Animal Emotions

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Ethics in Field Research: Are We Really that Noninvasive?

A new book considers the nature of fieldwork and what we really do and know

Many researchers and non-researchers argue, and some just plainly assume, that research on "wild and/or free-ranging animals" or natural groups of humans is less invasive and more ethical than research on captive nonhuman animals (animals) or humans in highly controlled and often very confined situations. They often claim, for example, that fieldwork doesn't intrude as much into the lives of other animals, including humans, because the individuals are able to live their lives as they normally do without spatial, social, or other constraints so the data they collect are better, that is, "more natural". However, fieldwork on other animals often includes various experimental protocols and manipulations such as trapping and marking animals so they can be reliably followed and identified, recording vocalizations and then playing them back to the animals, depositing scents, and removing individuals. And, just "being there" and continually watching animals can have an influence on their behavior that can stress them and also compromise the data being collected and the conclusions that are drawn. Clearly this applies to nonhumans and humans. 

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"Fieldworkers have to negotiate their research path simultaneously through at least three sets of ethics -- their own personal one, that of their discipline, that of the locals ..." (page 17)

So, what do we really know? A new book called Ethics in the Field edited by anthropologists Jeremy MacClancy at Oxford Brookes University and Agustin Fuentes at the University of Notre Dame is a most important read in the general field of research ethics when studying either nonhuman or human animals. 

The table of contents can be seen here. Rather than review each and every chapter here I simply want to consider some of the important conclusions of the excellent essays that are contained in this book. These include: we often do not know the effects of our presence on the behavior of the individuals under study because there is a lack of baseline information accumulated when our presence is as far as we can determine undetected by them, far too few species and individuals have been studied to make any general comparative conclusions that apply across the board, often only a small sample of the same species has been achieved so there is a lack of a comparative perspective across populations and locales, there is a lack of information on nocturnal species or what animals do at night or when we can't see them, the word is still out about how much field projects actually contribute to the conservation of various species, and there is a need for a general code of ethics to guide future work. And, there are also ethical concerns when we trespass into other cultures to study the humans or the nonhumans who live there. 

Of course, the situation isn't all that dismal for we have indeed learned an incredible amount about human and nonhuman animals from fieldwork and the data have been very useful in many different ways. But, a number of difficult and important questions remain and existing methods and data and new research protocols need to be scrutinized very carefully. We can indeed do better than we have in the past.

This book is a must read for practicing fieldworkers regardless of the species in which they're interested and for students who are planning a career doing various sorts of fieldwork. Although there is a concentration on primates of the nonhuman and human kind, the questions and concerns that receive admirably detailed attention apply to many other species who find themselves under the gaze of humans who want to learn more about them and about us. There is no doubt that by paying careful attention to the discussions in this book future research will be more ethical and better for the animals and for the reliability of the data that are collected.

The teaser image (and above) of the gorilla staring into a camera can be seen here

 

 

 

Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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