How to Protect Yourself from an Anthropologist: A Code of Ethics from the Bottom Up (2.0)

Revised: 21 September 2008

This document is meant to be the start of a decolonized code of ethics, ethics as seen not from the point of view of the foreign anthropologist, but from the vantage point of the community “receiving” that anthropologist. The history behind this document is quite long, dating at least to Vine Deloria Jr’s Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, to several methodological texts on research with American Indians (to be reviewed in future posts), my course on Decolonizing Anthropological Epistemology, Methodology, and Theory, and, my own experience in drafting a similar document in collaboration with and on behalf of the leadership of the Santa Rosa Carib Community in Trinidad in 2003. The concerns of the Carib Community took shape in light of several conflicts with foreign researchers, including disagreements with myself, and the growing number of foreign researchers contacting them and entering their community since the time that my research became public.

The underlying scenario providing the assumptions on which this document is based involves a foreign anthropologist working with a collectivity of some sort, whether formally organized, or existing as a community in demographic, residential, and political terms, usually located in a country other than the researcher’s home country. It assumes no personal relationship between the anthropologist and the host community that exists prior to the start of research, and it assumes that the anthropologist is not a member of that community, organization, or network.

The impetus for producing and releasing this document in public, and now, emerges from the unsatisfactory, ambiguous, and at best ambivalent nature of anthropologists’ responses to the militarization of their discipline, to their search for financing from the Pentagon, to the range of other ways they provide information that can be used for military and intelligence purposes, given continued American and Western expansionism. When anthropologists start speaking of other cultures as “adversarial cultures,” and provide inputs on how to best execute war and occupation, then one must expect a defensive response. This is part of the latter and it is written with genuine concern for the well being of those studied by anthropologists.

This document obviously cannot and will not substitute for the decision making of those playing host to a foreign anthropologist. It is meant, instead, to inform and encourage some of their decisions, and to provide a series of points that they may wish to adopt or adapt and present to those seeking to do research in their community.


This is a document written by an anthropology professor, and you should feel free to refer to it as such. This is not a document written for anthropologists, but for those who receive and host them.

The key themes here are:

  • Know your rights, and assert them!
  • It is not your duty to accommodate anthropologists;
  • Do not assume that anthropologists ever have your best interests at heart;
  • Always be suspicious of the work of anthropologists, and be prepared to reject their presence as both a first and last resort;
  • Do not expect anthropologists to safeguard your rights and your interests;
  • Be aware of the fact that anything you share with anthropologists could conceivably be used against you and/or your community, now and in the future;
  • Do not rely on anthropologists to keep your information confidential — they can be forced to surrender their material under the laws of their countries, and all of the documents and information they gathered from you can be seized, scanned, and copied when they travel to or through the United States or the United Kingdom.
  • Confidentiality that is respected with doctors and lawyers is not legally enforced with anthropologists;
  • Do not follow these guidelines too closely, without adding your own or redesigning what you read, because a smart anthropologist will find ways of working around these ideas, if they want to.



1.1 – You can use these as guidelines for your own decisions, and add, delete, or amend as you see fit. Make your code of ethics known to the anthropologist and to his/her home institution, to his/her source of funding, to the ethics review board that reviewed their research proposal, and make them all sign that they have read and understood your document and vow to make sure it is upheld. Otherwise, send the anthropologist back home.

1.2 – Inform your government of the name and origin of the researcher and that he/she is in the country seeking to do research about you and/or your community. Also inform your government that you are under no obligation whatsoever to accommodate or receive any foreign researcher.

1.3 – Inform faculty at your local university, or the nearest university, or the local research institution you trust most, of the name and origin of the foreign researcher, and forward details of their proposed research project to them. On the other hand, be aware that a local researcher may be serving as a proxy or as a front for a foreign researcher with whom he/she may be collaborating without your knowledge. If you have friends in the local media, you should inform them as well.

1.4 – Ask the researcher for copies of the professional code(s) of ethics and have them read and explain them to you, with added emphasis on how the researcher plans to abide by those ethics.


2.1 – Start by telling the researcher interested in studying you or your community that you will need to be made certain of the intent of the research, of its benefits to you, and that you maintain ultimate control over all of the information provided. Inform the researcher that if he/she seems unwilling to comply with your requests for documentation, that you will reject his/her presence and actively encourage others to do the same. Remind the anthropologist that he/she is a guest in your country and has no rights to any information whatsoever, and that you instead have all of the rights to demand information about the researcher.

2.2 – Demand to see a certified copy of the research proposal that the anthropologist submitted either as a degree requirement and/or as part of a request for funding. In the case of an application for funding, demand to see all the documents that were submitted, and all of the documents received by the researcher if he/she was funded to do their research. Keep all copies.

2.3 – Inform the researcher that you plan to review the contents of the research proposal(s) in detail, and that you reserve the right to consult with local researchers. Instruct them that you may require changes to the proposal, and that any amendments you require must be recorded in revised documents to be sent back to the researcher’s home institution or funding body. Request signed receipt of the revised proposal(s).

2.4 – Demand formal evidence that the researcher is in your country with the full knowledge and approval of your government. If the researcher can only produce a tourist visa, then demand further explanation and do not proceed further until you have received evidence that the researcher has fully informed local authorities about the nature and purposes of his/her research.

2.5 – Ask for original copies of the researcher’s bank statements, for a period of one year, along with proof of income. Any amounts that seem to be coming in separate from a salary or a stated research fund might mean there is another source of funding that the researcher is not revealing to you, and perhaps another boss to which the anthropologist ultimately answers. If you do not feel capable of handling these matters, ask a trusted local friend to intervene on your behalf and examine the documents. Some might feel that this is unreasonable and not practical. In addition, those who truly wish to conceal their sources of funding will find means of doing so. There is, therefore, little in the way of methods to ascertain the full extent of an anthropologist’s source of funding. If a researcher protests, “I have rights too,” remind him/her that you also have the ultimate right to reject their presence. In other words, you will need to determine what “real need” you may have for the researcher to be in your community.

2.6 – If an anthropologist seems to have a lot of expensive electronic equipment, demand to know how they acquired the items, and be ready to ask for proof. You can find subtle ways of asking this, usually by a series of small questions.

2.7 – Ask the researcher for letters of reference from colleagues and/or their home institution, with the clear understanding that the referees are putting their professional reputations on the line in vouching for the researcher. Write to the people who wrote those letters, explaining that you now possess their letters of recommendation.

2.8 – If the anthropologist seems reluctant to comply with your requests, you should be worried and should prepare to instruct them to leave. The anthropologist, according to most codes of ethics, is not supposed to threaten or otherwise blackmail you into believing that there could be negative consequences for your non-participation. If there is any such suggestion by the researcher, you should immediately report the researcher to his/her professional association, his/her university, and perhaps to agencies of your own government.


3.1 – At all times, speak to the anthropologist as if you were speaking to a public audience, and measure the amount of information and kind of information you wish to share with that in mind. Continue to do so, even in private “off the record” conversations, at least until you are absolutely certain that this person can be trusted as a friend or adopted family member. Even then, always be careful.

3.2 – At different points — be random and unpredictable in your choice — provide incorrect information, information that you know would be acted on if it were shared with people outside of your community or organization. This, and other measures you should think of, are designed to check for any “leaks.” Also feel free to monitor the researcher when he or she is not present in your community, using people the researcher would never suspect of monitoring them.

3.3 – After any recorded interview takes place, after photographs are taken, or video recording, demand to be immediately provided with copies. Inform the researcher that he/she may only use those photographs, or those video segments, or those parts of the interview that you authorize for use. Inform the researcher that if in the future you discover that he/she has ever used any elements you did not authorize for use, that you will write to inform their professional association, their employer, and their source of funding that the researcher has violated your trust and has engaged in unethical behaviour.

3.4 – Anthropologists take “field notes.” These may simply be little notes scratched onto a small bit of paper, or formally typed up notes produced after an event or meeting with you. They are the core of most anthropologists’ “database.” Demand to be provided with a full copy of all fieldnotes. Demand to receive all publications and conference papers that will arise as a result of the research. Be prepared to make a public issue of any serious discrepancies between the information contained in his/her publications, and that contained in their fieldnotes and other recordings.

3.5 – Following from 3.4, an anthropologist might argue the following: “There are plenty of situations where this is not a good idea, and where it is a violation of trust between the researcher and the community. For instance, if person X gives the researcher confidential information about themselves on the condition that the researcher not reveal that information to other members of the community, the researcher is required to abide by that.” It is important for you to remind the researcher that since he/she can do little to effectively protect confidentiality to begin with, that he/she ought not to be formally recording anything confidential in any format. If the researcher refuses to share his/her notes, it likely means they have recorded something that is potentially harmful to you or your community, and he/she should not have done that. You might then consider withdrawing your participation and asking that any information your furnished be immediately destroyed — the researcher’s own code of ethics instruct him/her to do so.


You should be very careful, if not completely reluctant, to play host to a foreign researcher in circumstances such as the following:

  • Your country has been identified by the United States or one of its allies as a place that actually or possibly harbours “terrorists”;
  • Your country has been identified by the United States or one of its allies as a place that actually or possibly serves as a drug transshipment point;
  • Your country has been identified by the United States or one of its allies as a place that may be, or become, a “failed state”;
  • Your country occupies a strategic geographic location;
  • Your country possesses valuable natural resources, such as petroleum and minerals;
  • Your country is being used for surveillance of a neighbouring country or for actions against a neighbouring country’s government or society;
  • Your government has strained or hostile relations with the United States or one of its key allies;
  • Your country is a recipient of direct aid from the United States or one of its allies;
  • Your country is host to a wide range of foreign owned businesses, especially as evidenced by the presence of Western corporations or Western investment;
  • You know of the presence of FBI, CIA, or foreign police or military specialists in your country;
  • Your country conducts regular military exercises with foreign powers — be wary of all such exercises, down to “search and rescue” exercises at sea, or mere coastal patrols;
  • Your country is the target of foreign missionary efforts;
  • Your community, organization or country have been in the “international news” and within a few months or a couple of years, an anthropologist appears declaring an interest in your community;
  • You or your community/organization have had difficult relations with your own government or with institutions of the wider society;
  • Your community or organization suffers from serious internal divisions and disagreements.


5.1 – Being researched takes your time, and it reasonable for you to expect compensation, including in material and monetary terms, as you are formally assisting with the research and making possible the advancement of the researcher’s career. Being paid does not eliminate your rights, nor does it imply that you owe the anthropologist anything besides your time.

5.2 – Sometimes a researcher will tell you that his/her funding body makes no provision for payment to local hosts and informants. That is their problem. You do not need to accommodate them because they impose cost saving measures at your expense. Until the researcher gets the right kind of funding that allows material and monetary payment to hosts and collaborators, or until funding bodies correct themselves, you should feel free to refuse to be researched.

5.3 – Sometimes a researcher will tell you that they do not “pay for information,” because it contaminates the validity of the information, as if they had “bribed” you to get you to say whatever you in fact say. Keep in mind, however, that the researcher is being paid to produce the information for an audience, and that to get paid they agreed to research certain questions in certain ways, lest they risk not getting funded. Therefore their explanation is not a fully honest one, and the issue is your being compensated for your time, not for the details you reveal. Even if paid for an interview, do not feel obligated to reveal everything that is being asked or to even answer any question that makes you feel uncomfortable.

5.4 – If you are formally employed as a research assistant, you should be paid at no less than the minimum wage in the researcher’s home country, or your country, whichever is higher. You should expect to have your name appear on all publications and products that result from your assistance.

5.5 – Ask the researcher to outline the benefits of the research to you and your community. If they seem ambiguous or not well stated, it is probably because the researcher has never given sufficient thought to the matter and is therefore an unworthy partner.

5.6 – Demand that the researcher share with your community or organization half or more of the royalties paid for any published book or distributed documentary. Ask to see the contracts that they receive so that you know what they are to be paid. Demand this in advance, in writing, signed before witnesses.

5.7 – As you become better acquainted with a researcher, look for formal ways of collaborating in their publication efforts, with yourself as the coauthor. However, you should also consider any potential negative consequences of having your name made public, and of being tied to the researcher.

5.8 – Do not place all your eggs in the researcher’s basket: look for ways of representing yourself independently, of communicating with the wider world, if this is in your interest. If this is not what you are interested in, then ask yourself why you are agreeing to be researched.


  • If the researcher becomes abusive
  • If the researcher ignores your requests and demands
  • If the researcher finds a way to research the community or organization you lead through some backdoor
  • If the researcher is caught lying to you on sensitive issues
  • If the researcher does anything to jeopardize your emotional, psychological, political, social, economic, or cultural security and well being

Then these are some steps you can take, and tell the researcher that you will take any or all of these steps without any hesitation:

  • Complain in writing to your government, or even the police if appropriate;
  • Write to the researcher’s home institution, funding body, and professional association;
  • Contact the local media and inform them;
  • Tell members of local universities and research institutions about what has happened, and supply them with all the information necessary for them to write an exposé;
  • If you know how to produce a web page, produce one listing all the details of your grievance — remember that damaging a person’s reputation with truthful accounts and facts is not slander and is not libel, and you cannot be prosecuted for anything you can prove;
  • Have the researcher’s landlord or host expel the researcher, with the understanding that their failure to do so could harm their own relations with you or your community in the long term;
  • Inform members of the wider community in which you live of your conflicts with that researcher, and try to enlist their help and support;
  • Do not do anything to the researcher that would mean breaking the laws of your own country, or you could lose far more in the end.

Remember to ask yourself these questions:

  • Do we/I really need to have this research done about us?
  • Is it interesting to us?
  • What purposes does the knowledge serve?
  • How will we/I benefit from the research?
  • How will we/I be worse off if the research is not done?

Remember that you should not only be concerned about American anthropologists, but also any anthropologists from states allied to the United States and working in tandem with it abroad, states such as:

  • Canada
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • Great Britain
  • members of the European Union (EU)
  • members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
  • notable local proxies
  • and some members of your own society

Any amended versions of this document will appear on this blog alone (with an explicit note added at the top), even if copies of the original appear on other blogs. Copies may be made on other sites or publications, given the Creative Commons License that governs this site.

Readers who wish to comment on the document above are thanked in advance, and unless specifically asked a question by a reader the author will stay out of the way of any discussion that ensues in the comments section below.

3 thoughts on “How to Protect Yourself from an Anthropologist: A Code of Ethics from the Bottom Up (2.0)

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