Monday, March 20, 2006

How Can I Call This Ethical?


It dawned on me today what exactly I was thinking of doing. I was planning on waltzing on in to a community of political refugees - people who in many cases still have family in the place they fled - and then filming them, putting their face on camera just like it didn't matter, like anonymity weren't an issue here. That's probably because, for me, those faces are anonymous. I wouldn't have any way of placing a name, for example, on the faces from my last post's footage. That seems obvious enough. But that doesn't mean someone else couldn't.

For example, I don't have any idea what the Chinese government might (or might not) do to the families of those I film there in India, Tibetans who have left their homes for cultural and political (and, many say, survival) reasons. To put refugees' faces on video, and then to put that video in the public eye, may put those individuals and their families in very real danger. It might just be the media influencing me, but the possiblities of imprisonment and torture seem too real for me to make a film like this one public.

And granted, it's less than likely that anything like that would happen; I find it pretty far-fetched that somehow the Chinese government, bent on showing those Tibetans who's really boss, track down (or even pay attention to, if they come across it) my footage and start scouring any records they may have to find the families of those they find out have left Tibet. Let's face it, I'm just an undergraduate kid at a private American school who tends to back away from the political Tibet question, who also happens to have a blog about his upcoming academic endeavors in the region. Not exactly spy-movie material here. I'm not even sure the Chinese hold any kind of agenda like that. How could I know?

But here's the thing: I also just can't know what might happen, and I'm going to have to weigh the academic, professional, political, and personal possibilities that surround this whole project. And it hit me today that that's heavy.

Feeling pretty sure that I would need to cut the film part of my project entirely, I turned to the Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Assoctiation. One of the facilitators of my India program, Jay, had provided me with a copy of the document last week, but I hadn't gotten to it because of time. Today, I made time, and some of the principles there, though not quite resolving the whole issue, started me thinking that maybe this could work. For my current concerns, here are the most important elements:

Certain ethical obligations "can supersede the goal of seeking new knowledge, and can lead to decisions not to undertake or to discontinue a research project when the primary obligation conflicts with other responsibilities, such as those owed to sponsors or clients." One of these is "to avoid harm or wrong" by considering the negative change that might come from my work and from its publication. Another of these obligations is "to consult actively with the affected individuals or group(s), with the goal of establishing a working relationship that can be beneficial to all parties involved."

"Anthropological researchers must do everything in their power to ensure that their research does not harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people with whom they work, conduct research, or perform other professional activities." I don't know waht that might entail, but it seems in my case to be in conflict with the following:

"Anthropological researchers should utilize the results of their work in an appropriate fashion, and whenever possible disseminate their findings to the scientific and scholarly community."

I'm not kidding when I say I think my research could really add to the scientific conversation, and while I don't plan on getting rich from this film, I consider it a potentially vital part of the research. Sharing it and making it public may not be categorically wrong here. But if there's a way to make them ethical, what is it? The solution may lie in the following:

"Anthropological researchers must determine in advance whether their hosts/providers of information wish to remain anonymous or receive recognition, and make every effort to comply with those wishes. Researchers must present to their research participants the possible impacts of the choices, and make clear that despite their best efforts, anonymity may be compromised or recognition fail to materialize." That quote, combined with "the goal of establishing a working relationship that can be beneficial to all parties involved" (a repetition from text above), leads me to consider that there may be individuals in Dharamsala who will be willing to be filmed and even to risk being identified.

I plan on being very clear, then, what the risks might be. And that means I'll need to get informed about what the Chinese have reportedly done regarding Tibet - whether it be any kind of punishment, or absolute passivity, or anything in between. To me, that means that I'll need to prepare release forms for these people to sign, but the AAA says that "informed consent, for the purposes of this code, does not necessarily imply or require a particular written or signed form. It is the quality of the consent, not the format, that is relevant." Which doesn't mean I don't need written consent, period. It just means the AAA doesn't require it.

Finally, an excerpt concerning topics I've covered before in this venue: "While anthropologists may gain personally from their work, they must not exploit individuals, groups, animals, or cultural or biological materials. They should recognize their debt to the societies in which they work and their obligation to reciprocate with people studied in appropriate ways."

I'm glad Ben and I thought of this before we realized it was an issue recognized on the part of the AAA. It shows that we're complying with this final principle emphasized by the Association: "Anthropological researchers must expect to encounter ethical dilemmas at every stage of their work". Maybe I'm smart enough to pull something like this off after all.

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