2c- Eth­i­cal Conun­drums in Com­mu­nity Research

Research and writ­ing in gen­er­al, and ethno­graph­ic research and writ­ing specif­i­cal­ly, require that you very con­scious­ly con­sid­er issues relat­ed to your role as author/writer and the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the com­mu­ni­ty you are writ­ing about. In this sec­tion you will find some typ­i­cal and not so typ­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties that stu­dents have expe­ri­enced as they have nav­i­gat­ed the com­plex eth­i­cal waters of ethno­graph­ic writ­ing and research. Many of the ques­tions and con­cerns cen­ter on how to make eth­i­cal and hon­est choic­es about the por­tray­al of a com­mu­ni­ty with­out it in some way being or feel­ing like a betray­al to the mem­bers of that com­mu­ni­ty. These exam­ples may serve as a guide for dif­fi­cul­ties that arise in your own research.

Conun­drum 1: Things nev­er got as inter­est­ing as I want­ed them to at my site. Can I spice it up a lit­tle bit by manip­u­lat­ing the situation?

The quick and easy answer here is NO. The more com­pli­cat­ed answer is also NO. One way or anoth­er this issue comes up – from the stu­dent who wants to lie to cre­ate a fight between to com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers to see how things will play out, to the stu­dent who wants to expose police bru­tal­i­ty by pur­pose­ful­ly mak­ing the police offi­cers very angry with him, to the stu­dent who wants to set a trap for his/her super­vi­sor at work and get some­one fired, etc. As an eth­i­cal researcher and writer, you must approach your pri­ma­ry data and your rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the site and the cul­tur­al mean­ing there with what you have. You are not writ­ing a script for a manip­u­lat­ed real­i­ty TV talk show expose. You are try­ing to ful­ly explore the mean­ing­ful par­tial truths in your research site.  Take the time to revis­it all of the notes you have on what real­ly hap­pened. Look deep­er there for the mean­ing and the par­tial truths.

Conun­drum 2: There is so much I want to say, but I’m afraid the com­mu­ni­ty I’m research­ing will feel offend­ed. They were so nice to me. I don’t think I can write about this. Or con­verse­ly – They were such jerks, I can’t wait to expose them.

This is a conun­drum you should real­ly fol­low up on with a lengthy inter­nal dia­logue. Why do you think they will be offend­ed? How might you con­tex­tu­al­ize the dif­fi­cult things so that they can be under­stood to be as com­plex as they real­ly are? Are you offer­ing mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives? Are you reveal­ing your­self and the rea­sons why you think what you think? Is what you want to say some­thing well sup­port­ed by your pri­ma­ry data and your sec­ondary research?

Some­times this type of research leads to knee-jerk judg­ment and crit­i­cisms that, upon a deep­er look, aren’t real­ly sup­port­ed by the data you have. In these cas­es, it’s impor­tant to real­ly inter­ro­gate why you think you are hav­ing the response you are hav­ing. Look to your­self as ethno­g­ra­ph­er to see from where you are draw­ing your conclusions.

Oth­er times this type of research leads to well-thought our, well-sup­port­ed and doc­u­ment­ed obser­va­tions that are crit­i­cisms. This can be dif­fi­cult to deal with if you find your­self want­i­ng to say dif­fi­cult things about a com­mu­ni­ty that you care about. Remem­ber that the more con­text and detail and com­plex­i­ty that you pro­vide, as well as a reflec­tion of and analy­sis of the strug­gle you are hav­ing say­ing what you want to say will help your read­ers under­stand that you care for and crit­i­cize a com­mu­ni­ty you care about. Sup­port what you have to day in deep and com­plex ways.

That said, in all cas­es, take great care to not judge or pass judg­ment on a group or com­mu­ni­ty to which you do not belong. Bear in mind that in the course of a semes­ter or a quar­ter or a trimester, you will prob­a­bly learn much more about your­self in your ethno­graph­ic research process that you will actu­al­ly come to know about others.

Conun­drum 3: I chose to research this com­mu­ni­ty because it meant so much to me and now I just don’t like it any­more. I feel let down.

This prob­lem aris­es when stu­dents have decid­ed to research one of two places – their work­places or their church groups. In response to feel­ing let down, upset, angry, or dis­en­chant­ed, some seri­ous self-reflex­iv­i­ty can come into play. Inter­ro­gate why you are feel­ing this way. What does this help you to know about you and your val­ues? About the way you see the world? Why are you feel­ing con­flict now with this community?

You should also be aware, that it is not sur­pris­ing to have these types of feel­ings sur­face when you are hold­ing some­thing close to you under a micro­scope for a rel­a­tive­ly short peri­od of time. In the ethno­graph­ic research process, there can be an arc not unlike feel­ings relat­ed to cul­ture shock – the ini­tial hon­ey­moon phase (isn’t this won­der­ful!!!) fol­lowed by a peri­od of dis­ap­point­ment or even revul­sion.  Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the peri­od of the time built in to most col­lege class­es does not leave room for you to move out of the dis­ap­point­ment and into the accep­tance that comes with a deep­er under­stand­ing. So, you need to force your­self to look for mean­ing and under­stand at a some­what faster pace than might feel nat­ur­al, to try and see beyond the dis­il­lu­sion­ment to what is real­ly going on with you.

Conun­drum 4: I did not get enough infor­ma­tion because while I thought I had plen­ty of access at the begin­ning of the semes­ter, they nev­er real­ly let me learn any­thing about them.

This is when you have to take a step back from what you hoped would hap­pen with your research and what you real­ly observed. It is also the point where you might look to write more about your jour­ney in the research process and what you learned about your­self and/ or the process of entry than the com­mu­ni­ty itself. Often, this prob­lem can turn into a real­ly rich auto-ethno­graph­ic exploration.

One stu­dent planned to con­duct her research while vol­un­teer­ing in the HIV/AIDS med­ical sup­port com­mu­ni­ty in Chica­go. She did not antic­i­pate the com­plex­i­ties involved in actu­al­ly get­ting a foot in the door to vol­un­teer and by the time she had to pull the final essay togeth­er, she had not even start­ed vol­un­teer­ing. She did, how­ev­er, have lots of infor­ma­tion about the process­es required for new vol­un­teers and was able to exam­ine the process of becom­ing a vol­un­teer as well as what she say as the inter­est­ing imped­i­ments to vol­un­teerism present in our soci­ety. Remem­ber, you only need to write about what does hap­pen, not what you thought, or want­ed to happen.

Yet anoth­er stu­dent hoped to explore a com­mu­ni­ty group of Japan­ese-Amer­i­can sur­vivors of intern­ment camps in the US from WWII. As a Japan­ese inter­na­tion­al stu­dent in the US, she nego­ti­at­ed entry into the com­mu­ni­ty, but was nev­er able to move beyond her out­sider sta­tus. She was con­front­ed with a “gate­keep­er” who real­ly did not want her to “both­er” the mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ty. She was able to turn the frus­tra­tion of this expe­ri­ence (and feel­ing that she had noth­ing to write about) into a very thought­ful explo­ration of her own iden­ti­ty and sta­tus as a young Japan­ese women and her assump­tions about what she shared with the mem­bers of this Japan­ese-Amer­i­can group. She wrote, in essence, about the emp­ty spaces, the lack in her knowl­edge and how she felt about how it is we actu­al­ly deter­mine what it means to be an outsider.

Conun­drum 5: Only one real­ly EXCITING thing hap­pened at my research site over the course of my obser­va­tions. Can I just write about that and leave the rest of it out?

You must care­ful­ly con­sid­er whether or not the ways in which you select the infor­ma­tion you include your writ­ing is an eth­i­cal treat­ment of the com­mu­ni­ty. If you chose to write about only one event, you must do so in the con­text of the “reg­u­lar” activ­i­ties as well and explore the how and why of the out of the ordi­nary event. Don’t select infor­ma­tion because it sees like it would make a great head­line. That’s not what you are try­ing to do. The line here is respect and your search for the ways in which the com­mu­ni­ty and cul­ture you are research­ing is mean­ing­ful in some way. Where is the mean­ing in high­light­ing the out of the ordi­nary and ignor­ing the every­day? You should also put your­self in the shoes of the peo­ple you are observ­ing. Have you ever exhib­it­ed unchar­ac­ter­is­tic behav­ior in an emo­tion­al­ly charged moment? Have you ever said some­thing you regret­ted as the result of spe­cif­ic cir­cum­stances? Would you want some­one to come in an only choose one of those moments to rep­re­sent you?

There cer­tain­ly will be addi­tion­al conun­drums that come up with­in your own com­mu­ni­ty of researchers. Share them, take coun­cil from your class­mates and instruc­tor. Keep ethics and humane research present in your mind and in your actions at all times.