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Confronting Anthropological Ethics: Ethnographic Lessons from Central America

Philippe Bourgois
Journal of Peace Research
Vol. 27, No. 1 (Feb., 1990), pp. 43-54
Published by: Sage Publications, Ltd.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/423774
Page Count: 12
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Confronting Anthropological Ethics: Ethnographic Lessons from Central America
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Abstract

The concern with ethics in North American cultural anthropology discourages political economy research on unequal power relations and other 'dangerous' subjects. US anthropologists define ethics in narrow, largely methodological terms - informed consent, respect for traditional institutions, responsibility to future researchers, legal approval by host nations, and so on. The responsibility of the researcher to uphold 'human rights' or to document political repression and suffering is not merely dismissed by mainstream anthropology as a partisan issue outside the realm of scholarship, but is actually condemned as ethically problematic. The growing postmodernist deconstructivist approach within US anthropology allows ethnographers to obey their discipline's narrow ethical dictates through a reflexive investigation of the hermeneutics of signs and symbols devoid of political economic social context. Drawing on his fieldwork experiences in Central America, the author argues that anthropologists have a historical responsibility to address larger moral issues because their discipline's traditional research subjects - exotic others in remote Third World settings - are violently being incorporated into the world economy in a traumatic manner that often includes starvation, political repression, or even genocide. Meanwhile, in the name of ethics, North American anthropologists continue to ignore or avoid the human tragedies engulfing their 'research subjects'.

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