As two graduate students preparing to “enter the field,” we increasingly find ourselves contemplating an important, yet uncomfortable, question: How will we know if we are doing ethical anthropology? And who should we turn to if (and when) we feel unsure?
The local institutional contexts in which we work provide one way to answer this question. For example, as anthropologists training at American universities, we are asked to fit our research into frameworks that meet the expectations of Institutional Review Boards—entities that, at least in the U.S., often rely on ethical principles informed by biomedical conceptions of risk and consent (Wynn 2017; Bell 2014). Sometimes, such standardized ethics and clear-cut forms can be a strange comfort, as if the neatly checked boxes were whispering, “rest easy, you are acting ethically now.” At other times, the distance between standardized research protocols and the actual ethical entanglements of anthropological research is acutely felt. Can one write an accurate procedure for the kind of learning that unfolds through social relationships (McGranahan 2021; Benson 2018)?
For many anthropologists, ourselves included, doing right by the people and communities with whom we work is the ethical priority. Yet figuring out how to do right by a person, let alone a group of people, can be a process full of doubt and uncertainty (Davis 2014). Nor do ethical choices lurk only in what we do; sometimes, what keeps us up at night is what we cannot (Kilroy-Marac 2019; Checker 2014). We also know that, as the “instruments” of our research, the ethical choices we make in our “professional” lives are not neatly separated from those we make in our “personal” relationships (Günel, et al 2020). To whom are we accountable?
An anthropologist’s ethical quandaries are not limited to the realm of research. Anthropologists write, teach, advocate, administer, consult, and mentor. The ethical complexity and ambiguity through which anthropologists wade in every aspect of anthropological practice—not just research—can lead to what Alison Cool calls “accountability anxiety,” or a sense of uncertainty in one’s ability “to understand or adequately respond…to ethical obligations” (Cool 2019, 520). We feel this uncertainty.
Studying anthropology’s history has prepared us with plenty of examples of what not to do. Yet, what to do is often less clear. Our discipline’s refusal of universal prescription and embrace of ethical specificity is an important political stance, especially given the universalizing projects of anthropology’s colonial and imperial past (Gough 1968). As the AAA Statement on Ethics acknowledges, the “complex issues that anthropologists confront rarely admit to the simple wrongs and rights of moral dicta, and one of the prime ethical obligations of anthropologists is to carefully and deliberately weigh the consequences and ethical dimensions of the choices they make” (AAA 2012). Put simply, our unique field sites, research communities, academic contexts, and positionalities preclude a neat and tidy answer to what it means to do anthropology in way that is “good,” “ethical,” or “right.”
We agree, and yet we still want to know: How does one go about weighing the consequences and ethical dimensions of the choices they make? We would like to suggest that prescription—which suggests an authoritative answer—is not the only possible response. Collective reflection on ethical practice offers another possibility.
By naming our uncertainty, we are not calling for an anthropological version of the step-by-step “getting started” instructions that come in the box alongside a new phone or audio recorder (which this essay’s authors never read anyway). Rather, we are seeking something more akin to an online forum where users can ask each other questions and collectively draw on experience to brainstorm how to approach tricky situations. We are seeking a democratized advice column of sorts, where the advice giver is not a single, authoritative voice, but a polyvocal one, offering grounded reflections rather than universal prescriptions.
Building from this desire and taking inspiration from L.L. Wynn’s call for “ethical discussions” (2017), we envision “Yours Sincerely, An Uncertain Anthropologist” as a place where anthropologists at all stages in their career can be together in ethical uncertainty. On a semi-regular basis, we will solicit and publish letters from anthropologists detailing an ethical question with which they are grappling. Each letter will be published along with two responses from scholars in the field who can speak, in some way, to grappling with similar uncertainties.
Deeply influenced by the idea of “situated knowledge” production, we hope these letters, as a collection, will become an archive of “situated ethics,” that is, reflections on ethics firmly grounded in a “view from somewhere” (Hamdy 2012; Haraway 1988). Through this collection, we wish to build bridges across the many different axes of our social field, bringing together scholars at different stages of their career, those teaching and working in different settings, those from marginalized traditions of anthropology as well as those working in the traditions that historically have shaped the field. As “embodiments of exchange” (Ralph 2020, 197), we believe letters—written to and from individuals, but with the larger anthropological community in mind—will be a generative medium for the kind of dialogue we seek to foster.
In the first letter exchange of this series, “Concerned About Consent” asks us to think about the often awkward, sometimes ambiguous role that consent forms can play in anthropological research. Worried that the use of signed documents in the context of their fieldwork might (ironically) be doing more harm than good, they wonder what an alternative consent process could look like. In response, Nicole Constable and Jen Shannon reflect upon their personal experiences rethinking how consent should work in their respective research projects. You can read the exchange here.
A final note: Though we are playing with “advice column” in form, our goal is not to elicit prescriptive answers nor to develop universal disciplinary principles. We do not expect to reach consensus or to offer certainty. Instead, we see great value in being what Shannon calls “tentative anthropologists” (2017). Rather than sourcing authoritative answers, our aim is to be tentative and accountable together—and to do so in a way that works against the figure of the lone anthropologist who must bear the weight of ethical decision-making on their own. The ethical choices we make as anthropologists cannot be universally answered, but neither do we have to make them alone.
We invite all from the anthropological family to sit together in uncertainty, embrace discomfort, and let the loose ends dangle (de la Cadena 2015).
Call for Letters
Do you have an uncertain ethical situation you would like to discuss with the anthropological community? Email Alex Dantzer [firstname.lastname@example.org )] and Paige Edmiston [email@example.com] with a 250–500 word letter detailing your question. Priority will be given to questions rooted in concrete experiences. Accepted letters will be published on the AES website along with two response letters from scholars in the field who have grappled with related uncertainties in their own work. Both letters and responses will undergo an editorial process with the AES digital content editors prior to publication.
Note: Please address letters to “Dear Colleagues.” Letters seeking “advice” (or rather, collective contemplation) can be signed and published using your real name or subject position (e.g., “Confused Professor,” “Anxious Anthropologist”). All response letters will be published using real names.
AAA Ethics Forum. 2012. “Principles of Professional Responsibility.” American Anthropological Association Ethics Forum website. Published November 1, 2012. https://ethics.americananthro.org/category/statement/
Bell, Kirsten. 2014. “Resisting Commensurability: Against Informed Consent as an Anthropological Virtue: Resisting Commensurability.” American Anthropologist, July, n/a-n/a. https://doi.org/10.1111/aman.12122.
Benson, Peter. 2018. “Tobacco Capitalism, an Afterword: Open Letters and Open Wounds in Anthropology.” Journal for the Anthropology of North America 21(1): 21–34. https://doi.org/10.1002/nad.12067.
Checker, Melissa, Dána-Ain Davis, and Mark Schuller. 2014. “The Conflicts of Crisis: Critical Reflections on Feminist Ethnography and Anthropological Activism: Public Anthropology.” American Anthropologist 116(2): 408–9. https://doi.org/10.1111/aman.12110.
Cool, Alison. 2019. “Impossible, Unknowable, Accountable: Dramas and Dilemmas of Data Law.” Social Studies of Science 49(4): 503–30. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306312719846557.
De la Cadena, Marisol. 2015. Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds. Duke University Press.
Gough, Kathleen. 1968. “New Proposals for Anthropologists.” Current Anthropology 9(5): 403–35.
Günel, Gökçe, Saiba Varma, and Chika Watanabe. 2020. “A Manifesto for Patchwork Ethnography.” Member Voices, Fieldsights, June 9. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/a-manifesto-for-patchwork-ethnography
Hamdy, Sherine. 2012. Our Bodies Belong to God: Organ Transplants, Islam, and the truggle for Human Dignity and Egypt. University of California Press.
Haraway, Donna. 1988. Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist studies, 14(3), pp.575-599.
Kilroy-Marc, Katie. 2019. An Impossible Inheritance: Postcolonial Psychiatry and the Work of Memory in a West African Clinic. University of California Press.
McGranahan, Carole. 2021. “Theory as Ethics.” American Ethnological Society Distinguished Lecture, American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, Baltimore, MD, November 18, 2021.
Ralph, Laurence. 2020. The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence. University of Chicago Press.
Shannon, Jennifer. 2017. “On Being a Tentative Anthropologist: Collaborative Anthropological Research with Indigenous Peoples in North America.” In Practicing Ethnography: A Student Guide to Method and Methodology, edited by Karen McGarry and Lynda Mannik. University of Toronto Press.
Wynn, L.L. 2017. “What Is Wrong with Ethics Review, the Impact on Teaching Anthropology, and How to Fix It: Results of an Empirical Study.” The Australian Journal of Anthropology 28(3): 269–85. https://doi.org/10.1111/taja.12187.
Cite As: Dantzer, Alexandra and Edmiston, Paige. 2022. Introducing: Yours Sincerely, An Uncertain Anthropologist, American Ethnologist Website, 18 May 2022, [https://americanethnologist.org/features/yours-sincerely-an-uncertain-anthropologist/introducing-yours-sincerely-an-uncertain-anthropologist/introduction]