Ethics in Cultural Anthropology & Ethnography

by Abigail Nehring
Anthropologists have been forced to confront the ethical challenges of studying other cultures.

Anthropologists have been forced to confront the ethical challenges of studying other cultures.

Anthropologists face several ethical challenges inherent in any research that uses human research subjects. These challenges are particularly troublesome for anthropologists because historically, they have studied non-Western and subaltern groups of people. Because of these challenges, anthropology has a long history of self-critique. Some anthropologists have recently turned to "cultural studies" as an alternative approach to the study of culture.

Colonialism and Anthropology

The modern discipline of anthropology has its origins in the encounter between European colonial explorers and their research subjects in far-flung places around the world. Thus, anthropologists traditionally position themselves as "objective observers," rendering their research subjects voiceless in the research process. This relationship is ethically troublesome because it objectifies the research subjects as mere "texts" to be "read" by trained anthropologists.

Colonial Racism

Because of this objectification of their research subjects, anthropologists have been blamed for helping to further entrench the distinction between Westerners and non-Westerners, researchers and informants, respectively. In 1973, Diane Lewis, who was an anthropologist at San Francisco State College, wrote in an influential paper that anthropology is in a state of crisis because of its complicity in European imperialism. Anthropology is "the academic manifestation of colonialism," Lewis wrote. Her critical article triggered a wider debate about how anthropology can be exploitative and may even be considered a form of colonial racism. Anthropologists began to discuss how they could become less reliant on the gulf between their culture and the culture of their subjects in order to make their findings relevant and interesting.

The Crisis of Representation

The ethical difficulties anthropologists face are also shared by other social scientists. During the "cultural turn" in colleges and universities in the 1980s, there was an increased focus on qualitative and ethnographic studies across many disciplines. This forced many social scientists, including anthropologists, to question their own assumptions when they approach human research subjects. Researchers began asking: What does it mean to represent other people and their culture? How can we "speak for" and "speak of" them ethically?

Cultural Studies

As a result of the evolution in anthropology and the social sciences more generally, many colleges and universities are now adopting the title "cultural studies" rather than anthropology. While meaning and human experience remain central to both disciplines, cultural studies differs in that it focuses more on self-examination and relies less on an exotic outside culture. But today's anthropologists continue to struggle with their discipline's colonial legacies and the ethical difficulties entailed, which will likely never completely go away.

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