Case 21: Ethical Dilemmas and Moral Responsibilities

After 14 months of fieldwork, plus nine successive summers, Becky Ross went into the field for her 11th season with a southwest Indian tribe. When she first entered the field, she had been accepted as a granddaughter by an elderly couple with whom she had always lived; the couple's three grown children and their spouses, who lived close by, treated her as a sister (or sister-in-law). Becky planned to spend the summer catching up on genealogies and reviewing a rough draft of her book on the tribe with her hosts.

When she reached the field, Becky learned that her "grandfather-father" was not well: he had Alzheimer's disease and diabetes, exhibiting distressing signs of senility, and drinking heavily and hallucinating. (The illness was particularly painful for Becky, whose parents had moved in with her when her father developed Alzheimer's). After a week of settling in, Becky learned that her "brother" Bob had an urgent project in a distant city and that he and his wife would not be back until late August. Soon afterwards, Rita, her "sister," told her that she and her husband were leaving on vacation; the next day, Conchita, the third child, announced that she, too, had an urgent project and was leaving with her husband. In addition, her two "cousin-nieces" left; one had spent a great deal of time doing errands for the old couple; the other lived just across the path, making her available for emergencies. Before leaving, Conchita said, "We've been doing it all year. It's your turn. We waited till you came to make our trip."

What could Becky do? She felt she had no choice. She behaved like the "granddaughter-daughter" she had always been called. She felt put upon in a way, but she also felt that a sense of responsibility accompanied her role as "occasional kin."

The elders needed a great deal of care: Becky sat up nights with her "grandfather-father" when he was delirious; took them wherever they needed to go; did their shopping; cleaned the home; and helped her "grandmother-mother" prepare the food. Her "siblings" returned shortly before she was scheduled to begin the new semester of teaching at her university. The manuscript had not been reviewed. The genealogies were not updated.

She remembers the summer with distress. It was exhausting, frustrating, and mostly unrewarding. More than a year later, her book is still unfinished.

The following summer, however, she found her relationship with the extended family had changed subtly. Several family members spent a great deal of time helping her nephew, a boy with emotional and educational difficulties whom, with the encouragement of the family, she had brought for a two-week visit. And, for the first time, Becky joined freely in family disputes about rights and responsibilities: "I had the same arguments with everyone they have with each other," she reported. Becky's response to the family's needs created a temporary dilemma for her, but it helped transcend the temporary character of her relationship with the family.


Elizabeth Colson, University of California-Berkeley:

Becky Ross's experience provides both an example of responsibility in a fieldwork situation and a warning--a warning that entry into fictional or quasi-kinship relationships entails expectations and claims that the anthropologist may find onerous, especially if the relationship continues over the years as the anthropologist makes repeated visits to the same locality. Reliance on an individual or a family for assistance during periods of field research sets up counterobligations. Becky Ross honored the claim in a manner few of us would have the courage to do and behaved admirably.

Joan Cassell (personal communication) sees Ross's behavior in terms of its exemplary character rather than as a dilemma. But in ethics, one is rarely provided with a clear-cut choice between right and wrong. In fact, one is having to choose amidst contradictory claims in most cases. The case as given to us does not say whether or not Ross had received a grant to finance her summer of fieldwork. If she did, what then? Ought she to return the grant because she was unable to carry out her proposed research? Or would the grantor be assumed to regard Ross's new position within her adopted family as an adequate recompense for the failure to check genealogies and complete the manuscript? What obligations do we have to those who finance fieldwork? How many of us in fact do what we said we would do when we asked for funding? Given the highly contingent character of fieldwork, the specificity of research proposals probably burdens all of us with unfulfilled promises.

Ross's experience also raises the question of whether those beginning field research should be advised against entering into the kind of close personal friendships or quasi-kinship relationships which are so reassuring and satisfying when we are the gainers from the relationship. At the very least, we ought to alert novices to the fact that they are creating obligations and they ought to learn what these may entail.