Research About the Pharmaceutical Industry: Ethical Positioning in a Powerful Network

Caroline Meier zu Biesen


Taking into account the impact of global power relations with regard to health care, I investigated, as part of a medical-anthropological study, the introduction of a new (now-world-leading) anti-malaria drug in Tanzania. In so doing, I was confronted with human suffering, the experience of mortality (malaria), and conflicts; and I was confronted in a way that raises ethical questions about responsibility, respect, and my own capacities for action. In this article, I reflect on my experiences during the field research with regard to my own ethical positioning in a network of power, which implies different roles, positioning, and (own or external) expectations in a sensitive field of research that may be marked by distrust. Against this background, I make thematic ethical research challenges, standards and problems that are relevant for qualitative research and, more generally, for (medical) anthropology with its transcultural and transdisciplinary problems. I focus, on the one hand, on aspects of confidentiality and transparency—a core element of ethically responsible research—toward informants and participants in the field. On the other hand, I address the question of the influence that doubts about one’s own role as a researcher working in particular environments (here, pharmaceutical industry) can exert on the data collection and the analysis.


ethical self-reflection; social suffering; medical anthropology; pharmaceutical industry; role conflict; Tanzania


Copyright (c) 2018 Caroline Meier zu Biesen

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