AAA Statement on the Confidentiality of Field Notes

Adopted by the AAA Executive Board
March 10, 2003

The American Anthropological Association supports the view that a researcher’s field notes should be considered privileged information as a matter of course. Field notes are a hybrid of research ideas, research observations, general thoughts, and even a diary. They are works in progress and are often incomplete notations meant not only to clarify thoughts on situations but also to provide mental stimulation to help recall peripheral aspects of situations. To view them outside of the context of such is to view them in an incorrect light and distorts their true nature and utility. It is extremely important for researchers to be able to maintain the security of their thoughts and ideas, as well as the material gained through the confidence of the people studied or with whom they work.

The American Anthropological Association Code of Ethics makes it clear that “Anthropological researchers have primary ethical obligations to the people, species, and materials they study and to the people with whom they work” (III)(A)(1). Additionally, anthropological researchers are cautioned to “do everything in their power to ensure that their research does not harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people with whom they work, conduct research, or perform other professional activities” (III)(A)(2).

The Code goes on to say “It is understood that the degree and breadth of informed consent required will depend on the nature of the project and may be affected by requirements of other codes, laws, and ethics of the country or community in which the research is pursued. . . . . Researchers are responsible for identifying and complying with the various informed consent codes, laws and regulations affecting their projects” (III) (A) (4).

It is necessary that field workers be able to demonstrate to the best of their ability to the people with whom they work and study that the information provided and recorded within field notes will not be used to endanger the physical or social lives of the people studied. Such is the only way to maintain the integrity of the research endeavor.

The American Anthropological Association supports the view that the anthropological researchers’ responsibilities to the people with whom they work includes protecting the privacy of their communications with the researcher. Furthermore, we believe that an environment of distrust results if field notes are not protected against use by public officials or other persons having physical or political power who might wish to use the notes to investigate or prosecute research subjects or people with whom we work.