Nancy Scheper-Hughes and the Question of Ethical Fieldwork Essay

Words: 1965
Pages: 8

In 1974, Nancy Scheper-Hughes traveled to a village in rural Ireland which she later nicknamed “Ballybran” (Scheper-Hughes 2000-128)). Her findings there led her to publish Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics: Mental Illness in Rural Ireland in 1979, in which she attempted to explain the social causes of Ireland’s surprisingly high rates of schizophrenia (Scheper-Hughes 2000:128). Saints was met with a backlash of criticism from both the anthropological community and the villagers who had served as her informants. The criticism eventually led to Scheper-Hughes being expelled indefinitely from the village in which she had worked (Scheper-Hughes 2000:118) and raised serious questions about the ethics of anthropological inquiry. In this …show more content…
Proper informed consent should incorporate an agreement between the researcher and their participants which makes clear that whatever is disclosed to the ethnographer is fair game for publication. That being said, obtaining such consent can be a point of contention in anthropology, since it means that not only does the participant have to consent to a full disclosure of their personal information, but the ethnographer has to also consent to the possibility that not all desired information will be available for analysis and publication. This consensual agreement must be part of any ethical fieldwork, and it is clear that Scheper-Hughes did not adhere to it. Since informed consent was already an established convention when she conducted her research--as evidenced by Eileen Kane’s criticism of her lack of it (Messenger1982:14)--even a relativist critique in this case would be fully warranted and justified. It is true that obtaining proper informed consent from informants means that not all information will be available to the ethnographer; however, this does not necessarily mean that good ethnographic work cannot be accomplished. If the goal of the ethnographer is to locate structural violence and subsequent inequalities--which I will argue later that it should be--than these would in theory be apparent without needing to obtain or divulge personal secrets to a large degree. Moreover, sincere attempts could be