Case 6: Anonymity Revisited

Mary Jones had spent three years, 1969-72, working as an applied medical anthropologist in an urban black community in the United States. In order to provide the social science communities with some data on her project, she wrote a series of articles to be published in relevant professional journals. The data included sensitive materials concerning specific epidemiological problems faced by members of the community as well as strategies and tactics used to improve health care delivery by the local community. Before submitting her articles for publication, Jones asked specific members of the community if they would read the papers for comments and criticism. Individuals from the community health center who had been part of the applied project did so and set up a meeting for discussion of the contents of the manuscripts.

The discussion began with several individuals complimenting Jones on her accurate characterization of the local situation and the sensitive way in which she addressed their health care problems and ways they chose to solve some of these. Several moments of silence passed after these initial remarks. Then an elder asked Jones why she had not given the accurate name of the community health center where much of this activity took place. Immediately, someone else asked why she had not given the accurate name of the town where the center was located. A third person asked why there were no names given for the people at the center and in the community who were involved in the project and in the "struggle to improve health care for our people."

Jones countered with explanations regarding anthropological conventions which specified the use of pseudonyms in certain types of anthropological reporting, specifically if there was any chance that individuals or a community might be harmed. She provided some examples of instances in a nearby town where people had been harmed because the actual name of the town and the names of people there had been published in a scientific report. The participants at the meeting told her that she should use her own judgment in the final analysis, but they felt that even if she could not see that using the name of the health center might help them, at least she should name some of the people who had helped Jones and her students during their three years of work, even though Jones and her students were on the applied project to help the community.

Jones's Dilemma: Should she defer to the community health center members' desire that she publish the name of the health center, the town in which the health center was located, an&or the names of individuals who had asked or given permission for their names to be published (during the meeting described above)? Or, should she retain the use of pseudonyms throughout her papers?

Jones's Decision

Jones decided not to publish the actual name of the health center or the name of the town where she had worked. Her rationale was that, although the articles in question contained little in the way of "sensitive" materials, future publications might since such materials were in her records. She therefore chose to protect the anonymity of the community. She did, however, acknowledge the support and assistance of specific community people (by name) in footnotes to the articles.