9 Public Anthropology Award Winners
at William and Mary College
in Prof. Sasikumar Balasundaram's
ANTH 202 (Introduction to Cultural Anthropology) Class
John Coble, Lauren Cunningham, Sarah Belay, Rebecca Gaborek, Lyla Rossi, Rachael Cooper, Katie McCormack ,
Ryan Muro, and John Edwards
Read Their Op-Eds, Please Use Your Search Function)
on the information presented in the five case studies, you
are to voice your view on how Institutional Review Boards (in the
U.S.) and/or Review Ethics Boards (in Canada) should enforce a
set of common rules regarding research. How much freedom should
researchers be allowed in conducting their research? What regulations
should be enforced to prevent the abuse of research subjects and
ensure, more generally, that the research strives to promote positive
benefits for the larger society sponsoring it?
Streamlining Research Review
by John Coble
The United States (US) has a long, ominous history of human rights abuse in the pursuit of biomedical and behavioral scientific advancement. The nineteenth and twentieth century saw human testing with little, if any, consideration to the ethical implications or rights of the subjects involved. As these experiments came to light, government institutions increasingly codified protections to ensure that these abuses were not repeated in future research. The Belmont Report of 1979 provided a basis for regulating government research in the US. The Common Rule of 1991 prescribed a uniform set of guidelines to protect human subjects of experimentation. One of these protections was the establishment of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs).
IRBs are charged with minimizing risk to subjects, requiring proper documentation of informed consent of the subject, ensuring equitable selection of research subject, and protecting the privacy of those subjects. Unfortunately, IRBs are a point of contention within the research community as they tend to apply biomedical and behavioral science review standards to nearly all fields of research. Additionally, these boards are not required to maintain any subject matter experts which could impede the review process. For example, complications in the review process might arise if board members are not knowledgeable of methodological approaches or selection processes. According to 45 CFR 46.107, an IRB must be comprised of at least five people. The only mandated positions are that of one scientist, one non-scientist, and one person with no institutional affiliation. I posit that these loose guidelines lead to high levels of institutional variability in IRBs, and can lead to unnecessary limitations placed on researchers.
A fundamental reorganization of IRBs may be able to simultaneously streamline the review process and identify any potential conflicts that may affect research early in the process. The first step in this reorganization would be to place legal, medical, and psychological professionals at the core of the IRB. Legal counsel would ensure jurisprudential analysis of the research proposal in order to protect the subject, research team, and institution. Medical and psychological professional would be able to identify any potential for physical or psychological harm that may result from the study and provide a value resource to adjust methodology accordingly. Next, there should be two subject matter experts from the field of research. One of these experts should have a firm understanding on the theoretical aspects of the field of research, while the other should have significant experience in conducting field research. These experts will be able to provide context to the research proposal for the core board members and may identify potential areas of conflict from previous experience in the field. A third academic member with specific knowledge of the culture being studied could also provide contextual information that may inform the decision of the board.
Additionally, IRBs should make efforts to include outside agencies in the review process. These agencies could include intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs), governmental organizations, or local 'fixers' who have specific regional and cultural experience within the area the research will be conducted. These agencies can provide a valuable resource in sharing lessons learned within the region or culture through previous experience. Though these steps will add levels of bureaucracy, I would argue that they would allow early detection of any conflicts that could arise during research by providing a more standardized and specialized organizational structure. Rather than the institution filling core member seats with administrators, the board will consist of professionals who will be capable of identifying conflict across a broad range of topics.
Efficiency and efficacy should be at the heart of the scientific review process. IRBs should be organized around individuals with specialized knowledge that can effectively examine research proposals from a number of angles in order to ensure problems do not arise during the research process. Early detection allows for rapid adjustment of methodology to accommodate concerns raised by members of the IRB. With these structural changes, the researcher may enjoy greater freedom to conduct research as the boundaries are established and understood by all parties involved. Every effort should be made to protect human subjects in the social sciences because, as The Doctor once stated, "We tread softly. Its okay to make ripples, but not tidal waves" (Moffat and Mathieson).
Moffat, Steven and Jamie Mathieson."The Girl Who Died/S9:E5." In Doctor Who, directed by Edward Bazalgette. BBC. October 17, 2015.
How Much IRB Regulation is too Much?
by Lauren Cunningham
In order for Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) to work effectively, they must both allow researchers to conduct their experiments and studies in a way that is useful for scientific discovery, and prove that research participants are treated in an ethical manner. Not having an IRB would result in more experiments like those done in Guatemala with Syphilis. Yet the IRBs in place today are often too controlling in their requirements for fieldwork, which only involves talking to people and learning about their culture. Additionally, with experimental research, IRBs should pay closer attention to the cultural practices of the group being researched, because most of the ethical dilemmas faced are those dealing with an insensitivity to other cultures. It would be more effective if IRBs were stricter on actual experiments, and more lenient with fieldwork studies.
Fieldwork and experimental research should be treated as two separate categories by IRBs. There are completely different ethical principles in place when talking to someone about their life experience, and when conducting research with people as subjects. In the case of fieldwork, IRBs should be less strict with their regulations so anthropologists can effectively keep their promises of participant confidentiality. Regulations are causing researchers to discontinue their studies because it is too difficult to get them passed, such as a researcher who "used to interview prisoners, [but] gave it up since prisoners are 'vulnerable populations' and getting IRB approval is far more difficult than getting through the prison doors" (Essig, The IRB and the Future of Fieldwork). This prisoner research would not have harmed the inmates in any way, and the results could have even provided information that could better their lives. However, the restrictions on fieldwork make this type of study impossible. Fieldwork researchers should be allowed to ask questions to participants without making them sign anything in order to protect their confidentiality and will be given more accurate responses because of this anonymity.
Experimental research involving participants and ancient artifacts should be guided by a different set of ethical principles. Foremost, the researcher should have to prove to an IRB that they have ample knowledge of a group's culture and history before using any ancient material from their ancestors. Permission should be granted by the people related to the ancient group being studied, not simply the closest group of indigenous people as was the case with the bones being studied in Ontario by Louisiana State University researchers. If those researchers had been informed about the history and culture of the First Nations people, they would have recognized that all of the populations were in fact very different, and should not all be grouped into one culture. Asking the permission of the correct First Nation to study the bones would have resulted in far less conflict. Additionally, the case of the Yanomami people demonstrates why participant informed consent is of utmost importance in experimental research. These people had no idea that their blood samples were being stored after being used a serous issue relating to how they treat their dead in burial ceremonies. This again ties into learning about history and culture before experimentation, but also that participants must be told in full what their samples will be used for.
It makes sense that the ethical stance of review boards should be to "do good" instead of "do no harm", because even not doing harm could not be in the best interest of participants. Research can only support the larger society sponsoring it when both the researchers and participants are treated with respect. Studies can provide crucial information to both parties if researchers have enough leeway to effectively make discoveries, and if the culture and well-being of participants is given the respect it deserves.
Protect the People
by Sarah Belay
In a perfect world, we would able to give researchers the ability to discern between what is appropriate for their research and what is not. When there are no ground rules set forth, researchers, being human, are inclined to make mistakes. These mistakes are inexcusable especially when they are at the expense of another human being. The Institutional Review Board (IRB) should implement very strict guidelines when using human subjects. A failure to implement strict rules can result in violations of the subjects' rights. Without a strict set of guidelines we will situations such as the Guatemala Syphilis Experiment, Chagnon with the Yanomami, and more.
Although it is very important to have strict guidelines, it is important that the rules be as explicit as possible. For example, in "The IRB and The Future of Fieldwork", Laurie Essig states the complications that are brought about when trying to interview prison inmates. Because they are classified as a "vulnerable population", it is difficult to even interview inmates because of their status. Making it difficult to interview a population just because they are deemed vulnerable can cause the researcher to miss out on an opportunity to learn about a certain group of people.
When it comes to experiments like the Guatemala Syphilis Experiment along with the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, where individuals were unknowingly infected with a disease, we see a clear violation of human rights. For both of these situations, the United States government eventually acknowledged wrongdoing and apologized to those who were affected, if they were even fortunate enough to still be living. Because of experiments like these, it important that there is guideline for not putting research subjects directly in harms way.
Additionally, abuse to a research subject does not have to be direct. For example, if a researcher is studying artifacts that belong to a certain group of people, and they take the artifact, then that is not fair to the group of people that it belongs to. An example of this is seen in the controversy regarding bones taken from Ontario by an archeologist at Louisiana State University. A guideline that requires researchers to consult the individuals in the groups that they are studying before taking artifacts will help to respect the people studied.
It is important to establish guidelines so that researchers are able to gather information and share it to the larger society. Without a set of specific rules that prevent researchers from getting muddled in bureaucratic affairs due to vague rules set forth by organizations such as Institutional Review Board. Specific rules will protect research subjects while also allowing the research to present their knowledge to the world.
The Ethics Challenge for Us, Them, and Now, Then
by Rebecca Gaborek
Ethics--undeniably variant and subjective--has long been a controversial subject within the United States. It has come to the forefront of media coverage and hallway conversation nearly every day since Donald J. Trump has sworn his allegiance to uphold the Constitution just three weeks ago. In the name of enforcing what bureaucrats deem proper codes of morality, laws are often passed and executive orders written that regulate the conduct of private citizens as well as the actions of government bodies and the individuals within them. The legality of gay marriage and the rightfulness of abortion represent moral quandaries of particular interest to the government, especially in more recent years. Anthropologists attempting to research various groups of people clash frequently with legislative powers concerned with ethical issues. These administrative struggles may not only hinder researchers' individual studies, but also in some cases undermine the goals of anthropology as a whole.
In human biomedical and behavioral inquiry, government-managed Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) exist to uphold ethical values to include "respect for persons," "beneficence," and "justice." Approval from such a board is necessary for most federal and university anthropological research. However, in order to truly serve anthropologists, those being examined, and general academic and social progress, IRBs should greatly reduce their involvement in assessing the morality of proposed studies. As proven by several examples, ethics is far from objective; it cannot possibly be defined for all situations as American laws have attempted to do. By reducing the restraints IRBs place on anthropologists and sociologists from a moral perspective, the occurrences of what most people would deem immoral treatment may actually decrease.
While it is true that horrific crimes against humanity have been committed on behalf of scientific research (the Guatemala Syphilis Experiment being a glaring example), our current set of laws includes many protections against such atrocities. Murder, rape, theft, and other activities involving the direct physical and psychological harm of non-consenting (and even consenting) victims can be penalized under several codes. IRBs should continue to restrict any research embracing premeditated injury. This includes studies that place participants under mental distress--like the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment--and studies of objects taken without the sanction of the individuals to which those objects likely belong (as when universities analyze unearthed Native American patrimony.) In terms of these major cases, IRBs may very well fulfill their desired ethical purpose. The central shortcomings of IRBs, however, come into play with more morally ambiguous studies, as much anthropologic research actually entails.
Anthropologists tend to consider individuals from marginalized groups, but their work rarely resembles a psychological or medical experiment like those mentioned above. An anthropologist talks to people, lives with them, and learns from them. Rather than establishing artificial scenarios to test reactions, anthropologists explore the everyday, existing realities of individuals. When these people happen to be members of "vulnerable populations" as termed by IRBs (like "prisoners, terminally ill persons, children, people with mental illness, and pregnant women," etc.), anthropologists frequently receive limited access to them, with the interactions they manage to attain rigidly structured. This is due primarily, it seems, to the fear of lawsuits. Oftentimes, IRBs require anthropologists to jump through legal hoops that are totally at odds with the nature of the field itself (like demanding signed permission slips from anonymous interviewees or consigning the anthropologist to judge subjects' emotional health.) By altering the researchers' analytical aims to safeguard these "vulnerable" participants from exploitation, IRBs derail harmless investigations that could benefit the larger society. Beyond this, discrepancies exist between rulings from various boards, and research proposals may be rejected over potentially irrelevant information (like spelling mistakes.) This only further illustrates the clumsiness of IRBs. In a society that supposedly strives for equality and academic discovery, the American government has been organized in such a way that people capable of gaining crucial knowledge--anthropologists--struggle to perform their basic duties.
As a result, IRBs should limit their holds on anthropological research and provide guidance only on a case-by-case basis. Universally, provisions should simply include "informed consent," which in some circumstances should not require a signed legal document if doing so causes participants to question their secrecy, and "the minimization of subject risk," which should allow researchers to observe and document current risky scenarios so long as they do no contribute to them. All other rules should be, at the very least, reduced. This may allow research to continue while at the same time, better ensuring that major, less controversial moral standards still are being followed. Regulating ethics is not a bright line, but rather situation-specific.
The Balance of Freedom and Regulation
by Lyla Rossi
Research and its rules, when conducted in direct interaction with other human beings, become complicated and multidimensional. Anthropologists in the research realm are extremely reliant on their collaboration and contact with people from cultures around the world, which can be stifled by the demands and requirements of regulations. However, these regulations are imperative to sustaining the integrity and awareness of research subjects. Given this complex dynamic, there needs to be a focused balance between freedom for the researcher and regulation of research, built on consistent reevaluations and researcher qualities.
Generally, I would argue that researchers should have considerable freedom when engaging in anthropological research through ethnographic methodologies in particular. Ethnography requires a significant amount of authenticity, spontaneity and naturalness, which could be understandably obstructed with the bureaucracy behind research, like permission slips and informed consent forms. On a similar note, the regulations of research can diminish the desire for subjects to open up naturally, as documented by the field researcher in Case Three: The IRB and the Future of Fieldwork. Freedom in research allows the anthropologist to adapt to circumstances in the field with ease and promptness, and in many cases, research regulation can impede the fluidity of fieldwork and the efficacy of the results.
On the other hand, it is essential to recognize the potential for abuse when regulation of anthropological research is slackened. Even with good intentions, sometimes anthropologists can make decisions that prove detrimental to the wellbeing of a people. This was especially represented in Case Five: The Yanomami, in which the Yanomami felt taken advantage of by the field researchers. In cases like these, the research can be valued more than the well-being of the subjects, which ultimately undermines the legitimacy of a research project altogether and leads to greater abuses that typical anthropological research attempts to eradicate. Research regulation is also useful in promoting greater cultural sensitivity and respect in the anthropological field, which can sometimes be neglected or accidentally bypassed, as demonstrated in Case Two: Studying Old Bones: Preservation or Pervasion?.
With all of this in mind, I would conclude that a significant amount of regulation needs to stay in place to ensure that anthropological subjects are protected and vouched for. However, the regulation distributed and upheld by the various IRBs should be regularly checked and balanced to perpetuate consistency throughout review, to which Case Four: Behind Closed Doors alludes. Additionally, regular renewals or check-ups on a researcher's work could be useful to confirm that the researcher is still practicing safe and nondiscriminatory methods, because the course of research is sometimes likely to change as the project progresses in the field, which was shown in Case Five. Ultimately, the trustworthiness of the researcher is what the IRBs should be keenest on evaluating, and it depends how the regulation should be upheld, amplified, or decreased on a case-by-case basis, based on the researcher and their objectives.
Ethics in Research
by Rachael Cooper
At least 83 people died in syphilis experiments in Guatemala. Bones were stolen from an Indian tribe for research and were not returned. Many people from the Yanomami Amazonian Indian Tribe were killed by the measles and blood samples that were taken from them were never returned. These are only a few examples of the times when anthropological research has hurt or even killed people without consent. For this reason, I feel that strict rules should be put in place concerning anthropological research. Too often have anthropologists been careless with their research, not gotten consent from their subjects, stolen culture from indigenous groups, and sometimes even caused lasting harm or death. It is only with a set of common rules that out in place and strictly enforced by Institutional Review Boards in the United States or Review Ethics Boards in Canada that this will stop happening.
One of the most important rules than needs to be enforced is the need for informed consent. Without this, anthropologists can take advantage of unsuspecting populations. For example, in the experiment in Guatemala the Guatemalan government was not told about what was happening and many people died as a result. Some people think that this rule is too harsh, because they do not want their subjects to have to sign an agreement when the results are supposed to be anonymous. For example, Laurie Essig sarcastically says "People love it when you offer them anonymity and then ask for a signature. Really makes them want to open up to you." While it is true that some people might be annoyed by this request, it is much safer to have everyone sign something acknowledging that they are aware of the study. If not, it is possible that subjects might be completely deceived and hurt in the process.
Another rule should be that all studies should be approved by the board previous to their completion. While this may limit freedom that researchers have, without this precaution subjects could end up being hurt in unethical studies. Smith argues that sometimes the restrictions are too strict and are not fair. He says "As I argue in the book, the seemingly disproportionate concern over typos and written mistakes in applications is not a matter of fairness, but of trustworthiness." Sometimes the IRBs may be strict when evaluating researchers, but this is only because they want to ensure that all research is ethical and safe.
In addition, there should be regulations about not hurting the culture of research subjects. Previously, there have been studies where artifacts and even human bones and blood have been taken for research and not given back. To some cultures, these things are very important and by taking them you are taking away humanity. For example, the "Yanomami believe that all parts of a deceased Yanomami must be ritually disposed of so the deceased can spiritually leave this world. Forcing the deceased to spiritually remain in this world" as would occur by storing their blood in research refrigerators " could cause the deceased to turn on the living and bring them harm." The studies done related to the Yanomami went against their culture without consent, which is completely unethical.
Overall, it seems obvious that strict restrictions are needed when conducting sociological research. These include making sure the researchers have informed consent, making sure all studies are approved, and not causing any harm to the subjects and their culture. This is the only way that research can benefit society in an ethical way.
The Importance of Regulation
within the Scientific Community
by Katie McCormack
A common theme in many intellectual debates is that of regulation versus personal freedom. For example, arguments surrounding environmental protections often pit the need to preserve our natural resources and wildlife against the need of private businesses to operate in a cost effective way. Those who argue against environmental regulations claim that strict rules placed upon businesses will harm the economy. No one is arguing that protecting the environment is a bad thing, but rather that the cost of doing so needs to be considered. Sadly, another common theme of human issues is that we as people must often be confronted with tragedy before the realization of a problem's significance leads to mobilization to affect change. The issue of regulation in scientific research is no exception on either account.
Those who feel that regulatory groups such as International Review Boards (IRBs) are too stringent are concerned that too much regulation will limit who is able to conduct research and what research can be done, effectively stifling the growth of scientific knowledge. Requiring researchers to jump through extensive hurdles in getting projects approved is both costly and time-consuming. This is already addressed by IRBs, however, as the organizations provide exemptions for projects that are deemed low-risk. I have personally experienced the IRB approval process twice, once when conducting a community studies project on Ecotherapy, and once when beginning an undergraduate research project on genetics using fruit flies. In both cases, my projects qualified for an exemption, and I was able to proceed without going through any lengthy approval process.
Be that as it may, regulation of research is necessary in many cases: to ensure that informed consent is obtained when conducting research with human subjects, to ensure the ethical treatment of participants, and to ensure that the resulting data is handled properly. This includes defining protocols for working with populations deemed "vulnerable," such as prisoners or children. It also includes regulating the handling of human remains such as those uncovered in archaeological digs. By nature, anthropology, the study of man(and woman)kind, is a human-centered field. This makes it a perfect discipline for exploring the complexities of regulation in research within the social sciences. Anthropologists are tasked with studying cultures and societies across the globe, a responsibility that should not be taken lightly. When considering the role of regulation in anthropology, one must acknowledge that first and foremost, research should "strive to promote positive benefits for... society" and that those benefits should not be obtained at any great cost to the individuals involved in a given study.
Improper or unethical research procedures have the potential to cause irreparable harm to the individuals involved as well as the greater population. The United States has a long history of questionable and unethical scientific studies, most notably the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Guatemala Syphilis Experiment, the latter being a government-approved study of syphilis on unwitting Guatemalans during the Truman administration. Both cases involved the exploitation of vulnerable populations for scientific gain, and both resulted in human harm, the latter even resulting in the death of participants. While these are certainly extreme cases, a research study need not be so glaringly unethical to cause harm. For example, there are frequently conflicts that arise when studying human remains or artifacts. Consultation of the population associated with the remains, not merely "talking to the closest Indian" is absolutely necessary, whenever possible. Ancestral remains have a great deal of spiritual significance in many cultures, and every effort must be made to respect that, and to return remains to their rightful place as soon as analysis is completed, even at the cost of preservation.
Undoubtedly, anthropologists must operated according to rules and regulations set forth by IRBs and other regulatory organizations. But anthropological research is seldom as straightforward as biological or chemical research that is often conducted in a lab. Much of anthropological research is rooted in ethnography, and data is often obtained through participant observation. Anthropologists gain insight into the customs and ideals that make up a particular culture through experiencing it themselves, and getting to know the individuals who make up the culture. In anthropology, research focuses on people, who are much more than research subjects. They are men, women, and children who may become friends and companions in the field. The sterile environment many are familiar with in scientific research is not the reality of the social scientist. Because of this, analysis of anthropological studies by regulatory agencies must be treated somewhat differently than other branches of scientific research. Agencies that regulate anthropological research should also include guidelines for how to navigate personal relationships while maintaining the objectivity necessitated by their profession, and how and when researchers must extricate themselves from difficult situations such as violence.
The issue of regulation in anthropological research, and research in the social sciences as a whole, is a multifaceted one. One must contend with the issues that come with very strict regulation, and dealing with regulatory systems that may not be perfect. Debates surrounding specific provisions of regulation, such as when a project should require IRB approval, will probably continue indefinitely. And no matter how stringent regulations become, there will always be situations which a researcher must navigate on his/her own, doing so while carefully considering both the importance of the work being done, and the effect, if any that his/her work is having on the particular people involved. But ultimately, the regulation of anthropological research, and research in general, is about the burden of the scientific community to protect both the researcher and the group being studied. We must always err on the side of caution when interfering in the lives of others for scientific gain, no matter how well-intended our research may be.
Consent? What's That
by Ryan Muro
The debate between ethics and research has been ongoing for generations. How much freedom should researchers have in conducting research? What regulations should be enforced to prevent the abuse of research subjects? These are the questions posed to the Institutional Reviews Boards in the United States and the Review Ethics Boards in Canada. These two boards are in charge of regulating all scientific research in the U.S and Canada. After studying the five case studies provided, I believe that The Institutional Boards and Review ethics board should enforce stricter regulations regarding consent from research subjects in order to prevent future exploitation of said communities.
The first case study presented the Guatemala Syphilis experiment, human experiments conducted in Guatemala from 1946-1948. Essentially, in order to understand penicillin's effect on the treatment and prevention of venereal diseases American "Doctors infected soldiers, prostitutes, prisoners and mental patients with syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases, without the informed consent of the subjects, and treated most subjects with antibiotics. This resulted in at least 83 deaths." Despite the grotesque nature of the experiment, the key phrase in that quote was "without the informed consent of the subjects." If the subjects were informed about the experiment and still decided to sign up that's their decision, but researchers cannot and should not be able to get away with this sort of exploitation.
In addition, this same broader theme of exploitation came up in case study two. The study looked at the battle over 500 year old native bones between the Huron-Wendat Nation and LSU professor and archaeologist Heather Mckillop. LSU excavated and exported the remains of approximately 200 individuals from an Ontario ossuary. However, they never asked the Huron-Wendat Nation for permission to do so. This is because the Ontario Commentaries Act, which states that for old remains a researcher must "contact the closest First Nations group, which in this case was the Alderville First Nation. The second option is to consult with the most likely people descended from the dead." The LSU researchers chose to just contact the Alderville First Nation despite knowing that the remains were most likely Huron-Wendat descendants. Researchers have to be more honest with indigenous people is more respectful of their customs and beliefs so they, and their descendants, won't be exploited.
Finally, case study five presents another example of the exploitation of research subjects without their consent. Geneticist James Neel began researching the Yanomami people, an Amazonian Indian group, in 1966. As part of his research he collected blood samples from the Yanomami in order to help fight diseases afflicting the group. However, the anthropologist working with James Neel, Napoleon Chagnon, failed to inform the Yanomami that the blood samples would be stored in the U.S after they are analyzed instead of destroyed per the Yonomami tradition of ritually disposing of the deceased so their spirit can leave the Earth. Through analysis of the blood Neel found that they are susceptible to measles so he diced on his own terms that he would try to vaccinate the Yanomami, however, when a measles epidemic did break out he realized that he had used the wrong vaccine, which resulted the deaths of many Yonomami. The overall problem was that "the Yanomami were barely consulted regarding Neel's research. Neel decided to do his research without first gaining Yanomami permission. And he decided, on his own, what the reciprocal benefits of his research would be."
After reading these case studies it is clear that researchers must communicate more with their subjects and simply be more honest as to their real intentions. Furthermore, the Institutional Reviews Boards and the Review Ethics Boards have to enforce regulations regarding consent from research subjects to prevent exploitation.
People Over Data
by John Edwards
Would you rather cause death and profound damage to cultures around the world, or rapid, unregulated research? Institutional Review Boards and other similar organizations are vital to the health of the world. They should enforce a basic tenant that anthropologists should do no harm, which does not mean that they should actively do good. In addition, informed consent must be present for any approved research. This includes both interviews, and taking artifacts from the subjects. While there are bureaucratic restraints, these are minor. The protection of the cultures under study outweighs it. Institutional Review Boards in the United States, and Review Ethics Boards in Canada, should enforce a common set of rules regarding research. The people and cultures anthropologists study are more important than their research.
Anthropologists pledge to do no harm. IRBs and the like should consider this the paramount rule for anthropologists for two reasons. First, it keeps people from taking advantage of a population on purpose. In the Guatemala syphilis case, researchers actively harmed a population. While this is an obvious example of what the rule guards against, it shows what could happen if it did not exist. The other reason is that it stops unintentional harm like in case two. Anthropologists study cultures, so any researcher would know the importance of any artifacts to that culture. The taking of bones, even though not intentionally harmful, did harm the culture under study.
Anthropologists should pledge to do no harm, but they should not pledge to actively do good. Anthropologists observe and study cultures to then quantify and qualify their data to make meaningful insights into those cultures. Anthropologists are not there to change the lives of their subjects. Fieldwork should be observation and data collection only. As an example in the Yanomami case, the anthropologist took it upon himself to begin a vaccination campaign on his participants. The anthropologist did not know the culture well enough, nor did he prepare well enough. This led to the death of a portion of the population. It seems to me that active change is not an anthropologist's job. They are to collect data and those who are more qualified and/or close to the community can administer change if deemed necessary. This minimizes the number of unknowns since they will be much more familiar than anthropologists would be with the community in question. This would be a job more suited for an non-governmental organization or the government itself.
The other main tenant that IRBs should enforce is informed consent. While governments may treat a population a certain way, anthropologists should not necessarily follow that example. When anthropologists took bones and notified the nearest native population, instead of the descendants of the remains according to the law, they did harm to the culture. The government treats that population as contiguous, but anthropologists know that culture does not act in this way. The Alderville First Nation does not have the same culture as the Huron-Wendat people. In addition, in the Yanomami case, anthropologists took blood samples, without properly informing them of the purpose. In both cases, the studied population has deep religious beliefs about human remains. Taking these remains without their consent caused serious harm tot eh cultures and hindered opportunities for future research.
IRBs should continue to enforce these rules as they have been enforcing them. While cases three and four illustrate the difficulties and frustrations of a bureaucratic system that is the nature of such a system. Researchers need regulation so people escape exploitation like in case one. Despite this I do think there should be an addendum on the ability to have participants retain anonymity if they would like. However, this must be a more extensive process than the normal one to allow such research. People and culture are more important than anthropologists' research.