Ethics in Anthropology or Anthropology of Morals?!

Eberhard Werner

In one anthropology meeting the issue of “Morals and Ethics in Anthropology” as opposed to “Anthropology of Ethics and Morals” (Caduff 2011:456) came into focus. The latter is concerned with the study of morals and ethics in societies. “Moral anthropology” (Fassin 2008:333) is concerned with the basics of evil and good. The close link to religious concepts is obvious and of interest for Bible Translation. Moral anthropology concerns how societies “ideologically and emotionally found their cultural distinction between good and evil, and how social agents concretely work out this separation in their everyday life” (ibid.; Fassin & Stoczkowski 2008:331). The ideological point of view that a researcher takes is central regarding these topics. Our goal was not to come up with a solution, but to increase our understanding of these important anthropological issues.

In general, ethics in research, and “Morals and Ethics in Anthropology,” deal with loyalty, integrity, fairness, trust and respect towards the parties involved. These prerequisites focus especially on ethics with regard to those individuals or groups that the anthropologist is working with. But they also reflect reciprocity. Only if they frame the ethical borders of the relationship can all parties expect trust and respect.

The general ethical framework of science follows not just international ethical standards of research, but also discipline-specific recommendations (e.g. AAA ethical statements 2012). However, specifically in ethnography, one has to be aware of intended or unintended manipulation of data, including change, omission, withholding, overlooking, duplex or salami publication (breaking up one publication into small pieces), as well as unwarranted authorship. Such scientific misconduct goes under the label “data-cooking”. Human sciences, in contrast to natural sciences, face even greater danger, as subjectivity based on matters of intuition and interpretation is less manageable. Controlling it lacks a practicable instrument. In response to this awareness the American Anthropology Association (AAA 2012) points to their general ethical principles:

1. Do No Harm

2. Be Open and Honest Regarding Your Work

3. Obtain Informed Consent and Necessary Permissions

4. Weigh Competing Ethical Obligations, Due Collaborators and Affected Parties

5. Make Your Results Accessible

6. Protect and Preserve Your Records

7. Maintain Respectful and Ethical Professional Relationships.

In translation science, a similar approach can be found in Chesterman’s Hieronymic Oath, which follows the Hippocratic Oath for physicians (2001); also the Fédération Internationale des Traducteurs with           similar standards (visit

Anthropology is not at all free from misconduct. On the contrary, it has experienced prominent ethical fallacies in the past, which raised a lot of criticism. Lack of language capability, the use of third-party information and a superior attitude towards the investigated people group(s) led to subjective and sometimes manipulated data and thus misleading conclusions. Consequently, not just the people groups which were described felt misunderstood, but also the audience were misled (e.g. Freeman 1983 and 1998). As a sidetrack, Christian Anthropology faces the ethical accusation of the destruction of a culture or society, as well as religiously motivated Imperialism leading to an unhealthy dependency of the approached on the religious institution (Holzhausen 1996). (Christian) Anthropologists learnt from the past. Recent ethnography and anthropological research better take into account ethnocentrism, culture and language change and adaptation, subjectivity on behalf of the investigator, and the reality of relativisms (Bagish 2013).

Anthropological theory plays a huge role with regard to ethical principles in anthropology. Spradley introduced some ethical standards to ethnography as participant observation (1980:21), and refers also to the AAA principles. Rynkiewich & Spradley (1976) look at ethics from a Christian point of view. Wax (1987) and McGee & Warms (2004) cover ethics from a secular viewpoint in their Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History. Every epoch, as well as every theory, brings forth specific ethical orientations. In the Middle Ages the theocentric view of the Clergy dominated social sciences and their interpretation. Ethics was transfigured by human interpretation of the divine (note this is an observation seen from an enlightened retrospective). Religions powered ethical bias by their hermeneutics. The emerging anthropological attitudes started back in the 19th century, influenced by humanism, enlightenment and evolutionary theory. Ethics was reflected in these ideologies and framed by Zeitgeist (spirit of the time) and philosophical interpretation. Looking back into young anthropology and structuralism, ethics was understood as a relationship between the ethnographer and his work. The researcher decided what was within the ethical framework. The audience of ethnography and the ethnographer were dominant in setting the stage. The object of research was viewed from outside. Comparative studies brought the “foreign” and “other” to the table of dissection. With functional structuralism not just the audience but also the objects of investigation were understood to be parties that need to have a say. However, the “foreign” and “other” was still looked at from a distance. As in structuralism the researcher took part in the worlds of life of the investigated people. Additionally, in functionalism researchers looked at social functions and their cohesive features. Their own social setting became less important. Nowadays ethics is a mutual concept regarding all parties. Obviously, in the AAA ethical principles, the researcher, the research, the audience, and the parties involved in research need to be in agreement with the anthropological work. Such a mutual agreement does not mean that critical and sometimes diverging opinions are banned, but it asks for trust and loyalty between the parties. To accomplish a fair and loyal research the researcher reflects the “foreign” and “other” with emic (inside) and etic (outside) tools. Thus, the researcher as “foreigner” deconstructs his own worlds of life and re-constructs the realm of profound encounter. Yet, the former foreignness disperses into a dyadic relationship of reciprocity.

One note should be made on fieldwork. Participant observation has been the main approach since the 1980s. As ever, questions were raised, whether the object of study, that is “culture”, can neither be assumed as a given social structure, nor compared to other cultures. Cultural relativism asks for participation as observer (Spradley 1980), listener (Forsey 2010) and deconstructuralist (Derrida 1967:25). Participant observation led the ethnographer to annotate the received data based on his perception of the world (Spradley 1980:10, 14, 21). Engaged participant listening tries to go one step deeper by presenting the data from the perspective of the “other” (Forsey 2010:586-587). In deconstructuralism one deconstructs the cultural bonds between the object and himself, by creating (re-constructing) an area of investigation in which all parties are equal (Carrithers 1992:55, 82). Social, cultural, linguistic and ideological boundaries vanish due to the observation that “foreignness” is part of intercultural encounter (e.g. Werner 1996). This idealist approach is also reflected in other sciences. For instance theology and missiology started with an epoch of accommodation, and moved into contextualization. Recently transformative approaches are moving into what can be called implementation. All of these approaches reflect ethics in a zeitgeisty manner.

The huge area of “ethics and morals in anthropology” and “the moral anthropology” cannot be evaluated conclusively within such a small article. But, I hope to have raised awareness about our responsibility towards scientific research, the audience, and the people we work with. Truthfulness and loyalty are the outstanding principles regarding ethics.


Further discussion is warmly welcomed. Write to: werner [at]

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