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Academics, USF Administration

USF anthropological researchers face tough ethical conflicts

The issues that social scientists, such as anthropologists, struggled with in the brutal and lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are only one situation of how anthropologists handle ethical conflicts in research.

According to Roberta Baer, an applied anthropology professor at the University of South Florida, the U.S. military used anthropologists in the “human terrain system” to gather cultural information in Iraq and Afghanistan. The information gathered allowed the military to gain a better understanding of the language, customs and culture of surrounding societies. The human terrain system is disputed among anthropologists because of how the military uses the information after it is gathered.

“The human terrain system is very controversial,” Daniel Lende, a medical anthropology professor at USF, said. “These anthropologists that work in teams don’t end up controlling the information (from informants) and it is shared with many other people. Oftentimes, when the express objectives of the human terrain system get mixed up with more active military objectives, there can be a greatly enhanced potential for doing harm.”

Anthropologists gather information regardless of the groups’ affiliation because it is their job to learn about different societies. When working with people from different social backgrounds, they encounter some social issues with which they might not agree or may be beyond the law.

Lende encountered social issues with his research on young drug users and abusers.

“The most important guiding principle is understanding and respecting your informant’s viewpoint,” Lende said. “And some conflicts can arise because the viewpoint of your informant isn’t always necessarily in line with dominant social norms.”

Lende said that it is important to inform the participants how they and the information collected will be used. And it’s important to make them aware that their participation was voluntary due to the illegal nature of the informants’ behaviors.

During some of her research, Antoinette Jackson, a heritage tourism professor at USF, faced historical social issues.

“A lot of my early work has been with people who are descendants of enslaved Africans or plantation communities,” Jackson said. “So I interviewed people of both sides: people who are descendants of slave owners and people who are descendants of the enslaved…People on both sides are concerned about how they are going to be represented.”

Jackson said despite the fact that her personal ethical standards were tested by the atrocious stories given in the interviews from these descendents, it was her duty to accurately represent these figures in her research.

A moral issue that Jackson encountered during her studies was the prohibition of gathering information when the informants were unwilling to be recorded or interviewed.

“The person has a right to refuse to participate in an interview,” Jackson said. “They can decide that they don’t want their material used.”

When conducting interviews, anthropologists, especially those employed at USF, have to adhere to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) process. A set of questions is submitted to a review board for approval and, according to the IRB process, informed consent forms must be signed by the participants to use the information collected in their interviews.

“The question for me is when do you tell them these things and get them to sign the forms,” Jackson said. “When you present people with a set of forms that are so official-looking, they think ‘well I don’t want to sign away my rights.’ I’ve had interviews with people who have refused to sign and they’ve given me the materials or information that I want. The ethical dilemma is: What do I do?”

Jackson had to call on her ethical and professional standards to not use the information that wasn’t properly signed away by the participants.

During some of his medical research, Lende has been ethically tested when working with breast cancer patients who refused treatment. Lende described how his informants went through negative experiences with doctors in the past, which made them less likely to seek screening services. Not only did Lende have to try to understand where they were coming from, but also try to encourage the women to take the preventative tests.

Lende said, “Often times, law enforcement or government policy dictates ‘you have to do it’ model and that’s not the anthropologist model.”

While in the process of gathering information, anthropologists are required to uphold professional standards set forth by their employer and the American Anthropological Association (AAA).

According to the AAA’s Code of Ethics, “Anthropological researchers have primary ethical obligations to the people, species and materials they study and to the people with whom they work.”

“The primary reason for them (guidelines) is to protect the interest of the community, the people we work with,” Jackson said.


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