The most recently released issue of Language Documentation and Conservation contains an interesting article by Gary Holton on the difficulties of applying “universal” ideas of ethical research practices in very different cultures. He compares research in Indonesia and Alaska and discusses some of the factors that lead to different experiences for the researcher, different expectations for the researcher’s behavior, and different views of language and linguistic data. It is a nice example for why ethics is not a ‘one size fits all’ proposition.
I disagree with Holton’s criticism about the definition of ethics as “standards which are appropriate to the community in which one works”. I agree that this is somewhat vague, but his article is a very good illustration of why it is difficult to be specific when writing guidelines which cover many different cultures. We could have an interesting discussion here about the ethics of relativity — Holton’s example where he behaved “inappropriately” in the community by not being seen to make material gains from a project in Indonesia is a nice example of how to reconcile ethics standards across countries and communities. Perhaps readers have suggestions on how one might reconcile the need to appear to make money from a project while still keeping within the guidelines of US federal funding.