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  Anthropology, Genetic Diversity, and Ethics 
 
 
A workshop at the Center for Twentieth Century Studies 
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee  
 
 
 
Jonathan Friedlaender*
[Participant Information]

The title of my talk has to do with changing ethical standards.  I feel as though I belong in the Ice Ages in research, because I began my research in the Solomon Islands in the southwestern Pacific 35 years ago.  I reprinted the foreword to my book from 1975 for you, which gives a little of the sense of how I entered communities at that time, and how I was accepted into the groups there.  In terms of being an example of a successful research collaboration, there's no question there are things that I've done in the past that I would never do today.  And in fact, I don't think the sort of research that I began 35 years ago could be begun in the same way today.  So, one of the major points of my talk today, I think this is important, is the contextualization of ethical questions in a time, as well as in a political circumstance, and with the particular populations involved. 

There's also no question, just to reiterate -- probably the most important thing that everyone has said, including this morning with Frank Dukepoo – that if there's going to be any kind of successful research collaboration, trust is the underlying issue.  How that's achieved and how it's maintained over the long run, again, is open to some question.  Another issue that is very important that has not been explicitly mentioned today, is the issue of empowerment.  That is, in many cases where research collaborations involve populations that are not part of a dominant community, whether it's within the United States or outside, is that there's suspicion between a more dominant research-oriented population and a subject population that has to be dealt with, or minimized. 

The real issue that I can talk about is how ethical standards have changed so radically.  When I first began my fieldwork in Papua New Guinea in 1966, it was still under Australian control.  The clearance I had to receive came only from the local Australian administrator, and his primary advice consisted of two items.  First, I could not pay subjects for their time or cooperation (it would confuse them when the medical/malarial service wanted to collect blood smears and give shots).  Second, I should refrain from criticizing the Australian administration, which was then beginning the preparations for self-government and independence.  He also strongly urged me to contact local leaders and discuss plans, but also strongly urged me to contact local leaders and discuss plans, but nothing formal was required.  I then went to an area I was interested in and began to discuss my ideas for the survey with local missionaries and leaders.  I was referred to a particular village and resident, who led me to his home.  He helped me describe to people there what I hoped to do, and when.  I then appeared with my baggage on the appointed date, rent a house for a week or two, and asked to talk to people more formally about what I proposed to do.  Usually in the evening, a community meeting would occur, where I described my project, what they might be concerned about, and what their opinions were about the project.  If they didn’t want to participate, I moved on (this happened in one case).  Ordinarily, this discussion went on for two or three hours.  At some point in the successful encounters, people would say, “Alright, you can go ahead.”  After the first village, these meetings followed a fairly regular formula, as I became more fluent in Tok Pisin, and as people heard about my project. 

I sat around and talked for two or three days with the adults, mostly around dinnertime and afterwards, about what it was I really wanted to do, which was essentially population history.  I wanted to try and see how they were different from other people on that island; it seemed to me their situation was very different, from the situation in the United States.  There were many different languages spoken on the island; there was the sense that there was a lot of variation from one area to the next, and that was of interest to people in my part of the world.  And after a while, after two or three days, people said, "Yes, you can go ahead."  And so I began, by taking fingerprints and measuring people, and finally taking blood samples.  And then it became easier to do this as I went through 18 to 20 villages over a period of ten months.  And the results were published in a book, and I made sure that the book was returned to various offices in the country.  And probably the most important thing I did was to go back after three years, and of course, in that part of the world, as is so common elsewhere, the first time you come to an area you're a visitor, and the second time, you're a member of the group.  And so the research collaborations continued.  I've been back into these areas eight times over the last 30 years. 

Now, what's happened subsequently, in the post-independence period, which was very shortly after my first field trip, was that, when I came back, I discovered that I had to establish an affiliation -- besides what went on in the United States with IRBs -- in the new independent countries, in Papua New Guinea in particular.  There was a Medical Research Institute which had developed, and all foreign researchers were required to become associates of the Medical Research Institute, which effectively acted as a control on the kinds of research that were done.  It was essentially a second IRB representing the local interests of the developing nation.  They had to provide research permissions saying it was approved, from the community, saying that I was a known quantity and it was allright for me to come; also from the local provincial government, which had been established, which is rather like a state government, as well as their health offices.  And it also had to pass a national health review board.  Their conditions for allowing foreign researchers were that any research project had to have potential health benefits, either real or potential -- for the nation and for the population involved; that certain requirements for group and individual informed consent were to be met; and that there was a definite effort made to establish training of local people in terms of research collaborators.  These are issues that have come up in discussions here before.  But they were all very new at the time for me. 

So in a certain sense, what was lacking, very much lacking in the first instance has become instituted -- this whole issue of informed consent -- if you still have the likelihood of inadequate informed consent on an individual basis, when you can say people are still not in the informed situation that you would prefer, in terms of being able to say, "I understand the research potential, I understand the costs and benefits of your research, and under these circumstances I will or will not allow participation in this project," you have almost a surrogate or a substitution of a second, local, IRB representing what you hope is the interests of the population and individuals in that area, in terms of the secondary or national scientific review board.  Now, this is all imperfect.  I think we talked about the difficulties in establishing perfection in terms of informed consent, but it does show a very definite progression in what I hope is the right direction.  There is no question, however, that you could ask, why did people, in the first place, allow me to come in?  And I've thought about that a lot, because I wasn't coming in under a coercive situation.  And it has a lot to do with the political context of the post-colonial situation. 

I was very fortunate in being an American.  You may say that this is misleading, but as an American, and unlike some of the situations we've been talking about, I had a rather special stance versus Australians and other foreign investigators.  Because of the history of the Solomon Islands during in the Second World War, it was a positive thing being an American, and also to be the first American foreigner to want to live in a community, to spend time and sleep, eat, and so on, in a community; that clearly had a positive value to it for the various populations that were involved, and for the sorts of research that came out.  The fact of publication of a monograph with people's photographs, talking about their population relationships within the island and between the islands, gave people a definite sense of self-importance.  I don't know how to say it any other way. 

So finally -- I want to say some things that I think are very important to keep in mind, that I think are more applicable generally.  If you always think you are going to have to come back to an area for further research, you are much more likely to do what is required to satisfy people.  Particular standards change from one time to the next.  That implies that you will do what is necessary to require, to develop a sense of continuing trust and a continuing relationship.  With regard to this business about cost-benefit analysis--obviously, it's important to try and discuss the relative costs and benefits of your own specific research proposal.  But there may be very different cost-benefit considerations on the part, not only of the community but of the larger community that you're associated with; in this case, the national government.  So for example, oftentimes I was in the situation where we'd go to the regional health office and say, "This is what we want to do, this is what we're interested in, but we will be in a rural community, and what would you like us to find out -- what can we do for you?  We have these confidences," and sometimes the response would be, "We'd really like to know the prevalence of AIDS or HIV infection in the area," and we'd say, "Well, we have that capacity to find that out, but we don't think it's going to be very high or significant but we can do it for you," and they'd say, "Okay, we'd like to know."  So there can be various kinds of arrangements and cost-benefit considerations for different levels of group negotiations. 

Also, I think there's no question but that what you're really should do in the end, by hopefully training collaborators, is replacing yourself.  And in this part of the world, the Southwest Pacific, there is the model of the old, Roman Catholic mission where it was at first a group of French and German missionaries who came into this area, who missionized the population and educated an elite.  These were replaced subsequently by trained and educated local people, who became priests and so on, and now there are no more foreign missionaries.  In the same way, what's happening in the health profession in this part of the world is that slowly, but very clearly, physicians and medical researchers are being trained locally and will replace people like me in the future.  And that will probably be the ultimate solution of these problems of empowerment and group inequality.  Thank you. 

*This talk has been edited for web publishing by the author.

 
 
 
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