Ethical Concerns in Participant Observation/ Ethnography


Eric J. Arnould (1998) ,"Ethical Concerns in Participant Observation/ Ethnography", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 72-74.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 72-74


Eric J. Arnould, University of South Florida


In the late 1980s, I was employed by CARE-Chad to conduct ethnographic research on the re-organization of farming systems in several rural communities in Chad (Arnould 1987). Chad was emerging from a period of greater civil disorder to a period of lesser civil disorder. A number of years of civil war and war with neighboring Libya had resulted in all sides shooting each other into exhaustion. During a considerable period during the civil war, CARE provided more or less the only "government" services to be had in this immense country. CARE had an enormously positive image in the country and CARE vehicles were the only ones that could move about with impunity in the countryside. CARE-Chad hired me to provide advice for moving from a state of active relief provision to one of providing agricultural inputs to allow refugee populations to become more self-sufficient in food production.

When I arrived in Cha, the capital Ndjamena was shot to shreds. French paratroopers and foreign legionnaires mixed uncomfortably with various armed, Chadian militia factions. War-wounded could be seen everywhere. My hotel room door was bullet-pocked. Picture television images of Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, you get the basic idea. Meanwhile CARE was working valiantly to improve people’s situations. Many Chadian patriots risked life and limb to work for the organization delivering relief supplies in a wide area around the capital.

CARE-Chad sent us researchers out into the field to work with populations living around a large number of small wadis north of Ndjamena. We met many wonderful Chadian staff who provided chauffeuring, interpreting and endless amounts of background historical and cultural information about the people and area in which we worked.

We spent many days in the villages clustered around the wadis conducting ethnographic research on farming systems management. Nights we slept out under the stars in CARE’s compound in the nearest small town. There was no electricity or running water, but plenty of good fellowship. For example, I attended a joyous wedding celebration for one staff member. But the war was never far away. French Jaguar jets, sounding and looking like nothing so much as Star Wars’ Starfighters unexpectedly buzzed low overhead. And the local military commander fatally wounded himself accidentally while firing his gun on his birthday.

One evening a local merchant beckoned me to a clandestine encounter behind shuttered doors in his shop. Through an interpreter he provided me with a list of dates, truck license plate numbers, and inventories of relief supplies. He alleged that some CARE staff systematically skimmed relief supplies for subsequent sale on the black market. I guess he saw in me a neutral party, who might bring these thefts to a halt.

So suddenly, and in the starkest possible terms I was faced with a number of ethical dilemmas:

Who had the ethical priority: the merchant, the refugee population, the patriotic (if potentially corrupt) Chadian staff, a social science discipline that values confidentiality, or CARE-Chad management?

Which of these masters should be served on a priority basis?

What should the ethnographer do: nothing, something, and if something what?


The first thing this story draws our attention to is the fundamentally politicized nature of ethnographic field research (Punch 1986). That is to say, this is research that raises issues of standards, terminal and instrumental value priorities, compromise, and trade-offs. A number of levels can be identified. Evidently, field relationships are political. I was approached by someone (the merchant) with a gripe against another group (CARE’s Chadian staff) with whom I had a professional relationship. The implied hostility between the complainant and the Chadian staff is indicative of another level of political conflict, that is factionalism between informants in the field setting. What was not at all clear to me at the time was what vested interests lay behind this local conflict. Were they tribal, class-based, or factional in nature?

Less evident in this case, but not uncommonly in ethnographic research one also deals with political disagreement between research units. This is evident in universities where different departments and college vie for money, but also in development settings where organizations may vie for access to sites, or to impose visions of the research process on governments and other development agencies. In earlier years, an extremely negative social impact evaluation I had conducted while an employee of the Ministry of Planning in the Niger Republic led to the cessation of multi-million dollar regional agricultural productivity projects fnanced by the World Bank, USAID, and the European Community (RN/MP 1985). Needless to say, I had few fans among these organizations’ project staffs in Niger. Again less evident in the Chadian case, but nonetheless real are organizational watchdogs, those who police research to impose standards upon its conduct. This can be a significant source of political conflict. It was an issue in Chad as an ethnographer previously employed by CARE had produced an absurd and unusual piece of basic research rather than the applied research project CARE-Chad required. Hence, overcoming the suspicions of CARE’s natural science research staff was an issue for me as an ethnographer. Fortunately, I understood the game by this point in my consulting career.

Very evident in this case is the role of research sponsors in the politics of research. CARE was funding my research and had made it clear that whatever we advised them was fine as long as it was based on a solid research foundation. Several weeks of research had put our relationships on a sound trustworthy footing. Should I jeopardize my research by concealing information damaging to the credibility of the organization as a whole because of sympathy for the Chadian staff who after all were probably just trying to support their families in an incredibly difficult time? Or should I compromise my relationship with the Chadian staff because of my responsibility to my sponsors?

While the Chadian state at the time of my research amounted to little more than a fraternity of warlords and their clients, the state had an implicit interest in this affair. Extremely fragile ethnic alliances could be easily compromised by allegations of unfair dealings between members of different ethnic groups. And CARE’s privileged position with the government could be compromised by accusations of corruption within the organization, thereby staining its otherwise excellent reputation. As in the case of the Nigerien research conducted earlier, once again the state was not a disinterested party in this ethnographic research.


In thinking through my options, I immediately drew upon my knowledge of what amounts to the prime directive in ethnographic research as formulated by the American Anthropological Association. In part, the AAA’s statement on professional ethics (AAA 1997) reads:

Anthropological researchers have primary ethical obligations to the people, species, and materials they study and to the people with whom they work. These 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.

In another place it continues:

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.

These statements led me to conclude that my primary responsibilities lay with "the people with whom" I worked, but that this did not abrogate responsibilities to other stakeholders. But who were my informants here: Chad staff, a Chadian merchant, or the refugee populations who were the subjects of our research?

These statements are drawn from a relatively large corpus of materials compiled by the AAA to help ethnographers deal with the ethical conflicts that they face routinely in their reseach. Not only is there a complex and comprehensive statement of ethics, but also a workbook of ethical case studies. AAA member organizations such as the National Association of Practicing Anthropologists, and sister organizations such as the Society for Applied Anthropology also provide ethical guidelines to their members. Its reasonable and instructive to ask, why the strong concern with ethics in ethnographic research?


The answer to the question of anthropology’s heightened concern with ethics relates to a number of distinctive features of ethnographic research. The number of competing stakeholders mentioned above is one key. Some others are briefly mentioned here.

One reason is the high degree of existential engagement that characterizes ethnographic research. Ethnographic research involves extended, experiential participation of the researcher in a specific cultural context. Ethnographers "tend to explain relationships or attitudes or social events by looking for their connections to other-things-happening in a defined analytic whole" (Wallman 1997: 250). Since it is also necessary to decide which context is most relevant to making sense of the matter at hand, in contrast to most market research, ethnography is intentionally less focused, less purpose-full, and longer term. It’s research up close and personal with all the messy emotional implications this entails.

Second, ethnographic research often involves socialization with a vengeance. Hiding illicit items and questionable persons from governmental authorities, being handed compromising information, being asked to represent powerless people to powerful ones, being called upon to minister to the sick regardless of qualifications, burying the dead, or facing imminent personal violence are part and parcel of the ethnographic experience. Hence, ethnographers need some guidelines to draw upon when for instance, an informant says, "Here, you take the gun!"

Third, unlike experiments or surveys where the research intervention is temporally limited, and standard subject release forms and protocols can be deployed, ethnography emphasizes processual research. Hence, the ethical issues are ongoing and unfold in real time and space. The ethnographer can not always be asking informants for their informed consent, and certainly not in the heat of the moment. A reply to the above declaration, "Here, you take the gun," such as "Oh no, I really couldn’t. That violates AAA ethics guidelines" is not a credible option. Creative ethical ad-libing is the only possibility. Thus as in the CARE Chad story, ethnography poses a greater risk of unexpected situational dilemmas and uncertainty than carefully controlled laboratory research or highly focused surveys.

Fourth, ethnography involves constant role playing and interactional deceit, not unlike the interactional deceit we employ in everyday life. In addition, to a greater extent than other researchers, ethnographers regularly exploit the emotional involvement that naturally develops between persons in regular contact. In this case relationships develop between informant and researcher with an instrumental purpose: in order for the former to collect data from the latter.

Fifth, the business of ethnographic research is exposing the life-worlds and life-projects of research participants holistically in order to craft ethnographies. Thus, the stories we tell are often about real biographical people living in real communities in real time, and rarely about average Americans or average undergraduates at a great Midwestern University. And nowadays, ethnographers frequently encounter informants who want to know what they’ve written and demand the right to register their critiques.

To sum up, the role of the ethnographer is one that is inevitably higly charged with ethical dilemmas, uncertainties and responsibilities. As Van Maanen says, you are "part spy, part voyeur, part fan, part member" (Van Maanen 1983)

One outcome of the high profile relationship between participant observation and the social dimension of research conduct is that it very often leads ethnographers to strongly held ethical positions. Some develop an extremely strong sense of self-identification with their research communities. Others become committed to cultural survival movements more generally. Some become advocates, culture brokers, and expert witnesses. Some go native. A very few even adopt the repellent view of Kurtz in Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. But almost no ethnographer feels free to go against his or her experiences in order to proclaim the value-neutral research ideal that is dear to many experimental and survey researchers.


An essential resource on ethics for ethnographers is provided by the AAA and its sister organizations (American Anthropological Association 1997). Rather than restate them here, I want to conclude with a list of guidelines that I find useful in thinking about my research practice. First, just like on Star Trek, its wise to try to adhere to "the prime directive." And just like on Star Trek is not always clear how the prime directive should be applied.

Second, one has got to learn to live with regular "violations of the collective consciousness of the community" (Davis 1961) if one wants to be an ethnographer. There is no pure path to ethnographic verstehen. But at the same time, always think of the inevitable deceptions associated with long-term field research in relation to the research purpose. For example, in river rafting research (Arnould and Price 1993; Price, Arnould, and Tierney 1995; Arnould, Price and Tierney 1997), we let customers know that we were investigating service provision, but we did not ask permission to make notes every time we encountered an interesting situation during a trip. The whole point of participant observation is to record naturalistic observations in situ; constantly reminding informants of your purpose needlessly disrupts their lives and one’s data collection. If the research purpose puts one on solid ethical and scientific grounds, some deception is reasonable. But to mix metaphors, if you can’t stand the heat, honey get out of the kitchen!

Third, privilege informant confidentiality and consideration of the consequences both of conducting research and publishing its results over the static notion of "informed consent." Fourth, in planning to conduct ethnographic research expect to encounter difficult ethical dilemmas and prepare yourself accordingly. For example, if research involves illegal behaviors informants may require participation as a test of trustworthiness or field notes may be subpoenaed as van Maanen discovered (Punch 1988). Finally, in spite of the prime directive, the ethnographer’s responsibilities do not require her to "go native." At this the ethnographer rarely if ever succeeds. And going native merely raises another set of ethical dilemmas; it does not side-step the problem.


So what did I do in Chad in the late 1980s? I discretely sought some confirmation of the accusations from other local sources. I worried about it. On returning to CARE-Chad headquarters in the capital, I asked for a meeting with the Director and asked him to tell me whether he and his staff wanted to hear about cases of the type I had heard about. (It occurred to me that CARE policy might include accepting a certain amount of corruption as the cost of delivering relef supplies in anarchic conditions.) Upon receiving an affirmation, I met with senior staff to lay out the assertions that had been made to me. As an outside consultant, in this case it seemed to me that my primary ethical responsibility lay first with the refugee populations who might be cheated out of relief supplies, and second with my sponsor, CARE-Chad. What I did not do was confront the accused Chadian staff directly and ask them for a response. This could have been an ethically correct step it seems to me in retrospect. But at the time I was uncertain of the potential consequences both physical and political to me and to the accusers, of confronting the Chadian staff. Did I behave in an ethical manner?


American Anthropological Association (1997), Code of Ethics of the American Anthropological Association, Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.

Arnould, Eric J. (1987), Organizational Analysis Of Irrigated Farming Systems Development Project, unpublished consulting report, Ndjamena, Chad: CARE Chad.

Arnould, Eric J., Linda L. Price and Patrick Tierney.(1997), "The Wilderness Servicescape," Encountering Servicescapes: Built Environment and Lived Experience in Contemporary Marketplaces, John F. Sherry, Jr. ed., NTC Publications.

Arnould, Eric J., Linda L. Price (1993), "'River Magic’: Hedonic Consumption and the Extended Service Encounter," Journal of Consumer Research, 20 (June), 24-45.

Cassell, Joan and Sue-Ellen Jacobs, eds. (n.d.), Handbook on Ethical Issues in Anthropology, Special publication of the American Anthropological Association, number 23, Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association.

Davis, Fred (1961), "Comment on 'Initial Interactions of Newcomers in Alcoholics Anonymous,’" Social Problems, 8, 364-365.

Price, Linda L., Eric J. Arnould and Patrick Tierney (1995), "Going to Extremes: Managing Service Encounters and Assessing Provider Performance," Journal of Marketing, 59 (April), 83-97.

RTpublique du Niger MinistFre du Plan (1985), Evaluation de l’Impact des ThFmes Techniques et de Ses RTtombTes au Sein de Projets ProductivitTs de Maradi, Niamey et Zinder, Niamey, Niger: Cellule d’Analyse et de SynthFse. Direction de l’Evaluation et de la Programmation des Projets, MinistFre du Plan, RTpublique du Niger.

Van Maanen, John (1983), Qualitative Methodology, Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.

Wallman, Sandra (1997), "Appropriate Anthropology and the Risky Inspiration of 'Capability’ Brown," After Writing Culture, A. James, J. Hockey, and A. Dawson, eds., London: Routledge, 244-263.



Eric J. Arnould, University of South Florida


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25 | 1998

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