Ethics in linguistics

I was at Sydney University for most of last week, working on A. P. Elkin’s Dampier Peninsula field notes and hanging out in the linguistics department. I had a wonderful time! More on the Elkin notes soon, since a bunch of great things were there (no new languages, but other information…)

I gave two talks while I was there – one was on ethics in linguistics, particularly in fieldwork. The handout is here in PDF [Ethics]. We talked a bit about the background of the current ethics legislation in Australia and the US and had some fun with a few of the hypotheticals.

The other talk was on Nimanburru, the language south-east of Bardi that I’ve been working on the 1960s recordings of. That’s still work in progress (I’m waiting on more tapes) so I won’t put that up on the web for more, but feel free to email me if you’re interested in this material. I’m especially interested in contacting any Nimanburru people.


6 responses to “Ethics in linguistics

  1. I like your hypotheticals! A while back I thought of another. You are working on a moribund language in an impoverished community, where most people live on $5000/yr. You have identified four speakers, all willing to participate. Three of them are very hard of hearing, though, and thus cannot help you much, but your budget will cover purchasing each one of them a $2000 hearing aid. What do you do?

  2. I wish I’d gone to the ethics talk, in fact I wish I’d known it was on! Jane’s email made it appear as though it was scheduled for 5pm onwards, alas.

    Nonetheless, the pdf is helpful for the discussion of such cases. Were any conclusions drawn with respect to any of these hypotheticals?

  3. Anon, that one’s pretty good – is there infrastructure to maintain the equipment once it’s bought? (e.g. a supply of batteries, some way of cleaning them, etc)? Is there other equipment that could do the job? (ie, what type of hearing loss is it?) Since most of these devices are custom fit over several appointments, would it be feasible for the people to make the appointments? Do they want them?

    Jangari, we had some fun, sorry about the confusion. For the last one, we decided that the ethics board’s ruling was itself inethical and there was no way they could stop the work being done anyway, and one solution was to coauthor all materials with the speaker. Or not publish. I am not convinced that that’s legal everywhere (once they’ve denied permission the first time), although I fully agree of course that the ethic board are on some little power trip and need a good head-banging…

    For the first one, we discussed some of the tecnicalities about what it meant to put something on the web (e.g. on an unlinked page, on a password protected page, etc), whether it would be feasible to train a few community members to explain things like the internet to others (and whether that was ethical), possibilities for renegotiation of the award, and one or two other things that I can’t remember now.

  4. For your last hypothetical, I’m agog. The IRBs I deal with daily usually freak out if they think you *are* trying to pay subjects — it’s seen as coercive.

    Admittedly the hypothetical Ethics Board may be taking a wider ‘social ethics’ kind of view, and saying that it’s improper not to pay people for their work. The (medical) IRBs here in the US generally take a narrower view, looking only at protecting subjects’ health & privacy.

  5. I am assuming that the answers are afiirmative to the points you were mentioning, say if the speakers are in a rural community, a few hours away from a small town with an audiology clinic. The issues I was thinking about were more ethical than technical. There’s no escaping the notion of playing favorites; there may be other elderly or other deaf people whose life could be improved greatly with a hearing aid, and who would be excluded from this largesse. And what about semispeakers, whose usefulness to the researcher could be exhausted after a week of interviews? A delicate situation, I think, though not one I have had to deal with myself.

  6. You raise a good point, anon, except in reality I think people are a bit more lenient with favouritism. Of the three blokes I work with, one of them drives a car, another chews expensive tobacco and the third lives out bush most of the year. While it’s probably not ethically ‘pure’, I occasionally give the second bloke a tin of Log Cabin (tobacco), which the others had no issue with. Indeed I learned later that I was his classificatory brother, so it was sort of more appropriate.

    Then one day the bloke with the car needed to get down to Katherine to pick up his wife from hospital but his payment for the language work he was doing with me wasn’t due to arrive for another week. I lent him the fuel money out of my own pocket (i.e. not reimbursable) on the proviso that he returned it when he got paid. This was merely so that he wouldn’t humbug me for money in the future, since I knew it would be heavily playing favourites if I didn’t see that as gift on par with the tobacco, and later I told him he could keep it. Probably not highly ethically sound, but I have little qualms about it, and at the end of the day, we’ve all moved a little bit beyond the whole ‘objective non-interventionist’ idea, so the concept of ‘helping out a mate’ comes into play.

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