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 Ethical dilemma

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nordmann
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PostSubject: Ethical dilemma   Thu 05 Jan 2012, 09:41

The fields of anthropology and ethnohistory often place its practitioners in extremely difficult ethical situations where they must decide - rather like with Star Trek's "Prime Directive" - whether to involve themselves in the resolution of a particular problem amongst those whom they study or not. Not to do so could well result in hardship (or worse) for the people concerned. However to do so would effectively pollute or even destroy the validity of the study itself.

Here is a real case from recent years - see what you would decide! I'll wait until it's been knocked about a bit and then provide the actual resolution which was implemented.

An artefact collector in later life became an anthropologist. He worked for many years studying a particular tribe. During his study he learnt that the tribe placed a huge faith in the power of a certain religious ritual to guarantee favourable agricultural conditions. However the ritual required a special artefact and, since this artefact had been stolen from them many years before, the ritual had not been possible to complete and as a result they blamed all the subsequent bad weather and droughts which had afflicted them to this loss. The anthropologist, to his surprise and horror, realised that the artefact in question was actually one that he himself had acquired legally in the past. He must now decide whether to return it to the tribe and therefore play a vital role in their social development or keep the knowledge of his acquisition from the people he was studying.

How would you fare?
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ferval
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PostSubject: Re: Ethical dilemma   Thu 05 Jan 2012, 10:07

Can I chuck in another example, one which is a current problem.

A tribe of subsistence farmers struggling to survive in an increasingly hostile environment live near an ancient burial ground where the grave goods include highly collectable pots. The government in that country do not have the funds to organise proper excavation so a local industry has grown up robbing the graves and selling the pots to dealers which is giving the locals a better standard of living and is just about the only thing keeping them going.
Should that government employ guards, possibly armed, to stop this looting given that they cannot or will not support the locals?

The whole ethics question is a minefield and attempts to codify it have been pretty inept.
This is rather a good article which summarises the field. http://www.economist.com/node/1056932?story_id=1056932


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Priscilla
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PostSubject: Re: Ethical dilemma   Mon 23 Jan 2012, 17:45

Of Nordmann's ethical question.

Empathy demands that the artifact is returned however in this case the tribe were being studied as a natualist would a species where nonintervention is a rule.

The artifact was lost to the tribe by whatever carelessness and part of their ongoing history. Fate had it that natural conditions worsened so loss of ritual observance was blamed. Either they change to meet the challenge without the artifact or await their fate.

The artifact should be kept aside in trust to be given to them if the point ever comes that they can move on without it. And here I would add a caveat. If total collapse looks imminent then it should be 'found' for them. This is a human situation and hope is a pretty strong tonic.

Having said all of that I find a bothering dilemna in the ruthless art of phographing/ filming a human calamity when tossing away the camera and helping might have been called for.

THe ethics of nonintervention are tortuous.
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PostSubject: Re: Ethical dilemma   Mon 23 Jan 2012, 18:07

I'd forgotten about this topic.
Quote :
However to do so would effectively pollute or even destroy the validity of the study itself

Surely his interest in the success of his research is secondary if he genuinely considers the pot to be vital to the well being of the tribe? However, anthropologists being a devious and not always too fastidious a crowd - there's a sweeping generalisation for you but there are some really appalling examples of exploitation - I suspect he would give them a good copy and both preserve his study and salve his conscience.
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PostSubject: Re: Ethical dilemma   Mon 23 Jan 2012, 18:18

I was once asked to go to a very remote tribal people - about whom I knew something - to find out what an anthroplogist there was up to. My employers were having none of it so couldn't. Of course what she was doing was getting stuff for a book and too many of those will destroy that group already tainted by similar 'studies,' their artifacts sold and their customs now only shown for payment...... no I don't mean Wales.
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Caro
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PostSubject: Re: Ethical dilemma   Tue 24 Jan 2012, 00:47

I suppose there is some sort of compromise that could happen here, but I just think people are people first and their job second, and in this case they should give up the artefact. I don't think it would upset the tribe's equilibrium, which might make you hesitate sometimes. Explaining how he got such a valuable thing might cause problems.

You do hear of journalists or cameramen setting up ghastly sob-story scenes in war zones for the sake of a good story or photo which seems quite unethical to me. (Might be why I'm not a very good reporter - I'm buggered if I'm going to go to a distraught woman whose daughter has been shot in the face by a rogue if unintentional hunter and ask how she's feeling.)

The big problem is when some 'good' action will change the dynamics of a community and possibly make things worse. Trying to save women from mutilation perhaps.
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MadNan
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PostSubject: Re: Ethical dilemma   Tue 24 Jan 2012, 08:19

I would think that if the artifact was originally stolen then it should be returned to them regardless of the impact on the study. Probably best that the anthropologist keeps quiet about where it has been for the past few years for his own sake.
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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: Ethical dilemma   Tue 24 Jan 2012, 09:13

The actual outcome:

As I said, this was an actual case and is used as a "typical" scenario in many university courses and similar concerning ethics, be it as they apply to anthropology or indeed any professional field, when the presence of an ethical code is insufficient to resolve a dilemma.

The anthropologist in question was Marcus Randolph, considered an authority on South American Indian peoples, but in this case was working on a commission to document the declining culture of a particular Pueblo tribe in the USA. In this study he had close communication with the tribe's elders and community leaders; indeed they were joint commissioners of the study, wishing their culture recorded before it disappeared altogether.

Randolph's dilemma concerning the artefact was not one he dismissed lightly, or indeed at all. That it had been stolen was a claim made by the elders, who he trusted. However that it had been stolen by their own people was also undeniable, and that it was only one of many such artefacts which found themselves for sale over the years at Indian trading posts was also true. Their theft was therefore also part of the culture. Randolph set out to exhaustively document all these artefacts' various whereabouts and presented his list to the elders. They agreed that "what's done is done" and that the return of these objects from the various museums and private collections they had ended up in was neither feasible nor helpful any more anyway in arresting the culture's decline. Their desire for the return of the particular artefact in question however was, to them, an exceptional case.

On the basis of their general opinion however Randolph chose not to reveal that he in fact owned the artefact which had sparked off this research. He was honest enough though to include the account, as well as an admission of his ownership, in the eventual publication of his research some years later.

The case is not intended to hold Randolph's decision up as a guideline for ethical behaviour, exemplary or otherwise, since even Randolph had to admit that his dilemma presented him with no good ethical option. He must either betray the trust he had enjoyed from the tribe's elders or betray his professional code. He chose the former, but could as easily have chosen the latter and still have been judged unethical.
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