Chapter 6: How to Hold a Workshop on Ethical Problems in Fieldwork

By Joan Cassell

One way to encourage reflection on the variety of ethical and moral issues that can develop in anthropological research is to hold a workshop on ethical problems in fieldwork. For purposes of definition, in this chapter, we broadly define fieldwork as research which utilizes the following methods: ethnographic fieldwork, community study, participant observation, unstructured face-to-face interviewing, and nonobtrusive observation.


Organizers. The workshop can be planned and carried out by students, faculty, and/or anthropological, sociological, educational, and other researchers with interest and experience in addressing questions of fieldwork ethics.

Panelists. Panelists should be fieldworkers with at least one year's experience in conducting fieldwork, more if possible.

Invite five to seven panelists to present case studies and to raise critical ethical issues. Some panelists might present case studies and position papers, or they might present cases and questions for the audience to respond to. It is helpful if one or two of the panelists are particularly knowledgeable about ethics: you might recruit a philosopher, theologian, rabbi, priest, minister, or other ethicist who can comment on the presentations from the viewpoint of ethics rather than fieldwork. A thoughtful and articulate ethics consultant will add a valuable extra dimension to the proceedings. Try to arrange matters so that the strongest, liveliest--and perhaps most controversial--speakers are scheduled to say the most.

Moderator. It is important to recruit a strong moderator, someone who is able to encourage members of the audience to share opinions and fieldwork experiences--and equally able to discourage hostile, irrelevant, and long-winded comments. The moderator can also present a case study; presenters can also comment on someone else's case study.

Audience. The audience should include some researchers who have conducted fieldwork; their questions, comments, and ideas make for a lively and thought provoking session.

Locations and Publicity

The workshop can be scheduled for national, regional, or local meetings of professional societies. It can be held at a college or university, medical center, or other research/teaching facility as part of scheduled classes, in-service education, or as an extracurricular activity.

If the workshop is scheduled as part of a regular class session, make sure to put up some notices so that interested outsiders can attend. An ethics workshop can be successful when scheduled as part of a larger event. Still, it is best to post notices beforehand, or send announcements to local newspapers or journals. Publicize the workshop and the names of panelists as far in advance as possible and make it clear that audience participation is welcome.


Ask four or five of the fieldworkers to be ready to present an ethical dilemma from their own personal fieldwork experience or that of someone they know. The dilemma can involve the conduct of fieldwork, relations with students conducting fieldwork, relations with other researchers and other colleagues in the field, problems in submitting or publishing research results, and relations with those studied before, during, and after research. Presenters should feel free to conceal or disguise identifying information if they wish to do so.

Panelists should be asked to present their case studies simply, in story fashion, taking 10 to 15 minutes. Another panelist should be asked to deliver a five to ten minute commentary on the first person's case study. It is useful if the commentator has read or heard about the case study before it is presented at the workshop, but, since this is often difficult to arrange, it is not absolutely necessary if the invited participants and panelists are lively, intelligent, and verbal. One caution: as organizer, do your very best to learn in advance what &lemmas your panelists plan to present. You will find that some of the panelists may have chosen boring or inappropriate cases (for example, those dealing with research which cannot be categorized as fieldwork, or with dilemmas which cannot be classified as ethical in nature). Try to encourage people to change their projected presentation if you deem them inappropriate for the workshop. In lieu of this, it would be wise to be safe and ask for more case studies than you will probably need: ask four or five people to be ready to present; you will probably only need three or four of these.

Sometimes an interesting dilemma can be found in the anthropological literature. This can be presented by a panelist as briefly or elaborately as necessary. Panelists and audience can then be asked how they might solve the dilemma. Then the author's solution, or lack of solution, can be presented and discussed. if the workshop organizers have difficulty finding enough experienced fieldworkers with dilemmas to present, there are two fine books of case studies they can use: Ethical Dilemmas in Anthropological Inquiry: A Case Book by G. N. Appell (African, Studies Association, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA: Crossroads Press, 1978); and Ethics and Anthropology: Dilemmas in Fieldwork by M. A. Rynkiewich and J. P. Spradley (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1976). It is much more effective, however, to have fieldworkers present their own personal experiences. These have an interest and immediacy that is lacking in relating the experiences of others. Also, audiences often ask for additional information on the dilemma or problems presented which can be given only when panelists speak from personal experience.


Schedule the workshop to last about one and a half to three hours. Again, letus emphasize how important it is to have a strong moderator who can involve the audience without slowing the pace. Cassell has found that the workshops are most effective when everyone, panel and audience, is seated in a rough circle. This seems to encourage participation from the audience rather than having them merely watch the panelists perform. (Don't try a circle if you have more than about 35 people in the audience, however; a circle can be unwieldy with a much larger group.) To repeat an earlier point, try to have a few more case studies available than you think you will need, just in case you find your audience has little to say.

At the beginning of the workshop the moderator should introduce the panelists, briefly outlining their research experience, and then ask the first panelist to present a case study. The order of presentation and who comments on whose cases can be arranged before the session by the moderator; complex and formal arrangements are unnecessary. After each case study is presented, a commentator should briefly discuss the issues raised by this particular case. The audience should then be encouraged to discuss the case and the issues.

During the general discussion, led by the moderator, panel members should also discuss and comment on the case. If you have chosen a good ethics consultant, you will find that she or he often has something of interest and value to say about each presentation. When the discussion lags, or gets rambling and repetitive, the moderator should invite the next panelist to present the second dilemma, with a comment by another panelist.

When members of the audience have had extensive fieldwork experience, the moderator should allow the presentations to act primarily as eliciting devices to encourage the audience to share fieldwork ideas and experiences. Some of the most interesting and provocative material can come from the audience. Sometimes a small audience can be very lively and involved and want to discuss the issues as long as possible. At other times, even a large audience may grow lethargic and find little of interest to offer. This is when a stronger moderator is essential: the moderator must cut off discussion when it grows unproductive and, if necessary, end a workshop early if it seems to have lost all life. Another strategy for a workshop that has lost its impetus is for the moderator to arrange in advance for a panelist to present a short lecture or summary to end the session when and if proceedings seem to be lagging. This might be done by the ethics consultant or a particularly verbal and experienced fieldworker. The final point, then, is try to end the workshop a little bit before both the audience antipanelists have decided that the whole thing is over, so that interest and enthusiasm are still high.


Joan Cassell is Research Fellow at the Research Institute for the Study of Man in New York City.

James N. Hill is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, California.

Sue-Ellen Jacobs is Associate Professor in the Department of Women Studies and Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington, Seattle, Washington.

Murray L. Wax is Professor in the Department of Sociology at Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri.