(Too) Great Expectations? On Fieldwork, Guidelines, and Ethics in Human Geography, by Mark Anthony Arceño, Deondre Smiles, Emelie Bailey, Anurag Mazumdar, Thelma Vélez, J.P. Wilson, Kelly Yotebieng, and Kendra McSweeney.


This blog post engages the American Association of Geographers’ (AAG) 2009 “Statement on Professional Ethics.” We argue that the Statement falls short in helping us (students) understand how we know if we are doing the “right” thing when conducting research in the field. Rather than suggest new verbiage for a revised code of ethics (which we had been told was  apparently ongoing within the AAG), we instead ask for a broader rethinking of the AAG’s role as an arbiter of ethical practice in the field, organizing its collective ethical stance and resources to support us as researchers undergoing graduate training. In particular, we elaborate upon five aspects of a website that could be created and maintained by the AAG, which would (1) serve as an ethics clearing house; (2) provide a strong, short, unequivocal statement on ethical practice in human geography; (3) initiate a frank discussion on the distinction between Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) and ethics; (4) curate a “living” archive of materials focusing on ethics in geography; and (5) host an open, moderated forum on ethical lapses—past and present—in geography. We also offer suggestions beyond the scope of a website format, in an attempt to bring these discussions within academic departments. We find much potential value in our professional organizations, such as the AAG, and as such call upon our peers and seasoned colleagues to provide relevant and meaningful guidance that leverages the technology now available to sustain such networking capability. We argue that these steps forward are a way to gain much needed ground and tackle some of the ongoing tensions over professional ethics in the field of human geography.

KEYWORDS: Ethics; fieldwork; human geography

We live in a complex world fraught with ethical questions and dilemmas, which is made more complicated by the diversity of communities in which we research and collaborate. As a group of multidisciplinary participants in a weekly graduate seminar on fieldwork in geography (during the spring 2017 semester), we engaged regularly with the varied means of generating and analyzing data. Not surprisingly, issues of ethics arose repeatedly in our discussions, and we sought clear principles to help us mitigate “unethical” practices, i.e., a sort of roadmap to help us understand expectations of conduct and process in “the field.” For example, we debated the degree to which a researcher should lay bare an ideological position at odds with those of their collaborators. We also wondered about the ethical implications of power relations between researchers and our informants; about the required degree of transparency in disclosing our sources of funding and how our research may be used; about friendships developed with research participants; and about how to ensure more meaningful collaboration among those with whom we work and in ways that extend beyond just sharing our results with them. Furthermore, we recognized the growing importance of new technological advances in increasing global connectivity, as we thought about our work with researchers from diverse backgrounds or from other institutions or countries and making available open source data, while we concurrently considered questions of ownership of and rights thereto. At the same time, we wondered about the consequences of technology and the ethics of using geocoded data, photographs, videos/film, drones, and other technologies in our fieldwork, particularly with often marginalized populations.

Ultimately, our discussions boiled down to a singular concern: how do we know if we are doing the ‘ethical’ thing in the field while doing qualitative human geography research? We comprehended the principles of ethical conduct as described in The Belmont Report (1978)—respect for persons, beneficence, and justice—as well as the basic premise to do no harm (see Hugman et al. 2011), but how could we make sure we were effectively upholding them? And in instances where we might observe corruption or harm to other living beings, how would we know when to intervene? These boundaries raised even more questions such as how to identify these flexible contours, how they will present themselves to us, and if there is in fact a universal boundary that we are pushing against. As such, how have other researchers negotiated the surprising (and the not-so-surprising) challenges of fieldwork? And how may we, as students, conduct our fieldwork practice without making mistakes that have the potential to harm research participants and/or impact our academic careers?

For those of us in fields outside human geography, these questions led us to be curious about the established norms within the subdiscipline. We wanted to know where the field’s ethical foundation lay, and—by extension—why we should trust the resulting geographic scholarship. Those of us who are geographers identified a similar need to be more reliable and accountable to those in other disciplines.

In retrospect, what was particularly interesting about the coalescence of our questions about what exactly constitutes ethical research became apparent when we considered the diversity of academic backgrounds and viewpoints that were (and still are) represented in our collective: cultural anthropology, medical anthropology, environmental sociology, environmental planning, health geography, urban and digital geography, and Indigenous geographies, to name a few. Our research interests and professional experiences were as far ranging as exploring the taste of place and its connections to climatic and other forms of change; working in international and domestic health research and policy; identifying the ways that Indigenous nations work to defend their deceased citizens; seeking to understand individuals’ perspectives regarding digital economic labor within the context of a platform economy; researching social movement organizations and actors involved in environmental justice, food justice, and climate justice; examining the integration of water resources management and land use planning; and collaborating with international organizations to mitigate and respond to sexual exploitation/abuse and sexual harassment.

Despite this diversity in backgrounds, or perhaps because of it, we found that we shared commonalities in how we defined ethical research. Many of us discussed the need to build balanced, cooperative, and respectful relationships with our research participants based on transparency and trust, and in some cases, based on the anonymity of participants, all the while recognizing that we all have ‘different’ and sometimes divergent stakes in research. For those of us who work with marginalized communities, we agreed on the need to avoid extractive work and focus instead on pursuing research agendas and projects that can be beneficial to the communities that we work with. Some of us grappled with whether or not such agendas are possible given the inherent power imbalance between academia and marginalized communities/groups. And others among us had to contend with the limits of ‘involved’ and ‘distanced’ research, especially in cases where informants came from potentially varied backgrounds and life experiences. Returning to the question posed in the introduction, as junior academics, we wondered what professional guidance existed to help us search out the best way to do work that we felt was ethical and respectful. As we were in a geographic fieldwork seminar, and many of us were geographers or did work that was geographic in scope, we looked to what Geography as a discipline had to say regarding ethical research.

The AAG Ethics Statement

We turned to the American Association of Geographers’ (AAG) “Statement on Professional Ethics” (2009), a source—we thought—for disciplinary guidelines. We were hoping for a document built from the struggles, mistakes, and solutions of other field researchers, both past and present. We anticipated this document would inform us about the principles and frameworks to which geographers are expected to adhere, and why.

What we found is a statement that embodies great intentions, but ultimately falls short of offering the clear guidance we sought. Specifically, we found it to be too long and difficult to navigate (within its nearly 4,600 words, it has 8 sections and 19 sub-sections) and unclear in its guidelines: the statement reads passively, and suggests rather than asserts, which leaves too large of a gray area than we as junior researchers are comfortable with. Indeed, we found the wording itself too legalistic in its admonition not to cross our institutions, and in its implication that when in doubt on ethics, we should consult IRBs and specialty groups. The AAG statement’s section on “Relations with People, Places, Things,” for example, unfortunately seems to suggest that the IRB is the main instrument for enforcing ethical behavior. Specifically, the statement notes that researchers working with human subjects should “comply with their IRB’s expectations for informed consent, modification of research practices, and reporting of adverse events” (AAG 2009). Although the IRB can be a tool for ongoing ethical inquiry and consideration (Trudeau 2012), this process varies by institution and rarely covers all ethical considerations we need to be aware of as researchers. Even more problematic, IRBs are not designed to be “go-to” sources for ethical issues encountered in the field. Their protocol demands can even cause researchers to treat research subjects in ways that can be unethical (see Adler and Adler 2002).

We were left with a collective feeling that, according to this statement, geographers’ principal professional association was signaling that its members “should be nice” in whatever subjective way that was interpreted. Yet, we are acutely aware that should anyone perceive our actions to be anything but “nice,” we will individually bear full responsibility and accountability. This is especially deleterious to us, as it could potentially affect our careers, as well as the lives of our research participants in unintended and potentially harmful ways. We thus agreed for the need of high-quality, rigorous training, resources, and education in ethics as part of our graduate programs, whereby classroom instruction aligns with clear professional and organizational expectations. Perhaps as a point of coalescence, graduate programs might do well to encourage their students to lay out and critique ethics statements put forth by the AAG and those in other fields, as we are doing here. Moreover, it is important to note that over the last decade since AAG’s statement was published, the field appears to have changed: in addition to technology, care and recognition of the multiplicities of identities and structural violence are more and more on researchers’ radars, while the job market has changed in ways that make our prospects much more precarious and raise heightened senses of concerns and fears of missteps. There must be another way than just simply “learning from our mistakes.”

In some cases, “learning from our mistakes” can lead to situations that can put the communities, groups, and individuals that we work with in danger, as well as jeopardize the relationships that we have established with them. For example, one member of our collective works closely with Indigenous communities, communities which have been faced with harm not only from a settler-colonial viewpoint, but also from an academic viewpoint through extractive research practices that disregard their viewpoints and community safety (LaFrance & Crazy Bull, 2009; Reardon & TallBear, 2012; Schanche Hodge, 2012; Garrison & Cho, 2013; Kelley et al., 2013; Around Him et al., 2019, Buffalo et al., 2019). A mistake in his work could not only harm participants, but it also would destroy relationships that he had painstakingly worked to build over a long period of time. While able to uphold confidentiality, another member finds it much more difficult to maintain anonymity in his fieldwork, due to the unique place-based nature of his project. Many members of our collective do work in a community-based context, something that often is not expressly focused on by the cornerstones of ethical research such as The Belmont Report (Hull and Wilson, 2017). Simply waiting for a mistake to occur as a ‘teachable’ moment is unacceptable and should not serve as a guide-rail for junior academics to learn the importance of ethical research. 

In sum: from the perspective of students just beginning to launch their field-based thesis or dissertation projects, the AAG ethics statement is remarkably vague. We found it wanting with regard to our ethical obligations, responsibilities, and the implications of any actions we may make in practice. As we find ourselves emboldened and encouraged—by our committees, the requirements of our academic departments, and the field at-large—to conduct first-hand research, we do so walking along a tightrope of uncertainty. As junior researchers, we are not always even sure what questions to ask regarding ethical practices, and are left but to wonder how such instruction impacts the types of relationships we form and the data we collect.

Good Models Are Out There

What we have discussed thus far is presented in stark contrast to other professional ethics statements where pithy, unambiguous expectations are the norm. The ethics statement of the American Anthropological Association (AAA)—no less an interdisciplinary field than geography—is an excellent example, where responsibilities to subjects, the public, the discipline, students, sponsors, and government are unequivocally laid out in seven clear directives totaling approximately 2,600 words. Though we recognize it may have its own critics, we particularly appreciated the AAA’s repeated use of “must”—as in “Anthropologists must be sensitive to the power differentials, constraints, interests and expectations characteristic of all relationships” (AAA COE 2012). We welcomed this type of unambiguous statement, as its wording is very clear that not being sensitive to these dynamics is in itself unethical. It is not a straight-jacketed type of rule, but rather a straightforward principle to guide our research behaviors.

Take, for example, the role that ethics statements played in parallel controversies surrounding military involvement in the work of professional geographers and anthropologists. The refusal of the AAG to take a strong stance on the Bowman Expeditions (see Wainwright 2013) stands in stark contrast to the AAA response to the Human Terrain System being employed by the US Military (see Jaschik 2015). Failure to act by the AAG has resulted in a cohort of graduate students doing research in Oaxaca, Mexico, who have struggled to find work due to their affiliation with a project charged with dubious ethical grounding (Voosen 2016).  The AAG failed to guide the ethical implementation of professional field research, and as a result the careers of graduate students were caught in the crosshairs. Conversely, in a similar situation, the AAA quickly put out a statement condemning the use of anthropologists for military intervention, pointing to the inability to operate according to the AAA ethical code (Goodman and Heller 2007). This statement relayed a clear message to student anthropologists about the acceptability and professional risks of this type of work. 

What makes the AAG’s statement all the more surprising is that so much has already been said by geographers about ethical practice in the discipline (see, e.g., Smith 1997, 2001; Valentine 2005; Israel and Hay 2006; Askins 2007; Blake 2007; Hopkins 2007; Sultana 2007; Popke 2007, 2009; Boyd et al. 2008; Chatterton & Maxey 2009; Barnett 2011), to say nothing of the numerous sessions and papers on research ethics that have been presented at the AAG’s own Annual Meeting in previous years (AAG 2017). Within the geographical literature, there is an abundance of strong statements about research ethics specifically targeting fieldworkers. James Proctor exhorts, “There is arguably no more important set of issues for geographers to address today than that dealing with complex and contested matters of ethics” (1998:15). Paul Cloke (2002) explicitly addresses the challenges faced by human geographers in applying ethical behavior and practices into research. And textbooks in geography and related fields routinely cover ethics (see, e.g., Solem et al. 2009; Hay 2010).

Yet despite the large corpus on ethics, references to this work are noticeably absent from the current AAG ethics statement. If an ethics statement is meant to be used by geographers, why not include specific ideas and ink that has already been spilled by geographers regarding ethics? Consider the work by Gillian Rose (1997) that focuses on reflexivity and positionality, or Richa Nagar and Frah Ali’s (2003) work addressing the challenges of positionality for postcolonial feminist research. To take it one step further, Gradon Diprose, Amanda Thomas, and Renee Rushton (2013) call out challenges faced by researchers in the field in their work at the intersection of reflexivity, gender, and sexuality. And, as Parvati Raghuram, Clare Madge, and Pat Noxolo (2009) remind us, both ethical research and postcoloniality require thinking with responsibility and care. Moreover, recent calls for the integration of emotions and emotional labor in human geography research (McGarrol 2017), for example, necessitate additional attention that is otherwise lacking and in need of an AAG update, particularly as early career researchers enter the field and are perhaps confronted with unanticipated conflicts throughout the course of their research (Lewis 2017). These are the voices on ethics of field research we wish to hear more often. After all, should not the point of a discipline’s ethics statement be to coalesce around the ideas of those who have toiled with these issues in the field, and to use their insights to chart a way forward?

There are plenty of good models to follow. As a field that is inherently interdisciplinary, geography need not be afraid to look to other groups’ codes of ethics from which to draw inspiration. Multiple organizations—many within geography itself and in the geosciences more broadly—have cogent and helpful ethics statements already in place, both domestically and on an international scale. The Royal Geographical Society and Institute of British Geographers (RGS-IBG), for example, outlines a well-defined ethical statement within two paragraphs in a document it defines as “Codes of Practice” related to activities funded by the organization, or presented at its conference (RGS-IBG 2006). The RGS-IBG makes explicitly clear that research should be mindful of issues related to community confidentiality or safety, and that researchers are expected to abide by ethical guidelines set forth both by the RGS-IGB and their respective institutions (RGS-IBG 2006). The Codes of Practice also explicitly state that these ethical principles are to be observed by not only the researchers themselves, but also by those who review the research for grants or inclusion in academic conferences (RGS-IBG 2006).

In the geosciences, multiple national geosciences/earth sciences/geology organizations have formed the International Association for Promoting Geoethics (IAPG). On its website, the Association describes geoethics as “research and reflection on the values which underpin appropriate behaviours and practices, wherever human activities interact with the Earth system, […as well as…] the social role and responsibility of geoscientists in conducting their activities” (IAPG 2019). The IAPG has also published its own statement on ethics, the “Cape Town Declaration,” which includes a concise introduction for why geoethics is needed, what geoethics is, and even an oath, the “Geo-ethical Promise” (Di Capua et al. 2016). Its authors lay out appropriate guidelines and expectations for ethical behavior in the geosciences in just two pages (see also DiCapua et al. 2017). Verboseness does not apply here, only succinct definitions and aims.

We also need to keep in mind that there are a multitude of different ways of what ethical research might look like, and contemplate whether or not a one-size-fits-all method may be appropriate for the contexts within which we work. Richa Nagar and Susan Geiger (2014) originally spoke in 2007 on the concept of situated solidarities, which they define as being attentive to the unique politics and knowledges that can exist in a place, or the spaces in which we work. We bring with us our own positionalities to our work, but we cannot just assume that ‘our way’ is the only way that works. In a geographical context, we argue that situated solidarities means that we may need to look beyond just one institutional definition of ethics. We do not wish to be myopic, and we, to this point, have focused on the ways that institutions and researchers have defined research ethics. However, the communities that we work with also have their own definition of what exactly is ethical research and what it entails. In particular, Indigenous peoples have had quite a lot to say about research ethics, and their viewpoints can provide an alternative to Western- or Anglophone-based conceptions of what ethics is and what it can be. Nearly a decade ago, for example, the Indigenous Peoples Specialty Group (IPSG) of the AAG published a statement on research ethics in regards to Indigenous people (2010). Here, we attest to an understanding of geography as a field that has historically been steeped in colonial worldviews and forms of knowledge. Researchers must rid themselves of a top-down power dynamic where they are ‘researching’ a population. They should instead enter into a dynamic where they and the population they work with become collaborators. Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999) advocates such an approach in the face of historically extractive forms of research in regard to Indigenous people.

Indigenous peoples have taken it upon themselves to draft meaningful codes of ethics for researchers who do work in their communities, including the San people of South Africa’s drafting of a code of ethics as a recent example in an international context (Daley 2017). We also can see examples of this taking place in North America. Tribes in the United States have set clear guidance for research access and ethical work done on their sovereign territories, such as the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate (2015) people of South Dakota and the Tohono O’odham Nation (2013) of Arizona. One member of our collective  has encountered similar research codes and tribal review boards in his fieldwork research with Indigenous communities in Minnesota. In his experience, doing ethical research meant taking the perspectives and viewpoints of the communities with which he worked into consideration, which in turn meant taking steps to include community oversight of his work and community input regarding the dissemination and final disposition of data he collected as part of his work. Such steps may seem onerous to outsiders, but to him, these were the basic parameters of doing work that was respectful of the communities, and which respected their definitions of ethical, respectful work. To him and the communities that he worked with, ethical work meant going above and beyond institutional definitions of ethics and placing the needs and desires of the community first. A higher ethical bar was the new baseline for his work and thinking. Non-institutional/community definitions of ethics are just as important for us to understand and incorporate into our work as institutional definitions, because these are the parameters that communities have set for themselves. Institutional definitions of ethics and ethical research are important, but they should not overshadow the voices and viewpoints of the communities in which we work. 

It Is Time for the AAG to Lead on Ethics

We recognize that we are not alone in our sentiments when it comes to the need for a stronger AAG statement. As then-outgoing AAG President, Eric Sheppard (2013), also proclaimed: “It is time to revisit the AAG Statement of Professional Ethics.” Set within a context of contemporary forms of violence, Sheppard put out a call to not only “study geographies of violence, but more importantly to examine the role of Geography in shaping violence.” His words also refer to Oaxaca and engagement with the Indigenous Peoples Specialty Group, as discussed above.

Further, Bruce Mitchell and Dianne Draper have argued that “the discipline as a whole has not shown the type of degree of concern [with ethics] exhibited by cognate disciplines” (1983:9). They assert that an ethical statement would necessarily be too broad due to the diversity of the field of geography as a whole and in lieu of a formal code of ethics advocated individual self-regulation. The authors call for greater self-awareness, sensitivity to ethical issues, and better education of undergraduate and graduate students in this area. We re-issue this call with one major difference: we ask that the AAG use available technologies to coordinate our collective education and establish a common ethical understanding within the discipline.

We are not, therefore, suggesting language for a new code of ethics. Indeed, we understand that a revision of the Statement is currently in the works. Rather, we ask for something broader and farther-reaching: an initiative that would go beyond the idea of a Statement alone and encourages researchers to remain in constant conversation with those we work with, inclusive of our theoretical, methodological, and (sub-)disciplinary boundaries. Below, we lay out the expectations we have of the professional organization of which most of us are members. As early career scholars, we have a lot at stake; we have the potential to benefit most from clear ethical guidelines for approaching and conducting fieldwork. And if we are to work together, i.e., as part of research teams either headed by or inclusive of geographers, it is necessary to understand each other’s ethical guidelines. Herein, we situate what follows as a broad call for others to enter into this ongoing conversation on ethics and to participate in these discussions without relying solely on AAG to advance needed changes and expectations in isolation. We are calling for a new type of ethical discourse that leverages the technology available to bring our voices together in a way that allows ongoing updating and engagement with questions of ethics.

A New AAG-Hosted Site for Critically Engaging Ethics in the Field

While there is an implicit assumption that the ethical standards that define our individual fields are not likely to be in conflict, we hope that the AAG can provide explicit guidance when it comes to helping us understand the overlaps and, more importantly, distinguish those principles unique to human geography research. That said, we have great expectations and expect the AAG to contribute to meeting them, but we also expect our peers and more seasoned colleagues—those who collectively embody their respective organizations—to actively foster a culture of ethics. It is with this goal in mind that we propose the creation of an entire website maintained by the AAG as a means to foster and maintain an open and frank discussion about ethical standards, a space to which we can turn, productively and repeatedly, throughout our careers. Starting now. This move could set the AAG apart in ensuring a dynamic ethics space that reflects the changing nature of qualitative fieldwork in human geography and the need to constantly rethink ethical quandaries that arise.

  1. A strong, short, list of unequivocal principles. Despite our advisors having to take ultimate responsibility for the decisions we make in the field, we as students should be well-equipped with clear ethical principles, such that the fear of breaking or not knowing “the rules” does not cripple our abilities to handle quandaries in the moment. It is known that questionable ethics negatively affect the people with whom we conduct our research in a variety of manners; therefore, the ramifications of having to “wing it,” or to rely on our gut instincts rather than clear guidance on how to conduct ourselves ethically, has far reaching consequences which will not just affect ourselves. While we acknowledge that we can never be prepared for every unexpected ethical issue that comes our way, we do know that individuals, and more so, researchers-in-training do not begin with a clean slate. We come with our “situated knowledges” (Haraway, 1988) and recognize the need to challenge and build on those knowledges for an empathetic research agenda. That is, since ethical situations often necessitate quick decisions in situ, we need clear and concise guiding principles that allow us to make those decisions, especially when we do not always have the time to check the rule books, consult with our advisor, or wait for a protocol amendment to be approved. The “rules,” if they are operationalized, are not meant to be restrictive; they also open us to possibility/ies of the field as an epistemological and ontological tool, one that will challenge and shape our best practices and guidelines.

    Numerous pages not specific to any discipline or subfield within geography read as unwieldy and vague; in practice, they offer us very little to absorb. One ethics statement cannot possibly state everything, but if such a statement is out there at all, we would like for it to be useful. Given our reading of various ethics statements, then, we propose that AAG revisit its own statements and produce one that contains no legalese or over-reliance on IRBs. As alluded to above, we are particularly drawn to such statements that provide clear, emphatic directives: “Determining harms and their avoidance in any given situation is ongoing and must be sustained throughout the course of any project” (AAA COE, 2012).

    Cognizant of myriad ethical guidelines statements that do exist, we propose the development of a working document applicable to most researchers in the humanities and social sciences. As we, especially the non-geographers among us, are interested in interdisciplinary research and want to work with geographers to integrate geographic methods into our own work (e.g., satellite imagery, etc.), we need to be able to have a common understanding of the ethical guidelines behind working with those techniques. In addition to our need to have clear and concise standards, we suggest that AAG offer support to a rotating in-house ethics expert or ethics expert-in-residence, who could coordinate the writing and curating of statements regarding real-world consequences of “unethical behaviors” (admittedly a rather catch-all yet ill-defined term). They could also field questions that focus on ethical challenges individuals have faced in the field and how they handled those situations. We further envision the hiring of a graduate student or students chosen competitively as interns or contributors, who would gain important professional experience and contexts.

  2. A frank discussion on the distinction between IRB and ethics. When we run into ethical concerns, our default guidelines tend to be institution-specific IRB protocols (rather than our disciplinary-specific ethical guidelines), which are not structured to respond to immediate ethical dilemmas in the field. This leaves us then with a sense of ambivalence, which may be especially true for projects that comply with exempt or expedited review, whereby a single reviewer may not be a human geographer or completely knowledgeable of how research is practiced in a given field; in such cases, the reviewer may misunderstand something as unethical that we should be rather defending. For many of our peers, the “ethics” section of our classes has been limited to completing the online IRB Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI) program. While this training should certainly be done, it is broad and does not address discipline-specific scenarios and ethics relevant to individuals’ specific research. IRBs alone should not be the yardstick by which we assess ethical behavior (Valentine 2005; Martin 2007). What we need is an ongoing emphasis placed on questions of ethics, whereby there is clarity in terms of what it means to violate the terms set by the AAG. This will provide more guidance on how geographers may operate within ethical guidelines, as many scholars outside geography have the benefit of disciplinary-specific ethical guidelines that are more clearly spelled out than in other cases. 

    The AAG also could provide a useful space to delineate clearly what is meant by IRB and ethics. Geographers should be under no illusions that once they have received IRB approval for their work, that this marks the end of their ethical responsibilities while in the field. We suggest that AAG’s principles consider the potential (and likely) responsibilities that geographers will need to contend with when conducting research.

  3. Promotion of the “Ethics Code Collection.” As interdisciplinary researchers, we make a call for those within and outside of geography to connect with and learn from one another regarding ethical guidelines and best practices when conducting fieldwork. We propose the new AAG site to foreground ethical behavior within the context of the Illinois Institute of Technology’s (IIT) “Ethics Codes Collection (http://ethicscodescollection.org /). Housing over 2500 different ethics statements from over 1500 organizations, the Ethics Codes Collection is a prime example of not needing to reinvent the wheel, as far as establishing a clearinghouse is concerned. Rather, we turn to the proposed expert-in-residence to help graduate students and junior researchers make sense of the vast number of pre-existing codes and guidelines. Ethics is clearly a multivocal venture.

    As part of this project, we would ask for particular attention to be paid to the ethics statements of all cognate disciplines and AAG specialty groups. In addition, we would suggest the development of a comparative chart to guide readers to particular areas of interest. It would be helpful to share statements, such as the IPSG’s (2010) protocol on how to conduct ethical research with Indigenous peoples, if only to present a diverse range of approaches and experiences working with various populations.

  4. A “living” archive. We would also like to see an ongoing curation and synthesis of the collection of works on ethics in geography. We propose an up-to-date, hot-linked bibliography of all that has been written by geographers on ethics and organized by key themes (e.g., institutional ethics [IRBs], ethical fieldwork practices, and ethical work with underrepresented populations). Such a collection can be hosted and presented in a number of ways, whether it be through the AAG itself in an online/offline format, or an institution taking the lead in hosting such a collection (in a similar manner to that curated by IIT), or even a group of geographers taking it upon themselves to collect and maintain such a broad archive of work.

    Although Barney Warf’s edited volume Oxford Bibliographies in Geography is online and publicly available, Iain Hay’s wonderful starting point on the topic of geography and ethics was last reviewed in 2016 (at the time the last update was in 2013) and only just recently updated in May of 2020 alongside the addition of Luke Dickens. When we first began writing this manuscript in 2017, there had only been eight annotated sources. Today, there are now 10, with the most recent being from 2018. And unlike other formats such as Google Scholar, which has its own limits (e.g., Tella et al. 2017) and is not necessarily intended to provide the sort of archive we are suggesting, we appreciate this ongoing project as one that is not only specifically vetted by those in geography, but one which is in some respects endorsed by the AAG itself. We view this as a resource that puts in place a guiding rubric for graduate students and early-career researchers to turn to.

  5. An open, moderated forum on ethical lapses—past and present—in geography. In our professional careers, we will likely face scenarios that will make us wonder if we are behaving ethically. In such a case, where should we turn for real-time guidance? Understanding that no statement or training could possibly cover all the potential ethical predicaments we could face, we presume others have been in analogous situations. What can we learn from their experiences to help us navigate our own unique circumstances?

    As such, we propose a forum or blog (perhaps moderated by the aforementioned expert-in-residence and/or hired students) to raise awareness and allow discussion of ethical quandaries as experienced and raised by all researchers, junior and more seasoned alike. Hosted on the AAG site, we would anticipate those in the field to respond to these posts, inclusive of literature written about these topics. What we envision as emerging from the creation of such a blog is to have an established support network connecting researchers throughout the world, which may very well transcend the field of geography itself and instead connect all social scientists in ongoing, reflective discourses of ethical behaviors.

Overall, we feel that a well-maintained webpage—a source of support, information, discussion, and clear guidelines—would foster the emergence of ethics as a more prominent element in human geography research that is taken seriously. Moreover, it would establish AAG’s ethics statement as a vibrant and living document that remains current and relevant to today’s scholars. After all, the sign of a good organization is that it can recognize and learn from its collective mistakes. This is a forum through which the AAG can lead the way.

However, we also recognize the suggestions offered here are merely the beginning of a long journey. Issues of ethics are complex, constantly evolving, and cannot possibly be addressed overnight. Rather, our intent is to bring ethics to the forefront of the disciplinary agenda, such that it becomes central to the larger conversations within AAG and the institutions sustaining geography as a discipline. Our hope is that discourse on ethical quandaries becomes normalized within individual departments and incorporated into curricula with the support of department heads. When these changes become more prominent in the field, we know we will have a greater foundation on which to stand and conduct our work alongside our informants.

Without question, this remains a hard conversation. Our collective recognized this reality early on, affirmed even more so by the long road that we have taken to publish this piece. We submitted previous iterations of our manuscript to two established journals in Geography and were rejected both times. While there were legitimate critiques of the drafts that we submitted, and we duly made changes based on this feedback, there also were tinges of hostility in some of the reviewer comments that we received. One reviewer characterized one version as a ‘manifesto’ that relied on ‘overstatement.’ Others questioned whether or not it was appropriate for us to be making certain ‘asks’ of the AAG and recommended that we engage directly with the AAG Council rather than publish this piece. And some reviewers pointed us to references and citations by geographers regarding ethics, which are quite rich and engaging, but are curiously not picked up by the AAG’s statement itself. This feedback led to feelings of discouragement among our collective; we felt that the responsibility for building structures within geography regarding good ethical research was being pushed back upon us, rather than something for the largest organization in the discipline to take up. However, we chose to continue with this piece.

Our persistence is rooted in an understanding that, while there are potential limits to what the AAG is capable of doing as far as promoting a conversation surrounding ethics, we also recognize the importance and reach of the organization, and we wish to point out that the AAG already has potential avenues through which it could help to make possible the various conversations and connections needed in this endeavor. For example, the AAG already provides for a series of panels at its Annual Meeting focused on various topics surrounding professionalization in geography, such as diversity. It would not be a large task to perhaps organize a panel, or a series of panels or community discussions surrounding ethics and what it means to geographers and researchers within the broader discipline. Perhaps from there, a focus group or committee could be formed in order to solicit feedback that could then be forwarded to the AAG Council.

Importantly, we recognize that the AAG has demonstrated that it is responsive to pressing ethical issues in geography. Before and in the run-up to the 2019 Annual Meeting, the AAG formed a task force that implemented policies and made available resources designed to combat on-site harassment (Luzzadder-Beach and Dowler 2019). The policies and resources were robust and covered everything from workshops surrounding online harassment and providing notifications for sessions where the presenters wished not to be photographed to providing independent advocates at the meeting for people who experienced instances of harassment (Luzzadder-Beach and Dowler 2019). Moving forward, the AAG made a statement reiterating its policies on harassment and noted that it would proceed with investigations surrounding instances of harassment that had occurred at the 2019 Annual Meeting (Luzzadder-Beach 2019). We applaud the AAG for taking the necessary steps to make sure that its members are safe at spaces within the AAG and that interactions between geographers and academics are both professional and ethical. We also recognize the responsiveness of the AAG towards addressing the cases of harassment that still occurred at the Annual Meeting. We wish to take the conversation a step further by encouraging the AAG to help create the spaces necessary so that we can ensure that we are following ethical behaviors in the wider world and outside of academic spaces.


Questions of ethics are nothing new and, with ever-changing demographics, interdisciplinary scholarship, and technological advancements, we expect to be presented with ethical quandaries throughout the course of our research that are complicated, nuanced, and necessitate increased dialogue. The time is now to address these challenges and provide guidance to junior scholars outside of a (more or less) trial and error kind of approach.

In drafting this article, we do not intend to place the onus to instruct and guide ethical behavior solely upon the AAG itself, but rather to recognize its importance as a beacon and curator for all geographers. Certainly our advisors, academic institutions, and the theoretical and applied frameworks we draw upon factor into how we conduct our research ethically. While we acknowledge we will most likely come face to face with situations in the field that will demand our engagement with research ethics (and hopefully not the consequences of not engaging), we emphasize the need for a much stronger baseline prior to entering it and engaging with qualitative practices and ethical issues in real time and on our own.

Attention to ethics in research and human geography is beyond timely. It is necessary, given increasing technologies and the diversity of the field’s membership, which we view as key strengths. Drawing on both will inform a current ethics statement reflective of the field’s multifaceted research agendas. To these ends, we appeal to the AAG for concise standards and clear direction through which issues of ethics may be addressed effectively and with the support of its members. In so doing, we call upon our professional organizations to show us a way (or ways) to handle ethical quandaries, which we do not feel has been all that successful to date. Again, as we stated from the onset, we hope our call is not too great an expectation as we chart a course forward.


We would like to thank our mentors, colleagues, and those who have reviewed various iterations of our article, for their thoughtful and critical feedback, which have helped to strengthen our collective voice regarding ethics.


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Suggested citation:
Arceño, M. Et al. October 23 2020. “(Too) Great Expectations? On Fieldwork, Guidelines and Ethics In Human Geography.” AGITATE! BLOG: https://agitatejournal.org/too-great-expectations-on-fieldwork-guidelines-and-ethics-in-human-geography-by-mark-anthony-arceno-deondre-smiles-emelie-bailey-anurag-mazumdar-thelma-velez-j-p-wilson-kelly-yotebieng-k/