Ethics Case A: Anonymity Declined

Mira Walton spent two years in Melanesia conducting a broadly defined community study in a rural village with a population of about 1,500 people. She returned to the United States and wrote a 500-page descriptive monograph in which she included specific instances of conflicts of interest and dispute settlement in a variety of contexts: broken marriage contracts; instances of alleged encroachment of farming on neighbors’ lands; a case of theft; a charge of mismanagement of community resources which was made against the village headman; family feuds; and blood feuds. Following the conventions of the AAA, Walton decided that the village and its location should be disguised and that pseudonyms should be used for all individuals mentioned in the published ethnography.

A year after publication of Walton’s ethnography, which was three years following her departure from the field, she returned to the community of study, taking along copies of the book. These copies were distributed to the people who had been most helpful during her original research project. Most of these individuals were literate and readily understood the contents of the book. Walton asked and received permission to conduct further study in the village. She settled into her task.

Six months later, a meeting was called by one of the elders in order that the community members might discuss the book about them with Walton. Walton was surprised by the first remarks concerning the book; namely that, although she had done an accurate job of characterizing the situations of dispute settlement and the overall political structure of the village, they were surprised that she had (1) gotten the name of the village wrong, and (2) not given accurate names of the individuals involved in the disputes. More than 60 people were at the meeting, and these individuals represented a majority of the families in the village. The murmurings indicated strong agreement that she should have given the actual name of both the village and individuals. Furthermore, she was explicitly told that in the next book she should be more careful to use the correct village name and use the correct names of villagers who asked her to do so or who gave permission for her to do so.

Ironically, Walton had debated the issue of anonymity with colleagues in the United States. She had argued that in order for further studies to be done accurately by other researchers, it was necessary to specify the precise location and name of the village. And, in order to judge credibility of information obtained from the villagers, she had wanted to provide the names of the individuals who worked most closely with her. They had argued that it was her responsibility to protect “her informants and her community” from outside interference or other possible negative consequences, and cited examples of villages and villagers who had come to harm because the anthropologists in question had used real names.

Faced now with the villagers’ criticisms, Walton was in a quandary.

Walton’s Dilemma: Given that she had a contract for a new book about the community and that the community expected her to publish this new book, should she (1) defer to the villagers’ insistence that she publish the correct name of the village and the correct names of villagers who had asked or given permission for her to do so? Or, (2) should she rely on anthropological conventions and cautions (as stated in the Principles of Professional Responsibility of the American Anthropological Association) and use pseudonyms in the new book?


38 thoughts on “Ethics Case A: Anonymity Declined

  1. This is a very difficulut ethical dillemma, but here are my thoughts. Assuming Walton has explained to the community the possible dangers of using real names in her book, I think she can hold true to both the communities wants and the conventional anthropological principals of professional responsibitlity. For instance, I think it may be acceptable that she use the villages name, and any names of villagers who have given permission to use their names. However, I would not suggest using the real names of individuals who are at risk for being held to legal ramifications. I think since it was a stated condition by the village that Walton use accurate names in her next book, she must do so, but with ethical discretion. If Walton explains her strategy in the introduction of the book, and she explains her process for using names to the community members, she will have compromised to serve both entities as ethically as possible.

    • I wonder if one person granting permission to use their name affects those that do not give permission. For example, a parent gives permission to use his/her name, but the kids’ names are not disclosed to protect their identity… Well, once we know the parents…and the name of the town…then the cat’s out of the bag! And if we (they) do disclose the name of the town, what about the people that don’t grant permission? And the unintended participants?
      Just some thoughts…

      • That’s a really good point. I mean, if the village name is given, then the participants–whether they leave their names or not–are given away. It reminds me of “The Help”. If the town name were used, it wouldn’t have protected anyone who tried to be protected. If just one of those white women’s names were revealed, the cover was blown entirely. If one maid had said she wanted her name to be known, would it have been the author’s responsibility to NOT use her name in order to protect everyone else?

    • I agree with Becky that this is a difficult ethical dilemma. Although Walton has the authorization of the community members to publish their names, she is bound by the ethics of her discipline not to report names, but to employ the use of pseudonyms. I believe Walton’s approach is the correct one for dealing with this complex issue, especially since the villagers were okay with her publishing pseudonyms for the first book. The issue of publishing actual names only appeared after Walton began undertaking the task of gathering data for her follow-up assignment. Walton is behaving in a professional manner and should feel buttressed by the research community and its practices.

  2. Becky, I do agree with your thoughts. I think it is very appropriate to acknowledge the true name of the village and the correct name of the villagers if they have given her permission to do so. I find it to be very appropriate if Walton counseled with the people involved and their permission was granted. I would think some kind of contract should be executed, as part of Walton’s next field research with the village. If the village group is literate and capable of understanding the ramifications of using real names then I think Walton should proceed.

    • I agree with the contract being involved, she does in fact say they are literate and i think she should protect herself if consequences were to occur in proceeding with using real names.

  3. My first thoughts are in line with Becky and Jeff. If the villagers give their permission for both their names and that of the village to be used in the book, then once an official record of consent is established there should be no issue. However, this is a rural village. Even if some of the inhabitants are literate can they understand the scope of what may come if the correct name of the village and names of the villagers are published. It is mentioned that Walton’s colleagues strongly reaffirmed that it was her responsibility to protect the village and its people. According to the case study, the villagers actually thought that she had simply gotten the names wrong; this shows the villagers naïveté. Maybe Walton and the villagers could reach a compromise. The names of the villagers, as long as no harm – legal or otherwise – may befall due to actual names used, along with the use of an incorrect name for the actual village may be an option. Summarizing the code of ethics and sharing some of the issues that other villages have faced when research has been published may assist Walton in staying true to the Code of Ethics and apeasing the villagers.

    • This issue makes me think of the “informed” part of informed consent. Do they really know what they are consenting to? Or, can all they really do is give ascent as Rose pointed out for minors in the US.

      • The assent was something that I had not considered. I believe this is a correct assumption; the villagers may not be able to grasp the potential consequences. But, I still wonder what the harm would be if, for example, only first names were used along with the use of an incorrect village name.

      • And I can’t help but think, “Informed based on what?” What about people that can’t communicate effectively? Participants are at the mercy of the “informed consent” capabilities of the researcher. This is great in some cases, but how effective are all researchers in communicating? Sure…what are they really saying yes too? But research has an agenda and so do the researchers.

      • I do not believe that the participants completely understood what they were consenting to. They might not have completely understood the reasoning behind the research or why the research was being completed. Perhaps more importantly their participant rights and the code of ethics were not explicitly shared and discussed with all of the participants. If these had been thoroughly discussed and understood by both the participants and the researcher, the participants would not have been outraged by the results. Without the participants completely understanding their rights, I do not think that it is possible for the participants to have given true informed consent. Prior to the study being conducted, a few informal meetings and discussions with the participants could have clarified these misconceptions.

  4. I do not think that the researcher should include the name of the village or the names of those within the village. It is her responsibility to keep the community safe from any potential negative consequences of her investigation and subsequent write-up. She should adhere to the anthropological conventions and cautions and remember the HARM that came upon other villages and people because other anthropologists had potentially caved in to a community’s pressure. She has been trained to understand the potential negative consequences of her actions, these rural villagers have not. Since she is a guest within their community, she will need to carefully explain her unmovable position, perhaps over and over again, and possibly risk losing the site, to keep this village and its people safe from harm. The village was fine before she came, and should remain the same throughout her study and long afterwards. If she loses her contract for the book, that would be a shame, but it pales in comparison with the irrevocable damage that could be done by publishing specific names.

    • Another thought just occurred to me as I read the next case. Ms. Walton’s research was done in Melanesia which further complicates the matter because of the potential language issue. Although English is one of spoken languages in this area, there are more than one-thousand known languages spoken in the region. Being that her study took place in a rural area, it would not be a stretch to assume that the participants in her study had only a cursory grasp of English (if any). We also know from the case that she had spent 2 years living in the community, and can conclude that she was forced to learn the local language in a proficient manner; however, was her language strong enough to communicate the potential harm that could occur if she published real names? The majority of the students in my program have been speaking English for more than 2 years, and yet most of them would be hard-pressed to explain technical issues in English. Are Ms. Walton’s tribal language skills strong enough to explain in detail the potential harm? If the villagers understand English, are their English skills strong enough to understand what is being communicated? If not, this would strengthen my initial argument.

      For those who “were literate and readily understood the contents of the book”, she could acknowledge them in the book thanking them personally for their help and support throughout the study. But how about the other participants in the study? Are they literate? Can they understand the contents in Ms. Walton’s book? From everything I have read, it wouldn’t be a leap to infer that many of the participants in the study were illiterate and would not be able to understand the contents of the book. Pseudonyms are the safest and most ethical way to go!

      • I’m having a conversation with myself! 🙂 Perhaps she did not learn the local language after all and relied upon those in the village who were proficient both languages to translate for her. This scenario sends up all kinds of red-flags. Can the translator be trusted? What are his or her motives for translating for Ms. Walton? How can the researcher be 100% sure the translator is communicating everything? This is a quandary that again supports my original position.

      • Jeremy,
        You make excellent points about the language and comprehending what was being consented to. I have studied three languages in my educational career; German, Spanish, and American Sign Language. When I was learning German, I would talk with my Grandfather who spoke only German up until he was in third grade. Although we understood each other, we were not speaking the same language at times because I was learning book (High) German and he spoke (Low) German. The same occurs when I speak Spanish with the parents in my District or when I was at Mervyn’s. I speak book Spanish and so my words are not always understood. When asked to translate, I want to determine the purpose. I would never translate for the Loss Prevention department at Mervyn’s if it was a shoplifting incident because I feared the legality of not using the proper words. I can recall situations when our bilingual aide is translating and I think “that isn’t what I said” or when I am being told what the parent has said and I think “that isn’t quite how I would have said it”. This is probably oversimplifying the challenge of what the researcher might have experienced. But I think about when a “technical” word is used, how do you translate that? How many times has something said by an English speaking person to an English speaking person been misunderstood, miscommunicated, or just not made clear between the people talking?

      • I had to respond just because I’m sitting here late after having flown to CDE and back in the past 36 hours and your comment about having a conversation with yourself cacked me up. Perhaps I’m too tired : ) Anyway, my thinking kind of combines your thoughts and comments as well as Andrew’s rference to “The Help”. There is also the historical perspective to consider. One does not know what will happen in the future and relationships can change. Especially when there is hstory of longstanding conflicts and disputes. What these villagers may agree to today or feel is OK at this point may cause great harmin the future or change the course of events.
        I also wonder is it possible they understood completely and wanted their name in a book more than they were concerned about how they were portrayed, or could it be there was pride in being identified, ven if it was negatively?? I don’t know, just thinking of motives and consequences of actions now and in the future.

  5. I agree with Jeremy. She went by what she knows and has learned in school …to protect her participants. However, at the same time, I see why the villagers are upset. The reason they are upset is because they were not adequately informed about the research and what would be done with it (e.g., book). Like Jess said, they thought the name of the village, names, etc., were written wrong on purpose. They didn’t understand that the real reason was because Ms. Walton was protecting them and herself by being an adequate, thorough researcher.

    • The lack of understading the purpose for changing names to protect villagers and implications resutling from possible identification may be a true indicator of a lack of understanding ramifications of consent on the part of the villagers. I would be more inclined to go with code of ethics as closely as possible without regard to what the participants think is right ordesired on thier part as far as disclosing identification.

    • I agree with both jeremy and merriellen, I speak both english and spanish and when I hear something in english and would like to translate it in spanish to my husband I find it so hard to find the correct words so that he can understand how I understood, and for the most part as hard as I try most times it just never comes out the same from english to spanish or vice versa. There maybe some discrepancies in the translations from ethnographer to translator and so forth.

  6. Like Dr. Mullooly, Jessica, and Jeremy I am not sure the communication paths are reliable enough to assume there is an adequate understanding of the implications of real names being used in the research from this community. It is clear, however, that the villagers want their names accurately used, but I think more effort needs to be put into making sure the villagers understand the implications of this demand. If Walton wants to return to do research in this community she cannot just do what she did last time and create anonymous accounts. She clearly has to resolve this issue before she proceeds. What if Walton writes a publication that is public including only anonymous entries, but creates an honorary version for the villagers with their true identities in it? Would this suffice? Could this version be used against them also? I am just brainstorming, as I am in a quandry as to what would be the perfect solution.

    • I too thought of the honorary version and believe that it may be a good idea. However, the courts could subpoena the honorary version(for a case); making the honorary version public domain. If the book became public domain, Ms. Walton and the individuals mentioned in the book would loose all confidentiality and may even be threatened, jailed, or killed.
      Although the honorary version is an outstanding idea, I believe it would violate the code of ethics.

  7. I do not think even the real village name should be included. With the village, real names, first names, fake names don’t matter. The villagers all knew who she was writing about in probably each case.
    The villagers who wanted names included, might not be the ones who had something incriminating written about them. I was also thinking about future generations. What if a parent who gave permission was reported to have done something wrong, would this public account follow their children? Although a population of 1,500 would know the past, having it in print for all to see changes perspective and makes it permanent and generational.

  8. The way that Mira Walton actually resolved the issue was like “splitting the baby”. She went back and wrote the second book and allowed a villager to read it before she eventually decided to refrain from including the real names. The advantage that Mira had over the villagers was that she could see the bigger picture and could assess what the ramifications might be if she revealed the accurate names. In this sense, the villagers gave their literal consent, but I don’t believe they had the vision and real world knowledge to do more than assent (as Dr. Mullooly stated). Mira’s colleagues (and the discipline itself) urged her to follow the guidelines to protect the village. Mira was aware of what the rest of the world could do with the information she detailed in her book if she didn’t use a fake village name and pseudonyms. The villagers did not have that vantage point. I believe her decision to use pseudonyms was ethical and appropriate. As Dena noted, once it is in print, it is permanent and accessible.

    • I agree. I was reading all of the other responses and thoughts and it makes sense that Walton has the most information available. I wondered if maybe there were another way to handle it, too. I mean, Walton could have–perhaps–made herself available in some way for those wanting the real names of the participants. Then, those who were okay with using their names would know that they were available while the publication protected everyone initially. Then, interested parties could make why they wanted the information known as well.

    • I don’t disagree with what the researcher did at all…but I can’t help but wonder what it’s going to be like as a researcher to go into a “village” and then dictate to them what is best for them when they in fact gave me access to their lives so that I can do my study!

      • Very good point Troy! Sometimes what the researcher feels is in the best interest for their study does not always align with what the participants feel are in their best interest. How would you overcome these differing perspectives if this were to happen to you during a research project? For me, I would go with the views of the participants and see if some compromises (that do not go against the code of ethics) on both parts can be made to make everyone in the study happy.

      • Our preconditioned ethnocentric enculturation suggests that our research will always be influenced with biased idealism.

  9. I agree with the majority of the responses that the researcher’s decision to not use the village name and to use pseudonyms was appropriate and ethical. I can’t help but wonder if some of the disappointment that the villagers felt could have been avoided if she had provided them a preliminary report that included the real names. Once the villagers realize that it wasn’t a matter of an error or misspellings but a deliberate need to protect their identity, then they could have been more understanding. I’m also perplexed why her intention to use pseudonyms was not explained to the villagers from the beginning. It is evident that they would have been capable of making an informed decision from the start rather than later when the study was concluded. On another hand, since the majority of the villagers wanted their names to be published including members who read the book, do they not have that option? I think one needs to avoid making the assumption that they are not capable of making this decision based on the fact that they live in a remote village. They may be more than capable of making that decision and willing to handle the potential risks.

  10. Walton’s dilemma is certainly one worth considering – does she protect her informants or does she reveal their identities? Since her informants have given her their permission, I feel that she should publish the actual name of the village and the actual names of the villagers. It seems like the villagers take great pride in being part of her book and want to be acknowledged for their participation. If the participants have given permission, I see nothing wrong with printing the second book without pseudonyms and reprinting the first book with corrections. As an anthropologist who has gained entre into this society, Walton risks rejection and alienation if she angers or offends her participants by not agreeing to give credit where credit is due. By not publishing the real names, she is jeopardizing her next study and her next book.

  11. I feel that walton should allow the real names of the villagers and the village in her next book, but I also agree with others who say that she should first give the villagers an explanation as to why she at first did not use their real names and what might be some consequences that may occur if she were to use real names. Even after the explanation if the villagers still want their real names used then I feel even more strongly that real names be used. I also feel that it is their village and their lifestyle being put out there and they should have final say as to how and when names are used, but at the same time respect those who wish not to be named.

  12. Mira Walton should have discussed the issue of listing the actual names of the village and villagers with the villagers the first time around. I can see why she was careful as it is fairly standard to disguise names and locations. I feel that in the case of her return trip to study the village she should publish the actual names of the village and villagers as they asked. Only after she has sufficiently explained to the people the danger that may come with publication of the names. If they still want the names to remain unchanged, then she should publish the names as is.

  13. Regardless of what the villagers want, or how they helped during her research Walton should use pseudonyms when referring to the village and individual villagers. According to the AAA “pseudonyms should be used for all”. This definition list no exceptions, so no exceptions should be made. No matter how certain the villagers seem about releasing their identities. The AAA has set these standards for a reason, and it is my belief that despite what the villagers want it is best that she should continue to use pseudonyms in her next book. At the end of the day Walton is a professional anthropologist and she is beholden only to the AAA, and its standards.

  14. Mira Walton followed the code of ethics set forth by the AAA, in her first book by leaving the village and specific individuals anonymous-this was the right decision. For her second book it is important for Walton to take into account the opinions of the village. I understand the dangers of using real names of people and places studied, but the same dangers should have been explained to the village, and after that, the decision of using real information in the second book should have been left up to them.

  15. Research will always be plagued with ethical dichotomies that stress and influence researchers, participants and data collected during participant observations.
    What if the Melanesia community and it’s headman wanted the recognition, power and popularity that came with their names being in the book, regardless of the consequences? Ms. Walton is obviously caught between a rock and a hard place, with this ethical dilemma. She really has no choice but to stay within the parameters of ethical practice, if she desires a career. However, if she does not appease the Melanesia community by accurately identifying individuals, then her research data may become compromised for lack of Melanesia participation.
    Jeremy indicated in his comment that there are over one thousand different dialects in Melanesia. I am sure that the diversity of language has caused may inaccurate interpretations. For example; when the Melanesia headman heard that Ms. Walton was protecting them by not using their identities, the headman may have been thinking to themselves that they do not need protection from a western female. The Melanesia headman may also have been thinking how they have lived and survived in the Melanesia area long before westerners arrived and that western presence does not stimulate protection. The Melanesia headman could also have been insulted by Ms. Walton’s protection clause, because in Melanesia woman do not play the protector role.
    I believe the ethical approach is necessary and that Ms. Walton should make every effort to ensure that her ethical approach is clearly and accurately defined and interpreted to the Melanesia.

  16. Walton’s first decision to maintain anonymity for the village and its inhabitants was the most ethical decision. If Walton were to publish a second book I would argue that maintain anonymity was of the utmost ethical importance. An important aspect of keeping the Melanesian community’s identities out of the Westerner’s eyes allots for a purist approach to conducting future research. As soon as Walton discloses the location of the village it may or may not become an ethnographic conquest for other anthropologists. Other ethnographers might even be the least of the village’s worries. Walton’s first publication systematically broke down internal conflict within a small community who’s to say someone wouldn’t exploit this knowledge for their own personal gain. In the end, I feel that the identity of the village is unnecessary. The study was conducted to define a small Melanesian community, which she successfully completed. Any private information would be superfluous.

  17. There is a dilemma of different socio-cultural practices between the rural village and the U.S researchers and their scholarly norms of publishing a research project. The misunderstanding in cultural identity and beliefs between the researchers and the local village, caused for the disappointment of the local villagers in not receiving the recognition they were expecting, yet Walton was following the norms in order to publish in the U.S by “protecting the informants”. Cultural incompetency can help explain why the clashing of cultures can lead to differences and misinterpretations between people.

  18. In most cases when identities are present, there are two decisions’ made. The researcher decides either to keep the participants anonymous or to publicly use their correct name. The ethical problem in this case is to either abide by the village’s wishes or the association Walton is a part of. For Walton’s first book, she made the correct decision to keep the village and the peoples’ name a secret because she did not have direct permission to do so. However, for her next book, the villagers gave her the direct permission to use their correct names but the researchers in the United States still want her to keep the anonymous. Walton’s correct response to please both parties would be to get direct permission from each villager she speaks with to use their names but keep those who don’t want their names public a secret. Consequently, the different views between the two put Walton in a difficult position. Since Walton is from the United States, she has the code of conduct to abide by: the “protecting the informants”. The Melanesian village doesn’t fully understand the United States’ rules of research and ethnographic study so they want their names and villages to be used correctly. Even if they did understand why the United States’ had rules, they should have to option of decided whether or not they want their identities to be used correctly.

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