Chapter 5: Some Experiences in Teaching Ethics in Fieldwork Classes

By Sue-Ellen Jacobs

One of the best ways to encourage students to question research motives and procedures--their own and those of the anthropologists whose works they study--is to embed this learning in the fieldwork experience.

Since 1968, 1 have taught at least one experiential field course each academic year, designed to involve students in the life of at least one other person for a specific period: during this time, students question that person about their life, family, experiences, beliefs, and feelings. The purpose of these person-to-person exercises is to augment, in a dramatic way, the reading and lecture materials covered in class, and to emphasize to students, through their own personal experience, the value of the subject matter and the importance of ethical issues.

Elsewhere, I have described long-term, goal-oriented projects where students worked under the supervision of community and faculty (Jacobs 1979, 1974a, 1974b); because those research experiences were tied to concrete action projects, students were involved in ethical issues concerning research and practice throughout the course of their participation in the field projects. I concentrate here on two shorter field projects, assigned in courses taught at the University of Washington.

Requirements for Research Involving Human Subjects at the University of Washington

In common with other institutions receiving federal funds, the University of Washington has specific guidelines that must be followed when conducting research involving human beings (subjects). When fieldwork projects designed by individual students vary, each must be approved on an individual basis. When a course with a specific fieldwork requirement is offered, however, students in that course are covered by the course application as approved by the Human Subjects Research Committee (HSRC). In the Department of Anthropology, each application is reviewed by a subcommittee; this applies to the field projects of individual students and to projects designed by professors as a course requirement. If the subcommittee members are confident that protective measures meet the requirements of the University of Washington Human Subjects Review Committee, they will approve the application; if not, they forward the application to the all-university committee. It takes a few weeks to several months for the HSRC to process an application.

Ethical Issues Addressed in a Basic Kinship Course1

For several years I taught a kinship course that required graduate and advanced undergraduate students to conduct a field project involving the collection of kinship data from someone whose first language was not English. Students found the individuals with whom they worked either among fellow students, or in the community.

On the second day of class, after a brief discussion of the assigned readings in the kinship texts, I talked about general ethical issues discussed within the American Anthropological Association and other professional environments, passed out the AAA Principles of Professional Responsibility, described the research requirements of the University of Washington, and distributed the application forms for the HSRC. Although the class project had been approved in advance, I wanted the students to think about how to answer each question on the form, to gain experience in filling out such forms and to write a draft consent form. To do this, students had to think about practical issues involved in talking with someone whose first language is not English in a way that would provide them with basic knowledge of the kinship systems used by that person. At the next class meeting, we agreed on the answers to the questions and together wrote a final consent form; then we discussed the reasons for choosing specific answers to the questions.

Students were often disturbed by the process of writing the consent form, filling in the application, and by the ethical issues involved in conducting the research described on the forms. They started discussing among themselves the ethical implications of collecting, what one student called "esoteric things like kinship labels." Initially, students often found the procedures to be an annoyance, asking why they should have do this for something so "nonthreatening as kinship terms." At the beginning of the term, during this period of HSRC application preparation, it was initially difficult for students to understand that kinship research may cause the people studied to experience stress. At this stage in their careers, graduate and upper division students have not yet teamed that collecting kinship terms can lead a researcher well beyond bits of linguistic and cognitive data into sensitive details about family matters. Nevertheless, they went through the exercise and then began to search for someone they could work with. They were required to find their collaborator by the end of the second week of classes at the latest (the University of Washington quarter system has ten weeks per term) The consent form contains so much information about the possible harmful and other aspects of the project that on occasion people who are going to work with a student become intimidated by it. Despite this, over the course of four years, only two people changed their minds about working with a student after reading the consent form.

Students used a standard format for eliciting kinship terms in their informant's native language (later, they asked for the English words for these terms, as a means of cross-checking their understanding of the non-English terms). Meeting regularly with their consultants for these discussions, the students began to develop a sense of closeness to them. By midterm, they had to give a progress report to the class. At this time, they began to talk about the ethical dilemmas they were encountering. Some of the students wanted to stop their consultants from talking about their families, because all the student was "supposed to get is kinship information." At this point, a deep appreciation of kinship studies begins to develop: they now understand, in an experiential way, that kinship is about families. They begin to understand the contextual value of kinship studies, the ethical issues such research involves, and possible ways to solve certain ethical dilemmas.

The students were graded on a paper based on the field project. By the end of the quarter, they could always present a good description of the individual and that person's place within the family, as well as data on how residence units are customarily formed, the organization of the extended family, and many other standard kinship questions. Genealogical and terminological charts were attached. Often students were given personal information that they did not use because, although they believed it might increase understanding of the person's kinship organization, they felt inclusion of this information might be harmful to their informant/friend. Students were learning in a classroom situation that making judgments about the use of information is part of being an ethically responsible anthropologist. They also learned that the least threatening field project or subject may create stress for informants . . . and even some devastating complications, in terms of individual family structure or individual sense of self, when research inadvertently calls forth unhappy memories from one's informants.

Ethical Issues in Life History Research

Students who take this course typically expect to learn intimate details about a particular person. The course grows directly from the three year Washington Women's Heritage Project, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. That project was designed to document, through oral history interviews and collection of secondary sources, women's contributions to Washington State. The students (whose ranks range from second year undergraduate to advanced graduate students) are told on the first day of class that their work will be a major contribution to a growing state archive. They are informed that by staying in the course they agree to assume responsibility for conducting an accurate and complete in-depth interview of one of the women listed in the Heritage Project file. Although students may choose to interview someone who is not listed in these files, they are discouraged from interviewing a close friend or relative for their first experience doing life history research.

The students are then given copies of the HSRC application and approved consent form to read and are informed about various codes of professional conduct that apply to research with human beings (subjects). Their first reading assignment includes chapters in several course texts that discuss professional ethics in life history research. They are instructed to read from the sources in the following order: (1) pp. 143-155 in L. L. Langness and Gelya Frank,Lives: An Anthropological Approach to Biography (Novato, CA: Chandler and Sharp, 198 1); (2) the entire handbook by Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Susan Armitage, and Katherine Anderson, A Handbook for Life History Research (University of Washington: Washington Women's Heritage Project, 1982); (3) chapter 2 on "Interviewing" in Edward D. Ives, The Tape-Recorded Interview: A Manual for Field Workers in Folklore and Oral History (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1974); (4) then, "Ethical and Moral Concerns" (pp. 117-143) in Langness and Frank. They are also required to study the interview schedule they will be using.2

In contrast to the kinship course, the focus in the life history course is to get as much personal information as possible from the person who is interviewed. We are specifically interested in the women, their experiences, their impressions, their feelings, their life stories. An open-ended interview format is used to elicit these. When the students have understood that they are going to make a "real" contribution to women's history sources, they become thoroughly engaged in discussing the ethical problems they might face when they are working with their informants. Their concerns range from "touching on taboo subjects, like abortion back then" to "what if I don't get the whole story right?"

Each student is required to conduct a minimum of three one-hour interviews in the person's home. More often than not, students wind up with five hours of taped interview. They must then properly identify, prepare an index for, and summarize each tape. They also must prepare a brief (10- to 20-page) life history of their person, presenting a copy of this to their subject and to me. The life history summary, along with all the materials collected by the student and a release form signed by the interviewee, goes into the University of Washington Manuscripts and Archives division of the graduate library.

Students give progress reports on their work with their interviewee at least every other week. They discuss problems in obtaining the kinds of information they "need," mistakes they have made during the interviews, concerns they have about public access to the information contained on their tapes, and ways to "protect" their (now) friends from harm that might come from unconscious or unwitting misuse of the taped interviews. Soon after they begin taping the interviews, most students realize that harm may come to the person they are studying if the collected information is not handled with care. In class discussions their comments begin to reflect a concern for research that makes others vulnerable, and they note that this vulnerability can exist in all phases of research: data collection, analysis, storage, and reporting. By the end of the quarter, it is not uncommon for students to have erased portions of tapes--usually, but not always, after having discussed this possibility with their interviewees--because they fear that in some way these sections might cause later embarrassment to "their" person.

By the end of the quarter, it is always true that the hardest task they accomplish is writing the life history summary. Knowing that the person they have interviewed must pass on this summary before it can be presented in class, they work very hard to present a "true but positive" condensation of perhaps 80 years of another's life story. Every time I have taught this course (seven times as of 1986) at least one student has declared, "If only I could use the materials she told me off tape and in confidence, then I could explain better why [or howl that part of her life was like it was! Without that information you can't really understand her!" When this is stated with exasperation by one student, most of the others nod or otherwise indicate their support and understanding for the frustration caused by adherence to the confidentiality demanded by both the human subjects research consent form and by their own concern for the welfare of the person they studied.


I conclude by noting that Cassell and I are emphatic about our belief that one of the most effective ways to teach ethics is in the context of practice. In this way, students are faced with the ethical dilemmas associated with research and actively seek the guidance provided by the course materials