An ethical charter for ethnologists?

This document is addressed to all ethnologists, researchers, teachers and students engaged in an ethnological undertaking; it aims to bring to light a number of ethical issues and propose a set of «good practices,» whether in research, teaching, diffusion of findings or archiving of data.

Paul Ricœur defines ethics and its «intention» as follows: «Let us define ‘ethical intention’ as aiming at the ‘good life’ with and for others, in just institutions» (1992: 172, author’s italics; see also Ricœur 2006). Such a perspective distinguishes two moments in one and the same term – ethics; one is anterior, the other posterior. These moments are inseparable and complementary, but chronologically distinct. Whereas anterior ethics relates to the existence of fundamental moral norms or principles and their roots in social life, posterior ethics refers to the moment in which these same norms have to be applied and adapted to real, concrete situations. In this perspective, morality constitutes the stable aspect of ethics, which gives a content or framework to the good life and the justness of any instituted relationship. But, in parallel, Ricœur makes us attentive to a second, more dynamic aspect, that of deliberation: in any situation involving ethics, these fundamental principles have to be adapted and reactivated in accordance with local, situated, singular issues. The «good life» and the «just institution» must therefore be understood in a broad sense and, above all, as emerging from deliberations that are endlessly renewed according to the particularities of a context or situation.

The diversity of the situations in which ethnographic research – whether privately or publicly funded – is conducted and the use of ethnographic methods by other disciplines to collect first-hand qualitative data imply very heterogeneous research methods which involve this «ethical intention.» In other words, the observance of certain fundamental principles – whether it be individuals’ autonomy, respect for their freedom, their right to be informed and to know what will be done with what they say or do in the presence of the researcher, or not endangering their lives – has to be appropriate to the specificities of the ethnological approach and its framework.

In the current context of institutionalisation of questions of professional ethics, we therefore wish to offer a tool for reflection and discussion on ethnographic practice and engagement, and not a list of constraining, normative recommendations. Our aim is to anchor the ethical question in a dynamic response that makes it possible to reconcile the epistemological specificities of the ethnological approach, its scientific rigour and its responsibility to the people it involves in its research in the field.

This stance should be seen as a means of sensitisation to ethics in all stages of ethnological work. Far from being satisfied with the formal consent of our interlocutors (often with a form to be signed), we believe that in our discipline research can only be conducted if ethnologists are aware, throughout their work, of the implications it can have for the populations concerned. The notes we make in our research in the field invite us to remain vigilant as regards our actions, our understanding of the situations observed or experienced and the responsibilities we have towards our interlocutors, so as not to expose them to risks. This methodological reflexivity entails a particular posture towards the people we question or with whom we live in our fieldwork; it demarcates us from the conception of research that is presented in the federal bill on «research on the human being,» since we essentially consider that we do not work on «the human being» but with human beings.