San People Draft Code of Ethics for Researchers


Scientists have studied the San people of Southern Africa for decades, intrigued by their age-old rituals and ancient genetic fingerprints. Now, after more than a century of being scrutinized by science, the San are demanding something back. The group has unveiled a code of ethics for researchers wishing to study their culture or genetic heritage. (Science)

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Klaas Kruiper, a member of the San community in Botswana, strings a bow as his son Jeffrey sits beside him. This is an unusual photo; very few San live as hunter-gatherers.
Photograph by Chris Johns, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas


  • Why are researchers so interested in the San?
    • Genetics: According to the South African San Institute, “geneticists say that the oldest gene pattern amongst modern humans is that of the Khoe-San. It dates back to about 80, 000 years ago. All other peoples on the planet … are all descendants from this original gene type.” San Y-DNA haplogroups are sub-groups of haplogroups A and B, visible on this gorgeous map.
      • According to the Genographic Project, the Khoe-San “are perhaps some of the oldest populations in Africa, and they have a unique genetic pattern that sets them apart from most other African groups.” “Unique genetic patterns” are always of interest of geneticists!
    • Culture: The San were traditionally semi-nomadic, moving seasonally within certain defined areas based on the availability of resources such as water, game animals, and edible plants. Today, “very few San people are able to live by hunting and gathering. Most work as farm laborers, live unemployed in marginal settlements, work in their own income-generation projects, run nature conservancies, some still hunt and gather, others have no income source other than small pensions from the state.”
      • Traditional San culture has been a rich source of anthropological research and field work. Some early scientists called the San the “Bushmen of the Kalahari,” a name that unfortunately stuck and many San consider derogatory and offensive.


  • Why have the San drafted a code of ethics for researchers interested in studying their culture of genetics?
    • The San created the code because of past transgressions, including use of insulting language such as the term “Bushmen,” taking photographs of people without their permission (including children and breastfeeding mothers), and offers of bribes.
    • The San have not always benefitted from the sharing of traditional knowledge. In particular, pharmaceutical companies have profited from sales of indigenous plant varieties without sharing those profits with the San.
    • Leana Snyders, head of the South African San Council, reminds us that “despite all the interest from scientists, the San have not benefited from their star research status. ‘When a researcher comes they enrich themselves of our culture and our knowledge. But our communities remain in poverty; their daily life does not change. We want to change that.’”


  • What does the code say? Take a look at it here.
    • The code is divided into five sections.
      • Respect. The San require that researchers respect individuals and the San community as a whole. This may include acknowledging San contributions to research, protecting privacy, and engaging with the community before field work is carried out.
      • Honesty. The San require an open and clear exchange with researchers about the focus and methodology of the proposed research.
      • Justice and fairness. The San require that research benefit the San participants and community in some way. The document goes out of its way to say the benefits need not be financial, but might include co-research opportunities, sharing of skills, and roles for translators and research assistants in field work.
      • Care. The San require that research be aligned to local needs and improve the life of the San. This extends to participants, families, communities, and the physical environment.
      • Process. The San require that researchers follow the protocols established for each step of the proposed research project.



  • Are there other examples of indigenous groups drafting codes of ethics for researchers?


  • Can you think of other groups analyzed by researchers that might benefit from drafting a code of ethics?
    • Think about groups or subcultures that are often in the news: indigenous groups, online communities, refugees, fan clubs, the homeless, sports teams …
      • The injured, sick, or disabled are also a category of people your class might want to think about. The issue of informed consent among medical patients was brought to the public eye by the terrific book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. (Recommended reading)


  • If researchers were interested in studying the physical or cultural characteristics of your family or community, what codes would you expect them to follow?
    • Think about:
      • language (how are the researchers referring to your group? how are they communicating with your group—using clear ideas or scientific jargon?)
      • audience (why is this research being conducted?)
      • profits (are the researchers going to profit from the collaboration, either directly or indirectly? how will those profits benefit your group?)



Science: San people of Africa draft code of ethics for researchers

Nat Geo: Africa—Human Geography encyclopedic entry

South African San Institute: San Code of Research Ethics

Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Studies: Guidelines for Ethical Research in Australian Indigenous Studies

Assembly of First Nations: Ethics in First Nations Research

National Aboriginal Health Organization: Ethics and Research

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