Ethics & Methods

Lesson Objectives:

  • recognize the ethical implications of human-subject research
  • identify the benefits and consequences of anthropological research throughout history
  • comparatively evaluate the merits of scientific inquiry and individual human rights

Ethics is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions of morality; ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.  The heart of ethics lies in the notion that every action generates a cause,  or consequence. Consequentialism is the idea that the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action, regardless of the actors intentions (Anscombe 1958). Ethics is a central concern in the field of anthropology because anthropological research investigates humans and the methods, results and conclusions produced by anthropological research can have a direct effect on living populations.  When designing a research project, the anthropologist, as the actor, must determine the potential consequences of the research action as well as the positive and negative outcomes that can emerge.

The American Anthropological Association (AAA) is a professional association for anthropologists in the United States, and part of the mission of the  AAA is to help educate members about the ethical obligations and challenges associated with anthropological research. The organization offers ethical guidelines as a ‘Code of Ethics‘ by which all members are expected to abide. Contemporary concerns over the consequences of anthropological research and findings are rooted in the history of the discipline as a tool for domination and oppression of marginalized people. During the colonial era, for example, anthropologists helped produce evolutionary models and pejorative representations that served to justify the exploitation and occupation of indigenous people. In some cases, anthropological research has been used to justify genocide, such as the Eugenics Movement in the United States and the Holocaust in Germany. We will explore this in greater detail when we discuss Colonialism in the second module and Race in Anthropology in the third module. More often than not, however, the consequences of social research are unapparent.

Human Experimentation

Human Experimentation, or Human Subject Research, is a systematic investigation that involves the use of human subjects in any capacity.  This includes the collection and analysis of behavioral and psychological data as well as biological specimens. Human Subject Research is tightly regulated because research processes and conclusions can generate impacts on study participants and communities.

The Migram Experiment: Obedience to Authority

The Milgram Experiment (taken from CDC archives)

One famous example is the social-psychological ‘Obedience to Authority’ experiment conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale University in the 1960s. During a time when Nazi war criminals were being held on trial for their involvement in the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, Milgram questioned if everyday people would violate their deepest moral convictions when following orders by an authority figure. In his experiment, participants were led to believe that they were administering an electric shock when someone answered a question incorrectly. Several of the participants in his study continued to administer the electric shock, in what they believed to be in lethal doses, as they followed the orders of an ‘authority.’ After participating in the project, many participants experienced adverse psychological effects resulting from stress induced by the research procedures as well as the finding generated from the data collected by the researchers.

The Stanford Prison Experiment: 

In a similar study in the 1970s, psychology professor Philip Zimbardo at Stanford University questioned the cause of abusive behavior by prisoners and prison guards. He aimed to discover if there was something inherent in the individual that compels them to engage in abusive acts, or is it the conditions in prison that elicit such behaviors.  Watch the documentary below consider the objectives and impacts  of the Milgram and Stanford experiments on human subjects.

Undisclosed Human Experimentation

Although participants in the Milgram and Stanford experiments were not fully informed of the research process, they were aware that they were participating in a research study. There have been numerous cases of research and experimentation on human subjects who were unaware that they were participating in a study. In most cases, the research subjects were  members of marginalized populations such as racial minorities, prisoners, poor, people with disabilities, institutionalized, and children. Some of the most notable violations of human rights has taken place in the field of biomedical research.

The Tuskegee Experiment

The Tuskeegee Experiment (taken from CDC archive)

 The U.S. Public Health Service conducted the Tuskeegee Syphilis experiment to study the natural progression of untreated syphilis over an extended period of time. The study took place in Alabama from 1932 until 1972, over forty years. Information, such as blood samples,  were collected from more than 600 poor African-American males who were led to believe that they were receiving free health care from the U.S. government. Nearly 400 of the participants had previously contracted syphilis; yet they were never told they had the disease, nor were they treated for it when Penicillin became widely available as a cure during the 1940s (
In 2010, the American public became aware that similar studies took place in the 1940s in areas such as Guatamala where prisoners and soldiers were deliberately infected with the disease in order for American doctors to test the effects of penicillin on the disease. To review an extensive list of well-known human experiments in the United States, visit the Unethical Human Experiments webpage on As a result of the human rights violations that took place during the Tuskegee Experiment and others, contemporary research involving human subjects must be reviewed by an Institutional Review Board (IRB) .

IRB & Informed Consent

The Institutional Review Board (IRB) aims to ensure that that human subject research is ethical, scientific, and conforms to regulatory guidelines. A key part of the IRB process is the requirement for informed consent. This interview with Susan Reverby, author of  Tuskegee Examined, explains the historical processes that led to the development of IRBs and informed consent regulations.

Informed Consent
Informed consent requires that the participants in the study are fully informed of  the purpose, procedures and potential consequences of their participation.  To work in a community, anthropologists are required to inform local officials and residents about the purpose of their research and the sources of their funding. People who agree to participate in the research must be informed of the purpose , nature and procedures of the research as well as the potential costs and benefits of participation. In order to obtain informed consent, research participants must be capable of fully understanding the process and communicating their consent. For information regarding the IRB process and informed consent at the University of North Florida, visit the UNF IRB website .


Anthropological research requires informed consent because it can generate consequences for residents and the research community. 

When anthropologists interact and engage with people for the purposes of research, they can generate unintended consequences for the communities they are working with. Information collected by anthropologists can be used against the community they study, or personal data about specific individuals can result in social marginalization or persecution. Anthropological research can therefore induce a wide-range of ethical implications, but here we will focus on three specific areas: the impact of presence, methods, and anthropology in military.

Impact of Presence

The nature of anthropological research involves close interaction with people, and the presence of the anthropologist as well as the information generated by anthropological research can create unintended impacts on the community.
The HBO documentary ‘Secrets of the Tribe’ addresses the tenuous relationship between the Yanomami people of Venzuela and the famous anthropologist, Napolean Chagnon who labelled them ‘The Fierce People’ and characterized the tribes as violent and savage. Some critics have argued that research results and conclusions produced by anthropologists, such as Chagnon, have been used to alienate, exploit and/or exterminate individuals and groups.


Since anthropologists are people too, it is not unusual for a cultural anthropologist to develop close relationships, including friendships and even romantic encounters, with members of the community during long-term fieldwork.

Goode and his wife, Yarima

A student of Napolean Chagnon, Kenneth Good, married a 15-year old member of the Yanomami tribe, Yarima, while conducting fieldwork in her community. They later relocated to Gainesville, Florida while Goode worked as a professor of Anthropology at he University of Florida. National Geographic critically portrayed the interpersonal dynamics between the couple in the documentary, Yanomami Homecoming. Good later published his memoirs about their relationship in his book, Into the Heart. After two children, Yarima left the U.S to return to her village and Good did not enable her to see her children. Twenty years later, in 2013, her son left for the Amazon to find his mother. BBC News documented their reunion is their story, ‘Return to the Amazon: A son’s search for his amazonian mother.’  The ethical debate surrounding Good’s marriage to a minor has been a heated debate controversy among anthropologists for many decades.

Research Methods

Methods are specific techniques used to address particular questions, and the collection of techniques   is referred to as a methodological framework  (Bernard 2007). The type of method used can influence findings from the research and generate impacts on participants. The Milgram Experiment and the Stanford Prison Experiment offer an example of the ways that research methods can induce psychological impacts on participants. The Tuskegee Experiment offers an example of the ways that research can generate bio-medical impacts on research participants.

Anthropology and the Military

The U.S. military has historically relied on anthropological research as part of both offensive and defensive military strategies. As a result of the high unemployment rates and educational cutbacks that have come to characterize the academic job market in the 21st century, many American anthropologists are seeking employment opportunities as cultural experts for military operations, private military contractors, and the U.S. Department of Defense. This has generated a significant amount of controversy among contemporary anthropologists who perceive of anthropology as a humanitarian discipline and oppose such activities .  In 2007 , a group of anthropologists organized the ‘Network of Concerned Anthropologists’ which opposes the use of anthropological research for counter-insurgency activities.

Readings: 2012. ‘Code of Ethics‘ American Anthropological Association., Jaschik, Scott. 2009. ‘Anthropologists toughen ethics code’  Inside higher Education (February), Pledge of Non-participation‘ by The Network of Concerned Anthropologists.

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Discussion: The Milgram and Stanford Prison Experiments generated significant findings about human behavior which has helped us better understand human activities within specific contexts such as prison and war. Contemplate the delicate balance between the benefits and contributions of scientific research with the social obligation to protect the rights of participants in Human Subject Research.  Do you think that the value of scientific inquiry is greater than the impacts it can incur on the participants in the study? Or does the moral obligation to protect human rights take priority over research findings? There are no right or wrong answers, but it is necessary to use the material presented in the course and readings to support your argument in addition to reading and responding to other student posts in order to receive credit.

When you complete the discussion, prepare to take your first quiz on Canvas.