What Ethical Issues Does Ethnography Raise? How Might We Deal with These?

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Ethics can be defined as a “set of moral principles and beliefs that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity” with its main principle of doing ‘good’ and preventing harm (Oxford Dictionaries: 2011). However Orb et al (2002:93) states that Ethical issues can best be described or expressed as the “tension between the aims of research to make generalizations for the good of others, and the rights of participants to maintain privacy.” Ethical issues and moral dilemmas are seen to arise in almost any type of research concerning human participants; in quantitative, biomedical, psychological, anthropological and sociological research. The infringement of some ethical issues which arise are considered to be more serious than others; however in order to minimise these ethical dilemmas, researchers must follow and obey a strict set of ethical guidelines in order to protect and minimise harm caused to participants or research subjects. Urie Bronfenbrenner suggests that there is no way of conducting research without breaching the principles of professional ethics, and that the only way of avoiding such dilemmas is to cease the conduct of any research (Fine 1993:267). Clearly there a variety of differing ethical dilemmas which occur in research, however those which arise in ethnographic research are in complete contrast to those ethical dilemmas raised in biomedical or quantitative research, where some might suggest that ethical problems are greater (Alder et al 1986). Punch (1994) goes further in suggesting that qualitative studies such as ethnography rarely, if ever, raise ethical issues (Orb 2000:93); however this statement is heavily debated. This essay aspires to discuss and analyse the ethical issues which arise in ethnography and discuss how valid and harmful these issues really are. The paper will also seek to discuss how researchers may overcome these ethical dilemmas and as to whether they are really effective means to dealing with the issue. However, firstly this essay will commence by giving a brief history of ethics, draw upon problems concerning the ethical review board guidelines and outline two contrasting dimensions of ethics.

Today ethics are seen to be used as a tool to guide and direct research studies, however it seems that before the mid 1950’s research studies gave little regard to ethical guidelines or their research subjects causing a great deal of harm and distress to individuals and cultures (Akeroyd 2008:133). An extreme example of this happened in America, from 1932 to 1972, many African American people where deliberately left untreated for syphilis as researchers wanted to find out what would happen if the illness was left (Orb 2002:93). Questions are today raised as to whether these studies should be disregarded as so many ethical issues and dilemmas were raised in pioneering research. However, today research studies are under strict regulation and scrutiny from ethical review boards, that have developed guidelines and controls which must be obeyed during any type of research. In the US, the Institutional review board (IRB) review all federally funded projects and require the researchers to follow a strict set of rules whilst conducting their studies, such as informing their participants of the objectives of research, obtaining consent from participants, protecting them from harm and so forth (Murphy and Dingwall 2007:340). However the ethical guidelines set by Institutional Review Boards have been criticized greatly by many social scientists claiming that the codes set have been designed around biological or quantitative models of research which are totally inapplicable nor relevant to social research and in particular ethnographic studies (Akeroyd 2008:147). Social scientists argue that the ethical guidelines set are not sensitive to ethnographic research and due to this may cause harm to individuals or groups studied; further they argue that the guidelines are liable to...
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