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  • A street market in South London. Photo credit Kim Jones.
  • Students in a Qualitative Research Methods class and members of the APO Service Learning fraternity celebrate Halloween 2009 with children at the East Burlington Community Center. Photo credit Kim Jones.
  • Apple pressing in Cowee, NC 2008 as part of research conducting through PERCS. Photo credit Kirsten Rhodes.
  • NC potter Mark Hewitt with a clay coil for a large pot in Pittsboro, NC 2005. Photo credit Tom Mould.
  • A young woman getting her lip pierced at Kingpin Tattoo in Greensboro, NC 2002. Photo credit Lauren Vilis & Samiha Khanna.

Ethics of Fieldwork

While laws dictate ways we can and cannot treat each other legally, ethics addresses the way we should treat one another. Unlike laws, ethical behavior is less formally defined, which can cause confusion about how we should treat the people we encounter.

Different fields have different ethical standards. For example, what might be acceptable for an ant hropologist may not be acceptable for a photojournalist, and vice versa.

Before heading into the field—whether to observe, interview, or participate—you should consider carefully how your actions might impact the people you meet. This is as true for a researcher entering the field for an extensive, in-depth study as it is for a student working on a small class assignment.

The Ethics of Fieldwork module (below) maps out the areas where ethical dilemmas may arise. Some parts will be more or less relevant depending on your project. We encourage you to use this chart to prepare to enter the field, to ensure that you treat the people you encounter with respect. In the field, you represent not only yourself, but also the institution with which you are affiliated.

Remember: There are rarely clear-cut answers to ethical dilemmas. These guidelines provide a framework for identifying and addressing areas that demand ethical consideration, but they do not dictate what that ethical behavior should be. Referring to discipline specific codes of ethics and discussing these issues with fellow researchers will help you chart an ethical path into the field. You may also find it useful and necessary to explore the Institutional Review Board (IRB) guidelines. We have included some sample IRB proposal and consent forms as models.

How the Ethics of Fieldwork Module works
The Ethics of Fieldwork Module categorizes the kinds of ethical issues you might encounter according to the stages of the fieldwork process and according to the types of ethical issues related to fieldwork.

Click on any category and it will take you to a description of that issue, followed by tips and/or exercises that will help you address the ethical implications of your project. For some of the issues, hypothetical scenarios are provided to give you a chance to work t hrough some real fieldwork dilemmas that students and faculty at Elon University have faced.