George van Driem, Professor of Historical Linguistics at the University of Bern, minces no words in condemning the “moral depravity of ethics protocols.” He argues that human subjects rules primarily serve to cover the asses of Western universities while hampering linguists in the field and insulting the people they encounter. Paraphrasing couldn’t do justice to this marvelous essay, so enjoy the block quotations. Better still, read the whole thing.
[George van Driem, “Endangered Language Research and the Moral Depravity of Ethics Protocols,” Language Documentation & Conservation 10 (2016): 243–252, http://hdl.handle.net/10125/24693].
To illustrate the problem, Van Driem offers this horror story:
One American researcher followed the dictates of the ethics protocol of the University of Oregon because the penalty for non-compliance for her would have been nothing less than to forfeit the right to earn a doctoral degree, even though, in the particular case in question, this involved just 400 Bhutanese ’ngütram, which at the time of the affair was less than US$10. The researcher was compelled to go back to a particular Bhutanese village and get a signature from a particular language informant on a receipt for this sum of money. The researcher in question did as she was told in good faith, and consequently the community ostracized her, shunning her on each subsequent visit because she had made them sign a legal document. The people of the language community later explained through intermediaries that they both felt insulted and were also genuinely afraid for having been made to sign a legal document, especially after all the assistance and hospitality which they had extended to the researcher. We are dealing with no less than a clash of cultures. Ethics protocols prescribe and require immoral, unseemly and outright rude behavior to be carried out by researchers in other societies with very different cultural norms. Yet how is it possible that these ethics protocols are so culturally insensitive?
He finds the answer in the experience of another researcher, who himself “was born and raised in Bhutan with all the cultural and moral sensibilities of a morally upright Bhutanese citizen.”
The Bhutanese researcher raised the issue that being compelled to sign a contract at all would be viewed by Bhutanese villagers as if they were not being treated in a civil fashion as human beings, whatever English label one might like to append to them as native speakers of their languages. The researcher objected that the feelings of the Bhutanese people should be taken into consideration. In response, one of the staff members of the Australian National University Ethics Division in a moment of candor told the Bhutanese researcher the following, as paraphrased by the researcher:
“No, you don’t understand. We care deeply about the people in Bhutan. We care not only about today’s language community. We care even about the children and the grandchildren of these people, who might come to us one day and ask to see the written permission that their ancestors had granted us at Australian National University in order to be allowed to study their language.” This admission was highly revealing because it alludes quite plainly to what institutions and bureaucracies are really after.
When I once asked a solicitor in Geneva specialized in U.S. law what the abbreviation C.Y.A. stood for, he first suggested that I look it up on the internet because the metaphor was objectionable. He later explained to me that getting individuals to sign documents that could forestall subsequent litigation, in which people essentially waived certain rights, was referred to as a ‘cover your ass.’
Van Driem reports some good news. First, the inanity has not reached Switzerland. He writes,
I have twice been prompted by spokespersons of the Swiss National Science Foundation in Bern that language informants are speakers of languages and, as such, not deemed to be Versuchspersonen in the sense of experimental subjects of medical and biological experimentation. This commonsensical insight would evidently be a revelation to some ethics protocol enforcers in the Anglo-American world, where people who happen to speak a language, as most people do, become ‘human subjects’ once you ask them a question about their language.
Second, at least some people are benefiting from the Anglo-American system:
A good number of industrious people in Nepal will be prepared to issue statements on official stationery which they will have especially printed for a foreigner asking for unusual services. In writing, these entrepreneurs will even be prepared formally to usurp the authority of speaking on behalf of an entire language community for the purposes of the paying client who must furnish this paperwork to, say, the National Science Foundation in Washington or the European Research Council in Brussels in order to receive funding and support for their research. The people issuing such paperwork are not guilty of wrongdoing. Toy passports and toy driving licenses are sold in children’s stores and as a curiosity in some stationery shops in the West. Entrepreneurs merely accommodate the world of make-believe in which the foreign researcher is compelled to operate.