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Research on Human Remains: An Ethics of Representativeness

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Within the complex matrix of ethical considerations in the handling of human remains, the notion that human remains represent, stands out as having serious implications for research and curatorship. Representativeness reminds us of the ethical relevance of the group level of identities in the European framework, actualised not least in terms of ethnicity. In line with basic research ethical principles, it is the wellbeing of those now living, which forms the most central consideration in questions of representativeness. Where continuities exist between previous populations and identifiable groups today, knowledge of such representativeness is necessary for acting ethically and for reaching legitimate solutions.

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-32926-6_4
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  1. 1.

    For the case of the UK, the historical background with a wealth of concrete examples is provided by Fforde (2004).

  2. 2.

    For a still instructive overview of issues pertaining to negotiations between this ethnic group and the nation state, see Hylland Eriksen (1991, esp. 271–274).

  3. 3.

    This procedure was first officially suggested by Lønning et al. (1998, 22 [Sect. 4]).

  4. 4.

    For reminders of the relations between historical background and current practices, peruse entries including treatments of Jewish or Sami remains in Márquez-Grant and Fibiger (2011, e.g. 449–450).

  5. 5.

    The mechanism of such a specifically historical responsibility is surprisingly elusive as seen from the vantage point of contemporary ethical theory. I pursue its details in Fossheim (2018).


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For their constructive comments on previous versions of this chapter, I am grateful to participants at the Twentieth Century Histories of Knowledge About Human Variation research group workshop, Max Planck Institute of Berlin; the Race, Ethnicity, Ancestry, and Human Genetic Variation NTM workshop, Oslo; the 12th World Congress of Bioethics, Mexico City; and the Rethinking Sami Cultures in Museums conference, University of Oslo. Thanks to the editors of this volume for their conscientious and constructive feedback. Finally, a special thanks to Jon Kyllingstad and Ageliki Lefkaditou for their detailed and helpful comments on earlier versions of the text. The Research Council of Norway funded this research through the Cultural Conditions Underlying Social Change program (SAMKUL; project no.: 220741/F10).

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Correspondence to Hallvard J. Fossheim .

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Fossheim, H.J. (2019). Research on Human Remains: An Ethics of Representativeness. In: Squires, K., Errickson, D., Márquez-Grant, N. (eds) Ethical Approaches to Human Remains. Springer, Cham.

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