’s director of public affairs, said.

Before, anthropologists were ethically bound to ensure the research subject’s well being. Now, the code has expanded to include “a spectrum of 'do no harm,' ” Dozier said.

Joel Kuipers, an anthropology and international affairs professor who studies language and culture in Indonesia, said the spectrum recognizes that ethical obligations may be less rigid when it comes to researching subjects who are powerful and wealthy – like the doctors Norwood studied.

“But still, one of the things [the code] is now saying is that it’s very important to do no harm,” Kuipers said.

The code, which was accepted by the association’s executive board and now awaits a member review, is not binding law. It represents only one piece of an ethical puzzle that works in tandem with universities’ institutional review boards.

By reviewing projects during the proposal stage and reevaluating implemented projects at least once a year, GW’s Office of Human Research looks to ensure that any studies involving human subjects do not place them at “undue risk” and requires that subjects give “uncoerced, informed consent to their participation.”

While all researchers at GW work closely with the human research office, anthropological researchers rely on their specialized code as a guiding mindset – rather than a specific set of standards – for their work.

The code update, Kuipers said, underlines the breadth of research areas.

“People who live in jungles and rainforests have cultures, but so do people who work on stock exchange floors, and we need a code of ethics that reflects a greater diversity of contexts that fieldwork gets done,” Kuipers said.

As part of a research team studying autism in South Korea, anthropology and international affairs professor Richard Grinker works with people from other universities and disciplines to perform clinical studies and screenings to complement his sociocultural research.

“The old idea was that anthropologists worked alone, so the guidelines never addressed the issue that you have multiple authors, and it just assumed that the anthropologist is going off into the jungle,” he said.

Grinker added that, while the anthropological association’s ethical code provides a broad outlook, he still works with institutional review boards to examine the cultural implications of his research.

“It’s not like we consult the [anthropological association’s] guidelines on everything we do, because so much of it is common sense,” Grinker said.

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