Should codes of ethics go on the map?

March 7, 1997

Should learned societies and professional bodies have codes of ethics? Some argue that all such societies need to identify a common code of ethical behaviour that marks them out as distinct and gives them some formal professional character. But there are others who protest, equally vehemently, that codes can inhibit innovative behaviour and restrict the practices of individuals.

There are strong grounds for ethical guidelines. They encourage "ethically sound" behaviour. Likewise, they can alert people to potential conflicts of interest. In an increasingly litigious society it can be beneficial to have widely accepted guidelines as a point of reference. Some funding bodies now require grant applications to refer to such codes.

However, the issue of ethical guidelines is very much broader than the academic agenda. How many companies wish that they had developed such guidelines before being hauled over the coals about some environmental disaster or insensitive practice relating to the rights of indigenous peoples?

Difficulties in deciding whether to draw up codes of ethical practice have been reflected by the experiences of British geographers. In 1995 there was a major restructuring of professional representation when the Institute of British Geographers and the Royal Geographical Society merged. One of the questions thrown up was that of a professional code of ethics.

Neither the RGS nor the IBG had a code. However, the RGS did have close links with industrial and commercial sponsors and three major corporate patrons. The execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa in November 1995, which brought to wide public attention the activities of Shell International in Nigeria, precipitated a lively debate, because Shell was one of the society's corporate patrons.

A group chaired by Sir Crispin Tickell was asked to draw up a set of policies and guidelines on corporate support, which have now been completed and the feasibility of preparing a wider ethical policy for the society has also been discussed. Yet, the majority opinion at this year's conference of the RGS-IBG was that, in view of the wide diversity of geographical practices, it was simply not possible to proceed with a single code.

There are numerous difficulties. Codes are seen as restricting innovative research and teaching behaviour. There may also be controversy about the representativeness of the people chosen to drawn up the codes. Questions arise over the extent to which a code drawn up by a single society can, or should, apply across a discipline as a whole. In many parts of the world some disciplines are represented by several distinct societies, and getting agreement between them is not always easy. There are also very real difficulties over the monitoring of a code and penalties for failure to adhere to it. Most societies prepare informative, rather than prescriptive, guidelines. Others promote expectations of ethical behaviour rather than specify normative practices.

A number of ethical codes and sets of guidelines have already been prepared by professional bodies and a substantial literature has developed around them. Within British social science, for example, the Social Research Association's ethical guidelines, and the British Sociological Association's statement of ethical practice are models of their type. The Social Research Association's guidelines emphasise that they are meant to be informative rather than prescriptive, and they cover such key areas as obligations to society, to funders and employers, to colleagues, and to subjects.

The British Sociological Association's statement of ethical practice emphasises the problems involved in drawing up such a document, but nevertheless points to a set of obligations to which all of its members should normally adhere. This includes relations towards research participants, sponsors and funders. The obligations draw attention to issues such as covert research, anonymity, privacy and confidentiality.

Similar codes exist in the earth sciences, with the Geologists' Association maintaining a fieldwork code dating back to 1975, which addresses issues such as collection of materials, quarry visits, etc.

I hope that one day a set of guidelines on geographical ethics may be developed. Substantial debate among geographers across the world on this subject is reflected in the establishment of a Values, Ethics, Justice Specialty Group (web-site at within the Association of American Geographers, and a collaborative research programme entitled the Geography/Ethics Project (web-site at http://pollux.geog.ucsb edu/vejsg/gep.html). In the United States, a specific Geo-Ethics web site, has been created at http://

Tim Unwin is reader in geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, and honorary secretary (research and higher education division) of the RGS-IBG.

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