“Have You Done What You Can?”: On Ethical Research

“朱门酒肉臭,路有冻死骨。”—— 杜甫

Roughly translated as: The wealthy and powerful have so much to eat that their food and drinks go bad. Outside their mansions, the corpses of the poor who died of hunger and cold pile up on the roadside (Du Fu, 755, Tang Dynasty).

Human suffering is no news. For thousands of years, individuals at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum have been unequally influenced by larger social force, be it political, economic, or institutional. All four books for this week painstakingly tease out how suffering is intricately produced at the intersection of multiple forces in which the poor and (thus) powerless are caught up, their life being crushed.

I’d like to give an example of mainland China that demonstrates how extreme suffering and tragedy are structurally produced. The case I present is the so-called AIDS village in China. The YouTube channel has a 5-min brief (and sarcastic, disrespectfully I’d say) of the tragedy. The documentary has an elaborate portray of the event. Unfortunately, I am not able to find one with English subtitles.



Long story short. Henan Province has always been one of the most impoverished areas in China. The local officials, in order to boost the economic development, encouraged the blood-selling industry, which, of course, would not be possible with the advancement of blood-drawing machines and growing demand for cheap blood in urban areas. The profit of selling blood, for rural residents, is much more than they can possibly make. As a result, it was not uncommon that the whole village would go together to sell their blood. However, private, unsanitary blood-drawing business took the opportunity for black-market blood-selling. They used the same machine without sterilizing. Consequently, so long as one person was HIV positive, the whole village would be likely infected.

The story gets more difficulty to narrate. Any attempt to present a neat storyline may invite problems. Indeed, as Kleinman et al. (1997) and Farmer (2001) point out, suffering is co-produced by so many social forces that it is almost impossible to pinpoint where exactly the sources of suffering are. In the case of AIDS village, the rural residents barely had any idea about HIV/AIDS. The local officials, in order to avoid responsibility, suppress the victims’ appeal for compensation and justice. Policies, bind them to the rural areas they were born and make it difficult for them to move to urban areas where HIV treatment is relatively more available. But it wouldn’t have mattered, since they do not have insurance. Even if they did, insurance sometimes only pays half as much for a rural resident as for an urbanite. I can keep listing reasons why these people have no other option but to rot their life away by AIDS in their villages.

This story is not concealed—or politically appropriated and silenced, as Kleinman & Kleinman phrase it. Journalists, humanitarians, researchers, and government officials frequented the villages when the story was first learned. Not much can be done. The more effective inhibitors for HIV/AIDS were available only in the West, not to mention that the rural farmers couldn’t even afford the less effective ones available in China. Why otherwise would they rush to sell their blood? To borrow Kelly Ray Knight’s concept of temporality, I’d say that these farmers have a “waiting” time, one that is fairly short, considering how quickly they would die from AIDS. And they did. And then we forgot about them. Their suffering is appropriated and consumed by those of us safely away from the tragedy. I wonder if people shed more tears for Titanic than their fellow Chinese in these villages.

While I think this would be justly called ethical indifference, what should we do, as anthropologists or public health scientists, if we found ourselves in a site like this? Faced such grave social inequalities and human suffering, how can we conduct research ethically? For anthropologists (medical anthropologists in particular) as well as public health scientists, this question weighs even heavier. When we are conducting research with our co-subjects, have we done what we can? The opinion that the anthropologist should remain an observer, leaving the field as it is, in my opinion, simply does not hold water when the issue she studies is on suffering. Does one’s research have a tangible impact on the co-subjects’ life in a very real way? And by real, I mean in ways that the informants consider significant to themselves too. In other words, does their life become any better because of one’s research?

A most common response would be, the value of research can very well manifest in the effect of “calling for attention.” I agree. There is only so much one single researcher can do, and in order to bring about societal changes, much more people need to be involved and contribute to the betterment of the world we live in. However, the question remains. Have you done what you can to make your co-subject’s life better in tangible way?

Let’s revisit the famous photo discussed in the chapter by Kleinman & Kleinman (1997).


For those of you who did not read Chapter One, here is a brief review: Taken in 1993, the journalist Kevin Carter captured a young child trying to make her way to the shelter. Not very far from her, a vulture was waiting to devour this soon-to-be-dead child. Carter took the picture, drove away the vulture, and left. This photo spawned controversy. While some admired the journalist’s sharp journalistic eye, some questioned his choice of taking the photo without saving the girl. A year later, Carter committed suicide.

Did Carter and his famous photo call for attention? Undoubtedly. It earned the New York Times a Pulitzer award for that. The world got to learn about the severity of the famine in Sudan and more intervention was created. But is it ethical on Carter’s side? Isn’t it just a form of appropriation of the little girl’s suffering so that the rest of the world, the wealthy ones in particular, can safely satisfy their voyeurism, secretly feel happy that it is not them dying from hunger, and perhaps even feel noble donating a meal’s worth of cash?

I cannot help but notice the similarity between this and anthropological work. We go to the field; we collect data; we come back and write ethnography. Our ethical connection with our informants, it seems, lasts only as long as a journal article or a monograph requires. After writing up, the worth of our informants’ suffering is also exhausted. Alas, prolonged engagement does not mean permanent engagement. One project does not get one tenured. For our informants, suffering may last until the end of their life. Indeed, for all the authors in these weeks’ readings, some of their informants did not even survive the ethnographic project. But for the anthropologist, for the rest of the world, their suffering has a fixed temporality, to borrow Kelly Ray Knight’s (2015) phrase. For many, their suffering, to put it in plain language, start from the first summer visit, and end with the dissertation field work.

Did Du Fu, I wonder, give food to the poor dying at the roadside? Did any of the anthropologists whose work we read manage to make however small an impact on their informants’ life? Putting bread on their table? Helping them get medical help? Anything other than watching and asking? Perhaps we should all ask ourselves, Have I done what I can? Does their life become better, in ways that they actually care?