Ethics Statement

Ethical Statement of the Medical Anthropology Working Group of the German Anthropological Association with respect to Medical Anthropology

Background and Goals

Every kind of anthropological research on health, sickness, and healing raises complex ethical questions. Because of its focus on trans-cultural and trans-disciplinary problems, Medical Anthropology is a field in which ethical measures of “good” and “bad” practice are rather open, or seem unclear, and must often be newly defined. Since Medical Anthropologists have begun increasingly taking part in research that has as its goal active and deliberate change in the life-worlds of other people as its goal, Medical Anthropologists’ need for ethical self-reflection has grown. Medical Anthropological research involves not only the ideas and convictions of informants, but also complex socio-political interests. The ethical dimensions of research are not always immediately recognizable.

The goal of this statement is to offer guidelines for ethical self-reflection to Anthropologists who conduct research on health, sickness and healing in university, non-university, and applied settings. These should help us to reflect upon the specific conditions of anthropological — as opposed to medical — research. Moreover, these guidelines should remain an object of continuous reflection within the Working Group for Medical Anthropology. In particular, they should be further developed in light of concrete experience, and in light of the results of applying them to concrete examples of conflict.

For ethically responsible research

Only research that attempts to become aware of its own theoretical and methodological bases can be regarded as ethical. This awareness should be based not only on the academic consequences of the research, but also on its consequences outside the Academy. A reflective consideration of one’s own social role is a part of ethically responsible research in all its phases, particularly with respect to gender roles. One’s own attitudes should be made as clear and open as possible. The ethical standards of research cannot immediately be evaluated from its institutional context, its sponsor, or its source of financial support. For difficult research, professional supervision should be considered.

Responsibility with respect to persons involved in the research

Respectful behaviour in the widest sense toward those persons involved in the research (research partners, so-called interview partners, and the families and environments of research partners) should be practiced. The highest priority is that those persons involved in the research should not be harmed. The goals, methods, and sources of financial support for the research are to be made clear to them. The research should only begin after those involved are satisfied with the research plan. It should be ensured that participation in the research is voluntary. The researcher should actively inquire after the wishes of those who are involved in the research. One should make certain that they do not have inaccurate ideas about the extent of the research. The limits of one’s own research should be explained, especially with respect to hoped for improvements in the living conditions of informants. It should be clarified whether or not interview partners wish to remain anonymous. In case of doubt, anonymity is to be preferred, especially in order to protect interview partners from third persons. Informed consent of interview partners and others involved in the research is a dynamic process that lasts from the beginning to the end of the research, and can change, depending on conditions. It is not necessary to have a written statement of agreement from interview partners; rather, a personal relationship of trust is required. Criticism of the therapeutic techniques of informants, especially of medical experts, is justified when it is substantively formulated and has to do with institutional practices. Those involved with the research may not be harmed by it. It should be ensured that research results are shared in an appropriate form. The researcher should be ready to discuss the research results with those who are involved in it.

Responsibility with respect to co-workers

It should be made clear to co-workers that no research activities may affect their physical and psychological health. In cases of doubt, the subjective evaluation of the co-workers is definitive. In such cases, a way should jointly be sought to reach the research objectives. The contribution to research of co-workers should be made known in an appropriate way.

Responsibility to oneself

One has the responsibility to oneself not to engage in any research that gravely affects one’s physical or psychological health. Should such dangers come to pass during the research, responsibility towards oneself means that one should seriously consider terminating the research.

Responsibility to the Research Council

Every research proposal should contain a paragraph regarding the ethical implications of the research. The responsibility of the discipline of Anthropology for good scientific practice includes the observation of good scientific practice as defined by the German Research Council. It is to be ensured that one’s own behaviour does not affect the opportunities for subsequent researchers. Researchers bear the responsibility of ensuring that, as far as possible, their research results will be made available to other researchers and will be acknowledged in subsequent research. From the ethical point of view, relevant results should not be suppressed, nor should they disappear. If colleagues are uncertain about the ethical standards of their research and wish to discuss the matter, an anthropologist should be available for collegial, confidential supervision.

Responsibility in Teaching

In teaching, (ethical) responsibility means that the ethical challenges of medical anthropological research should have a considerable place in the curriculum, and that students should be made particularly sensitive to ethical questions. The contribution of students to research in which they take part should be appropriately acknowledged.

Responsibility to the Public

One should accept the responsibility of ensuring that research results are presented conscientiously and accurately to the public. With respect to political debate, it is the decision of the individual researcher whether he or she wishes to take an active position.

Responsibility to the funders of research

Numerous implications for behaviour and responsibility toward research funding organizations are already given by the ethical implications of the law of contract. The qualifications of the researcher and his/her assistants should be truthfully stated. The goals of the funding organization should be discussed before the contract is signed, and the contract should be evaluated with respect to its ethical implications and their enforceability.

Basel, 11 Februar 2005
(A draft of this declaration has been prepared by Stefan Ecks and Elsbeth Kneuper)
Translated into English by William Sax