Cross-Cultural Research Ethics

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For the researcher working in a culturally distant setting, for whom cultural and behavioral differences impinge directly on methodological design, data collection, and everyday life in the field, maintaining ethical equilibrium can be a difficult, never-very satisfying discipline. Anthropologists are most prone to this situation and have reflected the most about it, but to the extent that other practitioners (political scientists, demographers, geographers, etc.) utilize ethnographic approaches, they, too, expose themselves to significant ethical dilemmas. Faraway places are perhaps somewhat extreme in this regard, but studying ethnic minority groups in one’s own society can present particular ethical challenges, especially when the observed practices are illegal or are more legitimately at odds with the tastes and standards of the wider community, to which the researcher typically belongs. The difficulty stems from the researcher’s need to balance the demands of multiple moral codes, not only those based on personal and professional values—a requirement common to much scientific investigation, whatever the content and venue—but, in addition, those of the host culture and the laws of its land, and those derived from the interests and cultural traditions of persons to whom the researcher has become emotionally attached and obliged during the course of research. Ethical clarity is not helped when, as frequently happens, some of its elements are invisible or incomprehensible to the researcher—from whom, at least early in the project, but to some extent throughout, blunders are to be expected. Charity from the hosts usually redeems the investigator, but not always, and those are the instances of ethical infirmity which rarely survive as classroom and dinner-party anecdotes in the after years.

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1. Changing Ethical Circumstances

In the early days of fieldwork among ‘native peoples,’ prior to about 1920, ethical issues were not so pressing. For British, French, German, and Dutch researchers of that era, the terms of engagement were largely governed by colonial authorities; in North America and South America, comparable oversight was exercised by internal government agencies, such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs of the US Department of the Interior. Whatever retrospective moral judgment one might pass on those institutions, they were taken for granted at the time, and were the reality within which ethnographic inquiry was conducted. Considerable research was actually carried out by scientists employed or sponsored by colonial or governmental administrations, though with little effect, apparently, on the policies and procedures of rule. Access to field sites was readily achieved by bona fide researchers, who, so long as they disturbed neither village peace nor administrative purpose, were left alone. Host communities had little power to resist being studied, should they have wished to do so. In any case, such communities could not have understood very fully why the equipment-toting sojourner was there, nor could they have foreseen the consequences of the study for themselves and their posterity.

In those days, too, ethnographic research often consisted of participation in regional survey work conducted by teams of scientific specialists and government officers. Theirs was a ‘collecting’ mentality, with no need to stay long in one place. The expedition would record cultural inventories (word lists, kinship terms, technology surveys, basic institutional forms, various traits that were part of the standard ethnological catalogue, etc.), take anthropometric measurements and photographs, and, particularly if a museum was its sponsor, collect artifacts (see Sect. 2). Gifts and payments would be distributed—items such as steel tools, for example, which were relatively inexpensive for the expedition but highly prized by the recipients—and the party and its carriers would move on to the next group.

Beginning in the 1920s a Revolutionary new fieldwork methodology expanded the ethical implications. Based on a technique loosely known as ‘participant observation,’ the approach involved prolonged (1–2 years or more) residence in a host community with the aim of acquiring intimate familiarity with the people and their culture. Close familiarity in turn invited the innovation of the ‘case method’ approach, in which specific events (often disputatious in nature) were contextually examined as indicative of underlying cultural understandings or social organization. Beyond their analytic usefulness, well-executed case studies added vividness and probity to the ethnographic account. Case studies embedded in monographs usually identified individuals by name, along with relevant genealogical histories and information of a potentially embarrassing or inflammatory nature. Risks to informants thereby entered into the research equation, but, initially, only to a slight degree. Missionaries and colonial administrators might have searched out published information and used it to the detriment of individuals or cultural traditions, and yet it appears that this was a rare occurrence. As for the people themselves, information revealing the hidden deeds and motives of neighbors and enemies might have been very useful, and damaging to the persons named but, under those remote, preliterate conditions, the idea that some explosive item from a book or journal would find its way back to the village and there make mischief would have been very farfetched.

Nowadays, such possibilities are quite thinkable. With the spread of literacy, some monographs are finding their way back to the village, or into the courts, where facts and events previously noted are being used, for example, in litigation concerning land claims. Starting in the late colonial period and continuing until the present day, educated elites in many of the countries traditionally included in cross-cultural studies comprise a new community of critics: some are the children of cultures ranking as ‘classics’ in the ethnographic literature, some are social and behavioral scientists, some are even anthropologists. The new intelligentsia, many of them educated in the (self-) critical Western tradition, many of them eager to forget the past and move on, are harshly critical of their colonial past and willing to condemn out of hand studies carrying the odor of those times. Ready allies are to be found from within the various critical movements that swept Western academic institutions during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Anti-orientalism, postmodernism, neomarxism, ‘science studies,’ the idea of ethnography as a constructed text, the distrust of studies conducted under prefeminist, ‘patriarchal’ assumptions—these are part of the ethical-cum-intellectual apparatus currently used to discredit the tradition of cross-cultural study.

Although a good deal of this criticism is ill-informed and irrelevant, the best of it is very good indeed, offering novel insights and perspectives, the value of which even the most diehard traditionalist cannot reasonably deny; devising new concepts and new research goals and relationships, such as befit the new parameters of cross-cultural studies in a world very different from what it was as recently as a generation ago. Gone are the reassuring isolations which formerly shielded cultures, and those who studied them, from outside scrutiny—the never-perfect isolations which lent credence to the always dubious doctrines of cultural essentialism and cultural relativism (Gellner 1985, Cook 1999). Globalization engenders recurrent issues, such as local environmental degradation, the AIDS epidemic, poverty, war, and political Revolution, which pique not only the researcher’s interest and intellect, but his or her deep questionings into the ways of goodness, justice, beauty, and the future of the human species. These are supremely moral and ethical questions, which, while not displacing the urgent quest for objective findings, are adding immense complexity to the task of the researcher.

2. Cultural Property

Reference was made to the routine practice of earlier researchers of collecting information and emblematic artifacts from peoples they visited. Now, generations later, descendants of some of these peoples, or those speaking for them, have come to demand the return of these objects. Never mind that perishable objects, both tangible and intangible, would never have survived in their home place, their removal is retrospectively construed as a form of cultural banditry. Today, legal claims concerning cultural patrimony and indigenous peoples’ exclusive rights to traditional property— material or intellectual, commercial or sentimental— circumscribe an international, cross-cultural arena of high-stakes ethical debate. The cases, to name a few, include the longstanding litigation between Greece and the United Kingdom over rights to the ‘Elgin Marbles’—sculptures from the Parthenon and other buildings of the Athenian acropolis which were removed by Lord Elgin in the early nineteenth century and were later sold to the British Museum; the legal contest between scientists and local Native American groups over custody of the remains of a prehistoric individual of obscure genetic provenance known as ‘Kennewick Man’; more generally, the repatriation of skeletal material to indigenous descendant groups—a process now mandated by US federal law; efforts by Australian Aboriginal groups to recover legal title to ancestral lands containing sacred sites; the question of potentially huge royalties payable to various Amazonian groups who have guided drug companies to forest products having pharmaceutical properties; and the commercial exploitation of design elements taken from among Native American traditions of the US Southwest.

Social scientists are being ever more frequently drawn into these issues as witnesses, commentators, teachers, analysts, and advocates. Increasingly, sometimes unavoidably, the role of the researcher is shifting from that of detached observer to that of social activist. What to a previous generation of investigators would have seemed an unconscionable abandonment of scientific objectivity is nowadays becoming a common, practical necessity—a commitment demanded by newly sophisticated, politically aware groups as a condition of their acceptance of a research visitor. Other researchers, decrying ‘scientific objectivity and detachment’ as simply one ideology among others, gladly construe their mission to be that of assisting in the struggle of powerless (‘subaltern’) groups to improve their lot vis-a-vis dominant state or corporate interests (D’Andrade 1995). Wherever one stands on the detached vs. committed gradient, social movements and the emergent social and political aspirations of postcolonial groups are, themselves, of compelling intellectual interest to the social scientist, further blurring the ethically consequential line between actor and observer. Gone is the age of innocence during which many ethnographic habits were formed, when ethical choices were a good deal simpler.

In less controversial terms, professional ethics now calls for the dissemination and preservation of research findings. Some host countries require, as a condition of granting research permits, that copies of field notes be deposited in their national libraries or archives, or that debriefing talks be given to academic groups. Fearing the continued neglect and eventual loss of much unpublished material, some research communities are establishing specialized archives for the preservation of field notes and other cultural records, and for their systematic repatriation to the host countries, with the aid of microfilm, microfiche, or other inexpensive, readily accessible technologies (Tuzin 1992). Not only do such practices secure priceless cultural information and benefit future generations of researchers, they also contribute immediately to goodwill and a collaborative spirit between scholars belonging to reciprocal sides of the cross-cultural divide. These trends are further assisted by the requirement of many host countries that foreign researchers be sponsored by a local academic institution or engage an assistant or co-investigator from among the local scholarly community. The importance of behaving responsibly toward host peoples and nations and toward the long-term scientific good is an explicit principle of professional ethics. Some funding agencies, such as the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, are actively encouraging, and committing resources to, an approach that emphasizes custodianship rather than ownership as properly describing the researcher’s relationship to cultural treasures he or she is privileged to collect.

The distinction between custodianship and ownership further points to an unresolved issue of looming ethical importance: on moral and legal grounds, what should be the tenurial relationship between a body of cultural ideas and the persons who, by accident of birth, happen to be carrying them? Or, as put by one commentator (Brown 1998), can culture be copyrighted? The alternative would be to say that, just as culture is an attribute of humanity, so all cultures, none of which are formed in perfect isolation, are manifestations of that attribute, and therefore are ultimately the property of all humanity—granting that particular groups have contingent, custodial rights over particular cultural assemblages. The former view accords with notions of cultural distinctiveness and cultural relativism, the latter with ideas of universal ethical standards and a body of interests common to the human species. The former view would seem to revere human rights—the right to their cultural traditions being the only right left to many otherwise dispossessed groups—while the latter would appear to remove the last protection against wholesale cultural trespass.

This issue is a minefield of ethical problems that will be prominent in the landscape of intercultural relations and research in the twenty-first century. The seismic convulsions of that landscape will be traumatic moments in the globalization of social and economic relations; increased human migration, possibly in response to local population pressures and global warming effects, bringing different cultural groups increasingly into competition with one another; the collapse of autochthony as an argument for indigenous groups in fending off migrant groups beating on the gate—groups once autochthonous themselves, driven by necessity rather than choice, with human rights of their own. In such a world, the conflation of cultures and peoples, collective memories and current circumstances, could produce dangerous vulnerabilities, generating the kind of xenophobic, stereotyping mentality that justified campaigns of ethnocide and ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the darker moments of the twentieth century. The better alternative, perhaps, is for universalist ethics to have a rightful place alongside the value of respecting and preserving cultural identities, and the rights that may be attached to them. Whatever shape that future takes, however, it is certain to affect the ethical circumstances of cross-cultural researchers.

3. Regulations And Codes

In recent decades, research ethics, once the privileged business of conscience, personal character, professional integrity, and scientific organizations, has come to the attention of lawmakers. During the 1970s federal government regulators in the USA developed rules for the protection of human subjects (Sieber 1992). With ethical reasoning rooted in the Nuremberg Code developed after World War II, the regulatory impulse was triggered by certain scandals involving biomedical research. Early in the lawmaking process, however, authorities recognized that potential risks to human subjects also existed in the social and behavioral sciences. Social and psychological hazards were recognized, as were the need for confidentiality and the importance of informed consent by subjects— not only at the outset, but through the entire course of the research. Procedures were instituted to disclose risks to peer reviewers and granting agencies, assess whether or not they are outweighed by potential benefits of the research, including to the human subject; and, in the field or laboratory, inform subjects of these risks as part of the consent process. A plan for compliance with these procedures, formally approved by university-based, faculty-run internal review boards, became a prerequisite for receiving government grants. Research centers quickly adopted these federal guidelines as their own, mandating the safeguards regardless of funding source.

These measures address ethical anomalies that are egregious in the sense of being built into the research design. No regulatory guideline can govern the many unforeseeable, quotidian dilemmas that may arise over an extended period of research in another culture—a reality acknowledged in the Code of Ethics promulgated by the American Anthropological Association (1998). Still, these measures have the salutary effect of heightening researchers’ consciousness and accountability concerning the welfare of human subjects, while helping to shield institutions and innocent investigators from liability if things go wrong and unethical conduct is alleged. On the other hand, regulatory experience and input from practicing social and behavioral scientists have shown that applying the ‘biomedical model’ to research in their fields raises problems, some of which are peculiar to cross-cultural studies. Even if language differences per se are not an obstacle, other communication barriers can impede the way of genuine ‘informed consent.’ If the research subjects are lacking in literacy, this would preclude written consent—a circumstance for which official guidelines permit equivalent oral procedures—but there are more subtle, cultural, difficulties. Even where written consent is feasible, subjects usually would not be accustomed to direct questioning by strangers (except, ominously, by police authorities) nor would they be likely to understand the foreign culture of litigation and the bureaucratic concept of ‘risk’ which jointly inspired the formal consent procedure in the first place. Depending on the political environment in which such an encounter occurs, a procedure innocuously designed to identify and mitigate risk triggers, instead, reactions of suspicion, alarm, and flight. For the would-be subject, for whom the compensatory benefits of the research may seem ethereal and remote, refusal might well be the easiest course, ending the research before it begins. Where traditional communities are receptive to the researcher, an overzealous concealment of individual identities would deprive the people of the only documentary history they might ever have. And so on. Government overseers and internal review boards, acknowledging such technical difficulties, have revised the regulatory guidelines so as to accommodate the special needs of ethically responsible research in other cultural settings.

The protections just discussed focus on the welfare of individual human subjects. What ethical imperatives pertain when not only individuals but entire cultural traditions are potentially at risk? Anthropology, by virtue of its disciplinary investment in cross-cultural research, celebration of cultural diversity, and preoccupation with the culture concept, has a special affinity for ethical issues that arise when science crosses cultural boundaries. Even if the threat stems not from the research per se but from other external factors (missionaries, commercial interests, etc.), is the anthropologist not duty bound to intervene vigorously in defense of the host culture? After all, in its submission to United Nations Commission on Human Rights, in 1947, the executive board of the American Anthropological Association recommended that the UN Declaration should be a statement ‘of the rights of men to live in terms of their own traditions’ (quoted in Cook 1999, p. 169). Should not anthropologists be willing to intervene, by word or deed, in defense of those traditions?

Critics might condemn such intervention as a veiled form of paternalism verging on racism—a denial of the ability or right of individuals to make their own decisions, to dispose of their cultural legacy in a manner they, and not well-meaning outsiders, choose. From this standpoint anthropologists are sometimes accused (sometimes by designing outsiders, with self-serving plans of their own for the group) of being culturally conservative, of wishing to see traditions preserved, of standing in the way of perceived material development and ‘modernization.’ Whatever their motives, the critics have a point. If the idea of indigenous rights is to mean anything, it must hold sacred the element of choice—even if the choice in question proves to be an unfortunate one in the view of contemporary observers or of future generations who must inherit the consequences. The role of the concerned outsider (anthropologist or other) is to help, if invited, to insure that the choices made are informed choices, based on the advisor’s experience, expertise, and external perspective. Such advice would be offered with knowledge of authority relations occurring in that cultural setting, specifically, the mechanisms through which decisions affecting individuals or the group are made.

4. Conclusion

Social and behavioral science research has ethical implications in any setting. Though we may control the interaction to a maximum extent, we are still humans studying other humans. Lives can be affected. To a greater or lesser degree, expectations, projections, aspirations, and the reflexivities accompanying all of these, are part of the immediate research situation. They influence what we observe and how we observe it; they shape the larger lessons we draw in the long afterthought. The publication of results can further affect the original subjects or, years later, their descendants. All of these ethical implications are greatly compounded when the research engagement is intimate and prolonged, and extends across a cultural boundary separating the investigator from the persons he or she is attempting to understand (Geertz 1968). Obligations accrue. Reminiscent of the methodologically engineered interplay of transference and counter-transference in psychoanalytic practice, as the ethnographic relationship deepens, complex personal motives intervene, and the desire to belong and to assist can become so strong as to compete with the desire to know. The whole point of maintaining ethical equilibrium is to transform this competition into a synergy. This is not an easy task; it requires thoughtful, honest reflection upon the ethical dimensions of what one is doing, together with the courage not to be paralyzed by them. In cross-cultural research the effort is worth the candle, for it is this synergy which stands the best chance of producing a result that is at once truly humane and truly informed.


  1. American Anthropological Association 1998 Code of Ethics. American Anthropological Association, Washington, DC
  2. Brown M 1998 Can culture be copyrighted? Current Anthropology 39(2): 193–222
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  4. D’Andrade R G 1995 Moral models in anthropology. Current Anthropology 36(3): 399–408
  5. Geertz C 1968 Thinking as a moral act: ethical dimensions of anthropological fieldwork in the New States. Antioch Review 28(2): 139–58
  6. Gellner E 1985 Relativism and universals. In: Gellner E (ed.) Relativism and the Social Sciences. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp. 83–100
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  8. Tuzin D 1992 The Melanesian archive. In: Silverman S, Parezo N (eds.) Preserving the Anthropological Record. Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, New York, pp. 31–42
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