Ethical dilemma

Here is an ethical dilemma for you. It’s a real one. I’m not going to give identifying details, and if you know or can guess what this is about, please don’t post anything identifying here either. But I would like to hear about opinions about this.

A descriptive study of a language was written and published in a very inaccesible place a long time ago. It was written by a man who had worked only with other men. He had studied the language and culture in great depth and knew a great deal about gender-restricted initiation rituals. Such information appears in the grammar, and he had also written several other anthropological articles on the topic. The author and all the consultants have since died.

The grammar has been edited and recently republished by a scholar in a well-respected series. The person in question identified certain material as potentially restricted and deputised a third person to check on current community feelings about publication. Said third person provided no corrections and the material went to print as it was in the original. The deputy, when asked about the status of the materials, said that he felt that the material would be better published so that community members would have access to it, since the traditions are no longer followed and not publishing it would deprive them of access to it. It is unclear whether the community were in fact consulted.

Is this a problem? What would you do in this case, if anything? Please discuss. (I have opinions on this but I’d like to see how this situation strikes others first.)

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3 responses to “Ethical dilemma

  1. I don’t know anything about the situation, but just from your description it sounds like the deputy let his personal feelings about How Things Should Be get in the way of his job, which was to find out (and respect) the sentiment of the community in question. It’s hard to know what to do since the publication has already happened.

  2. Yes, i think it’s a problem. Bridget is spot on about ‘consulting = what deputy thinks is best’. I think the community should be told about the publicaiton and asked whether they have been consulted about this. If not, and if they’re upset, I think it’s also worth asking what action they’d like taken. Are linguists above facing consequences just because something has been published?

    I’m not assuming that the community will be upset about it, though. The Deputy may well have been right, but that doesn’t take away from the need to clarify the situation with the community.

    I guess the other thing is ‘who’ should speak to the community? I don’t know how appropriate it would be for an external do-gooder to rock on in…

  3. A point of clarification or two: yep, the go-between/deputy is not a community member but has long-standing connections to the area. It’s reasonably clear that the community has not been consulted in any meaningful way, and it’s also fairly clear (based on other evidence) that they would not have approved publication of this material.

    Linguists are clearly not above facing the consequences of their actions, but in this case I suspect that the consequences will fall on people other than the editor and go-between.

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