Category Archives: ethics

ethics and linguistics

I have mentioned this before, but I’d like to encourage everyone to  head over to the Linguistic Society of America’s ethics blog for some discussion. We have just started posting regularly and would like to hear feedback, comments, and discussion on the topics raised.


Australian folk language policy (1): the failure of monolingualism

When Kevin Rudd came to power nearly a year ago, many of us linguists thought we might get a better deal for language in Australia. After all, it’s not every day that monolingual Australia elects a prime minister who is fluent in Mandarin. I think some of us assumed that Rudd’s sensitivity to multilingualism might transfer to more support for Australia’s Indigenous languages. We were deeply mistaken, it seems.

200 years ago, more than 250 languages were spoken in Australia, from 28 different language families. By way of comparison, Europe has roughly 200 languages from four families [Indo-European, Finno-Ugric, Turkic, and Basque]. These days, approximately 20 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages are being learned by children, with another 60 spoken only by adults or old people. 90% of Australia’s Indigenous languages are reckoned as endangered.

There are 9 bilingual schools in the Northern Territory, and if plans go ahead, those schools will be forced to teach the first 4 hours of every school day in English, leaving between 60 and 90 minutes of class time per day for instruction in other languages.

Apparently the new policy was developed after below par test results for grades 3, 5  and 7 reading and maths. However, the government has repeatedly told researchers trying to access to school test data that test results are aggregated across schools. I take this to mean that the NT government doesn’t actually know if the bilingual schools are doing worse than the English-only schools.

I have a suggestion: mandate the content, don’t mandate the medium. Recognise that English is a second (or third or fourth) language for kids in these schools, employ a few ESL teachers, mandate 60-90 minutes of English as a Second/Foreign Language, and teach the rest of the curriculum in whatever language the kids know best. Trial it in Arnhem Land or a Warlpiri community where there are Indigenous teachers.

Until multilingual Aboriginal communities cease to be treated as ‘English monolingual failures’ there will be no sensible education policy for these areas.

We haven’t heard a peep out of Kevin Rudd. Given that the federal government technically controls 73 NT Aboriginal communities at present, one would have thought that the federal government’s opinion was relevant here.

Protecting oneself from protectors

Lise recently sent my way a post purporting to be a guide for communities who wish to protect themselves from anthropologists. It reads rather more like the criminalisation of research, to be honest.

I have some comments on this document, not specifically about the need the need for such a document or the empowerment of communities (regular readers know I’m all in favour of these in principle and in practice), but about the content of this particular guide. (Note to non-regular readers: I’m a linguist, not an anthropologist, but the fieldwork principles are similar enough in general that the comments transfer from one discipline to another.)

  1. The “militarization” of the discipline. This document seems to merge academic and “applied” anthropology. I’d argue that’s a *big* mistake on both sides. Just as medical research, medical treatment, and medical experimentation (e.g. in prisons and concentration camps) are clearly different, so too we could, and should, draw a line between academics and ‘applied anthropologists’ (e.g. those employed by the CIA). It is up to the discipline to make sure that we are clear about the differences, for example by being explicit about the purpose of fieldwork, obtaining IRB approval and sticking to the protocols, and by not being involved with activism in the communities.
  2. … it is written with genuine concern for the wellbeing of those studied by anthropologists. Divorcing the well-being of the community from the well-being of the anthropologist might not be the most productive way to encourage community-empowered anthropology. Making fieldwork work well requires a considerable degree of trust on both sides, and so setting off the researcher and the community off against one another for the start isn’t likely to encourage good participatory fieldwork.
  3. 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.
    This is true, but it would be good to get some figures on how often this actually happens, whether it is a problem with travel to and from a particular area, and so on. Informed consent is not informed unless there is some quantification of the risks involved.
  4. Confidentiality that is respected with doctors and lawyers is not legally enforced with anthropologists;
    This implies that it’s the anthropologist’s fault. One could mention that the same is often true of journalists. That is, medical records are covered by special laws and lawyers are covered by a law called attorney-client privilege (that is, that conversations between a lawyer and their client cannot be subpoena’ed (or demanded in court). No such protection is given to anthropologists or linguists. (This is something that linguists at least have complained about.) The only option in some cases would be for the researcher to be held in contempt of court, which could lead to a prison sentence. Again, it’d be nice to know how often this has happened.
  5. Ask for original copies of the researcher’s bank statements, for a period of one year, along with proof of income.
    Sorry, that’s completely unreasonable. Researchers have rights too. Just as researchers don’t demand the bank statements of their consultants before paying them, there is absolutely no justification for financial investigation of researchers. Given that part of this document is aimed at professionalising the role of research participants, making demands like this is a step in the other direction. Besides, if the aim behind this demand is to see if there are large unaccountable sums of money in the account, don’t you think that anyone indulging in surreptitious activities would conceal bank activities?
  6. Demand to be provided with a full copy of all fieldnotes. There are plenty of situations where this is not a good idea, and where that it 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.
  7. Sometimes a reseacher 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.  … 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.
    Keep in mind that there research is not always being paid to produce the information for the audience, and in other cases that payment might amount to a tiny fraction of the cost of producing the research project. Payment is a complex issue, and payment out of scale can causes as many problems for individuals in a community as exploitation through underpayment. There are also circumstances where having a name on a publication could be dangerous (e.g. in areas where speaking a particular language is banned)
  8. 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.
    I don’t think I’d be very keen on collaborating with someone who’d exercised points 5.1-5.6. but maybe that’s my post-colonial exploitative academic nature coming through.

I’d like to add that it’s worth remembering that researchers, in the vast majority of cases, are not out to exploit communities, to rip off individiuals, or to spy for their governments (or as mercenary anthropologists for another government). However, researchers are often from a different community from the one they are researching. There are cross-cultural issues in negotiating research projects. Research projects work best when there’s respect on both sides. There is no requirement to participate in a research project, but projects are opportunities for communities as well as opportunities for the researcher. It’s up to individuals and communities to make the most of them — ask lots of questions about the research and the project.

For a less combative guide for communities (with explicit information about rights and suggestions for interacting with researchers) see the National Health and Medical Research Council’s guide for (Australian) Aboriginal Communities.

Ethics Statement

I’m still busy (although the business has moved from the Bardi learner’s guide, which is “resting” to await final typo identification, to another project), but before I was busy with the learner’s guide and moving in, I was involved with setting up a public forum for discussion of the LSA‘s draft ethics statement. The site is now live and the comments are coming in.


While I’m busy unpacking boxes, have a read of Zachary Schrag’s IRBlog.

The anatomy of an apology

Twelve years after the ‘Bringing Them Home‘ report, 16 years after Paul Keating’s Redfern speech, 18 years after the High Court rescinded the doctrine of terra nullius, and 41 years after their removal from the flora and fauna list, there will be an apology to Indigenous Australians for past injustices. It’s probably no surprise to anyone reading this that I’m in favour.

The ABC has recently started allowing comments on some stories on its site. The comments there are mostly (but not entirely) negative. So on the off-chance that anyone is reading this who isn’t in favour of an apology, let me dissect the usual reasons given for such a view:

  1. ‘We have nothing to apologise for’…
    1. … because it didn’t happen. [It happened. Even the people who did it admit it happened.]
    2. … because we didn’t do it, it was our grandparents, and we aren’t responsible for their actions. [No, not personally liable, and no one has claimed that we are. But if we’re going to claim ‘those brave wounded heroes of Suvla’ and the ‘rats of Tobruk’ we’d better be prepared to claim the people who put the arsenic in the flour too.]
    3. … because it was for their own good, to give them a better life. [Try arguing that it’s a good government policy to compulsorily acquire the children of anyone earning less than, say, $20,000 a year, to place them in orphanages and give them jobs as servants of rich people.]
    4. … because it was a different time and standards were different. [Yes. And so let’s show just how much we reject the benevolent bigotry that embraced those policies. Let’s show just how different those standards and that time was.]
  2. Terrible things happened, but if we apologise,
    1. we admit personal responsibility… [no we don’t. Admitting that the government of the day had policies which were racist, and perhaps even acknowledging that those policies have had effects which continue to the present, is not of itself an admission of responsibility. Come off it. We know who drafted the legislation. We know who passed it. We know who enacted it. AND we know who repealed it.]
    2. and financial liability. [This seems to me to be incredibly petty and mean-spirited. But if we want to talk money, how about repaying the wages that weren’t paid, for a start?]

If anyone has any other reasons, let me know.

Do I think it’ll change things? To be honest, no. Australians are great at “forgetting”. But it’s the first concrete action that’s been taken for a very long time.

IRBs, Anthros and the Military

Via Long Road, here’s a link to an interesting report on IRB discussions at the recent AAA conference. Comment to come.