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Ethics, Epistemology and Ethnography: The Need for an Anthropological Debate on Ethical Review Processes in Germany

Dilger, Hansjörg

Sociologus, Vol. 67 (2017), Iss. 2: pp. 191–208

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Univ.-Prof. Dr. Hansjörg Dilger, Freie Universität Berlin, Institut für Sozialund Kulturanthropologie, Landoltweg 9-11, 14195 Berlin

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Over the last years, debates on research ethics – and the way the ethicality of ethnographic research is assessed by institutional boards and committees – have flourished in national and international anthropology. This article discusses the state of the debate in Germany where ethical review boards have remained so far largely absent in regard to anthropological research and where the commitment to ‘act ethically’ during fieldwork (and beyond) remains largely voluntary. By drawing on ethnographic fieldwork on HIV / AIDS and social relations in Tanzania, I highlight that medical anthropologists may face particular ethical challenges in their work, due to the often close relationship of their research with human suffering. Furthermore, however, I argue that the sub-discipline can raise important questions concerning the potential institutionalization of ethical review processes in anthropology in Germany and the pitfalls that should be avoided with regard to the ‘fetishization’ of certain ethical doctrines (such as the informed consent process) which have proven incommensurable with the core epistemological assumptions of the discipline. This article does not provide an exhaustive overview of the debates on ethics that have been conducted in Germany or internationally over the last decade(s). It is rather meant as a political intervention that seeks to broaden the discussion about the potential formalization of ethical review processes in Germany and how the discipline can shape such a process proactively by foregrounding some of its inherent strengths: reflexivity, creativity and dialogue.