Global Context

Obligations to those researched

The ASA’s ‘Ethical Guidelines for Good Research’ state that researchers have paramount obligations

… to protect the physical, social and psychological well-being of those whom they study and to respect their rights, interests, sensitivities and privacy…

ASA, ‘Ethical Guidelines for Good Research’,

The primary dimensions of the researcher’s obligations in relating to participants can be summarised as:

  1. Protecting research participants and honouring trust;
  2. Anticipating harms;
  3. Avoiding undue intrusion;
  4. Negotiating informed consent;
  5. Respecting rights to confidentiality and anonymity; and
  6. Giving fair return for assistance.

The first three points are discussed below; points 4 and 5 are discussed under: ‘Informed Consent (and Anonymity and Confidentiality)’ tab; whilst point 6 is discussed under the ‘Context and laws’ tab.

Researchers have a duty to ensure the safety of participants, especially when they take serious personal risks to assist them in completing their work. In particular, researchers should be aware of the ethical issues that can arise when working within a repressive political climate. They should endeavour to ensure that their research activities do not jeopardise the security of participants or others involved in facilitating the research, such as gatekeepers, go-betweens or translators. Specifically, they may need to take account of special issues relating to. When it is not possible to guarantee the interests and safety of participants it may be necessary to radically amend, or even abandon, research plans.

It is important that social scientists working in the field to make every effort to anticipate the long-term effects on individuals or groups which may result from the research as well as the more immediate effects. The participants’ consent to involvement does not absolve researcher of this responsibility. In this regard, however, it has to be acknowledged that field research is inherently complex and difficult to predict: the practical engagement with participating individuals or communities can prove to be very different from what was anticipated at the planning stage; and situations can change quickly. For instance, on arrival in the field a researcher may suddenly find her/himself placed under pressure from someone on whom the research relies (e.g., a gatekeeper) to compromise the anonymity or confidentiality of research participants. It is advisable to try to anticipate any such eventualities, and where possible have a back-up plan that will allow for a revision or amendment to the research strategy to avoid such an eventuality.

Thought should also be given to the potential effects of publishing findings. In some cases providing information about social groups could be disadvantageous to them:

Social research entails the possibility of destroying the privacy and autonomy of the individual, of producing more ammunition to those already in power, of laying the groundwork for an invincibly oppressive state.

Barnes, John. 1979. Who should know what? Social science, privacy and ethics,
Harmondsworth: Penguin: 22

The ASA advises that:

In certain political contexts, some groups, for example, religious or ethnic minorities, may be particularly vulnerable and it may be necessary to withhold data from publication or even to refrain from studying them at all.

ASA, ‘Ethical Guidelines for Good Research’,

Whist it is not possible to imagine every possible eventuality, there is a necessity to consider how published data could be used in the future in ways that may be disadvantageous to the community that was studied. For instance, there is a well-established history of governments and military using anthropological data in warfare and control of populations (see 'Problematic Relationships with One's Own Government').

Care and respect should also be shown for the social and psychological wellbeing of participants. Aspects to consider include:

  • Being careful not to intrude into personal, physical or mental space. Care should be taken in judging and not exceeding culturally appropriate boundaries.
  • Respecting confidential information: It should be borne in mind that just because a participant confides information to the researcher, it does not mean that they would wish that information to be made public or discussed with others, even in an anonymised format.
  • Maintaining sensitivity to indigenous social relationships and avoiding actions that could be socially disruptive. The researcher needs to be aware of roles and relationships in the local culture and should avoid acting inappropriately or putting participants in an invidious position with others in the community.
  • Avoiding unnecessary exposure of participants to disturbing information or the causing of an unsolicited ‘raising of consciousness’.

The following example illustrates some issues that can arise in regard to respecting the personal space of participants.

Making a film about a Tanzanian village in 1976

My second fieldwork visit to Tanzania was in 1976 with a BBC film crew to make a film. We had permission to do so from the Tanzanian government and from the local District Commissioner, but we did not really have the consent of the villagers, many of whom resented having cameras thrust in their faces without permission. Some agreed to give interviews for a consideration, but always on condition that they were filmed in secret. Although my official position was as a consultant, I was rarely consulted, and eventually a difficult situation came to a head with a threat of violence at a spirit possession ritual and my own threat to leave the village and the film project. Editing the footage was equally fraught, as the views of the producer and my own were often at variance. Yet in spite of all of this, every time I return to Mafia Island, I have to bring the BBC film and screen it. The first time I was very apprehensive – people had asked to see the film, but I knew that some would not be happy about having their interviews made public. Fortunately, the sound track could not be heard on the system used to screen it so everyone was satisfied. Furthermore, the coffee table book which was produced for the series of which the film was a part was circulated widely in the village, since here at last was a book with a chapter about themselves and lots of glossy photos which they could enjoy.


(contributed by Pat Caplan)


The above discussions have focused on the researcher’s obligations to ‘avoid harm’ to the people researched. However, there are more positive aspects to this obligation. The ASA’s ethical guidelines suggest that:

As far as is possible anthropologists should try and involve the people being studied in the planning and execution of research projects, and they should recognise that their obligations to the participants or the host community may not end (indeed should not end, many would argue) with the completion of their fieldwork or research project.

ASA, ‘Ethical Guidelines for Good Research’,<

The argument that, in some cases, the researcher’s ongoing obligations to the community researched should include a dimension of socio-political activism on behalf that community is explored under the ‘Ethics, Politics and the Reflexive Researcher’ tab.



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