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Nancy Scheper-Hughes and the Question of Ethical Fieldwork Essay

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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…
Scheper-Hughes clearly attempted to do this by subjecting her informants to anonymity; if she had not, the villagers would not have been angry about their fragmented identities and scattered words. It is clear, however, that she failed in this attempt, as the villagers were still able to recognize the pieces of themselves in her ethnography (Scheper-Hughes 2000:150). It is not necessarily unethical to publish community and individual secrets; indeed without them good ethnographic work would not be possible, especially when investigating such hypothetical situations as illegal activities as a result of oppression and structural inequalities. However, it is important to obtain and disclose such secrets under clear ethical guidelines. Informed consent is and was at the time of Scheper-Hughes’ fieldwork an important aspect of ethical research. Scheper-Hughes was criticized by Irish anthropologists for not obtaining the full and informed consent of her participants before conducting her research, and this criticism is warranted (Callahan 311:1979). It is clear from the villagers’ reactions when she returned to Ballybran some years later that this is in fact true. Scheper-Hughes herself remarked that many felt betrayed by her book, and that they initially had no idea what she would publish (Scheper-Hughes 2000:148). Schrag argues that part of informed consent should be to communicate honestly the research objectives of the ethnographer, which
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