Research among hunter-gatherers has often been exploitative, based on neo-colonial and/or contemporary socio-economic power imbalances. Consequently, research codes and contracts have been created with the important goal of empowering them; such instruments seem to be on the rise globally. In this article, we focus on this phenomenon among the San of Southern Africa, and we contribute to the professional and public debate on such formalising instruments, with a specific focus on ethnography. Based on our collective experiences, we demonstrate that in the case of the San codes and contracts, there are three limitations when regarded as instruments of empowerment. First, there are practical constraints for many San when it comes to familiarising themselves with the contents of such instruments. Second, some codes and contracts are too general, failing to differentiate between media and different types of research, such as human genetics or ethnography. Third, as political instruments based on, at times questionable, leadership structures and ‘communalisation’, codes and contracts can disregard the differences between and agency of San individuals, especially the most marginalised. We argue that codes and contracts need to allow the San a greater say in their development and how these instruments are applied and by whom, while leaving space for individuals to make their own choices regarding research participation. Moreover, the limitations we identify are important for consideration when such instruments are applied among other hunter-gatherer groups globally.