2- Fram­ing Eth­i­cal Research

Chapter 2 provides an overview of what it means to conduct ethical research, what sorts of issues one needs to keep in mind before selecting a research site, before entering the site as a participant-observer. Ethics matter in the research and the writing of ethnographic essays. Framing your work through an ethical lens from the outset will help ensure respectful, meaningful, legitimate work in the end.

Conducting Human/Humane Research

The minute you choose a site for your research is the second you begin to make the lives and beliefs and actions of others the focus of your attention. As a result, you need to think about the ethics—standards regarding rights, such as the right to life, privacy, freedom from injury, etc.—and how the idea of rights might impact what it means to observe and research a culture, a group of human beings. This chapter takes ethics as the main focus and creates a frame for this aspect of your work.  Specifically, the goal is to provide a scaffold for your inquiry that is not only academic and sound, but ethical as well.

From the moment you choose a research site, you enter into a relationship with that place, with that space and those people.  Even before you visit it with your note pad and paper, before you write even one word, you are engaged in rhetorical construction.  That is, the mere act of thinking about your site, of having an opinion, presumes ethical responsibility on your part.  When you think of this site, do you judge it?  Are you looking to “use” your research for some sort of gain?  Where do you locate the power in the relationship—in you or your informants?  What do you see as the cultural value of this place?

Often, the student researcher overlooks the idea that in this sort of relationship—a relationship that actually involves human beings, people with ideas, opinions, feelings and beliefs—needs to be conscious and purposeful.  This is reasonable and understandable because, for the most part, your research has not involved actual human interaction.  Your research has most likely been limited to internet or library research where the author—the persona speaking—is without human form.  Because most of you reading this work will have been educated in the United States, with a Western sensibility, you will have been taught to believe that if you found the quotation, it is yours to use, and that ideas and words are discovered, and that knowledge is something to be possessed by you.  Our grammar and syntax reflects such ownership: These are now “ my favorite quotations;” this is “my bibliographical list of sources.”

This tendency to possess a topic or idea often makes it difficult to recognize that your words are always in relationship to the words of others, that if there is idea and opinion, there is human interaction, and if there is human interaction, and if the relationship is to be ethical, it must also be humane.

One of the principle reasons that ethnographic research is so gratifying is that when students actually come face to face, (or even if the interaction is online, text to text), with other human beings, the implicit relationship in research becomes tangible.  Once you are able to understand that regardless of whether you’re speaking directly with a person, or talking about opinions expressed through statistics, or using the quotations of another in your work, there is always, at root, a human relationship being negotiated.  It is never just you; it is never just your ideas.  You are in a dynamic with all of the others out there—visible or not—who have participated in the construction of the idea, the reality, the knowledge, the conversation which you have chosen, at this instance, to enter.

This is not to say that you must choose a site with which you have ultimate familiarity or that in doing so you will guarantee humane research and respect for your informants and the site.  In fact, there are dangers of knowing too much about a site, of making assumptions about why folks are doing what they do, and saying what they say. But, for first-year writing students in classes that focus on teaching the research process, not ethnographic methods in particular, it’s better to err on the side of believing that you know a site as an insider, than trying to break into, learn about, gain trust and write about a site from the perspective of an outsider.

In other words, there is a difference between becoming an anthropologist and employing ethnographic methodologies and using ethnographic methods as an undergraduate student. And yet the American Anthropological Association code of ethics for ethnographic research provides a basis for this discussion of ethics and a starting point for thinking about ethics on the whole.  While the code is somewhat long and involved, in essence, there are four principles you need to keep in mind as a student researcher using ethnographic methods:

Show respect for the people you are researching at all times, both during the data collection process and the writing process.

One of the most important elements in coming to understand the importance in human research being humane research is the notion of respect.  If your ethnographic research needs to be conducted in a short span of time, you should choose a site with which you already feel a connection because, in most cases, this connection will ensure a certain amount of respect on your part for the location and culture, and reduce the amount of time it will take to become a trusted, viable cultural participant.  It becomes problematic when a student says, “I want to research a gay bar,” or “I want to try and figure out why people will/will not enter an abortion clinic,” or something to that effect when they have no specific personal connection with these spaces.  There is a significantly increased possibility that without personal connection, the site becomes so foreign to the student that it becomes “othered;” it becomes seen as freakish, or odd, something to be plundered for information.

Wanting to know about something you don’t know about is absolutely fine; it is a part of human nature.  But, we also know, given human cognitive patterning, that as one is challenged with new and different belief structures, the tendency is to depend upon what you know, what you have been taught, and what you already believe to make sense of what is different.  The respect you will illustrate is respect for yourself and your own ideas, not because you are thoughtless, or inconsiderate, but because you are human and your own humanity will begin with your own reality and move outward from there.

Make sure that your research does not “harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people” you are working with

Most every academic institution where academics conduct research using human subjects has what is referred to as an Institutional Research Board or IRB, for short.  This board, usually comprised of researchers and a few administrators from across the institution, has the ultimate responsibility of assessing institutional research projects with respect to their ethics, to make sure that all research is respectful and humane, that the work done by professors, graduate students and undergraduates does not “harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people” involved in the research project.

Institutions with IRBs require researchers to submit an application and alert the school before they engage in any research.  The board then approves or denies the application.  If an application is denied, often the applicant is provided feedback for revision and invited to reapply.  If an applicant is approved they may, at that time, commence their research, based upon the strict following of protocols provided by the applicant.

Because the timeline for IRB application may or may not coincide with the schedule and brevity of a single college class, and applications from first-year courses could impede the process for other researchers, most institutions do not mandate that undergraduate students submit IRB applications for their course work.  At some institutions, undergraduates are waived from this process because the faculty member ultimately stands responsible for the ethical tenor of the work in the class.  There are some institutions where a program would be required to report that, for example, all second-semester composition courses will require the collection of primary data through human interaction and then the program will apply, but again, the individual student need not participate in this process.

Inform the people you are working with of your project and what it entails. Ask for consent to from community to conduct your research and determine in advance whether or not people want to remain anonymous or receive recognition.

Regardless of whether your institution requires IRB approval, we believe that you should be aware of this process and that, if there is specific and direct interviewing, if there is direct interaction with other informants, that you follow the suggested guidelines for ethical research, including the notification of participants and the obtaining of permission for representation of their words.  Understand that, whether or not you are institutionally required to obtain permissions from informants or apply to an IRB, you are ethically obligated to let the people you are studying know what you are doing when you begin. If you are going to a site to collect data, you must represent your mission as such. This is not undercover or hidden-camera work.  If you fear letting people at your site know what you are doing and why you are doing it, simply stated, choose another site.

Plan to share your writing and representation of the community with its members.

In an age of reality TV and surprise, tell-all talk shows, we find that there are always some students that are excited about the possibilities of “not telling” or of using the information they uncover to pit people against each other, to conduct some muckraking sort of research, to “get inside” the heads of others and write a “tell all” piece. Be clear: you may not set people up, or manipulate the scene in any way when you’re conducting research.  As a participant-observer, the idea is for you to participate as you normally would, as you usually do, another clear reason why we advocate for choosing something you know about, a site with which you’re familiar, to research.  Remember that respect means recognizing that all of your behaviors will have an impact on these other people, on their space.  You really can’t be a “fly on the wall.”  You’re much bigger than a fly and, from the moment you enter a scene and start asking questions, you have the potential to impact that scene.

Now that you have these ethical guidelines, it is up to you to make sure to notify informants of your project.  Most consent for your ethnographic project can and will be oral, i.e. “Hey, is it okay if I use our film club for my ethnographic research?”  “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about why you like to be here?  This is for a project I am doing in English class.”  Permission can also be granted by the group as a whole and does not necessarily require you to ask every individual for permission, but you should still make sure to alert people to the point of your conversation, to be clear about the reason for your presence. If you plan to record (video or tape) specific conversations, in most states you need permission in writing to do so.

Overall, the issues of ethics come back to respect for the people and cultures at your site. You need the kind of access within the site in order to collect enough data in order to have something smart and relevant to say.  You need to obtain permission from individuals and/or the community because you need to critically assess whether your interaction will affect the safety and well-being of the group.  You need to put systems in place so that you don’t inadvertently reveal something about this group that may adversely affect them. There really are countless ways your research can have an impact on another person, another group, and your goal needs to be to never purposefully inflict damage or pain or humiliation on anyone or any group.