“No More Cakes and Ale?” Discovering Ethical Gray Areas in a Design Anthropology Class

  • Jo Aiken
  • Victoria Schlieder
  • Christina Wasson
Keywords: Design anthropology, ethics, fieldwork, pedagogy, business anthropology


This article examines how ethics were learned in a design anthropology class. Training in ethics is an essential part of any graduate program in anthropology, and we show how it was built into this course. At the same time, the fieldwork that students conducted as part of a client project for Motorola confronted some of them with unexpected and ethically ambiguous circumstances, which generated experiential learning as well. Regardless of how clearly ethical codes are written, researchers will always encounter gray areas in the field. The article presents a case study of one study participant who may have been intoxicated, analyzing this as an “extreme case” that brought ethical dilemmas into sharp focus. We conclude with suggestions for navigating ethical gray areas, based on class discussions about this and other ethical challenges.